February Road Trip - Davis Mountains, Big Bend and Guadalupe Peak

Davis Mountains as viewed from McDonald Observatory
Valentine's Day morning we headed west and home was still in our thoughts.

But the sun was shining and I remembered that the McDonald Observatory held star parties on Tuesday nights, so we decided to squeeze in one more stop, this time in Alpine, TX. Unfortunately the skies weren't clear that night, but Wednesday morning we drove up to the Observatory and took their fantastic daytime tour.

Harlan J. Smith Telescope (107" mirror)

Our tour guide with the telescope after raising the floor

Afterward we drove the Davis Mountains Scenic Loop, then ended the day at the Davis Mountains State Park. The Interpretive Center has a blind where we saw our first Black-crested Titmouse, a Texas specialty.

Black-crested Titmouse

After such a great day of science and birding we were feeling invigorated. Since we were so close, we decided to explore Big Bend National Park. On short notice, we were lucky to get one of the last rooms available at Chisos Mountain Lodge, a CCC-built accommodation in the heart of the park. We highly recommend the restaurant, which served unexpectedly good food with a great view out to "the window." Everyone was friendly and we liked the vibe. The concessionaire running the lodge and restaurant was Forever Resorts -- the same company that runs the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park.

Chisos Mountains

Our adventures started at the Persimmon Gap entrance in the north, and down to the Dagger Flats drive to see the Giant Dagger Yuccas.

Susan on the Dagger Flats Auto Trail in Big Bend NP

After checking in to our room, we drove over to Rio Grande Village for sunset at the easternmost part of the park. Storm clouds rolled in and the sunset was a bust, but we saw a rainbow, some hail, and an incredible (but too close to get out of the car and photograph) lightning storm.

The mountains (in Mexico) near Rio Grande Village in Big Bend NP

During this trip Mike learned of an interesting family connection to the Big Bend area. Mike's maternal grandfather, A.G. Beard (1884-1941) was a Texas Ranger in the early 1900s and was part of a group of rangers who responded to a raid in the Glenn Springs settlement (now part of Big Bend). Mike also learned a couple of other bits of trivia about his grandfather. He was known to have camped around the Cattail Falls area in the Park, and a cousin of Mike's has a newspaper clipping mentioning that A.G. Beard contributed $1 toward the purchase of lands that eventually became Big Bend National Park.

Early the next morning we visited Santa Elena Canyon on the Rio Grande. Low clouds dampened the effect, but the canyon walls were splendid. We did some birding at the Cottonwood Campground and saw our first Vermillion Flycatcher.

Susan at Santa Elena Canyon in Big Bend NP
Vermillion Flycatcher

Back in the Lodge area, I had a thrilling experience of coming face to face with a mountain lion. Mike was bringing the car around from the other side of the parking lot while I walked to our room. As I approached the flight of steps leading to the rooms, 3 deer ran past quickly from right to left. It occurred to me that they might be being pursued, so I glanced to the right and this time my paranoia was justified. I was looking up into the eyes of a young lion not 12 feet in front of me! I backed off slowly and when I could no longer see him, ran a few feet back to the moving car, pounding on the window for Mike to let me in. He grabbed the camera and ran up the hill, but the lion was long gone.

The mountain lion was where the cones are
 and Susan was standing where this pic was taken.

There had been an incident earlier that week where a lion had attacked a young boy who was holding his mother's hand as they walked to their room from the restaurant, so the park volunteers took my report very seriously. The mother struggled to chase the cat away with her bare hands, and the father thought quickly, grabbed his pocket knife and stabbed at the cat until it ran away. We later learned that animal was sick and had already been captured and euthanized. The boy needed stitches in his face, but was otherwise fine. Several trails and campgrounds were still closed because of the attack.

Would you hike here?

A park ranger and a park biologist found us later in the evening at dinner, asked more questions, and had me show them exactly where the lion was sighted. Cones were placed in the area outside of our room where the lion had hidden behind some yucca. Later that night we heard the howling of bloodhounds trying to track the lion.

The next morning we awoke to a light dusting of snow. We loved the basin of the Chisos Mountains Sky Island under all the different weather conditions we experienced, and look forward to coming back.

Chisos Mountains Lodge on a snowy morning

Our route out took us through Big Bend Ranch State Park, a scenic drive mostly along the Rio Grande. That day a cycling event was going on so our admission was free.

Along the Rio Grande in Big Bend Ranch State Park; the mountains to the left of the river are in Mexico

We stopped to eat in Marfa at Pizza Foundation, after learning that the fancy Hotel Paisano did not serve lunch. As we headed up to I-10, it we noticed MacDonald Observatory on the mountains to our right.

