Sunday, 14 August 2016

Season End Celebration

Nevada Bird Count Tour 7 Part 3

At the end of the last birding tour of the season, it's tradition that the crew head to some incredible place of Jen's choosing to spend a couple days birding, relaxing, and having campfire cookouts. This year the location was Onion Valley Reservoir, nestled in the Pine Forest Range a bit farther north than our Black Rock survey sites. The crew had come here at the end of season 2 years ago and we'd heard good things about this beautiful site (including the fact that one of the NBCers had a Long-tailed Jaeger on the reservoir that year), so we were excited to see it. Would it really be that much different from the Black Rock/High Rock we'd spent weeks at this season?

Once getting to the road it took us over an hour to climb up out of the dry, cheat-infested salt desert of the flats below up into the range. For most of the drive the incoming ridges hid the glory of Onion Valley from us, but eventually we crested the height of land and were given views of massive aspen stands and pockets of mountain mahogany and pine crowning the peaks. No photo of those first views unfortunately, but soon enough we were in camp next to the reservoir itself.

Camp at Onion Valley Reservoir

On these season end events, each of the crew does have to work in that they need to collect some sort of data, but they are 'fun' surveys. Everyone got the choice of surveying a pre-existing transect, create their own transect, or (the best option) survey a 1km x 1km atlas square. The atlassing essentially entails picking a square of cool country out on the map and then birding it the next day, trying to maximize your species list and track down as many baby birds as you can. No time constraints, distance estimation, temperature measurements etc., just straight birding! Always a refreshing way to end the season.

For myself I chose a section over the closest ridge from camp, with some high-ish peaks on my plot in the hopes of getting some Coniferous Forest habitat. Proper coniferous forest, with Limber Pine and the like as opposed to Pinyon-Juniper, is a real rarity on the NBC, and I was hoping it would produce some fun birds. For instance, the last time the crew was here they found some breeding Hammond's Flycatchers, one of the few places in the state that has them.

That morning, July the 11th, we woke up to temperatures below freezing, which surprised me not only for the time of year but also that we were only a bit over 7000ft. It was tough crawling out of bed, and even tougher clambering up the steep slope with thick vegetation before I even got to my square. It was a pretty rough start, and I had thoughts of just turning around since it was only 'fun' data, but I'm glad I didn't. Even before it warmed up, I was rewarded with some breathtaking views of the reservoir and surrounding hills. A Golden Eagle drifted over the peaks in the dawn light.

Onion Valley Reservoir at dawn

Misty Mountains

But eventually the temperature warmed up, my bones thawed out, the birds became a little more active, and my spirits improved. Climbing up high enough I did eventually reach the Limber Pine, where a group of Clark's Nutcrackers with their fuzzy babies provided some entertainment. I got to watch some 'cracking nuts' as well.

Limber Pine and a snow patch clinging on

And the views got even better as I got higher.

Near the top a family of Mountain Bluebirds was fun to watch. Here's the male blending into the sky:

Male Mountain Bluebird

And one of the three hungry babies:

Fledgeling Mountain Bluebird

As they often are on these high elevation sagebrush patches, the wildflowers were lovely to see as well.

Castilleja and other wildflowers in the sage

The square was quite varied in its habitats, which was great for atlassing. The higher elevations were mostly Limber Pine as I'd mentioned, but in places the hilltops were covered with Mountain Mahogany. These patches looked great for Virginia's Warbler, a bird I've encountered once and that remains on my 'heard only' list, but none made there presences known. Ned and Bobby had similar patches on their squares but struck out as well.

Mountain Mahogany patch

As I made my way down from the peak, I had my highlight sighting of the morning and possibly the season. I was coming the hillside when 10m away a large animal burst out from underneath a pine in front of me. In that first split second I thought by the tan colour it was a Mule Deer, but then its shorter profile, smooth bounds, and long, snake-like tail trailing behind it became clear. The Mountain Lion made one, two, three, four, five bounds of increasing length before disappearing into a thick stand of young aspen. I'd seen their tracks numerous times both of the last two seasons, and they can be found almost anywhere in the mountains of the state, but it takes a lucky moment like that to actually come across one of these majestic cats. While the view was brief, and I didn't get to see its face, coming across my lifer cat at 10m was pretty exhilarating and kept my pumped for the next while. It was running away downslope and I'm not typically too worried about predators (particularly during the bright light of day, as it was now 8:00 or something), but I didn't follow it to try to get a better look haha.

