Archive for the ‘texas’ category

PHANTOM: The Colima Warbler

June 7, 2016

Among birders, the legend lives on of the Colima Warbler, found among oak trees in a remote canyon high in the Chisos Mountains of Big Bend National Park. The species is mostly found in Mexico, but this region of south Texas has a couple of places where birders can fairly reliably stalk it, and we decided to be warbler stalkers for a day.

Early that May morning, we laced up our hiking boots and smeared on SPF 55, anticipating a long day in the bright sun. The route would take us from the Chisos Basin, where we were camped, to Boot Canyon, about 3.5 miles distant, with a 2,000 foot elevation gain.

As usual, my intention of finding the Colima Warbler got sidetracked almost immediately, when we walked past a dead Havard Century Plant that was cheeping at me. Huh? I looked on the other side of the brown flowering stalk and discovered a perfectly round hole that was clearly a nest with hungry baby birds in it. So, I hunkered down in the dust and waited for a parent to come. It didn’t take long until a wary mother Ladder-backed Woodpecker showed up and ducked quickly into the hole, where it fed the nestlings.

Ladder-backed Woodpecker Nest Hole in Century Plant, in Big Bend

Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Picoides scalaris, adult female servicing its young in a nest hole in a dead Havard Century Plant, Agave havardiana, flowering stalk, in the Chisos Mountains of Big Bend National Park, Texas

I was there a long time, and Karen had the opportunity to see a pair of Crissal Thrashers trying to thrash each other while waiting interminably for me to finish photographing. So she got a new species and I missed the opportunity entirely. Oh well, at least I got a few pictures of the woodpecker.

Next I got distracted by bugs, specifically some Giant Agave Bugs crawling around the tip of a rapidly growing Havard Century Plant stalk. Creepy? Yes. But I was amazed at the size of these creatures, which are in the scientific category known as “True Bugs.” Yes, that really is a category, though most real scientists would prefer to use the scientific name, Hemiptera, so that they don’t sound like 8-year-old boys with bug nets. These big bugs sip the sap of the century plant, though probably not enough to hurt it.

Giant Agave Bugs on Havard Century Plant in Big Bend National Pa

Giant Agave Bugs, Acanthocephala thomasi, on the expanding flower stalk of a Havard Century Plant, Agave havardiana, aka Havard Agave, in the Chisos Mountains. This stalk is probably over 3″ in diameter at the bottom

Onward and upward, we came upon our first Mexican Jays, which are loud and travel in gangs and aren’t very afraid of people. If Donald Trump was a birdwatcher, he would probably want to set up a wall, or at least a mist net, to stop these birds from entering the country. Though he might like their gaudy blue color and brash attitude. Seeing these jays was a first for us, as we climbed toward seeing 530 birds on our North American Life Lists.

Higher still, Karen spotted a Painted Redstart, in the oak and maple forest–another first for us and a stunningly beautiful bird. There were also Texas Madrone trees, similar to the Madrone trees of the west coast, but with minor differences that I apparently couldn’t see.

Over the pass with long views into Mexico. There were birdwatchers on their own journeys to see the famous Colima. There were also lots of backpackers heading up to campsites hidden all along the trails. It would be a beautiful place to backpack, except for the lack of water along the way, which means carrying the recommended one gallon of water (8+ lbs!) per person per day. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for camera equipment, but we all have our priorities. Would I rather photograph little birds or die of thirst in the desert? I’ll have to think about that one.

Mexican Jays in Big Bend National Park

Mexican Jays, Aphelocoma ultramarina, foraging on the ground in the Chisos Mountains

Meanwhile, we finally reached Boot Canyon, where the Colima Warbler had been spotted earlier in the week. We stood around. We listened. We walked a few feet. We scanned the canyon with our binoculars. And … nothing. I’m pretty sure I heard the warbler, but not sure enough to count it on my all-important life list. After an hour or so, we gave up on this location, hoping beyond hope that it had simply wandered down the trail we were taking. It didn’t.

We decided that since we had come this far, we might as well complete the 10+ mile loop, rather than going back the way we came. I busied myself with photographing century plants and cactus, since they can’t fly away and hide, although I am paranoid about poking myself in the eye with a sharp spine, which makes me cringe at the thought even as I write this.

Boot Canyon Trail View in Big Bend National Park
View down into desert from Boot Canyon Trail in the Chisos Mountains of Big Bend National Park

By the time we arrived back at the campground, our feet were aching and hot, and we were ready to rest. But that moment brought the best light of the day, with alpenglow or its desert equivalent lighting up Casa Grande with brilliant orange light. So I scurried around the campground trying to get the best angle on the iconic peak until I was bone tired.

We had “dipped” on the warbler: birdwatcher speak for not seeing a desirable bird that we had traveled miles to see, but it was still a great day.

Postscript: We arrived in El Paso late the next day, after passing through a fierce dust storm that sandblasted us with 60 mph winds and near zero visibility. With the temperature at 95 degrees F and the dust storm continuing, we wimped out and stayed in a motel rather than camping for the night. In the cool and quiet lobby of the motel, there was a birding tour group getting their final debriefing for their Texas trip by the trip leaders. It turned out that all these old birders (as in, anyone older than me!) had done the same hike we did, but with expert leadership, they had seen the Colima Warbler. I’ll be back and the punk warbler will make my day.

