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River Road

photo courtesy of: southwesternherp.com

Season 5, episode 7

From the Northern reaches of the Llano Estacado in Eastern New Mexico to the Big Bend Borderlands of Texas, this is Nature Notes

Big Bend in spring is a favorite destination of many Texans. Do you know what plants and birds are found there? Have you ever driven the River Road?

From Marfa Public Radio, in cooperation with the Sibley Nature Center in Midland, Texas, this is Nature Notes. Hello, I’m Dallas Baxter.

The river road across the southern tip of Big Bend National Park stretches 48 rocky, bone-shaking miles from the tunnel near Rio Grande Village to the historic site of Castolon. The canyon locked Rio Grande is in view in only three times during the trip, but at frequent intervals dim tracks lead to the salt cedar thickets at the river's edge. The road stays close to the 2OOO' foot high contour most of the distance but it winds in and out of uncountable arroyos and mini-canyons. The geological formations crossed are principally gravel beds formed by detritus eroded from the Chisos Mountains.

This area has less than ten inches of rain in a normal year, and the vegetation is typical of the Chihuahuan desert. Widely spaced creosote bushes with small, shiny leaves and black stems are the most common plants. Sharp spined lechugilla, the hiker's nemesis, grows in masses on many hillsides. Wide leafed Torrey Yuccas, which grow up to eight feet tall, are the nearest approach to a tree. Thickets of condalia, guayacan, lotebush and mesquite line the arroyos. Hechtia, candelilla, leather stem, all thorn and ephedra are not conspicuous but display fascinating adaptations to the arid environment. There is little grass, and the overall impression is of a barren land overlain by varnished rocks in varied shades of russet and brown.

Spring begins early in the desert and by mid February several species of flowers are blooming. The Yellow Rocknettle Eucnide bartonioides grows on rocky ledges. It has shiny leaves and showy flowers two inches across with many stamens projecting from the throat. Tiny purple Sand Bells Nama Havardii grows in dry washes and gravelly flats. It has small grayish-green leaves and a funnel shaped blossom about 1/2 inch wide. Two kinds of mustard with white four petaled flowers turning pink the second day are the most abundant flowers. Although their blossoms are identical, the leaves and seed pods are quite different. They are Bicolored Mustard Nerisyrenia camporum and Gregg Keelpod Synthlipsis Gregii. The bright yellow Desert Marigold Baileya multiradiata is not yet as abundant as it will be later. Cacti have not begun to bloom although a few have buds.


The high point of a February trip to the desert is the Chisos Bluebonnet Lupinus Havardii (not the same species as the Texas Bluebonnet). Its leaves turn the hillsides a soft green and its three foot tall blooming stalks have deep lavender-blue flowers with yellow eyes. In desert conditions the bluebonnets do not form as thick a carpet as in the hill country, but in places between Johnson's Ranch and Castolon the rocky slopes are unbelievably beautiful. They provide a fitting carpet around the Torrey Yuccas which have opened their huge, cream colored clusters of waxy blossoms.

The most common bird is the Black-throated Sparrow. Flocks of Brewer's Sparrows and Vesper Sparrows wander across the barren flats. The rasping chatter of the Cactus Wren and the sweet song of the Bewick's Wren are heard in brushy areas along the dry washes. Single, high-pitched notes of Verdins and angry buzzes of Black-tailed Gnatcatchers come from deep within the thorny thickets, but the birds emerge when they hear the taped call of the Western Screech Owl.

Nature Notes is sponsored by the Dixon Water Foundation and is produced by KRTS Marfa Public Radio in cooperation with the Sibley Nature Center in Midland, Texas. This episode was written by Burr Williams. Visit sibleynaturecenter.org and join Williams' Facebook page where photos are posted daily.






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