Thursday, 21 July 2016

Hidden Valley of Sage-Chickens

Nevada Bird Count Tour 7 Part 1

For the beginning of our last tour of point-counting, I partnered up with Ned to go knock out the last couple transects deep in the Virginia Range. The tour prior Kayla and I scouted the access road to Black Canyon but got there too late to attempt the rocky road. This time around Jen had given us a gate combo that was supposed to get us into the area from the south and save a lot of driving, so the afternoon Monday July 4th we headed north from the field house to check out this alternate route.

As things turned out, the gate code the boss had been given was incorrect, so we had to drive all the way around to the top of the canyon and access it from the crappy road we had located the first time. Of course this time we arrived at around 7pm to the start of the road, a full half hour later than we had last tour when we decided to pull the plug on it. But, these surveys needed to get done, so we pressed on and weaved, hopped, squeezed and bolder-crawled the truck down the road. The valley itself was completely degraded by numerous of filthy cows that had been up there for who knows how long which didn't help our spirits after the long day, but before dark we made it to camp.

I set up my tent on a a solitary strip of nice green grass and returning to the truck to get my gear. However, while away from my tent large, mean, and particularly well-hung bull walked along the grassy path that my tent happened to be blocking. It stopped and made some concerning noised towards my tent, as I watched and desperately hoped that it would decide to not confront the strange object in its path (since I really did need my ten t for the rest of the season/ seasons to come). Luckily, it decided it wasn't worth trampling the foreign object, and instead walked around through the shrubs. I then quickly moved my tent to a much less attractive bare patch of ground surrounded by cow pies and not on a cattle path, and slept hard until the next morning.

That next morning I was treated to the silhouette of my first Short-eared Owl in a few years drifting ghost-like above my tent, then Ned and I headed out to split the transect. My half was up and over the ridge, and as I climbed the slope the influence of the cattle waned and the landscape became quite lovely. Unlike the rest of the lower Virginias I had spent 6 days surveying the last tour, this area higher up was coded 'montane shrubland' on our rapid habitat assessments, a habitat neither Ned nor I had surveyed before. On these hillsides Snowberry, Gooseberry, Rabbitbrush and Sagebrush were almost equally common, with large fuzzy Mule's Ears sticking out throughout the shrubbery. A very nice change from the desolate sage and cheatgrass dominating the lower elevations.

Montane Shrubland

Birdwise the area was loaded with sparrows of various kinds, with the ubiquitous Brewer's Sparrows and Spotted Towhees joined by Vespers which are usually only found at these higher elevations. While hiking between points I noticed a long, black, pointed feather I soon realized must have been from a sage-grouse. Cool stuff! This is a species I'd only seen briefly once the season before, but it there was a feather there must be grouse around right?

Well, as I came up to my last point I caught a glimpse of something flushing quickly from the shrubbery. I went to investigate and sure enough not one but 7 Greater Sage-Grouse, a hen and her brood, burst from the ground nearby and sailed far over the sage and around the next hill. These birds are surprisingly strong fliers, and with their flapping and gliding they can cover impressive distances over the flats to get to safety. I didn't record them on my count unfortunately, but my veg survey afterwards just so happened to take me in the direction they had flown. As I rounded the hill the hen popped up on a rock to get a look at the intruder, and I was able to shoot this distant-ish video of my first perched sage-grouse.

Hiking back along the transect in a different spot from my tail feather I found a site where something had plucked another grouse.

Greater Sage-Grouse kill site

When I got back to the truck Ned informed me he'd had a number of Sage-Grouse flying around his half of the transect as well. Awesome, there were sage-chickens in these hills! We then spent much of the day navigating the roads within the mountains to get to our second transect even deeper into the range. In between the two major ridges was a large open valley containing Spanish Reservoir.

Spanish Reservoir Valley

The reservoir itself had a few Eared Grebes and a couple ibis on it which were fun, but the most exciting find were the mammals on the far end of the waterbody. At first from a distance I thought they must be more very distant cattle, but as we got closer we saw they were Pronghorn. Dozens and dozens of them! Many were drinking at the edge of the reservoir while a number of other groups were spread out throughout the valley. A quick count with the scope tallied some 90 individuals, more than either of us had seen in one place. As we drove towards them they started to move, and soon the valley was full of groups of Pronghorn running in all directions. What a wonderful valley hidden deep in the mountains!

