“Not all those who wander are lost.” – J. R. R. Tolkien

"Everybody dies. Not everybody really lives."

The saddest sound in the world is a man saying, "I wish I'd have done that."

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Floating the Roanoke and Cashie Rivers

My buddy Jack and I looked at each other and we both had the same thought: I can’t think of any situation where the saying “Ignorance is Bliss” is more appropriate.  We were talking with our outfitter after four days kayaking and fishing on North Carolina’s Roanoke and Cashie Rivers and discussing our camping facilities of the past three nights.

The two rivers flow through low swamp land, eastern into Albermarle Sound.  There is little if any high ground along the banks of the rivers so you can’t just pull up where you please and set up camp. Fortunately, a local nonprofit organization, Roanoke River Partners, has constructed a series of raised wooden platforms at strategic locations along the rivers.  These platforms, about 15 by 20 feet, are set back 20 yards or so from the open river above and are perched six feet above the abundant cypress knees, muck and wetland vegetation that crowd the riverbanks.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. 

We launched our kayaks at Astoria Drive Wildlife Landing in Jamestown, NC and paddled seven miles to the mouth of Roanoke Broad Creek and then up a waterway called Cow Creek to our first night’s camping platform. We fished along the way, catching good numbers of crappie, largemouth bass and pan fish.  The weather was beautiful, a warm September day, bald eagles and osprey soared overhead, red-shouldered hawks perched in the trees along the river and great blue herons hunted in the shallow wetlands along the way.  We had way too much fun so it was near dusk as we set up our tent at Cow Creek.  The failing light didn’t allow much time to inspect our campsite and we fell asleep to the sounds of two barred owls calling to each other across the river.  It wasn’t until first light the next morning that we had a chance to check out our humble abode; nice, a high canopy of tupelo and cypress trees towering over the platform. The platform was in great shape except for the corner posts which were chopped, scarred and full of small holes.  After much inspection and discussion we decided that previous campers had chopped out some pieces of wood to start a fire and then shot the posts with a pellet gun. 

The next day we paddled down Roanoke Broad and onto our next night’s platform at Bear Run.  While setting up camp we noticed that our vandalizing predecessors had hacked and shot the posts on this platform too. We spent the day fishing and exploring the tributaries of Roanoke Broad Creek again catching all the fish we wanted, adding yellow perch and striped bass to the count.  There is a small tributary downriver called Warren Neck Creek, a tributary to the river.  This was the only disappointment of the trip; there is a massive Weyerhauser paper plant looming over the river here and the sight is depressing, the noise oppressive.  I did not like that area and I don’t recommend paddling it.  So back upstream for the night.

Day three and we were off to the Cashie River via a short paddle through "the Thoroughfare" which connects the Roanoke River to the Cashie River.  Here the whole character of the trip changed; the Cashie is markedly different from the Roanoke.  The Roanoke is broad, brown and muddy, the Cashie is clean and the water a deep tannin brown. I immediately liked the Cashie and we spent the better part of the day fishing and paddling it before entering Cashie Broad Creek, a smaller tributary to the Cashie River. 

This was our favorite part of the trip.  The Cashie Broad is an even smaller waterway, narrow and clean.  The further we paddled upstream, the prettier it got.  The river narrows, huge cypress trees form a cathedral-like archway over the river and large fields of lily pads are everywhere.  The river eventually becomes too narrow to pass in its upper reaches but the scenery here is the best and the fishing is excellent.  Pan fish, bass and crappie lurked among the lily pads and we caught all the fish we cared to and shot enough pictures to use up most of our digital memory.

In the midst of this paradise was our third and final camping platform, Otter One.  This was also our favorite platform with an open view from our tent out over the Cashie Broad, framed by cypress trees and lily pad fields. 
Once again the platform had been chopped up.  We reluctantly packed up the next morning for our last day of paddling and floated downstream three miles to the Highway 45 bridge where our outfitter, Heber Coltrain from Roanoke Outdoor Adventures awaited us for pickup.

