While driving back from Joshua Tree, many things became clear to me. For a start, I was looking at two potential employment situations. I decided that one had clearly separated itself from the other, so when it gets funded, I'll start working with them. More on that as it happens.
The other decision was that while I was still on my short-term retirement, I ought to take advantage of my freedom and visit Big Bend National Park. April is the peak of the spring migration, and Big Bend is one of the best locations in the United States for birding.
The problem is that Big Bend is one of the most isolated parts of the lower 48 states. The closest airport with regular flights is El Paso, about 250 miles away. (Maybe Midland-Odessa is closer. Even if it is, it's still quite a way away.) Short notice flights are also pricey, and since I'd need to rent a four wheel drive vehicle, I decided that option wouldn't work. I decided I needed to drive, and were I to drive, I would also make other stops: Organ Pipes, San Pedro, Guadeloupe, Carlsbad, and White Sands. Essentially, I'd take a ten day survey of the Mexican border.
I had to take care of several things at home, first. I decided to leave on Thursday, and see how far south I would get. I left at 3:30, and managed to stay one step ahead of the Silicon Valley rush hour. I stopped at Coalinga for dinner (Red Robin, fish & chips) and made it to First Value Motel in Buttonwillow. I slept until 3:49AM and hit the road at 4AM.
Ugh. I forgot my hair brush.
This early departure allowed me to get through Los Angeles by 7AM, so I had minimal impact from the Los Angeles rush hour, too. This early meant I could swing by Anza-Borego State Desert Park. It wasn't a long stop, but was enough time to see the desert. The highlight was a western diamondback rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox) on the side of the road. The lowlight was seeing an LUV hit a ground squirrel and not even slow down.
Interestingly, I saw that the Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge was renamed the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge. Well, I guess he was a tree-hugger at the end of his life.
I went to lunch at El Centro, Millie's Kitchen, where I had a pair of hot dogs. Decent, inexpensive. I then drove to Gila Bend, past the Imperial Sand Dunes. This was depressing, the place was swarming with Off Road Vehicles which are tearing up the ecosystem of the dunes. From a distance, the dunes stretched for miles, they made the Kelso dunes look like a pile of sand.
In Arizona, there were lava flows west of Gila Bend. At Gila Bend, I turned south for Ajo, where I spent the night. Dinner was at a small Mexican cafe, where I had Muchaco.
I slept reasonably well, considering it was a Bates Motel...
I cleaned my windshield after I woke, as it was quite covered with bugs. Yuck. I drove south to Organ Pipes. This place is beautiful, but was surprisingly without any fauna, and there weren't many flowers on the cactus. It turns out that they've had 0.14" of rain this season, which is 10% of normal. It makes Joshua Tree's half inch look like a deluge. It is the driest year on record.
I did some investigating around there looking for Harris Hawks, but was unsuccessful. A ranger suggested I might have a better chance a bit further south, so I ended up crossing the border into Mexico.
For someone who has been to the ends of the earth, it is surprising that I had not previously been to our neighbor to the south. My initial observations were that it reminded me a bit of Malaysia, the same quality of buildings, and life. Not as bad as the really poor parts of Africa, but not as wealthy as Europe or the US.
The roads were decent (Better than Pennsylvania!) as I went to Parque Natural De Gran Desierto Delpinacate about 50 km from the border. I did see something that may have been Harris hawk, but I did not get a good look. I saw a lot of Chihuahuan ravens (Corvus cryptoleucus.)
The park is on land that had volcanic activity in the past. There were a lot of cinder cones and lava flows. The entrance to the park was on dirt roads, and the washboarding was bad enough that I had to turn around. I think I may have rattled loose some fillings.
I had lunch of chicken mole at Steakhouse in Sonoyta before going back to the United States. I drove through an Indian reservation where I did see a Zone-Tailed Hawk (Buteo albonotatus.) I visited Kitts Peak observatory, where they have a few telescopes.
I drove to Sierra Vista. Near Tucson I saw the worst backup I'd seen outside of New Jersey on I-10. Looks like there was a fatal accident on the westbound side, near an exit, and traffic was backed up to the next exit, more than 3 miles away. I'll bet it would take hours to clear that up.
I stayed at the Best Western in Sierra Vista, and had a mediocre Chinese meal at Shanghai Cuisine. It does not get my recommendation. I slept late, which annoyed me, as I was to go to Ramsey Canyon for birds.
