Extreme water shortage throughout park. Visitors are limited to 5 gallons per day, and are encouraged to conserve further when possible. Please consider bringing your own water to the park.
NPS Photo/Cookie Ballou
A Birder's Paradise
Big Bend's location, near the 100th meridian in the middle of the continent and along a migration route, is ideal for bird diversity throughout the year. Northern species migrate here for the warm winter climate, while birds from the tropics range this far north to breed in the spring. One of Big Bend's highlights, the Colima warbler, is found exclusively in the United States in the Chisos Mountains of Big Bend National Park from April to September.
SERIES ANNOUNCER: You're watching "Inside the Big Bend".
NARRATOR JIM HINES: It's amazing just how many different birds think Big Bend National Park is a great place to be.
In the middle of their long, long migrations each year, between summers up north and winters down south, nearly 190 species of birds land here, each spring and fall, to rest up, to hydrate, and to feed. From chilly places way up north, about 100 species of birds fly south to here in the fall, to take advantage of the Big Bend's mild winters. From the steamy tropics way down south, another 116 species of birds fly north to here in the spring, to nest, and to raise their families. Additionally, there are some 56 species of birds that apparently think the Big Bend is such a great place, they live here all year round.
In the Big Bend country, far from any coastline, there can be classically eastern birds at the western edge of their ranges. Similarly, there can be classically western birds at the eastern edge of their ranges. Plus, one can find some 82 species of south-of-the-border birds at the northern edge of their ranges.
Surprise is a common experience of bird enthusiasts who come here to the Big Bend. Its immediate proximity to Mexico has a pronounced effect on the chance for the appearance of unusual or even extremely rare species for the United States.
Spring is the time of the most numerous reports of rare and accidental migrants, as well as the time of greatest diversity of species.
Yet, while unusual sightings are thrilling, the park features many locally common species that are often new to visitors. Big Bend is known for its specialty birds. These are species that occur in the United States only in southwest Texas and other areas along our border with Mexico. In fact, there is one species that comes here to nest that can't be found anywhere else in the United States.
Altogether, over 450 species of birds have been documented within the borders of Big Bend National Park. That's nearly two-thirds of all the bird species found in the continental United States!
What makes Big Bend National Park such a great place for birds?
For one thing, the Big Bend region is on a major migratory route: the Central Flyway of North America.
But why do so many birds land here? Why do some of them go no further south or north? And why do some of them not bother to migrate away at all? The answer to all these questions lies in the park's diversity of habitats. That is, the park has a wide selection of places where various kinds of birds can find shelter, water, food, and places to nest.
Big Bend National Park has a well-deserved reputation among its human visitors as "Three Parks In One": the Chisos Mountains, which lie entirely within the park; the Chihuahuan Desert, the majority of which lies in Mexico; and the Rio Grande, which borders Big Bend National Park on two sides and defines its name. This same three-parks-within-a-park idea can be used to categorize the park's myriad bird habitats.
With a little planning and luck, visitors to the park can see a great variety of birds within a single vacation. To guide visitors to the most rewarding opportunities, the Big Bend Natural History Association publishes the park's very own Bird Checklist, which is updated every few years. This Checklist is available for purchase at any of the park's visitor centers.
Not only does it cover which species are likely to be present in which seasons, the Checklist indicates the most likely habitats where each species can be found, and which locations in the park have those habitats.
The following places in the park provide good opportunities to observe a variety of birds. Let's go!
The Rio Grande Village area, on the east side of the park, produces the greatest variety of sightings year round.
You may wish to start your search for birds with an early morning hike along the Rio Grande Village Nature Trail. The trail crosses a beaver pond via a series of bridges and floating platforms. The platforms offer a number of benches to sit on while scanning the shoreline and snags. Further on, the trail passes a warm-water spring-fed pond.
Back in the campground, walk the road through the No Generator Zone near the Nature Trail trailhead. Walk around the perimeters of the Rio Grande Village campgrounds, both the single-family and group areas. Peer into the mesquite thickets at the edges of the flood-irrigated grassy areas that were once farm fields, and up into the many shade trees, especially the tall cottonwoods.
At the far west end of Rio Grande Village Road is the Daniels Ranch picnic area. It features a shady grove of tall cottonwood trees with lush green lawns underneath. From there, it's only a short walk to the bank of the Rio Grande at the mouth of Hot Springs Canyon. The Rio Grande, although now much diminished by human demands from both countries it borders, irrigates a double ribbon of lush vegetation.
Between Rio Grande Village and Daniels Ranch is an extra-special place: the Common Black Hawk Nesting Area. Despite its name, the Common Black Hawk is a species whose numbers are in decline, primarily due to habitat loss. Marvelously, this grove of tall cottonwoods has been host to a pair of black hawks for several decades. Their annual nest-building and young-rearing often takes place within sight of the road. To help increase the black hawks' odds for successful breeding and their continued future use of the area, please remain well outside the signed perimeter, and limit your time there.
