High Desert Adventure Part I: Headed for Nevada

To say that Humboldt County, Nevada is underbirded would be an understatement. Most of the county's population (roughly 17,000) lives near its southern border, in and around  Winnemucca–Humboldt's only incorporated city! Across most of county's 9658 square miles, population density can be measured in tenths of a person per square mile. Add in those who live in or near Winnemucca  and that number still comes up shy of two persons per square mile. If jackrabbits, deer, or Horned Larks had voting rights, attention to human concerns would be non-existent. 

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Northwestern Nevada and southeastern Oregon are in large measure dominated by open space and big skies. Only mountain ranges, the occasional alfalfa field, and the stands of trees around ranch compounds break up the monotony of this shrub-steppe landscape. Counties like Humboldt, Nevada are windshield landscapes for most people, who rarely even slow down as they pass through on the way to somewhere else. Those who stop to take a closer look or make these places a destination are few. I was sitting down on the center line of Hwy 290 south of Paradise Valley, Humboldt County, Nevada when I took this photo. It's hard to know how long I might have been able to sit there until the next car passed.

While eBird may not be a perfect barometer of birding activity for a county, it certainly sheds some light. If one pulls up the all-time "Top 100" eBirders for Humboldt County, Nevada and sorts by the number of checklists submitted, Terry Rich–with 573 as of this date–has far surpassed the number of checklists (417) submitted by all other observers. This all-time tally, a mere 990 checklists, may be fewer than some intensely birded and heavily-populated counties generate each month. Year to date, no fewer than 50 observers have submitted at least 100 checklists for Marin County, California. Further, if you assume that many of the other lists in the Humboldt County total are duplicates shared among parties birding together, Terry Rich's total is more likely double the output of all the rest of us.

Shawneen Finnegan and I have spent a grand total of about three days in the county over the last five years and we are credited with 36 and 35 checklist respectively (she must have forgotten to share one). These are all shared lists. We rank third and fourth all-time for the number of eBird checklists from Humboldt County and we live 500 miles away in Portland, Oregon. For a quick comparison, Tillamook County on Oregon's north coast has a population about 25,000. In 2014 alone–and the year is only half over– the number of eBird checklist submitted from the county nearly matches the all-time total for Humboldt County, Nevada.

In part, this paucity of data and, more importantly, the absence of exploration and discovery that generates it, was a driving force in our choice to visit northern Nevada. We have come to enjoy most those birding experiences that take us to places rarely visited by other birders. Fifty years from now, or perhaps sooner, these places may no longer look like they do today. Vegetation and avifaunal distributions will have certainly changed a half century from now and perhaps be altered on a scale that renders this landscape somewhat unrecognizable when compared to what we find today. We are motivated to grab this snapshot and experience these landscapes as they have been in recent memory. Further, we find joy in pursuing  answers to questions that may have been contemplated, but never investigated by other birders, or professional ornithologists.

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In planning our explorations of northern Nevada, we first used Google Maps to take a macro view (above) look at the area. The Santa Rosa Mountains clearly stand out. The dashed lines are the Oregon and Idaho borders.

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From there, we zoomed in on the main road that passes through the heart of the Santa Rosas in order to determine how accessible the larger patches of trees might be. The north-south road that turns due west at the top of the map is Hinkey Road, which becomes FR-84 within the National Forest boundaries. As shown by this map, the road passes right through  areas with lots of trees and wet montane meadows.

Today, unexplored hinterlands are not as mysterious as they were before the invention of many modern technologies. Using Google Maps, DeLorme Atlases, and various other satellite images and data found online, we can quite accurately target and to some degree scout areas that we want to explore. We have birding contacts all over the country, some of whom, amazingly enough, have actually birded in Humboldt County, Nevada. We can also surf through the mapped sightings on eBird to determine if target species have been reported in the area we've chosen to visit. We did all of these things in advance of our trip to Humboldt County and decided that the place we most wanted to see was the Santa Rosa Mountains. But first we have to get there.

Our adventure started shortly after midnight on Friday 13 June. Over the next seventeen-plus hours, we made our way all the way from Portland to the Nevada border with many stops as we went. Our first birding  was south of Prineville about 3:30AM. We made two more pre-sunrise stops to get Common Poorwill and listen to the dawn chorus in the high desert just before hitting U.S. Hwy 20. Only a couple more stops slowed us down as we drove Hwy 20 to Burns, Oregon, where we stopped for breakfast. After filling our tanks with food and coffee and the gas tank on our pickup, we headed south from Burns towards Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and the obligatory stop to look for vagrants at the refuge headquarters. Given the date–about a week after the prime window for eastern vagrants–we expected it to be dead. It was.

