Birding in Big Bend National Park

Birding in Big Bend National Park

Over 450 bird species have been reported in Big Bend, more than any other U.S. national park, with the Colima Warbler as possibly the most famous. 

Big Bend is such a spectacular place for both sightseeing and wildlife, the more time you can spend here the better. Three days is recommended, as anything less will feel like your trip is being cut short. Just exploring the Chisos Mountains basin and trails can easily take up a full day.

Regardless of how much time you spend here, you’ll never see it all. So where should you focus your time to see as many west Texas birds as possible in a single trip?

Where to Bird in Big Bend National Park

The most productive birding hotspots in Big Bend are Rio Grande Village and Cottonwood Campground along the Rio Grande River, and the high elevation Chisos Mountains Basin. Other good spots include Dugout Wells and Sam Nail Ranch. 

Rio Grande Village

Located at the eastern park boundary, this large campground is right on the Rio Grande River. The water here is literally an oasis in the desert, and draws in wildlife at a higher concentration than anywhere else in the park. This is definitely one of the birdiest spots in Big Bend.

Rio Grande Village Nature Trail

There’s a nature trail along the river, with a short boardwalk over a patch of wetlands. It’s worth visiting, but birds here are common throughout the whole campground. Taking a leisurely walk down Daniel’s Ranch Road until it meets the river will get you plenty of birds in a mix of desert shrubs and mature hardwood trees.

Rio Grande Village is a great place to see raptors like Gray Hawk, Zone-tailed Hawk, and close up views of nesting Common Black Hawk. Elf Owls take up residence in the warmer months, while Great Horned Owls and Western Screech-Owls can be seen year-round.

Common Black Hawk Nesting Area

Other common species include Vermillion Flycatcher, Greater Roadrunner, Bell’s Vireo, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, and Green Kingfisher.

Less common birds include Tropical Parula, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, Gray Flycatcher, and Crissal Thrasher.

Greater Roadrunner

Rio Grande Village deserves at least a full morning from a birder visiting Big Bend for the first time. It’s the perfect place to set up camp and enjoy a leisurely half day or more of prime desert birding.

The Chisos Mountains Basin

The Chisos Mountains are a tiny little group of mountains right in the middle of Big Bend. They shoot up dramatically from the desert floor, creating a space at the top called a sky island. 

Chisos Mountains Basin

High elevation trees like Douglas Fir and Ponderosa Pine grow up here in abundance, making a totally different environment than the rest of the desert. This unique setting attracts birds that nest in these high elevations like Blue-throated Mountaingem, Band-tailed Pigeon, and of course the Colima Warbler.

A drive up to the basin is a must for birders, no trip to Big Bend is complete without it.

Where to Find a Colima Warbler

Big Bend National Park is the only public location to see a Colima Warbler in the US. They’re often found near the top of the Pinnacles Trail, about 2 hours of hiking from the trailhead. Boot Canyon Trail is also a good place to find them. Mid-April through May is the best time to search.

Colima Warbler
Colima Warbler

The hike up Pinnacles Trail is affectionately called “The Colima Death March” by many birders, due to the 1600 feet of nonstop incline. Seeing this bird almost certainly takes more physical effort than any other species in the United States.

The good news is the views get more spectacular as you hike up the trail. Plus there’s other birds to keep you entertained along the way like Mexican Jay, Acorn Woodpecker, and Painted Redstart.

Cottonwood Campground

Cottonwood Campground is similar to Rio Grande Village because it’s right on the river, but it’s much smaller and with fewer people. This makes it feel more remote and quiet. Travel here on a weekday between April and October and you might end up with the whole place to yourself.

There’s always at least one owl species to be found here, and shortly after dark you can get up to three species calling at once. Great Horned Owl and Western Screech Owl is common, and Elf Owls are often here mid-spring through summer.

Families of Vermilion Flycatchers are common and always active here, as are families of Javelina walking around the outskirts of the campground.

Birds to watch for include Gray Hawk, Scaled Quail, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Say’s and Black Phoebe, Bullock’s Oriole, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, and Crissal Thrasher.

If you have to make a choice between here and Rio Grande Village, the Village is probably preferable only because it’s a bigger space. However, if seeing the iconic Santa Elana Canyon is on your to-do list, then Cottonwood is conveniently on the way to the canyon.

The Best Time of Year for Birding in Big Bend

The most important factor in timing your trip just right is obviously when the most birds are present in the park, and when they’re most active. But also keep in mind park visitation levels. 

The campsites are used much more heavily November through March due to cooler weather, which sometimes makes finding an available campsite difficult. Holiday weekends like Veteran’s Day can be even more crowded, so prepare ahead of time.

As for birding, spring migration is generally considered the best time to be in the park. Species diversity is high, and most birds are moving and singing energetically. This is perfect for bird watchers and photographers. Finding and seeing birds is easier in the spring than any other time of year.

The best time of year for bird watching in Big Bend is late April and early May. This is when species diversity and bird activity are at their highest, as summer breeders are singing and migrants are passing through in peak numbers. This is also outside the busy time for park visitors, making the trails more open and finding available campsites easier.

Mexican Jay

Alternatively, the worst time of year to visit is mid-March, during spring break. The park always sees a huge spike in park visitors, more than any other time of year. Expect lines of vehicles along the roads near points of interest as parking lots fill up. Getting a campsite in the park during this time is extremely difficult. 

Big Bend is memorable any time of year, but avoid the second and third week of March if possible.

Winter Birding in Big Bend

Visiting the park during winter can be a great experience due to the generally mild and clear weather. The birds aren’t as vocal as during spring time, but there’s still plenty of activity along the Rio Grande River. 

Winter bird watching in Big Bend is in full swing from Thanksgiving through mid-March. Some of the best winter hotspots are Rio Grande Village, the Chisos Mountains Basin, and Sam Nail Ranch. Potential target species include Red-naped Sapsucker, Townsend’s Solitaire, Sage Thrasher, Sagebrush Sparrow, Brewer’s Sparrow, and Green-tailed Towhee.

Green-tailed Towhee (Photo Credit VJAnderson)

Popular springtime spots, like the Pinnacles Trail, don’t have nearly as much activity during winter months. Birding up in the Chisos Mountains Basin is still fun, but consider sparing yourself of the more grueling hikes. Lost Mine Trail and the Window Trail are good options to consider.

One bird on some people’s mind this time of year is a Golden Eagle. These birds are occasionally reported in the park, but they’re few and far between. If Golden Eagle is high on your list, consider much better locations about 90 minutes northwest of the park near Marathon.

Camping in the Park

If you plan on camping, remember this when selecting a campsite – the basin up in the Chisos Mountains is consistently at least 10 degrees cooler than the desert floor.

This makes the basin campground perfect for avoiding the heat during warm months, but makes campsites by the river more comfortable during the winter. 

The basin campsites are usually the most popular in the park. Try your best to arrive by 3pm at the latest to have a good chance of finding an open spot on a Friday night. Sunday through Thursday nights generally have more availability, except during spring break.