Sunday, 29 May 2016

Great Basin National Park

Last weekend our crew headed out towards the Utah border to visit Great Basin National Park. One of the most under-visited national parks in the US due to it being in the middle of nowhere, the park surrounds part of the Snake Range and is home to Wheeler Peak, the largest mountain within the state, in addition to the spectacular Lehman Caves. I had heard wonderful things about the park and was excited for the opportunity to visit.

The reason for our visit was to assist with the park's avian bioblitz on behalf of Great Basin Bird Observatory. Unlike the bioblitzes that have been run in Ontario, in which experts across all taxa raid an area find as many species as they can, the blitzes at the park focus on a single taxonomic group and have more of an educational focus. To this end, the weekend included a number of guided walks as well as seminars on various avian topics. From GBBO, walks were scheduled to be led by Dave from our crew, our executive director Elizabeth Ammon, and Kelly Colegrove who runs GBBO's Crescent Dunes project. Ned, Kayla, Kayla's boyfriend Alex, and I, in addition to Kelly's crew, were to help out with the walks and explore the park as we liked.

Thursday May 19 I headed out with Dave bright and early to cross Nevada on Highway 50, the so-called "Loneliest Road in America." It's actually quite a lovely drive, as it bisects a series of mountains that make up the classic 'basin and range' of the Great Basin. Along the way I checked the map and watched as the Desatoya, Shoshone, Toiyabe, Toquima, Monitor, and White Pine Ranges passed beneath our tires. The Tragically Hip helped us across with their Yer Favorites greatest hits compilation, and before too long we arrived at the park.

The scenery was impressive, and as one drives up into the park the road forms a cross-section of the various habitats of the Great Basin, beginning with the Salt Desert through Sagebrush, Pinyon-Juniper, and Coniferous Forest. As an easterner, I always get a kick out of watching the habitat change so rapidly up an elevational gradient.

Snake Range in Great Basin National Park from the flats below

When we got to camp it was pretty windy and the birds were fairly quiet, so we hung around until the rest of our crew and Kelly's crew arrived. Ned, Sue, Kelly, and her crew arrived a little while later and the birds became a bit more active, so we wandered around a little. Not huge numbers, but it was nice to be back birding in the mountains. The highlight was later that evening when I heard a strange song coming from down in the shrubby creek below camp. It sounded mimic-like, with successive series' of repeated notes. But Sage Thrashers sound much more random than that, and are found in different habitat to boot. Then it hit me, mimic song from a mountain creek: American Dipper! These facinating birds are ones I've only encountered a couple other times before, and I had never heard them sing their mimid-like song. I got the crew, and we got to hear the bird sing and see the pair briefly before darkness fell. Here's a video of one of them I took the next day

The next morning Sue left us to visit family in Utah, and we were joined by Kayla and Alex who got in during the night. After birding a bit while people woke up, the group of us headed over to Snake Creek in the south of the park to scout Dave's hike route. It was pretty quiet bird-wise, but nice to hike among the mountain conifers and practice out montane botany. Some Douglas-fir were mixed in with the White Fir and aspen, and showed off their unique cones with bracts shaped like adder tongues or the back-ends of mice, depending on who you ask. One tree close to the trail showed of some of its new cones along with a mature one, making for a nice comparison.

Douglas-fir cones

Further down in elevation there was some mountain mahogany chaparral, the preferred habitat of Virginia's Warbler which I didn't connect with last season. We had hopes that we'd hear some of these birds from the hillsides on our hike the next morning.

That afternoon Kayla, Alex and I decided to pay the $10 fee for a tour of Lehman Caves. It was absolutely worth it, as the caves were packed and packed with delicate stalactites and stalagmites on the floor and ceiling, helictites sprouting off the walls, and many other unique limestone formations. I have done very little cave exploring before so it might not be saying much, but it was all completely unlike anything I'd ever seen before. The guide told us about how in days of your the cave had hosted an exclusive fancy restaurant as well as prohibition-era dance parties. Quite the place! I didn't take too many photos because photography was difficult in the dark and they simply didn't do it justice, but here are a couple.