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This adult female California Quail had at least 10 chicks (two seen here) toddling after her. As we slowly tailed them along the edge of the Malheur Field Station compound, her brood joined up with another group of about 25 more chicks.

We made a brief foray through the Malheur Field Station, where at least one Northern Mockingbird has taken up residence this season. It took awhile to track it down, but as we drove the network of roads through the station we found two large family groups of adult and partially-grown California Quail. The youngsters were positively adorable, especially when they took flight. Among birds, few species have the capacity to fly before being nearly full grown. Fuzzball baby quail that are perhaps one-eighth the size of an adult taking flight is always visually arresting.

We continued south through the Blitzen and then Catlow Valleys only occasionally stopping to enjoy birds that aren't easily encountered elsewhere in Oregon. Like Malheur headquarters, the oasis in Fields, Oregon is not a site one drives by without checking for something out of the ordinary. Further, in this corner of the world there is no better hamburger or milkshake than those served up by the Fields Cafe. We ate first, denying ourselves the pleasure of a milkshake. Being a bit lactose intolerant, I am careful about where I choose to enjoy dairy products. The bacon cheeseburgers were fabulous.

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This view, looking east into the Alvord Basin from the ridge above Fields, Oregon is one of my favorites in all of Oregon. I rarely pass this spot without stopping to relish in the freedom and joy I feel as I gaze out across this expanse. I have a number of photos that I've taken from this spot. This one was captured on 13 June 2014.

The Fields oasis was no more productive than Malheur headquarters, but we did hear an odd warbler song that we ultimately concluded was probably a Townsend's Warbler. We did not see the Gray Catbird that had been seen there earlier in the day. Nevada was now in our cross hairs, as we were only 25 miles from Denio, Nevada, which straddles the stateline. We were anxious to see what we might find beyond the bounds of our home state, so we proceeded south without interruption.

We finally crossed over the Oregon/Nevada line at Denio at approximately 5:40PM on Friday 13 June. We stopped almost immediately to record our first Nevada birds of 2014. That stop netted eleven species. Driving south through the first several miles of Hwy 140 south of Denio might have had some questioning the decision to come all this way to go birding, as we saw almost no birds, but we were undaunted. A few more miles south, a distant patch of trees came into view. EUREKA! a migrant trap.

We stopped just outside the fence of the Quinn River Maintenance Station to have a look around. There was a nice mix of deciduous trees, plus a sturdy hedge of tall lilacs along the fenceline. Almost the first bird I saw was a Northern Mockingbird. A few miles to north in Oregon, this would be a "checkbox" bird on an eBird checklist, thus we were surprised when it didn't trigger any filter boxes at this site. A few minutes later we heard and then saw a Lesser Goldfinch, which seemed even more out of place. It didn't trigger a checkbox either. Hmmm! Nevada IS really different. Our fourteen-species bonanza included two Gray Flycatchers, a Swainson's Hawk, the now ubiquitous Eurasian Collared-Dove, plus the aforementioned mockingbird and goldfinch. We pressed on.

We took a short detour down a side road to check another row of trees that bordered a ranch. It was a big spread with several large alfalfa fields that were being watered by center-pivot irrigation systems. We found a bunch birds along one weedy fence row, including, two somewhat surprising Chipping Sparrows. 

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From the moment the Santa Rosa Mountains first came into view, we knew we were in for a treat the next day. This shot was taken from Hwy 140 at about 7:30PM on 13 June 2014. 

It was now after 7PM and going on about 36 hours since either Shawneen or I had been asleep in a real bed. We were fading, as was the sun, which was now dropping behind the ridgeline to the west. Aside from a quick stop to take our first photos of the Santa Rosa Mountains, we forged on to the junction with U.S. Hwy 95 and then turned south for last stretch into Winnemucca, where we would get a motel room for the night. We were in bed and long gone shortly after checking in.

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I’m looking forward to the rest of the report! We’ve been itching to head over to that part of Nevada for quite some time now, just haven’t gotten around to it. Ineresting about the lack of ebird lists – in comparison, Mt. Tabor just got its 1000th!

We had a few Townsend’s Warblers on that day in Fields too. Also this was the weird warbler that we were referring to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oUU2UcCcVaQ, not a Townsend’s, probably Yellow.

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I agree, Adrian, Yellow Warbler. I have tracked these very emphatic sounding calls down, I assume Yellow’s declaring their territory. I want to see these mountains as well. Seems they are a bit easier on the rig to access as compared to the Trout Creek Mtns. and it is public land. I google mapped the route from Fields, 117 miles to Paradise Valley. I can camp there after I hit Fields next year!

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