High Desert Adventure Part II: Exploring the Santa Rosas

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The morning would be several hours old before we reached this point along Hinkey Road, but it was just the sort of place we hoped to explore from the time we first decided to visit the Santa Rosa Mountains.

Editor's Note: This is the second in a three-part series about our recent trip to southeastern Oregon and northwestern Nevada. If this write-up inspires you to visit the Santa Rosa Mountains, PLEASE make sure that you read the last few paragraphs, as they contain some important notes of caution.

Although we weren't ready for the alarm to be going off as early as it did on Saturday morning, we responded to it with the inevitable enthusiasm that comes in anticipation of exploring a new place. Having spent many evenings pouring over maps and Google Maps satellite images, we knew our trip into the Santa Rosa Mountains would be special. However, it should be noted that no amount of high-tech scouting can fully prepare you for either the reality or the beauty of a place.

The Santa Rosa Mountains in Humboldt County, Nevada absolutely have to seen first hand to be appreciated. From the moment they first came into view in the early evening of 13 June 2014, Shawneen and I were instantly captivated by the allure of this rugged range. In shape and substrate, they are unlike the neighboring ranges just north of the Oregon border. They are taller and more suggestive of the Rocky Mountains than any range in southeastern Oregon. Even from a distance, it's apparent that there are significant stands of trees in the higher elevation sub-basins. We knew these stands existed from the satellite images we'd looked at, thus we left home excited to learn what species occupy these verdant pockets during the breeding season. We would not be disappointed.

The day started with a search for a decent cup of coffee. At 5:30AM, towns out in the high desert have limited options, so we settled for a tolerable cup of McDonald's finest. As we made our way north out of town we noticed a string of wetlands off the side of the highway that had some egrets and White-faced Ibis, so we bailed off the highway at the first exit and started looking for access to the streamside corridor. We quickly found a modest little ditch with water and some cattail edge. There were both Great and Snowy Egrets, plus about eight pairs of Yellow-headed Blackbirds in the modest cattail marsh, which was small enough that it would fit in a typical suburban backyard. We quickly racked up a bunch of new county birds, then began working our way back out to U.S. Hwy 95.

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If not for the presence of the adults (above), the four nestlings below may have been a challenge to identify as Ferruginous Hawks. Both Shawneen and I were struck by their somewhat goofy appearance. She thought they looked sort of like vultures and I thought their long legs and big eyes made them look sort of like Hook-billed Kites. Of course they were neither.
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As we drove north on Hwy 95, we remembered having seen a Buteo nest chock full of ready-to-fledge youngsters as we sped by in fading light the night before. Based on the height and size of the nest, we had presumed it was a Ferruginous Hawk nest. We easily refound the massive stick nest, which was in small, mostly-dead Russian olive tree about 100 yards off the road. Sure enough, the were four gawky Ferruginous Hawk nestlings that appeared to be at least as large as the adults. We got out of the truck and almost immediately had suspicious adults circling overhead. We took a few photos of both the adults and the nestlings, which were sort of long-necked, long-legged and bug-eyed. After a minute or so, we left them to carry out their activities in peace.

A few miles farther north we peeled off on Hwy 290, which ends 19 miles to the north at Paradise Valley. There are only about 100 permanent residents in Paradise Valley, but there are many other part-timers who spend weekends or summers in this quiet little burg. It must be a stark and forbidding place during the winter months, but at this time of year it seems aptly named. There are number of antiquated derelict buildings in town, including the three-part "Micca House" right at the turnoff to start up Hinkey Road towards the Santa Rosa Mountains. Across the street at this same intersection is a bridge over Cottonwood Creek and large stand of cottonwoods and poplars, which had numerous roosting vultures and hawks when we arrived shortly after 8:30AM. We had roughly 45 vultures, seven Swainson's Hawks, and three Red-tailed Hawks right around town.

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The "Micca House" (above) was constructed in three stages between 1871 and 1904. The oldest section, out of the picture to the left, is made of adobe. Across the street (below) there is a big stand of cottonwoods, poplars, and aspens along Cottonwood Creek. It looks like a great place to find a vagrant warbler. On this day, there were several hawks and vultures that were just starting to emerge from their overnight roost. 

