Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Exploring the Virginias

Nevada Bird Count Tour 6 Part 1

My sixth tour on the NBC started earlier than normal, on the weekend after our fifth tour, because there were a few extra transects that needed to be done and the boss was looking for people who wanted to do them. On weekends like last one where I have no means of getting away from the field house (I really need to get a car!) I'm always chomping at the bit to get away and do something, so getting to work in the mountains for pay seemed like a great idea.

Making it even more enticing, the transect needing to be done was one part of a brand new NBC contract in the Virginias and nearby ranges up north of Reno. Most of our sites are part of long-running projects, and the NBC veterans like Dave and Sue have surveyed most of them over the years. The Virginias, however, were new to this season, so not even they knew what to expect. Luckily my whole first half of the tour was stationed up there to knock out the majority of the transects, so it was a rare opportunity on the NBC to explore the unknown area.

So I headed up on my own on Friday June 17th to spend the night in the oddly named Dogskin Range to be in position for a survey the next morning. In this range and in the nearby ranges the usual PJ of Nevada's mid-elevation ranges was reduced to simply J, as the forests were entirely scattered junipers. Apparently the pinyons drop out very quickly once you get north of Reno. Lots of rock outcrops scattered around added to the scenery.

Much of Nevada is used as open rangeland for cattle, so it's not unusual to come across a few while driving or hiking throughout the state.

That night after getting to camp I wandered around a while to see what was about. A Mountain Quail crowing from a distant hillside was a nice find, although not quite as nice as the Northern Pygmy-Owl I was trying to turn the distant call into, and a soaring Golden Eagle was a treat as always. Although my favorite sighting was around dusk when four Long-eared Owls flew right into the trees around camp. I've been having incredible luck with these owls this season! The local Blue-gray Gnatcatchers didn't like the owls as much as I did, resulting in this humorous video. It's not terribly sharp due to the lack of zoom on my camera, but it captures the essence of the encounter.

On my survey the next morning the birds were similar to the PJ birds in the Pine Nuts although lacking some of the species preferring thicker forest, with Juniper Titmice and Bushtits being a couple highlights. However it was the scenery that morning that really captured my interest. While the skies were clear at dawn, the wind quickly picked up from the West and pushed patches of dark menacing clouds rapidly by overhead. These clouds were low enough to shroud the tops of the surrounding ridges.

Another cool find was this neat formation I saw in one of the rock faces. I showed the photos to Sue, who has a fair bit of geological knowledge, and it turns out this formation is called a concretion. They originate in the formation of sedimentary rock, when minerals precipitate in layers around some sort of nucleus within the sediment, such as a pebble or shell. Apparently you can crack open some concretions an find a perfect fossil in its centre.


Also that morning I came across one of my favorite wildflowers out here, Cobweb Thistle (Cersium occidentale). It may sound funny to be fond of a thistle, but I find these flowers with their ghostly white stems contrasting bright pink inflorescences very beautiful.

Cobweb Thistle

After the morning of surveying I was back to the field house until the end of the weekend when Kayla and I headed back up to the Virginias for another three mornings of surveys. We drove in late in the evening on Monday the 20th and were treated to some spectacular clouds lit up by the setting sun.

A pronghorn doe enjoyed the sunset as well.

Tuesday morning I had a transect in the flats near Dry Valley. Junipers were scare and the area was mostly a sagebrush plain, providing home to hoards of larks and lark-like objects (i.e. Horned Larks, Lark Sparrows, and Western Meadowlarks) but not too much else of note birdwise. The real treat was in the mammalian department. As I was a minute into my fourth point count of the morning a couple pronghorn does and their fawns ran by not 50m away. I decided to stop the count to re-start it afterwards, and got my camera on the animals a they passed. While filming them I heard more incoming hoofbeats, and another 6 females and 2 fawns ran in from the same direction, only to stop right in front of me.

