Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Up to the Black Rock/High Rock

Nevada Bird Count Tour 4 Part 1

Our fourth tour on the NBC began at 4am on Monday May 23 when Kayla and I headed off to our area searches. After finishing our surveys in the late morning and running a quick errand for our truck, we took off north to the much anticipated Black Rock/High Rock Wilderness area of northwestern Nevada, up near the Oregon border. It is a new contract for the NBC and quite an intensive one, with 11 transects that need to be surveyed 3 times (as opposed to the usual 2) over the course of the season. It's our only survey area new to the project from last season, and being brand new even Dave the NBC veteran had not been up there. However we'd heard from our boss Jen that it was supposed to be remote and absolutely beautiful, and over the weekend the executive director Elizabeth had said it was her favorite area in the entire state. So, we were pretty excited to check it out.

The drive north turned out to be longer than we had assumed, and by the time we found ourselves north of Winemmucca and driving into the wilderness it was early evening. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but our first impression of the area was summed up by the term 'rugged.' The flats, foothills, and mountains were covered in a sea of sagebrush, creating a smooth pale green landscape which was sharply contrasted by large outcrops of rock jutting out irregularly like battlements. We drove on for a while hoping we were on the right road to get to camp, and all the while not seeing much for vegetation that would support many birds for our surveys. But as we got closer to camp we came across a few swift-running streams, along which willows and aspen produced dense riparian corridors. Again a land of contrast between the desolate sagebrush flats and the occasional patches of black rock or lush greenery: it was gorgeous.

General landscape around Black Rock/High Rock

We ended up pulling into camp at around 7pm after 6 hours of driving, meeting Dave and Ned who had showed up a little while earlier. I dropped Kayla off at camp and then immediately headed off down the dirt track to the south to scout my transect before the sun set. The scouting mission resulted finding a place where a stream joined the river, a place that was slightly too tight to multi-point turn which claimed the licence plate of the truck, a back-up up a large, rocky hill, and a place that was wide enough to multi-point turn. I made it back to camp without having reached the transect, but was informed that the creek/road sounded shallow enough ford, so I planned to head out early in the morning with plenty of time to get to my transect. And so ended a 16h day.

The morning came to quickly, and the sub-zero temperatures woke me up around 3am. After laying about in my tent for a while I was on the road by 4 to see if the road would reach my transect. The night was beautifus; crisp and dead-calm with a bright moon. The possibility of owls came to mind, but with needing to make sure I got to my transect for dawn I didn't have time to do much more than keep the window cocked as I drove through the aspen stands. But I was lucky, because as I got out at one point to scout the rocks on the road, I heard a Northern Saw-whet Owl hooting from nearby. It was only the first time I've had a good listen to one, so that pumped me up and gave a great start to the morning.

Further along I came to a place where a tree had fallen across the road, so I parked the truck and set out on foot to cover the last few kilometers. This turned out to be a great turn of events, because in the pre-dawn chorus as I climbed out of the valley I was serenaded by all four Nevada montane thrushes: the fluting of Hermit and Swainson's Thrushes, the sing-song of the familiar robin, and the soft whistles of the Mountain Bluebird. Leaving the aspens and cresting the ridge these fell back and the Vesper Sparrows, Brewer's Sparrows, and a couple Sage Thrashers took over.

I climbed down into the next valley where my transect lay, and was greeted by a beautiful valley full of scattered copses of aspen, with the aspen- and willow-lined Snow Creek flowing down towards Summit Lake.

Snow Creek Valley

The riparian corridor was loaded with Warbling Vireos, Yellow Warblers, House Wrens, and Dusky Flycatchers, with smaller numbers of Slate-coloured Fox Sparrows singing against the similar sounding and more numerous Green-tailed Towhees from the adjacent sagebrush. Two point counts in I knew I had a new favorite transect on the NBC. I birded my way along, breathed in the smell of aspen in the fresh mountain air, and waited for the sun to come over the east end of the valley and warm the air up above freezing.

As I mentioned before, the Black Rock/High Rock is aptly named due to the large, rough rock formations sticking out randomly throughout the landscape. The bright coloured lichens made them even more impressive.

Black Rock formation

And the transect continued to impress me. Just after the half-way point the north side of the creek on which I'd been travelling turned into a cliff and the stream dropped off a waterfall.

The Edge

The Waterfall

The transect after the drop was much different than the valley upstream. Downstream from the fall the north side of the valley was a sheer cliff face, providing homes for White-throated Swifts and Violet-green Swallows, while the south side was a shallower sagebrush slope. The river was swifter and louder here, and consequently fewer birds had colonized the thin riparian corridor. I however was fine to settle for some quieter point counts and simply take in the scenery as the valley worked its way down to Summit Lake in the flats below.

Summit Lake at the valley's end

MR-SummitSnow, as the transect was named, has become my new favorite transect after a season and a half on the NBC, and it'll be a tough one to beat for sure.

Arriving back to camp, short on sleep but pumped after one of my favorite mornings in the project, I soon learned that the morning had not been so kind to the rest of the crew. Many of their transects pushed through thick, mature aspen stands full of thick veg and blown-down trunks, making navigation difficult and absolutely exhausting. I tried not to boast too much about my lovely morning in the wonderful Snow Creek Valley.

But I would pay my dues the following day. That afternoon was time to scope access to our surveys for the following day and conveniently, the road I needed to scope for my transect was the road I had hiked the first part of to get to SummitSnow that morning. Inconveniently, a little farther down the road from our downed-tree (which it turns out could be navigated around by moving a few logs and crunching a few sagebrush) there was a 20m snow patch covering the road as it ran up a north-facing slope. Consequently, the road was impassible until warmer temperatures allowed it to melt. This meant that I had a 7km hike in the following morning before sunrise. But I had a road to follow for the first 4km or so, so how tough could it be?

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