Wildlife sightings are almost worth the scorching heat of Big Bend National Park – Houston Chronicle

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A Scott’s oriole perches on a blooming Havard agave in Big Bend National Park. 
A vermilion flycatcher hunts for insects at Cottonwood Campground in Big Bend National Park. 
Canyon towhee singing in the early morning from a perch in Big Bend National Park. 
An unusual number of black bears caused the park service to close a popular trail in Big Bend National Park this month. 
A July trip to Big Bend National Park clobbered us with brutal heat but rewarded us with birds and wildlife.
The park’s website warned of “extreme heat,” but we have decades of experience with hot summers in the park.
The tradeoff for enduring the heat is seeing spectacular birds and animals. Proof of that came along the winding mountain road leading to the Chisos Mountains Basin.
Our first sighting was a bright yellow-and-black Scott’s oriole perched atop a blooming Havard agave with thick clusters of yellow flowers hanging like candelabras from the plant’s 12-foot-tall stalk. The oriole is among the usual spring and summer birds breeding in the park. We’d later find a breeding pair in a huisache tree outside one of the Basin’s motel rooms.
A startling sight was a black bear lumbering along the last stretch of the mountain road into the Basin. An unusual number of bears caused the park service to close the popular 2-mile Window Trail down to the scenic V-shaped cut between Vernon Bailey Peak and Amon Carter Peak. 
We’d miss the scenic view — and a chance to see the lucifer hummingbird. The lucifer moniker derives not from the devil but Latin for “light-bearing,” referring to the hummer’s bright iridescent throat.  
About the size of ruby-throated hummers back home, the lucifer hummer arrives in spring from winter homes in Mexico to breed in the Big Bend and Fort Davis mountains. Its favorite haunts are flowering agave plants on the Window Trail.
We stayed in one of the mountain cabins, where I’d hear a western screech-owl calling from a nearby wooded mountain slope every morning as I awoke at 5 a.m. The call consisted of low-pitched whistles as opposed to our eastern screech-owl’s high-pitched whinnying trills.  
By dawn, the Basin’s exemplary birds began singing. They included canyon towhees with their grayish brown plumage, ruddy cap and an amber patch beneath the rump. Turns out canyon towhees are close kin to sparrows.
Braving the enervating desert heat, we ventured to Cottonwood Campground by the Rio Grande near Santa Elena Canyon. Flashy vermilion flycatchers with black wings and lipstick-red bodies were snatching insects in midair.
But the Rio Grande had nearly dried up, so there was an absence of black phoebes that normally patrol the flowing river for flying insects.  
The blistering heat finally sent us packing for home.
What: Covers more than 800,000-acers of desert and mountain terrain along the bend in the Rio Grande inWest Texas. 
Activities:  Wildlife and bird watching, views of vast array of plant life, hiking, bicycling, historical ranch sites, and large fossil discovery exhibit. 
Camping:  Park campgrounds along the river at Rio Grande Village and Castolon, and one in the Chisos Mountains Basin.  RV hookups at Rio Grande Village. 
More park information at nps.gov/bibe/index.htm.
Lodging:  Chisos Mountains Lodge & Restaurant at the Chisos Mountains Basin. Call 432-477-2291 for reservations. Big Bend Resort and Adventures, 5 miles outside park boundary in Terlingua with motel rooms, camping, and RV hookups.  Call 432-371-3382 for information. 
Gary Clark is the author of “Book of Texas Birds,” with photography by Kathy Adams Clark (Texas A&M University Press). Email him at Texasbirder@comcast.net.

Gary Clark is the weekly nature columnist for the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News. He also publishes feature articles in state and national magazines and has written four books: “Texas Wildlife Portfolio,” “Texas Gulf Coast Impressions,” “Backroads of the Texas Hill Country” and “Enjoying Big Bend National Park.” Gary is also a contributing author in the book, “Pride of Place: A Contemporary Anthology of Texas Nature Writing.”
He has won eight Lone Star College writing awards and is the recipient of the Houston Audubon Society 2004 Excellence in Media Award and the Citizens’ Environmental Coalition 2010 Synergy Media Award for Environmental Reporting.
Gary is professor of business and developmental studies at Lone Star College–North Harris. In 32 years at the college, Gary has served as vice president of instruction; dean of Business, Social and Behavioral Sciences; associate dean of Natural Sciences; professor of marketing; professor of developmental writing; and Faculty Senate president. He is a recipient of the Teacher Excellence Award.
Gary has been active in the birding community for more than 30 years. He founded the Piney Woods Wildlife Society in 1982 and the Texas Coast Rare Bird Alert in 1983. He served as president of the Houston Audubon Society 1989-1991 and purchased the North American Rare Bird Alert for Houston Audubon in 1990. He was vice president of the Board of Directors for the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory 2001-2008. He currently sits on the Board of Advisors for the Houston Audubon Society and Gulf Coast Bird Observatory. He is also a member of the American Mensa Society.
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