An even more incredible encounter happened on my final count of the morning. Not too much was going on, and I enjoyed the quiet count by watching a male Horned Lark giving its display flight. It would climb upward with 4 bursts of wingbeats, and on the fifth it would let out it's lovely tinkling song. Then it would climb another 5 steps and repeat, until it was a speck overhead. While watching the bird I heard the unusual sound of a male pronghorn's alarm call and saw two young bucks and an older male come over the nearby ridge. They were followed by a curious youngster who, not used to seeing strange two-legged beings, decided to investigate. I stood motionless as the fawn came slowly closer and closer to me, while the concerned mature buck followed some distance behind. The fawn eventually stopped a mere 15m from me, and for a moment paused to decide what it thought of this intruder. It then decided it wasn't worth getting any closer, and took off in a circle around me. The buck, at this point some 50m away, then took off at a run and followed a wider circle around me after its kid. Seeing a full grown male pronghorn take off and get up to speed from so close is a truely impressive thing. These animals are built on muscles made for running, and have been built that way since the ice age when they needed them to outrun the American Cheetah. No video of this encounter unfortunately, but I decided to keep the camera on my belt this time and just absorb the experience while it was happening.

That afternoon, with temperatures climbing to the mid-high 30s Celsius, we decided to head over to nearby Pyramid Lake to look for a shady place to putt on paperwork for the afternoon. Pyramid Lake is one of the few large terminal lakes in this desert state, and belongs to the Pyramid Lake Indian Reservation. We had to pay a $10 day use fee for our stay, but our nice set up under a shaded awning, with a picnic table to work on and a scope set up to watch the grebes and pelicans, it was worth it.

Paperwork and pelicans at Pyramid Lake

The following morning I had a hilly transect just northwest of the lake. Birds were downright quiet here, but the views of the lake and surrounding hills were spectacular. At the north end of the lake are large tufa sandstone formations called The Needles, and I was lucky enough to get to watch the sun rise behind them.

Sunrise over The Needles

Atop my highest ridge while looking over the cliff in the valley below I got a rare look at a Golden Eagle from above. It was really something to watch it gliding over the valley below me, with its shadow gliding over the sagebrush and cheatgrass below it on the valley floor.

The rocky terrain on these ridges was perfect for lizards, and I saw numerous Great Basin Collared Lizards along with the more widespread Western Fence Lizards.

Great Basin Collared Lizard

Western Fence Lizard

The afternoon and evening was spent driving all over the wilderness trying to find an alternate way into our transects for the next day, since our original route was thwarted by a gate on private land. Eventually we found a long, rough road in too late to attempt, so we took Plan B and got into camp by some back-up transects just before nightfall. Happy to finally be off the road, we took a break for a little astronomy. With the naked eye we were able to pick out 3 different planets, and after getting out my scope we had amazing views of Mars, the bands on Jupiter plus all 4 of its large moons (Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto), and the brilliant rings on Saturn in addition to its large moon Titan. A great way to end a long day.

Our final morning in the Virginias was fairly low-key, with my transect passing through rocky, hilly scattered juniper country again.

The rocky terrain seemed great for snakes, so I was keeping my eyes out. One thing that kept me on my toes were the dried lupine stalks. When kicked, their dry seed pods would rattle together and make a sound surprisingly similar to that of a rattlesnake. Whether or not you want to find them or not, hearing that rattle always makes your heart stop briefly! Didn't luck into any Great Basin Rattlesnakes this time, but this young Great Basin Gophersnake on my way back was a nice consolation prize.

Great Basin Gophersnake

Also on the way back I got close views of a pair of Swainson's Hawks mobbing a Golden Eagle which was fun to see. Additionally, fairly close to me meeting point I flushed another 3 Long-eared Owls! There must be a good population of rodents this year because I keep tripping over these birds.

And with that we finished the first half of our tour. After our mid-tour area search we were excited to have a circuit of transects in 3 different mountain ranges to round our the second half of the tour: the Sierras, the Pine Nuts, and finally back up to the Virginias.

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Owls and Other Things

Nevada Bird Count Tour 5 Part 4

After driving out of Upper Coleman, Kayla and I met up with the rest of the crew including Bobby Wilcox and Kaitlin Murphy, a couple who spend most of the breeding season down on GBBO's Lower Colorado River project and join us on the Nevada Bird Count for the end of our season. Soon afterwards Kayla, Bobby, Kaitlin, and I caravanned across to Leonard Creek Ranch, from which we would access our transects for the next morning. Bobby and Kaitlin were sent up to do MR-Leonard and MR-Chicken, 2 tough transects climbing high into the Pint Forest Range that I'm hoping we'll get to do on our final trip up here in a couple weeks time. As for us, after a day Upper Coleman Kayla and I were grateful to have a couple easier transects following creeks through the sagebrush.

On the way in I got a photo of an abandoned farmstead that caught my eye on our previous visit. 

