Ruby Mountains, Tuesday
Seeing a Himalayan Snowcock has been on my agenda since October 2005 when Rick Wright kindly sent me a copy of ABA’s article in a 1995 Winging It on finding the Nevada galliformes. From the article, I learned that the best time to attempt seeing Himalayan Snowcock is in the summer, and that August was perhaps the best month to ascend the Ruby Mountains in northeastern Nevada where this elusive game bird calls home. Snowcocks are hunted. The hunting season for them begins in September. That means, for a birder, the best time to look for the birds is after the sun melts the snow off the trails and before shotguns begin to spook even more, what is a wary species.
The earliest date to look for Himalayan Snowcock was targeted for August 2006 for a trip to the Ruby Mountains. However, the return home on 28 July 2006 after days and days in a horrible heat wave extending all the way into Canada was too close to any trip in August. Besides, realistically, the country was still hotter than hot and an Oregon pelagic trip was scheduled for early September. Of course, there is the thing of expenses, a notion that always has to be considered. With pennies piling up, I set my sights on August 2007, but in late July going to Nevada in August would be put on hold. I began to plan for late August 2008, contacted people, worked out details about motels or possibly camping but the grim reaper tried to hammer my lungs. After that, I could barely walk around the block, let alone up a mountain trail. Going for the snowcocks in 2009 was not given serious credence; my July trek in southeastern Arizona would be just fine for the summer. The next year, 2010, I thought would be the year, but a couple of days before leaving, my low spine snapped, or so it felt. I should have been walking more, but I had gotten lazy, not keeping in shape for Snowcocks in August.
As a kind of verbal manifest, I told Linda that 2011 would be my year to climb the Ruby Mountains and spot my first, and probably last Himalayan Snowcock. In late May, I was surprised to see an incoming email with the subject line “Snowcock.” It was from Alan Whitehead, a birder in England. He wrote: “Hi Ralph, I’m thinking of making an attempt for the Snowcock this August and wondered if you could give me some advice? I found your address on the listserve and hope you don’t mind me contacting you?” He then asked a couple of questions about Elko, Nevada, and Island Lake, questions I could not answer from the experience he thought I must have acquired sometime in the last five years.
Being a consummate planner, I had, since 2006, gleaned the internet for everything I could find that might assure success in finding Himalayan Snowcock. Be careful for what you wish. My mistake was typing into the browser window the word “snowcock.” Actually, it was impressive to see so many talented people who sculpted snow into male genitalia. One has to search with the words “Himalayan Snowcock” to get the lowdown on the bird. I was happy to pass on the information from the net and email to my English correspondent who I replied, emailing “Your message came as a surprise for more than one reason. First, I am planning to go to the Ruby Mountains for the Snowcock this August. Second, this is at least the third year I have hoped to make the relatively short trip from my home in southwestern Oregon. [Actually, I had hoped for snowcocks for six years.] That said, my only experience concerning the snowcock and the Ruby Mountains of Nevada come from salivating over the prospect of seeing the bird.”
My reply essentially parroted what others had posted on the web about finding Himalayan Snowcock. The consensus is once reaching Island Lake, walk right up the jumble of rocks to a loose grove of pines at a flat shelf before sunrise. Alan Whitehead replied he was making his attempt at Island Lake on 15 August and perhaps I might join him. That might prove fun, but when the time comes to head for the Ruby Mountains, I will simply jump in the bird mobile and drive. No reservations required, with little restraint levied by timetables.
Himalayan Snowcocks, as might be guessed from the name, are not native to North America. These birds are a member of Old World quail, and belong to a fraternity of four (five, depending to current taxonomy) species in the genus Tetragallus. The Himalayan Snowcock is apparently the largest of the snowcocks, but size does not always count. The species is indigenous to Pakistan, Afghanistan Turkistan, northern India and western China. The species was introduced in the Ruby Mountains in 1963 under the umbrella of a 1956 Federal program supporting foreign gamebirds propagation in the country and support of the Nevada Department of Fish and Game. Glen C. Christensen was one of the strongest advocates for introducing snowcocks to Nevada, so much so that during a trip to acquire birds, risked being accused to be a spy by Pakistan. My first experience with Christensen was from a couple of papers on Chukar, another Old World quail. At the time, early in the first half of my tenure at the museum, a nomenclatural issue about the scientific binomial of Chukar introduced to North America was resolved by George Watson. It is all in the latest A.O.U. Check-list. My curiosity peaked, I went back to the literature surrounding proper name of Chukar and ran into papers by Christensen. This sparked a continued interest in nomenclature of all species and a realization that introducing birds may create taxonomic problems because the birds initially introduced may not be reported or even known.
