I am writing this outside Laredo, Texas, about 600 miles southeast of El Paso, listening to the incessant and haunting calls of a Pauraque. This nocturnal bird is characteristic of the subtropical habitat along the lower Rio Grande. Like several other species with similar ecological preferences, here it is close to the northwesternmost extent of its range.
So we are finally on the road, but only just barely, having at last escaped El Paso on Feb. 27, Eileen’s birthday. This was about two weeks later than I estimated last time, because my follow-up medical tests caused delays. The A1C test gave a long-term average blood sugar level that was just within normal range, contraindicating diabetes, thank goodness. But the PSA stayed high, so my urologist strongly recommended a biopsy. The procedure is not much fun, and the two weeks of waiting for results were hardly relaxing, but the outcome was good, with no prostate cancer detected. So I probably still have an infection, but after 5 antibiotic treatments (intravenously, via a shot, and three oral courses) in 6 weeks, which have left me intestinally challenged, I’ll just have to get over the infection with my own immune system.
Enough medical red herrings. While we were waiting for test results, we did some camping in local state parks. We spent one night in Hueco Tanks, which had excellent birding the next morning, including White-throated Sparrow (near the western edge of its regular wintering range), Green-tailed Towhee, Clay-colored Sparrow, and Crissal Thrasher. I hiked all the trails accessible without a guide and though it was still effectively winter botanically, in rock clefts and under rock overhangs I found four new species of ferns, a favorite group of mine. Because of bizarre regulations related to trail permits, Eileen was not able to join me on the hike, but she enjoyed a quite sunny morning in camp.
We spent another night in the Franklin Mountains, and took two nice hikes, though the second was under very windy conditions, which are not uncommon in the El Paso area. Eileen did quite a bit of photography from a blind set up off the nature trail, which had Texas Antelope Squirrel and quite a few species of birds, including Curve-billed Thrasher.
We spent the first two nights after leaving El Paso in Davis Mountains State Park. This mountain range and the surrounding areas have some of the best native grassland in Texas, although the highest parts of the mountains harbor coniferous forest. On the drive in we were pleased to see a group of 11 Pronghorns. This species resembles an antelope but is in a separate family. It is the second fastest mammal in the world, after Cheetah. Its speed is a relictual attribute, no longer needed after the extinction of its former predator, a North American cheetah species. We also enjoyed the magnificent examples of Alligator-Bark Juniper in the foothills; in this open country they developed into large and sometimes very symmetrical trees.
A walk after dark for mammals in the campground yielded four species including Javelina (= Collared Peccary), a favorite native species resembling a wild boar. We spent a day and a half hiking almost all the trails, some in very high winds, which actually blew us off-balance. Nice birds here included Rufous-crowned Sparrow and the black-backed form of Lesser Goldfinch. We found about 5 new species of plants here and noted a similar number of species actually in flower early in the season.
Our next stop was for three nights in Seminole Canyon State Park, about 200 miles southeast of the Davis Mountains. We arrived at dusk and enjoyed hearing Brewer’s Sparrows and Poorwills as we set up the camper. The big surprise in the morning was that the shallow soils over, and cracks in, the limestone substrate hosted a marvelous array of spring wildflowers, many of which were new for us. Perhaps most spectacular was a large-flowered, crimson-colored hibiscus (H. martianus), which we could see on the opposite wall of the canyon through binoculars. The air was sweetly scented by an acacia (Vachellia rigidula) densely covered with creamy yellow flowering spikes. There were even a few butterflies on the wing, including an intricately patterned Theona Checkerspot. In total, the two days yielded about 17 new species for us, a surprisingly high number given the time of year and relative proximity to areas we have explored before, such as Big Bend National Park.
Today we drove through almost constant rain, which finally let up as we set up camp outside Laredo. After the town of Eagle Pass, the road veered away from the borderlands and we left the interesting limestone desert habitat dominated by an attractive bluish-leaved shrub called Cenizo (Leucophyllum frutescens). We then entered a somewhat monotonous region with a near-monoculture of mesquite, though we hope in the morning to find greater variety, having returned to the Rio Grande country.
And that brings this blog to a close. The Pauraque is still calling – he has taken only a few very short breaks in the entire time I have been writing this, otherwise giving a call about once every three seconds. We’re clearly ensconsed in his territory, a fine place to be.