Abandoned farm south of Bartlett Peak 

The next morning, June 12th, I was dropped off on the bottom of my transect which started off in the flats and then followed a small creek up a valley between two peaks. I surveyed the bottom half of this transect on our last visit, and like last time the sagebrush flats were still loaded with Western Meadowlarks and Lark Sparrows without too too much else going on. However I did flush a group of 4 adult Long-eared Owls from the sage which was a treat. These nomadic owls are ones I'd only seen a couple times before this season (now I see them every few days on my area search), and I always a treat to see them. Last tour Sue had found an agitated adult further up on the transect, so perhaps a couple of these birds belonged to that territory.

Higher up the valley began to narrow and thick rose and serviceberry began to grow. With the lusher veg Warbling Vireo, Yellow Warblers, Dusky Flycatchers and others were added to my fairly meager species list. As I approached my 7th point a male Northern Harrier came in to greet me, and continued to vocalize and dive-bomb me throughout the duration of the count. He got lower and lower as the count progressed until he was coming in a foot above my head.

Part way through he teed up on a sagebrush, close enough that even my point-and-shoot could nail a decent photo.

Angry Northern Harrier

The female flew in part way through the point as well clutching a big lizard to bring to their young, which hidden in a nest on the hillside somewhere. She made a couple passes at me as well but wasn't as persistent as the male.

My next surprise was up near the top of the transect, when I heard my second Ovenbird of the season. Normally a regular vagrant to Nevada, this year I've happened to stumble across the only 2 records so far. It's perhaps unfair that I seem to only get excited about these eastern birds when they're thousands of kilometers from home

Finally, while vegging one of the points in the thick serviceberry near the middle of the transect I flushed the pair of fledged Long-eared Owls who's parent had harassed Sue last time around. They gave great looks but unfortunately didn't stick around long enough for a photo.

That afternoon after leaving the ranch Kayla and I needed to head out of the wilderness because our gasoline situation was looking a little sketchy. It turned out to be a lucky for us, because on our way out through the salt desert Kayla spotted a small owl flying beside the road. We got out to stop and saw this Burrowing Owl scolding us from the top of a greasewood. This was only my second sighting of this long-legged owl, my first being a distant bird scoped from a roadside last year, but this time I got killer views through both bins and scope. Unfortunately my camera doesn't make them look very close.  Later on its mate emerged from a burrow nearby. 

Burrowing Owl

And the fun didn't stop there! Just around the corner Kayla brought the truck to a stop. "That was a Kit Fox!" We got out and watched as one of these tiny desert foxes hung around its den by the roadside.

Kit Fox

It was really fun to watch, as it would run off into the bushes, then come back out to see what we were doing, then pop into its den, then come back out. Really quirky little animal. We were lucky to see this usually nocturnal species too, as the only ones I'd seen were while conducting nocturnal lagomorph surveys last season by spotlight. This was Kayla's lifer, and definitely a great way to get it.

On our last morning up in the Black Rock I had an easy transect following a creek up near Bartlett Peak. One of my quietest NBC transects of all time, there was very little other than Rock Wrens and mobs of Black-billed Magpies even after I climbed up enough and got into some shrubs and aspen. However there were a few fun sightings to keep me interested over the course of the survey. The first were Yellow-bellied Marmots that were perched on top of the rocky spires once I climbed into the canyon. Smaller than our groundhogs back home, I had about half a dozen of these mountain dwellers over the length of the transect, including one vocalizing individual trying unsuccessfully to trick me into recording it on my bird survey form.

Imagine marmots on top of these rocks...

The marmots were also joined by a couple Chukar. A species we dismiss as escapees in Ontario, in Nevada these introduced Middle Eastern chickens have naturalized well to the rocky canyons throughout the state. They're a bird I only got eyes on once last season, but here in the Black Rock,a few have given good looks while walking along the road. Here's a distant shot of a male calling from a spire.


At the last point of the transect I was rewarded by hearing one of my favorite songs, that of the Canyon Wren. Their descending series of whistles 'falling down a canyon' is a sound I've only heard a handful of times, and it's always a treat.

On my way down I bumped into the mob of magpies again, and they were making an even bigger ruckus than on the way up. It turns out the reason for their excitement was finding another couple fledgeling Long-eared Owls. I've never seen more of these perpetually surprised owls than this season, and they're not one I think I'll tire of seeing. This time I even got a distant photo of one of these dark-faced juveniles.

