A quest for the Himalayan Snowcock in the Ruby Mountains of Nevada in August, 2014.
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August 18, 2014, Day one - Linda Pittman, Mark Martucci and I (Dan Brown) left Sacramento at 7am and arrived in Elko, Nevada (430 miles) around 2:30pm. We exited I-80, took highway 227 toward Lamoille and the Hotel Lamoille (about 20 miles), checked in and then drove back to Elko for an early Mexican dinner. Our accommodations were really nice at the Hotel Lamoille. The Hotel is right next to a nice restaurant and adult beverage bar! If you wish to lodge here, be aware that the Hotel Lamoille has only four rooms and the restaurant is not open every night!
After dinner, we drove up Lamoille Canyon, birding our way up. At a random stop, we had an exciting moment as we spotted three Chukars on the the ridge, thinking at first that we had Snowcocks! NOT! We arrived at the Lamoille Canyon trailheads at about 7pm. The weather was good, the temperature was around 70 degrees with partly cloudy skies, making for a beautiful sunset. We enjoyed the local birds around the parking lot area and enjoyed views of the nice billy Mountain Goat on the ridge. Recent reports were that the Himalayan Snowcocks (HISN is the banding code for this species and will be used hereafter) had been seen from this vantage point so we spent much of our efforts until sundown scoping the ridges continually in hopes of seeing them, with no luck. We headed back to our hotel in Lamoille and set our alarm clocks for 2:45 am! YIKKES! Here's a link to our ebird list for the evening - Lamoille Canyon
Fire in the sky. Sunset over the Ruby Mountains. This is a faux HDR image produced with image editing software.
August 19, 2014, Day Two - We were up at 2:45am and left the Hotel by 3:30am, and arrived at the trailhead a little before 4:00am. On the way we also saw a nice young Porcupine along the side of the road. Very nice to see! The sky showed a little haze but the stars were a fantastic sight! A slight breeze was blowing and the temperature was in the mid 50's. At 4:05am, with headlamps on, we started up the trail. The trail to Island Lake is about two miles long and gently sloped with a number of switchbacks, however, it was not too difficult even with the elevation at the start of about 8500 feet and 9600 feet at the lake. According to Linda, this trail is much easier than the Lamoille Lake trail that she had hiked a month earlier in her first and second attempt to see the HISN. No wildlife was seen or heard on the way up .We stopped at the wooden bridge at the half way point and took a photo to document that we were actually there in the dark!
Pausing at the bridge near the halfway point up the trail
Arrival at Island Lake
Upon arrival at the lake (5:35am), we immediately heard a HISN up slope to our left! The call was a whistle followed by an ascending series of shorter whistles trailing off. This call matched the recordings that we had reviewed on IBIRD PRO (a bird guide app) and Xeno Canto (an internet bird sound resource). A very encouraging sign! Excitedly we searched the ridge lines and the talus slopes for the next two hours but no HISN were seen or heard. There were many birds to look at including Cassin's Finches, Black Rosy Finches and many Clark's Nutcrackers. On the slopes we enjoyed views of a Pika and 7 Mountain Goats. The Sun was up and feeling really good but we still hadn't seen the HISN. At this point we were having visions of doing the hike again the next day!
We spread out a bit to increase our chances and at approximately 7:35am, I spotted through my binoculars what looked like HISN heads peeking up over the ridge to our left! YES! I WAS POSITIVE! I called to Linda to bring her scope quickly and was able to get on the birds as they came up from behind the ridge to our left as we faced the lake. As the birds came up onto the ridge, the number continued to increase and at this point we had five birds in the scope. Mark was not nearby so I called out to him several times with no response. I immediately headed down the trail until I could see him and after a sprint up the hill, which nearly gave him a cardiac arrest, he also got on the birds. We watched them for the next few minutes as the group increased number and at one point I counted NINE! They marched up the ridge to the highest point (an obvious pinnacle) and after gathering there for a minute or two, launched themselves in a group and flew down into a rocky, grassy area about the same distance from us as the takeoff point, (about .6 miles according to a google earth view). As they flew, Mark tracked them with his binoculars and was able to count a minimum of 11 birds!
Search as we might for the next half hour we could not relocate the birds on the slope. We decided to go further up-slope to see if we could find them. We reached the next level which contained two hanging lakes that were nothing more than wet meadows and ponds. The elevation was approximately 10000 feet at this point. We birded the area for some time and heard the HISN several times in the talus slope above and to the north of our location. At approximately 8:30am Linda and Mark decided to head back down to the parking lot and bird the trail up to Lamoille Lake. I opted to stay at my location in hopes of finding the HISNs that were obviously still above us. I sat down and waited for approximately 2 hours in which time several Golden Eagles soared over the ridge. I heard the HISNs several more times somewhere above me in the rocks but never saw them.
I did see many birds while I sat, including Cassin's finches, Gray-headed Juncos, Vesper Sparrows, Brewers Sparrows, one Rock Wren, Mountain Bluebirds along with many more Clark's Nutcrackers. At approximately 11:30am I gave up my post as thunder clouds were beginning to form, promising rain soon. As I stood to leave I looked around and discovered that there were five Mountain Goats within about 200 yards of me. I was able to reduce that distance a bit and got some nice images. I headed back down the trail which was approximately two and a half miles to the parking lot at that point. As I reached the pavement the rain started to come down. I just made it to the public restroom before the rain really started to pour and shortly afterwards, a pretty good hailstorm came through. Mark and Linda were up the trail and got caught in the downpours. When they got back to the car they were soaked but we were all very happy to have seen the Himalayan Snowcocks earlier! We were back at the Hotel by 2:30 p.m. cleaned up, took a short nap and were off to a celebratory happy hour and fine dinner. Here are two links to our ebird lists for the day. Island Lake Dollar Lakes
My thoughts on the HISN disappearing upon landing in the talus is that they feed early before dawn and then head to roosting/hiding spots for the day as the Golden Eagles are constantly on the prowl for them, hence, they disappeared into the rocks not to be seen again that morning.
Also, hindsight being 20/20, I think that if we had been silent upon arrival at the lake when we heard the bird(s), we may have seen them sooner. I think they may have been near the west side of the lake up in the talus. So, stealth upon your arrival may pay off!
August 20, 2014, Day three -Slept late, birded around the Inn for a couple hours and then headed back to Sacramento, arriving at about 5:00pm. THREE HAPPY CAMPERS!
Quest For Himalayan Snowcocks in the Ruby Mountains of Nevada in August, 2014.
This blog contains images and an account of a three day trip with Linda Pittman and Mark Martucci to Nevada in search of the elusive Himalayan Snowcock.Read More