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Himalayan Snowcock Tour Trip Report
By Adrian Binns
Additional information on this trip can be found HERE.
Participants: Anna and Dennis Bert, Adrian Binns, Erica Brendel, Dennis Brennan, Colin Campbell, France Dewaghe, Gerry Dewaghe, Bert Filemyr, Scott Henderson, Jeff Holt, Butch Lishman, Barbara McGlaughlin, Bob Rufe and Doug Schaller.
15 of us joined our local guide Mark Stackhouse in Salt Lake City and made a beeline for Nevada, with a brief stop at the Bonneville Salt Flats. We spent 2 nights in Elko, making it an easy base from which to head up to the Ruby Mountains as well as explore to the Lamoille Valley. Starting bright and early Tuesday morning we had breakfast at the Lamoille Canyon trail head before making the 1 ½ hr trek up 1400' in the dark to our vantage point just above Island Lake in the cirque. Colin soon made quick work of the scree and 800' cliff-face and located the snowcocks at a fair distance. There were at least 6 in view at any one time. Eventually a Golden Eagle managed to frighten the snowcocks and we were rewarded with eleven birds calling as they flew in squadron formation to safety. France almost stepped on a Blue Grouse, which flew into a spruce tree for all of us to see. Mountain Bluebirds, Clarke's Nutcrackers, Cassin Finches, a Golden Eagle being chased by a Prairie Falcon, a Black Rosy-Finch feeding on grass seeds and several Long-tailed Weasels and Pika's running amongst the rocks rounded out an outstanding morning in the cirque. Back at the car park we picked up MacGillivary's Warblers, Dusky Flycatcher and had wonderful looks at a circling Prairie Falcon. Descending the Canyon, a stop at Humboldt Power Station Picnic Area produced Olive-sided Flycatcher, a speeding Merlin, a juvenile Red-naped Sapsucker and several Lewis's Woodpecker amongst the Cottonwoods. After a much needed early afternoon rest we headed to South Fork Reservoir. As with all our water birding spots on this trip, the shear numbers just blew us away. Long-billed Dowitchers, Avocets, Black-necked Stilts, Wilson's Snipe, Snowy and Great Egrets, both Yellowlegs, Eared, Clarke's, Western and one Horned Grebe, Marbled Godwits and an assortment of ducks including Green-wing and Blue-wing Teal, Redhead, Shoveler, Ruddy Duck, Pintail, a Lesser Scaup, a Bufflehead, and the ubiquitous Cinnamon Teals.
Our third day began in the Lamoille Valley visiting the agricultural fields and wet meadows where Sandhill Cranes and their young were keeping an eye out on the Coyotes roaming the area. Common Nighthawks were seen on fence posts as well as chasing away a juvenile and White-faced Ibis flew over in small flocks. Raptors were well represented with Kestrels, a Peregrine and dark morph Red-tails and Swainson's. Turning onto a dirt road, sparrows became more numerous with Vesper and Brewer's dominating the numbers. Several Savannahs and a small group of Lark Sparrow were also seen. Anna spotted a large bird walking the roadside ditch - it was Greater Sage Grouse, which eventually flew over the barbed wired fence and into the sage. As Mark had promised us, Sage Thrashers were trash birds along this stretch! At a riparian area with a cattle pen and small puddles we had about 75 Wilson's Snipe and as many Killdeer. Willow Flycatcher, Cedar Waxwing, Lazuli Bunting and rows of Cliff Swallows lined the telegraph wires. In Lamoille, a walk around the block produced Rufous, Black-chinned and Broad-tailed Hummingbirds at various feeders. After lunch we headed back to Utah stopping in the Pinyon Pine and Pinyon Juniper habit of Pequop. Juniper Titmouse eventually came into the tape in a flock with a Plumbeous Vireo, Gray Flycatcher and several Mountain Chickadees. We proceeded down the road to a beautiful ranch, which produced Green-tailed Towhee, Western Tanager, a female Bullocks Oriole, Western Scrub Jay, Mountain Bluebird, and great looks at Gray Flycatcher. In Utah we stopped along the Bonneville Salt Flats where about two-dozen Snowy Plovers and Baird Sandpipers were feeding along with numerous Western Sandpipers. After dinner and a change of rooms for Butch and I due to a bathroom flood (he did it), we headed up East Canyon to look for Flammulated Owl. Several responded immediately to the tape, but shut up as soon as a Long-eared Owl made an appearance over our (and their) heads! It was not long before they began to call again and eventually one flew across the road almost striking Dennis in the head. It perched in the open giving us stunning looks in the spotlight.