Long-eared Owl fledgeling

The hiking had been easy and I was finished the transect and back at the truck by 9am. With the long drive we had no veg obligations this morning, so we set off for an uneventful drive back south to round out the tour.

Sunday, 19 June 2016

Upper Coleman: Second Round

Nevada Bird Count Tour 5 Part 3

After area searching on Friday June 10, Kayla and I once again made the long trek up to Black Rock/High Rock in northern Nevada. We left a touch earlier this time and got in to Stanley Camp around 6pm. Dave and Ned had arrived 10 minutes before we did, so we had a bit of time for a quick drink and a chat. A while later Sue joined us as well, making it all the way up from her area search in the Sierras. While we would have loved to stay and catch up longer, we were anxious and scout the road to our transect for the next morning, UpperColeman. Last tour a large snow patch on a north-facing slope had forced me to leave the truck behind and make a 20km round trip hike through the Black Rock Mountains to get to the transect. While quite the achievement, I was hoping not to repeat the experience, so this time we had armed ourselves with a spade.

Dave was convinced there wouldn't be any snow left. It had been quite hot in the couple weeks since we'd been here, and Sue mentioned the snow on her area search at 9000ft was gone too. "Come on, stay a while longer." We were insistent that we had to get going, because on the off chance of snow we wanted to have some daylight to get through it. Dave offered to bet us there would be no snow. I'm not much of a betting man, but in the gambling state of Nevada perhaps I should have followed suit and taken the bet...

The drive up Summer Camp Road started out not bad. The creek fordings went fine and we once again got under "The Squeeze" without any problems despite there being less than an inch of clearance between the trunk and our cab.

"The Squeeze"

Further up the road there were some pretty steep, rocky hills to climb as well that had made us nervous looking at them last tour, but our trusty truck crawled up them without hassle. But then we reached the aspen slope where the snow patch was. While it was much smaller than it had been half a month before, it was still a foot deep in places and resting on a 45 degree slope. "Let's see how this goes!" I put it into 4-high, gained speed up the hill, and this was the result.

First attempt

Now we only had one shovel, so as the only guy and only Canadian in the truck I took the honours of shoveling two ruts through the drift. We made a second run and gained a couple more meters before the wheels started spinning and we came to a stop. "Okay, so there's a half-inch of ice under the snow, I suppose I should have gotten rid if that." So I hacked the ice out of the ruts with the spade, and we made another run at it. And stopped. The wet soil had churned to mud, our treads were saturated, and we weren't moving. "Okay, back up, switch to 4-low, let's give this another shot." We made it to within about a meter of the top when we couldn't gain traction. We jammed sticks under the tires, but no luck. I tried backing up out of the rut we created to try again, but that just lost us ground foot by foot. We then emptied the spare tire and all our gear bins out of the truck to make it lighter, but still nothing. It was getting dark, we'd been up since 4am, and even after we got to camp we still had to wake up for a 3km hike down through the mountains before dawn the next day.

So close yet so far...

Finally, we had one last shot. I backed us up all the way down the hill, kicked it into 4-high, and gunned the truck up the slope with all she had. We felt her slowing as we hit the mud and snow, and we almost stopped as we made it to the top, but she was just able to crawl past it and keep going. Cheer's erupted on the mountainside as we stopped to reload the truck. By 9:45 we made it to our camp on the open sage hilltop at 8300ft where we'd have some 5 hours sleep before hiking down to the valley before dawn.

Before dawn we woke and it was below freezing. Not something you first expect on the 11th of June in the desert state of Nevada, but mountains are funny things.

Tent at 8300ft at 3:45am in June

The two of us hiked out to split the transect because it was pretty remote and the last time I didn't have time to do any veg on it. Luckily this time around we weren't in a cloud and it wasn't raining, so nocturnal navigation was easier and more pleasant. We actually found the right drainage to hike down to the valley, and made it to the transect in 1.5 hours. The transect itself was quieter than my last visit, and some common species like Fox Sparrow and MacGillivray's Warbler I only had as incidentals between counts. After veging most of the transect we worked our way up the valley. Along the way we flushed a large chicken that was likely a Dusky Grouse, although sage-grouse can also use these montane riparian areas.

The Black Rock/High Rock is aptly named, since the area is full of rocky cliffs and formations jutting out from the sage-covered mountainsides. This one looked to me like some sort of fortress crowning the hilltop.

Black Rock Fortress

And my personal favorite, the Man in the Mountain. Never have I seen such a face-like rock outcrop!

