Mark Smith Nature Tours
Natural History   •   Birdwatching   •   Flora   •   Wildlife   •   Travel Photography


Birds, Natural History & Photography

El Paso to San Antonio
April 14 - 23, 2019

  • Itinerary
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    The Big Bend country is a land of dramatic desert vistas, majestic mountains and spectacular limestone cliffs overlooking the Rio Grande. This 800,000 acre National Park encompasses the most southerly mountains in the continental United States. Most of the park is Chihuahuan desert, with the Chisos Mountains rising from the arid landscape, a luxuriant island of woodlands and exotic Mexican flora. Big Bend has the highest cactus and bird diversity of any of the U.S. National Parks. By mid April and early May breeding birds have returned and great concentrations of migrants including colorful eastern and western warblers are in passage at hidden springs and desert oases. Other regional specialties include Colima Warbler, Lucifer Hummingbird, Zone-tailed Hawk, Varied Bunting, Crissal Thrasher, Gray Vireo, and Black-chinned Sparrow. As we search for birds we will have ample opportunities to photograph and identify flowers and cacti, and to see mammals and reptiles distinctive to the region. Many cacti will be blooming during our trip, adding to the desert's fascination.

    In the isolated Davis Mountains we'll search for Montezuma Quail and Common Black Hawk and visit McDonald Astronomical Observatory. Our last days are spent on the Edwards Plateau, the delightful Texas Hill Country, on the trail of the Black-capped Vireo, Golden-cheeked Warbler, Cave Swallow, Olive Sparrow, Long-billed Thrasher, and Green Kingfisher, among many others. One evening we visit a cave to watch ten million Mexican free-tailed bats emerge from their daytime roost to hunt insects over the surrounding woodlands. This tour includes several beautiful walks of a few miles or so. Flowers and other attractions of the desert spring will also be of interest to us.


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    Mark Smith has been a keen student of nature since he was a small boy. At Oregon State University he studied biology, and for 25 years he has organized and led natural history tours. His trips and travels have brought him many times to Central and South America, Asia, Africa, Madagascar, Australia and Europe. In his home state of Oregon, he has led numerous tours for The Nature Conservancy of Oregon, Portland Audubon Society, Oregon Museum and Elderhostel. He has conducted research for The National Science Foundation, and the National Marine Fisheries Service. He is a co-author of Birds of Oregon. His broad knowledge and contagious enthusiasm have kept travelers returning to his trips year after year.

    Lodgings, Transportation and Group Size

    We will be staying in comfortable hotels and cabins, all with attached bathrooms. All but six meals are included. Meals paid for individually are indicated in the itinerary. Formal dress is not necessary. The group will be limited to 8 participants. Transport will be in one van with air conditioning.

    Activities and Expectations

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    In desert areas most of our activity will be in the cool of the morning and evening. There will be several walks for distances of about three leisurely miles. One longer hike, usually of 6 miles, toward Boot Springs is optional—participants can easily return to the lodge at any time, and there are good, relaxed options. A few days we will be driving about four hours, and one day there is a six to seven hour drive with interesting short stops.


    By late January participants will be sent maps, an equipment list, bird lists, copies of selected articles, and a list of suggested reading to aid in preparation for the trip.

    Cost and Reservations

       $ 500 Initial reservation deposit
      $2250 Final Payment (due 60 days prior to departure)
      $2750 Ground Fare Total

    Single Supplement
    The single supplement for this tour is $450 and should be added to the final payment. If you request a roommate, we will try to find one for you.

    Please make the deposit and final payment payable to Mark Smith Nature Tours and send to:

    Mark Smith
    PO Box 3831
    Portland, OR 97208

    Phone: 503-475-1978

    Air Travel

    Mark’s travel agent is Pam Davis of Willamette Travel
    Reach Pam at,  503-224-0180
    Pam will know of local lodgings and extensions in the area.
    Mark can also suggest Portland hotels.

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    For cancellations made more than 90 days prior to departure there is a full refund. Cancellations made between 90 and 60 days before departure forfeit $500, and for cancellations made within 60 days of the departure date 65% of the tour cost is forfeited. We recommend participants consider trip cancellation insurance, which can be bought through Willamette International Travel.


    April 14 - 23, 2019 -- El Paso to San Antonio

    Meals paid for individually are indicated by "Individual dinner".

    Day 1 Sunday, April 14 Home to El Paso
    We meet in the lobby of the Marriott Hotel, close to the Airport, at 6 p.m. to get acquainted and discuss tomorrow's plans. We then go to dinner in small groups. The Marriott offers a free shuttle from the airport. For those arriving after 6:00, Mark will call your room. (Individual dinner.)
    Day 2 Monday, April 15 El Paso to the Davis Mountains
    rabbit  clip art graphic Following an early breakfast we drive east to the volcanic Davis Mountains, which rise in the distant desert, an oasis of coolness.