My first stop, though, was the San Pedro Riparian Area. My main purpose of the trip was to see Gray Hawks. The San Pedro Riparian Area is considered one of the best areas to see Gray Hawks, but they weren't there. It was suggested that I visit the Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve and check there. It was a short drive, and I was there.
The first bird I saw there was a Gray Hawk (Asturina nitidus.) One was visible from the visitors' center and it was easy to put the scope on it. Cool. A nice, bright yellow cere, on a bird that was reminiscent of a Gabar goshawk. They were quite noisy, calling to each other. It was quite far, but I took a quick picture of it just to have one. I then started to walk along the Creek Trail.
There were quite a few birds there. I could identify some, but not most. There were Vermilion Flycatchers (Pyrocephalus rubinus,) Western and Cassin's Kingbirds (Tyrannus verticalis and Tyrannus vociferans,) Black and Turkey Vultures (Coragyps atrus and Cathartes aura,) and a Lucy's Warbler (Vermivora luciae.) But, near the far end of the trail, was pay dirt. First, a Gray Hawk was perched on a tree. It flew to another branch, where another Gray Hawk joined it, and joined it. Not only did I get to see a pair of Gray Hawks, but I got to see them mate.
It got even better. Further down the trail, the Gray Hawks were soaring. I was able to take six photographs of soaring Gray Hawks as they passed overhead. Wow. I also photographed a soaring Black Vulture, and a Vermilion Flycatcher. I spent the rest of the morning and part of the afternoon there. As I left, I received an escort of three soaring Gray Hawks. It was wonderful.
I sent to a Sonic for lunch. Hot dog, onion rings. Passable.
I then went to Ramsey Canyon. Ramsey Canyon is known for its hummingbirds. It was a bit too chilly for the most of the hummingbirds, but some did show up, and I took a few pictures. I stayed until 4, when I went back to the hotel. I scrubbed the windshield. The next day's agenda was the long drive to Terlingua and Big Bend National Park.
Dinner was at Beef Baron, where I had an 8 ounce filet mignon. I woke at 4AM and hit the road at 5. I-10 through southern Arizona and New Mexico was pretty desolate, only when one reached El Paso was there a city and traffic. That was about 4.5 hours into the trip.
Past El Paso, the desolation made Arizona look heavily populated. I drove for 100 miles to Van Hall without seeing any sign of civilization, apart from the road construction crews. At Van Hall, one turns onto US-90 to Alpine, another desolate 100 miles, then south on Texas 118 for 80 miles to Terlingua. This is about as far from civilization as one can get in the lower 48 states.
I am staying at the Big Bend Motor Inn, and the telephones don't have a recognizable dial tone. Odd. The only place for access to the internet is a table set up in the gift shop, where there is a direct line.
Dinner was at the Big Bend Motor Inn Cafe. The choices were numerous: chicken fried steak, two chicken fried steaks, chicken fried steak fingers, fried chicken fingers... You get the idea. The chicken fried steak was passable.
It may not make that much sense, but I felt jet-lagged the next morning, even more so than the last time I flew across eight time zones. Arizona is Mountain Standard Time, (which is the same as Pacific Daylight Time) and Big Bend is Central Daylight Time. So the drive crossed two time zones. Even more confusing was that Big Bend is so far west in the Central zone that sunrise was 7:44 AM and sunset was 9PM. Effectively, it was "double-daylight savings." Anyway, the normal queues to wake up weren't present. I was still awake fairly early, and got myself to the Rio Grande Village by 8:30. I parked by Daniel's Ranch and did some watching.
On the way to Daniel's Ranch, I saw a Roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus) and a Scaled Quail (Callipepla squamata.) The first thing I saw at the ranch was a Gray Hawk, perched in a tree and then flying away. Four other birders had looked at it and did not know what it was, so I told them. We birded together for a while, they were clearly much better at identifying some genuses, and I was a bit better with others.
