www.thefilemyrs.com > Birding > Snowcock 2003

Himalayan Snowcock Tour Trip Report
By Bert Filemyr

A four day DVOC Field Trip plus a 2 day extension

Monday August 11, 2003
I caught an 8:15 flight out of Philadelphia to Salt Lake City through Chicago. The flight out of Chicago left about one-half hour late causing a 1:45 CDT arrival in Salt Lake City. I was the last of the tour participants to arrive but the others did not have to wait for any great length of time. We met up with Mark Stackhouse, of Westwings Birding Tours, and we piled into two of his vehicles.
Westwings is a local Salt Lake City operation who we were using for the first four days and the last day.

A brief stop at Mark's house and we were on our way. We had three vehicles in a caravan. A 16 passenger van with Mark, Butch Lishman, Bob Rufe, Barb McGlaughlin, Dennis Brennan, Doug Schaller, Dennis Bert, and Anna Bert. In an Mark's SUV were Adrian Binns, Colin Campbell, Erica Brendel, and myself. In a rental SUV were Gerry Dewaghe, Francoise Dewaghe, Jeff Holt and Scott Henderson.

We drove along the south end of the Great Salt Lake with a stop at the Bonneville Salt Flats. We would be diving back to the same way in two days so we did not stop at several birding spots. At 5:15 PDT we arrived in Elko, Nevada, our home for two nights. It was 108 degrees Fahrenheit in town when we arrived at the our motel. After checking in we headed to a Mexican restaurant for a nice dinner where everyone started to get to know each other better as we celebrated Barbara's birthday. Afterwards we did some birding along the East Humboldt River. A group of cooperative California Quail was a highlight.

By 8:20 we had made it back to the motel. Several of us gathered in my room for a checklist review and a general bull session. We were in our rooms by 9:30. We had a big day ahead.
Bird Highlights: Swainson's Hawk, California Quail, Common Nighthawk
Approximate number of species seen this day: 33

Tuesday August 12, 2003
This was the big day of the trip. We were seeking the single species, Himalayan Snowcock, that would make or break the trip. This introduced game bird lives at high elevations in the Ruby Mountains of Nevada. There is only a small part of the year when their habitat is accessible.

By 3:00 am we had assembled at our vehicles and we were off in the dark. Arriving at the access point to Island Lake in the Ruby Mountains, we had a continental breakfast in the cool darkness. Mark briefed us on the plan and at 4:20 we were hiking by flashlight. The plan was quite simple - hike two miles uphill in the dark over rocky terrain to a viewing location. The trail starts at 8,600 feet and ascends to over 10,200 feet. On the trail people had a tendency to spread out as we all traveled at our own pace. The trail had nine major switchbacks and it was neat to see the flashlights spread out all over the hill. The first hikers were at the viewing location by 5:50 am. Within one half hour all of us were up the trail and assembled at the viewing location. Adrian was the last up the hill. Several people had walked slowly to keep Adrian company at the back of the line.

Mark showed us the area to scan with our scopes and we got down to business. The walls of the cirque towered around us reaching to 11,000 feet. Within one-half hour of scanning Colin announced he had a small group of snowcock in his scope. All scopes swung to the area he described and quickly the trip was successful! After viewing, at a distance, we were all satisfied and we set off to explore the surrounding area. Blue Grouse, Mountain Bluebirds, Golden Eagles and other high altitude species were found and viewed.

Next we turned to our secondary target species in this habitat - Black Rosy-Finch. Mark played a tape and a single male soon showed up. We all had great views of this bird. At 9:20 am we started down the trail and at 10:20 all had safely returned to the parking area. Coming down was easier than going up but it was not a "walk in the park".

The parking lot yielded several species including a distant Prairie Falcon. Soon we were off to the Humboldt National Forest Power Plant Picnic Area for Lewis's Woodpecker. Several individuals were in the trees as we arrives and everyone enjoyed this area. A quick stop at the motel for about 20 minutes at noon and then we were off to lunch at the Red Lion Casino.