'The Parachutes,' stalagmites descending from shield formations

In the evening we attended a well-stocked potluck and then stayed to watch Elizabeth's presentation on birding up an elevational gradient. The owling that night was knocked out by high winds, so we headed back to camp and called it an early night.

Our wake-up Saturday was cold and crisp with ice on our windshields. Dave, Kayla, Alex and I headed out before the rest of the crew woke up, since Dave's hike was scheduled earlier and farther away than the rest of the tours. You need to put the effort in if you want the birds! And the wake up turned out to be worth it for more than just the birds. As we began to drove higher into the Snake Creek Valley, we saw that the entire thing was covered in a blanket of snow. In the dawn sun it was absolutely breathtaking.

We were all taken aback by the beauty of the landscape but Kayla and Alex, being Californians from the Central Valley, were particularly stoked at seeing all the snow.

Only one person joined us for our hike, a keen birder from Utah named Evan who was doing his PhD on African vultures. Since we didn't have any newbies with us to interpretive-bird for, the 5 of us just birded our way down the road. There was nothing too crazy in terms of highlights, but it was wonderful to hang out with all the usual mountain suspects amid the fresh-fallen snow. Warbling Vireos were our most abundant bird and filled the aspen stands, and loads of Dusky Flycatchers sang from atop the conifers. We didn't hear any Virginia's Warblers from the hillside, but perhaps they didn't like the cold.

After the hike we had originally had plans to attempt to summit Wheeler Peak, and along the way try for specialties like Black Rosy Finch, American Three-toed Woodpecker, and Pine Grosbeak (for the latter two, the American's get to cheat on getting our northern breeders in their mountains). However, due to snow at the high elevations the road leading up to the trailhead was still closed from the winter, and we were not up for a 16 mile hike in snowshoes. However, we did drive up as far as we could, and got to check out Wheeler Peak from a lookout anyways. At over 13,000ft, this mountain was truly a monster.

Wheeler Peak

In the evening the predicted rain never materialized, so the whole lot of us got to spend time around a roaring campfire. Always a nice way to end a camping trip.

Sunday morning was our last morning in the park before heading back west for work the following day. I headed out with Dave again, and this time we were joined by Noah and Grace from Kelly's crew. As we drove through the flats on the way to Snake Creek Valley, a large buteo caught our eyes on the roadside hydro pole. We pulled over and got the glasses on it and, just as we suspected, a Ferruginous Hawk. And an adult dark morph no less! I was able to get the scope on the dark grinning monster, and after if flew behind us got this shot of his silhouette in the dawn light.

Ferruginous silhouette

When we got to the trailhead we met up with Dennis and Becca Serdehely, Nevada Bird Count veterans from years past. They were birders to the bone.

The five of us birded the same road as before, but the birds seemed to appreciate the lack of snow and slightly warmer temperatures and both our species count and numbers were up from the day before. Western Tanagers, MacGillvray's Warblers and Mountain Bluebirds that had been inexplicably absent the morning before made their respective presences' known.

One bird that remained silent was the sought-after Virginia's Warbler, but after the Ferruginous on our way in I was pretty content with whatever we ended up with. However, another unexpected highlight made the morning. While walking along, I saw what looked to be a large gamebird flapping and gliding across the valley and disappeared into a distant shrub. But then I saw a juvenile accipiter fly into the same bush. Perhaps they were a pair of hawks? But then there was a scuffle in the shrub, and out burst a Dusky Grouse, with a young goshawk hot on its tail! The pursuit followed the distant ridgeline until both birds disappeared from view. It wasn't a very close view, but still absolutely awesome to witness nature in action.