Man in the Mountain

Further along the valley narrowed to a canyon and became more lush. Here while picking out our trail we heard the distinctly 2-syllabled whistle of a Cordilleran Flycatcher, my first of season. They breed in coniferous forests as opposed to these thin riparian areas, but this late migrant was likely heading towards the disjunct population in the very northeast corner of California.

Upper reaches of Coleman Creek

The climb up out of the valley was just that: a long climb. It took us about twice the time heading out as it took us to get down, but steadily we made our way out.

Kayla on the climb up from the valley bottom

Higher up on the hillside the usual Big Sagebrush had been replaced by Low Sagebrush, and consequently the mountain wildflowers really stood out. The oranges of paintbrush, whites of  locoweed, yellows of hawksbeard, and blues of penstemon all shone out amongst the tiny pale sagebrush. The photo doesn't do it justice at all, but gives a feel.

Mountainside wildflowers

Once we crested the right, some 2000ft above the valley we'd surveyed, it was an easy walk along a wild horse trail back to the truck. The view to the east from up top was pretty spectacular as we made our way across the plateau.

View from the Top

So once again UpperColeman had been conquered, and 8/10 veg points knocked out to boot! Since I've done the transect twice now I'm sure one of the other crewmembers will get their shot at it our last round, but it was great to visit one of the wildest, most ruggedly beautiful places I've gone, and a place I'm sure few other people have got to see.

Thursday, 16 June 2016

Lowland Riparian Rarities

Nevada Bird Count Tour 4 Part 3 and Tour 5 Part 2

Two of the major projects the NBC is involved in occur along the riparian corridors of the Walker and Truckee Rivers. Characterized by massive, gnarled cottonwoods and dense thickets of willow, buffalo berry and Russian Olive, these riparian zones are absolutely loaded with birdlife. Most of these birds are quite common and not that exciting on their own, but the sheer number of wrens, kingbirds, doves, towhees, sparrows, orioles, hawks, grosbeaks, blackbirds and owls combined is always impressive. While surveying these sites it’s not uncommon to have to scribble in extra birds in the bottom margin of our 25 line datasheets, and it provides great experience at taking in a huge amount of information at once, then subsequently ignoring while still keeping track of all the birds you’ve already recorded, while watching and listening for new ones later in the count. Plus, every once in a while you get something exciting mixed in.

Shrubs and small cottonwoods at Rafter 7 Ranch

Cottonwood gallery below Weber Reservoir

On May 29 near the end of our fourth tour, Ned and I headed out towards the Weber Reservoir to complete a couple transects. Mine was LowerWeber, and followed the river along a gorgeous cottonwood gallery below the reservoir. Seeing all the campers along the opposite side of the river for the Memorial Day weekend took a bit out of the atmosphere, but the area was still super birdy. Many Common Nighthawks were flying around well into the morning as they seem to do quite often in these areas, and Wood Ducks in the river were nice to see.

River along LR-LowerWeber

My most interesting bird of the morning was a raptor I heard vocalize while doing veg on my way back. It first reminded me of a raspy goshawk, but goshawks are only found up at higher elevations, and it didn’t sound quite right anyways. While Cooper’s call is more nasal than a gos, this bird didn’t seem right for that either, so I decided to let it go unidentified. A short while later a large, brown falcon buzzed down the river corridor, and with the quick look I assumed it was a Prairie, the regular large falcon in the Great Basin. But then I put two and two together and realized it was a juvenile Peregrine! It’s a bird I’ve very rarely had to ID by ear, so it was a fun learning experience. Funnily enough, when I was doing a raptor set for a birding by ear course this past winter with the University of Guelph Wildlife Club, I had decided to exclude this species because they’re not something I’ve heard vocalize very much at all. But when the class insisted I include the species, listening to the tapes on the spot I had described the call as a raspier goshawk. Glad my first impressions of its call were the same in both instances, I just need to remember it for the next time!

The next day Kala and I had a double-observer survey at Mason Valley WMA, a local birding spot just north of our Yerington field house. Many of the same birds were had a this site, although the river here is shrubbier for the most part than the open cottonwoods of Lower Weber, so we had many more Spotted Towhees and Bewick’s Wrens which love the dense thickets.

