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.

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