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Turning north at the intersection in the photo above puts you onto Hinkey Road, which heads directly north out of town. After a few miles we noticed a small stock pond off the west side of the road. As we drove past, a couple of Wilson's Phalaropes flushed up, so we stopped. Bodies of water are scarce in these parts, so almost any pond or stream is worth checking for waterbirds. This spot was quite busy with a surprising brood of Green-winged Teal, two broods of Gadwall, at least eight Wilson's Phalaropes and four Yellow-headed Blackbirds. It's hard to imagine that Green-winged Teal are more than an uncommon breeder in this part of Nevada.

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Adult female and two of its seven ducklings at a small stock pond just north of Paradise Valley, Nevada on 14 June 2014.

Continuing north along Hinkey Road, we were soon following along Indian Creek, which originates high on the south face of the Santa Rosas. A short ways later, we crossed into the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, which at this elevation is still a treeless forest. We made several brief stops, which invariably yielded Lazuli Buntings, Red-winged or Brewer's Blackbirds, plus a few family groups of "Plumbeous" Bushtits and the occasional Yellow-breasted Chat. Western Meadowlarks and Horned Larks were also quite common, particularly along the lower, flatter stretches of Hinkey Road.

Once we crossed the national forest boundary, the grade steepened and the canyon narrowed. After a mile or so, we came to the first good stand of aspens. We parked the truck and walked up the road for about a quarter of a mile. It was a bit disconcerting to flush a flock of nearly 100 European Starlings–mostly hatch-year birds–out of big tangle along the creek. That was counter-balanced by a feeding flock of about a dozen Common Nighthawks working the skies overhead. They often came gliding by at fairly close range, which allowed for reasonable attempts at flight shots. Their constant changes of direction and flight speed make it a challenge to get shots that are in perfect focus. 

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The brush fields above about 6000' along Hinkey Road were loaded with singing Brewer's Sparrows.

The suite of birds that we were encountering at these stops remained relatively constant until we got up to some hard switchbacks at about 6000'. Rather suddenly, the brush fields along the side of the road showed signs of having enjoyed more moisture than the rather parched looking sagebrush and grasses that we had been passing through at lower elevations. There was obvious and colorful new growth on most of the vegetation and the ringing of Brewer's Sparrow songs in our ears was a welcomed change.

At lower elevations we had struggled to find singing desert sparrows of any species, even Brewer's, which can be ubiquitous in the high desert during wetter years. At our first stop in the switchbacks, we could easily hear about ten territorial singers. There was also a smattering of Green-tailed Towhees along this section of the road.

As we gained elevation, seemingly every curve in the road tempted us to take scenic photos of the landscape. These alternated between spectacular vistas looking back down into the valley below and admiring the mosaic of wildflowers, grasses, and shrubs leading upslope to yet another stunning outcrop. Between the two of us, we took dozens of photos in addition to trying to mentally cache images that simply can't be captured in pixels.  

About a mile or so below the Hinkey Summit, we came upon a broad sub-basin that was feeding the upper reaches of Indian Creek. Nestled back up in the trees is well-kept, recently built private cabin. We birded this spot mostly from the road and by working uphill on the upslope side of the property. Here is where we heard our first of many Swainson's Thrushes. We were able to eventually get some brief looks at the thrush, which mostly stayed buried in the brush. It was of the expected olive-backed type that breeds across most of Canada and in the Intermountain West.

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I hardly expected this when I tried to pish up a singing Fox Sparrow. Indeed it is a Fox Sparrow, albeit a partially leucistic one.

While Shawneen was still down below along the road, I heard the song of a Fox Sparrow. Anxious to see what type it was, I started pishing. What popped into view was visually startling. It appeared to be a Fox Sparrow, but it had a mostly white head. It remained in view, both singing and calling for long stretches, so I was able to get a good set of photos of what proved to be a partially leucistic "Slate-colored" Fox Sparrow.

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From the Hinkey Summit (elev. 7850'), there is big sky in all directions.

This site also produced our first fleeting glimpses of a "Mountain" White-crowned Sparrow (subspecies oriantha). We also had a couple of Black-chinned Hummingbirds chasing each other about over this strip of riparia.