Mason Valley WMA

Breeding Western Bluebirds are always fun to see out that way, and some migrant Western Tanagers and Plumbeous Vireos added some burry phrases to the chorus. Mason Valley is also home to a large system of ponds and wetlands, so we had my first Caspian Tern and American Bittern as flyovers on some of our counts. But we had our best bird of the morning as we were approaching Point 7, a loud, emphatic song that no Easterner can forget and no birder can dismiss, “TEACHER TEACHER TEACHER TEACHER.” An Ovenbird! They are a regular rarity in the Nevada, with five records just last year along according to eBird (and the species is not on the state review list). However, looking it up afterwards I found that this was the only record in the state this spring, so that was exciting. The bird decided to inconveniently stop singing during the ten minute duration of our count, but gave us a few good bouts of its unmistakable song before and afterwards. I had missed the Zone-tailed Hawk a few days before I arrived, the Rose-breasted Grosbeak that Ned had down at Warm Springs and the Acorn Woodpecker Kayla had in the Pine Nuts, so this was my first rarity of the season.

Fast forward to our fifth tour, after spending a couple days in the Pine Nuts Dave, Ned, Kayla and I descended onto Rafter 7 Ranch where I have my area search to knock out the 3 transects on the property. Rafter is notorious for its dense, dense thickets, and transects with randomly located points that one must get to.

View from Rafter7B Point 6

But for a some of the points you can walk along the salt desert and then cut into the thickets closer to the point.

Salt desert bordering Rafter7B

As Kayla and I walked to the southern-most transect which we were splitting, we noticed we were following a nice set of Mountain Lion tracks. My area search is on the same ranch a couple kilometers north of this transect and I hadn’t seen any cat sign there on my many visits, but here the tracks were very apparent going both directions in many of the open sandy areas next to the riparian zone. Because she has some stupid luck with these animals, Kayla actually heard a cat giving some gruff noises on her end of the transect after we'd split up for our surveys, her second of the season! In two seasons out here I still haven’t had sight or sound of one, but I’ve still got a month and a week to go so I’ve got my fingers crossed.

Mountain Lion prints

My half of the transect had a couple Blue Grosbeaks as well as more numerous Lazuli Buntings and Yellow-breasted Chats, three species that I find more often at Rafter than most lowland riparian areas because of its such good shrub habitat, but other than that it was the usual suspects. Since we only had 5 points each to do and all of the veg on the ranch we had done with the crew last season (now that was an endeavor!), we headed out early with the windows down and the quirky local Classic Rock station on the radio. As we were passing through a cottonwood stand, an incessant, snappy song caught my ear over the radio. Hold on, really?!? I stopped the truck, turned off the radio, and the “che-bek che-bek che-bek” of a Least Flycatcher came in through the driver’s side window from the grove right off the road. We got out and got great views of the bird singing and flying from perch to perch. Kind of fun to get excited about these dirt-common eastern birds while one’s out West! It turned out that this bird was a bit higher quality than the Ovenbird too, with only 9 accepted records for the state in addition to another 4 or 5 of silent fall birds that didn’t make it past the NBRC. Here's a super-shaky video of the bird singing.

So amongst the hordes of common river birds one can pick out some stray jewels if they keep their ears open, and having an Easterner’s ear certainly helps when getting rarities here in the West. The next day I was back at Rafter 7 for my area search, then the whole crew immediately headed up on the long trek to Black Rock/High Rock to round out the tour.

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Sightings from PJ Country

Nevada Bird Count Tour 5 Part 1

Monday June 6th, after the usual area searching with which we start off every tour (and I'll talk about that in a post eventually), Kayla and I headed up into the Pine Nut Range for the second time this season. This time around we had actual transects to do instead of raptor surveys, and our first site was in the north of the range where I'd never been before. We took the rocky but not too bad Como Road in from the north and had a nice view of the hills from which we'd come.

View north out of the Pine Nuts

We arrived to camp at the start of our transect which worked it's way up a valley surrounded by pinyon-juniper clad hills. While looking for a place to set up my tent I found this Giant Desert Hairy Scorpion under a board.

Giant Desert Hairy Scorpion

After setting up camp we were treated to many Mountain Quail were crowing from the hillsides. Unlike the California Quail lower in the Great Basin and the Gambel's down in the Mojave, these gorgeous quail are quite skulky and usually take a fair bit of work/luck to get a look at. After a couple attempts at a male near camp I got a good look at him up in a pinyon (after looking at the tree he was in for a solid couple minutes). He flushed as Kayla came up, but she at least got a brief lifer view. We hiked upslope to hunt it down for another look, but unfortunately it didn't cooperate.