We saw an Osprey (Pandion haliaetus,) Ladder-backed Woodpecker (Picoides scalaris,) Golden-fronted Woodpecker (Melanerpes aurifons,) Mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos,) hundreds of Vermilion Flycatchers, Ash-throated Flycatchers (Myiarchus cinerascens,) a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher (Tyrannus forficatus,) and lots of vultures and lbb's. I had planned to stay until about 10AM and hit Dugout Wells for more birding, but this area was so rich that we ended up staying until nearly noon. We were joined by a professional guide and his two clients later in the morning, who were also looking for black hawks and zone-tailed hawks, and many other species. The guide found a Black Phoebe (Sayornis nigricans) for us. We also saw Blue-winged Teal (Anas discors,) Mexican Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos,) and a canyon wren (Catherpes mexicanus.)
Instead of stopping at Dugout Wells, I opted to make the drive to the Chisos Basin where I had lunch. I had a cheese burger and a bowl of red, and I used it to make a chili-cheese burger. Yum. I don't want to think what that did for my cholesterol.
Mid-day was not a good time to bird the Basin, although I did see a black-chinned sparrow. I went down toward Santa Elena Canyon, which is a long, scenic drive toward Mexico. I was surprised to hear no birds in the cottonwoods near the campground there. I did get to see many scenic views and got a look at the Santa Elena Canyon.
Driving back, I visited the Sam Nail Ranch, where I met the guide again, and we looked for painted buntings. We were not lucky there, but I did see (and photograph) a Pyrrhuloxia (Cardinalis sinuatus.) We also saw a lot of White-crowned Sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys.)
Back to the Motor Inn, as it was after 6PM. I logged in and cleared up the day's email. The spam count in the last two weeks has jumped phenomenally, I'm now seeing well over 150 spams per day (up from an average of 90 just three months ago) with some days exceeding 200. I do not know how much longer I will remain with an e-mail account if this keeps up, it is consuming a significant portion of each day for me to just weed through the spam. My prediction: Within a couple years e-mail will become unusable.
Anyway, after the day's spam filtering, I went to El Tivo for dinner, on the recommendation of the guide. I met up with two other birders from Iowa, and we discussed the interest. I had four beef enchiladas (these were New Mexican style) with red sauce. It was excellent. I slept well that night.
Wednesday morning, I was able to wake properly, and I set off for Rio Grande Village in time to make it before sunrise. This time, I was not joined by anyone. I did see the Osprey again, as well as the Gray Hawk. After waiting for about 75 minutes, I finally saw a Common Black Hawk (Buteogallus anthracinus.) I waited a while longer, but had no luck finding the Zone-tailed Hawk. It will need to wait for a subsequent trip.
I went to Dugout Wells, and heard a number of sparrows, but the only birds I saw were several Turkey Vultures. I think they had a carcass nearby, as they were staying low and trying to scare people away.
I left the park just after noon and drove north. I stopped for lunch at the Gage Hotel Soda Fountain, where I ordered a cheese burger. I forgot to ask for nothing on it; it was easy to separate the lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and pickles, but they put mustard on everything, too. I am most certainly not a fan of mustard.
Worse news as I headed out. I was stopped for the heinous crime of driving at 74 in a 70 zone. I was required to stand outside in the sun for 20 minutes while the pig searched my car for drugs. I will certainly think twice about ever returning to the area now. Big Bend is part of the county, so if Chisos Lodge in Big Bend pays a hotel tax to the county, I won't be back to Big Bend. It's my money, and if the county is so desperate to enhance their revenue by these means, I am certainly willing to use my discretion not to spend my money there again.
I still made it to Van Horn, where I spent the night. Not much in Van Horn to eat, I decided to give Chuy's a miss. I had a pizza.
I woke up not so early, since I'd be returning to Mountain Daylight Time within an hour of departing Van Horn. I drove north toward Guadeloupe National Park, which I briefly visited. I found a huge flock of Savannah Sparrows (Passerculus sandwichensis) at a ranch, but as the sun got higher, birding would become less valuable, so I decided to take a quick call to Roswell.
If you watch the X-Files, you've probably heard of Roswell. Roswell is the UFO capital of the United States, and the world. Several businesses had signs like "humans and aliens welcome." OK, it was quite a bit of kitsch, but it was cute. There was a museum on UFOs in town, which certainly helped to confirm my skepticism.
Roswell was about 90 minutes north of my final destination, White City, near Carlsbad Caverns. So, after a while I drove back down to White City, and checked in to my room. The first room assigned stank of tobacco smoke, and the door did not close properly. The former is reason enough to refuse the room, as I reserved a non-smoking room.