And the fun wasn't over yet. Noah was looking to get his lifer Plumbeous Vireo, so we decided to stop in the PJ on the way down to give it a try. After driving downhill a ways we saw a nice looking area of Pinyon and decided to stop. Seconds after stepping out of the truck we heard a Plumbeous Vireo singing just off the road, so Noah and I headed off and got crippling views of the bird singing on an open branch. The bird flew off after a bit, so we headed back to the trucks to leave. Just then, I heard a 2-parted warbler song from up on the hillside, like a sloppy Nashville crossed with a Yellow Warbler, and not as loose as the more common Yellow-rumped Warblers. Could it be a Virginia's? The bird sang a couple more times and confirmed my suspicion, but then shut up before we could scale the slope and get a look. Not the most satisfying lifer, but good enough to call it and at least add it to the 'heard only' list.

All in all, we had successful blitz and a great trip to a very under-appreciated park that sums up much of the Great Basin after which its named. However, it left us fairly un-rested for the start of our next tour, when we would head up to the wilderness of the mythical Black Rock/High Rock area of NW Nevada.

Saturday, 21 May 2016

Mojave Critters: Mini to Monsters

Nevada Bird Count Tour 3 Part 2

Last Friday the 13th after our raptor surveys Kayla, Ned, Dave and I headed back down to our Mojave site one final time to complete our surveys there for the season. Since they are further south the birds start and finish breeding earlier, so we need to finish our surveys there before everything fledges. It's also convenient for us, because the summer in the Mojave gets stupid hot. When we arrived on the mesa Friday evening and stepped out of the truck the dry heat hit us immediately.

We relaxed around camp that evening until the sun was starting to set, at which point the four of us hit the wash for some herping. On my trip south with Ned the weekend before the weather was downright cool, but this time sundown made the temperature comfortably warm, ideal for some herptological action. Plus this was likely our last chance to visit the Mojave for the rest of the season, so we aimed to make the most of it.

On our way out while the sun was still setting we didn't come across any lizards or snakes, despite checking all the cracks we could in the caliche walls. But on our way back after the sun went down the action started. Peering into one crack I saw my first woodrat. Also known as packrats, these rodents hoard large piles of sticks and things to make their nests, which are often easily seen in caves and holes throughout the desert. This individual is either a Desert or White-throated Woodrat, but telling them apart is pretty subtle.

Desert/White-throated Woodrat

Further along we came across a couple Western Banded Geckos. They look kind of like small, translucent Leopard Geckos that many people have as pets, but are really quite quick and agile. The younger ones are quite strongly banded, while the patterns of the adults are much more variable,

Adult Western Banded Gecko

More plainly-patterned juvenile

After a while we headed back to camp to make plans for the morning's surveys, and Kayla and Dave headed to bed. Ned and I were still keen on staying out while the herping was good, so we clambered around on the rocky hill above our camp. Still none of the hoped for Southwestern Speckled Rattlesnakes, but the geckos were abundant and we tallied another 5 of those. More exciting and unexpected was this striped-tailed lizard hiding in a crack in the rock.

Juvenile Common Chuckwalla

It was a juvenile Common Chuckwalla, a diurnal lizard that is always found near rocks and hides out the rest of the time in crevices like this. It was a lifer for both of us, and a great one to see since we struck out on them at Valley of Fire the weekend before. These lizards are known for crawling into cracks when threatened and puffing themselves so they can't be removed. Apparently the Natives used to get around this by popping the lizards with sharp sticks...

We also found a larger adult with a dark body and pale unpatterned tail in another crevice, but it was too far in for a photo.

Over the next 3 days between the 4 of us we completed the summer surveys of this year's grids at Warm Springs as well as all 4 transects on the property. I did the same grids and transect as the tour before so it was cool to see a lot of the same individual birds again, including bumping into the Black-tailed Gnatcatcher family again. I didn't see too much new but it was nice to spend a bit more time with our Mojave birds since I won't be seeing them for the rest of the season. By the early afternoon temperatures climbed to 100F, so we spent that time swimming in the river, napping under the awnings at the local wildlife refuge, or hiding behind the makeshift shade from our trucks.

