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!

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