While the Chisos Mountains are pleasantly cool, and the banks of the Rio Grande humid, the greatest variety of plant life is in the desert. From a distance, the desert can appear lush and green, especially the slopes around the Chisos Mountain range. It's quite a shock when you begin to hike across this landscape. What looks like trees and grass becomes clumps of lechugilla, cactus, creosote bushes, and the occasional ocotillo plant. The desert is a hard place to survive in, but the plants are very good at surviving.
The Wildlife of Big Bend
Spotting some wildlife is pretty easy. Make sure you're awake in the early morning, or in the evening after sunset. Deer, javelina, and coyotes are regular visitors to campgrounds. After dark, properly dispose of your trash, or a skunk may brazenly saunter through your camp, sniffing for edibles, dragging out food wrappers from your trash bag, and generally making a nuisance of itself.
Big Bend has over 450 species of birds that regularly visit the park, more than any other national park in the U.S. One of the more well-known visitors is the Colima warbler, which likes the higher elevations of the Chisos Basin. Hummingbirds, flycatchers, and even golden eagles can be spotted in the Chisos. Casa Grande, a peak that overlooks the Basin, is a nesting site for the peregrine falcon. In the grasslands and Chihuahuan desert regions, roadrunners, cactus wrens, orioles, woodpeckers, and many more birds can be seen. In the Rio Grande Valley, close to the river, birders can spot doves, vireos, cardinals, painted buntings, the vermilion flycatcher, owls, and even turkeys on occasion.
The vulture is a familiar sight in Big Bend National Park. Whether having a lunch on the road, or turning slow circles above the desert, they're everywhere. Vultures may be disgusting, but they are uniquely suited for their role in the environment. Their bald heads prevent infestation from parasites. They can eat anything; in fact, their digestive systems will kill bacteria. When threatened, they either fall over and play dead, or will regurgitate their last meal in the hope of scaring off predators. They will also do this when hit by a car, so when driving through the park, use caution. In the air, they look like eagles because of their enormous size, but the tips of their wings are usually a bit ragged, and they hold their wings in a dihedral, or V pattern.
The Mexican black bear was once common in the Big Bend area, but hunting and trapping, changes in habitat, and control efforts by the government almost eliminated the bears from the park. They began to migrate back to the park in the 1980's.* Black bears eat berries, acorns, and pine nuts, as well as the fruit of the prickly pear. Like all wild animals in the Big Bend region, they drink water from tinajas* and springs in the area.
Because the natural balance which allows bears to live in the Big Bend area is so fragile, measures have been taken to ensure that humans do not interfere with the bears. All camping areas have bear-proof boxes, which are steel boxes with latches. All food is to be placed in the bear-proof box at night, or in the camper's vehicle. This is for the bears' sake as much as for the humans. Bears that know the humans have food will seek them out. This damages the bears' own survival abilities when human food isn't available.
If you see a bear, remain calm. Try to keep a safe distance between you and the bear (approximately 100 yards.) If the bear approaches you, make loud noises and throw sticks and stones at it. Do not under any circumstances try to feed the bear or get closer to it. Bears and their cubs may look cute and cuddly, but they are wild animals, and will behave accordingly.
The javelina is probably one of the best-suited animals to live in Big Bend National Park. They eat almost anything, including the pads of the prickly pear, spines and all. They're often called wild pigs, but are more closely related to a wild goat. They can be seen in the Chisos Basin campground in the early morning, looking for tasty tidbits left behind by careless campers.
The mountain lion avoids areas where human beings frequent. There have been over 2000 sightings of mountain lions in the park since the 1950's, but only three humans have been attacked by a lion. None of the injuries were fatal, and the lions were killed by the National Park Service. The park requests that humans not seek out encounters with mountain lions, as this is an unnatural conflict that damages the lion's habitat as well as endangering the human.
The mountain lion preys upon deer and javelina, among other herbivores, and plays an important part in limiting their population. Without a predator in the park, other animals would multiply and quickly exhaust the available food supply.
If you see a mountain lion, remain calm. Don't run, because this resembles the activity of prey. Stand where you are, wave your hands in the air, and shout. If the lion acts aggressive, throw rocks. Your object is to convince the lion that you are not prey, and may be dangerous yourself. If there are children with you, pick them up so that they will appear bigger than they are. Report any lion sightings to a ranger, including date, time, and location.
Coyotes live in the desert and mountain regions of the park, and prey upon rabbits and lizards, as well as other small animals. Visitors to the park will rarely see a coyote, but their call can be heard at night, and their tracks and scat* can be seen at watering holes. If you're camping in the Chisos Basin, watch for them in the early morning, while enjoying some camp coffee.
The myth of the tarantula has been greatly exaggerated. Tarantulas are large, furry spiders, ranging from a dark brown to black in color. Their bites aren't poisonous to humans. The best time to see a tarantula in Big Bend is early September through November, which is mating season.