Our second night folks were tired myself included, so I went out solo for a 45 minute walk before bed. In addition to a couple geckos I found this Giant Desert Hairy Scorpion. It wasn't as giant as some I'd seen last year, but still larger than the Bark Scorpion that can also be found nearby. This species isn't very potent, with a sting likened to that of a bee sting. Ned and Dave discovered last year that even though they act mean they are very reluctant to sting, even if one tries to get them to sting you. The guys made it into the safety portion of the field manual for that escapade.

Giant Desert Hairy Scorpion.

On Monday we left the south for good, and it just so happened this is where we had the find of the trip, and likely the season. Kayla and I left after the guys, but just south of Pahranagat we saw their truck pulled over on the side of the highway. I thought they might either have found something or were out watering some shrubs, so I sent Dave a quick text. No response, so we kept going. Five minutes later I got a call from Ned. He asked us where we were at and I told him we'd just passed them on the highway. He told us they'd just caught a Gila Monster crossing the road. A Gila Monster, the holy grail of Mojave herps!! I may have yelled a little and let out a few excited expletives, Kayla swung the truck around and we raced back south to where we'd seen their truck.

Upon arriving we saw the guys up on the hill waving to us. We ran to meet them and found them standing there with Dave's ice chest. This was what I saw when I opened the chest.

Banded Gila Monster

A full grown Gila Monster!!!! This beast was massive, filling the whole bottom of the cooler, and with a tail full of fat he looked to be healthy and in his prime. The guys then filled us in on the story behind the find. Apparently they had been driving down the highway when they saw the lizard in the opposite lane. They slammed on the breaks and pulled over to attempt to bring it to safety, but the lizard was testy and full of vigor, hissing loudly and striking at Ned's boots lightning speed that one wouldn't expect from an the large, cumbersome-looking animal. At this point a large semi truck was approaching, so with quick thinking Dave grabbed a piece of shredded tire from the side of the road and the guys wrangled the angry venomous lizard out of harm's way just in time. The beast was transferred to the ice chest then brought up and over the next hill, at which point Ned called us to let us know.

After we got our look at it the guys tipped over the cooler and carefully released the lizard under a nearby creosote.

The release

Gila in it's Mojave scrub habitat

Unfortunately the Gila wasn't completely unscathed, as it was bleeding from the side of the head and and looked blinded in one eye. However, the head still looked symmetrical and the jaw didn't appear to be broken, so it may have been barely nicked by an oncoming vehicle. Otherwise  it looked very healthy, and with a good store of fuel in it's tail to help it get through the recovery. We did the best we could for it, and hopefully it'll be able to pull through and roam the desert for years to come. Not under the best circumstances, but I feel incredibly lucky to have been able to see one of these monsters and hope that it'll pull through.

On our way back across the Extraterrestrial Highway Kayla and I stopped to take a photo of a road sign that summed up the open range, aliens, and general chaos that can be found in the no mans land of the ET Highway.

Range sign on the ET Highway

It also happened to be in an area of Joshua Trees and surrounded by rocky juniper hillsides, so we took the opportunity for a bit of a birding break. It was late in the morning, but I hoped we might hear some Black-chinned Sparrows singing from the hillsides, a species I'd only lucked into once before. As it was things were fairly quiet, but we did hear a single Cactus Wren and got great looks at a pair of Scott's Orioles feeding in the yuccas. Both birds were new for Kayla and I had only seen them for the first time the weekend before.

Joshua Tree-Blackbrush community with Junipers on the surrounding slopes

The rest of the drive was fairly uneventful until we got to the mountains near Walker Lake. We had briefly glimpsed a couple Desert Bighorn Sheep on the way down, so I let some cars pass us by and we kept our eyes keen as we neared that spot hoping we'd get better looks. As we came to the spot I spotted one sheep up on a hillside so we pulled over. It had disappeared, but Kayla soon noticed a herd of about a dozen just across the road back the way we'd came.

