Friday, May 21, 2010

More Utah, across Nevada, into California

Thursday, April 29, 2010

I drove from Rock Springs into Utah with little thought of birding, did note a few critters, parking lot gulls and such, but mostly I was intent on reaching Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge. I spent over three hours there, after the harrowing drive in and later out over the roadwork that seems to have become a permanent part of the place. It didn't seem to have changed from when I was there a couple of years earlier. It's a thumping and nasty ride. My timing was perfect, lots of new UT tics added to the ones in Moab. Shorbies, ducks and waders mostly. Very little passerine habitat there except for the micro-wetland around the visitor center.

I was detained by an effort to contact a friend in Park City, but about 6pm I gave up and headed west. My original plan had going north into Idaho, a target state, after Utah, but the worsening wintry conditions I'd been encountering finally convinced me that going north, and especially into higher elevations, was folly. That's when I figured I'd set out for Nevada. It's a long and severe drive across the Great Salt Lake Desert, and not a lot of birding on the salt flats. I fetched up in Wendover after dark, and this time got a good position in a truck stop, fairly quiet and fairly dark once I'd set up my towel and clamp curtains.

Friday, April 30

West on I-80 to Elko, and then south. Made one run into a small town and drove around. Every bird was a new tic. One of the most fortunate happenings on the trip was the un-planned run from Utah since it put me close to a place I'd noted years ago, but had then figured would be really unlikely, even though I had downloaded mapping imagery for the area. Ruby Lake NWR is the most remote refuge in the lower forty-eight states. The folks there said it was a minimum 2 hour drive to the nearest store, that's with good weather and dry roads. I was coming in from the north and had to cross over the Ruby Mountains. I guess I'd though of Nevada as pretty desolate, from previous crossings, but it was lush along the creek drainages that were funneling snow-melt off the mountains. I made one random stop in a place where the mapping software showed some braided streams, and it was incredible, thick with birds, ducks and waders, Sandhill Cranes, blackbirds, swallows etc. Since I started Nevada with not a single tic, I felt like I was doing really good.

The road south was paved, then not, then it headed over the mountains and got snowy and slushy where the drifts persisted. I found out that it had just become passable two days earlier, that I'd lucked into the first real warm spell. Over the crest I soon got the first look at the wetland valley.

Ruby Valley from the Pass

What a glorious place, and after turning south on the main (dirt) road it just got better. The valley is maybe two or three miles wide, an most of it is wetland. The refuge had developed a lot of it into various size and depth lagoons for the waterfowl, which was abundant and diverse. Incredible numbers of Canvasbacks, turn out to be the highest concentration of them breeding in the country. Almost every ordinary species of western duck was represented, plus waders, blackbirds etc. There is a little stream-side thicket at the refuge headquarters, good for some warblers, and other passerines. The trail there leads up to a big spring pouring out of the side of the mountains. The whole day I was there a snowstorm hung on the ridge, occasionally dropping into the valley, then retreating. The pass was probably closed by day's end but I didn't leave by that route.

When I first stopped at the HQ nobody was around, but while driving the tour loop roads I found a FWS service pickup, and the acting manager. He said to meet him back at the office in half an hour, so I could get a brochure and checklist. We got to talking then and I discovered that he, Rod Wittenberg, was new PhD from Arkansas, knew several of my friends from there, UofA, and had just started at the refuge as Asst. Manager. His boss was away. His wife had also just graduated from UofA, but she couldn't have a job at the refuge as other than a volunteer because of anti-nepotism rules. Unfortunately, the nearest possible job is at least two hours away also, unless you want to work in one of the several small mines in the area.

And so she volunteered to drive me around birding later and we found even more new species. One stop was at a National Fish Hatchery on the refuge where about a month later she found a White Wagtail. Amazing Alaskan vagrant. Ended with all five swallows, several hawks, lots of wetland critters and grassland fence-line types. What we couldn't do was use the scope, almost literal gale force winds all day, and often heavy snow flurries off the mountains. After we split up I just kept driving around and even found a shorebird that wasn't on the refuge list, Semipalmated Plover. At Dusk I settled into a gravel pile site where Sara said there was a chance of seeing Greater Sage-Grouse. That didn't pan out. Ended up sleeping in a Forest Service Campground on the south end of the refuge. I had picked up 72 tics for NV, and had seen one of the neatest places I've ever encountered. This is worth going way out of your way, at least in breeding season.

Saturday, May 1

In the morning I made another mop-up run around the tour loop, found a Long-billed Curlew and a Say's Phoebe. Then it was off down the two hours of dirt road to US Highway 50, "the loneliest road in America". It's lonely all right, but not the loneliest. I actually got some fine birds both on the dirt and on 50, mostly raptors, like Prairie Falcon.[***LINK***] took at least three hours to get to Fallon, where the world greened up some. It's the Carson Sink area, and I tried a bunch of sites I'd tagged out of two Nevada bird-finding books. Some were quite good. I ended up sleeping in a parking lot just inside Stillwater NWR . The proof it was migration time was Saw-whet Owl calling in the night.

Sunday, May 2

I poked around in the refuge in the morning, but it wasn't very birdy so I headed on over to the Carson City area. Again, I had lots of potential places tagged. And some were good. Some however had the worst washboard roads I've ever encountered. I missed one place I should have driven into, a ranch park on the south end of CC, but it didn't look very good at the entry. Later posts on the listserv made me feel really dumb. Anyway. I did drive up to Lake Tahoe from the south (after a mellow interlude in the states oldest settlement and its park), and poked around in the ski village at the summit. Good high elevation birds, but it was hard to get relaxed with the parking situation. Back down to the Lake shore, there was a sweet little city park, but again it was hard to scope the lake because of wind and parking hassles. There really didn't seem to be much out there, but I was hoping to find a loon.

I had found 112 species in NV in 60 hrs, first of three target states knocked out. Drove into Reno, did a little shopping, and then into California and along the west side of Lake Tahoe. There was still a lot of snow over there, houses still buried to the roof-lines. The road was twisty and poorly maintained once I was past the world famous resort area, Squaw Valley I think, and once I reached the south end again, full loop, there was an area of very cool older resorts from the early twentieth century. I headed west from there after eating, and ended up sleeping in a pullout along the highway when the campgrounds turned out to still be closed.


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