Further down-slope I came back into the aspens, with some creeks winding their way through and a few patches of open sage. Along one of those creeks an angry Slate-coloured Fox Sparrow eventually lead my to its silent fledgeling, and a stealthy Orange-crowned Warbler chipped as it carried food to its own. A pair of Warbling Vireos likely also had young around, but they were being very uncooperative as I watched them and I wasn't able to confirm their breeding.

The lichens on the dead pine are always striking.

Lower down yet I discovered a series of seepy meadows surrounded by willows. A local pair of Red-naped Sapsuckers had put wells into many of the willows, and this attracted wildlife like California Sister butterflies.

California Sister on Red-naped Sapsucker wells

Some excited chirping and buzzing lead me to a family of Rufous Hummingbirds, a female with 3 young. This tour had been interesting with finds of this species, because 3 days before Ned had found a family down on MR-SummerCamp, and the day before Bobby and Kaitlin had found a similar group along BlackRockMahogany. What makes these finds so interesting is that this species has never been confirmed breeding in Nevada. Now, Rufouses (Rufi?) do start migrating early, so our birds could very well have been post-breeding migrants, but the fact that many were still hanging around in their family groups was notable. Perhaps the fact that no one on the crew had any sightings of this species on either of our previous tours up here lends more evidence to these birds not being breeders, but it'll definitely be something for future crews to look our for.

Juvenile Rufous Hummingbird
The meadows opened up even more as I followed the drainage down to the edge of my plot, and here I was able to add Yellow Warbler families to my list as well as White-crowned Sparrows and many more Fox Sparrows. This area rounded out my square and a solid circuit of different habitats, summing up to 33 species for the morning with about a third of them confirmed breeding. A great morning out in the Pine Forest Range!

Mountain meadow

When we got to camp everyone shared their finds from the morning. I have to say my Mountain Lion took the cake, but Bobby found a Northern Goshawk nest on his plot which is pretty high up on the list of awesome. At last season's end-of-season get together I found my first (and only) goshawk nest in the Toiyabes, and I was pretty keen on seeing another one. Kayla had never seen a goshawk, and Ned was always down to track down one of these awesome raptors, so the following morning before heading back south we quested to Bobby's atlas square to find these mighty accipiters.

After driving towards Blue Lake we navigated to the UTM Bobby had given us and quickly found the nest. Bobby had said that the young were fledged but still hanging around the nest while he was there, but on our visit the forest was quiet an the birds were no-where to be found. We were hoping the birds might make it easy for us when they discovered us, coming in screaming with talons drawn, but they didn't materialize so we hiked out of the stand into the meadow above with the hopes of a better view.

Northern Goshawk nest

On our way out a massive accipiter did pass us in the dim dawn light which, through the bins, I was barely able to make out the gray mantle and white eyebrow of an adult Gos. Unfortunately after we made it to the meadow and set up to wait for another fly-by the birds did not cooperate. It was a lovely meadow though, and the sun warmed us on the chilly morning.

Shadows of goshawk searchers

After packing up camp we started the long drive back south. Coming down from the range we had a few Chukar, one of which teed up on a rock for us.


At the turn-off for the main road we made a stop at Gridley Lake, a mostly dry salty playa, to try for Snowy Plovers. A potential lifer for Ned, Kayla and I had only seen the species a few times before so, so we hiked down to the shore to check it out. Sure enough, the plovers were there, chasing the clouds of gnats across the saline puddles of the lakebed. In a distance patch of water there was a much larger group of peeps, Western and Least from what I could tell, accented by a few tall Avocets and Willets.

Gridley Lake

On the way out Ned caught this big Desert Horned Lizard.

Ned with his Desert Horned Lizard

And so ended out last birding tour of the NBC. One heck of a season with an amazing crew, I'll definitely miss Nevada's deserts and mountains, and the birds, critters, and people I met there. Next year I don't see myself returning for a third season in a row, but maybe some year down the line I'll find myself coming back to this great project.

After the season's end Ned, Kayla, Kelly (from GBBO's Crescent Dunes Project) and I headed down to Southeast Arizona, where in my 5 days with them and 7 days on my own tallied 49 life birds, some 20 new herps, and saw loads of awesome things. However, we'll see when I get around to recounting those adventures, since when this posts I'll be up at James Bay for to survey shorebirds for 4 weeks, after which I'll be at banding at Thunder Cape Bird Observatory for another 5 weeks. Too much content and no time to write it! Anyhow, thanks for reading along with my wanderings in Nevada, and hopefully when I get the time I'll be able to get some photos and stories up about the next legs of my travels.