I'd only seen sheep a couple times very briefly from a vehicle before, so it was great to get to study them with bins on foot. The group was made up of females, as the big rams are on their own this time of year. One of the ewes was distinctly paler than the others.

Pale bighorn

We heard some rocks fall from the cliff above and upon looking to investigate saw another 10 animals up on a shelf including some small lambs. Super cute to see, but too high up for photos.

We had one more day of the tour in which I did some more scouting for my area search, but I'll cover those highlights on my post next week. This weekend (May 19-22) our crew is heading over to Great Basin National Park near the Utah border to run some birding hikes for the Bio Blitz the park is running. The park is home to the highest peak in Nevada, some cool montane birds and incredible scenery. I've never been there before but it's supposed to be spectacular, so stay tuned to hear about that in my next installments.

Friday, 20 May 2016

Walker River Area Searching and Pine Nuts Raptoring

Nevada Bird Count Tour 3 Part 1

Our third tour began on May 9th with some scouting of our area search plots. On the NBC much of the work we do consists of distance-based point counts, but each season a number of more intensive area searches are conducted as well. These are located on a current transect and involve repeated visits over the course of the season, with the goals being to map  the territories of all species on the plot and find as many nests as possible. This data then acts as the ‘truth’ with which to compare our point count data against and helps calculate detectability ratios etc.

We won’t start actual surveys on our area searches until next tour, but on Tuesday the 10th everyone on the crew went out to their respective plots to get a feel for their areas. Kayla and I headed to her plot first, at Pitchfork Ranch along the Walker River.

A pretty nice spot, with many massive cottonwoods around to support birds and very few shrubs for the birds to skulk in and make life difficult.

Cottonwoods at the river bend on LR-Haystack

This type of cottonwood gallery habitat supports an impressive number of raptors, and we many Swainson’s and a few Red-tailed Hawks soaring about. A distant Prairie Falcon was a treat on a distant power pole, pretty far but close enough to ID.

On the walk in we saw a family of Great Horned Owls. I’m always impressed with how many of these owls I see down here. It seems there’s lots of prey about, but due to the lack of forests the birds have fewer places to hide.

Great Horned Owl Juvenile

and Adult

Kayla also had a large colony of Yellow-headed Blackbirds on a corner of her plot. It’s always great to see these gorgeous large blackbirds and hear their ridiculously obnoxious calls. The birds had been calm while we were watching them despite all the cruising buteos about, when all of a sudden the pond burst into a frantic flurry of alarm notes. I called out that a falcon must be passing over, and sure enough Kayla picked out a gorgeous adult Prairie that cruised overhead and gave us great looks.

Next we headed to my area search further south at the infamous Rafter 7 Ranch. The NBC established a few transects on the ranch last season, when we discovered that the willow- and buffaloberry-choked riversides there can be hell to navigate. As luck would have it, I was given my area search there, so it was really important to scope it out to see where I could get through and where I might need to flag and break some trails through the tangle.

Rafter area search, with the willows stretching from the left across the top

On the way down we came across our first Great Basin Gopher Snakes of the season. These gorgeous constrictors are quite large, with many 4-5ft long and some as long as 7ft, and also quite common, so we get to see then now and then. Here’s me with our first one, a four-footer.

Me with a Great Basin Gopher Snake

And after helping it off the road

We got Rafter late in the morning so the birds had quieted down, but my first migrant Olive-sided Flycatcher was a treat.

Olive-sided Flycatcher

It turned out not to be quite as bad to navigate as I had feared, and it didn’t take us as long as I thought to weave through the length of my plot. While we were concentrated more on the navigation than the birds, we did get great looks at one of the male Lazuli Buntings that I’ll get to monitor for the season.