The time after lunch until 4:30 pm was a rest period. Some slept, some read, and some people enjoyed the pool. Since we had been on the go since 3:00 am we felt like we already had a full day in. Our areas for evening birding were several bodies of water in the Elko area. This was our first shot at water birds and we cleaned up. Returning to the motel we walked to a local Basque restaurant for a family style dinner. Returning to the motel we gathered for our checklist and by 11:00 pm we were all in our rooms. We did not realize it at the time but this would prove to be our earliest night for the rest of the trip
Bird Highlights: Prairie Falcon, Himalayan Snowcock, Blue Grouse, Marbled Godwit, Lewis's Woodpecker, Red-naped Sapsucker, Black Rosy-Finch
Approximate number of species seen this day: 104


Wednesday August 13, 2003
Because there was no guarantee that we would get the snowcock on Monday, this day is kept free by Westwings to go back up the mountain if we dipped on Monday. Since we found the snowcock on Tuesday, we had time to bird the Elko area before heading back to Salt Lake City. In order to maximize our birding time we were in the van at 5:30 am. Breakfast was continental breakfast items like the previous morning but we never really stopped to have a formal breakfast. We just grabbed food as we stopped to bird.

We headed east on Route 80 for about 30 miles and turned into the agricultural area of the Lemoille Valley. These field were very productive with each birding stop yielding 10-20 species. While most of time was in the agricultural fields we did stop at a riparian area where there were over seventy Wilson's Snipe in a small weep. As we headed back to our motel we stopped in the town of Lemoille for study views of western hummingbirds at the feeders in town. Arriving at our motel at 12 noon we quickly packed up and checked out. Lunch was again at the Red Lion Casino. By 1:30 we had taken care of lunch, gassed the vehicles, and made a beer run to the local supermarket.

The plan was to drive back to Salt Lake City, birding at a few stops along the way. Our major stop was in pinyon-juniper habitat in eastern Nevada. We were very successful in viewing a Juniper Titmouse but only had fleeting glances at Plumbeous Vireo. As we were getting ready to leave, a teenager on a mountain bike road by. Mark chatted him up and found out that he lived right down the road. He said we were welcome to stop down and check the place out. Even though we were not making good time, we decided to give it a shot. It was a great decision. It was a small ranch (Pequod Ranch) with a pond, flower gardens, and tall trees. The palace was alive with birds - hummingbirds, towhees, flycatchers, buntings and other special birds. We stayed there about an hour. There was no one home when we arrived and the lady of the house must have been surprised when she arrived home and found 16 birders wandering her property. She was very cool about it and welcomed the opportunity to share her property.

We were running seriously late and losing an hour when we reentered the Central Time Zone did not help. It was 8:30 am when we reached the Comfort Inn near the Salt Lake City airport. After check in we met at 9:00 for dinner in the motel's restaurant. Dinner was interrupted by management finding out who was in room 320. It seemed room 220 had water coming through their ceiling. The toilet in room 320 was clogged and was running all over the floor and down to the room below. Adrian and Butch both swore it was the others guy's fault. The investigation continues.

At 10:30 pm we were back in the vehicles for a 40 minute ride into the mountains to find Flammulated Owl. The night was clear, warm and still - perfect owling weather. Several Flammulated Owls immediately responded to the tape and Mark worked to have one come in so we could see it. When it seemed that he had one close, a Long-eared Owl swooped low over us and put on a show in the spotlight. That show caused our target owl to shut up. We moved 150 yards and tried again. In about 30 minutes we had one sitting in the tree, in the spotlight, about 30 feet away from us. Spectacular scope views were had by all. Back in the vans we headed to the motel. At 1:20 am we were there and on the way to our rooms.
Bird Highlights: Baird's Sandpiper, Peregrine Falcon, Greater Sage-Grouse, Flammulated Owl, Long-eared Owl, Juniper Titmouse, Lark Sparrow
Approximate number of species seen this day: 83


