Friday, March 18, 2016

Family Photos, Birdventures: El Paso

Consider this my photo album for our Spring Break family trip to enjoy the desert scenery of El Paso, TX. As of this writing, we still have a few more hours of adventure left here before heading back home.

As it stands now, I've seen three new bird species here in El Paso: Crissal Thrasher, Bufflehead duck, and Ladder-backed Woodpecker, which makes for a somewhat unlikely but definitely charming trio! One of El Paso's most common birds is the White-winged Dove: they're all over the parking lots, city parks, and gardens. Great-tailed Grackles are here too, just like in Houston, but I notice that the calls they make sound pretty different from those of Houston Great-tails. Very exciting!

Weather has been clear and sunny the whole trip, with lows of 50 F overnight, raising through the morning to the 60s and 70s, reaching 80 at the peak hours of the afternoon. Usually there's a cool breeze, which is a definite help when it gets into the hottest part of the day.

I'll be going through photos in rough order of day and relative location, so stay tuned for the photographic tour.

DAY 1: Typical City Sights

This is the airport building, which is a pretty snazzy design, and does well to reflect the artistic designs of various other parts of the city.

This is the airport carpet, which is all about these lovely lizards:

Here we have your average street corner, complete with desert flowers.

Next to the highway, and visible from our hotel window, were these interesting public art sculptures. They spin when they catch the breeze, and are lit with an orange glow in the evening. I thought they were weird at first, but they really make for a nice landmark.

Blurry photo shows what they look like at night. I should also point out that the city lights of El Paso are extremely beautiful at night: it's a valley full of orange stars.

A typical roadside views of neighborhoods with mountains nearby. Apologies for the car window's reflection.

This sloping neighborhood street shows the typical city vegetation, of tall skinny evergreens, palm trees, and a myriad of desert trees and shrubs.

My new art piece: Travis Asleep in Car With Cactus

Travis being asleep in the backseat was another typical element of this trip to El Paso.
The following are impressive cityscapes from an overlook, located on the extremely creatively named road, Scenic Drive, that snakes through some of the mountains. Scenic Drive is, indeed, a scenic drive. No kidding. The view lets you see large parts of both El Paso and Juarez.

The giant red X sculpture of Juarez, visible from so many places in El Paso, serves as one of the constant visual reminders that Mexico is right next door.

Travis and Dad, with your friendly neighborhood binocular stand.
Travis the Mountain Man

Just another version of Desert Neighborhood with Mountains

One thing I found neat about El Paso is that many sections of the freeway feature artistic designs and colors, such as this green and red portion. It's not just freeways, but overpass bridge railings and things like that. They look great, and they serve as great landmarks as well, with different areas showcasing distinctive colors and designs. 


Most of the state parks and museums that we're interested in close in the evening, but this arroyo is more of a public use park, staying open late: the perfect little adventure for our first evening in El Paso. An arroyo is basically a dry creek bed that fills with water after sufficient rain. It's a great little pocket of preserved nature in the middle of desert city. 

 Just a few examples of the vibrant desert plant life. Given the season, there were plenty of wildflowers to be found.

At one point a blimp flew overhead. This pocket of nature is, of course, surrounded by houses, which just reminded me of home.

Examples of arroyo scenery.
Wildlife was out and about this evening: we saw two pairs of Pyrrhuloxia (the Northern Cardinal's desert cousin), a jackrabbit, and a Crissal Thrasher (one of the new birds for me) singing up a storm in a tree. I'm so used to mockingbirds, I thought that's what must be singing the beautiful fast-paced medley of other bird's songs. But a quick look through the binoculars revealed a much longer, curvier beak than the typical mockingbird's.

We caught a glimpse of two more thrashers sitting together on a neighborhood street sign as we were leaving, a really charming portrait of desert city birdlife.


I was trying to take a picture of a roadside mural as we were driving past, and this was the only bit I got. Kind of startled me when I was going through my camera pictures!

The day started with an attempt to visit Hueco Tanks State Park, only to discover that, due to the fragile nature of the archaeological and nature stuff they got going on there, only a limited number of people can be in the park at one time. We waited around for a little bit, but then decided to try our luck somewhere else.

This was a cool moth/butterfly thing sitting on the wall of park hq. Speaking of butterflies, there were a lot of little white ones fluttering about in various places, as well as one Tiger Swallowtail that I saw in Franklin Mountains State Park.
Some of the rocks near the entrance to Hueco Tanks.
Our next stop was the Keystone Heritage Park and Botanical Gardens, which also features a cool desert wetlands. We thought we were out of luck here too, because the gardens were closed due to lack of volunteer availability, but the very nice individual overseeing the plant nursery let us in anyway. 

Something I didn't expect to see: a large flock of seagulls, that launched into the air from the adjacent wetlands (which really just looked to be a big pond) and circled over the garden parking lot. Couldn't tell what exact species they were.

The botanical gardens were lovely, a beautifully constructed show of so many great desert plants, and swarming with gigantic black bumblebees that really appreciated all the flowers in bloom. 

You see what I'm talking about. These bees are no joke.
Another charming local seen here and in various other El Paso places (including scaling the cliffs in the Franklin Mountains State Park) are these desert squirrels.

As someone used to forest squirrels, desert squirrels are so odd: very familiar, and yet distinctly different. They all kind of look they're glaring at you with narrowed, judgemental eyes every time they look your way. They seemed more shrewd than the squirrels I know at home.

And of course, it would be terrible to miss seeing some of our best friends: the desert lizards.

This park seemed to feature mostly Curve-billed Thrashers, with their mottled breasts and lack of rusty undertails. They, too, were singing beautiful mimicked mishmashes of song.

Just some great flowers.

