Sunday, 14 August 2016

Season End Celebration

Nevada Bird Count Tour 7 Part 3

At the end of the last birding tour of the season, it's tradition that the crew head to some incredible place of Jen's choosing to spend a couple days birding, relaxing, and having campfire cookouts. This year the location was Onion Valley Reservoir, nestled in the Pine Forest Range a bit farther north than our Black Rock survey sites. The crew had come here at the end of season 2 years ago and we'd heard good things about this beautiful site (including the fact that one of the NBCers had a Long-tailed Jaeger on the reservoir that year), so we were excited to see it. Would it really be that much different from the Black Rock/High Rock we'd spent weeks at this season?

Once getting to the road it took us over an hour to climb up out of the dry, cheat-infested salt desert of the flats below up into the range. For most of the drive the incoming ridges hid the glory of Onion Valley from us, but eventually we crested the height of land and were given views of massive aspen stands and pockets of mountain mahogany and pine crowning the peaks. No photo of those first views unfortunately, but soon enough we were in camp next to the reservoir itself.

Camp at Onion Valley Reservoir

On these season end events, each of the crew does have to work in that they need to collect some sort of data, but they are 'fun' surveys. Everyone got the choice of surveying a pre-existing transect, create their own transect, or (the best option) survey a 1km x 1km atlas square. The atlassing essentially entails picking a square of cool country out on the map and then birding it the next day, trying to maximize your species list and track down as many baby birds as you can. No time constraints, distance estimation, temperature measurements etc., just straight birding! Always a refreshing way to end the season.

For myself I chose a section over the closest ridge from camp, with some high-ish peaks on my plot in the hopes of getting some Coniferous Forest habitat. Proper coniferous forest, with Limber Pine and the like as opposed to Pinyon-Juniper, is a real rarity on the NBC, and I was hoping it would produce some fun birds. For instance, the last time the crew was here they found some breeding Hammond's Flycatchers, one of the few places in the state that has them.

That morning, July the 11th, we woke up to temperatures below freezing, which surprised me not only for the time of year but also that we were only a bit over 7000ft. It was tough crawling out of bed, and even tougher clambering up the steep slope with thick vegetation before I even got to my square. It was a pretty rough start, and I had thoughts of just turning around since it was only 'fun' data, but I'm glad I didn't. Even before it warmed up, I was rewarded with some breathtaking views of the reservoir and surrounding hills. A Golden Eagle drifted over the peaks in the dawn light.

Onion Valley Reservoir at dawn

Misty Mountains

But eventually the temperature warmed up, my bones thawed out, the birds became a little more active, and my spirits improved. Climbing up high enough I did eventually reach the Limber Pine, where a group of Clark's Nutcrackers with their fuzzy babies provided some entertainment. I got to watch some 'cracking nuts' as well.

Limber Pine and a snow patch clinging on

And the views got even better as I got higher.

Near the top a family of Mountain Bluebirds was fun to watch. Here's the male blending into the sky:

Male Mountain Bluebird

And one of the three hungry babies:

Fledgeling Mountain Bluebird

As they often are on these high elevation sagebrush patches, the wildflowers were lovely to see as well.

Castilleja and other wildflowers in the sage

The square was quite varied in its habitats, which was great for atlassing. The higher elevations were mostly Limber Pine as I'd mentioned, but in places the hilltops were covered with Mountain Mahogany. These patches looked great for Virginia's Warbler, a bird I've encountered once and that remains on my 'heard only' list, but none made there presences known. Ned and Bobby had similar patches on their squares but struck out as well.

Mountain Mahogany patch

As I made my way down from the peak, I had my highlight sighting of the morning and possibly the season. I was coming the hillside when 10m away a large animal burst out from underneath a pine in front of me. In that first split second I thought by the tan colour it was a Mule Deer, but then its shorter profile, smooth bounds, and long, snake-like tail trailing behind it became clear. The Mountain Lion made one, two, three, four, five bounds of increasing length before disappearing into a thick stand of young aspen. I'd seen their tracks numerous times both of the last two seasons, and they can be found almost anywhere in the mountains of the state, but it takes a lucky moment like that to actually come across one of these majestic cats. While the view was brief, and I didn't get to see its face, coming across my lifer cat at 10m was pretty exhilarating and kept my pumped for the next while. It was running away downslope and I'm not typically too worried about predators (particularly during the bright light of day, as it was now 8:00 or something), but I didn't follow it to try to get a better look haha.

Further down-slope I came back into the aspens, with some creeks winding their way through and a few patches of open sage. Along one of those creeks an angry Slate-coloured Fox Sparrow eventually lead my to its silent fledgeling, and a stealthy Orange-crowned Warbler chipped as it carried food to its own. A pair of Warbling Vireos likely also had young around, but they were being very uncooperative as I watched them and I wasn't able to confirm their breeding.

The lichens on the dead pine are always striking.

Lower down yet I discovered a series of seepy meadows surrounded by willows. A local pair of Red-naped Sapsuckers had put wells into many of the willows, and this attracted wildlife like California Sister butterflies.