The release of foreign species was viewed favorably by most hunters and many wildlife biologists. A good friend once told me the definition of a wildlife biologist is a PhD who likes to hunt. However, it should be said that not all wildlife biologists welcomed the wholesale practice of gamebird introductions. A 1965 paper in Wilson Bulletin, reviewed the sticky situation and made some interesting points. For example, one advocate had stated that introduced birds might occupy locations not occupied by native game birds and stated introduced species were actually released in regions already occupied by native species. In Nevada, where I will soon be visiting, thousands of individuals of two species of francolins and a species of sandgrouse were released in regions already occupied by abundant populations of native Gambel’s Quail. Fortunately the quail out ate the introduced species; the natives lived and the exotic species died. In addition to the francolins and the sandgrouse, Nevada introduced several thousand more game birds representing a migratory Asian quail, a tinamou, another species of sandgrouse and a couple of species of partridges. All but the snowcock perished.
Himalayan Snowcock prevailed, with 2,025 birds from releases between 1965 and 1979. The snowcock program, according to one source, cost taxpayers $750,000. That high price brought a new species to the ABA list and something hunters could shoot. During summer and early fall, these rare birds occur above 10,000 feet elevation in the Ruby Mountains and nearby East Humboldt Range. The four to five-pound partridge officially became a hunted game bird in 1980. Hunter alleged ten-pound birds could not be confirmed as such birds all got away. Birders seem to tick more Himalayan Snowcock than hunter’s bag. In 1983, 65 hunters scurried over the rocky ramparts and fragile alpine vegetation of the Ruby Mountains to obtain only four birds. Twenty-five years later, 54 hunters obtained only six birds, although 553 birds were seen. Hunting season lasts about two months, beginning 1 September, which was why I planned to be in the Ruby Mountains no later than Tuesday, 16 August.
15 August 2011
The birdmobile is packed. I eat a breakfast of three fried eggs, toast and marmalade before well wishes from Linda who smartly opts for taking care of a soon to be repaired back. In a few miles, I turn east on Oregon highway 140, which begins near home and ends in northwestern Nevada. Around 1962, Highway 140 completed the plan born in the 1950’s to connect paved roads from Winnemucca, Nevada, to the Pacific Coast. Although the connection requires a driver to travel on several U.S. and state routes, the route number 140 was originally planned to mark the entire route from “Winnemucca to the Sea.” However, highway140 officially begins today at White City in Oregon and ends in northwestern Nevada at the junction with U.S. 95, some 28 miles north of Winnemucca. Several other highways, including U.S. routes 395 and 199, complete the desert to ocean journey. My parents, and Linda’s, were some of the routes early users during those whirlwind trips back east to see the “folks.”
Today, 140 remains a two-lane paved route, modernized with infrequent passing lanes and little traffic. The busiest part is the section crossing the Cascade Mountains. Traffic quickly thins from Klamath Falls east to Lakeview as thick conifer forest are replaced with islands of pines and juniper, cattle ranches and dry brush barrens. Not far out of Lakeview, most any kind of forest is in the rearview mirror. The highway meanders first past Camas, then Parsnip and Deep Creek of the Warner Mountains. The Warner Mountains are neither part of the Cascade Mountains or the Sierra Nevada, but the western most range of the Great Basin ranges. From here to the Ruby Mountains, the terrain is relatively flat in places and interspersed with blocky mountain ranges, mostly running north and south. Some of the flats were once part of lakebeds or sometimes there are ephemeral collections of rainwater in an otherwise parched region. The mountain ranges are uplifted fault blocks or what geologist call horst and graben. Highway 140 and my route to Elko would go around some of these uplifts and over others. Driving across the Warner Mountains reminds me of research done there by the late and great Ned Johnson and pioneering collections and surveys by Joseph Grinnell.
Just after exiting Deep Creek on the east side of the Warner Mountains stands a single store on the right. It marks the location of Adel, the name of a community in the southern part of the narrow 60 mile long Warner Valley. Adel sits at the junctions with Hogback Road to the north and Twentymile Road to the south. Hogback and a few unnamed roads brush the side of a string of lakes and marshes in Warner Valley that borders 278,000 cattle free acre Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge set aside in 1936 for remnant herds of pronghorn antelope. It is a region where good tires and plenty of fuel, including water and food for yourself, are essential. The southern byway, Twentymile Road borders irrigated fields and rangeland for about 8 miles before leaving southern Warner Valley and meandering into arid brush land. In 1932, Harry C. Oberholser, aka H2O, published a paper describing new subspecies of birds based principally on collections made by Alex Walker in 1930 at various stops along Twentymile Road. From those specimens, Oberholser selected a holotypes, specimens representing each of 18 subspecies he named in his 12-page paper. Currently, a paper proposing only one new subspecies might end up being several pages more than a dozen since ornithologist are far more critical of what makes or breaks a recognizable subspecies. A few decades later, I wrote a paper about the type localities of birds in Oregon and in that process reviewed the taxonomic utility of those Oregon taxa proposed by Oberholser. Most of his birds from Twentymile Creek had already long been put to pasture. Still, I reviewed the specimens during a trip to the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, the place where Oberholser made his last stand since retiring from my museum.