We finally got to our second transect later in the afternoon, and after relaxing a while we set out to get our veg work done that evening. That way the following morning we could just bird and split, since it would take hours to exit the range and then we needed to drive another 4 hours up to the Black Rock/High Rock. While out vegging I flushed another hen with brood, in addition to a bachelor group of 3 large male sage-grouse, the first I'd seen. After all our veg was done we celebrated a hard day of work by eating some mostly-cooked hamburgers then settled down for the night.

The next morning survey began with a spectacular sunrise as the sun crept over the mountains.

Overall the habitat was similar to the day before and the birdlife reflected that with a few highlights. My half of the transect had a nice patch of mountain mahogany on a hillside which hosted a couple Fox Sparrows and a Dusky Flycatcher in contrast to the shrub-loving Green-tailed Towhees and other sparrows, and later on another Short-eared Owl had a brief dogfight with a Northern Harrier. Finally, I was treated to another sage hen with 6 young (great to see many of the hens up here with so many surviving young), and this lady let my get even closer for a video.

I'd thought I'd been lucky with the grouse so far, but I hadn't seen nothing yet! On the drive our we flushed another 6 hens with brood from the roadside, bringing my total for the 2 days to almost 50 birds.  Here's one last video of one of the broods we flushed, with commentary courtesy of Ned and music courtesy of the Crash Test Dummies. Note how the birds coincidentally flush in time with the music haha.

We ended up exiting the range in a bit under 3 hours of rough driving (thanks Ned!), and then we were off to our last bout with the Black Rock/High Rock to round out the birding season.

Monday, 18 July 2016

Close Encounters of the Ovine Kind, and Pine Nut Grail Bird

Nevada Bird Count Tour 6 Part 2

On June 25th after the morning's surveys in the Sierras, Kayla and I headed up west of the Pine Nut Range to loiter in an air conditioned Starbucks doing paperwork for the afternoon before heading up into the mountains. I was pretty exhausted that afternoon after a couple very early mornings, but it was going to be an easy drive up Sunrise Pass to our transects on the west side of the range, and my plan was to head to bed early and get a good sleep for the night. In the late afternoon we followed our map out of town to where the pass should have been.

What our map didn't show, however, was the matrix of un-mapped roads that crisscrossed the entire area west of the range. We took a road that appeared to be going the way we wanted to, but it ended up getting worse and worse, climbing and getting very rocky. The pass was supposed to be a good road, right? It was on the east side at least, why wouldn't it be on the west side? To make matters worse, our transect map didn't have the UTM grid on it, so we had no way of using our GPS to see where on these unmarked roads we happened to be and where we'd need to go from there. After driving this maze for an hour or so we came to the conclusion that we didn't want to be stuck on these bad back roads not knowing where we were when it got dark, so we decided to drive around the south end of the range and then drive across from the east like we usually do. The pass would be easy to find from that direction, and even if we got to our transect late, we would get there.

So, we drove around the mountains and were heading up the east side of the range as it was getting dark. It must have been something to do with the remaining light of the setting sun, the rising moon, or some combination of the above, but the sagebrush surrounding us seemed to glow with a weird fluorescence that neither of us had seen before. Kind of cool and a little odd, but we kept driving north as darkness descended around us.

Now since our field house is on this side of the Pine Nuts, and I've done a lot of work in these mountains both this and last season, I know these roads quite well. However, I'd never driven them in the dark, and as we continued down the road the surrounding did not look familiar to either of us. It occurred to us that many of the landmarks one uses to navigate in Nevada are distant hills and mountains, which one can't see when your field of view is limited to the glow of the headlights. I was keeping an eye on the GPS to see when our turn should have been coming up (we did have a map with UTMs for this side of the range), and after a while a turn appeared on our left. It didn't look right, so we kept going a bit further in hopes we'd recognize our road. After driving a little longer we didn't find the pass, so maybe the turnoff we passed was the one we were looking for? We headed back and tried that road, but it lead through a barbed wire gate we'd never noticed on the pass road before. Perhaps they close it at night? So we passed through it but the road petered out into nothing.

By this time it was about 10pm, well past dark, and we were both exhausted. Checking the GPS and map, our coordinates indicated the pass should have been at this location. What was going on??? We thought that perhaps we had somehow come onto an unmarked road parallel to the one we thought we were on, so we decided to retrace our tracks and make sure we were on the right road. We headed back south again praying we'd find our road.