That’s when we told Heber about the vandalized platforms. 
“What did the posts look like?” he asked.

“They were all chopped up about seven feet up on each post and there were holes, like pellet gun holes.”
“Bears”, he said without hesitation, “They like the salt in the wood so they stand up and chew away at the posts. The ‘pellet gun holes’ are teeth marks.”

Yep, like I said, ignorance is bliss.  We had three nights of carefree, peaceful sleep amid the beauty of the Roanoke and Cashie Rivers, without a single thought or worry about marauding black bears. Something you won’t experience if you go after reading this.



IF YOU GO:  You will need to reserve camping platforms through Roanoke River Partners on their website www.roanokeriverpartners.org.  Click on the "Platform Camping" icon and view pictures, location and other information on each platform and make online reservations.  For river information, kayak rental, trip advice and just a jolly good time I highly recommend Heber Coltrain at Roanoke Outdoor Adventures in Williamston, NC,  www.roanokeoutdooradventures.com.  Heber is a living encyclopedia of the river and the area and will spin tales about local history and generally keep you entertained.  One of the best outfitters I've ever had the pleasure to do business with, and I've used many all over the world.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Flyfishing the Gallatin River

Maybe the most easily accessible trout stream in the West, the Gallatin flows north out of Yellowstone National Park’s western edge and is closely paralleled much of the way by Highway 191, so pick a likely spot and wade in.  And wading is the key here, boat fishing is prohibited much of its length.  Also, be careful where you fish, if you are within the boundaries of Yellowstone NP you will need a park permit, outside the boundary requires a Montana fishing license.

The Gallatin is classic western flyfishing, with awesome scenery (much of “A River Runs Through It” was filmed on the Gallatin), cool fast water and PLENTY of fish.  Westslope cutthroat, browns and rainbows are all present in the Gallatin. 

Watch the water level, the river runs high and fast during snow melt and during high rains.  Dry flies are the key here but check with one of many local guide shops to see what is hitting.  I used Gallatin River Guides, on Highway 191 near Big Sky, gallatinriverguides.com and Grizzly Outfitters in Big Sky, grizzlyoutfitters.com.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

San Diego's Wild Side

 First thing first: I love San Diego.  So this is not one of those I-hate-San-Diego-so-do-this-instead blog entries.  But if you are in the area and you get tired of visiting the fascinating San Diego Zoo, or enjoying the captivating Natural History Museum, or have had your fill of pasta and cannoli at the city’s Little Italy, or you’ve exhausted yourself in the nightlife at Coronado, there are plenty of options to get out of the city and enjoy Southern California’s wild areas.

Yes, southern California is crowded, and developers are eating up open space at a voracious pace, but there are still some open wild places that can provide escape from traffic, people, buildings and the general chaos of modern urban life.  If you are in the area and want a change from the usual tourist stops check these out.  We visited all of these places plus had plenty of time to take in the sites, restaurants, and night life of San Diego.

Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve/Tijuana Slough National Wildlife Refuge. Located in Imperial Beach along the Mexico-US border.  The Tijuana River empties into the Pacific Ocean hers and you can see the bullfighting ring in the city of Tijuana Mexico across the river mouth.  The main attraction her are the birds.  The estuary is a shallow water habitat that alternates between dry and intermittent flooding. For this reason, and due to its unique combination of freshwater riverine and saltwater ocean habitats it supports a huge variety of birds. The Tijuana River Estuary is one of the few salt marshes remaining in Southern California, where over 90% of wetland habitat has been lost to development. The site is a critical breeding, feeding and nesting ground and key stopover point on the Pacific Flyway for over 370 species of migratory and native birds, including six endangered species. The Reserve offers four miles of walking trails, taking visitors into prime bird watching areas and down to the river mouth where the Tijuana River meets the Pacific Ocean. Border Field State Park is located in the southwestern corner of the Reserve, on a bluff overlooking the ocean, the estuary, and the bull ring that lies just south of the U.S./Mexico border.  A marker on the bluff, first placed there in 1851 just after the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, delineates the western beginning of the International Border.

Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve/Torrey Pines State Beach.  The official claim to fame here is that the park is the home to the Torrey Pine, the rarest pine tree in the United States.  You have your pick of two completely different options here:  either the swimming, beachcombing and surfing along the beach or the hiking and birdwatching in the high areas above the bluff line behind the beach. Black’s Beach is the best area for surfing (this is also a clothing optional beach area.  The high bluff area is a coastal forest of pine trees, sandstone canyons and a network of dirt hiking trails on the bluffs overlooking the sea. The trails are dirt and steep, winding through low coastal brush and dropping down to the beach.  This is a highly visited park and the trails can be crowded on weekends.  The park is located on the Pacific Coast Highway between La Jolla and Del Mar.

Sweetwater Marsh National Wildlife Refuge/Chula Vista Nature Center. Sweetwater is only 316 acres of marsh estuary where the Sweetwater River enters San Diego Bay but it is a prime birding destination, offering similar habitat as Tijuana Slough NWR.  The Nature Center has interpretive and interactive exhibits, guided nature and bird walks, a shark and ray exhibit, and the opportunity to view native birds in outdoor aviaries that support burrowing owls, shorebirds, egrets and herons.

Cabrillo National Monument.  A great combination of nature, history and scenery, the national monument, located at the end of Point Loma off San Diego, is easily accessible.  Lots of options here; hiking on the two-mile Bayside Trail which winds through low coastal sage scrub habitat and with spectacular views of San Diego Bay and the city; tidepooling in the rocky intertidal area where you can discover hundreds of tidal critters in the smqall pools left after high tide; visiting the restored Old Point Loma Lighthouse, one of the original eight lighthouses on the West Coast; whale watching during annual migration of the Pacific Gray Whale as the marine mammals pass by the park from December through February; birdwatching in the hills and coastal areas where over 200 species of birds have been spotted.

Mission Trails Regional Park. Located entirely within the city limits of San Diego, this 5800 acres park is huge!  Dominated by Cowles Mountain, at 1592 feet the highest point in the city, the park is a rugged mix of canyons and hills that tower over the San Diego River that flows through the park. Access to the park is by a one-way access road segregated for hikers and bikers on one side, cars on the other.  Hike or bike in and take off through the countryside on the park’s forty miles of hiking, mountain biking and equestrian trails.   The park offers some of the best rock climbing in the region.  Mission Gorge was one of the first established climbing areas in the area and remains popular due to the wide range of crack and face climbing routes from easy picks to challenging 5.10 routes.  Check at the visitor center for climbing info. The most scenic trail is the Cowles Mountain trail which culminates at the mountain’s summit with some awesome views of the city. Lake Murray, a manmade reservoir, is a popular hiking destination and is the location of Kumeyaay Campground which consists of 46 rustic campsites. Info at www.mtrp.org

Blue Sky Ecological Reserve.  Owned by the California Department of Fish and Game and managed by the City of Poway, this 700 acres of canyonlands in the town of Poway is a real surprise.  You’d never expect something this rugged in the middle of the area’s urban sprawl.  Blue Sky offers trails that lead to the top of Mount Woodson or to Lake Ramona, a manmade reservoir.  The reserve is a mix of coastal sage scrub, oak woodland, and mixed chaparral hillsides.  The Lake Ramona trail winds upward to the lake and offers great views of the surrounding countryside.  Longer and steeper hiking to Mount Woodson offers even better views.  Creekside Trail follows a small creek and this riparian habitat meanders through a shady canopy of tall oak trees.  It is a great place for birdwatching and you can expect to see migratory songbirds as well as red-shoulderd hawks, red-tailed hawks, acorn woodpeckers, roadrunners and dozens of other species.  Coyote, gray fox, mule deer, raccoon and bobcat are present in the reserve.  Info at www.poway.org

La Jolla Beach.  Well, maybe this is a stretch.  It’s not really undeveloped; it’s right in the middle of the city of La Jolla but it feels more natural than it is.  The two areas to visit are the Children’s Pool, which was originally developed as a protected swimming areas for children but was commandeered by a healthy population of harbor seals.  They can be viewed up close and it’s quite a sight.  La Jolla Cove/Ecological Reserve and Marine Life Refuge offers excellent swimming, snorkeling and diving. The 533 acre refuge is ecologically protected, providing a safe home for colorful fish, rays and even leopard sharks and the surrounding rocky cliffs are havens for shorebirds and pelagic bird species.