The rattlesnake is probably one of the best known snakes of the western United States. They're known for the distinctive buzzing sound they make by shaking their tails. There are several varieties, but the red diamondback and speckled varieties are most common in the Big Bend area. Their diet consists of rodents and other small mammals. The rattle at the end of the tail is created when the snake sheds its skin; a scaly button holds a remnant of old skin in place at the tip, which dries and makes a noise when shaken. The notion that you can tell the snake's age by counting the number of rattles is false. Rattles often break and fall off, and a mature snake will not have more than eight or ten rattles at the end of its tail. The chances of you seeing a rattlesnake are very small, and the chances of being bitten by one are even smaller. Rattlesnakes use their rattle as a warning, so if you hear that unmistakable sound, be alert, don't panic, and leave the area quietly.
Cactus, Agave, And Ocotillo: Plant Life of the Chihuahuan Desert
The Chihuahuan desert is distinctive because of its extensive
grassland, more so than any other North American desert. Before humans began to raise cattle in Big Bend, the desert was covered with grasses. Some of the grasslands have been destroyed by overgrazing. When the grass was eaten, it left pockets of rich dirt for other plants to grow in. With replanting, some of those grasslands have begun to return, but it will take many years before the damage done by overgrazing is repaired. Because of the relatively rich soil, the Chihuahuan desert has an amazing variety of plants, including over 60 species of cacti.
The agave was one of the most important plants to the many Native American tribes in the area. It was a source of food, and provided fiber for ropes and sandals. A succulent, its waxy leaves have a blue-green sheen. It takes about twenty to thirty years for the plant to reach maturity. Today we ferment it for tequila, made from the heart of the agave. Part of the agave family, yucca and sotol are most common in the areas of the lower desert, where there is little rainfall. Their leaves are green, thin, sharp-edged, and shoot from the central trunk like a pineapple's. The trunk is hairy. In the summer, the yucca and sotol flower, the white petals blooming in profusion from a central stalk. Another member of the agave family, the lechugilla looks like a bunch of green bananas. Its leaves are similiar to a yucca's, but curved, each with a spine at the tip. The juice of the agave lechugilla is poisonous; the Native Americans used it to poison their arrowheads. This is one of the reasons hikers are advised to wear jeans in the desert. A scratch won't kill you, but it can certainly sting. The century plant, also called desert agave, is a well-known native to the area. It's said to blossom once every hundred years, but it actually blooms about every twenty to thirty years. The bloom heralds the end of its lifespan. A stalk grows from the plant, and takes about a week to grow fifteen feet. It then blooms, is pollinated, goes to seed and dies.
One of the odder-looking desert plants, the ocotillo sprouts from the desert floor like hairs from a wart. When it's dry, the ocotillo bush appears dead, but any rainfall causes the ocotillo bush to sprout a wealth of green leaves, which hide the sharp spines all along the branches.
The creosote bush is one of the newcomers to the Big Bend area. Overgrazing removed competition to the creosote bush's invasion, and now they're everywhere. Their leaves, when crushed, exude a odor similiar to kerosene.
Many desert plants have evolved waxy coatings to prevent water loss. The candelilla bush is one of these. Looking like a stand of long, green pencils, the bush grows on the limestone flats of the Chihuahua desert. While harvesting candelilla is forbidden in a national park, in Mexico, these plants are farmed and then thrown into a vat of hot water to extract the high-quality wax.
Prickly Pear Cactus
Prickly pear cactus grow in the Great Basin, Mojave, Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts. Its pads are round and flat, and each pad is covered with spines. What makes the prickly pear distinctive is the cluster of almost invisible yellow-red spines above each cluster of larger spines, called glochids. They detach easily from the pads, and because they're barbed, are very difficult to remove. Some prickly pear cactus lack the large white spines, and these are known as spineless cacti*, but all have the glochids. Humans eat the prickly pear in different ways; the fruit can be peeled and eaten, and the pads can be peeled and pickled. Desperate and thirsty hikers in the desert can take a prickly pear pad, peel it, and chew it for the water in the pad, which is alkaline and bitter.
Another regular sight in Big Bend is the cholla cactus. Unlike the prickly pear, it has round jointed stems, ridged along their length. The cholla cactus is a much spinier plant than the prickly pear. Its spines are covered in a thin papery substance, that helps it prevent water loss. Common varieties are the teddy bear cholla, whose rounded stems resemble the arms and legs of a teddy bear, the Christmas cholla, which bears red berries, and the cane cholla, which can grow up to 8 feet.
Taking A Hike
While many of these plants and animals can be seen around your campsite, the best and most unusual species can only be found out in the desert, in the mountains, or even down a canyon and under a rock. Experience Big Bend on foot, and you won't be disappointed.