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!

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