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.


  1. Another awesome post, Mark - keep it up! It sounds like quite the adventure you are having in Nevada!

    1. Thanks! Yeah, this season has been pretty fantastic so far. Also for season end I'm going to be heading down to SE Arizona for monsoon birding/herping for 10 days before heading home, so that's going to be pretty wild as well