Saturday, July 6, 2013

Fly Fishing Alabama's Sipsey Fork

You want to go fly fishing for trout in Alabama? Your only option is the Lower Sipsey Fork in north-central part of the state. Fishing is done in the tailwaters below Smith Lake dam, where the Sipsey Fork flows cold and free. This is a stocked fishery, rainbow trout are released every month except August and the water is cold enough to support a year round fishery.

Dawn on the Sipsey Fork

The best fishing is upstream from the Birmingham Water Works Pump Station, although there are over 12 miles of good fishing from the dam down to the confluence with the Mulberry Fork. The upper reaches are good for wading and stream side fishing; downstream is better for float fishing. The upper reaches are full of riffles, eddies and pools where trout congregate and the Sipsey on this stretch resembles a typical Appalachian mountain stream. 

The local chapter of Trout Unlimited is constantly working to provide improved fish habitat and, due to the cold water, fish survive and can grow up to 18 inches or bigger.

Caution: Alabama Power Company generates power on a frequent but irregular, check for release schedules before entering the river—a warning siren will announce any releases but don’t count on hearing it and water levels increases quickly. Be sure to have an escape route in mind. Generation schedules are available on the web at www.lakes.alabamapower.com; but the schedules are subject to change without notice.

For info on fishing conditions, access and other questions contact Riverside Fly Shop in Jasper, AL www.riversideflyshop.com

Sunday, March 24, 2013

State Record Bird Sighting

On June 3, 2010 Sara Ress Wittenberg sighted a White Wagtail in Ruby Valley Nevada. It was the first ever sighting of a White Wagtail in Nevada and a rare sighting of the bird in the lower 48.

White Wagtail picture taken June 3, 2010 in Ruby Valley, NV
Thursday morning dawned bright and clear and—best of all—warm. Ruby Valley had experienced an exceptionally long and cold winter. It had in fact snowed just three days earlier, a scant frosting that covered the towering peaks of the Ruby Mountains with a thin veil of white, the last gasp of a bitter winter.

In Ruby Valley, surrounded by the towering 11,000 feet Ruby Mountains on the west and the Maverick Mountains on the east, the waterfowl were just starting to hatch their young. The first of the year’s Canada goslings and Mallard ducklings paddled through the expansive bulrush marshes of Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge and Sandhill Crane parents kept a close eye on their downy covered young.

Ruby Lake NWR is a 37,000 acre refuge that lies about two hours south of the town of Elko, the most remote national wildlife refuge in the lower 48. Its patchwork of marshland and open water boasts the largest population of Canvasback ducks west of the Mississippi River (excepting Alaska) and a myriad of other species—Northern Shovelers, Ruddy Ducks, Northern Pintails, Gadwalls, almost every duck species endemic to the United States. The marshes are surrounded by sagebrush and willow thickets that attract coyotes, mink, beaver, pronghorn, and mule deer.

It is also a birder’s paradise. Two hundred twenty five species have been reported on the refuge. That was before June 3rd. We had been birding in the far reaches of the refuge all week, and a fruitful week it was. We had spotted hundreds of birds and 85 species including Burrowing Owls, Short-eared Owls, Golden Eagles and White-faced Ibis. Sara Ress Wittenberg, my daughter and the wife of the assistant refuge manager, was our guide. An accomplished birder, she could spot birds way before the rest of us and we had enjoyed a good week of birding and wildlife watching.

