Saturday, 23 April 2016

Mason Valley Birding

On the NBC we work 10 day tours and get 4 day weekends at the end of each tour. It's a great system since it gives you plenty of time to travel and spend a couple days somewhere. This weekend more exotic travel wasn't in the cards, but Dave, Sue, and I did some local birding in the area around our field house in Yerington. There are some nice spots close by, and it was great to see a bunch of Great Basin species that were new for the season after starting out in the south.

April 21, 2016

Thursday morning we headed out to Mason Valley WMA, just 10 minutes north of the field house. It's definitely the best spot around for birds, as it contains riparian habitat along the Walker River corridor, an extensive complex of wetlands, some irrigated agricultural land as well as expanses of salt desert. The first 3 habitats indicate water, which is key to finding birdlife in Nevada. Like down at Warm Springs the surrounding deserts can be pretty desolate, but where there is water there will be birds.

On our drive in we saw a group of Mule Deer. Nevada's only deer, their big mule ears are always fun to see. They weren't too cooperative but here are a couple peeking out from behind some greaswood.

Mule Deer
We started our morning birding by walking one of our transect routes in the riparian area along the Walker River. Two of our largest contracts on the NBC are for surveying riparian areas along the Walker and Truckee Rivers, and the willows and cottonwoods along these river systems support an incredible amount of birdlife.

Walker River riparian habitat
Although they haven't showed up to our backyard in numbers, the wrens were back in full force along the Walker, with loads of both House and Bewick's singing from the nearby shrubs. Many species like Yellow Warbler, Song Sparrow, Tree Swallow and Brown-headed Cowbirds were common just as they are in similar habitat back home, while Ontario's Eastern Towhees and Eastern Bluebirds are replaced by Spotteds and Westerns here in Nevada. The Western Bluebirds were a particular treat, and we saw a couple pairs on our walk. They are not very common in Nevada, with Mountains being more regular across most of the state, but according to my boss Mason Valley is one of the most reliable places to get them.
Western Bluebird
It's still a little early in the season, and some of the regular breeders such as Bullock's Oriole, Black-headed Grosbeak and Blue Grosbeaks were noticeably absent. In a week or two they'll be back, and with them the cottonwoods will be full of migrant flycatchers, vireos, and tanagers as well. As it was, a few Audubon's Warblers livened up the trees and gave us a taste of the migrants yet to come.

We had luck in the non-bird department as well. We tried flipping logs in a few spots and struck out with herps there, but we did glimpse a few Western Fence Lizards scurrying around the leaf litter (and diving under bushes to evade capture). Here's one from last year:

Western Fence Lizard

We also had a few Desert Cottontails along the road. They're pretty similar to our Eastern Cottontails back home, but are a bit smaller and grayer with larger ears. Out here the Mountain Cottontails replace them at higher elevations.

Desert Cottontail

After our walk along the cottonwoods we drove to the wetlands on the east side of the property to check for waterbirds. Unfortunately most of the wetland driving loop was closed for a controlled burn, but at the main pond we had Western, Clark's, Eared and Pied-billed Grebes along with many American Coots and some Gadwall and Ruddy Ducks. A few shorebirds were around as well, and in addition to the well-seen Spotted Sandpipers we had a flyby pair of Black-necked Stilts and an American Avocet, and heard the distant "pill-will-willet" of a Western Willet. Never did track down where these 3 large impressive shorebirds were feeding though. While looking for them, Marsh Wrens chattered from the cattails and some Yellow-headed Blackbirds added their obnoxiously raspy songs to those of the more familiar Red-wings.

Yellow-headed Blackbird

Overall it was a great morning, and in a few hours we tallied over 50 species. The checklist is here.

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Nevada Bird Count - 1st Tour

Last Saturday after months of anticipation I was finally able to return to Nevada to start my season on the Nevada Bird Count with Great Basin Bird Observatory. The rest of the crew had started the first tour that Monday, but the tail end of my undergrad kept me in Guelph until Friday. After finishing my exams I gutted the rest of my room and headed down to crash at my Grandma and Uncle Stan's place who live in Etobicoke within striking distance of the airport. Aside from a 2 hour delay on Saturday due to our original plane being found not to be sky-worthy and them having to find us a new plane, things went pretty smoothly and I touched down in Las Vegas at 3:00 Pacific Time. From there I was picked up by Dave Henderson, field biologist at GBBO and friend from last season, and after some errands we were off to our camp on the mesa near our Mojave site at Warm Springs.

View of the Las Vegas Strip from the airport. As close as I have any desire to get to it.

View from the mesa, much more my speed!

Once at the mesa I got to meet the rest of the crew, most of whom were returning GBBO techs from various seasons. It was good to see Ned Bohman from last season and Sue Bruner, an NBC veteran who I met last year when she was working on GBBO's Crescent Dunes project. I also got to meet Selina Dhanani who re-joined the NBC from the year before last and is the only fellow Canadian on the crew, and Kayla Henry who is this year`s only new tech and my partner for the first half of the season. I spent a while catching up with them on how the season had been going. I lucked out with the weather it seems, as wicked winds the last couple days had destroyed 2 of their tents. Less luckily, I also missed a Zone-tailed Hawk a couple days before, a less-than-annual vagrant to the state. We`re scrutinizing all the Turkey Vultures we see now, but with the winds since the sighting the bird is likely in Utah somewhere...

