Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
Group Searches for Elusive Himalayan Snowcock
July 30, 2016
By Steve Grinley
Since I haven’t had the opportunity to take a birding trip recently, I thought that I would share with you excerpts of Strickland Wheelock’s report of his exciting trip this past week to the Ruby Mountains in Nevada. Strickland led this trip, along with co-leaders Kathy Seymour and Tia Pinney for the Mass Audubon Drumlin Farm Wildlife Sanctuary in Lincoln.
“Drumlin Farm undertook it’s most challenging adventure trip, July 21 – 26, in my memory, taking 18 of us to climb to 10,000 ft in the Ruby Mountains in Nevada to hopefully see the Himalayan Snowcock – the only place in North America to see this super rare large grouse. There is so little info about this bird and what it takes to locate one, with a good possibility that you could miss them altogether. Also, since the trails are covered with snow most of June, July is a safe month to undertake this challenge. Certainly no groups of this size have undertaken it, and dealing with the hiking challenges of elevation & thinness of the air with participants with different physical abilities, we tried to prepare the folks for what lay ahead. Several big listers from around the US were part of this trip to hopefully have us guide them to this elusive bird that lives year around 10,000+ feet.
“Our trip started around Salt Lake City where we birded the Bear River Migratory Bird refuge which has a 12 mile road viewing the 41,000 acres of freshwater wetlands – there were countless number of coots, white-faced ibis, mallards, Avocets, Black-necked stilts, Cliff & Bank Swallows with a wide variety of other species like Western Kingbirds, White pelicans, Sandhill Cranes, several duck species, Forster’s & Caspian Terns, a flock of 500 Marbled Godwits, several Sora & Virginia Rails, Great-Horned Owl, Swanson’s Hawk, Yellow-headed Blackbirds, Pied-billed Grebes, Franklin’s & California Gulls plus many great side by side comparisons between Clark’s & Western Grebes “great learning experience”…
“We drive to Elko in the afternoon making a short stop for the folks to walk out on the Bonneville Salt Flats which was a neat experience – however the reality was setting in that tomorrow we need to get ready & prepared for leaving at 3 am to drive to the trail head for Island Lake in the Ruby Mountains. The road ends at 8800 feet but we need to hike to 10,000 feet and try to be in position by Island Lake at the crack of light when the grouse are most active. “Basically we split into 3 groups with 1 leader each to hike this narrow trail in the cool darkness “headlamps essential” which would take an hour to one and a half hour climb along many switchbacks. As we gained altitude, the challenge grew more difficult with breathing, so taking it slow was important, plus much hydration. As the light began seeping in, we could see the breathtaking cliffs and mountains surrounding us – no calls at all like the Common Poorwills or Owls – finally a few Western Pewees, Siskins and Cassin’s Finches called but no time for looking – get up the mountain!
“At the end of the trail at the Island Lake lookout, we scanned the cliffs, snow fields for the Snowcocks with no success. Once all the folks were there and had a good breather, to their excitement I said that we needed to climb to a higher viewing location closer to the cliffs. We have gone this far to see this bird, what is a few hundred more feet, despite no official trail.
“Once there at a nice flat lookout, one of our many sharp observers found five Snowcocks feeding in the grass below one of the snowfields! With the sun at our backs, these Snowcocks were lit up for perfect viewing – – everyone had long looks through the scopes that were carried up. As they sat up on the rocks facing us – we could see every detail on the birds that hung out for a while feeding in the grasses.
“While enjoying the experience, resting in the sun, knowing we don’t have to make the hike up the Lamoille Trail the following morning as a back up, we enjoyed viewing a Prairie Falcon, Golden Eagles, Mountain Bluebirds, Clark’s Nutcrackers, a single Black Rosy-Finch near the Snowcocks, many White-crowned Sparrows, Pine Siskins, a Dipper and Spotted Sandpiper at the small lake, etc. Surrounding us were thousands of stunning wild flowers in bloom and being fed on by Broadtailed, Rufous & Calliope Hummingbirds – the total picture was breathtaking.
“Getting down the mountain was still challenging with the breathing and with the sun now beating down – everyone was exhausted once we arrived at the cars and off we went for lunch and rest time well earned – the offsetting factor was what an incredible accomplishment & teamwork to make this hike so successful.
“With many active birding stops before and after our mountain adventure, including the historical mining town of Ophir, South Fork Recreation Area, Angel Lake, Antelope Island, and the ski resort at Solitude, we”…”concluded our trip with 157 species in July. “Despite” 100+ degree days and virtually no song, we found many rare species that thrilled the participants – but none bigger than the Himalayan Snowcocks that made the trip many times over. Along with the birds were all the mammals in all sizes, stunning wild flowers and mountain cliffs that added to the total success of the trip.”
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