The hottest section of our Big Bend trip was at Rio Grande Village, which, as its name suggests, is along the Rio Grande and Mexican border. As you descend into the valley and see the massive bluffs of Sierra del Carmen in Mexico, the temperature gauge rises. By the time we had left out campsite in the Chisos Mountains, the temperature climbed from 88 to 104. Needless to say, 2:00 in the afternoon was not the best time to be out in the sun.
Still, we were determined to do a short reconnaissance hike for another morning. But as we entered the campground where the nature trail started, it felt a little eerie to see the area so abandoned. This was definitely not peak season and the heat and cracks in the pavement proved why. At the same time, it was also evident that the area was close to the Rio Grande. Parts of the campground were surrounded with dense greenery, promising an abundance of birds.
Readying ourselves with water, hats, camera, and binoculars, we crawled out of the air conditioning and into the broiler. For a few seconds, we thought about getting back in the car and driving to one of the visitor centers to go through our photos and recordings. But being stubborn, I pushed us on.
At first, we remained under the protective canopy of trees, spotting some birds we had already encountered, including a Golden-Fronted Woodpecker and a Greater Roadrunner. The trail then curved onto a boardwalk that crossed a small stream and pond. Unfortunately, everything seemed dead and unmoving, choosing to be smarter than two humans.
From that point, the trailed wound around a small butte, through desert and cacti. Other than a Cactus Wren, the only other creature we experienced was a giant desert millipede (about six inches in length and as thick as my finger). Luckily, it wasn’t one of the venomous centipedes that also live around these parts.
The most exciting find of this first venture was colorful wire and bead sculptures of desert animals, such as scorpions, tarantulas, and Roadrunners. Along with the small sculptures were also beautifully painted walking sticks that seemed to tell stories along their length. A coffee can was propped up next to them listing the prices of the different items. Searching through my wallet, I hoped to find enough to buy a Roadrunner for my daughter who was not able to make the trip. But I had emptied it for ice cream earlier. I told Jackson, we had to get one of these when we returned.
After a few more minutes of stumbling into nothingness, our brains and bodies shattered, we made the proper decision to turn back and do the hike in the morning, money in hand. We also hoped it would all be worth it since we saw so few birds.
On the way out, we did stop by a stand of trees to look for the Black Hawk that nested somewhere in the area. This sighting would be especially meaningful because of the Great Black Hawk the rest of the family had seen during the winter in Maine — a sad story of a bird thousands of miles from home and succumbing to conditions it wasn’t prepared for.
In the end, this stand of trees was not the nesting ground. Instead, we did see an American Kestrel and more Golden-Fronted Woodpeckers, as well as one new bird: the Vermillion Flycatcher. It was a small jewel that resparked our desire to come back the next day.
Two days later, before leaving Big Bend for Padre Island, we returned to Rio Grande Village. And though it was morning, the thermometer had already risen to 90. So to stay cool a little longer, we drove around a for a while, trying to find the location that matched the coordinates and description of the last eBird recording for the Black Hawk. Once again, we found ourselves moving through the deserted campground, windows down listening for bird calls, especially the screech of a hawk.
Instead, we heard the guttural grunts of something much larger and dangerous. In the grass between two uninhabited sites was a giant peccary. Despite not finding many birds in this area yet, the peccary was a great discovery. Still, we kept our distance since they are known to be quite vicious.
Finally, we zeroed in on the coordinates and saw a nearby fenced-in area. But none of it made sense. The coordinates were a campsite and the fenced-in area was an electrical box. Against Jackson’s cautionary pleas about getting out too near the peccary, we finally decided to check out the treetops around us, making sure we don’t travel too far in the directions of the sharp-toothed pig.
No hawk. But lots of woodpeckers and some more Vermillion Flycatchers. It seems that once we see a bird we have been searching for, we see it everywhere afterward. Near us was also a Greater Roadrunner perched on a grill daring us to think the worst.
Otherwise, we were stumped to where the hawk nesting place would be. But before searching in other directions, I asked Jackson if we could return to the Nature Trail to try our luck at more birds and to get buy a gift for Fiona. He really only wanted the hawk at this point and he was concerned that there might be more peccaries along the water. In the end, he relented and we returned to the trail.
Within minutes, we were rewarded with birds, though they were all ones we had seen before. As mentioned before, the Vermillion Flycatchers made more appearances, as did other brightly colored birds, like the Painted Bunting and Blue Grosbeak. And as we crossed the bridge, the dead water from the day before was alive with large mammals swimming around and peaking out at us. We couldn’t figure out what the mixture of beaver and muskrat was at first. But after a while, we realized they were nutria.
Continuing on, we found the desert art pieces and bought a wire and beaded Roadrunner for Fiona. I was also tempted to get a walking stick for myself. I just didn’t know how I would get it on the plane.
Since it was ten degrees cooler than last time (94 instead of 104), we pushed up the butte, avoiding the river trail where we heard the grunts and screeches of more peccary. We didn’t want to get trapped in the tall grass, surrounded by blood-thirsty pigs. Instead, we quickly, made it up the butte to look out on the Rio Grande and Mexico. The sight was incredible and part of me wanted to explore the other side. But we just didn’t have the time.
Heading back along the trail, we took one look back at the shadowed side of the butte and noticed a lone Greater Roadrunner looking over its realm.
Now it was time for one more search for the Black Hawk. And since the visitor center for Rio Grande Village is only open from November to April, we went into a little gas station and asked. If we had only gone another quarter mile in the other direction, the location was easy to find.
Quickly, we headed over that way and found the large, fenced-in stand of trees with signage describing the Black Hawk nesting. We couldn’t believe it was so obvious. Within minutes, we located two different nests, one seeming more recent than the other. But no hawks. We waited for over ten minutes for the hawks to return or for a little one to poke its head over the nest. At one point, we were hopeful when large shadows appeared in the sky. But they were only Turkey Vultures circling the nearby RVs.
Time ticking away and with the knowledge that we were driving halfway or more to Padre Island, we knew we couldn’t wait much longer. So we decided to go further down the road to see what we could find. Then, on our return, we might luck out and see the hawks.
Maintaining our new practice of riding with the windows down to listen for birds, we quickly found two new ones — a pair of Summer Tanagers and a Brown-Crested Flycatcher — as well as our familiar friends, the Vermillion Flycatcher.
Turning around, we kept our eyes to the sky and treetops for the Black Hawk. Like its cousin, it seemed like they were going to require a longer stakeout. This time, however, we didn’t have the time. It was getting to be late morning and the Gulf birds were calling.
In the end, we were so glad to have returned to Rio Grande Village. Though the prime birding period had passed a month or so before us, we were awestruck at what we did find in both feather and fur.
And now that our time in Big Bend was coming to an end, we wished we could stay longer or at least return someday — when the weather was cooler and the air, trees, and ground were more alive with energy. At the same time, just the spirit of desert and canyon was something so mystical that it would be hard to ever forget.