California Sister on Red-naped Sapsucker wells

Some excited chirping and buzzing lead me to a family of Rufous Hummingbirds, a female with 3 young. This tour had been interesting with finds of this species, because 3 days before Ned had found a family down on MR-SummerCamp, and the day before Bobby and Kaitlin had found a similar group along BlackRockMahogany. What makes these finds so interesting is that this species has never been confirmed breeding in Nevada. Now, Rufouses (Rufi?) do start migrating early, so our birds could very well have been post-breeding migrants, but the fact that many were still hanging around in their family groups was notable. Perhaps the fact that no one on the crew had any sightings of this species on either of our previous tours up here lends more evidence to these birds not being breeders, but it'll definitely be something for future crews to look our for.

Juvenile Rufous Hummingbird
The meadows opened up even more as I followed the drainage down to the edge of my plot, and here I was able to add Yellow Warbler families to my list as well as White-crowned Sparrows and many more Fox Sparrows. This area rounded out my square and a solid circuit of different habitats, summing up to 33 species for the morning with about a third of them confirmed breeding. A great morning out in the Pine Forest Range!

Mountain meadow

When we got to camp everyone shared their finds from the morning. I have to say my Mountain Lion took the cake, but Bobby found a Northern Goshawk nest on his plot which is pretty high up on the list of awesome. At last season's end-of-season get together I found my first (and only) goshawk nest in the Toiyabes, and I was pretty keen on seeing another one. Kayla had never seen a goshawk, and Ned was always down to track down one of these awesome raptors, so the following morning before heading back south we quested to Bobby's atlas square to find these mighty accipiters.

After driving towards Blue Lake we navigated to the UTM Bobby had given us and quickly found the nest. Bobby had said that the young were fledged but still hanging around the nest while he was there, but on our visit the forest was quiet an the birds were no-where to be found. We were hoping the birds might make it easy for us when they discovered us, coming in screaming with talons drawn, but they didn't materialize so we hiked out of the stand into the meadow above with the hopes of a better view.

Northern Goshawk nest

On our way out a massive accipiter did pass us in the dim dawn light which, through the bins, I was barely able to make out the gray mantle and white eyebrow of an adult Gos. Unfortunately after we made it to the meadow and set up to wait for another fly-by the birds did not cooperate. It was a lovely meadow though, and the sun warmed us on the chilly morning.

Shadows of goshawk searchers

After packing up camp we started the long drive back south. Coming down from the range we had a few Chukar, one of which teed up on a rock for us.


At the turn-off for the main road we made a stop at Gridley Lake, a mostly dry salty playa, to try for Snowy Plovers. A potential lifer for Ned, Kayla and I had only seen the species a few times before so, so we hiked down to the shore to check it out. Sure enough, the plovers were there, chasing the clouds of gnats across the saline puddles of the lakebed. In a distance patch of water there was a much larger group of peeps, Western and Least from what I could tell, accented by a few tall Avocets and Willets.

Gridley Lake

On the way out Ned caught this big Desert Horned Lizard.

Ned with his Desert Horned Lizard

And so ended out last birding tour of the NBC. One heck of a season with an amazing crew, I'll definitely miss Nevada's deserts and mountains, and the birds, critters, and people I met there. Next year I don't see myself returning for a third season in a row, but maybe some year down the line I'll find myself coming back to this great project.

After the season's end Ned, Kayla, Kelly (from GBBO's Crescent Dunes Project) and I headed down to Southeast Arizona, where in my 5 days with them and 7 days on my own tallied 49 life birds, some 20 new herps, and saw loads of awesome things. However, we'll see when I get around to recounting those adventures, since when this posts I'll be up at James Bay for to survey shorebirds for 4 weeks, after which I'll be at banding at Thunder Cape Bird Observatory for another 5 weeks. Too much content and no time to write it! Anyhow, thanks for reading along with my wanderings in Nevada, and hopefully when I get the time I'll be able to get some photos and stories up about the next legs of my travels.

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

When Roads Fail

Nevada Bird Count Tour 7 Part 2

Following our sage-grouse-filled expedition into the Virginia Range, Ned and I made the long haul up to Black Rock/High Rock on the 6th of July to finish our birding season. Ned had drove us out of the mountains, so I drove most of the rest of the way, with 37 of the Tragically Hip's greatest hits to help me along. We met up with Kayla in camp and, to our surprise, met someone else sharing our camp! Other humans are not something we often see in the wilderness of Nevada, but this hunter was down from Oregon to scout the area for Mule Deer hunting in the fall.  Apparently he'd seen some 22 different bucks in the hills over the weekend, so he should luck out come deer season.

The following morning I was gifted with doing an easy transect along Mahogany Creek. A two-track followed the creek for most of the way through the riparian aspen stand, making for an easy hike.


This late in the season the birds are often quieter because they are coming to the end of their breeding cycles, but consequently one gets confirmed breeders out the wazoo. Numerous families of House Wrens were chattering in the understory along with young Green-tailed Towhees, White-crowned Sparrows, and Gray-headed Juncos. Baby woodpeckers always make a real ruckus, and some hungry young Red-naped Sapsuckers lead me to their nest. After a couple veg points I headed up-slope back to the truck and a Golden Eagle glided over, a bird I never get tired of seeing. While almost back at the truck, I spotted a medium-sized bird sitting up on one of the burned snags on the edge of the valley. It looked to be about kestrel-sized but seemed quite dark, so I got the bins on it to check it out. The bird that looked back at me was a watercolour of iridescent green, pink, gray, and red, the one and only Lewis's Woodpecker! A pretty localized and sporadically-distributed bird in Nevada, I'd only seem them once before down south. After a few moments it took off and showed off it's very corvid-like flight.