After driving a while back the way we'd came. We noticed some strange lights in the distance. It was probably just a few lights from Wellington, the community south of these flats. Right, that made sense. Then all of a sudden up ahead of us and much closer than the distant lights we saw literally a thousand blue-green eyes glowing out at us from out of the darkness. As we pulled up this is what we saw:

It was hundreds of sheep, packed in a dense flock that had NOT been there on our way in, blocking our path. I'm not sure how many because the flock went farther than the lights of our high beams reached. Where the heck had these come from?? I'm not typically a superstitious person, but in combination with the sleep deprivation, unfamiliar surroundings in the dark, roads that were not there when our map and GPS said they should be, fluorescing sagebrush, strange lights, then mass of glowing eyes, I can safely say that at that moment I was the most creeped out that I can ever remember feeling.

We honked the horn and pulled forward, but the sheep just packed tighter together and remained barring our way. Okay, continuing south wasn't an option, so we just had to head back north and hope we'd missed something, because we REALLY didn't want to spend the night out in this strange place with its mysterious alien-sheep. As it turned out, after we passed our initial incorrect turn and went a little farther than we went before we found the signed Sunrise Pass Road. What a relief! We were still a while from our sites for the morning, but we knew where we were, so we crossed the mountains and got to camp around 11pm. So much for a good night's sleep! There wasn't an immediately obvious good spot to set up a tent so I simply threw my tent footprint in a gully with my sleeping bag on top of it and crashed hard until dawn came too soon.

The next morning was definitely one of my toughest mornings of the season to crawl out of my sleeping bag and head out to survey. Luckily my first point was only 50m away, and luckier still there was a surprise in store that would wake me right up and keep me going for the rest of the morning.

As I started my first point and blearily tried to put distance estimates to the birds I was hearing, a distant vireo song caught my ear. Unlike the typical slow song of the Plumbeous which is the standard PJ vireo, this song was very quick, with less than a second between phrases. Gray Vireos are found mostly in the scrubby PJ of desert mountains in the Mojave and eastern Great Basin, but have an almost mythical presence in the Pine Nuts, with a few NBC surveyors over the past 15 years or so detecting birds here well northwest of their usual range. Our boss Jen had always told us to keep an ear out for them when surveying in these mountains, but no one had got one for a number of years so I hadn't been convinced they were a real possibility. But this bird really was THE bird yeah? It wasn't just the sleep deprivation? Either way it got the adrenaline going, working better than the caffeine drops I'd drugged my water with earlier.

After completing my first point I hustled through the forest in the direction of the song. After a few hundred meters, sure enough there was a very fast singing vireo in the junipers in front of me. But Dave had said he once spent an hour on a 'fast' vireo that turned out to be a Plumbeous a couple years ago, so I needed a visual to be sure. With a bit of patience the bird finally showed itself, and sure enough it showed the rather drab garb of a Gray Vireo! You can't make it out due to it being back-lit in the dawn light, but here's a clip of the silhouetted bird singing.

From there I hurried back to the transect to complete it within the birding morning, but luckily I had service to text the boss about what to do with the vireo. Gray Vireos are a conservation priority species in the state, and with the few sightings in the Pine Nuts they has never been confirmed breeding there. It was pretty high priority to try to get some breeding evidence on this bird, so I got the go ahead to skip veg work after my transect in exchange for following the bird around. Not a bad deal!

The transect itself was pretty typical for lower PJ, with trees more scattered than higher up in the range and with a higher juniper component. Consequently quite a few Juniper Titmice were about, as well as groups of Bushtits with some bluebirds and jays to spruce (or juniper?) things up.

Once I was finished I headed back towards where the vireo had been. It was getting hot and many of the birds were quieting down, but luckily the bird was singing intermittently and I was able to follow it around for a good hour. Unfortunately I didn't any breeding evidence other than it singing, but it was interesting to follow it around as these birds can have pretty large territories (especially when they have no neighbours). This bird's was over half a kilometer in diameter.

After the vireo search I headed back to the truck to head out to civilization. Kayla had got her one priority veg point done but had left without completing more due to hearing gunfire in the the hills around the transect. America!