After my own retirement, back in the late Twentieth Century, I decided to visit all the type localities of birds in Oregon and one day traveled up Twentymile Road, stopping at the sites Alex Walker did in 1930. Not being rocket science, I assumed the localities where Alex Walker collected the holotypes that Oberholser cited probably corresponded to the number of miles driven from Adel via Twentymile Road. At each probable site, I looked for the species Walker collected and made notes about whether the habitat would support the same species. Except that part of the road was paved, it appeared time had stood still south of Adel. On my way back to Adel, I again had to thread the birdmobile through a herd of cattle being driven up the road to open range. All that irrigated greenery necessitated keeping the windows closed. The fresh grasses munched earlier by the bovines seemed to have given many in the herd a disrespectful dose of diarrhea only of interest to large flies.
Returning to the present, I leave Warner Valley, wondering if I will complete the project of a modern look of the type localities of birds in Oregon. The project and time are slipping away like the name of the canyon the road follows. Greaser Canyon! Having wondered about the origin of the name Greaser for both a lake and the canyon east of Adel, I asked the Bureau of Land Management that administers large tracts of southeastern Oregon. Their staff could not manage to produce a reason for grease. My theory is the climb and dust to the top of Greaser Canyon was hard on wheels and axils of wagons possibly en route to Fort Warner established in Warner Valley in late 1800‘s. To avoid wearing out the wheel and axle, it was necessary to grease the bearings. I read somewhere that bored passengers of wagons sometimes wrote their names on cliff faces with wagon grease. Perhaps this was the precursor of email or face book. No, maybe it was the origin of texting.
East of Greaser Canyon is dry rolling hills, the eroded remnants of a mountain range. The route then descends to Guano Valley, actually another basin, a lakebed. Linda and I traveled a side road up the 25 mile-long Guano Valley while searching for life Chukar and our year Sage Thrasher, both of which were there. Guano Valley also offered a splendid, albeit brief view of a male Greater Sage Grouse perched high on an escarpment of a ridge possibly called Antelope Ridge because of a nearby summit of the same animal name. Today, the birdmobile gears down for the 2.5 mile climb of part of the same escarpment the Greater Sage Grouse called home. The year we saw the Chukar, Linda and I had driven up the diagonal climb to the top of the escarpment and back down to return to our base in Lakeview. Before going down, we saw the road signs. One warned of a pending 8% grade. That warning was followed by another yellow and black sign a few feet further east. It warned that this is the last chance before starting down the 8% grade. That is pretty much the maximum grade on a highway almost anywhere. Anyway, I am going up and quickly notice that there is no guard rail. In fact, guard rails along 140 east of Adel are apparently luxuries. They certainly are for me. I’m gripping the wheel, trying not to look to my right or worse, tying not to look down and attempting to hug the centerline as close as avoidance of a head-on collision will allow. The two-lane road seems to become narrower and the curves sharper. A guard rail, even one that might not stop an acrophobic from careening to smithereens, would have been psychologically comforting. I bear it but I do not grin.
A stop at the top, about 1,000 feet above Guano Valley, is good for my nerves. So far, highway 140 is not a place for error. Unlike an interstate where there are ribs or some other raised feature to let you know you have drifted out of your lane and where, if you drift right, there is a wide paved shoulder and frequently protective guard rails, 140 is a road requiring attention that consumes mental and physical energy. The welcome stop is not bad for birding either. Sage Thrashers are jumping out of every bush as I walk up a scrape a few yards from the desolate highway. There are about half as many Brewer’s Sparrows. A pair of scrub-jays perches on a high bush to check out the two-legged predator. The jays are not the inquisitive scrub-jays coming to the home bird feeders in western Oregon. Moreover, where is their necklace that is so apparent in coastal populations? I wonder when someone will prove there are two species. A pair of curious Gray Flycatchers catches my attention on the way back to the pavement and a waiting veggie- burger lunch. Occasional birds land near the car where I am careful not to use my binoculars while holding a hot cup of tea. West of Lakeview, I tried that, and spilled hot tea on my clean t-shirt while lifting my binoculars to see the bird that flew from the ponderosa pine. No harm, no fowl. In the meantime, a pickup and horse trailer park across the highway. A horse is led out of the trailer by an adult female and a small girl, perhaps a potential first grader, who mounts and rides the horse in a circle near the pickup. A few minutes later a weathered man under a cowboy hat and driving an ATV arrives from a rise to the south. The five, the horse, ATV and three humans load up and, with a smile and a wave, head down the scary escarpment.