On the drive back across the sagebrush hills I came across a large group of wild horses around a nearby watering hole. We see them fairly often around the state (Nevada has more than any other state), but this group of 60+ animals was my best look at such a large group.

Wild Horses

I met up with the Ned, Kayla, Bobby, and Kaitlin who had all done surveys to the west, and after relaxing a while headed up towards Leonard Creek Ranch where Kayla and I would finally get to survey on MR-Leonard and MR-Chicken. These couple transects follow some very steep creeks up into the Pine Forest Range, and were supposed to be both strenuous and gorgeous. After my easy transect that morning I was ready for something more challenging, especially since this tour I wouldn't have my regular bout with UpperColeman.

The next morning I assaulted MR-Leonard. The transect was actually only bad for the first 4 points, after which  it leveled out into a series of meadows. To get to those meadows, however, one had to climb up 2000ft in the space of about a kilometer. As I made my way upward, a phrase came to mind that my partner Alan from last season had picked up in Utah "It's not a real hike if you're not using your hands." While I don't agree with the validity of that saying in all circumstances, this was one of those kind of hikes, and both hands and feet were used to haul myself up by grasping shrubs and crawling over granite boulders. Fox and Song Sparrows, Yellow and MacGillivray's Warblers sang to me as I climbed, and the occasional hummingbird zipped (most too fast to ID). Eventually I made it to the top, and got view of the way I'd come:

View from the top of Leonard

There were some cool-looking granite outcrops on the way up as well:

Upon reaching the top the transect, I was rewarded with some beautiful open meadows and larger aspen stands (as well as level ground). Up here a few forest birds like Western Tanager, Cassin's Finch, and Western Wood-Pewee were sprinkled in with the shrub- and sage-dwellers.

Unfortunately there was one aspect that really took away from the beautiful landscape of the transect. This late in the season the cattle had made their way up to graze these meadows, so unlike the times when Dave and Kaitlin surveyed it, the entire place was chewed up and stank of manure. I was already pretty sick of cattle at this point and their aroma at this site didn't help improve matters. Really too bad, as this would have been one of my favorite transects otherwise.

At the very end of the transect was a small mountain lake, a prize for reaching the final point. To augment the prize, my first Prairie Falcon in a few weeks flew over as well.

Lake at the top of Leonard Creek

The point by the lake marked my last point count of the season, and my last point count on the Nevada Bird Count for the foreseeable future. It didn't really hit me at the time, but it's been a good run with the project, and I'll we'll see if I come back to the NBC some season in the future.

After completing our final transects the crew got together to make a plan to knock out all of the remaining rapid veg surveys in the Black Rock the following day. Ned, Bobby and Kaitlin offered to attack the steep slopes of Leonard and Chicken to clean up the many points that remained there, while Kalya, Dave, Sue and I headed into town for gas then further west to clean up the transects towards Mahogany Creek.

The morning of our veg day I awoke to the barking of a Long-eared Owl flying above my tent. Really my bird-of-the-season, as I happened to trip over them all over this summer. Another bird was hanging around in the shrubs near the creek next to camp. As the sun rose it lit up the clouds in impressive colours, and Sue enlightened us with a new twist on an old adage "Red sky in morning, birders get the f@#$ our of Black Rock." We thought her words were funny and not prophetic, but we should have heeded her warning.

Red sky in morning...

Dave and Sue made their way to MR-SummerCamp to clean up those points, while I drove to drop Kayla off at BlackRockMahogany before heading off to my personal favorite transect, SummitSnow on Snow Creek, to finish my season. When I got to Mahogany Creek I was able to drive half-way down the transect to save her a walk and get to a place where I could turn around, since the road was positioned on the slope of the side of the valley. After turning around I made my way a few hundred meters up the road, when all of a sudden the road under the left side of my truck gave way and I started to slide. "No no no no no!" There was nothing I could do, and before I knew it my truck was slanted at 45 degrees off the road. I put it into 4-low and tried to go forward or backward to get back up to the road, but it was no use. The slope I was on was made of sand and provided no support, and the truck, without the power to climb out, just settled a little bit farther down the slope with each attempt. Crap.

A less-than-ideal situation

Luckily Kayla wasn't too far off, and with a few blasts on the horn she came to check what the issue was. We agreed that making further attempts to get out on our own was likely to cause the truck to slide further down the slope or roll, neither ideal situations. So we contacted the boss with our satellite InReach and let her know about the situation. After a while we got the response that she was on her way with implements of pulling-a-truck-out, so we split the remaining veg points on the transect then waited.

It was mid-afternoon we saw the wonderful site of 2 white trucks coming around the corner. Jen had arrived, and Dave and Sue with her, to get us out. Jen is pretty fantastic in understanding that these kind of things happen with field work, and then working to get them fixed. We joked that she should have a cape when she rides in to save the day haha. Anyhow, long story short we made attempts to pull our truck out with Dave's rig: with first a winch (which pulled Dave's smaller truck towards the slope instead of plling us out) and then with a tow rope (which also didn't have enough power to pull our truck from the sandy slope. Shoot, this would require a tow truck, and we were in the middle of nowhere. While Jen went out to organize some help, we made the best of the situation. Like they say "When life gives you lemons, set up your lawn chairs in front of the truck that's half off the road and drink beer." Or something like that...

