Escape Texas’ Summer Heat ~ Head to the Davis Mountains

McDonald Observatory near Fort Davis Texas

A late-summer Star Party at McDonald Observatory merges the Perseid Meteor Shower with west-Texas’ dark skies. The annual meteor show takes place around August 12th each year when the wide tail of the Swift-Tuttle comet intersects Earth’s orbit. / © Jeff Parker / Explore in Focus™

Escape Texas’ summer heat by heading to the Davis Mountains — specifically Davis Mountains State Park, Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center & taking in a Star Party at McDonald Observatory.

All three are located in the Big Bend Region near Fort Davis. Not only does the higher elevation make for cooler temps, but monsoon season’s about to arrive and will continue through August. By the end of August you may even see baby quail at Davis Mountains State Park.

The entries below are from mine and Mary O’s book, Explore Texas: A Nature Travel Guide. Enjoy!

NATURAL ATTRACTION:
Davis Mountains State Park 
ACTIVITY:
Bird-watching; Nature Photography
WHY YOU NEED TO GO:
Davis Mountains State Park offers your very best shot at seeing Montezuma Quail on public land in Texas. The top of Skyline Drive provides one opportunity—along with gorgeous sunsets—while the bird blind near the campground gets you close enough to appreciate their black & white facial markings & get some good photographs. Listen closely to hear the quails’ distinctive quavering metallic-like whistles throughout the park.

A total of three bird blinds makes enjoying other wildlife easy to do. Hummingbirds & hungry javelina visit the blinds as well.

The primitive area across the highway presents its own rewards. A 1 ½-mile loop meanders through grassland, along a creek bed, & into a riparian area ripe with seep-sipping birds & cottonwoods.

TRAVEL DETAILS:
Dawn & dusk offer best activity at blinds & best light for photography. Montezuma Quail frequent blind along Park Road 3 (near campground) when weather’s warm. Look for the quail toward back of feeding area.

For kiddos with extra wiggle worms, the Interpretive Center’s indoor blind is your best choice as the glass muffles noise so you don’t have to worry about disturbing others.

Javelinas often visit the campground, but won’t harm you. Just remember: they’re wild animals–don’t  feed them nor attempt to touch them!

Volunteers manage the bird blinds; please consider donating toward birdseed & expenses (find box for that at Interpretive Center).

The Historic Indian Lodge at road’s end offers unique lodging. More lodging & dining in Ft. Davis (4-miles). 

LEARN:
Montezuma Quail (Crytonyx montezumae) used to thrive in portions of tall-grass habitats from the Edwards Plateau to the Trans-Pecos, but today you’ll only find them in a few select spots, mostly in the Trans-Pecos. 

Rainfall strongly drives egg-laying time. In the Davis Mountains, the annual “monsoon” season usually arrives in July. Montezuma Quail chicks arrive about a month later.

By late-August Montezuma Quail (<em>Crytonyx montezumae</em>) chicks will be out & about at Davis Mountains State Park / © Jeff Parker ~ Explore in Focus™

By late-August Montezuma Quail (Crytonyx montezumae) chicks will be out & about at Davis Mountains State Park / © Jeff Parker ~ Explore in Focus.com™

Females start nest construction by using their strong feet to create a depression in the ground. Next, they line it with grass, cover it with a grass dome and, finally, create an entrance. On average, each hen lays 11 eggs and incubates them 26 days—a bit longer than other quail species.

Timing egg-laying with the rainy season serves the young chicks well in that, by the time they hatch, the grass nurtured by rainfall has not only grown tall enough to help hide the ground-dwelling babes, but that same grass has “nurtured” plenty of insects (read: future meals).

Quail babes hatch completely feathered, which allows them to leave the nest within hours. Birds that do this are called “precocial.”

When they start chomping, protein-rich insects will be their chompees of choice. While at first insects play a key role in the nutritional lives of Montezuma Quail, about the time those tall-grasses start going to seed, summer-born chicks are ready for a more seed-centric diet.

NATURAL ATTRACTION:
Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center
ACTIVITY:
Flora Fun; Geology Gems; Nature Center
WHY YOU NEED TO GO:
Over 3,000 species of plants thrive in the Chihuahua Desert—ranging from spiny cactus to majestic ponderosa pines—and this venue celebrates that. While you won’t find all three thousand of them here, the 507-acre nature center—perched at the edge of an amazing vista—still offers plenty to explore.

When you arrive at the visitors’ center, check out the right corner of the sidewalk in front. There, rocks form a “Path Through the Ages of Earth” and teach geological history from Pre-Cambrian to Quaternary Period.

The botanical gardens feature, among many other taxa, samples of yucca from throughout Texas. A large greenhouse hosts more than 200 species of cactus and succulents native to the Chihuahuan Desert region. And a peaceful & shady pollinators’ garden teaches fun facts about wasps, bats, moths, & others.

TRAVEL DETAILS:
Paths are gravel, some are steep. Ask to borrow a walking stick! Dogs on a leash are welcome. No smoking (grasses present a high fire hazard!). No feeding the wild animals, please! Sunscreen is recommended year-round. Elevation makes it pleasant in the shade even on hot days.

The Chihuahuan Desert region receives over 80% of its 7 to 16 inches of rainfall during the late-summer months of July, August, and September. Summer storms are usually short in duration, intense, and affect localized areas. During the summer monsoon season the desert region is spectacular—grasses are green, wildflowers dot the landscape, and trees and shrubs burst into bloom.

Enjoy “Desert After Dark” night hikes during July. Trails go into Modesta Canyon. Great trail! About 1 ¾ mile. Rocky walk. The outer loop to the vista is 2 ½ miles. The botanical garden trail is easy to navigate.

LEARN:
Holly-like agarita (Berberis trifoliolata) are one of spring’s earliest bloomers. These evergreens produce their yellow flowers as early as February and will usually continue doing so through April. As an early-bloomer, they provide pollinators with food when little else can be found.

Come summer, delicious little red fruits decorate agarita. They make a tasty jelly, the reason for the nickname, “Currant of Texas.” Cardinals, mockingbirds, raccoons, quail, opossums, grey foxes, and coyotes also appreciate the fruit, while deer browse agarita leaves year-round.

Spring also brings the super sweet scented nose-candy of the javelina bush (Condalia ericoides). Inhale and enjoy! Its delicate, yellow flowers coupled with that flirty fragrance, however, belie the vicious points that tip each tiny branch.

But those long, sharp thorns make great gatekeepers for critters that can burrow under the javelina bush. In summer, the plant’s flowers bush turn into dark purplish or reddish colored berries, which birds and mammals devour. Small leaves allow it to survive with little water; with such small surface area there’s little room for moisture loss to occur.

Lace cactus, Laredo Texas, Photo by nature photographer, Jeff Parker

The Center’s impressive greenhouse houses over 200 species of cactus and succulents native to the Chihuahuan Desert region. Due its variety of habitats, the Lone Star state has more species of cactus than any other state.

One gorgeous example you’ll see in the greenhouse is lace cactus (Echinocereus reichenbachii). In nature, this Texas cactus grows throughout most of the southern and northwestern portions of the state. Unfortunately, certain variants rank as the most collected cactus in Texas and that’s resulted in the listing of some subspecies as federally endangered.

Interesting fact: all cacti originate from the Americas, but nature didn’t design a single one to bloom in blue!

 

1 Comment

  1. We did a star party at the observatory and it was really neat. A refreshing change from the heat!

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