Birding in the National Parks: Searching For the Colima Warbler In Big Bend National Park

The Colima Warbler is a gorgeous bird that heads to Big Bend National Park in the spring to mate and nest before flitting back south to Mexico. NPS photo.

Has anyone out there in Traveler land seen The Big Year with Steve Martin, Jack Black, and Owen Wilson?

Apparently not many have, since the movie is tanking at the box office. I might have better luck asking if anyone has read the book by Mark Obmascik upon which the movie is based.

For the uninitiated, a "big year" is the term applied to a birder venturing forth to see as many birds as possible in North America within one calendar year. There are no referees and no prizes. It’s all about honor and glory.

About 675 birds reside at some point of the year somewhere in North America. (For big year purposes, North America is defined as the contiguous 48 states, Canada, Alaska, and Greenland.) Sandy Komito holds the big year record with 745 (or 748, depending on some technicalities) species of birds. That means he got almost every single resident, plus dozens of rare vagrants that wandered in from Europe, Asia, or Mexico.

Mexico being excluded from North America forces big year participants to the United States’ southern border to spot Mexican birds that stray across the imaginary line. I was disappointed that the movie didn’t show one of the grandest spots the birders have to visit: Big Bend National Park.

Big Bend is home to a dizzying assortment of plants and animals, including more than 400 birds. One of those in particular, the Colima Warbler (Oreothlypis crissalis), is what brings those in search of big year glory to the Chisos Mountains.

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The landscape of Big Bend National Park is a favorite with the Colima Warbler. Photo by Dawn Fine, used with permission.

South of the border there is no scarcity of Colima Warblers despite a rather limited breeding range.

Every spring, a hundred or more individuals leave their wintering grounds, heading north into Big Bend to find a mate, nest, and then high-tail it back to Mexico.

The preferred nesting habitat is in lush growth of oak, maple, and pinyon pine with extensive grass and leaf litter on the ground where the actual nest is constructed. In the Chisos Mountains, this translates to the north-facing slopes of humid canyons above 6,000 feet.

Veterans of Big Bend hiking may already be picturing the Pinnacles Trail and Boot Canyon, and that would be precisely where you are most likely to find the Colima Warbler in April or May. This is when a birder, particularly one determined to set a big year record, needs to be in good physical condition. The Pinnacles Trail is a steep climb and Big Bend can be awfully hot by the time the warblers arrive in mid-April.

An alternative to climbing the Pinnacles is the Laguna Meadows Trail and the aptly-named Colima Trail that connects back to the Pinnacles for a knee-busting descent. Either way, this is a bird that makes you work to tick it off your life list.

Thankfully, some of the world’s best scenery awaits the birder making this pilgrimage. Once in an open spot near some grass and trees, it’s a relatively simple matter to find the target. The Colima Warbler has a distinctive song with a rapid trill. An MP3 recording can train your ear to listen for the proper tune. (Here’s a link to the song, with the best part at about 1:50 in this recording.)

Birders differ in opinion about the ethics of using a broadcast playback of the song to call in birds in the field. It certainly works, but can potentially stress and confuse nesting birds.

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Colima warblers love grassy habitat, such as that found in Big Bend. Photo by Dawn Fine, used with permission.

Since Colima Warblers are relatively easy to find anyway, I’m not in favor of any use of playback, and I’m not ever sure if it’s legal to do at this time in the national park.

A simple pishing can often bring them into view without causing them the alarm of thinking there’s an intruder in their territory.

Pishing is the act of making a noise that sounds like PSSSH several times. Many small birds seem to be curious about that kind of noise and will appear briefly to check it out. Most warblers aren’t very responsive to pishing, but Colimas seem to be the exception.

At the very least, pishing will make any non-birders in the area question your sanity when they see you unblinkingly staring at an oak tree while making these sounds.

Even for an experienced birder in excellent physical condition, a Colima Warbler excursion can be an adventure. Mark Obmascik relates a story about big year competitor Al Levantin in The Big Year. It seems Levantin’s wife was concerned about some of the remote areas where he birded and that he often went out alone. On his hike to tally the Colima Warbler in 1998, he had an extremely close encounter with a mountain lion. From 20 feet away, he followed all the rules, raising his arms to appear larger, and yelling at the cat to get away.

Following this hair-raising event and his success in finding a Colima, Levantin called his wife to update her in a way only a long-happily-married birder could, “You know how you don’t like it when I go birding alone? Well, today I went out with a gorgeous blonde. Slinky. Athletic. Hot-blooded. Biggest eyes you’ve ever seen.”

Levantin survived both the lion and his wife, but most importantly he saw a Colima Warbler!

Comments

Saturday morning, 17 March, 2012, my husband and I awoke in a Motel room in Study Butte, Texas, just outside Big Bend National Park. Just at the door of our room were several tree-sized Yuccas, and one had a bird's nest lodged securely at the top, occupied by a grey and brown bird. We had noticed it the night before and thought the bird was brave to be up there. However, trees are scarce in the area outside Big Bend. Saturday morning we were awakened by the loud, trilling call of a bird we never heard before. It was very insistant and seemed to be inside the room with us, until we were fully awake. Outside we saw the same bird at the nest we had seen the previous night. I have been investigating warbler calls this morning since we got back home, and the Colima Warbler is the bird we heard. Hard to forget. We wondered if it has ever been known to construct a nest in a tall yucca, since the description I read indicates they usually build on the ground in leaves.

Hi Melinda,
That's an exciting find! I haven't heard of them nesting in Yuccas, but birds don't always read the same books we do, so you never know. I don't see any sightings in the Study Butte area, although there are some on 118 not too far into the park.
If you have a chance, I'd like to hear more about where exactly you were (what motel, etc.) Feel free to email me (kirby.adams at gmail.com). This could be a sighting worth documenting.
Kirby

"Since Colima Warblers are relatively easy to find anyway, I’m not in
favor of any use of playback, and I’m not ever sure if it’s legal to do
at this time in the national park." -- This. Playback is illegal in the national park and pishing is a VERY bad idea due to drought conditions - and if everyone on that trail pished, the birds would become immune to the noise... which is a bad thing, since it's a predator-alert call that humans mimic.

As for Melinda's Study Butte bird, Canyon Towhees have a lovely trilling call, are abundant in the Study Butte area - specifically the open, dusty, yucca habitats - and are grayish brown birds. I'd give that a look (especially the pinkish under-tail covert of Canyon Towhee vs. yellowish on Colima) before chalking the sighting up to Colima.

Thanks for bringing up the Canyon Towhee, Heidi. I was trying to think of possible COLW dopplegangers, but not being a denizen of Texas or the southwest, nothing was coming to mind. The towhee is a very good possibility.
As for pishing, the conditioning of the birds to it is a good point. I'm generally far more uncomfortable with playback than pishing, but in cases where it's such a specific area I can see where a problem could arise. I do know the biologists with USFS and USFWS will pish for Kirtland's Warblers on the daily tours up here in my neck of the woods. That's a similar situation to the COLW in terms of isolated geography, if not the added climatic stress from drought you mention.
It would be interesting to see some more actual studies on negative effects of mimicing rival males or predator alarms. To my knowledge, there have only been a couple regarding playback. Regardless, your point is well taken regarding finding Colimas. The old-fashioned way (eyes only) is guaranteed to not hurt anyone!