After our day of scouting the crew moved into the Pine Nut Range west of Yerington to blitz some of our Raptor-Raven surveys. As the name suggests, the Pine Nuts are dominated by Pinyon-Juniper forest with areas of Sagebrush in between, and the scenery is gorgeous. My first day of surveying involved my first good hike of the season, some 12km over hills and valleys, and it was really refreshing to be out hiking again in the range.

The habitat is dominated by the pale green of sagebrush and the darker green of the conifers, so the flowers like paintbrush and balsamroot really pop.

Indian Paintbrush and Balsamroot

On my hike I came across a few Great Basin Collared Lizards. None were as big and bright as they come, but always fun to see.

Great Basin Collared Lizard

 But the highlight of my day's surveys was on my second point count. I was just preparing to start my count when I heard what sounded like a strange raven call overhead. I looked up and was surprised to see a male Pronghorn on the hillside above me! It was staring intently at me, and every once and a while it would give a strange call. I stood still and began my survey, and over the course of the count the Pronghorn kept staring at me, creeping forward, and making its odd call.

Eventually it lost interest and headed off to the north. A few minutes later I saw a group of 9 more distant animals on a far hillside in that same direction, so I assume this was the leader of that herd that had come to check out this odd intruder into its regularly empty domain. It was my first time seeing Pronghorn on foot and definitely one of my favorite wildlife encounters with GBBO.

After our hikes we headed to a great camp Dave new of nearby. While hanging out that afternoon playing cards we had a couple other cool non-avian visitors. The first was a huge Long-nosed Leopard Lizard, a fairly common species across the state but the largest most of us had ever seen.

Long-nosed Leopard Lizard

We also had a Black-tailed Jackrabbit hanging around our camp. These are super common across the state, but usually to quick and skittish for a photo. This one passed pretty close by us a couple times though, so I got a shot of it showing off it's massive jackrabbit ears.

Black-tailed Jackrabbit

Our second day of surveying put Kalya and I higher up near Sunrise Pass. On the way up I had a count near a couple small copses of aspen and had Green-tailed Towhee, Fox Sparrow, and Dusky Flycatcher singing. I was surprised to encounter them at this low an elevation, but I suppose the aspen liked the conditions and the birds like the aspen.

Further along we got into the PJ proper. Not always the easiest to scan for raptors through the trees, but lots of the Pinyon breeders such as Western Tanager, Black-throated Gray Warbler and Plumbeous Vireos kept me company. Hearing my first Mountain Quail crowing from the hillsides was a welcome sound to my ears. Not to be outdone, the views on some of my counts were pretty nice too.

On Friday the 13th, our last day in the Pine Nuts before heading back south to Warm Springs, we encountered my 3rd gopher snake of the season. Knowing the snakes were out we were keenly watching the road on our drive out, and were thrilled when we spotted our first of season Great Basin Rattlesnake ahead of us.

Great Basin Rattlesnake

The only rattlesnake this far north, these snakes are quite variable in pattern so it's always a interesting to see what each will look like. We stopped to take a look at it and let it cross the road, but it decided the shade under our truck looked enticing and promptly curled up between the front tires.

Rattler hiding in the shade of the truck

After taking some photos we coaxed it on it's way off the road with one of our veg poles. With it moved to safety we made it out of the mountains and then headed south for our last Mojave surveys of the season.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

Mojave Roadtrip Part 5: Spring Mountains and Quadfecta Questing

Our last morning of our Mojave circuit we woke up chilly and early and headed higher up for some montane coniferous birding. This was the same spot where I experienced my first montane birding last year with Dave and Ned and it was wonderful to back, this time with snow from the day before dusting the surrounding Ponderosa Pine and White Fir.

We made a couple of short hikes and were treated to the piping of Pygmy Nuthatches on the tree trunks, warbling of Cassin’s Finches from the treetops, and my personal favorite, the trills of Broad-tailed Hummingbirds flying overhead. These montane hummers were one of my highlights from last season, and seeing the bright rosy-throated males feeding on Cliffrose from meters away was lovely to see.