I chatted with the crew until dark, at which time I finally got to do what I`d been waiting to do for the past 4 months or so: go explore the wash below our camp. I`d found a Southwestern Speckled Rattlesnake down there last season and I was hoping we could repeat the sighting. Ned joined me, we donned our headlamps and climbed down to the floor of the wash. We wandered along the cliff on the far side checking every crack we could find to see what we could turn up. I had snakes on the brain, so I was pretty surprised when I saw this guy holed up for the night under a rock ledge:

Mojave Desert Tortoise

A Mojave Desert Tortoise! One of the most iconic herps of the Mojave Desert, and a pretty big one as desert tortoises go according to Ned. He`d worked with the tortoises this past fall after finishing with GBBO and had lots of experience with these guys, but I never crossed paths with one last year so I was pretty pumped with the lifer.

Further along I got my second herp lifer of the season, a Western Banded Gecko. They look kind of like a skinny, translucent Leopard Gecko, and it was a lot quicker than I expected.

Western Banded Gecko

The next morning 3 mornings consisted of bird training at Warm Springs. The Muddy and Apcar Rivers are fed from numerous hot springs in the area, making the valley a lush oasis. It used to be even more impressive some 6 years ago before a fire burned much of it to the ground (instigated by the presence of many non-native palms planted for resorts that used the hot springs in the area in the 1950s). However, the rate of regrowth in the middle of the desert is really impressive, and it is still one of the birdiest places in southern Nevada.

Road through the Honey Mesquite and Quailbush

Quailbush thicket along the Muddy River

Things were a little slower bird-wise compared to last year, possibly a combination of us being there a week earlier and the rain and windstorms that hit over the past week. Despite that there are still birds all over the place, with Lucy's Warblers and Verdins singing from the mesquites, Vermilion Flycatchers and Western Kingbirds calling atop the cottonwoods, Phainopeplas 'hoit'ing and fluttering around, and Gambel's Quail just about everywhere. Here's a checklist from my first morning out to give a feel for what's around.


A couple of my favorite birds at the site are Crissal Thrasher and Greater Roadrunner, but both are pretty skulky in the thick masses of shrubs and despite hearing numerous individuals of each I've only got fleeting glimpses of them so far this season. We're heading back down next tour so hopefully I'll get some satisfying views then. I did have my best ever looks of another skulky species though, the Black-tailed Gnatcatcher. We heard a male scolding from a mesquite and a bit of pishing brought him out for incredible views.

The same morning I had the gnatcatcher I found this centipede under a board. Alien-looking thing!


I got to wander around Warm Springs a bit after work one afternoon and spend some time looking for more non-avian fauna. I spent much of the time around the Apcar stream where I connected with my main target, Woodhouse's Toad. The toad was my third herp lifer of the season, it looks similar to our Fowler's Toad in Ontario (which used to be considered a subspecies of Woodhouse's).

Woodhouse's Toad

On the drive back north to our field house in Yerington we took the Extraterrestrial Highway which passes Rachel, the closest settlement to Area 51 and home of the Little AleInn. Kayla hadn't been there before so we stopped to check it out.

Extraterrestiral Highway Sign

The Little AleInn

We also saw a single pronghorn laying down on the desert flats on our way across in addition to some wild horses. A stop at Twin Springs along the way produced a few Ring-necked Ducks (my first for the state), Brewer's and White-crowned Sparrows in the surrounding shrubs, a Rock Wren singing from the cliff behind us, and a Common Raven dogfighting with a Red-tail.

Twin Springs Reservoir on the Extraterrestrial Highway

I'm panning on doing a little local birding this weekend with Dave and some of the crew to check out some of the northern birds and get my Great Basin ears up and running, but next tour we head back down to the Mojave where hopefully some of the new migrants will be returning.

Monday, 11 April 2016

Evening Herping

Each spring the last few years around exam time a group of us head out to a shallow, fishless pond in a local park in Guelph where a few years ago Reuven found that Blue-spotted Salamanders come to breed. This year with the strange weather we've been having our group jumped the gun over a month ago, and we went out a few times in early March during that first warm spell that even had a few warm, rainy nights. After a few quiet and fairly unsuccessful outings throughout March (only herps in 3 or 4 nights out were 2 individual Spring Peepers and a single Blue-spotted Salamander) we held off on more herping for a while to let things warm up again.

Well tonight looking at the weather Kevin Kemmish saw it was going to be warm and rainy once again after our recent second bout of winter, so 4 of us decided to try the pond again.

Local herping pond

The pond itself is fairly shallow (although still slightly over rubber boot height in the middle) and full of grass, with some patches of cattails around the edges. This grass makes one have to work a fair bit harder to find salamanders than the clear woodland vernal pools I've visited in other areas, as you need to luck into an individual when it happens to be in a gap in the grasses.

Getting there a little early before it got dark, I was treated to a doe and yearling fawn walking around the pond, flushing an American Woodcock in the process. I also heard my first Eastern Meadowlark of the year give it's buzzy call from the adjacent field.

It was still fairly chilly as the sun went down and the frogs were silent. However, a couple nearby woodcocks filled the silence for us with their peenting and twittering sky dances. While listening to them, we were able to find a number of Wood Frogs quietly clinging to clumps of cattails.

Wood Frog
At one point I briefly spotted what was likely the wriggling tail of a salamander, but before I could get a better look it disappeared into the sea of grasses. Luckily the second one wasn't quite quick enough.

Blue-spotted Salamander trying to sneak away through the grass

Blue-spotted Salamander
Over the couple hours we were there we found some 6 salamanders between us, all Blue-spotted. We have yet to find Spotted Salamanders in this location. The frogs remained very quiet, and we only heard the occasional quacking of a Wood Frog in addition to the regular calls of a single Spring Peeper. Unfortunately the peeper became uncooperatively quiet when we tried to get a look at him. We did also find an egg mass, which Steven Kell ID'd as Wood Frog. The eggs of a Blue-spotted would be larger and less densely packed.

Wood Frog egg mass

So all in all it was a successful evening. I was happy to see some of our Ontario amphibious critters before I head down to the deserts of Nevada this weekend, where amphibians are harder to come by.