We were taking a break from birding on Thursday and touring Gallagher State Fish Hatchery, located just south of the refuge headquarters. We were listening to our tour guide explain the workings of the hatchery when Wittenberg noticed a small black-and-white bird hopping in the gravel near the hatchery garage. I took a look – “Snow Bunting?” I proposed. “I don’t think so” she said. But we refocused on our tour guide for the moment, trying to appear much more interested in the fish and what he had to say than this intriguing bird that neither of us had ever seen before, whatever it was.

We finished the tour, thanked our guide and retreated back to Wittenberg’s house for lunch. But the bird was still nagging at us and Wittenberg pulled out her Sibley guide. She thumbed through it. “Oh my gosh,” she said, “I think we saw something unbelievable.”

“Don’t tell me.” I said, “Let me see if we agree.”

I paged quickly through her Sibley, passing quickly over the bunting (too small). What else is black and white? Magpie? Too big. Wagtail? Nah, not in Nevada. But I looked at the illustration in the guide. Same markings, right color, size and shape. That was it.

“Wagtail!” I said, “It was a Wagtail!”

“I think so too. We have to go back.”

We were upset with ourselves, first for dismissing the bird and going ahead with the tour and also for not having our binoculars and guide with us. They had been our constant companions all week but for the tour we left them behind. To make matters worse, my wife always toted her camera along, and we had not even considered having her snap a quick photograph of the bird!

We jumped in the car and tore back down the road to the hatchery. We glassed the gravel lots and split up to search around the buildings. No luck. How could this be? We were sure we had spied a very rare bird but if we couldn’t get a better look we couldn’t be sure. A combination of anguish and frustration set in. How could we be so stupid? We should have gone with our initial impressions and quit the tour and pursued the bird. Now it was gone.

"Over here!”

I ran around the corner of the hatchery building and there it was, blending almost perfectly in with the gravel, not 30 feet from Wittenberg. As she was glassing it, I raised my binoculars and did the same. It was a White Wagtail - matched the illustration perfectly.

“We have to get a picture,” she said. “No one will believe it.”

And we did. Many, in fact, good shots that confirmed the ID.

Wittenberg reported the sighting on the internet the same day and it was accepted, a first state sighting. Word spread quickly over the internet and birders were on their way to Ruby Valley the next day, some from as far as Las Vegas, seven hours away. Unfortunately, the bird was never spotted in the area again.

It was an exciting and fun experience. As Wittenberg said “I always read about people seeing rarities and thought ‘Who are those people?’ I figured they were all pro birders, no way someone like me could ever report a sighting.”

And we learned lessons from the experience. First, don’t doubt your sighting. If you think it’s something rare, it probably is. If it isn’t, you still have the momentary thrill of thinking it is and doing the detective work to verify or dismiss your tentative ID.

Second, verify the ID. Use your guides, and most importantly (especially for a rare bird), get a picture – crucial in validating the sighting for records. I am convinced that had Wittenberg not had a clear photograph, her sighting would have been doubted, and certainly not accepted as a state record. Like the vast majority of birders, she is not a recognized “regular” of accomplished birders within the birding community and her report would have undoubtedly been viewed with skepticism.

Third, don’t doubt your birding skills. No matter how impossible it seems that the bird you are looking at could be whatever unusual species you think it is, keep an open mind. If we had dismissed this sighting as my initial thought, a Snow Bunting, the most likely similar black-and-white bird in the area, we would have never correctly identified it. Think outside the box and consider all possibilities.

Finally, keep your binoculars with you all the time. We had ours with us all week, except for this one hour interval! Lesson learned!

(This article, originally titled "Who Are Those People? appeared in Bird Watcher's Digest)

Birding Northern Nevada

Far from the lights and tumult of Las Vegas and Reno, the other end of Nevada is a wild and isolated region that beckons to birders. Northern Nevada is a true remnant of the Old West; sparsely populated, starkly beautiful, and an outdoor delight. All those symbols of the Wild West—hardy cowboys on horseback, working cattle ranches, wild mustang, tumbleweeds—that you thought had faded into oblivion? They’re still here. This is one of the most remote and isolated places left in the lower 48, crowded with snow capped peaks, expansive high desert valleys, open marshes and plenty of wildlife. It is a great place to spot pronghorn, mountain lion, mountain goat, mule deer, bighorn sheep and badgers, as well as hundreds of species of birds.