Only a few miles from my lunch, I identify the remains of a Greater Sage Grouse smashed on the center line of 140. The road takes me southeastward across a dry and buckled 6,000 foot plateau into Nevada where I traverse the half-million acre Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge that protects habitat primarily for big horn sheep and wintering pronghorn antelope. Suddenly, there are guard rails protecting me as I travel across eroded ravines and hillsides. Rumble contours are embedded into the center line to wake up high plateau drifters. There are even rest stops, with vented, non-stinking outhouses and picnic tables. The tea earlier dictates that it is time to rest. Ten miles more and I am at the junction of 140 and Nevada highway 292. I’m two miles south of the miniopolous of Denio (pronounced deny-o) that straddles the Oregon-Nevada state line and has a 2010 population of 47, including three under the age of 20. Most of Denio, including their post office is in Nevada. I zip past Denio Junction’s gas pump, which according to a person at a Lakeview, Oregon, may or may not be open. If it isn’t, it is 213 miles between gasoline pumps. That may be the record distance for the contiguous U.S.
Gas and lodging or any services are a long way apart in this region of horst and graben. I had thought Lake County, Oregon, was remote, but neighboring Harney County has less than one person per square mile. Because most of its plus 7400 people, as of 2010, live close to Idaho, the county joins Idaho by being in Mountain Time. All of Nevada, even though almost half of it is south of Idaho is in Pacific Time, which is convenient for me since I will not have to deal with birdmobile lag. Nevada’s northwestern Humboldt County has a population of 1.7 people per square mile, with about half of them living in Winnemucca among a plethora of gas pumps and other civilized services.
After around nine hours of driving, the metropolis of 7400 strong Winnemucca is welcoming. Tall ugly billboards had earlier alerted me of a motel at the north end of town. The price is right, only $44, with tax, for a small, clean room and comfortable bed, with the name “Santa Agnese” painted in brown above the door. Every one of about a dozen rooms have their own gable and a painted “Santa” something under it. On one side of my room is racy “Santa Anita” and on the other, my favorite Santa, birding wonderland, “Santa Ana.” Someone will have to ask the history of this.
16 August 2011
Winnemucca is about two hours west of Elko and I want to get to the Ruby Mountains before noon. I am up at 5:20, gas up the vehicle, call Linda and catch Interstate 80 across what one resident called the ugliest part of Nevada. Actually, it is interesting as I climb Goconda Summit to 5159 feet, then down to Battle Mountain and passed Sheep Creek, Shoshone and Cortez ranges and flat valleys between the massive rocky summits. The interstate follows the Humboldt River, the second longest river in the great basin that, after 330 miles simply disappears into the Humboldt Sink nearly 100 miles southwest of Winnemucca. Like so many rivers, the flow of the Humboldt decreases downstream since water from it goes to irrigation.
The first white person to see the Humboldt River was Peter Skeene Ogden of the Hudson Bay Company in 1828. This is the same white guy that first saw the Rogue Valley where I reside. He got around, probably compensating for what the kids most likely called him. Think about it. The river was first named the Unknown River and then by other various names until twenty years later, John C. Fremont named it the Humboldt River after Alexander von Humboldt, a naturalist from Germany whose forward thinking and investigations were an inspiration to Charles Darwin. Like Peter Skeene and John Fremont, Humboldt also got around, and although on a larger scale, he did not visit North America except the East Coast. In 1805, Humboldt named a cormorant discovered during his epic trip to South America. However, according to a paper by yours truly, the species (Neotropic Cormorant) had been illustrated in the mid-1600’s and was already named by Gmelin in 1789.
It feels good to exit the interstate, but I find the pavement of the main drag through 18,297 peopled Elko is mostly removed for reconstruction. The partially dirt route to the junction with Lamoille Highway in bumpy, full of detours, road crews and tenuous signing. Before committing to an unmarked road, I stop for gas and directions. I also call Linda. We say goodbye for a while since cell phone service, I have been told, is nonexistent in the Ruby Mountains. Elko is bisected by the Humboldt River, and sits at about 5000 feet elevation. Being on Lamoille Highway, I think, should afford a view of the Ruby Mountains. It doesn’t. First, I must ascend almost 1,000 feet over Lamoille Pass, it is Tuesday and I see the Ruby Mountains “while the sun is bright” and I know “There’s no time to lose” before I catch my dream, that being a Himalayan Snowcock.