Another great place for birds along the Rio Grande is on the west side of the park, between the Castolon Historic District and Santa Elena Canyon. Although the riparian habitats here are somewhat similar to those around Rio Grande Village, it's not uncommon to find different species. Check out the tall trees and surrounding shrubbery at Cottonwood Campground. Walk the edges of the mesquite thickets along the riverbanks near Santa Elena Canyon.
The Chisos Mountains and their foothills attract many species of birds that otherwise would not be in Big Bend National Park. The Chisos Mountains can be thought of as a moist, forested "sky island" surrounded by a dry desert oasis, whose sheltering canyons serve as welcoming bays and estuaries.
Up in the Chisos Basin, you'll find many of the park's human accommodations: great places to find food, rest, and enjoy family activities. But the Basin also offers great places for birds to find food, rest, and enjoy family activities. Look in the grasses, shrubs, and trees around the visitor center, lodge, campground, and trailhead. The Window Trail, with its several trailheads from the resort complex and campgrounds, offers a smorgasbord of bird species as it leads thru a variety of habitats.
It takes some time and effort to hike up, but the higher elevations of the Chisos Mountains is where you'll need to be if you want to see the Colima warbler, Big Bend's premier specialty bird. Although the Colima warbler comes here each spring to nest and to raise its young, it has never been documented anywhere else in the United States. Most Colima warblers live in Mexico year round. The Chihuahuan Desert is studded with trickling springs and still-active windmills from the pre-park ranching era. These create oases of moisture and greenery that are a powerful magnet for birds. While most of the springs require a fair amount of hiking to get to, there are two historic places within a short walk from a paved or well-graded roadway.
A half-dozen miles from park headquarters, the cottonwood grove at Dugout Wells survives in the middle of open desert, watered by an old yet still-functional windmill. In addition to its resident desert birds, Dugout Wells is a secluded stopover spot for migratory birds passing through. Its picnic table, accessible by wheelchair, is a great place to sit while listening for bird songs and calls.
Another excellent place to look for birds and other wild creatures in search of moisture and shade in the desert is at the remains of the Sam Nail Ranch. Just a few miles from the Chisos Mountains and its Basin Window, a well-functioning windmill and large shade trees make Sam Nail Ranch a true desert oasis. A wooden bench under huge pecans that were part of the ranch house garden provides a comfortable place to sit while you watch the ever-changing pageant of wildlife.
One last thing: Park visitors like you are often our best eyes and ears for sightings of rare or unique birds, as well as the earliest and latest sightings of migratory and seasonal birds.
So if you see a bird that's listed as hypothetical, rare, sporadic, out of season, or otherwise different from the park checklist, please stop in at a visitor center as soon as possible and fill out an observation report. Be sure to include a detailed description of the bird, what it was doing, and when, but most importantly: its exact location. Because we want to try to see it, too! If you can get a clear photograph of your sighting, you may make park history!
The park has a variety of excellent birding locations because of its multiplicity of habitats including open desert, riparian river corridor and desert springs, moist forested canyons and woodlands of pinyon-oak-juniper, and the transition zones in between these areas.
Patience, a good field guide, and knowledge of where to look are the keys to locating the birds of Big Bend. A checklist of birds is available for purchase at any visitor center and is a great aid in determining which species are likely to be present, and the habitats where they are found.
A visit to any of these key habitats will provide good opportunities to observe a variety of birds.
Cottonwood Campground/Santa Elena Canyon Birding along the riparian corridor between Cottonwood Campground and Santa Elena Canyon yields a diverse array of habitats from mesquite thicket to cottonwoods.
Dugout Wells The wells often create a year-round wet spot surrounded by desert, and provide a great place for desert resident birds and migratory species passing through.
Sam Nail Ranch The combination of water and trees make this desert oasis an excellent location for birding. Look for both desert and migratory bird species.
Blue Creek This is one of the better bird watching places in the foothills of the Chisos Mountains. In spring, look for gray and black-capped vireos and Lucifer hummingbirds.
Hot Springs Where Tornillo Creek meets the Rio Grande. Good for wading, shore, and desert birds.
Terlingua Abajo A large spring along Terlingua Creek has been home to numerous unique birds and stands out as one of the wettest spots in the park, with the exception of the Rio Grande.
Park visitors are often our eyes and ears for rare or unique bird sightings. If you see something worth recording (a bird listed as rare, sporadic, or otherwise not listed on the park's checklist), please stop in at a visitor center and fill out an observation report. Be sure to record all pertinent information such as a overall description of the bird, activity or behavioral comments, habitat, time of day, and possibly the most important: the exact location of where the bird was seen.
Did You Know?
From 1929 to 1943, Elmo Johnson's Ranch served as a U.S. Army Air Corps landing field. The field was a popular weekend destination for pilots—a place to combine flying exercises with recreation such as hunting, fishing, exploring Indian caves, and taking burro rides into Mexico.