Susan at the Pizza Foundation, a former gas station

We drove past the impressive Guadalupe Peak (8,749 ft), the highest point in Texas, on the way to our stop for the night in Carlsbad, NM.

Guadalupe Peak, 8749', the highest point in Texas

Having only seen west Texas from I-10 in the past, our perspective of the area was greatly changed on this trip.

Bluebonnets in Big Bend

February Road Trip - Dallas, Rockport and San Antonio

Madison (front right) at her dance/drill competition
After leaving the White Sands area, we took a leisurely route to Dallas where we had plans to see Mike's granddaughter compete in a her first dance/drill competition. Madison did great and it was so fun to watch her perform in this new (to us) performance style.

Of course we knew there'd be birds to watch in Texas, too, and we hoped to pick up a good number of them for our 2012 list.

Our first birding stop was at the newly opened Dogwood Canyon Audubon Center in Cedar Hill. Although we didn't see any new birds here, we did see White Trout Lilies, named for the appearance of their leaves, in bloom.

White Trout Lily (Erythronium albidum)

Texas Spiny Lizard
While hiking the birding trails, I spotted a very well-camouflaged Texas Spiny Lizard. We had never seen one before and were surprised that they climb trees -- this one was about at eye level.

That weekend we also squeezed in a birding morning at Lake Tawakoni.

The following weekend would be spent with Mike's son Ben in San Antonio, so we took advantage of the free time mid-week and headed to the Gulf Coast. We based ourselves in Rockport so we would be close to the Whooping Crane Boat Tour. As it turned out we did not take the tour due to rainy weather, or maybe we just couldn't tear ourselves away from all the new birds we were seeing at so many other places. Rockport itself is great for birding, and we our choice of several other nearby birding areas as well. Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, Goose Island State Park, and Port Aransas were our favorites. We would return to South Texas in 2013 to explore the Rio Grande Valley.

Colorful sunset at Aransas NWR

White-tailed Hawk (Buteo albicaudatus)

Whooping Cranes near Goose Island SP

White Ibis near Goose Island SP

Brown Pelicans near Rockport, TX

Aside from the birds we're always on the lookout for we saw more bonus creatures -- Javalinas (peccary) at Goose Island and a small Armadillo at Aransas NWR.


Javelina (peccary) and babies

One drizzly windy day, we drove down to Padre Island National Seashore, which didn't prove to be productive for birding.

On the drive up to San Antonio Mike searched the Great Texas Birding Trails and found a great little birding spot to break up the drive. We had a little trouble finding the entrance to Pollywog Ponds, but were glad we didn't give up. We picked up a few life birds here, including the Golden Fronted Woodpecker and the Great Kiskadee which Mike noticed hassling a hawk. We actually didn't identify the Kiskdaee until we looked at our photos later, although we had heard them calling in the trees.

Great Kiskadee (upper left) buzzing a hawk

Back on the road we saw a sea of white to our right - it was thousands of snow geese in the grass! No time to document with a photo, but I'm sure there were more than we've seen at Bosque del Apache.

In San Antonio, Ben introduced us to puffy tacos on our way to the airport to pick up Madison. The rest of the visit we enjoyed Ben's company, hospitality and good cooking -- awesome salsa and fajitas! We spent a day at the San Antonio Rodeo where we tried chicken fried bacon. And we met the Bentley, the most active dog in the world.

Three generations: Ben, Madison, and Mike Molloy

Too soon, we were on the road again. We had German food on our mind so New Braunfels was the natural spot to stop for lunch. The comfort food at Friesenhaus was delicious, but unfortunately didn't cure the colds we were fighting.

Muscovy Duck
On the way we stumbled onto Landa Park, a city park that had some very strange looking ducks. Some of them were Muscovy Ducks, and others may have been hybrids of whistling ducks, but they looked like zombie ducks to me. We're still trying to figure it out.

We're thinking "zombie duck" :-)

After lunch we opted for an easy afternoon of birding at Choke Canyon State Park. The extra driving paid off and we saw our first Crested Caracaras near the entrance gate. There was a nesting pair carrying sticks. We were also able to study and identify mottled ducks, those female mallard imposers. A highlight of the afternoon was spotting a Harris's Hawk at close range in a tree overhanging the birding trail.

Crested Caracara

Choke Canyon SP, Texas -- farthest west for alligators in the US

Harris's Hawk along the trail

At this point in our trip we were struggling a bit to decide what to do next. Rainy weather, colds and a surprising lack of availability of last minute lodging in Texas had us thinking we should just go home. We stayed in Boerne that night not sure what we'd do in the morning.

Dunes, Oryx and Rockets

On our way to see family in Texas, we decided to explore a little more of southern New Mexico. This time, the focus was on White Sands National Monument. We found comfortable and highly affordable lodging at nearby Holloman AFB.