Dave, Kayla and Sue making the best of a bad situation

Later in the evening the rest of the crew, who had eventually hit some cell service and heard about our plight, came to join us as well. Before coming the headed up to Fields Station for some gas. Field Station also conveniently has a great selection of craft beers, so they brought some of that as well. So, we had the whole crew together for a camp-out in front of our truck; an unexpectedly fun way to finish our last day of work for the tour!

NBC Crew 2016: Clockwise from the bottom, Bobby Wilcox,
Kaitlin Murphy, Sue Bruner, Dave Henderson, Kayla Henry,
and Ned Bohman

The following day was spent hanging our and waiting for Jen to arrive with the tow truck. By the early afternoon most of us were tired sitting around, so one by one we decided to kill the wait by napping. Kayla documented the scene:

Napping the wait away

In mid-afternoon Jen showed up with Jim, the backcountry tow truck driver. Jim was a soft-spoken man with a very slow and deliberate demeanor. He would stand and examine a situation for a long moment before giving a few words of instruction, with non-hastiness that would make an ent proud. Slowly but surely, with Dave in the driver's seat of the precariously-balanced truck, Jim pulled us out.

Before we headed out we loaded our trucks with dry aspen deadfall that was littered around the understory, then our convoy headed up to the Pine Forest Range where we would have our season end celebration.

The firewood-laden convoy

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Hidden Valley of Sage-Chickens

Nevada Bird Count Tour 7 Part 1

For the beginning of our last tour of point-counting, I partnered up with Ned to go knock out the last couple transects deep in the Virginia Range. The tour prior Kayla and I scouted the access road to Black Canyon but got there too late to attempt the rocky road. This time around Jen had given us a gate combo that was supposed to get us into the area from the south and save a lot of driving, so the afternoon Monday July 4th we headed north from the field house to check out this alternate route.

As things turned out, the gate code the boss had been given was incorrect, so we had to drive all the way around to the top of the canyon and access it from the crappy road we had located the first time. Of course this time we arrived at around 7pm to the start of the road, a full half hour later than we had last tour when we decided to pull the plug on it. But, these surveys needed to get done, so we pressed on and weaved, hopped, squeezed and bolder-crawled the truck down the road. The valley itself was completely degraded by numerous of filthy cows that had been up there for who knows how long which didn't help our spirits after the long day, but before dark we made it to camp.

I set up my tent on a a solitary strip of nice green grass and returning to the truck to get my gear. However, while away from my tent large, mean, and particularly well-hung bull walked along the grassy path that my tent happened to be blocking. It stopped and made some concerning noised towards my tent, as I watched and desperately hoped that it would decide to not confront the strange object in its path (since I really did need my ten t for the rest of the season/ seasons to come). Luckily, it decided it wasn't worth trampling the foreign object, and instead walked around through the shrubs. I then quickly moved my tent to a much less attractive bare patch of ground surrounded by cow pies and not on a cattle path, and slept hard until the next morning.

That next morning I was treated to the silhouette of my first Short-eared Owl in a few years drifting ghost-like above my tent, then Ned and I headed out to split the transect. My half was up and over the ridge, and as I climbed the slope the influence of the cattle waned and the landscape became quite lovely. Unlike the rest of the lower Virginias I had spent 6 days surveying the last tour, this area higher up was coded 'montane shrubland' on our rapid habitat assessments, a habitat neither Ned nor I had surveyed before. On these hillsides Snowberry, Gooseberry, Rabbitbrush and Sagebrush were almost equally common, with large fuzzy Mule's Ears sticking out throughout the shrubbery. A very nice change from the desolate sage and cheatgrass dominating the lower elevations.

Montane Shrubland

Birdwise the area was loaded with sparrows of various kinds, with the ubiquitous Brewer's Sparrows and Spotted Towhees joined by Vespers which are usually only found at these higher elevations. While hiking between points I noticed a long, black, pointed feather I soon realized must have been from a sage-grouse. Cool stuff! This is a species I'd only seen briefly once the season before, but it there was a feather there must be grouse around right?

Well, as I came up to my last point I caught a glimpse of something flushing quickly from the shrubbery. I went to investigate and sure enough not one but 7 Greater Sage-Grouse, a hen and her brood, burst from the ground nearby and sailed far over the sage and around the next hill. These birds are surprisingly strong fliers, and with their flapping and gliding they can cover impressive distances over the flats to get to safety. I didn't record them on my count unfortunately, but my veg survey afterwards just so happened to take me in the direction they had flown. As I rounded the hill the hen popped up on a rock to get a look at the intruder, and I was able to shoot this distant-ish video of my first perched sage-grouse.

Hiking back along the transect in a different spot from my tail feather I found a site where something had plucked another grouse.

Greater Sage-Grouse kill site

When I got back to the truck Ned informed me he'd had a number of Sage-Grouse flying around his half of the transect as well. Awesome, there were sage-chickens in these hills! We then spent much of the day navigating the roads within the mountains to get to our second transect even deeper into the range. In between the two major ridges was a large open valley containing Spanish Reservoir.

