24 October 2011

Himalayan Snowcock Expedition with BAS

This weekend, I led a Bridgerland Audubon Society field trip to the Ruby Mountains of Nevada in search of Himalayan Snowcocks. The Himalayan Snowcock is a large grouse, about the size of a Greater Sage-Grouse, that is adapted for living in the high rocky peaks of the Himalayan Mountains. In the 1960s and 1970s it was introduced to the Ruby Mountains of Nevada for hunting. The introduction was successful, and now this isolated mountain range is the only place outside of the Himalayas where this species can be seen. This species is sought after by the top birders of North America, and a visit to their habitat was depicted in the recent movie, The Big Year.

On Saturday morning, I met the other birders on this BAS trip in the hotel in Elko at 4:30 AM, and we were on the trail at the end of Lamoille Canyon a little after 5:30 AM. We arrived at the bench above Island Lake just as the sun was starting to hit the tops of the mountain peaks around us. At least four Himalayan Snowcocks were calling from various points around the cirque of cliffs. (The calls were all heard within about a half hour after sunrise, then the birds stopped vocalizing). Collectively, we saw two individuals, and the whole group had leisurely scope views at one individual as it foraged around a ledge in the cliffs. We also watched several flocks of Black Rosy-Finches flitting around the scree below the cliffs. We had found our target bird before 7:30 AM, so we spent a little while looking for more of them, and watching the mammals of the area, which included Mule Deer, Pika, and Mountain Goats. We then headed back down to the trailhead to start another hike.

The next hike we took was a loop to Lamoille Lake. Some parts of the trail were a bit icy, and the early parts of the trail were very birdy, so the hiking was slow. Clark's Nutcrackers were actively gathering and caching pine seeds in a large open stand of pines. We were impressed by the numbers here, and estimated about 300 individual birds in this 3.5 mile loop, most of which were in the first mile. It was fun to watch the nutcrackers extract the nuts from the cones with ease and fill their crops to the point it looked like they might pop, before flying off to a suitable place to hide them for the winter. Other species seen along this loop included Golden-crowned Kinglets, Red-breasted Nuthatches, a White-breasted Nuthatch, Brown Creepers, and three Dusky Grouse, among others. GCKI and BRCR are apparently pretty rare in northern Nevada: eBird has only five and four (respectively) previous records for these species in Elko County.  We ended back at the parking lot at about 3:00, tired from our early start and many miles on the trail at high elevation, but thrilled with finding many great birds including our target bird, the Himalayan Snowcock.