From the nearly flat terrain along my route, I do not see foothills, just the sudden steep wall of mountains. There is no warning of the colossal panorama. Ecologically, the Ruby Mountains have many affinities to the Rocky Mountains. Mammologist and botanist studies of the Ruby Mountains reveal that the range has become warmer and wetter during the past 80 years. Geologically, the Ruby Mountains are the largest mountain system in the Great Basin. The mountains are a young range, barely 20 million years in the making from uplifted blocks of metamorphic origin that one source, which goes beyond my geology 101 course, states is “intruded by a number of younger granite plutons.” Plutons? I had to look it up. Plutons are formations of magma that is squirted up through other rock, crystallizes and becomes plutonic rock. Certainly, today, all that heat and pressure produced a scene to love. The sixty mile long mountain range is no place wider than 12 miles and contains many peaks over 10,000 feet high, with rocky cliffs and u-shaped glacial valleys that is beyond breathtaking. Drawing ever closer to the Ruby Mountains, I begin to understand. “There’s no time to lose…”
Lamoille Highway, which somewhere became Lamoille Canyon Road follows Lamoille Creek, first going south before gradually bending east, all the while dwarfed by gnarled rocky cliffs and peaks. This is main artery for entering the heart of the Ruby Mountains. The road ends at a parking loop at the trailhead of Lamoille Canyon Trail and Island Lake Trail. I am almost 50 miles from Elko at 8,800 feet elevation. Every direction presents breathtaking views. This is natural park beauty. After quickly counting 19 cars in the parking lot, I make a wish that most of them went on up the canyon, not to Island Lake.
It is 10:30 when I exit my ride and glimpse a Golden Eagle coursing over the canyon below. That is a good sign since birders report the eagles often scare snowcocks to flight. Otherwise, the difficult to see snowcock blend into their surroundings. My plan is to hike the two-mile trail to have some inkling what it would be like walking the trail at 4 a.m. tomorrow morning. That is because everyone I have contacted stated the best if not the only chance to see Himalayan Snowcock is at sunrise. Anything much after 7:30 is too late. I quickly confirm that my pack has enough food, water and something for shelter should I decide to spend the night above Island Lake. Staying overnight becomes more and more appealing as I trudge up the narrow and sometimes precipitous rocky trail. Tripping up the Island Lake Trail tomorrow’s during predawn worries me. No, it scares me, but if that is what it takes, I’ll be at the trailhead before sunrise.
The trail actually gently ascends the very steep ridge. Still the loose rocks and narrowness is not a place for missteps. Occasional stunted limber and white-bark pines dot the steep rocky mountains and patches of nervous leafed aspen. The alpine sun bears down and I slow my pace in the rare shaded locations. The number of species of abundant wildflowers is flabbergasting. The trail had been free of snow maybe for a month and springs and water tables just below the surface fed white, yellow, blue, purple, red, pink petals and all hues imaginable at every step. I wanted to have some idea of how long it will take me to hike the two miles so I did not stop to take pictures of flowers. Fox Sparrow scold me. I need to relax from the feeling I may topple off the trail at any given moment and besides, I need a breather. Oxygen is becoming scarce as I pass the 9,000 foot mark. I stop once to talk to a Californian who said this is his third trip to the hard to resist Ruby Mountains. We talk for 10 minutes and hear that three people had made the trip before sunrise this morning. I wonder if one of them is Alan Whitehead.
Past the half-way point, I guardedly cross a wooden bridge over the creek running from Island Lake. This would not be fun in the dark, but at least I could not see how far I might fall. Finally, I arrive at the lake. Actually hiking time comes to one hour and twenty minutes. The extra minutes mean, if I begin the trail at 4 a.m. tomorrow, I will need more time to be there at sunrise. Should I start even earlier to make up the difference? My directions said to leave the trail just before the bridge at the outlet of Island Lake at the head of the magnificent glacial valley. I am glad the off trail footing is not as difficult as I had thought. Also, my night in Winnemucca and drive to the trailhead at elevations at least 3500 feet may have helped me acclimate to higher elevations. I recall that when I climbed Mt. Shasta I was living in Crater Lake National Park at 7,000 feet, which may have been why I made the summit and about half our party did not. Whatever the reason, I am grateful my 67 year-old body is able to carry me to the lake. However, my goal, in terms of where I will be standing (or sitting) when I get a snowcock, is 630 more vertical feet.
Trying to avoid interrupting my breathing rhythm, I slog upward, this time slowly since the route is considerably steeper than the trail. Finally reaching a cluster of gnarly pines, I stop; find one pine with its trunk bent gently near the ground probably from the weight of 8 to 10 feet of snow that falls each winter. The inclined tree trunk seems the perfect place to sit since it tilts below a vertical cliff about 400 or more feet high. I am guessing the tree is a bristle-cone pine, but my mind is further up the slope than possibly identifying needles and cones. The cliff, estimated to be 300 yards away, stands above a slanted slope of broken talus too steep to climb, at least for me now. The top of the cliff appears to be solid rock that slopes northward to a summit near 11,400 feet. A few patches of snow dot the rough slopes. The tree bark is sharp to my hands as I lower myself into a sitting position and stare up at the main cliff and the ridge and valley to the left. Without any kind of bird, the moment is fantastic. A half of a sandwich I brought in the cooler from home is nearly finished when I hear a sound, a familiar yet new sound. It is the call of an elk, a vocalization heard many times. No, it was different. It sounds identical to the recordings I had studied during Himalayan Snowcock, the dreaming years. Almost choking, I stuff the remainder of the sandwich into its plastic bag, chug some water and slowly stand up.