Spanish Reservoir Valley

The reservoir itself had a few Eared Grebes and a couple ibis on it which were fun, but the most exciting find were the mammals on the far end of the waterbody. At first from a distance I thought they must be more very distant cattle, but as we got closer we saw they were Pronghorn. Dozens and dozens of them! Many were drinking at the edge of the reservoir while a number of other groups were spread out throughout the valley. A quick count with the scope tallied some 90 individuals, more than either of us had seen in one place. As we drove towards them they started to move, and soon the valley was full of groups of Pronghorn running in all directions. What a wonderful valley hidden deep in the mountains!

We finally got to our second transect later in the afternoon, and after relaxing a while we set out to get our veg work done that evening. That way the following morning we could just bird and split, since it would take hours to exit the range and then we needed to drive another 4 hours up to the Black Rock/High Rock. While out vegging I flushed another hen with brood, in addition to a bachelor group of 3 large male sage-grouse, the first I'd seen. After all our veg was done we celebrated a hard day of work by eating some mostly-cooked hamburgers then settled down for the night.

The next morning survey began with a spectacular sunrise as the sun crept over the mountains.

Overall the habitat was similar to the day before and the birdlife reflected that with a few highlights. My half of the transect had a nice patch of mountain mahogany on a hillside which hosted a couple Fox Sparrows and a Dusky Flycatcher in contrast to the shrub-loving Green-tailed Towhees and other sparrows, and later on another Short-eared Owl had a brief dogfight with a Northern Harrier. Finally, I was treated to another sage hen with 6 young (great to see many of the hens up here with so many surviving young), and this lady let my get even closer for a video.

I'd thought I'd been lucky with the grouse so far, but I hadn't seen nothing yet! On the drive our we flushed another 6 hens with brood from the roadside, bringing my total for the 2 days to almost 50 birds.  Here's one last video of one of the broods we flushed, with commentary courtesy of Ned and music courtesy of the Crash Test Dummies. Note how the birds coincidentally flush in time with the music haha.

We ended up exiting the range in a bit under 3 hours of rough driving (thanks Ned!), and then we were off to our last bout with the Black Rock/High Rock to round out the birding season.

Monday, 18 July 2016

Close Encounters of the Ovine Kind, and Pine Nut Grail Bird

Nevada Bird Count Tour 6 Part 2

On June 25th after the morning's surveys in the Sierras, Kayla and I headed up west of the Pine Nut Range to loiter in an air conditioned Starbucks doing paperwork for the afternoon before heading up into the mountains. I was pretty exhausted that afternoon after a couple very early mornings, but it was going to be an easy drive up Sunrise Pass to our transects on the west side of the range, and my plan was to head to bed early and get a good sleep for the night. In the late afternoon we followed our map out of town to where the pass should have been.

What our map didn't show, however, was the matrix of un-mapped roads that crisscrossed the entire area west of the range. We took a road that appeared to be going the way we wanted to, but it ended up getting worse and worse, climbing and getting very rocky. The pass was supposed to be a good road, right? It was on the east side at least, why wouldn't it be on the west side? To make matters worse, our transect map didn't have the UTM grid on it, so we had no way of using our GPS to see where on these unmarked roads we happened to be and where we'd need to go from there. After driving this maze for an hour or so we came to the conclusion that we didn't want to be stuck on these bad back roads not knowing where we were when it got dark, so we decided to drive around the south end of the range and then drive across from the east like we usually do. The pass would be easy to find from that direction, and even if we got to our transect late, we would get there.

So, we drove around the mountains and were heading up the east side of the range as it was getting dark. It must have been something to do with the remaining light of the setting sun, the rising moon, or some combination of the above, but the sagebrush surrounding us seemed to glow with a weird fluorescence that neither of us had seen before. Kind of cool and a little odd, but we kept driving north as darkness descended around us.

Now since our field house is on this side of the Pine Nuts, and I've done a lot of work in these mountains both this and last season, I know these roads quite well. However, I'd never driven them in the dark, and as we continued down the road the surrounding did not look familiar to either of us. It occurred to us that many of the landmarks one uses to navigate in Nevada are distant hills and mountains, which one can't see when your field of view is limited to the glow of the headlights. I was keeping an eye on the GPS to see when our turn should have been coming up (we did have a map with UTMs for this side of the range), and after a while a turn appeared on our left. It didn't look right, so we kept going a bit further in hopes we'd recognize our road. After driving a little longer we didn't find the pass, so maybe the turnoff we passed was the one we were looking for? We headed back and tried that road, but it lead through a barbed wire gate we'd never noticed on the pass road before. Perhaps they close it at night? So we passed through it but the road petered out into nothing.

By this time it was about 10pm, well past dark, and we were both exhausted. Checking the GPS and map, our coordinates indicated the pass should have been at this location. What was going on??? We thought that perhaps we had somehow come onto an unmarked road parallel to the one we thought we were on, so we decided to retrace our tracks and make sure we were on the right road. We headed back south again praying we'd find our road.

After driving a while back the way we'd came. We noticed some strange lights in the distance. It was probably just a few lights from Wellington, the community south of these flats. Right, that made sense. Then all of a sudden up ahead of us and much closer than the distant lights we saw literally a thousand blue-green eyes glowing out at us from out of the darkness. As we pulled up this is what we saw:

It was hundreds of sheep, packed in a dense flock that had NOT been there on our way in, blocking our path. I'm not sure how many because the flock went farther than the lights of our high beams reached. Where the heck had these come from?? I'm not typically a superstitious person, but in combination with the sleep deprivation, unfamiliar surroundings in the dark, roads that were not there when our map and GPS said they should be, fluorescing sagebrush, strange lights, then mass of glowing eyes, I can safely say that at that moment I was the most creeped out that I can ever remember feeling.

