Exploring the Sky Islands of West Texas

Here in southeastern Arizona, the locals are familiar with the term Sky Islands, an apt description of the local mountain ranges, each isolated from the next by a sea of desert scrub or grassland. Some of the Sky Islands here in southern Arizona sit at the edge of the Sonoran Desert, while others are surrounded by Chihuahuan Desert. The valleys in between are carved by rivers including the San Pedro. This is a basin and range landscape in which the ranges are largely in sight of each other. By contrast, the mountains of far western Texas are separated by larger distances, more isolated from each other than those of southeastern Arizona. Furthermore, their origins, not to mention flora and fauna, differ from each other dramatically.

In early May 2017, my wife Liza and I ventured east from our home in Arizona beyond the Rio Grande River to far western Texas. Our mission was to visit some of the highest places in Texas to experience the birds and other wildlife, the scenic landscapes, and cultural history of this vast area. We started with a visit to Guadalupe Mountains National Park, passing the iconic El Capitan dominating the landscape for 60 miles on our way to Carlsbad, New Mexico. Carlsbad was our base for exploring these mountains that include the highest point in Texas, Guadalupe Peak (elevation 8,751 feet). Our first morning we headed to Rattlesnake Springs, a disjunct unit of Carlsbad Caverns National Park. It is a well-known birding hot spot of southeastern New Mexico. Turkeys crossed our path on the road through the park. Highlights of our visit were three Orchard Orioles, an Indigo Bunting and a Northern Waterthrush, birds that are regular here, but uncommon in the rest of New Mexico and rare in Arizona. Nesting birds included birds familiar in Arizona like Vermilion Flycatchers, Summer Tanagers, Yellow-breasted Chats, Bell’s Vireos, Northern Cardinals, Cassin’s Kingbirds, Barn Swallows, Ladder-backed Woodpeckers and Lucy’s Warblers – the latter two species nesting in cavities of a tree near the spring. Thereafter, we visited the caverns proper and saw numerous Cave Swallows, a specialty of the Trans-Pecos region and south-central Texas, emerging from the natural cavern entrance.

The next morning we headed to McKittrick Canyon in the Guadalupe Mountains for an extended hike. On the drive over, the sight of blooming Havard Agaves was stunning as was that of Capitan Reef whose block-fault uplift created these mountains. The hike follows a well-watered canyon bottom west for miles past the Pratt Cabin and the Grotto, a natural feature of limestone carved by the river. Sun screen is a must on the trail as it has little to no canopy for shade for several miles. Gray Vireo was conspicuous in the first few miles of the trail, along with Black-throated Sparrow and Ash-throated Flycatcher. The Chihuahuan desert scrub gave way to oaks, pinyon, and juniper. Here, the bright green leaves of Chinkapin Oak (Quercus muehlenbergii) provided an exclamation mark to the landscape that we did not see elsewhere. Later, we would see and hear Grace’s Warbler, a common breeder in Arizona mountains, among the conifers here.

Our next destination was Big Bend National Park. We headed south from Carlsbad along Highway 285 through Pecos to Fort Stockton, Texas. This highway is bleak west Texas oil country in the Permian Basin, a flat, largely featureless landscape dotted by drilling rigs with heavy truck traffic squeezed onto two narrow lanes. We did manage to see a few elegant Scissor-tailed Flycatchers to break the monotony of the drive. It was quite a relief to head south from Fort Stockton on Highway 385 through rolling rangeland to our lunch stop in Marathon. We continued south to Panther Junction where the visitor center is located, topped off the gas tank, and continued to our destination that evening, the Chisos Mountains Lodge.

The Chisos Mountains are volcanic in origin, with dramatic gorges and rusty, rocky spires surrounding the Chisos Basin where the lodge is located at 5,500 feet. Our hike to Boot Canyon took us steeply up the Pinnacles Trail. Here the attractive Chisos Red Oak (Quercus gravesii) seemed to occupy an understory niche like that of Big-tooth Maples in Arizona montane riparian settings. Emory Oak and Weeping Juniper were common in this shaded landscape as were relict species like Arizona Cypress, Big-tooth Maple, and Douglas Fir. The hike delivered a singing Colima Warbler in Boot Canyon, the only place this otherwise Mexican species breeds in the United States. Lucifer Hummingbird is present at lower elevations, but no farther north than Big Bend.

Meanwhile down below, Painted Bunting, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Vermilion Flycatcher, Rock Wren (in rocky terrain near the mouth of Boquillas Canyon), Zone-tailed Hawk and Gray Hawk were encountered in or near the riparian areas of Rio Grande Village and Cottonwood Campground along the Rio Grande River. Santa Elena Canyon with its nearly vertical walls was the home for Canyon Wren and Say’s Phoebe.

Unlike the compact jumble of the Chisos, the Davis Mountains featured igneous rock formations accenting an expansive tableland with a mix of open grasslands and pine-oak-juniper forests. Here the Montezuma Quail still persists unlike the Chisos. Limpia Creek near Fort Davis is among the rich riparian corridors in this landscape. Ultimately, the Sky Islands of West Texas is a land of contrasts, not only to those of Arizona, but also to each other.