All this means that if you love the outdoors, you’ll love northern Nevada. In addition to birding, this rugged area is a great place for flyfishing, hiking, skiing or just laid back driving through tiny cowboy towns. It is the antithesis of glittery, pulsating Vegas. It is also the perfect setting for an exciting birding adventure.

Within a day’s drive of each other there are a number of excellent birding spots: Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge, the Goshute Mountains, Lamoille Canyon, Ruby Crest National Recreational Trail and Great Basin National Park. Sprinkle in some intriguing historical sites and spectacular scenery for an unforgettable visit.

The jump-off point for exploring the region is the town of Elko, four hours due west of Salt Lake City on I-80. In the late 1800’s Elko was a stronghold for Basque sheepherders who emigrated from their homeland in northern Spain to raise sheep in the nearby Ruby Mountains. You’re about to embark into a remote region; this could be your last look at civilization for a while so don’t leave town without enjoying a hearty and traditional Basque meal at one of many Basque-style restaurants.

Ruby Crest National Recreation Trail

From Elko head south to the Ruby Mountains, named after the abundant garnets present in the range, and hike among 11,000 foot peaks and picturesque high altitude lakes on the Ruby Crest National Recreation Trail. The Trail is a rugged 38-mile trail that roughly traces the crest of the Rubies. It begins in Lamoille Canyon and ends at Harrison Pass. A strenuous hike? For sure, but it is perhaps the best way to encounter North America’s only population of Himalayan Snowcocks, a quarry that was featured in the movie The Big Year. These birds were introduced from their native Pakistan by the Nevada Fish and Game Commission in 1961 and a wild population has become established. Steve Martin and Jack Black hired a helicopter to bag the Snowcock in the movie, but you don’t need to go to that extreme, although the birds are very elusive. They stay above the treeline and have been reported at higher elevations on Thomas Peak, Wine Peak and Tipton Peak, among other locations on the trail. In addition to Snowcocks, the high peaks of the Rubies offer opportunities to spot Mountain Bluebirds, Golden Eagles, Clark’s Nutcrackers, Black Rosy-Finches and Bald Eagles.

Lamoille Canyon Scenic Byway

If you’re not up to the rigorous trek, opt for the easily accessible Lamoille Canyon. This ten-mile-long canyon features multiple peaks over 11,000 feet and the Lamoille Canyon Scenic Byway winds up through the canyon, offering optimal views of the glaciated walls where Bighorn Sheep, Mule Deer and Mountain Goats may be spotted from your car. Himalayan Snowcocks have also been spotted in the canyon, near the Island Lake area. Keep your eyes open for Clark’s Nutcrackers, Wild Turkey, Mountain Chickadees, Red-breasted Nuthatches, Ferruginous Hawks and Golden Eagles. And don’t go stumbling down the trails with your eyes focused on the trees; porcupines are seemingly everywhere and brushing up with one would definitely ruin your day.

Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge

After you leave Lamoille Canyon, catch a hearty dinner under the watchful eye of a mounted deer head at the quaint Pine Lodge in the town of Lamoille. Then drive south to Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge, a 35,000 acre expanse of marshland that is home to healthy concentrations of ducks and waterfowl. Drive the dike roads through the marshes looking for pronghorn and badgers and check off Burrowing Owls, Pinyon Jays, Short-eared Owls, Northern Harriers, Yellow-headed Blackbirds, Marsh Wrens and--the refuge's real attraction--thousands of ducks, geese and waterfowl. You can depend on a multiple species of ducks including Canvasbacks, Cinnamon Teal, Gadwalls, Ruddy Ducks, Northern Pintails, Green-winged Teal, Redheads, American Widgeons, Northern Shovelers, Bufflehead, Common Goldeneye, Ring-necked Ducks, Lesser Scaup and even an occasional Wood Duck plus the chance to spot Sandhill Cranes, White-faced Ibis, Double-crested Cormorants, Great Egrets, Western and Clark’s Grebes, Long-billed Curlews, and Nevada’s only resident population of Trumpeter Swans. Ferruginous Hawks and Golden Eagles can often be spotted in the tall trees near historic Bressman Cabin on the refuge and Northern Harriers are common in the marshes.

