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


  1. You saw WILD HORSES?! Okay, I'm officially jealous of your summer! Glad all is well and hopefully we can catch up come fall! :)

    1. You bet! More of them in Nevada than any other state, and we got to see them every once in a while. Super cool to see the variation of colours and patterns of different individuals within the herds.

      And planning on popping into Guelph next week, probably on Tuesday and stop by the WLC meeting, so it'd be great to catch up! Sure you and Kevin are running a good show