The first morning we watched an excellent video at the WSNM Visitor's Center, then drove the Dunes Drive, stopping at the various pullouts and hiking the Nature Trail. The white sand reminded us of drifting show we had left behind in Colorado.

Trees overtaken by dunes on the Dunes Nature Trail

In the afternoon we took a tour of Lake Lucero. These guided tours are only offered one Saturday per month, traveling through adjacent White Sands Missile Range normally off limits to civilians. We were given instructions which included warnings not to pick up any metal debris. We liked seeing a sign for White Sands Space Harbor, the landing strip used by Columbia in 1982, as we caravanned to the trailhead with about two dozen other vehicles.

Other members of our tour group on Lake Lucero

We reached the dry lakebed after a short hike and found it glittering with gypsum crystals strewn all about. They crunched with a tinkle underfoot. The crystals continue to crumble, becoming "cornflakes" as they are blown across the Alkali Flat, eventually forming the largest gypsum sand dunes in the world.

Gypsum crystals glistening on the dry Lake Lucero lakebed

Along the trail we also spotted Oryx tracks and scat. The large African antelopes, also known as Gemsbok, were introduced as game animals in 1969. Their population needs to be kept in check because they have no predators in New Mexico and reproduce prolifically. The animals are found on the missile range, but are not supposed to be in the National Monument because they are not native and have a significant environmental impact. As our ranger guide told us, besides overgrazing the grasslands, the animals can easily dig down the 18 inches required to reach the water table, creating "Oryx Wells." The entire National Monument is fenced in to keep them out, but occasionally they get inside, not by jumping over the fence as you might expect, but by digging under it!

The first of several Oryx we would spot on the trip grazed along the roadside on our way out of WSMR. Within the missile range photos are prohibited, but we were lucky enough to see a small family group of Oryx along US Highway 70 at other times.

Oryx (aka Gemsbok) near White Sands Missile Range

Sunday we hiked the 5 mile Alkali Flats Trail across the heart of the dunes. The hikers and sledders thinned out quickly, and we found ourselves alone in this otherworldly area on a perfectly calm sunny day. In windy weather, hikers are advised to progress only if the next trail sign is visible. Earlier this month, a pair of hikers became lost and were rescued in a cooperative effort by the Park Service and Holloman AFB. Fortunately we had cell coverage virtually everywhere we hiked.

Dune Ripples

Dunes with San Andreas mountains on the horizon (Alkali Flats trail)

That night we returned to the dunes for sunset, which turned out to be quite a popular thing to do.

Evening light on the dunes

Monday we were the first visitors in the National Monument when it opened at 7am, and we took in the morning light twinkling on the dunes in the chilly 18 degree air. Solitary. Quiet. Awesome.

Morning dunes

We decided to spend the rest of the day to the west of National Monument, first visiting the interesting little White Sands Missile Range Museum, complete with a WWII era V-2 missile displayed in its own building adjacent to the rocket garden.

"Rocket Garden" at White Sands Missile Range Museum (Organ Mountains in background)

Mike with WWII-era V-2 missile

Next we took the pretty winding road up to the Aguirre Springs Campground in the Organ Mountains National Recreation Area.

We saved the 12 mile RT Baylor Pass trail for another time and instead hiked the 4.5 mile Pine Tree Trail Loop, where crumbly (no climbing allowed) spires loomed above.

A fair amount of ice and snow was still on the trail around the 6800' halfway point, where we enjoyed birdseye views down into the Tularosa Basin.

View of Tularosa Basin and White Sands Missile Range

By Tuesday we were ready to rest, so we slept in and only went out to visit the New Mexico Space History Museum and get BBQ at Can't Stop Smokin'. Both stops were well worth our time.

In case we got lost...
One final stop on our way out of town was to Sunspot, NM to visit the National Solar Observatory (NSO) at Sacramento Peak and the privately owned Apache Point Observatory.

As we drove along Highway 6563, a number which was deliberately chosen for its significance in solar astronomy, we passed fun Sunspot Solar Model System signs to scale for each planet's distance from the sun. New Mexico is doing a great job promoting education and tourism with its Space Trail campaign.

We did the self-guided walking tour of the NSO grounds, and we were able to go inside 2 of the domes. My favorite was the oldest and curiously named Grain Bin Dome. As told by the walking tour handout, it was built from a grain bin purchased from a Sears catalog and modified into a rotating structure to house a telescope. It would be worth returning to the NSO on a day when guided tours are offered and the visitor center is open.

Already in the works are plans for a return trip to WSNM during the full moon to hike, do photography, and attend a full moon concert on the dunes. Also of interest from the northern end of White Sands Missile Range would be a tour of the commercial spaceport, Spaceport America and a visit to the Trinity Site.