Rainwater trapped in a salt basin reflects the Guadalupe Mountains at sunrise

25 Photos That Show Guadalupe Mountains National Park and Its Birds in Autumn Glory

Guadalupe Mountains National Park is one of the wildest and most spectacular places in the state of Texas. This photo essay reflects a four-day birding and backpacking trip I took through the park in October 2015.

Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis) cross the western face of the Guadalupe Mountains, passing Guadalupe Peak, the highest peak in Texas at 8,751 feet. The mountains are an ancient reef built by marine life during the Permian period more than a quarter of a billion years ago, when much of what is now west Texas was under a sea at the western edge of the supercontinent Pangea. Today, jutting high above the Chihuahuan Desert floor, the peaks harbor rich coniferous forests accessible by strenuous hikes up from the foothills.

Harlequin-masked Mountain Chickadees (Poecile gambeli) reside — conspicuously and noisily — in the high-elevation coniferous forests of the Guadalupes. A bird of western mountains, they reach the southeasternmost extent of their range here in the Guadalupes and in the nearby Davis Mountains. They seem hardly ever out of earshot above 7,000 feet.

Steller’s Jays (Cyanocitta stelleri) are very loud birds but can also be very stealthy. They are large, beautiful jays, and to see one pause in a Douglas fir (as here) or gliding through branches flashing deep blue is a particular thrill.

The high-elevation forests contain tall Douglas firs, ponderosa pines, and other trees that depend on water and cooler temperatures. The avifauna here is strongly associated with the Rocky Mountains, as the chickadees and jays illustrate. The Hairy Woodpeckers and White-breasted Nuthatches that live in these forests are part of Rocky Mountains subspecies groups— the woodpeckers all black on their wing coverts and the nuthatches grayish with nasal calls. Pygmy Nuthatches live here too. I encountered several flocks, and amazingly, my reports from this trip are the only October eBird reports of the species in Texas except for a historical 1969 record from the Davis Mountains. The nuthatches are always here, so it seems that the mountains are seriously underbirded at this season.

Pinyon pine is a key component of the highland forest. Many birds feed on the seeds, which seem to bulge out of their cones; others, like this migrating Townsend’s Warbler (Setophaga townsendi) and abundant Ruby-crowned Kinglets forage among the trees’ needles for other prey.

Dark-eyed Junco flocks are common in the Guadalupes outside the breeding season and reward careful study, for the flocks are made up of junco subspecies from all over western North America. The bird above is a Red-backed Junco (Junco hyemalis dorsalis), the southern form that also nests here in the Guadalupes. Its two-toned bill identifies it.

Pink-billed Gray-headed Juncos (Junco hyemalis caniceps) are also easy to find in the flocks, though getting good looks at any of the juncos in remote forested settings like this might seem surprisingly difficult for those used to seeing them at backyard feeders.

Pink-sided Juncos (Junco hyemalis mearnsi) are very good-looking birds with their pinkish sides, blue-gray hoods, and blackish lores. In many flocks, they seemed to be the most abundant form. In the highlands, Dark-eyed Junco flocks — and roving flocks of Pine Siskins — were frequently terrorized by Sharp-shinned Hawks.

Oregon Juncos (Junco hyemalis oreganus group) were the least numerous juncos that I saw. The rear bird is a Pink-sided Junco.

This is a fairly typical look at a Red-naped Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus nuchalis), which always seem to be peering out cautiously from behind a tree trunk or a heavy limb. The lack of a black border on the red throat patch and the red smudges on his face help identify this beautiful male.

Acorn Woodpeckers (Melanerpes formicivorus), by contrast, seem to relish conspicuous perches and attention-getting antics in their delightfully noisy family groups.

This old snag in a canyon is an Acorn Woodpecker cache tree — note all the acorn-storage holes drilled into its trunk and limbs.

White-throated Swifts (Aeronautes saxatalis) dominate the skies over the mountains, sometimes gathering in huge, screaming flocks, and sometimes swooping just feet above the ridge lines, so fast and so low that I could hear their bodies ripping through the air — an exhilarating and terrifying sound.

8,000 feet in the air, I stepped over this breathtaking record of the mountains’ watery origins. These are fossil fusulinids, ancient single-celled marine organisms that constructed elaborate shells for themselves.

Throughout the park, Texas madrone trees carried heavy crops of brilliant scarlet berries: beautiful, certainly, and a major boon to Hermit Thrushes (Catharus guttatus). I hardly saw a single tree that wasn’t attended by at least one — and sometimes up to five — Hermit Thrushes.

It’s certainly an attractive plant: Texas madrone (Arbutus xalapensis).

In the canyons, bigtooth maples provide brilliant autumn reds, oranges, and yellows.

And in a canyon, at about 7,300 feet, I came across this interesting Empidonax flycatcher. The bird never called. It kept its tail cocked and wings drooped below parallel, and it would sometimes flip its tail up and flick its wings. I’m still trying to identify it and welcome all comments.

Update 10/29/15: The bird is a Hammond’s Flycatcher (Empidonax hammondii). Matt Baumann and Rick Wright provided expert commentary. I noted the bird’s dusky lower mandible and long primaries in the field and suspected Hammond’s but — lacking much experience with western empids — didn’t feel comfortable clinching the ID.

The grasslands and scrub of exposed slopes and lower elevations hold a diversity of other life. Kestrels, Red-tailed Hawks and Woodhouse’s Western Scrub-Jays are often conspicuous.

Rufous-crowned Sparrows (Aimophila ruficeps) are characteristic of the rocky desert grasslands, their video game-like pew-pew-pew call a common sound. Look how short this bird’s primary feathers are — this is a bird that does not travel far during its life.

Western Bluebirds (Sialia mexicana) patrol the grasslands for fruit and other food sources. Mistletoe, junipers, madrone, and other plants feed not only bluebirds but also Phainopeplas, Sage Thrashers, Northern Mockingbirds, Cedar Waxwings, and other species.

The sotol-studded foothill grasslands are also home to plenty of mule deer.

Canyon Wren (Catherpes mexicanus) may be my favorite wren. Its exquisitely beautiful plumage and haunting song always stop me in my tracks. Rock Wrens are also common here.

Juniper Titmouse (Baeolophus ridgwayi) is one of the scarcest of all resident Texas birds. In Texas, it’s found only in savanna-like pinyon-oak-juniper habitat in a few places in the foothills of the Guadalupe Mountains. I photographed the bird above in an alligator juniper in Dog Canyon, where I had two pairs of the titmice. I also saw one bird at Frijole Spring on the other side of the mountain range. It’s a satisfying find in a very special place.