Thursday August 14, 2003
For many of the participants of the tour this was their last day.
Breakfast was at 6:30 am in the motel restaurant and we were off at 7:40. Our first stop was in a neighborhood for Band-tailed Pigeon. We were there earlier than the pigeons so we left with the intention of coming back later. We drove up into the mountains via the Big Cottonwood Canyon. Our first stop was the Spruces Campground. The bridge at the entrance was filled with birds - Hammond's Flycatcher, American Dipper, Nashville Warbler, Townsend's Warbler, Western Tanager, etc. Unfortunately we had to eventually move on. Heading up to the top end of the canyon we parked at the Solitude Nordic Center. This facility has a small lake and a board walk around it. We worked this area for high mountain species. While there we talked with a photographer who gave us directions to an active Goshawk nest he had just finished photographing. To make a long story short, we were unable to find the nest using his directions but we did get into some great habitat. About 11:00 four of the trip participants (Gerry, Francoise, Scott and Jeff) said their goodbyes. They had to catch a plane back to Philadelphia. By 12:10 we also had left the canyon and went back for the pigeons. We quickly located them and headed to a Mexican restaurant for lunch.

The next mission was to drop off Bob at the Comfort Inn so he could catch the shuttle to the airport. Then we dropped Dennis (Brennan) and Doug at separate locations in downtown Salt Lake City. None of these were doing the two day extension. This brought the number of people down to 9 and we dropped Mark's SUV at his house and all piled into the large van.

We headed to the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, stopping for gas along the way. While there Adrian called home and we became aware of the blackout in the northeast. Turning on the radio we were relieved to find that it was not a terrorist attack and Philadelphia was not affected.

Bear River contained thousands and thousands of swallows, shorebirds and ducks. The numbers were staggering and we only could scratch the surface while birding there for about an hour and one-half. A highlight was a Chilean Flamingo that had escaped from captivity about 12 years before. The locals have nicknamed him Pink Floyd.

Leaving the refuge we headed north with White's Valley as our destination. Driving down the road we stopped to look at a Gopher Snake in the road. While we were viewing the snake, Butch stayed focused on the task at hand and scanned the field beside the road. He was rewarded by finding a flock of about 25 Grey Partridges, our target species, and a lifer for him. Moving ahead we found a couple of Short-eared Owls working a field. By then it was getting dark and we headed to find dinner. It was 10:01 when we were in the area of restaurants. Unfortunately we discovered that all food places but a Wendy's closed at 10:00. So it was Wendy's for dinner. The sales person mentioned that there was a tornado warning but it did not bother us. After dinner we still the long drive back to Salt Lake City. On the way to the motel we dropped Adrian off at the airport to pick up a rental van for the next day. We were back at the motel at 12:15 am and Adrian arrived at the motel about 15 minutes later with the rental van.
Bird Highlights: Gray Partridge, Virginia Rail, Band-tailed Pigeon, Short-eared Owl, American Dipper, Black-throated Gray Warbler
Approximate number of species seen this day: 124


Friday August 15, 2003
We were on our own this day. Mark had given us several locations to check but he was not with us as the Westwings tour had ended. Breakfast at 6:30 am and out at 7:20 am. We headed east on Route 80 with the Mirror Lake Scenic Highway above Kamas as our destination. This would take us up to 10,000 feet and were looking for high mountain species. A quick stop at the Shingle Creek Campground gave some of us a very brief look at a Goshawk zipping by. At the Washington Lake Campground Group Camping Area we found Gray Jay, Pine Grosbeak and flyover Red Crossbills. Unfortunately we could not come up with Williamson's Sapsucker. Moving up to Mirror Lake we were surprised at the amount of people activity on this weekday. Using information supplied by Mark we found Three-toed Woodpecker. Our plan was to walk around the lake but the amount of activity and time constrains caused us to abandon that plan. We returned to Washington Lake Campground for another shot at the sapsucker but again we dipped.