The second room was wired in a curious fashion. Three lights were activated by the wall switch by the door, as well as the digital clock. Yep, if you turned off the wall switch, you turned off the clock. Very odd. The air conditioning wasn't so great, either, but I could sleep.
Dinner that night was at the Velvet Garter, the only restaurant in town. I had spaghetti with meatballs.
Friday was my day for the Caverns. I was at the visitors' center and picked up my reserved tour tickets. My first tour was the left-hand cave tour. This tour had five people and a ranger, and we used oil lanterns to illuminate the way. The path was natural, not paved, and we saw many interesting formations.
Of particular interest were the fossils that were over 250,000,000 years old. There were some shells, and a nautiloid. These were extremely exciting to see.
Before we started, the ranger asked us about caves we had previously visited. I hadn't realized I had been to quite a few: Fubo (near Guilin, China), Waitomo (New Zealand), Wind Cave, Jewel Cave, Lava Tunnels, Lehman Cave, and Lurray Caverns. It's now up to 8. The ranger who lead the trip is a seasonal ranger, and is interested in visiting New Zealand and volunteering down there next winter.
After the left-hand cavern, I did the self-guided tour through the big room. This cave is immense. I hope the pictures I've taken do it justice.
The last tour was of the King's Palace. After the five person tour in the morning, being in a group of forty was not as much fun. While the draperies in the Queen's Palace were very impressive, the sheer number of people put a damper on my enthusiasm.
I took a nature drive through the desert after I returned to the surface, and saw some blooming cacti. Nice to finally see some in bloom.
Dinner was back at the Velvet Garter, four fried shrimp for a mere $15.
I slept a bit better, but the lack of air conditioning was still a bother. I woke early, and was loading my car before sunrise, and I was pleasantly surprised to see nighthawks. I've never seen a nighthawk of any type before, so it was a pleasant surprise. These birds were flying silently in the parking lot, in and out of the lights. They would sometimes buzz me, within a few feet. If I recall correctly, they eat insects, so were looking to catch any insects that may have been looking toward me as a potential host.
I saw a white tail bar on the nighthawks. This suggests to me that they were Lesser Nighthawks (Chordeiles acutipennis.) While the Sibley book does illustrate Common Nighthawks with a tail bar, it only appears on juveniles in late summer. Adult Lesser Nighthawks have the tail bar.
I left White City at 6:03AM for White Sands National Monument. It was a fairly long drive, via Alamogordo. Eastern New Mexico is quite flat, but it turns out it was sloping up from east to west, as 16 miles east of Alamogordo was over 8500 feet above sea level. (By comparison, Guadeloupe Peak, the tallest point in Texas, is about the same.) Then one descends a mile to Alamogordo.
White Sands was quite interesting. The sand dunes there are gypsum, as opposed to the more normal sand, and are extremely white. The dune field is huge, and the tour road goes amongst the dunes. I spent a couple hours there before continuing west.
My destination for Saturday night was Phoenix. This was a long drive from White Sands, with a stop for gas in Las Cruces. Only highlight was a Prairie Falcon (Falco mexicanus) (the only Prairie Falcon of the trip!) I tried to get gas in Tucson but the pump wasn't working there, and I decided after 50¢ to abandon the effort.
Arizona could be described as the tire tread state. About once every 20 minutes, you'd find a tread from a truck tire blocking a lane of I-10. No idea how long it had been there, but since only once did I see a truck stopped with a de-treaded tire, I assume the highway patrol just leaves the treads on the roads.
I arrived Phoenix at 5PM and got a quick dinner before going to bed. Sunday I woke at 2AM. There is a Waffle House near the hotel, so I considered honoring my friend Patti, but decided a bunch of carbohydrates at 2:15 would not be condusive to my day. I went back to sleep and re-woke at 2:45. I dressed and loaded the car, topped off the tank with gas ($1.219 in Phoenix) and hit I-10 west at 3:09 PM. My stops:
7:04 AM: Recycle Mt. Dew 7:38 AM: Refill gas tank in Riverside ($1.659) 11:44AM: Refill gas tank in Santa Nella ($1.699) 12:45PM: Stop for lunch in San Jose.
I was home at 1:45PM.
All text and images are © Copyright 2002 James C. Armstrong, Jr.