    An aquifer charged by rainwater from the Davis Mountains creates Lake Balmorhea, where terns, gulls, waterfowl and grebes are often present, along with many shorebirds. In the late afternoon we visit the cottonwoods of Limpia Creek, where Common Black Hawk has nested in recent years. Bird feeders frequently attract Montezuma Quail and numerous migrants at Davis Mountain State Park. Night at the historic Indian Lodge in the park. (Individual dinner.)

    Day 3 Tueaday, April 16 Davis Mountains to Big Bend
    We search early for Montezuma Quail near the lodge, and then drive up the Mount Locke road through grassy hillsides with scattered oak, pines, and junipers. We'll visit the renowned McDonald Observatory, where great discoveries in astronomy have been made. In the afternoon during our drive to Big Bend, we may observe pronghorn amidst the agave studded grasslands. Desert vistas on the way to Big Bend are spectacular. Tonight and the next three nights will be in the Big Bend Motor Inn, just outside Big Bend National Park. (Individual lunch and dinner.)
    Days 4, 5 & 6 Wed-Fri., April 17, 18, & 19 Big Bend National Park
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    These three days we will explore the varied elevations and habitats of Big Bend, each with unique plants and animals. Many of the park's most fascinating plants are those that have adapted to survive the desert heat. The nature trail at Rio Grande Village is a good area to investigate lowland desert plants, such as lechuguilla, candelilla, and various cacti. Earless lizards and whiptails may be active along the trail, especially in late morning. Cactus Wren, Curve-billed and Crissal Thrashers, and Verdin may be found here and elsewhere in low desert.

    One morning we birdwatch in the cottonwoods and mesquite thickets along the Rio Grande floodplain. Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Greater Roadrunner, Vermilion Flycatcher, Bell's Vireo, Summer Tanager, and Painted Bunting are common, and we can also expect to find an interesting mix of migrants. Gray Hawk, Lark, Varied, and Lazuli Buntings, Green-tailed Towhee, Blue Grosbeak, Orchard Oriole, and a variety of warblers are possible.

    A walk up spectacular Blue Creek provides one of our best opportunities to sight Lucifer Hummingbird, Gray Vireo, Varied Bunting and Scott's Oriole.

    The Colima Warbler is a Mexican species that ranges into the U.S. only in the pine-oak forests of the Chisos Mts. Our hike into the mountains usually affords us views of the warbler along with the Blue-throated Hummingbird, Hutton's Vireo, and Black-chinned Sparrow. Also possible are the Painted Redstart, Gray-breasted Jay, Hepatic Tanager, Zone-tailed Hawk, and Peregrine Falcon. It is a slightly strenuous hike, but we will proceed at a pace to fit the group and there are many interesting things to see. The trail is well maintained, and the vistas and photo opportunities are superb. We can turn back whenever we like.

    One evening we make an optional foray to search for Elf Owl, Western Screech Owl, and Common Poorwill. Interesting mammals such as coyotes, bobcats and collared peccaries are also possibilities. (Two individual lunches.)

    Day 7 Saturday, April 20 Big Bend National Park to Concan
    small bird clip art graphic After a final beautiful morning in Big Bend, we begin the long drive through West Texas to the Edwards Plateau. En route we may view Cave Swallow, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, and possibly Harris Hawk. At last we reach the Hill Country, a region of wooded hills, valleys, and cypress-bordered streams which host a different mix of bird and plant life. Yellow-throated Warbler, Olive Sparrow, Green Kingfisher, Long-billed Thrasher, and Common Ground Dove occur on the grounds of Neal's Lodge where we spend three delightful nights.
    Day 8 & 9 Sun-Mon., April 21 & 22 Concan, Edward's Plateau
    butterfly  clip art graphic Our destination today is the lovely Lost Maples Natural Area with clear streams, sylvan glades, and limestone cliffs. Two of the most celebrated plateau residents occur here, the Black-capped Vireo which nests in thickets, and the Golden-cheeked Warbler which inhabits Ashe Junipers on the ridges. We should see an interesting mix of eastern and western birds including Acadian Flycatcher, Green Kingfisher, Black-and-white Warbler, Indigo Bunting, White-eyed Vireo, Canyon Wren, and Rufous-crowned Sparrow. At dusk we view one of the great wildlife spectacles of North America — ten million Mexican free-tailed bats emerging from their nursery roost in a cave, a long undulating column snaking into the horizon. Returning to the lodge we may encounter night birds such as Common Poorwill, Chuck-wills-widow, and Eastern Screech Owl. Fireflies will be dancing in the forests.
    Day 10 Tuesday, April 23 Concan to San Antonio
    A final idyllic morning at Neal's Lodge and then we drive to San Antonio. En route we may make stops in search of Upland Sandpiper, Black-bellied Whistling Duck, Crested Caracara, Long-billed Thrasher, and Cassin's, Clay-colored and Lark Sparrows. We may see singing Dickcissels. We arrive at the San Antonio airport at 12:00 noon, and say farewell to our new friends.
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