My perch is not perfect. Several pines and rock outcroppings block my view. The bird could be anywhere and too much time and effort had been expended to miss it. I climb higher. In minutes, I reach the much heard about camping area. I find a fire pit, park my pack and search for the perfect lookout. I have to see this bird. I must see a Himalayan Snowcock.
Some rocks become my stool. Their surfaces are coarse, but an insulated vest, the one I would wear tonight if I don’t see this bird, makes a good cushion. I wait. The telescope sits on the tripod. I scan and scan again. A few small rocks fall from the base of the dark cliff that might be from miss steps of a clumsy snowcock. No, it is a mountain goat, looking for the occasional green sprig clinging above. More scanning. In less than an hour since finding my new perch, a bird appears on the horizon between two knobby rocks one correspondent called tetons. That same person actually observed a snowcock sitting near one of the tetons. However, the bird I see is not a snowcock, but what is it. The scope reveals a dark bird. I turn up the zoom and hold my breath for a better look. It is a raptor. It moves, but clumsily as a raptor might move on a flat surface as its perch appears from my angle. No respectable snowcock, a bird that spends more time on its feet than on its wings, would move with more grace. I look down to calm my straining eyes, and then back up at the raptor, which I now am sure is a Peregrine Falcon. However, the falcon is gone. In less than five minutes a dark bird, larger and less stream lined than a falcon, flies from the backside of the ridge to my left. It then wings almost toward me, while making a sweeping arc over the dark cliff in front of me while cackling all the way. During the flight, before it disappears over the summit to the right of the darker cliff, I easily see the whitish face and throat and the white primaries. I’m too surprised to notice undertail coverts. They could have been international purple or orange, pea green, I don’t know. The cackling alarm stops, the bird is gone, but the memory of a Himalayan Snowcock is imprinted into my lucky brain. Seconds after the snowcock disappears, a falcon zips across my vision, perhaps in pursuit of the equivalent of a Himalayan chicken dinner.
The pleasure is partly in the chase and the rest is satisfaction in the find. I am also happy not to trek up the trail in the dark tomorrow. As I zig down the slope toward the trail, my left foot slips on small rocks lying in ambush on a large flat outcrop of glacier polished stone. Somehow, I don’t go all the way down; it is half of a fall. Three scrapes just below the knee bleed. The anticlotting factor of my coumadin could be a problem, but a clean handkerchief slows down the minor bleeding and, with just a touch of pain and my pants with a half-inch tear, I am on my way. This time I am a little more careful. At the outlet of the lake, I meet two geologists from Canada who are marveling at the twists and turns of the rocky terrain. They ask about going off the trail since, at least in national parks, the practice is forbidden. I tell them the region is administered by the National Forest Service and it is all right to walk off the trail. However, I tell them I felt somewhat guilty tromping on the alpine flora. I know that more and more people will come to these mountains and more feet will mean the demise of many plants.
As for the flowers, my descent is full of numerous stops for picture-taking. I also stop so that a hiker is able to squeeze by on his way to the lake. The man tells me catches his dinner regularly at Island Lake and that he regularly hears and sees Himalayan Snowcock during his evening respite.
My wounds are not a bother coming down, nor are my knees protesting the descent as they have done on a couple of other birding excursions. Back at the birdmobile, I follow first aid procedure I am sure retired registered nurse Linda would approve. I drive down the canyon and into the high desert just east of Lamoille Summit and turn south on Nevada 228. A biologist of the Nevada Department of Wildlife, with the great name of Caleb MacAdoo, had told me a good place for Dusky Grouse and snowcocks was accessed on forest service roads above Mitchell Creek that is crossed by route 228. The region sounds perfect for a night of car camping, but the trip to the highlands south of Pearl Peak in the southern Ruby Mountains is ill-fated.
First, the junction of the forest service road with route 228 is barely marked. I found it as I drove past a small flat stick with the number of the forest service road. I back up, drive the soft dusty road across miles of slightly rolling terrain, take the next junction to the south since I’m told the north fork, also leading to the hinterlands, is washed out, and continue up Mitchell Creek. Once along the creek, the road deteriorates. I mutter a wish not to meet anyone coming down the creek about the time a large pickup comes around a corner. The young women driver backs up hill and off the road. That is a trick learned while working in Crater Lake National Park. If you back into something soft, backing uphill will allow you to take advantage of gravity to get you going. Newton knew what he was talking about, but I am not sure about my information to get into the high country. The road, by the loosest definition, and contrary to advice that a Honda CR-V, the birdmobile, will do just fine, becomes menacingly awful. The deep ruts are filled with summer dust and the high center is becoming ever higher. Finally, resisting the temptation the road will improve, I give up, accepting the road will get worse. I work the short wheel-based vehicle back and forth until I am able to aim back down the hill. This takes over three minutes of care not to be stuck in the tan powder shoved by tires to the sides of the so-called road and mounding up on the high center of the route. I check the GPS. I am at 7559 feet elevation, having climbed about 1450 feet, and, according to my position and topo maps, five miles and 1,500 more feet from localities I was told might produce grouse and snowcocks. Maybe, but another mile promised nothing but trouble.