This was one of the birdiest spots on the mountain. We spent nearly an hour here, recording 23 species. In addition to species already mentioned, we had two additional Fox Sparrows, our first Ruby-crowned Kinglet, four MacGillivray's Warblers, two Pine Siskins and a low flyby White-throated Swift.

Aside from being the highest point (7850') along the road, Hinkey Summit offers little excitement. It is quite exposed and wind-blown, so even the shrubs were pretty stunted. There is 4-H cabin right near the summit, which overlooks a brushy hillside and dense trough of aspens just over the north side of the summit. We got buzzed by another White-throated Swift and heard two more Fox Sparrows singing down the hill.

A little farther down the road I heard one drum sequence of a sapsucker. I initially assumed that it had to be a Red-naped based on location. However, after getting an eBird checkbox when I keyed in Red-naped, I punched in Red-breasted, which, surprisingly, did not generate a "confirm" checkbox. Based on the sound of the drum pattern, I think the bird was a Red-naped. I've reviewed the eBird database looking for nearby reports of these two species and there are no records of Red-breasted in the Santa Rosas, but there are two credible reports of Red-naped from this mountain range. Why Red-breasted wouldn't generate a checkbox is a bit of a head-scratcher for me. Given the dominance of aspens, a common host tree for Red-naped Sapsucker nests, I would far more expect to find that species here.

About a half mile down the north slope from the summit we found a really nice little boggy area that looked perfect for "Mountain" White-crowned Sparrow (subspecies oriantha). Almost immediately, we heard two singing. Using the video function on our iPhones, we got some decent recordings of their unique song. These birds seem to have a strong preference for high-elevation boggy meadows. This site is very much like a place on Winter Ridge in Lake County, Oregon, where Shawneen and I found "Mountain" White-crowneds a few years back.

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"Mountain" White-crowned Sparrows are the only western population of this species with dark lores. It is also the only subspecies that breeds in Nevada. This bird was photographed just below Hinkey Summit, Humboldt County, Nevada on 14 June 2014.

The other interesting find at this site was two Fox Sparrows that looked and sounded like "Thick-billed" Fox Sparrows, which are not known from the Santa Rosa Range. They were bathing in a small streamlet and staying partially obscured by overhanging vegetation. However, they were quite gray-headed and had large-looking bills. More importantly, they gave very sharp, metallic calls that were consistent with "Thick-billed". The Santa Rosas are about 100 miles east of the easternmost sites where "Thick-billeds" have proven to be somewhat regular, so this question begs further investigation. Continuing downslope, we heard a couple more birds at other spots that offered similar call notes.

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This putative "Thick-billed" Fox Sparrow was one of two bathing along this small stream. We heard these birds give sharp, metallic "spink" call notes that were highly suggestive of the call notes typically heard from this subspecies group. Throughout the day we heard Slate-colored Fox Sparrows giving a flatter call note that was more reminiscent of a Lincoln's Sparrow, or subdued Sooty Fox Sparrow.

As Hinkey Road (now FR-84) winds down the north-facing slope from the summit area to Lye Creek Campground it passes through an extended stand of aspens. We didn't have a lot of bird variety along this stretch, but we were fascinated by the thousands of moths that were flushing from the aspen sapling understory as we  moved along. 

Time flies when you are having fun and by the time we reached Lye Creek Campground it was 5PM. We were only halfway through the 30-plus mile loop from Paradise Valley to Hwy 95 to the west of the Santa Rosas. With no idea of what sort of road conditions lay ahead, we decided to pick up the pace. At this point, I was still hoping to find a nice stand of mountain mahogany that was close enough to the road for quick exploration. About two miles beyond Lye Creek C.G., we found a spot with a pretty good stand about a 300-400 meters off the road. Problem was, it was above the road up an extremely steep slope.

Figuring this would be our last and only chance to look for hoped for Virginia's Warbler and "Gray-headed" Dark-eyed Junco, we decided to give it a go. The first half of the 70 degree slope passed by us pretty quickly, but then the lungs and leg muscles started to beg for mercy. Given where we live–just a few hundred feet above sea level–our cardiovascular and respiratory systems are hardly adapted for this sort of effort at nearly 7000' elevation. We wisely made a couple of strategic rest stops. After a few  more minutes of picking our way around, over, and through boulders, smaller rocks and waist-deep vegetation, we got up to the trees. It was now overcast and birds had mostly gone silent. We found a couple of Green-tailed Towhees and heard another Swainson's Thrush in the draw far below, but didn't see or hear much else.

