“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."

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)