Escaping the Mitchell Creek is a relief. Common Nighthawks wheel over the rolling lowlands, with the Ruby Mountains to the east and part of the Sulphur Springs Range beginning to hide the sun to the west. On the way down dusty Mitchell Creek, I had decided to drive back up Lamoille Canyon to camp at Thomas Creek Campground. The canyon road is thankfully deserted during the climb. The guardrails reflect from the headlights, reminding me of unpleasant heights above Lamoille Creek.
17 August 2010
About 3:30 a.m., I hear someone leaving Thomas Creek Campground and wonder if they will be walking up the Island Lake Trail to find a Himalayan Snowcock. I’m awake enough to realize I am cold, but a blanket and the horizontal driver’s seat, with a big pillow, is not too bad. Sleep comes and departs at the unfortunately late time of 7:30. The temperature is not much greater than at 3:30, requiring a long-sleeved shirt and my jacket for a quick run to the nearby outhouse. Mercifully, it is one of the modern vented ones, a product of sound outhouse technology. After a quick breakfast of two boiled eggs kept cool since leaving home, I look for the trailhead of Thomas Creek Canyon Trail.
Dusky Grouse have been reported in several localities in Lamoille Canyon and my plan is to bump into this elusive bird. The Thomas Creek Canyon Trail begins at first steeply as it routes around and above waterfalls and crystal cascades. The approximately three-mile creek pours down a glacial valley, headed by impressively gorgeous 11,215 foot Mount Fitzgerald, named for John Fitzgerald Kennedy. To my left is a high steep massive, cliffs gray and forbidding that easily reach above 10,000. Due east, near the head of Thomas Creek and up the cliff barely a half-mile away nestles Island Lake.
This is panorama beyond expectations and looks promising for the elusive grouse. Above the roar of the falls are a couple of lonely pines. Beyond stunted aspen, sprinkling of wildflowers, somewhere amid the vegetation, is an unmistakable hoot, slightly higher in pitch than the Sooty Grouse. A search is futile since the bird stops vocalizing and is not about to show itself. The trail of the Dusky Grouse goes cold, but it is, after all, the trail of a Dusky Grouse.
Further up the trail, I traverse what looks to be ideal habitat, with large solid green patches of aspen and willow below the rocky sides of the valley. It looks to be a perfect place to flush a Dusky Grouse. A mile and around 600 feet above the 7600-foot elevation of the campground is my limit today. I pass a large beaver pond, with it pair of lodges. Wood of the dam and lodges is bone white suggesting the site is abandoned. The Dusky Grouse stage is silent. Back in the campground, one of the hosts tells me a Dusky Grouse resided under their trailer for weeks. It was unafraid and strutted around near the entrance of the grounds acting like a pet chicken, very much unlike the bird hiding up the trail. Yes, the host said, this is a good area to find Dusky Grouse. How many times have I heard but never saw Sooty Grouse, yet at the right place and time, one will embarrass itself, such as a male just outside the dorm at Crater Lake, Oregon. Someday, I will get a good look at a Dusky Grouse too.
Driving out of the Lamoille Canyon, with the Ruby Mountains in my rear view mirror reminds me of the last line in “Ruby Tuesday.” Even with the memories and the photographs “Still I’m gonna miss you…”
A stop at the Forest Service in Elko to ask about Mitchell Creek is enlightening. I had been on the correct road, but the staff, originally from southwestern Oregon, told me not all forest service roads are equal and that service roads in Nevada were not nearly the better quality of those familiar in Oregon. How true. The person also verified the fisherman’s story that Himalayan Snowcock is frequently found above Island Lake during the evening. I ask about my next destination, Harrison Pass. It is a good answer in that the pass is reached by Forest Road 114, a partly paved road on the west of the pass that is definitely an improvement over the road up Mitchell Creek, and the region might produce another Dusky Grouse and I want to visit Ruby National Wildlife Refuge on the east side of the mountains.
Before leaving cell service, I dial Linda; tell her I will be spending the night at Harrison Pass. She is happy to hear about the new birds. We are both happy when I tell her I will be traveling homeward tomorrow.
The southern section of the Ruby Mountains differs geologically from the northern range, and this is partly reflected by habitat. My novice view, although possibly wrong, reveals the southern part as more arid since the range, at least in some areas, has foothills. Lower elevations, with fewer tall peaks make the crossing at Harrison Pass possible. The dry, brown pass, with grasses and sagebrush and occasional islands of what I think is mountain mahogany nesting along steep ephemeral watersheds is a barren windswept place. It does not look especially great for Dusky Grouse, but the forest service tells me the birds are there, somewhere. Actually, the habitat for the species is not too dissimilar to that described in the monumental Birds of Nevada by Jean Linsdale, when in 1936 he listed the grouse under the name Dusky, then properly split from Sooty Grouse. I arrive at the summit, marveling that this remote harsh land was once part of a 1500-acre ranch, even that a school once existed here in the 1940’s. The region is abandoned now save the curious traveler. Also, where are the grouse?