For the most part, this ended our birding day. It was time to make our way out of the mountains before dark, or the onset of a potential rain shower that loomed on the horizon. The next few paragraphs are must-read for anyone who is considering a visit to this area.

In the days before we left Portland, I reached out to Martin Meyers, who is the secretary of the Nevada Bird Records Committee and one of the state's most active birders. I asked Martin about the roads in the area and if they were passable to any sort of vehicle. I have two-wheel drive Ford Range pickup with good tires and decent ground clearance capable of handling rutted roads, rocky roadbeds and a bouncy ride. In his response, Martin cautioned that if we were to get caught up in the mountains in heavy rain–often the case when summer thunderstorms hit these mountains–coming down the roads out of the Santa Rosas can be "treacherous, I mean really treacherous." He further advised that if we did get caught up there we should opt to stay over and camp out until the rains quit and the roads dry out.

Throughout the day I had pondered this advice and kept occasionally casting an eye to western skies looking for hints of an advancing thunderhead. Late in the afternoon we did start to see some cloud buildup, which to some degree hastened our departure. That said, I was having a hard time imagining that the road up the south aspect could become "treacherous," even if it did rain. Sure, there were a few tight switchbacks and some slightly steep sections, but the roadbed was heavily graveled and it didn't seem to have much of the dust that turns to grease when it gets wet. I suspect it would take quite a bit of rain to make this portion of the route truly dangerous, but I would not want to chance it.

We did not choose to retrace our route back to Paradise Valley along the well-maintained route that we'd already traveled. Instead, we continued north and then west from Lye Creek Campground with the intent of shortening our route back to Oregon by coming out on the northwestern most departure path. Less than two miles beyond the campground, the road conditions quickly started to deteriorate. Even though we were still on FR-84, the major Forest Service road through the area, there was grass up to 15" in height growing between the tire tracks. This section (from Lye Creek C.G. to Windy Gap) crosses a broad plateau, so dealing with slope isn't an an issue, but the roadbed is much rockier, and there are some modest washed out sections. You need to pick your way along slowly (we averaged less than 15 mph) to avoid beating your rig to death or shredding tires. As we passed through this section, we encountered just one vehicle coming from the other direction. In retrospect, we questioned his sanity, or if he knew what he was in for when he chose his approach route. He was driving a big heavy-duty pickup and towing a 25-foot fifth-wheel trailer. He was traveling about half the speed that we were maintaining.

The road remained moderately bumpy and rocky over the next few miles, but did not further deteriorate. As we approached Windy Gap–the top of the climb if you are coming in from the west–the road finally started to resemble those that we'd been on for most of the day. As we rounded the last curve before the start of the descent from Windy Gap, both Shawneen and I had bit of a HOLY $%&#@ moment when we saw the route down the hill. The drop-off from this point to the bottom of the canyon seems almost vertical and is many hundreds of feet. The road is essentially a one-lane gravel and dirt affair with hairpin turns about every 300 hundred yards as the road snakes down the first mile or so of what amounts to a cliff face. There are no pullouts, no guard rails, no place to effectively turn around much more than a sub-compact, and no place to stop for a stiff drink if you need to calm your nerves. If you don't like heights, this is a road you should avoid even in dry conditions. From the bottom of the hill looking back up, it's hard to imagine that there could be a road that leads to the top.

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The images above and below don't begin to capture the steepness of the slope leading down from the Windy Gap summit, but they do show the width of the road and tight hairpin turns.

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This was surely the section of the road that Martin Meyers had warned us about. I wouldn't even think about trying to go down this road in wet conditions. Just yesterday he shared the story of a mechanic friend of his from Truckee, who got caught up in a rainstorm while hunting up in the Santa Rosas. His friend came down the hill with his four-wheel drive Jeep shifted into compound low gear and chains on all four tires. Even then, he wasn't sure he was going to make it down the hill safely. Even with my automatic transmission shifted into low gear, I had to ride the brakes more than I like to keep my speed down. Otherwise, we had no trouble making our way down the hill. From a birding perspective, there is not much to see along the northern half of the loop and the lousy section of road across the plateau seems to be the most likely and inconvenient place to do damage to your vehicle.

