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.

No comments:

Post a Comment