Gallery of hike photographs:

To see what the Colima Warbler is supposed to look like, go to Colima Warbler

For general information about visiting this stupendous national park, go to Big Bend National Park

Remember that Big Bend National Park is is the Chihuahuan Desert. If you go, make sure you plan your schedule to maximize  your chance to see the warbler and other birds, and make sure to know the hazards of the desert ahead of time.

To see more of my work, read more of my blog entries here or go to my website Lee Rentz Photography.

The Poison Ivy Problem

April 28, 2008

This is part of a weblog documenting my travels and photography. I am primarily a nature photographer, and you can see more of my work at http://www.leerentz.com

I have been approached by both National Geographic and National Geographic Adventure magazines this year, inquiring whether I had any photographs of Poison Ivy. I had some, but none that would meet their requirements for a story on how Poison Ivy is growing lushly in this era of global warming. So I have been on the lookout for good patches of this evil vine.

When I rolled into camp at Caddo Lake State Park at twilight, my van’s headlights illuminated a healthy Poison Ivy vine climbing a pine tree right in my campsite. It was late and I was tired, but I decided to try shooting anyway. The ground was covered with Poison Ivy, so I laid down large plastic bags to completely cover the plants so that neither my legs or the tripod legs would brush against the leaves. I set my digital camera to the highest ISO setting and placed the camera on a tripod. I wanted to look up the trunk at the sky, so I used a special 24mm tilt lens that allows me to get everything in focus from the immediate foreground to the top of the tree, plus I used small f-stop to achieve a greater depth-of-field. It was almost dark, so I “painted” the Poison Ivy using a flashlight during a fifteen second exposure. Then I went to the picnic table and downloaded the image to my computer to check the exposure. My initial guesses as to composition and exposure were good, so I then took two more photographs and called it a night. In the computer the only major change I made was to the light temperature, which I changed to a more daylight balance (the flashlight’s tungsten bulb was too yellow).

That is how I solved my Poison Ivy problem. I really like the resulting image, which shows the lush growth of Poison Ivy and actually shows stars in the deep twilight sky. Plus I only got one Poison Ivy blister, on my trigger finger!

April 2, 2008 Caddo Lake State Park near Uncertain, Texas

April 18, 2008


This is part of my weblog documenting my travels and photography.  I am primarily a nature photographer, and you can see more of my work at http://www.leerentz.com.

On a recommendation from a fellow photographer, after the Bayou City Arts Festival in Houston I drove north to camp at Caddo Lake State Park along Big Cypress Bayou.  I didn’t know what to expect here, but was thrilled  with the setting—a bayou with Spanish Moss thickly draped upon old Baldcypress trees.  The Old South come to life in a corner of northern Texas.  

I was especially intrigued by all the old log cabins in this state park, and when I asked at the desk, the attendant confirmed that they were constructed by the CCC.  I happened to know what the CCC was, but another visitor at the desk did not, so I gave him a three sentence synopsis of its history.  Which I’ll also give you, or maybe I’ll make it a bit longer just for you, my dear reader. The CCC stands for the Civilian Conservation Corps, which was created in 1933 as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.  The CCC was a vital response to the devastating human toll of the Great Depression, during which family savings were wiped out, homes foreclosed on, and jobs lost in a grinding time of bare survival for many, many Americans.  This program put young men to work in every state:  planting trees, preventing soil erosion, and building the infrastructure for parks.  The young men worked in well-disciplined crews for eight hours a day, five days a week, and earned wages of about $30 per week, of which $25 was to be sent home to help support their struggling families.  Evenings were spent in educational classes and sports.  The CCC ended in the early part of World War II as the nation’s priorities shifted from beating the Depression to winning the War.  The “CCC boys” left a legacy of beautiful, rustic buildings in parks all over America—buildings that used logs and stones to create our shared sense of what a park building should look like.  And what a fine tribute the buildings of Caddo Lake State Park are to the young people who built them in a tough era!

During my two days at Caddo Lake, I spent a lot of time photographing the old CCC cabins and pavilion—both in living digital color and on traditional black-and-white infrared film (which I have not yet developed but will soon).  The infrared film turns foliage a ghostly white, lending a mystic atmosphere to the photograph, which I think is particularly suited to the historic structures.  Infrared light is a different range of wavelengths than visible light, and it actually focuses at a different point, so I have to adjust the focus on each exposure.  I also use a very deep red, nearly opaque filter for this film.  I’ll post the results when I can.

I am also a casual birdwatcher, not too serious about it because intense concentration on birds would mean less concentration on photography.  But I did note the following special birds in the Baldcypress swamp:  Prothonotary Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler, Wood Duck, and Pileated Woodpecker.

This would be a great park for canoeing, and there are canoes for rent.  Next time.  Word has it that campers can canoe to a place and purchase a few pounds of cooked crawfish to bring back for supper.  Sounds delicious. 

Click on the photographs below to see a larger version with captions.