Saturday, 8 September 2018

Eastern Nevada Big Day May 18-19 2018: Introduction and Day 1

Hello again!

So, clearly I've let this blog grow stagnant for too long. But, to make up for it, I've got a pair of exciting posts! Back in late May this year, my Great Basin Bird Observatory crewmate Ned Bohman and I finally executed a scheme we first thought up back in 2016: a state-wide, Great Basin to Mojave Nevada Big Day. As our first attempt and Ned's first Big Day, it was a great success, and we ended with a satisfying 161 species. This was the most species either of us had ever had in a day, and to my understanding is likely the third-highest total for the state of Nevada.

Nevada is fairly underpopulated and underbirded as states go, so consequently, Big Day attempts are few and far between. Those that have been done are usually conducted within striking distance of Reno, because a) that's where many of the birders live and b) there's a HUGE variety of birds in a fairly close radius, with Sierra birds in the Carson Range, great Pinyon-Juniper birds in the Pine Nuts, rich riparian areas, and a high variety of quality wetland and waterbirding nearby. With that being the case, the previous records have been set there, including the current record of 171 back in 2016. All my knowledge of these attempts comes from Paul Hurtado's blog, who was part the record breaking team, which can be found here.

That said, Ned and I were keen on trying a route that spanned both of Nevada's desert regions, the Great Basin and the Mojave. While involving a marathon amount of driving and definitely not as efficient as the usual strategy, the idea of getting to bird so many of Nevada's habitats in just 24 hours was really enticing, so we decided to go for it.

In talking of records, we weren't specifically trying for a state record; we were keener to hit these under-birded Eastern NV sites and see how many birds this novel plan of attack could get. On a more technical standpoint, because of how our route was set up we needed to run it from afternoon to afternoon (4pm to 4pm), instead of a single calendar day like official attempts. Secondly, neither of us are a fan of using playback while birding. Deciding not to use it makes things decidedly less competitive against teams that do, giving luck even more of a role to play (particularly during slower times of the day, or for things like owls or secretive marsh birds).

This year we had a work contracts at Pahranagat NWR and Warm Springs Natural Area, so in the weeks leading up to the Big Day we were able to get quite familiar with that portion of our route. Additionally, we had the first couple days of our break to briefly scout the northern stretch before our day commenced. Thus, we were able to get at least a familiarity with most of our route, while leaving the last couple stops at the end to chance based on eBird data.

Below is our route. We started the first day birding the montane habitats of Great Basin National Park and the sagebrush of the Snake and Spring Valleys, before making it down to the Clover Mountains for the night. The following morning we birded a Ponderosa Pine stand and the Pinyon-Juniper forest of the Clovers, the cliffs and riparian areas of Meadow Valley Wash, the Joshua Trees west of Caliente, followed by the wetlands of the Pahranagat Valley, the mesquite thickets of the Moapa Valley, and ultimately ending up at the open water of Lake Mead. As you can see, it is quite the marathon route, and it was only with Ned's excellent driving skills that we were able to stay on schedule and complete the ~400mile trek with time to adequately bird it too.

Our Route


But without further ado, here is Day 1 of our Big Day (the second day will follow in another post)

Day 1: May 18, 2018

At 15:45 Ned and I were on the outskirts of Baker, east of Great Basin National Park, where we had information about a Great Horned Owl that was nesting on a local's property. Although we had seen the bird the day before, the nest location was not visible from the road, and with only 15 minutes to start time the owl was AWOL. While we searched and waited for the clock to strike, I was surprised to see a LEWIS'S WOODPECKER feeding on one of the trees! A very uncommon bird in Nevada, it was not even on my list of potentials for the day. We kept our eye on it while we looked for the owl, and when my watch alarm beeped 16:00 Ned bagged it as our first bird of the day. We were off! Common town and farm birds began to fall plus two Great Basin species, BLACK-BILLED MAGPIE and BREWER'S BLACKBIRD, that would be impossible further south. After 5 minutes and no owl in sight, we took off for the park.

On our way up we ticked LARK SPARROW and COMMON RAVEN in the sage before a quick stop at "The Yurt." The home of John Woodyard and Melissa Renfro, we visited the couple the day before to pick their brains about the local birds. During that visit, Ned had spotted a male ROSE-BREASTED GROSBEAK at their feeders! A regular vagrant to Nevada, but still not on our expected list and we were hoping it would stick around. It turned out it did, and as soon as we pulled in we spotted it in a tree by the feeders, in addition to a CASSIN’S FINCH and the neighborhood WILD TURKEYS. Great! But even more surprisingly, I then spotted a yellow bird atop another tree. What!? A male EVENING GROSBEAK! It’s a species that turns up around the park, but so uncommon that it barely made my expected list. Gold! Already with 3 bonus species, we continued up to higher elevations.