We honked the horn and pulled forward, but the sheep just packed tighter together and remained barring our way. Okay, continuing south wasn't an option, so we just had to head back north and hope we'd missed something, because we REALLY didn't want to spend the night out in this strange place with its mysterious alien-sheep. As it turned out, after we passed our initial incorrect turn and went a little farther than we went before we found the signed Sunrise Pass Road. What a relief! We were still a while from our sites for the morning, but we knew where we were, so we crossed the mountains and got to camp around 11pm. So much for a good night's sleep! There wasn't an immediately obvious good spot to set up a tent so I simply threw my tent footprint in a gully with my sleeping bag on top of it and crashed hard until dawn came too soon.

The next morning was definitely one of my toughest mornings of the season to crawl out of my sleeping bag and head out to survey. Luckily my first point was only 50m away, and luckier still there was a surprise in store that would wake me right up and keep me going for the rest of the morning.

As I started my first point and blearily tried to put distance estimates to the birds I was hearing, a distant vireo song caught my ear. Unlike the typical slow song of the Plumbeous which is the standard PJ vireo, this song was very quick, with less than a second between phrases. Gray Vireos are found mostly in the scrubby PJ of desert mountains in the Mojave and eastern Great Basin, but have an almost mythical presence in the Pine Nuts, with a few NBC surveyors over the past 15 years or so detecting birds here well northwest of their usual range. Our boss Jen had always told us to keep an ear out for them when surveying in these mountains, but no one had got one for a number of years so I hadn't been convinced they were a real possibility. But this bird really was THE bird yeah? It wasn't just the sleep deprivation? Either way it got the adrenaline going, working better than the caffeine drops I'd drugged my water with earlier.

After completing my first point I hustled through the forest in the direction of the song. After a few hundred meters, sure enough there was a very fast singing vireo in the junipers in front of me. But Dave had said he once spent an hour on a 'fast' vireo that turned out to be a Plumbeous a couple years ago, so I needed a visual to be sure. With a bit of patience the bird finally showed itself, and sure enough it showed the rather drab garb of a Gray Vireo! You can't make it out due to it being back-lit in the dawn light, but here's a clip of the silhouetted bird singing.

From there I hurried back to the transect to complete it within the birding morning, but luckily I had service to text the boss about what to do with the vireo. Gray Vireos are a conservation priority species in the state, and with the few sightings in the Pine Nuts they has never been confirmed breeding there. It was pretty high priority to try to get some breeding evidence on this bird, so I got the go ahead to skip veg work after my transect in exchange for following the bird around. Not a bad deal!

The transect itself was pretty typical for lower PJ, with trees more scattered than higher up in the range and with a higher juniper component. Consequently quite a few Juniper Titmice were about, as well as groups of Bushtits with some bluebirds and jays to spruce (or juniper?) things up.

Once I was finished I headed back towards where the vireo had been. It was getting hot and many of the birds were quieting down, but luckily the bird was singing intermittently and I was able to follow it around for a good hour. Unfortunately I didn't any breeding evidence other than it singing, but it was interesting to follow it around as these birds can have pretty large territories (especially when they have no neighbours). This bird's was over half a kilometer in diameter.

After the vireo search I headed back to the truck to head out to civilization. Kayla had got her one priority veg point done but had left without completing more due to hearing gunfire in the the hills around the transect. America!

At this point we were really curious to take Sunrise Pass out of the mountains to see where exactly it came out. As we neared Mindin, to our shock things started to look a little familiar. A sign, a steep wash... and we pulled out on Johnston Way, the road we had taken in the day before! This was another 'twilight zone' moment, and we then turned around to go back the way we'd came to see where we went wrong. It turned out that the road to Sunrise Pass unintuitively strikes out south from the first intersection and then wraps around to eventually head towards the mountains. Good to know for next time!

Friday, 15 July 2016

High Sierra Birding

Nevada Bird Count Tour 6 Part 2

The second half of our tour started on June 24th with Kayla and I heading south across the California border to a couple of the NBC's handful of transects in the Sierra Nevada. Last year I got to spend a lot of time in this area, since my partner Alan had his area search at nearby Rosaschi. This was my first time heading down this season, so I welcomed the familiar drive through the sagebrush and pinyon-covered hills. We continued past Bridgeport Reservoir which often hosts Bald Eagle, scouted out Kayla's transect in the meadow across from the Pickle Meadow Mountain Warfare Training Facility (apparently choppers once came down in the meadow while someone was surveying), and then finally made it to one of the jewels of the NBC, LR-LittleWalker.

Valley leading to LR-LittleWalker

Situated in a large montane valley in the Sierra, there are almost no transects on the project like it. Sierra Junipers and Logepole Pines are western conifers that we don't get on the bulk of our transects, but they are found here in addition to aspen stands, sagebrush flats and willow meadows. Upon arriving, we hiked out to some of these willows in the hopes of finding some Calliope Hummingbirds. These tiny montane hummers are the smallest birds in North America, and and Little Walker was the only place I'd seen them before. Kayla hadn't ever seen one, so we were hopping we'd connect her with this lifer.