If your quest goes beyond waterfowl, the areas around Cave Creek near the refuge headquarters and the nearby Gallagher State Fish Hatchery are a haven for Broad-tailed Hummingbirds, Calliope Hummingbirds, Rufous and Black-chinned Hummingbirds, Yellow-headed Blackbirds, Black-billed Magpies, Lazuli Buntings and Williamson’s Sapsuckers. A fairly impressive number of Turkey Vultures roost in the trees near the refuge headquarters in the summer.

The hatchery is always a fruitful birding spot and a wide variety of birds can be picked up there--a state record White Wagtail was spotted in the hatchery parking lot in 2010. The willow trees ringing the outflow ponds just behind the hatchery are a reliable area for picking up Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers, Yellow Warblers, Marsh Wrens, a variety of sparrows and an occasional Long-eared Owl. The trail into Indian Creek, two miles north of the refuge headquarters is a good place to spot mountain goats, Loggerhead Shrikes, Chukar, Bushtit, Western Bluebirds, and Mountain Chickadees.

Watch for Lewis’ Woodpeckers on the telephone poles along the road to the refuge (for periods each spring it seems as if there is one on every third or fourth pole). Closer to the refuge headquarters, refuge staff recently added a number of artificial burrows to increase the population of Burrowing Owls. The refuge is essentially three-season birding, since the road across Harrison Pass from the west is often impassible and even the road from Wells can sometimes be problematic. If you do go in winter you can see Tundra Swans, as well as a good number of overwintering Rough-legged Hawks.

The refuge and adjoining areas are also home to some interesting historical sites. The infamous Donner Party temporarily camped about 300 meters south of the current refuge headquarters building near Cave Creek (although this was prior to their notorious culinary incident). And a few miles further south the original Pony Express Trail transected Ruby Valley. The crumbling remnants of Fort Ruby, an 1860’s era U.S. Army outpost which was constructed near the Pony Express Trail to protect riders and emigrant travelers from Native American raiders, are still evident along the refuge road. It was so remote it was called the “Worst Post in the West” by soldiers stationed there.

Great Basin National Park

From the refuge the drive to Great Basin National Park near the town of Baker, Nevada is a starkly beautiful drive on Highway 50, the “Loneliest Road in America”. Great Basin National Park is home to the 13,063 foot Wheeler Peak, glacial moraines, 5000-year-old bristlecone pines, mountain goats, bighorn sheep and mountain lions. Hike Wheeler Peak and spot Clark's Nutcrackers, Swainson's Hawks and Ferruginous Hawks.

The National Park elevation ranges from about 5000 feet to more than 13,000 feet so a diversity of habitats means a huge variety of birds. Hike Lehman Peak Trail, which climbs alongside Lehman Creek to spy Western Scrub Jay, Pinyon Jay, Steller’s Jay, Say’s Phoebe and Plumbeous Vireo. Alpine Lakes Loop takes you by two lakes above 10,000 feet and is great for seeing raptors include Northern Goshawk, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Rough-legged Hawk, Swainson’s Hawk, Ferruginous Hawk and Golden Eagle. The steep and rugged Wheeler Peak Summit Trail takes you to the top of Wheeler Peak and you can count on Chukar, Common Ravens, Mountain Bluebirds, Townsend’s Solitaire and Black-billed Magpies.

Spend the night in Baker and enjoy a hearty meal in the eclectic Lectrolux Café--the food is homemade and delicious.