From a southern spur road snaking above the pass, I spy another side road north of the pass that not only looks camp worthy but also possibly grouse worthy. With time to spare, I rattle eastward, down the washboard road to Ruby Valley and narrowly avoid a speeding truck owned by one of two busy gold mines near Elko. Was the guy prospecting? Probably not since Ruby National Wildlife Refuge, possibly the most remote refuge I have ever visited is not a place for gold diggers. Nearly 40,000 acres of refuge lay at 6,000 feet on the flanks of the mountains, with Pearl Peak towering at 10,848 feet to the west. Had I made it above Mitchell Creek yesterday, I might have had an aerial view of the refuge. The largest population of Canvasbacks west of the Mississippi nest in the refuge, but all I see is a handful of brown ducks. A person at headquarters tells me Dusky Grouse are uncommon to rare in the refuge. I am surprised any grouse would be in the refuge, but just maybe the species will make an appearance between here and Harrison Pass.
Back at the 7250 foot Harrison Pass, I drive a third of a mile north on and up an unmarked dead end road to a large gray rock outcropping that overlooks the pass 80 feet below. A perfect although sparsely grassy place to park is at the edge of this road, but I wait until the catalytic converter is cooled. Sagebrush dots the slopes, with occasional green islands of riparian vegetation. After positioning the birdmobile, I dig a latrine, and down a can of ravioli and beans. It is cooler as I walk the ridge above the rocks. The night is completely quiet, with not a sole disturbing the remote peace on Harrison Pass.
18 August 2011
Low 50 temperatures wake me several times. At six, I am up and walk the road above rocks. What sound like a covey of teenage grouse flying shatters the crisp morning. The sound is behind me and I catch a brief glance at three birds dropping into the tall yellow grass next to the more lush vegetation of an adjacent ravine. The birds are too large for any kind of quail. Were they Ruffed Grouse? My impression is no. My leaning is Dusky Grouse, but I cannot be certain.
Back at camp, I eat a mini breakfast, shed one layer as the sun begins to warm and head for the latrine despite the fact the moist wipes Linda provided me have the word s “exfoliating facial wipes” on the package. I cannot be choosey. One vehicle has already passed on the main road below. Another might drive my way. Breaking camp, I hurry down my temporary driveway. If there are any grouse along the main road, I am going to be the one who spots them, exfoliated or not.
A family of Prairie Falcons are a few yard below camp. Two of them, probably juveniles perch unwearyingly next to my driveway. On the pass road, several Brewer’s Sparrows, Sage Thrashers and flocks of Vesper Sparrow entertain while chipmunks, anxious for the morning warmth of the sun, are everywhere on the road, causing me to drive very slowly down the pass. American Robins perked up from the riparian shores. Further down the road where I hear a Clark’s Nutcracker. Two Lewis’s Woodpeckers join the list. These are the birds a person collecting day-use fees yesterday called Aliwishes Woodpeckers. They are near Yellow Warblers feeding offspring in the riparian growth along willow-banked Toyn Creek. The creek, on its way into the arid terrain, draws me westward. As I drive away, I imagine the ill-fated Donner Party skirting the southern end of the Ruby Mountains in 1846, the 1500-acre ranch at Harrison Pass in 1865 and a school by 1940. All are gone.
Jiggs is up the road on the way to Elko. The settlement was named for an Irish-American brick layer decades ago and long before snow cocks sailed the peaks of the Ruby Mountains. A roadside sign reports a population of over 5,000, but all I see are six pickups parked at the tavern, which is across the only other building in sight. About 30 miles south of Elko, a sign tells drivers of entering an Indian reservation It is part of the 17,000 acre South Fork reservation of the Te-Moak tribe of the Western Shoshone. I wonder why the Nevada highway right-of-way from the edge of the road is about five-times wider than it is bordering non-reservation land. In southern Elko, I find a self-service carwash to clean away dust and bugs and after two nights without running water, should have used it on myself. A local fast-food establishment’s wi-fi helps me get a phone number for the motel at Denio Junction where I‘m told there is no room at the inn.
It is a long drive homeward. I stop at Denio Junction. Maybe there was a cancellation, but, once again, I am denied at Denio Junction. It is either camp along the Winnemucca to the Sea or drive to Lakeview, 135 miles into Oregon. The road seems straighter, less interesting than a few days ago and, the route is definitely tiring. A Lakeview motel feels wonderful. Tomorrow I will be refreshed for the four-hour homeward route.