As we wandered up the valley we came across a spot where a Black Bear had marked a tree. Haven't seen any yet this season, but these were pretty high up on the trunk of this lodgepole.

Black Bear claw marks

Also fun was Giant Puffball. After we had hiked out another pair of hikers came out carrying it. Apparently they're delicious if you saute them in butter. I let them know I may have kicked their food when making sure it was a mushroom.

Giant Puffball

We eventually got to one of the wet meadows sprinkled with large mountain willows, and it wasn't long before Kayla spotted a small hummer on perched atop one of them. Due to its tiny size and location it was almost certainly a Calliope, but we wandered around a while longer for a satisfying look. Eventually we had close looks at the male when it returned to its same perch, and its mate came by to visit briefly. Really cool look,ing hummers, with their flared gorgets made of separate streaks of magenta on each feather unlike the solid throat patches of many hummingbirds. No photos worth posting unfortunately.

Hanging out back in camp for the evening we were treated to a single booming bout from a Sooty Grouse, my only one for the season and Kayla's life bird. A lone Mountain Quail was calling temptingly nearby as well, but remained quiet when we tried to track it down. This Western Tanager was more cooperative however and sang for us atop a juniper.

The next morning I headed out to my first point an hour earlier than I needed to in the hopes of hearing a new owl, perhaps a Northern Pygmy or Flammulated. Didn't connect with either of them, but a Great Horned Owl and a few Common Poorwills made a nice soundtrack for the moonlit walk to the transect.

As I said before, the habitat in this area is much different than most of the NBC, so it was a treat to get to count birds you get almost nowhere else on the project. Specialties like Pacific-slope Flycatcher, Red-breasted Sapsuckers, Ruby-crowned Kinglet and Nashville Warbler were found in the forests, along with Thick-billed Fox Sparrows, Wilson's Warblers and Lincoln's Sparrows in the shrubby wet areas.

Coniferous forest at the end of a sagebrush meadow

Beaver pond, something I you don't see many of out here

Dense aspen stand

The one downside of the transect is that on half the points you're fighting with the noise of the fast-flowing Little Walker River for any sound of birds. Both years I've surveyed this transect, at Point 9 next to the river I've actually been able to watch birds sing and not hear them! But the scenery and cool birds make up for the difficulty point-counting. Last year I had a flyby American Dipper at this point, but not this time around.

The wildflowers up here in the sagebrush meadows were lovely as well. Red Castilleja, white Plox, yellow Senecio and blue Penstemon added their colours to the landscape.

Montane Wildflowers

After completing the transect I hiked out to where Kayla would pick me up, and we drove out to town west of the Pine Nuts to get some paperwork done before heading into the range for the next day's surveys.

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Exploring the Virginias

Nevada Bird Count Tour 6 Part 1

My sixth tour on the NBC started earlier than normal, on the weekend after our fifth tour, because there were a few extra transects that needed to be done and the boss was looking for people who wanted to do them. On weekends like last one where I have no means of getting away from the field house (I really need to get a car!) I'm always chomping at the bit to get away and do something, so getting to work in the mountains for pay seemed like a great idea.

Making it even more enticing, the transect needing to be done was one part of a brand new NBC contract in the Virginias and nearby ranges up north of Reno. Most of our sites are part of long-running projects, and the NBC veterans like Dave and Sue have surveyed most of them over the years. The Virginias, however, were new to this season, so not even they knew what to expect. Luckily my whole first half of the tour was stationed up there to knock out the majority of the transects, so it was a rare opportunity on the NBC to explore the unknown area.

So I headed up on my own on Friday June 17th to spend the night in the oddly named Dogskin Range to be in position for a survey the next morning. In this range and in the nearby ranges the usual PJ of Nevada's mid-elevation ranges was reduced to simply J, as the forests were entirely scattered junipers. Apparently the pinyons drop out very quickly once you get north of Reno. Lots of rock outcrops scattered around added to the scenery.

Much of Nevada is used as open rangeland for cattle, so it's not unusual to come across a few while driving or hiking throughout the state.

That night after getting to camp I wandered around a while to see what was about. A Mountain Quail crowing from a distant hillside was a nice find, although not quite as nice as the Northern Pygmy-Owl I was trying to turn the distant call into, and a soaring Golden Eagle was a treat as always. Although my favorite sighting was around dusk when four Long-eared Owls flew right into the trees around camp. I've been having incredible luck with these owls this season! The local Blue-gray Gnatcatchers didn't like the owls as much as I did, resulting in this humorous video. It's not terribly sharp due to the lack of zoom on my camera, but it captures the essence of the encounter.

On my survey the next morning the birds were similar to the PJ birds in the Pine Nuts although lacking some of the species preferring thicker forest, with Juniper Titmice and Bushtits being a couple highlights. However it was the scenery that morning that really captured my interest. While the skies were clear at dawn, the wind quickly picked up from the West and pushed patches of dark menacing clouds rapidly by overhead. These clouds were low enough to shroud the tops of the surrounding ridges.

Another cool find was this neat formation I saw in one of the rock faces. I showed the photos to Sue, who has a fair bit of geological knowledge, and it turns out this formation is called a concretion. They originate in the formation of sedimentary rock, when minerals precipitate in layers around some sort of nucleus within the sediment, such as a pebble or shell. Apparently you can crack open some concretions an find a perfect fossil in its centre.