Goshute Mountains

East of Ruby Valley are the Goshute Mountains, dominating the busiest raptor migration route in the western United States. Running north-to-south, the Goshutes act as a funnel, concentrating migrating raptors between the barren Great Salt Lake to the east and the Great Basin mountain ranges to the west. The Goshutes range up to 10,000 feet and in the fall thousands of migrating birds take advantage of this forested finger of bristlecone pines and fir trees to rest and forage during their annual fall migration. The result? A raptor watcher’s dream, with literally hundreds of migrating raptors soaring past on a daily basis.

For over two decades HawkWatch International has conducted bird counts and banding programs in the Goshutes during the migration season (late August to early November). Standing on the crest of the Goshutes, you can observe Golden Eagles, Red-tailed Hawks, American Kestrels, Northern Goshawks, Northern Harriers, Sharp-shinned Hawks, Cooper’s Hawks, Broad-winged Hawks, Swainson’s Hawks, Merlins, Ferruginous Hawks, Bald Eagles, Peregrine Falcons, Prairie Falcons and Rough-legged Hawks. Add in the chance to glimpse Flammulated Owls, Northern Saw-Whet Owls and Great Horned Owls and your raptor quota is pretty much filled up. HawkWatch International welcomes visitors to its observation area and at its banding site where you can observe birds in hand and the banding process up close—and from the observation area on the crest of the Goshutes you can gaze upon soaring raptors at, even below, eye level. Literally hundreds of raptors migrate past the Goshutes in a typical day and the HawkWatch banding station will capture, band and release dozens of birds daily.

Northern Nevada is the whole range of birding in a microcosm: raptors, waterfowl, montane species, woodland birds, prairie birds, and high desert species; all in an area that can be birded in a relatively short period of time. Throw in the harshly captivating mountain ranges, eye-pleasing scenery, cowboy ambience, and untamed spaces and you’ll have a hard time finding a better and more diverse birding destination.

Visitor Information:

Great Basin National Park
100 Great Basin National Park
Baker, NV 89311
(775) 234-7331

Goshutes Mountains Raptor Migration
HawkWatch International
(801) 484-6808

Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge
HC 60, Box 860
Ruby Valley, Nevada 89833-9802

Lamoille Canyon Scenic Byway

Ruby Crest National Recreation Trail
Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest
1200 Franklin Way
Sparks, NV 89431
(775) 331-6444

(This article originally appeared in the April 2013 issue of Bird Watcher's Digest)

Friday, January 18, 2013

Barber Vintage Motorcycle Festival

Set aside the second week in October for a trip to Birmingham, Alabama and the Vintage Bike Festival at Barber Motorsports Park. 

It's a weekend long celebration of old and older and the oldest two wheeled mechanical beasts with three full days of races, swap meets, vendors, air shows and good times set amidst Barber's natural beauty and the racetrack, one of America's best. Add in the Barber Motorsports Museum, the largest private motorcycle collection in the world and you have a biker's paradise.

Races are run based on engine size and age so you will see 1950's era 500cc bikes like Triumphs, Nortons and BSAs in one race and the next one may feature 750 cc Hondas, Suzukis and Kawasakis from the 1970's.  It's like a time capsule, pick your favorite bikes and eras and settle in for some hard core racing--because these guys don't baby their bikes around.  You'll see knees scraping on 60 year old bikes (and 60 year old riders).  One race features some of the oldest bikes in existence--motorcycles from the turn of the century--the 20th century.  Harleys and Excelsiors from 1903 speed around the racetrack.

The races are only part of the attraction.  Acres and acres of vendors and sellers offer everything from vintage parts to rare motorcycles. Spend your weekend walking among the booths and find that one-of-a-kind vintage bike you always wanted when you were a kid.  Brit and Italian bikes seem to predominate and production and custom Ducatis, MotoGuzzis, Triumphs, Nortons and BSAs are everywhere.  The famous Ace Cafe and Dime City Cycles have tents set up for visitors.