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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Birding the Trans-Pecos: Varied Bunting, Yellow-breasted Chat and Blue Grosbeak

[Big Bend National Park, TX. July 2013]

Big Bend is a unique and remote National Park-- remote as in it takes 1.5 hrs from the nearest town (Marathon, TX or Alpine, TX) to get there; and, in addition, either of these are about 3 hours from the closest Airport (Midland-Odessa). Big Bend is literally in the middle of nowhere; and that isolation, coupled with its proximity to Mexico, and an incredible richness of habitat all make for an unparalleled birding experience.

There are some species better seen here than anywhere else. And while my fleeting visit could never do justice to the entirety of birding possibilities, it nevertheless afforded an opportunity to observe some signature species of the region such as Varied Bunting, Colima Warbler, Yellow-breasted Chat and Blue Grosbeak.

While the Painted Bunting is justifiably celebrated for its multi-colored (some might say gaudy) hues, it is the Varied Bunting that would not be faulted for staking a claim to be the color champion of the Bunting world. The Varied's plumage strikes a bold, almost enigmatic, polychromatic statement without appearing frivolous or clownish.

The Varied Bunting is essentially a Mexican species whose range barely extends into the Southernmost reaches of the US -- in Texas, Arizona and New Mexico. Hued in deep purple, blue, red and black, this stunning species was resplendent even in dull, overcast conditions.

Described by Bonaparte almost 200 years ago, the Varied Bunting has been a subject neglected by Ornithologists with the result that very little is known about the natural history of this species.

Just outside Panther Junction, which is the main Visitor Center at the Park, a brilliant blue bird with chestnut wingbars is observed in the thickets.

Blue Grosbeak in flight

The Blue Grosbeak is essentially a brilliant blue Cardinal; belonging to the same family as its cousin the Northern Cardinal. However, it's closest genetic relative is the Lazuli Bunting.

Blue Grosbeak seen at the Sam Nail Ranch Trail, Big Bend.

Found in the Southern half of the US from coast to coast, this uncommonly seen bird is primarily an insectivore

Blue Grosbeak Closeup.

In addition to the spectacular Grosbeak, there were also some plainer species such as the Canyon Towhee, Cactus Wren, and Rufous-crowned Sparrow.

Canyon Towhee

Canyon Towhee is found in the Desert Southwest; it is very similar to the California Towhee and the two were formerly considered conspecific. However, their ranges do not overlap and their genetics confirm their individual full-species status.

Cactus Wren

While Rock Wren were seen and Canyon Wren heard, the only wren that photographed was the Cactus. Our largest wren, it is almost as big as a Robin and is perfectly adapted to dry environments -- being able to obtain all the water it needs through its food.

Rufous-crowned Sparrow seen at Pinnacles Trail

Rufous-crowned Sparrow is a sparrow of the Southwest generally found between 3,000 and 6,000 feet; it was commonly found at Big Bend. Classified as "Least Concern", its global populations stands at a healthy 2.4 million.
Say's Phoebe

The other target species seen at Big Bend was the Yellow-breasted Chat. This taxonomic enigma is precariously classified with the New World warblers but anyone who has heard this Chat knows that this bird does not warble. It is the only member of the genus Icteria.

Yellow-breasted Chat

This elusive, large and loud "warbler" has many behaviors in common with the mockingbird/thrasher family -- including its ability to mimic calls from other birds, peculiar flight displays and its habit of gripping prey with its feet.

Scott's Oriole

Other birds seen were Scott's Orile, Mexican Jay and Ash-throated Flycatcher.

Scott's Oriole

Mexican Jay

Ash-throated Flycatcher

Ash-throated Flycatcher observed on Laguna Meadow Trail

Curve-billed Thrasher

Big Bend is also an excellent place for hummers; in this instance, a very large one -- the Blue-throated Hummingbird.

Blue-throated Hummingbird

This is our largest hummingbird -- about the same size as a Lucy's Warbler.

Big Bend National Park offers tremendous opportunity for observing some unique birds; perhaps, it is most famous for being the only place in the US where Colima Warbler is found. Indeed, it was observed on both days that I was there on Pinnacle's Trail. The first day it resisted attempts at photography; and on the 2nd day, it avoided photographic capture through camera malfunction.

One thing for sure, birding here is strenuous -- long drives, long hikes (I averaged over 10 miles a day), challenging conditions and extreme isolation. However, the birding rewards are equally proportionate to the challenge. All of these factors make Big Bend a preferred destination for the adventurous birder.

============ Views of Big Bend National Park ===============

Big Bend: View of Trail

Big Bend

 Big Bend: Chisos Basin

Big Bend: View from Pinnacles Trail

1 comment:

Bob Pelkey said...

A venue you certainly will return to if you have the chance, Hemant. Great flight shot of the Blue Grosbeak. Excellent article as is the norm.