At this point we were really curious to take Sunrise Pass out of the mountains to see where exactly it came out. As we neared Mindin, to our shock things started to look a little familiar. A sign, a steep wash... and we pulled out on Johnston Way, the road we had taken in the day before! This was another 'twilight zone' moment, and we then turned around to go back the way we'd came to see where we went wrong. It turned out that the road to Sunrise Pass unintuitively strikes out south from the first intersection and then wraps around to eventually head towards the mountains. Good to know for next time!

Friday, 15 July 2016

High Sierra Birding

Nevada Bird Count Tour 6 Part 2

The second half of our tour started on June 24th with Kayla and I heading south across the California border to a couple of the NBC's handful of transects in the Sierra Nevada. Last year I got to spend a lot of time in this area, since my partner Alan had his area search at nearby Rosaschi. This was my first time heading down this season, so I welcomed the familiar drive through the sagebrush and pinyon-covered hills. We continued past Bridgeport Reservoir which often hosts Bald Eagle, scouted out Kayla's transect in the meadow across from the Pickle Meadow Mountain Warfare Training Facility (apparently choppers once came down in the meadow while someone was surveying), and then finally made it to one of the jewels of the NBC, LR-LittleWalker.

Valley leading to LR-LittleWalker

Situated in a large montane valley in the Sierra, there are almost no transects on the project like it. Sierra Junipers and Logepole Pines are western conifers that we don't get on the bulk of our transects, but they are found here in addition to aspen stands, sagebrush flats and willow meadows. Upon arriving, we hiked out to some of these willows in the hopes of finding some Calliope Hummingbirds. These tiny montane hummers are the smallest birds in North America, and and Little Walker was the only place I'd seen them before. Kayla hadn't ever seen one, so we were hopping we'd connect her with this lifer.

As we wandered up the valley we came across a spot where a Black Bear had marked a tree. Haven't seen any yet this season, but these were pretty high up on the trunk of this lodgepole.

Black Bear claw marks

Also fun was Giant Puffball. After we had hiked out another pair of hikers came out carrying it. Apparently they're delicious if you saute them in butter. I let them know I may have kicked their food when making sure it was a mushroom.

Giant Puffball

We eventually got to one of the wet meadows sprinkled with large mountain willows, and it wasn't long before Kayla spotted a small hummer on perched atop one of them. Due to its tiny size and location it was almost certainly a Calliope, but we wandered around a while longer for a satisfying look. Eventually we had close looks at the male when it returned to its same perch, and its mate came by to visit briefly. Really cool look,ing hummers, with their flared gorgets made of separate streaks of magenta on each feather unlike the solid throat patches of many hummingbirds. No photos worth posting unfortunately.

Hanging out back in camp for the evening we were treated to a single booming bout from a Sooty Grouse, my only one for the season and Kayla's life bird. A lone Mountain Quail was calling temptingly nearby as well, but remained quiet when we tried to track it down. This Western Tanager was more cooperative however and sang for us atop a juniper.

The next morning I headed out to my first point an hour earlier than I needed to in the hopes of hearing a new owl, perhaps a Northern Pygmy or Flammulated. Didn't connect with either of them, but a Great Horned Owl and a few Common Poorwills made a nice soundtrack for the moonlit walk to the transect.

As I said before, the habitat in this area is much different than most of the NBC, so it was a treat to get to count birds you get almost nowhere else on the project. Specialties like Pacific-slope Flycatcher, Red-breasted Sapsuckers, Ruby-crowned Kinglet and Nashville Warbler were found in the forests, along with Thick-billed Fox Sparrows, Wilson's Warblers and Lincoln's Sparrows in the shrubby wet areas.

Coniferous forest at the end of a sagebrush meadow

Beaver pond, something I you don't see many of out here

Dense aspen stand

The one downside of the transect is that on half the points you're fighting with the noise of the fast-flowing Little Walker River for any sound of birds. Both years I've surveyed this transect, at Point 9 next to the river I've actually been able to watch birds sing and not hear them! But the scenery and cool birds make up for the difficulty point-counting. Last year I had a flyby American Dipper at this point, but not this time around.

The wildflowers up here in the sagebrush meadows were lovely as well. Red Castilleja, white Plox, yellow Senecio and blue Penstemon added their colours to the landscape.

Montane Wildflowers

After completing the transect I hiked out to where Kayla would pick me up, and we drove out to town west of the Pine Nuts to get some paperwork done before heading into the range for the next day's surveys.