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

When Roads Fail

Nevada Bird Count Tour 7 Part 2

Following our sage-grouse-filled expedition into the Virginia Range, Ned and I made the long haul up to Black Rock/High Rock on the 6th of July to finish our birding season. Ned had drove us out of the mountains, so I drove most of the rest of the way, with 37 of the Tragically Hip's greatest hits to help me along. We met up with Kayla in camp and, to our surprise, met someone else sharing our camp! Other humans are not something we often see in the wilderness of Nevada, but this hunter was down from Oregon to scout the area for Mule Deer hunting in the fall.  Apparently he'd seen some 22 different bucks in the hills over the weekend, so he should luck out come deer season.

The following morning I was gifted with doing an easy transect along Mahogany Creek. A two-track followed the creek for most of the way through the riparian aspen stand, making for an easy hike.


This late in the season the birds are often quieter because they are coming to the end of their breeding cycles, but consequently one gets confirmed breeders out the wazoo. Numerous families of House Wrens were chattering in the understory along with young Green-tailed Towhees, White-crowned Sparrows, and Gray-headed Juncos. Baby woodpeckers always make a real ruckus, and some hungry young Red-naped Sapsuckers lead me to their nest. After a couple veg points I headed up-slope back to the truck and a Golden Eagle glided over, a bird I never get tired of seeing. While almost back at the truck, I spotted a medium-sized bird sitting up on one of the burned snags on the edge of the valley. It looked to be about kestrel-sized but seemed quite dark, so I got the bins on it to check it out. The bird that looked back at me was a watercolour of iridescent green, pink, gray, and red, the one and only Lewis's Woodpecker! A pretty localized and sporadically-distributed bird in Nevada, I'd only seem them once before down south. After a few moments it took off and showed off it's very corvid-like flight.

On the drive back across the sagebrush hills I came across a large group of wild horses around a nearby watering hole. We see them fairly often around the state (Nevada has more than any other state), but this group of 60+ animals was my best look at such a large group.

Wild Horses

I met up with the Ned, Kayla, Bobby, and Kaitlin who had all done surveys to the west, and after relaxing a while headed up towards Leonard Creek Ranch where Kayla and I would finally get to survey on MR-Leonard and MR-Chicken. These couple transects follow some very steep creeks up into the Pine Forest Range, and were supposed to be both strenuous and gorgeous. After my easy transect that morning I was ready for something more challenging, especially since this tour I wouldn't have my regular bout with UpperColeman.

The next morning I assaulted MR-Leonard. The transect was actually only bad for the first 4 points, after which  it leveled out into a series of meadows. To get to those meadows, however, one had to climb up 2000ft in the space of about a kilometer. As I made my way upward, a phrase came to mind that my partner Alan from last season had picked up in Utah "It's not a real hike if you're not using your hands." While I don't agree with the validity of that saying in all circumstances, this was one of those kind of hikes, and both hands and feet were used to haul myself up by grasping shrubs and crawling over granite boulders. Fox and Song Sparrows, Yellow and MacGillivray's Warblers sang to me as I climbed, and the occasional hummingbird zipped (most too fast to ID). Eventually I made it to the top, and got view of the way I'd come:

View from the top of Leonard

There were some cool-looking granite outcrops on the way up as well:

Upon reaching the top the transect, I was rewarded with some beautiful open meadows and larger aspen stands (as well as level ground). Up here a few forest birds like Western Tanager, Cassin's Finch, and Western Wood-Pewee were sprinkled in with the shrub- and sage-dwellers.

Unfortunately there was one aspect that really took away from the beautiful landscape of the transect. This late in the season the cattle had made their way up to graze these meadows, so unlike the times when Dave and Kaitlin surveyed it, the entire place was chewed up and stank of manure. I was already pretty sick of cattle at this point and their aroma at this site didn't help improve matters. Really too bad, as this would have been one of my favorite transects otherwise.

At the very end of the transect was a small mountain lake, a prize for reaching the final point. To augment the prize, my first Prairie Falcon in a few weeks flew over as well.

