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.

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