Western Bluebirds were abundant breeders up in the Springs, as were the more local Gray-headed Juncos. Ruby-crowned Kinglets were about too singing their jolly songs from the treetops, which sent my thoughts back to the boreal forest that I haven’t visited in my 2 years since the Manitoba Atlas.

One specialty of the Springs that did not show was Grace’s Warbler. This pine-lover is more common further south, but makes it up to Nevada only in a few sky islands such as the Springs Mountains. Especially this early they can be tricky to hear let alone see, and as of last they are still one of a few birds on my ‘heard-only’ list. However with the chilly conditions we were not even ‘graced’ with her song, so we had to leave this species for another time.

We also saw a couple of Palmer’s Chipmunks, a pale chipmunk species endemic to the Spring Mountains in the Ponderosa Pines up over 7800ft. I saw my first of these last season and this year the looks were very brief, but it’s always cool to see a species with such a limited distribution.

After our high mountain birding Nai and Ned caught up on some sleep for the drive north, and I took the time to wander around the Pinyon-Juniper forest around camp.

It was loaded with smart-looking Black-throated Gray Warblers as well as the plain but quirky Juniper Titmice, some Plumbeous Vireos and many of the usualy P-J birds. Western Bluebirds were abundant at this elevation as well, and one offered me a nice photo.

Western Bluebird

Here I also connected with a target lifer, the Panamint Chipmunk. Very similar to the Palmer’s it has an extra dark stripe on each side and prefers the Pinyons at lower elevations. This camp squirrel was quite tame and allowed me to study its field marks to be sure of the ID and get a photo.

Panamint Chipmunk

In the late morning Nai left us to head back to the sage-grouse crew and Ned and I made one final stop before heading north. The nearby access road to Corn Creek passes through sine Mojave scrub and salt flats and is one of the most well-known places in the state for Bell’s Sparrow and Le Conte’s Thrasher. I had seen both here last year but on this trip the Le Conte’s was the last hurdle in our way from achieving the mythical ‘Desert Thrasher Quadfecta,’ so despite it being midday we decided to give it a shot.

We got out for some very non-exciting birding which involved scanning quiet empty saltbrush flats in the heat of the noonday sun for movement or call notes. Many Bell’s were singing their song with less range than their Sagebrush counterparts, but these sneaky sparrows were very uncooperative and only one gave us a brief view of its field marks visually differentiating it from Sagebrush Sparrow. Try as we might, the thrashers gave us a thrashing by being both invisible and silent, and after a had an hour we decided we needed to leave our dreams of the Quadfecta begin the 7 hour journey north.

All in all despite some missed targets and cool weather it was an absolutely incredible trip. The Mojave showed us some of her incredible birds, habitats and scenery in addition to a taste of her wild weather tendencies. Plus the entire thing was comfortably relaxed logistically, and I got to spend it with a couple awesome folks. A great way to spend a weekend and pump me up for the start of the next tour.

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Mojave Roadtrip Part 4: Valley of Fire, water, ice and snow

Saturday May 7 after a bit of a sleep in Ned, Nai, and I headed towards Valley of Fire State Park. The park surrounds a large area of red and pink sandstone formations and is home to many rock- and sand-loving herps species such as Southwestern Specked Rattlesnakes, Common Chuckwallas and Desert Iguanas. Of particular interest though is that it harbours a healthy population of Gila Monsters. While these beasts are seldom encountered, it was the right time of year and we hoped the rainy weather might bring some out for us.

Upon arriving to the park we got our first close-up views of some of the formations. We stopped briefly at the visitor centre where we met a couple from Washington D.C. who were keen on looking for herps as well. After chatting with them a bit we drove north through the mountains to White Domes at the top of the park where we planned to hike a ways into the mountains. The drive through was absolutely stunning. I’ve never been to Utah or other similar places so this was my first time seeing these kind of formations, and I was definitely impressed.