Back at camp we decided to practice some of our bird songs, as we hadn't done much birding in the PJ this season and there are some groups we felt we could work on. While we were going over our corvids and, my personal stumbling block, Cassin's Finch vs. Townsend's Solitare, we heard a poorwill singing from the hillside above us. A common bird in rocky hill country throughout Nevada, it's not often you hear them while it's still light out. We decided to hike up the hill, do some PJ botanizing, and maybe trip over the nightjar.

Well, we ended up lucking out. As I was climbing up to a rocky outcrop, the bird which I hadn't noticed from feet away flushed and landed a short distance away. We crept towards the bird and found it teed up on a rock, giving us incredible views. I'd seen brief views of flushed birds before, but this was my first perched in broad daylight, and Kayla's life bird. We spent a while admiring the bird's incredibly camouflaged plumage.

Common Poorwill

We wandered up the hill a ways farther, getting a feel for the veg in the area, until it started to get dark. It seemed to be drawing close to Mountain Lion o'clock so we decided to head back to camp, since wandering in the dense PJ at dusk isn't always the best idea. But when we got back to camp and were preparing for bed, we heard a distant warbling song from way up on the hill opposite hill. Was it a Cassin's Finch or solitare? We couldn't tell with the distance, so we decided to climb up to find out and hopefully nail down the differences between these songs. On the way up, Kayla happened upon what appeared to be a pair of cat tracks. These animals can be found just about anywhere in mountainous Nevada, but finding tracks always provide a little reminder to stay vigilant.

Mountain Lion print

The next morning we awoke for our double-observer survey and it was dead calm. Great for hearing the birds, it made some of the distance estimation tricky on our counts since many of the songs were able to carry really far from the surrounding hillsides. Coupled with the dense trees in which you're usually lucky to see 50m in any direction, it was great to be able to compare our distances and get our ears trained on our PJ IDs. The transect consistently climbed upwards, giving us a workout but providing some great views.

Birdwise we had a nice smattering of the typical PJ bird community, with specialists like Gray Flycatchers, Juniper Titmice, and Black-throated Gray Warblers. Of course the Mountain Quail continues to pierce the still morning air with their crows from distant hills, but we come close to any. At one point a Golden Eagle being mobbed by a kestrel over a far ridge made for the highlight of the morning.

That afternoon we headed out of north of the range and back in from the east to hang out with Sue for a while before we headed of to our respective camps for the night. We had been to this area a few weeks before, but this time the air throbbed with the drone of hundreds of cicadas. Upon looking around we saw all the holes from which the nymphs had emerged. We found a few of these nymphs nearby, loads of shed exoskeletons on the surrounding shrubs, and loads of adults all singing from the trees. It was really cool to see most of the life stages of these critters. I can only imagine what one of the periodical cicada emergences out East would be like!

Holes where nymphs emerged

Cicada nymph

Exoskeleton on a sagebrush

Adult in a Pinyon

 After hanging out for the afternoon and being treated with a pair of Golden Eagles kiting across the valley, we headed to camp just in time to see the sun light up the clouds on its way down.

Sunset from Sunrise Pass

Wednesday's survey was a transect I had done last year, which worked its way up a sagebrush valley where the PJ has been cut to allow create more open habitat within the forest. Not quite as interesting as birding in thick pinyon-juniper forest, but I got more than my share of Spotted Towhees and Brewer's Sparrows.

One treat was that the valley was that the numerous wildflowers were attracting many butterflies. Most numerous were the Variable Checkerspots, while I had a few Lycaenid type butterflies that I'm unsure of the species (should have brought my butterfly guide!).

Variable Checkerspot

Unknown Lycaenid

My favorite was some sort of very worn skipper with a blue-green body that I got to land on my finger. If anyone knows what this or the Lycaenid is feel I'd love to know!

Unknown Skipper

On our way out of the range we got a distant view of an absolutely monstrous dust devil roaring across the dry bed of Artesia Lake. The photo doesn't do it justice, but the ranch buildings and large cottonwoods in the middle of the photo provide some scale.

Dust Devil

It was great to be back in the Pine Nuts for a change of scenery. The next couple days of the tour were to be in doing surveys in the lowland riparian areas of Rafter 7 Ranch where I have my area search plot, then up to the Black Rock/High Rock for a second round to end out the tour. Stay tuned!