A stop at a supermarket in Kamas provided us with lunch items which we ate as we moved down the road. Driving down to Salt Lake City we stopped at the town of Summit Park to check out feeders. There are Evening Grosbeaks in the area but they eluded us. We had to keep moving because we needed to drop Colin off at the airport so he could make his 4:30 flight. By 3:00 we had dropped Colin off and headed north to Antelope Island. Stopping at a Barn Owl nest box we got study views of two Barn Owl vents. Antelope Island is accessed by a seven mile causeway crossing dry flats and the Great Salt Lake. There were phalaropes and Eared Grebes as far as you could see on the lake. The numbers were stunning. On the island we made a quick stop for ice cream and then headed for the Fielding Garr Ranch on the island, a migrant trap. We birded that area from 5:00 to 6:00 and had nice birds but not the target species - Cassin's Vireo. At 6:00 we headed to the Visitor Center passing through a huge herd of bison. In spite of Adrian's and my efforts we were unable to convince anyone to go up to the docile, tame bisons for pictures.

The area around the Visitor Center produced Chucker and Burrowing Owls. We had both in the scope at one time, a unique view. Leaving the island we stopped along the causeway and scoped the phalaropes and grebes. Estimated counts were made but who knows if they were even close. The numbers were clearly in the thousands for each species.

Dinner was at a hamburger place on the way back to Salt Lake City. We had had a long full day but we still had work to do. We drove to the City Cemetery arriving after dark. Mark met us there to try for Western Screech Owls. It was a unique experience owling among the tombstones. A couple of maintenance workers tried to scare us by making noises and banshee like sounds. Some of us were uncomfortable (scared) but most wrote it off as kids playing. A few moments later the maintenance workers stopped by and talked with us. They told us about where they saw the owls and that matched Mark's personal knowledge. They also told us that in the area we were birding was the tomb of "Elmo" a local but dead celebrity. It seems that college students often visit Elmo's tomb at night and do some sort of ritual chant around the tomb. The maintenance workers take great glee in scaring them. After the maintenance workers got back to work Mark continued to play the tape with no luck. He decided to give the owls a rest for a few moments. As we were quietly standing in darkness when a six college aged kids showed up in a truck. They parked on the bordering street and cautiously headed to Elmo's grave. Slowly they realized that there were eight people silently standing in the area they were heading to. They quickly gathered into a tight cluster and tried to figure out what was happening. They decided that what ever plan they had needed to be changed quickly. As they slowly retraced their steps out of the cemetery, Mark shined his owling light on them. That accelerated their exit. We are sure they will be telling stories about that night for years to come. After trying again with the tape, the owls continued to be silent.

We would have stayed there until we got a response but we had to get the rental van back to the airport by midnight. So we conceded defeat and headed to the motel where Adrian dropped us off and took the van back to the airport. By 12:15 am he had dropped the van off and returned to the hotel via the motel's shuttle.
Bird Highlights: Eared Grebe, Northern Goshawk, Golden Eagle, Chucker, Wilson's Phalarope, Red-necked Phalarope, Burrowing Owl, Three-toed Woodpecker, Pine Grosbeak, Red Crossbill
Approximate number of species seen this day: 74


Saturday August 16, 2003
We had arranged a one day tour of the Deseret Ranch in northeastern Utah with Westwings. Mark was away on family vacation so his other guide, David Wheeler, was with us for the day. We were at breakfast at 6:30 and in the 16 passenger Westwings van by 7:20. Since we were headed east on Route 80 we decide to try Summit Park again for the Evening Grosbeaks. The second time was a charm and we had great views of a small flock.