When we got to White Domes we decided to walk an under-travelled trail to escape the tourists, and explored up some canyons and washes we had entirely to ourselves. The three of us were checking every rock and crevice we could for SW Specks and Gilas, the cliffs for Chucks and the sandy brush for Iguanas, but the cool weather must not have been to the herps liking and despite our long hike these targets continued to evade us. We did see a few Great Basin Whiptails and Common Side-blotched Lizards, but the herp front was pretty quiet. However, the scenery kept us entertained, and made me realize that I couldn’t stop and take a photo of everything. The storm clouds rolling in really made the colour in the stones pop.

Along the way on a rock shelf I came across this beautiful Paiute arrowhead carved from some purple stone. I’ve never found anything like this before so I was pretty excited with the find.

Paiute Arrowhead

We also found this Lucy's Warbler nest in a perfect hole in the side of the cliff. They and the Prothonotary are the only cavity-nesting warblers, although the Lucy's definitely prefer drier habitats than the wooded sloughs of their golden cousins.

Lucy's Warbler nest

Another major highlight came as we climbed towards the top of a narrow wash. Nai was in the lead as Ned and I were off to the sides checking crevices, and she called out “I’ve got a snake.” Right in front of her was a Mojave Desert Sidewinder, and a very full one at that! It’s meal dwarfed it’s small head, and it didn’t really want to move anywhere as we came to get a few photos. I’d only ever seen one of these gorgeous Crotalids before, our camp mascot “Sidely” from last season at Ash Meadows, so it was a treat to be reacquainted with this small horned rattlesnake.

The wash

Mojave Desert Sidewinder

We continued our loop and made it back to the parking lot for a welcome water We then headed back through the mountains towards the visitor centre to refill our water jugs, scanning the cliffs for the Desert Bighorn Sheep that roam the red stone. The sheep weren’t out to show off though.

When we got to the visitor centre we inquired on where to find chuckwallas, and as we suspected they should have just been ‘around’ with all the rocks about. Perhaps it was just a bit too cold and overcast for them to be out and basking. While Ned and I talked with the ranger, Nai bumped into our herping friends from the morning. They were really excited about our Sidewinder find, and informed us of a bunch of chuckwallas near the campground. We went to fill up our water jugs before heading off on the hunt when we spotted a hummingbird perched in a shrub across the parking lot. I got my binoculars on it and saw what appeared to be flared ends to its gorget. It then flew straight towards me before disappearing over the building, and showed an extensively blazing purple head that no Black-chin could sport. It was around this time that I yelled out “I THINK IT’S A COSTA’S”, getting a laugh from Nai and some strange looks from some of the other tourists about. It was only a very brief view, but diagnostic to clinch this life bird that can be tough in the Mojave and I had missed last season.

With water jugs full we got back to the car and saw an ominous storm approaching from the direction we were going to go look for Chucks. Not promising, but the scene was absolutely spectacular.

We were almost to the campground when the rain started, followed by pouring rain, then promptly by dime-sized hail. Not ideal for looking for basking lizards, so we headed out of the park towards the Spring Mountains to spend the night. Soon we encountered the area where the storm had opened up at full strength. The hail littered the ground like snow, and flash flooding had washed out the road in many places. I was well aware of the flash flood potential in the desert, but this was the first time the three of us had ever seen it in life. It was truly impressive, with the road completely submerged in places and the Mojave scrub looking like a swamp.

Floodwaters and hail

However, the floodwaters were no match for Sally Suby, and in good time we made it to Lee Canyon and began climbing from the desert up to our camp in the P-J. The mountains higher up were snow-covered with the recent storm, but our camp was low enough to only experience chilly rain.

Getting to camp we mobilized like a well-oiled machine, with Nai setting up the tarps and Ned and I collecting firewood. Before long we were out of the rain beside a cozy fire, a great way to spend our last night of the trip.