Monday, 16 May 2016

Mojave Roadtrip Part 2: Southern Nevada Birding

Thursday of our trip I woke up before dawn and eagerly awaited the dawn chorus in the Joshua Tree forest. It turned out to be much quieter than I expected, and aside from many Black-throated Sparrows and Ash-throated Flycatchers there wasn't too much going on initially. Ned got up and we headed out to search for our Cactus Wrens, Scott's Orioles, Bendire's Thashers and Gilded Flickers.

Not 100m from our camp I spotted a flicker on a nearby snag. It looked smallish to us, and more importantly it had an obviously full brown cap contrasting with it's gray face. We watched it a little while, debating on whether we should flush it to get a look at it's what we hoped to be yellow underwings, and while doing so the bird flew directly away from us. In the pre-sunrise light we only really made out the silhouette of the bird so we couldn't clinch the ID. We failed to re-find the bird, but we assumed we'd trip over another one later on if this possible bird had been so easy.

Probable Gilded Flicker

During this time my lifer Cactus Wrens began sounding off, giving their song that sounds like an engine trying to turn over. I had really been looking forward to getting these impressively large wrens with their unique song, and eventually got satisfying looks at a few of them. We wandered around for an hour and a half but the birdlife remained relatively quiet. A few distantly vocalizing flickers could not be located, and we didn't catch a hint of the characteristic songs of either our oriole or thrasher. However, it was amazing to wander through this habitat, as the Joshua Trees were all unique in shape and size and looked like something out of Dr. Seuss.

Joshua Trees forest at Wee Thump

Also spread through the mix were many Buckhorn Cholla, which the Cactus Wrens use to nest.

Buckhorn Cholla with old Cactus Wren nest

The birding was a bit slow, and since it was still early we decided to take a break and head down to another treed migrant trap in nearby Nipton. Dave had raved about before we left, so we planned to check it out and return for our targets afterward. However, as seems to be our luck with these desert migrant traps, Nipton really didn't produce for us. A few warblers, a tanager, and a grosbeak were in the small community in addition to a bunch of doves, but it was a long shot from dripping with migrants like Cassin's Kingbird and Kentucky Warbler that Dave boasted about from one of his visits.

After that brief visit, we decided to head back to the Joshua Trees and look for our breeding birds for the rest of the morning. But to our surprise, the desert was eirily silent. It was only 7:30, still quite cool and with almost no wind, but when we arrived at Walking Box Ranch we really had to work for our birds. We got our of the car and wandered a couple circuits, but aside from a few scattered birds the desert was still dominated by the same Black-throats and Ash-throats. We birded a while on foot then decided to head back to Wee Thump to try again there. On our way out I spotted a couple large but slender-ish birds atop a few josh trees, and upon getting out we had our lifer looks and listens of a pair of Scott's Orioles. The song of the male was incredibly beautiful, with the tone of a Western Meadowlark but a familiar oriole melody, and that beauty was matched by his brilliant yellow and black plumage.

A quick drive through Wee Thump produced some more flickers of the un-gilded variety, but things were still quiet so we decided to head back into Searchlight to try our luck with the Curve-billed Thrashers again. Birds were moving about and making noise on this visit, and we explored the park and walked the surrounding neighbourhood. A White-winged Dove singing right above our car as we pulled up provided our best ever look at the species, and a great listen to it's "who-cooks-for-you" song (although they'll never replace our Barred Owls!). We found my first Western Wood-Pewee of the season as well as some Hooded Orioles and a Western Tanager which are always a treat, but nothing conclusive with the thrashers. At one point I am pretty sure I heard the sharp "whit-weet" of our target, but Ned didn't catch it and it didn't call again or show itself.

At this point we figured quiet or not, if we spend enough time driving through Wee Thump we’d connect with a flicker that actually had yellow wings. The road was much better condition than we thought it would be, and Sally Suby carried us well back into the property where we gained elevation and eventually rose into a classic Joshua Tree-Blackbrush community.

Joshua Trees and Blackbrush

The road eventually turned west towards the McCollough Range and my thoughts turned to Gray Vireo, a species I didn’t previously have on our targets list but is found in the Pinyon-Juniper in the Mojave ranges. The road started to climb into a small valley, and the PJ from above began to mix with the Josh trees from below. Ned caught a glimpse of a white-tipped-tailed bird fly over the road that gave Cassin's Kingbird vibes, so we immediately got out to look for it. The bird was nowhere to be found, but we soon realized that this valley we'd found ourselves in was loaded with birds. Empids were all over the place, a few gnatcatchers were singing, and a fast, up-and-down burry song caught our attention. Sounded great for Gray Vireo! The bird gave us a good chase but eventually we both got great looks at our lifer. A fairly plain bird but with the subtly beauty that so many drab species have.

Transition-zone in the valley, full of birds

Botanizing in the valley was just as entertaining as the birds, as the shrub community was made up of many species I'd never seen. Apache Plume, Fremont Barberry, and Banana Yucca were a few of the neatest ones.

We also caught sight of a few thrashers passing sneakily through the brush. As we would discover later, these were actually Crissal Thrashers, a species we're both very familiar with from their mesquite-choked habitats, but seemed out of place up here. This really would have caught us off guard, but Dave had mentioned before our trip that the species is also quite common in these brushy PJ valleys of the southern mountains. Cool to see in this new environment, and finally a thrasher for the trip (although the only one we weren't super excited to see).

We made a couple other stops and had incredible looks at a couple male Scott's singing together in the junipers, but  soon decided to let Sally Suby carry us as far as she would upwards then work our way back. We came to the end at around 6000ft to some gorgeous pinyon-clad hillsides that were home to some really cool cacti in bloom.

Sally Suby at the end of the road

Mojave Mound Cactus

Beehive Cactus

For the icing on the cake, while relaxing at the top a pair of Gray Vireos came close by without the need for us to even get up, and gave incredible views while the male sang and the second bird flitted about.

Working our way back down we stopped in the busiest part of the valley and birded there for a good while. The place was just dripping with empids, and we had over 40 Dusky/Hammonds flycatchers, giving us great practice differentiating these 2 very similar species. Mixed in were a some Gray Flycatchers as well at least a couple Willows, which are fairly uncommon in the state. In the non-flycatcher department we had a few warbler species including the uncommon Nashville Warbler, and also a female Lazuli Bunting, our first of the season. All told we had a pretty good list for the afternoon, and this unexpected expedition into this bountiful valley was the highlight of my entire weekend.

We made it back to camp by late afternoon and called it a day. The next day we would give our last attempts at our thrashers and the flicker and head north to the Valley of Fire.

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