Thursday morning we headed up Big Cottonwood Canyon, stopping first at Big Spruces
Campground were a juvenile American Dipper was catching the early morning rays
on a branch over the stream, a Hammond's Flycatcher was flitting about the spruce
trees near the bridge and both Townsend and Black-throated Gray Warblers were
also seen. Red Crossbills and Clarke's Nutcrackers flew over and an Olive-sided
Flycatcher was spotted perched atop a snag high on the ridge. A small brushy
area besides the road produced Yellow-rumped, Nashville and MacGillivary's Warbler,
Lincoln's Sparrow as well as a pair of Western Tanagers. Further up the canyon
at the Solitude Nordic Center we walked around the pond where a Sora was spotted
on a log at the edge of the sedges. Western Wood Pewee's were constantly calling
and a family group of Ruby-crowned Kinglets was feeding in the evergreens. Beginning
on one of the trails that winds through groves of aspens and evergreens we paused
to see a mixed flock of Mountain and Black-capped Chickadees, Red-breasted Nuthatch,
a Red-naped Sapsucker, Pine Siskins, Warbling Vireo and Hairy Woodpecker. Making
a loop around the trail in an effort to locate a reported Goshawk nest, we managed
to find 'gray-headed' Juncos, Brown Creeper, Hermit Thrush, Wilson's Warbler,
Steller's Jays and an Olive-sided Flycatcher, but not our target specie. At
this stage Gerry and the beer wagon (France, Jeff and Scott) left us, and several
hours later we dropped Bob off at the airport, followed by Dennis and Doug in
Salt Lake City, but not before driving passed some of the cities finer landmarks,
much to Bert's delight!
By late afternoon we were at Bear River Bird Refuge driving the loop. We came across thousands of Bank Swallows lined up on wires, along fencing and in mass on the ground - it reminded me of a swarm of locusts. On the water were large groups of American White Pelicans, American Avocets, White-faced Ibis and Black-neck Stilts as well as masses of Wilson's Phalarope's, far too numerous to count. Dotted amongst them, Long-billed Dowitcher's, Solitary Sandpipers and both Yellowlegs as well as some 100 Marbled Godwits. This spectacle stretched as far as the eye could see down the causeway. Mind-boggling numbers, which we just don't get to see back east. We finished the day dodging a rain storm and got to White's Valley as the light faded. A Gopher Snake crossed the road, giving us a reason to stop. While Mark handled the snake Butch spotted 30 odd Gray Partridge on the far edge of a ploughed field. Driving further down the valley scanning the fields, it was almost total darkness before we picked up a Short-eared Owl besides the road. Later several were seen crossing in front of the van.
Today we were on our own, heading to the Uinta Mountains, specifically Mirror Lake, some 30 miles up the canyon, but not before several stops. At Shingle Creek Campground a Goshawk flew across the road only to disappear behind spruce trees. At Washington Lake we looked for Williamson's Sapsucker, finding their nest hole but no bird. Pine Grosbeaks were calling from the tops of trees along the track, and a walk into the forest produced a small group of Gray Jays as well as a very confiding young grosbeak, which allowed me to get within 3' of it. Milbert's Tortoiseshell, Ruddy and Purplish Copper were seen well and Colin and Erica had a starring contest with a Long-tailed Weasel - the weasel won. By the time we had reached Mirror Lake, the hordes had descended up the lake, and it was not long before we left for a more peaceful spot, but not before having a male Three-toed Woodpecker fly into a dead snag above us and watching several Golden Eagles being chased by a pair of Red-tails. Mid afternoon we dropped Colin off at the airport and proceeded to Antelope Island, stopping just before the entrance to check on a pair of Barn Owls in a silo - great vent views! The causeway was alive with waders and shorebirds including great looks at a small group of Red-necked Phalaropes, but it was the sheer numbers of Eared Grebes estimated at 10,000, in all plumages, that left a lasting impression on us. What a sight! After a quick ice cream we headed to the far end of the island at the Fielding Garr Ranch. Here Lazuli Buntings, Townsend 's, Yellow, Yellow-rumped, Nashville and Wilson's Warblers were seen amongst the Cottonwoods and bathing in the water sprinkler. And what about that other bird? The one that pretty much eluded us - was that a Cassin's Vireo? A final stop at the visitor's center produced several family groups of Chukars amongst the rock outcropping and about 8 Burrowing Owls in the grassland. At one stage we had both species in the scope. After dinner, we hooked up at the Salt Lake City Cemetery with Mark to try for Western Screech Owl, but it was not to be on this night. We did get a good laugh when Dennis was frightened out of his wits by a scream coming from a gravesite and shortly thereafter having him turn around to see someone in white (Butch) sitting on a tombstone. I do not think he'll be owling in a cemetery any time soon!
David Wheeler joined us for our final day. We started in the Summit Park section of Parley's Summit, were we found Evening Grosbeaks, Black-headed Grosbeaks, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Stellar's Jays, Spotted Towhee, Orange-crowned and MacGillivary's Warbler and Downy Woodpecker. From here we journeyed to Deseret Ranch via Evanston in Wyoming. This 250,000 acre ranch is dominated by sagebrush and grasslands in the lower elevations along with various bodies of water and scattered Aspen and Fir stands and open brush amongst the upper elevations. Managed to enhance the ranch resources it is an Important Bird Area. We finished with 104 species for the day on the ranch, including three Sage Sparrow's, Say's Phoebe, Long-billed Curlew, Sharp-shinned Hawk, a Bald Eagle which scattered thousands of waterfowl, Barn Owl, Purple Martin, Green-tailed Towhee, Virginia's Warbler and a very cooperative male Common Poorwill, that sat in the dirt track for some 10 minutes. Mammals were also a common sight, with White-tailed Jackrabbits, Elk, Pronghorn, Coyote and White-tailed Prairie Dogs taking a backseat to an affectionate pair of swimming Beavers.
This was an outstanding trip that far exceeded my expectations, not only in the number of species seen (193) but the sheer volume of waders, shorebirds and ducks on passage was a sight to behold. It is good to know that some species seem to be faring well in some parts of the country.