Also that morning I came across one of my favorite wildflowers out here, Cobweb Thistle (Cersium occidentale). It may sound funny to be fond of a thistle, but I find these flowers with their ghostly white stems contrasting bright pink inflorescences very beautiful.

Cobweb Thistle

After the morning of surveying I was back to the field house until the end of the weekend when Kayla and I headed back up to the Virginias for another three mornings of surveys. We drove in late in the evening on Monday the 20th and were treated to some spectacular clouds lit up by the setting sun.

A pronghorn doe enjoyed the sunset as well.

Tuesday morning I had a transect in the flats near Dry Valley. Junipers were scare and the area was mostly a sagebrush plain, providing home to hoards of larks and lark-like objects (i.e. Horned Larks, Lark Sparrows, and Western Meadowlarks) but not too much else of note birdwise. The real treat was in the mammalian department. As I was a minute into my fourth point count of the morning a couple pronghorn does and their fawns ran by not 50m away. I decided to stop the count to re-start it afterwards, and got my camera on the animals a they passed. While filming them I heard more incoming hoofbeats, and another 6 females and 2 fawns ran in from the same direction, only to stop right in front of me.

An even more incredible encounter happened on my final count of the morning. Not too much was going on, and I enjoyed the quiet count by watching a male Horned Lark giving its display flight. It would climb upward with 4 bursts of wingbeats, and on the fifth it would let out it's lovely tinkling song. Then it would climb another 5 steps and repeat, until it was a speck overhead. While watching the bird I heard the unusual sound of a male pronghorn's alarm call and saw two young bucks and an older male come over the nearby ridge. They were followed by a curious youngster who, not used to seeing strange two-legged beings, decided to investigate. I stood motionless as the fawn came slowly closer and closer to me, while the concerned mature buck followed some distance behind. The fawn eventually stopped a mere 15m from me, and for a moment paused to decide what it thought of this intruder. It then decided it wasn't worth getting any closer, and took off in a circle around me. The buck, at this point some 50m away, then took off at a run and followed a wider circle around me after its kid. Seeing a full grown male pronghorn take off and get up to speed from so close is a truely impressive thing. These animals are built on muscles made for running, and have been built that way since the ice age when they needed them to outrun the American Cheetah. No video of this encounter unfortunately, but I decided to keep the camera on my belt this time and just absorb the experience while it was happening.

That afternoon, with temperatures climbing to the mid-high 30s Celsius, we decided to head over to nearby Pyramid Lake to look for a shady place to putt on paperwork for the afternoon. Pyramid Lake is one of the few large terminal lakes in this desert state, and belongs to the Pyramid Lake Indian Reservation. We had to pay a $10 day use fee for our stay, but our nice set up under a shaded awning, with a picnic table to work on and a scope set up to watch the grebes and pelicans, it was worth it.

Paperwork and pelicans at Pyramid Lake

The following morning I had a hilly transect just northwest of the lake. Birds were downright quiet here, but the views of the lake and surrounding hills were spectacular. At the north end of the lake are large tufa sandstone formations called The Needles, and I was lucky enough to get to watch the sun rise behind them.

Sunrise over The Needles

Atop my highest ridge while looking over the cliff in the valley below I got a rare look at a Golden Eagle from above. It was really something to watch it gliding over the valley below me, with its shadow gliding over the sagebrush and cheatgrass below it on the valley floor.

The rocky terrain on these ridges was perfect for lizards, and I saw numerous Great Basin Collared Lizards along with the more widespread Western Fence Lizards.

Great Basin Collared Lizard

Western Fence Lizard

The afternoon and evening was spent driving all over the wilderness trying to find an alternate way into our transects for the next day, since our original route was thwarted by a gate on private land. Eventually we found a long, rough road in too late to attempt, so we took Plan B and got into camp by some back-up transects just before nightfall. Happy to finally be off the road, we took a break for a little astronomy. With the naked eye we were able to pick out 3 different planets, and after getting out my scope we had amazing views of Mars, the bands on Jupiter plus all 4 of its large moons (Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto), and the brilliant rings on Saturn in addition to its large moon Titan. A great way to end a long day.

Our final morning in the Virginias was fairly low-key, with my transect passing through rocky, hilly scattered juniper country again.

The rocky terrain seemed great for snakes, so I was keeping my eyes out. One thing that kept me on my toes were the dried lupine stalks. When kicked, their dry seed pods would rattle together and make a sound surprisingly similar to that of a rattlesnake. Whether or not you want to find them or not, hearing that rattle always makes your heart stop briefly! Didn't luck into any Great Basin Rattlesnakes this time, but this young Great Basin Gophersnake on my way back was a nice consolation prize.

Great Basin Gophersnake

Also on the way back I got close views of a pair of Swainson's Hawks mobbing a Golden Eagle which was fun to see. Additionally, fairly close to me meeting point I flushed another 3 Long-eared Owls! There must be a good population of rodents this year because I keep tripping over these birds.

And with that we finished the first half of our tour. After our mid-tour area search we were excited to have a circuit of transects in 3 different mountain ranges to round our the second half of the tour: the Sierras, the Pine Nuts, and finally back up to the Virginias.