Whether you're a birder working on a life list or a backpacker who doesn't know a hawk from a heron, Big Bend National Park is a must stop. Just consider it a happy coincidence that the best birding window coincides with the best hiking season in this wild corner of the Chihuahuan Desert. The mild winter weather draws such birds as the acorn woodpecker, titmouse, and Mexican junco, plus some species you won't find elsewhere in the United States.
Start at the Basin campground and information center in the heart of the Chisos Mountains, where several trails serve up exotic birding around every bend. For the full experience of the Chisos, hike the 14-mile South Rim Loop route.
Along the way, a 1-mile side trip to the top of Emory Peak might be rewarded with a glimpse of peregrine falcons diving overhead. The short spur trail to Boot Springs is alive with titmice, woodpeckers, and rare views of colima warblers.
At the commanding South Rim overlook, the vista drops away into airy space across the oceanic desert, over the valley of the Rio Grande, and well into Mexico. Here you'll get a bird's-eye view of this huge and mystical land.
For a more varied hike through different bird habitats, break off from the South Rim Loop and drop down to the historic site
at Cedar Springs. From there, head south on a faint bushwhacking track to the birder's oasis at Mule Ear Springs. Sit quietly and watch the shy verdin, black-chinned sparrows, and scaled quail make appearances at the lush water hole. If you're not a birder already, you'll become one.
From Alpine on US 90, drive south on TX 118. Or from Marathon on US 90, drive south on US 385. Turn west on Basin Road and continue 7 miles to the South Rim trailhead.
February through April.
Naturalist's Big Bend, by Roland H. Wauer, (Texas A&M University Press, 800-826-8911; $13.95). Big Bend: The Official National Park Handbook, (National Park Service, 915-477-2251; $7.95). Both are available from Big Bend Natural History Association,
Big Bend National Park, (915) 477-2251; www.nps.gov/bibe.