After a sleepless night in both car and tent, with lightning crashing down around us, it was difficult rising Saturday morning for our 10-mile hike to find the only pair of Slate-Throated Redstarts in the country. So we dragged our heels to the Pinnacle trailhead near the Chisos Basin Visitor Center, missing the opportunity to start in cooler temperatures and shade. By the time our boots hit the trail, it was in the high 70s. And though the 1,300-foot elevation gain would help keep temperatures down, we knew it would still be in the low to mid-nineties.
Fortunately, the hike was pleasant at first. But within a half mile, we wondered if this was a good idea. Should we wait until the next morning and start an hour earlier? But we also knew that tomorrow would be our last morning in Big Bend before leaving for the long drive to Padre Island (clear across the state of Texas). So we had to make this day count.
Surprisingly, within the first mile and a half, we had only seen three birds: Scott’s Oriole, Cactus Wren, and Canyon Towhee. We had thought the morning, even if it wasn’t as early as planned, would mean new birds and lots of them. With the lack of birds, the next half mile had us doubting ourselves more.
But as we crested a ridge and arrived at a flat path among meadows and pines, a Mexican Jay called out and we caught sight of it. Suddenly, the air seemed cooler and the mountains in front of us seemed shorter. We pushed on.
Bird songs and calls rung out more often too, pulling us forward, often taunting us. Sometimes we were able to identify them, but we wanted visual confirmation as well.
The first visual and audio confirmation came at the edge of a switchback, we kept seeing flashes of black, white, and orange and hearing songs that sounded similar to orioles and other birds. The more detail and clips we gathered, the closer we got to an identification. Patience finally paid off: a Black-Head Grosbeak.
Not much further up the bend, we heard what we thought was a Summer Tanager but could not confirm it. Then about 5 minutes later, as cliffs towered over us, we heard the unmistakable sound of swifts. Through the trees, we could just catch glimpses of them diving and darting to their nests on the red cliff walls. Finally, when we rose above the trees and to the open sky, we were able to record the flight of the White-Throated Swift.
More birds began popping into view and hearing, including the Rufous-Crowned Sparrow, Bewick’s Wren, and Ash-Throated Flycatcher. And with those birds, the view of Chisos Basin became more spectacular.
Finally, reaching the top elevation of our hike at 7,200 feet, we were relieved to head down onto the Boot Canyon Trail, where we hoped to find the Slate-Throated Redstart.
Despite the rest we got by descending, we realized two things. First, this side of the hike had very little shade and the sun was becoming hotter by the minute. Second, we would have to hike back up this in the afternoon. Of course, the hike up was only 1.5 miles, compared to the 3.8 miles down on the return. So we kept that in mind. And another positive was that this side seemed to have a wider variety of cactus flowers and other flowering plants, which meant the better likelihood of finding a new species of hummingbird. More lizards also started to slip out of the shadows.
As with the ascent, many bird calls and songs taunted us. But with limited battery, we decided not to record and dedicated the battery life to pinpoint the area where the redstart might be. Hopefully, we would be able to snag some of these bird songs — and some pictures — on the way back up.
It was also here that we noticed the locusts or Lubber Grasshopper sprinkler and saw sound grow around us with the heat, often drowning out the bird songs.
Eventually, we knew we were nearing Boot Spring due to the greening of the canyon and the trees soon shaded us and more birds flitted around. And once again, we heard a Summer Tanager nearby, as well as another interesting decrescendo, which we identified as a Canyon Wren.
Soon after, we arrived at the old corral and ranger cabin, where the path for Boot Spring wound steeply down into a shady, cool hollow of large boulders and tall trees. It was easy to imagine the rush of water and fall after the winter. But now, there wasn’t even a trickle.
Sitting on a log, we ate our lunch and waited for the Slate-Throated Redstart. Like Blue Jays at home, the Mexican Jay disturbed the air with their calls and made it hard to differentiate the many calls. And every time we caught a flit of wings, we threw out sandwiches down and lifted binoculars. But it was too leafy and shadowy.
Finally, one bird began to hang around the nearest trees and spy on us. After a few moments, we were able to get some good pictures and identify it by call, another flycatcher: the Cordilleran Flycatcher.
But no redstart. Still, we waited in the little oasis for another ten minutes. At the same time, we knew that outside the shade it was getting hotter and we had five miles to hike back. We were going to have to give up.
Hiking back out of the canyon, we were surprised that the uphill wasn’t as exhausting and that we weren’t really disappointed about missing another rare bird. Making it even more worth it, was the spotting of Acorn Woodpeckers, which were either nesting or feeding on the sheer wall of a 100- to 200-foot cliff. This unexpected behavior and bird was a huge bonus. We would also see the Acorn Woodpecker on the other side of the mountain.
Birding after that gradually became more difficult with heat and exhaustion. All we wanted to do was cruise down the mountain to the coolness of the visitor center three miles away. Occasionally, we would stop to listen and look, noticing familiar faces as we did. Nothing new, except for a trio of ravens, showed up.
In the end, we truly appreciated the adventure we forced ourselves to complete. Not only were there many new and amazing birds, but the terrain and vista, as well as the company, made it one of the most memorable days.
Thoroughly wiped, we thought this would be it for the day. We should have known better.