Lake at the top of Leonard Creek

The point by the lake marked my last point count of the season, and my last point count on the Nevada Bird Count for the foreseeable future. It didn't really hit me at the time, but it's been a good run with the project, and I'll we'll see if I come back to the NBC some season in the future.

After completing our final transects the crew got together to make a plan to knock out all of the remaining rapid veg surveys in the Black Rock the following day. Ned, Bobby and Kaitlin offered to attack the steep slopes of Leonard and Chicken to clean up the many points that remained there, while Kalya, Dave, Sue and I headed into town for gas then further west to clean up the transects towards Mahogany Creek.

The morning of our veg day I awoke to the barking of a Long-eared Owl flying above my tent. Really my bird-of-the-season, as I happened to trip over them all over this summer. Another bird was hanging around in the shrubs near the creek next to camp. As the sun rose it lit up the clouds in impressive colours, and Sue enlightened us with a new twist on an old adage "Red sky in morning, birders get the f@#$ our of Black Rock." We thought her words were funny and not prophetic, but we should have heeded her warning.

Red sky in morning...

Dave and Sue made their way to MR-SummerCamp to clean up those points, while I drove to drop Kayla off at BlackRockMahogany before heading off to my personal favorite transect, SummitSnow on Snow Creek, to finish my season. When I got to Mahogany Creek I was able to drive half-way down the transect to save her a walk and get to a place where I could turn around, since the road was positioned on the slope of the side of the valley. After turning around I made my way a few hundred meters up the road, when all of a sudden the road under the left side of my truck gave way and I started to slide. "No no no no no!" There was nothing I could do, and before I knew it my truck was slanted at 45 degrees off the road. I put it into 4-low and tried to go forward or backward to get back up to the road, but it was no use. The slope I was on was made of sand and provided no support, and the truck, without the power to climb out, just settled a little bit farther down the slope with each attempt. Crap.

A less-than-ideal situation

Luckily Kayla wasn't too far off, and with a few blasts on the horn she came to check what the issue was. We agreed that making further attempts to get out on our own was likely to cause the truck to slide further down the slope or roll, neither ideal situations. So we contacted the boss with our satellite InReach and let her know about the situation. After a while we got the response that she was on her way with implements of pulling-a-truck-out, so we split the remaining veg points on the transect then waited.

It was mid-afternoon we saw the wonderful site of 2 white trucks coming around the corner. Jen had arrived, and Dave and Sue with her, to get us out. Jen is pretty fantastic in understanding that these kind of things happen with field work, and then working to get them fixed. We joked that she should have a cape when she rides in to save the day haha. Anyhow, long story short we made attempts to pull our truck out with Dave's rig: with first a winch (which pulled Dave's smaller truck towards the slope instead of plling us out) and then with a tow rope (which also didn't have enough power to pull our truck from the sandy slope. Shoot, this would require a tow truck, and we were in the middle of nowhere. While Jen went out to organize some help, we made the best of the situation. Like they say "When life gives you lemons, set up your lawn chairs in front of the truck that's half off the road and drink beer." Or something like that...

Dave, Kayla and Sue making the best of a bad situation

Later in the evening the rest of the crew, who had eventually hit some cell service and heard about our plight, came to join us as well. Before coming they headed up to Fields Station for some gas. Field Station also conveniently has a great selection of craft beers, so they brought some of that as well. So, we had the whole crew together for a camp-out in front of our truck; an unexpectedly fun way to finish our last day of work for the tour!

NBC Crew 2016: Clockwise from the bottom, Bobby Wilcox,
Kaitlin Murphy, Sue Bruner, Dave Henderson, Kayla Henry,
and Ned Bohman

The following day was spent hanging our and waiting for Jen to arrive with the tow truck. By the early afternoon most of us were tired sitting around, so one by one we decided to kill the wait by napping. Kayla documented the scene:

Napping the wait away

In mid-afternoon Jen showed up with Jim, the backcountry tow truck driver. Jim was a soft-spoken man with a very slow and deliberate demeanor. He would stand and examine a situation for a long moment before giving a few words of instruction, with non-hastiness that would make an ent proud. Slowly but surely, with Dave in the driver's seat of the precariously-balanced truck, Jim pulled us out.

Before we headed out we loaded our trucks with dry aspen deadfall that was littered around the understory, then our convoy headed up to the Pine Forest Range where we would have our season end celebration.

The firewood-laden convoy