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.

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