The New “Normal”

For years, I’ve hiked and backpacked into the Chisos Mountains of Big Bend National Park. This is the only mountain range totally contained within the boundaries of any national park in the U.S., so it’s no exaggeration to say it’s an isolated habitat. That said, I’ve gone years between black bear sightings there, and it’s not due to a lack of bears; rather, to an abundance of habitat that is removed from human contact.

But that is changing.

For the past 6 months the trails and remote backpacking campsites have been closed to humans, due to closures for Covid-19. October 1 the backcountry sites were re-opened for backpacking, and I took advantage of the first sites available. I was curious to see if anything in the high Chisos complex had changed with a lack of intrusion by humans, and boy, has it ever. BEARS WERE EVERYWHERE.

After reaching my campsite, a wonderful, secluded site down a side trail in Boot Canyon, I unpacked and set up my tent. It was late afternoon, so I sat on a stump with my book, and unwrapped a meatloaf sandwich for a snack. Nothing out of the ordinary attracted my attention, but for some reason I looked up from my book, and to my shock, I was being watched by one of the largest black bears I’ve ever seen…a mere 25 feet away, right in my camp…and sniffing the air and licking his chops with an eye on my sandwich:

A beautiful male animal of 300 pounds or more.

He had walked into my camp without making a sound…not a twig snap or a leaf crinkle, his huge paws caressing the ground like cat feet. He watched me with curious interest, and showed no fear when I stood and waved my arms and shouted for him to move on. That’s not a good sign. He slowly moved off through the juniper grove and disappeared. I fully expected him to return in the middle of the night, but thankfully I never saw him again.

I put a bottle of water and my camera into a day pack and headed up Boot Canyon toward the south rim of the Chisos Mountains, the high rim that drops off into the desert and overlooks the mountains in Mexico. I had gone less than a mile when I walked up on this very large bear in the middle of the trail, having quenched his thirst in the water contained in the tinajas from the last rains. This was definitely not the same bear that came into camp, a slightly different color, but was similar in size.

Very health and fatted up for the coming winter.

A short distance on up the trail in the upper reaches of Boot Canyon, I rounded a corner and walked up on a sow and her cub, just off the trail, drinking from the only dependable water source in this part of the mountains. This is usually a bad scenario, so I was careful not to approach, and certainly to not get near the cub. I worried that the youngster might approach me out of curiosity, but it kept its distance and shortly moved off up the hillside, showing a little fear of me.

A sow and her cub along the trail, drinking and snacking on a sparse crop of berries. One of this year’s cubs, still dependent on mom, but gaining in size.

On the way back to camp I was startled by two rare Del Carmen Whitetail deer. These deer are found only here in the Chisos, and across the river in Mexico in the Sierra del Carmen Mountains. These deer have spent generations among humans on this mountain and have no fear of humans.

The situation with the bears coming down using the trails in the absence of humans is critical. If they lose their fear of people, it’s only a matter of time before a careless hiker feeds them and they begin to habituate to humans as a source of food. Even if no one is injured by the bears, increased sightings and close proximity contact will surely lead to artificial control of the bears through removal or destruction.

August in the Desert

At summer’s midpoint, it seems appropriate to post a couple of images representative of the environment of the Big Bend region of Texas at this time of year.

First, an iconic critter with a badly maligned nickname of “horny toad.” Another name for his animal, taken from the 1887 yearbook of Texas Christian University and later adopted as the athletic mascot, “Hornfrogs” has stuck as another piece of misinformation. This wonderful little critter is neither a toad nor a frog, but is in fact a lizard, known officially as the Texas Horned Lizard, or (Phrynosoma cornutum).

The Texas Horned Lizard is listed as a threatened species in Texas, and its numbers were declining so fast in Oklahoma that the legislature tried unsuccessfully to have it listed as an endangered species. When threatened, it freezes perfectly still and does an amazing job of blending into its surroundings. Like all lizards, it’s a welcome addition to our yard, due to its ability to gobble up insects at an amazing rate. The biggest problem is that it tends to freeze motionless and blend into its surroundings, and is therefore difficult to see and avoid when walking around its territory.

Another summer icon of the desert is the rising full moon over Tabletop Mountain east of Marathon.

In addition to the full moon, late July and early August is a fantastic period of summer for stargazing. We were visited by the comet Neowise for several weeks, and one of the best meteor showers of the year is beginning now and increasing to its peak in the early morning hours of August 12-13. Also, Jupiter and Saturn are putting on a great show in the southeast, and the Milky Way is reaching its peak show for the summer during August and September. So, get outside after dark and KEEP LOOKING UP!

Family Ties Finale

Our red tail hawk youngsters have been growing, and growing, and growing during the past two weeks, and testing their flight feathers by going airborne above the nest whenever a good gust of wind blows across the plains. It’s been seven weeks since the first of two eggs were hatched, and both parents have done a spectacular job of tending to the non-stop feeding and nest cleaning. We’ve paid daily visits to the nest to watch these youngsters develop, and this is the final installment in our coverage as they join the ranks of young adults.

First observed late evening flight while Mom hunts dinner.
Next morning, getting a little braver as sibling looks on.
Higher still!
First sibling has made it airborne enough to reach a higher perch, so now it’s time for #2 to get serious about this flying thing.
Here’s how it’s done! We gave this guy the name, “Valiente”, or Brave.
Later that afternoon, Sibling #1 takes to the sky and joins Mom on the nearby telephone pole. Already the youngster appears to be bigger than Mom.
And then there was ONE.
My name for this guy, “El Guason”, the Trickster or Joker.
Stubbornly, our second adolescent would not fly for us that afternoon, and when we returned this morning, he had flown. No worries, we’re just glad to see two healthy young red tail hawks make it safely from the nest.
Mom had been watching me from a nearby pole, and when it was time to brag about a job well done, she made a full circle of where I was standing as a farewell salute. Congratulations, Mom!

Family Ties Update #2

It’s been over two weeks since our last update to a previous post about a family of red tail hawks and the care and feeding of two fluffy white chicks in the nest. Well, in that short time period, those chicks have been growing, and today they appear nearing that time when they are fully fledged and ready to leave the nest. We observed them both testing their flight feathers and strengthening those wings for a day in the not too distant future when the parents’ job will be complete.

One sibling to another, “so, are you quite done?”
Not far away, Mom multi-tasks, as all moms do, keeping watch on the youngsters and hunting for lunch.

Family Ties Update

A week ago, I posted a story about a family of red tail hawks that had just hatched a little one and were tending the nest just outside of town. A return visit to the nest today begged for an update to the story:

After a week of absence, we dropped by the red tail hawk nest today, and to our great surprise, we spot a second little hawk on the nest. Mom & Dad were not far away, hunting for lunch and keeping a watchful eye on their brood.
A short time later, Mom returns and fills the bottomless bellies of her little ones, who immediately stretch out for an afternoon nap.