Saturday, August 3, 2013


Himalayan Snowcocks. I remember joking about these birds when I first contemplated doing a Big Year, "yeah, ok, whatever, I guess I'm doing a Big Year. But I'm definitely *not* going to Nevada to see the damn Snowcocks!"

Today, I'm in Nevada to see to the damn Snowcocks.

Himalayan Snowcocks are, you've guessed it, native to the Himalayas. So, what the hell are they doing here? Well, the weirdness began in 1961 when the Nevada Fish and Game Commission were so bored / intoxicated / both that they came up with two bold thoughts: (1) "dude, you know what, our very own Ruby Mountains look a bit like them world-famous Himalayas"; and the logical extension, that if (1) were actually true, then (2) "why can't we have our own Snowcocks?" Presumably, a few bets were exchanged, and a phone call to the President of Pakistan placed. The latter agreed and Pakistan started trapping birds and shipping them our way. Most of them, sadly, died, and it was left to a local breeding program to provide the majority of the 2,000 birds that were released between 1965 and 1979. The birds loved their new home and have been here ever since, making them not only one of the most ridiculous of the introduced species to north America, but also annoyingly one of the most inaccessible. A visit requires flying into Salt Lake CIty, driving 4 hours, followed by a steep climb to their preferred altitude: rocky slopes above the tree-line.

My drive out from Salt Lake City takes me into the Great Basin - an area of some 200,000 square miles that encompasses most of Nevada, half of Utah, and parts of Wyoming, Idaho, Oregon and California. Salt Lake City (northwest) and Reno (southwest) are the major cities in an otherwise vast and empty area. It's an "endorheic basin" which means that all the water, whether that's precipitation, rivers, or springs, drains into internal (and often very salty) lakes - such as the Great Salt Lake - and never reaches the sea.

Nestled up against the Utah border are the Bonneville Flats, a blindingly white area of salt-encrusted sand.

 Bonneville Flats - north-western Utah

And after the other-wordly salt flats, maybe this was an appropriate discovery…

WTF? I thought this was in a galaxy far, far away. Not northern NV!

Four hours later I roll into Elko, the base for the Ruby Mountains (and also, interestingly, for the annual cowboy poetry gathering)…

Umm...I'm hoping this isn't the same facility?

My plan is to reconnoitre the Ruby mountains this evening - and hopefully see the birds - so that *if* I have to return tomorrow morning (in the dark, ready for sunrise) I'll know where to go.
Lamoille Canyon. Nice! A paved road all the way from Elko to the trailhead. 
No rental car trashing up here!

The Trailhead is at 8,750 ft, and the hike up to Lake Lamoille is a steep one, ascending 1,000 ft in only 1.5 miles. And it's a slow climb - as I'm continually distracted by the birds along the way…

Macgillivray's Warbler - typically skulking

White-crowned Sparrow - the dark-lored oriantha subspecies

And a very approachable Raven... well as Mountain Bluebirds, Cassin's Finches, Juncos, and Clark's Nutcrackers that wouldn't pose for views.

And finally, after a series of steep switchbacks the trail pops out onto a plateau of flower-filled meadows…

Lake Lamoille is at the end of the trail and too big to squeeze into the lens of my tiny iphone. It's framed by a cirque - a towering half-bowl of serrated peaks. For 30 odd years, this is where the Snowcocks have been hiding.

I'm hoping that tomorrow morning the birds will be calling - because now they're not - making them easier to pick out from the similarly-colored rocks. For now, I start scanning, hoping to randomly find one. And within 5 minutes, I spot one on the ridge! It's standing perfectly still surveying its surroundings. Wow!I can't believe my luck - people spend hours here and never see one - and I get one within the first 5 minutes! *And* - this means I don't have to hike up again in the middle of the night! The bird is very still. Maybe that's why they're so tough - they don't move much? Very still. Wait - I zoom into the bird. Of course, I've been looking at a rock…

Himalayan Snowrock. Currently not countable on the ABA list.

Three hours and many, many more Snowrocks later I'm feeling pretty deflated. This *is* going to be difficult! And it's probably not helped by a resident and threatening Golden Eagle…

Golden Eagle. Probably the first time I've ever not wanted to see one...

So - I set off on the steep climb down, prepared to make the same hike back up again a few hours later in the middle of the night, ready to be here at sunrise.

Sunset in the Ruby Mountains

"Beep, beep, beep" my alarm jolts me awake from a freezing and uncomfortable slumber. I'm sleeping in the car at the trailhead, it's 3:30am and it's 45F outside. And inside. With only a sliver of a moon, it's totally dark. Even the Snowcocks can't tempt me to venture out yet. I reset my alarm for 4am. Then 4:15. Then 4:30. At 4:40 I finally drag myself out. With sunrise only an hour away, I'm now panicking that I'm going to be late. Why can't I ever get up on the first alarm? Or even the second? I start moving quickly up the hidden trail, using my flashlight to reveal the way, and avoid the rocks, tree roots and toads that line the nocturnal path.

As I'm scrambling up, hopelessly out of breath with my heart banging inside my chest, I suddenly remember there's an easier way to do this. Helicopter! In the Big Year book and movie that's just what Al Levantin and Greg Miller did - buzzing around the mountain tops flushing the Snowcocks. And then I remember that it's $925 more expensive than my short 1.5 mile hike, which doesn't seem quite so painful now.

I'm late. I'm out of breath standing below a cirque that's now fully illuminated from the east. And - I don't hear any Snowcocks. Shit. I spend the next 90 minutes desperately scanning the peaks, ridges and towers of the cirque, straining for the calls, all the time thinking that I'm going to have to come back here again - the flight, drive and hike. The frustration is temporarily lifted by a Mountain Goat nibbling at vegetation on the rock edges…

Mountain goat. Also introduced into the Ruby Mountains - in the 1960s

And then I see it. Along the top of the cirque, off to my left, I spot movement. A fat bird scurrying up the side, and out of view. The shape is right. Snowcock! And then, almost immediately, I hear a bird calling off to my right. They're here! This time, after some searching, I spot the bird standing on the ridge…

Himalayan Snowcock - heavily magnified (the bird is over half a mile away)

and then a pair…

A pair of snowcocks throwing their heads back to call

I spend the next hour transfixed by glimpses of Snowcocks punctuated by the occasional haunting call (not unlike that of the Long-billed Curlew.) As they wander over the cirque, coming in and out of view, stopping to call, I get the feeling that they really own the place. 

Maybe that whole Ruby Mountains / Himalaya bet wasn't quite so outrageous after all?...

+ + +


NEW YEAR BIRDS (1): Himalayan Snowcock


  1. Glad you got it! I was just there this past week as well, it's a shame I didn't bump into you. Did you try scoping from the parking lot? I managed to scope 8 from the trailhead near dusk. :-) No helicopters/steep climbs necessary. Granted, I think your view was a little closer!

  2. Didn't you also swear off Alaska at the beginning? ;)