Deserat Ranch is a quarter million acre ranch and private preserve operated by the Mormon Church on the Utah/Wyoming Border. Access is severely restricted but Westwings has permission to run tours there. Access is from the Wyoming side. We had an opportunity to work on our Wyoming lists as we drove through the town of Evanston on the way to the ranch entrance. By 9:20 am we were on the ranch property.

The ranch is immense and contains many differing habitats. We could have spent several days there and just scratched the surface. The morning was spent seeking out Sage Sparrows in the sage, viewing waterfowl on several lakes, and checking out a Great Horned Owl roost. We were all shocked, including our guide Dave, when a Barn Owl flew out instead of the expected Great Horned Owl.

We had a picnic lunch at the Ranch Guest House about 1:00. The trees around the house yielded some nice birds but there was no sign of migrants or vagrants. The afternoon took us up into the higher part of the ranch and the species changed. It was great to see a small colony of Purple Martins using natural holes in aspens rather than gourds hanging from a pole. Around 6:00 we had to pass through two locked gates to get to another part of the ranch. The keys Mark had opened the first gate but no amount of playing around could get the second gate to open. We started to retrace our path when we came across a man in a truck who had the right key. What looked like a major, major problem ended up in a short half hour interruption.

We birded up a canyon and heard Canyon Wren and saw Virginia's Warbler. A storm on the horizon caused us to start to head out of the ranch as dusk approached. A rain storm would make driving treacherous on the dirt roads and we wanted to be safe. Driving out in the dark we had Greater Sage-grouse fly across the van plus several Burrowing Owls sitting in the road. But the highlight was a spotlighted Common Poorwill that allowed several of us to get out of the van and take extreme close up pictures. This was a special moment with an elusive species.

We were back in Evanston, Wyoming shortly after 10:00 and again found that most places shut down at 10:00. David came up with a local restaurant that fit our needs perfectly. After dinner we headed back to the motel arriving, at 1:10 am.
Bird Highlights: Bald Eagle, Greater Sage-Grouse, Barn Owl, Common Poorwill, Sage Sparrow
Approximate number of species seen this day: 100


Sunday August 17, 2003

A brutal travel day for me!
The seven people still on the extension checked out of the Comfort Inn and headed to the airport at 8:30 am. The other six were on Delta Airlines so we split up at the airport and I went to American Airlines. I checked in with plenty of time for my 12:30 pm flight to Philadelphia through St. Louis. Unfortunately an earlier morning flight to St. Louis had mechanical problems and was cancelled. That flight was delayed several hours and when it did take off it used the plane scheduled for my flight. American Airlines kept trying to get the original airplane fixed for our flight but after several hours of delays it was obvious that my 12:15 pm flight was not going to go. American Airlines booked me through Las Vegas (Delta) and then on a red eye to Philadelphia (US Airways). Avoiding a 45 minute layover in Las Vegas, I flew stand-by to Las Vegas about 4:50 CDT. I left Las Vegas for Philadelphia at 9:40 PDT, arriving in Philadelphia at 5:35 am Monday morning.

My baggage is very grown up and no longer needs to accompany me on my travels. Even though I did not fly out of Salt Lake City on schedule, my baggage did. It was quietly waiting in Philadelphia having arrived at least nine hours before I did. I arrived home at 7:00 am in the morning, twenty and one-half hours after I left the motel in Salt Lake City. Most of this report was written in the Las Vegas airport.

This was an amazing trip to an amazing area. While it started out as a trip focused on a single species, the Himalayan Snowcock, it quickly expanded into an intensive tour of the Salt Lake area. Little known among our birding circle, the Salt Lake City area has an incredible diversity of habitats within a couple of hours of town. On top of that there is a tremendous concentration of birds at this time of the year. We ended up with a very respectable species total of 192 (plus one escapee - Pink Floyd)

Thanks to Adrian Binns, DVOC Field Trip Chairperson, for setting up and leading this memorable trip.

 

Bert Filemyr
August 2003