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.

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