I've traveled the northern part of this loop for the one and only time. We were more than entertained spending an entire day between Paradise Valley and Lye Creek Campground and we didn't spend any time at all at the campground, where another birder saw a Ruffed Grouse on the same day we were there. With some side hikes up to higher elevations and more stops coming up the hill, there are easily two full days of exploring to be done along this route. Any future trip will see me going in and coming out via the southerly route through Paradise Valley. It seems that most visitors to the Santa Rosas come in from the south and don't venture much beyond Lye Creek Campground after reaching the summit, hence this section of the road sees the most maintenance effort.

We made it down to Hwy 95 at about 7:15 and turned north towards Oregon. We planned to bird in Malheur County the next day, so we decided to make the drive to Jordan Valley and stay there for the night. With the hour loss due to time change (a small sliver of far eastern Oregon is in the Mountain Time Zone) we reached Jordan Valley at about 10:30 local time. We briefly had cell service in McDermitt, Nevada, which allowed us to call ahead to the Old Basque Inn and arrange for a room and after hours access. More about that in the final segment of this three-part series

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Thanks for that great trip report Dave!

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Sounds like a blast! I have spent a lot of time in northern and central Nevada, mainly in the fall though. I like to look for pinon nuts as well as bird. However, one has to drive a lot further south, I usually hit the first pinons between Battle Mountain and Austin. The Toyaibe Range south of Austin is one of my favorite locations, with a trail along the summit that has 50 miles over 10,000 feet.

Anyhow, another cool mtn. range closer to Oregon is the Pine Forest Range- you can see the peaks well from Denio. They have limber pine up on the summit as well as whitebark pine. There is a road up to Blue Lake but I must say, that was the worst road I have ever traveled in my life. Even with my 4×4 truck in compound low I thought I might not make it up to the top to the lake which is where the trail up to the peaks starts. There were portions of the road that it just disappeared in cattle pastures and I had to wander around before finding a faint track which eventually resembled a road again after a while. Many switchbacks like you show with giant boulders everywhere- it was amazing I didn’t get high centered or had a flat or three! I will never ever drive it again- just a warning. That said, Blue Lake and the pine covered summits nearby were some of the coolest mts. I have been to in NW Nevada. From my experience, most roads in any of the mountain ranges in northern Nevada are about the same, once you get off the main Hwys.

There is one exception- the Ruby’s near Elko. When I was 20 yrs. old I worked as trail crew foreman (backpacking all summer) in the Rubys which is an incredibly beautiful mountain range near Elko. I wasn’t birding then so I don’t have Himalayan Snowcock on my life list although I imagine I worked amongst them all summer. That is the easiest high mtn. range to access in northern Nevada and probably one of the most visited because it is so incredibly spectacular. I haven’t been back to many old memories I just know would make it not the same, when I was there we had the mts. to ourselves. Since then the Ruby’s have become a wilderness area and gold fever has filled Elko up and I imagine the mts. around there too.

Oh, Great Basin NP is a fantastic spot also- easy to see Virginia’s Warblers and BT Hummers. Of course that is a LONG drive but easy access to the high country and the bristlecone pine forest up top.

Nevada is where I disappear to most Septembers anymore!

Thanks for sharing- you got me going…
Tim

3

Enjoyed reading about your adventure and the pictures were great. Thanks for sharing.

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Inspiring cautionary report! Thank you for sharing.

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Great report. I have been to the Santa Rosa’s a number of times trying to find my state Ruffed Grouse. I finally found a female last year during Father’s Day weekend while camping in Lye Creek Campground. My family loves this campground. It is rarely crowded and many sites are right on the creek. But Martin passed on to you and as you caution in your report, if it rains the roads become treacherous. The reason is, there is something about the dirt’s composition up there when it gets wet that causes it to become slicker than ice. It coats your tires burying your tread and essentially turns your tires into slick balloons. So with any grade, you just slide with no ability to turn or stop. It has happened to me and it is actually quite frightening.

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Thanks Greg for the further information about Lye Creek Campground and the road/rain issues. There can’t be too many places in Nevada where one can see Ruffed Grouse. I imagine they are also in other sections of the Humboldt-Toiyabe N.F. farther to the east?

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