Driving up with the windows down we both simultaneously nabbed BUSHTIT chatter, and spent more time on a WESTERN WOOD-PEWEE than necessary, trying to turn it into an Olive-sided. Our first scheduled stop in the park was the coniferous forest at the Osceola Ditch trailhead. Here some waiting and a quick walk gave us RUBY-CROWNED KINGLET, SPOTTED TOWHEE, HERMIT THRUSH, NORTHERN FLICKER, MOUNTAIN CHICKADEE, RED-BREASTED NUTHATCH, PINE SISKIN, CLARK'S NUTCRACKER, WOODHOUSE'S SCRUB-JAY, YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLER, and the best bird of all, a flyover NORTHERN GOSHAWK being mobbed by a raven. Unfortunately, the hoped-for Brown Creeper and Golden-crowned Kinglets remained silent, as the park would be our only chance for them.

Next we headed to Upper Lehman Creek Campground, where the birds were much quieter than we'd hoped (a problem with needing to get these songbirds in the afternoon). Our Downy Woodpecker was a no-show, the kinglet was missed again and, more inexplicably, there was not a House Wren to be found! They had been thick here that morning, and even the afternoon before some were vocal. These guys had pretty much cleared out from the South at this point, so the park was our shot for them too. But after 20 minutes and no luck, we continued on. At least the reliable TOWNSEND'S SOLITARE that we needed played ball for us.

Next we headed to the Baker Creek Trail, yet another spot for the kinglet, and heard a BROAD-TAILED HUMMINGBIRD trill by en route. Apparently the aspen stand by the parking lot was good for Red-naped Sapsucker too, but in all our scouting we hadn't come across one in the park. Anyways, the trail was even more dead than the campground, with no kinglet, creeper, nor sapsucker. We at least got a bonus STELLER'S JAY, which was our first in the park and another bird we needed in the north. 

Baker Creek Trail and Wheeler Peak (sans GCKI or BRCR)

To give us one more shot at missing birds, we stopped quickly at the Grey Cliffs campground and tried unsuccessfully for the American Dipper pair we had there 2 years previous. Finally, a bit behind schedule as it was, we left to hunt sagebrush birds before nightfall.

On our way out of the park we stopped in the PJ for the local PINYON JAY flock, and Ned's ears picked out a distant laughing bird.  We also got a Mountain Bluebird teed up for us before hitting the shrubland.

Sagebrush Steppe on the way out of the Park

This leg of our route we hadn't scouted, and here we definitely lacked some efficiency. While eBird told us that all of our target species were thick in Spring Valley on the far side of the park, that was over 30 minutes away, and it was already growing late. Since we were racing the sun and didn't want it to set before we arrived, missing all our birds, we decided to make numerous stops along the way. We started on the steppe off the park exit road, where the Lark Sparrows were super loud and we strained our ears to pick out Vesper Sparrows that weren’t there. Ned got us on a SAGE THRASHER, and then we kept on moving up and around the park. Dipped again on the owl, RED-TAILED HAWK on a line, NORTHERN ROUGH-WINGED SWALLOW by a creek, but it wasn't until we were at the far side that we eventually started picking up HORNED LARKS, still with hordes of Lark Sparrows but not our other targets. Finally we started getting into the good sage as dark was falling, and frantically picked up VESPER and BREWER'S SPARROWS in full chorus along with more Sage Thrashers than we could ask for. Despite our efforts, we hadn't made it quite as far as the valley bottom, and the Sagebrush Sparrows we needed escaped us. Ah well, we were doing quite well, and a COMMON POORWILL sounding off was nice to get out of the way. We had hoped to add an early Common Nighthawk over the sage as twilight fell, but that also was not to be. With daylight gone, Ned put pedal to the medal and we left the Great Basin behind, making for the Clover Mountains. On the way, Ned’s keen reflexes kept us from hitting numerous herds of Elk that crossed our path.

We made it to the Clovers after 22:00, and made a number of listening stops throughout the PJ in the hopes for a Western Screech-Owl, Great Horned Owl, or Common Nighthawk, but only silence greeted us. Finally we got to camp, took a quick walk through the Ponderosas without hearing any Flammulated Owls, then collapsed around 23:00 with 52 species under our belts. We'd be up again before the dawn to to begin our last 12 hours of the Day.

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