It's me, and my friend, the gigantic cactus. A giant cactus will never disappoint you. My expression is the complex "please hurry up and take the picture because there is a bird behind you"

I love these weird little cylindrical cacti.

It's one of those White-winged Doves I mentioned are all over the place here in El Paso.

 It's a continuum of my previous art piece: Sunglasses Travis with an Artsy Cactus.

"Desert wetlands." This is where I saw my next new bird: the Bufflehead duck, which is one of my favorite birds, not just because their cute little ducks but because they have such a great name. It was cool to see some in person, even if they were so far away I barely made the identification. Still cool! (The wetlands were, sadly, closed for real: we were just looking over the garden wall).

There were some great birds hanging out here: visible in this closeup are stilts (which you can see in Baytown in summer), avocets (which I only just saw for the first time in Galveston this December), and those unidentified seagulls. There were numerous coots swimming around as well, and some other species of duck I wasn't able to get a good enough look at.

I never get tired of seeing quail, so it was awesome to spot a pair here in the park just before we left. It's only the male that made it into the picture, but there was a female here as well. It's the fantastic Gambel's Quail: gotta love their perfect bouncy little crests. They flew away not too long after this photo: their wings move so incredibly fast, they sound like little whirring motors as they zoom away.


Getting to the zoo involves nearly crossing the border: here's the view into Juarez, from the highway.
We always love seeing macaws.

Check out the green one!

This pigeon was sunbathing, so we had to take his picture.

These sleeping barn owls looked really cool.
Prairie dog snuggle party!! While one stays on watchful guard duty.

I thought their recycling signs were really charming.

 The incredibly beautiful, spirally mustachioed Inca Tern. Having only seen these in books, I was incredibly pleased to see some up and close and personal - and unexpectedly! - in the zoo aviary. They're sea birds that breed on the coasts of Peru and Chile.

The aviary Roadrunner, looking extremely handsome. Yes, he did cross the aviary road.

The same aviary Roadrunner, looking extremely weird.

Travis took this picture of your standard House Sparrow, and I must say, that Travis, with his meticulous focus, takes some pretty incredible pictures of birds sometimes.

Sleeping moorhen.

The Roadrunner got all poofy, so we had to take his picture again.
Speaking of poofy, and speaking of Travis taking good pictures...featuring the Red-crested Cardinal of South America
Now here's where things got really exciting. When we approached the exhibit for the Plush-crested Jay (another South American bird), the single jay took note of us, and began to approach the glass. Travis approached further and knelt down, and the bird got even closer, looking right into Travis's face.

I would've called it the eyebrow jay, but that's just me.
In all our time spent in zoo aviaries, we've never had this happen with a bird behind the glass. And then, as if this bird was really showing off (and maybe he was?), he spat some food out from his crop.

I am so lucky to have got this exact moment on camera
Some sort of seedy thing. Then swallowed it again in front of us. Only to spit it right back up. After a while, he took it over to the back of the cage, digging around in the mulch, maybe thinking of a good place to put it.

A rare shot of Travis actually looking excited about something.
It was a great experience.

This giant Galapagos Tortoise was awe-inspiring, sounding like stone as he walked across his exhibit.

An elegant tapir.

Some very red-eyed starlings. Maybe Metallic Starlings? Didn't quite catch their name.

In case you're wondering if this goes on forever, I can assure you this is the final section.

It began with a hike down this Ron Coleman Trail in Franklin Mountain State Park. A beautiful trail that, like most here, winds up and inbetween the mountain peaks.

Cactus Wrens were abundant on this trail, singing weird Cactus-y songs.

They blend in well with the scenery. And they didn't want me to get too close.

We didn't actually complete this hiking trail, because it was an extremely uphill climb that was too much for some of us (hills? we're not used to those). But luckily we got far enough to see one more new bird: the Ladder-backed Woodpecker.

Super adorable

It was a pair, male and female, hanging out in this branchy thing, pecking away. One can presume there must be some good eats to be had under the bark. The female was much easier to spot, as she was on the side closer to me, and she was calling continuously (the sharp pik pik pik! calls), whereas the male stayed silent and only came around to my side of the bush after a few minutes of observation.

After giving up on the hiking trail, we decided to follow a lead given to us by a very nice lady, who recommended that we check out that poppies blooming at the archaeological museum just down the road. They had a nice little nature trail there, with plenty of bright orange poppy flowers.

I get so used to the coastal birding trail signs, I end up finding trail signs for other areas to be super exotic and exciting. Especially if they feature my favorite friends: adorable quail.
The poppies were present throughout this entire mountain meadow.

Here we have another art piece: Travis Brooding Under a Desert Tree


Still in the Franklin Mountains, we decided we needed to actually complete a full hike. We picked a trail that we thought would be easy, because it said it was suitable for families with kids. I think by "kids" that must have meant baby mountain goats, because this was a steep climb up the side of a mountain and into a cave. It was so steep, it required numerous breaks every dozen feet, and nearly killed Travis. But hey, we actually did make it all the way to the end and back.

Big lizard! Beautiful lizard!

Travis got really close.

My dad in his natural habitat.

 Now, this is from near the start of the trail. The caves are just big shadows in that center rock ridge. From here it doesn't look that far, or that steep.

 But here's a view from much closer to the caves. Look at how far you can see. How very high up you are from here.

There were beautiful White-throated Swifts flying around the cave entrance. I love swifts in general, and this species I never get to see except when I'm out here in the desert, so that's always exciting. They move so quickly, I couldn't catch any on camera, but it's soothing and wonderful to watch them fly around this hard to reach place. A great reward for the climb.

Travis Plays Video Games Even in Desert Caves.

My new home sweet home!

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