Big Bend as Spring Begins

Big Bend National ParkFebruary 17, 1988
TEXAS: Brewster County
Big Ben National Park; elevation about 2800 feet. Three-hour, early-morning hike between the primitive campsites called Willow Tank and Ernst Tinaja. The landscape consists of low, rocky hills vegetated with Creosote-bush, Sotol, grasses, Purple Cenizo and Candelilla.

If during this three-hour walk you had been with me, these are the bird species you would have seen:

Scaled Quail
Chihuahuan Raven
Cactus Wren
Curve-billed Thrasher
Loggerhead Shrike
Black-throated Sparrow

This is the smallest number of birds I've ever seen after three hours of watching. It's because now we're in a habitat so arid that only species that are "desert specialists" can survive. All seven species listed above are non-migrating permanent residents, and all were spotted in the uplands between springs. Around the springs, among copses of small willows and mesquites, other bird species do appear -- Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Northern Mockingbirds, Bewick's Wrens, House Finches, White-crowned Sparrows, Green-tailed Towhees...

Of the seven birds in the list, Black-throated Sparrows were the most conspicuous, often appearing in flocks of fifteen to twenty individuals. Back at K-Bar on recent afternoons as I sat reading in Henry, a certain Black-throated Sparrow often perched atop Henry's open door, not three feet from me. They are attractive little birds.

During my walks often I hear a couple of high-pitched notes, which I've discovered to be the warning calls being made by nervous Scaled Quails. Soon after such warnings, usually a covey of thirty to fifty quail explode into the air. When they land a safe distance from me, each bird runs -- not hops or flits -- to a hiding place. At K-Bar, each afternoon a flock of fifteen congregates to peck in the dust where recently a camping party tethered its horses, leaving seed among the hay and dried horse manure. Sometimes not fifteen feet from Henry, with me inside, the quail gather in a tight circle in the dust, with their heads pointing outwards, and then peck at such a frenetic, almost comical pace that they kick up dense dust-clouds. Each bird bears a conspicuous, pale head-crest that in late-afternoon light glows brightly, conveying to each bird the appearance of wearing a crown. What handsome, good-natured birds these are.

Yesterday for nearly two minutes I watched a Loggerhead Shrike chase a smaller bird, probably a Black-throated Sparrow. The two birds flew high into the sky and zig-zagged wonderfully and desperately, finally disappearing beyond my range of vision. Despite this enmity between the two species, this morning I've seen several shrikes perched on old flower-stalks of Sotol and Lechuguilla, and a couple of times perched nearby were sparrows. Perhaps shrikes attack only those birds whom they sense to be enfeebled, and the healthy sparrows behave accordingly.

"Chihuahuan Raven" is the new name for the bird that for years I've called "White-necked Raven." This species is smaller than the Common Raven, has a higher-pitched voice, and is something of a Southwestern specialty. Often I've seen it in northern Mexico's desert. Though the Chihuahuan Raven is completely black, sometimes it bends its head over in such a way that a few white feathers across the upper back become visible. This bird's Latin name is Corvus cryptoleucus.Corvus is the name the ancient Latin-speakers used for crows and ravens. The cryptois is from the Greek meaning "concealed," and leucusis from the Greek meaning "white." It's the raven with concealed white feathers.

Go to Next Entry
Return to the Desert Index
Links on this page were last updated on . If you find broken ones, please email me.