Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Surveying Birds in Arizona's Uplands

Feral burros. Photo by Lauren Harter
Early in the spring of 2018, we conducted the first season of Arizona Uplands surveys, a project with Arizona Game & Fish as part of a larger study on the impacts of feral burros (donkeys) on Arizona wildlife and ecosystems. Burros were imported to Arizona as early as the 1600s, and eventually established feral populations as they escaped or were abandoned by prospectors in the 1800s. Equids have a different tooth structure than native ungulates, so can have heavy impacts on native vegetation that have evolved for approximately 10 thousand years in their absence. Feral burros can also compete with, and in many cases outcompete, native animals for food and water sources. As such they are the focus of management and study by federal and state agencies. Our goal with these bird surveys is to investigate the impact of burros on breeding bird populations.

Surveys were conducted in two areas, the Havasu Herd Management Area in western Arizona and the Lake Pleasant Herd Management Area north of Phoenix. We surveyed 60 plots in each area, with plots including areas with and without burros, with and without surface water, and other variables taken into consideration.

Over the course of the season in these 120 surveys, we documented a total of 128 bird species. Surveys took us to new areas for all five seasoned surveyors, from Lake Pleasant; Castle Hot Springs; and flats around Wittmann; to the Bill Williams River; Cactus Plain, Buckskin, and Needles wilderness areas; and the difficult to access Mohave Mountains. Once we have obtained a few more years of data, we hope to be able to inform future burro management based on good science.

- Lauren

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

In Search of the Elusive Desert Thrashers

Walking through thrasher country.  Photo by Michelle Tobin

Bendire's Thrasher, Jen Tobin
The Desert Thrasher Survey season began this year at the end of March and just wrapped up a few weeks ago in mid-June. Nevada’s team is part of a larger network of governmental agencies, non-profits, and volunteers (The Desert Thrasher Working Group, DTWG). The DTWG is dedicated to improving our understanding of these enigmatic Thrashers, and recently has developed a standardized survey protocol for these birds. After much deliberation the DTWG decided on an area search survey approach, creating survey plots 300x300m to be surveyed within 40 minutes. This protocol was based off of surveys conducted by Point Blue Conservation Science. By conducting practice surveys we believed that at this size within a desert landscape the surveyor should be able to detect a thrasher on the plot and survey multiple plots in one morning/field day. To allow for variation in detection as well as arrival times for Bendire’s thrashers (Le Conte’s thrashers are a non-migratory species) we decided to survey each of our plots three times during the breeding season.

The 2018 surveys spanned the entire known U.S. range of the LeConte’s and Bendire’s thrashers. Surveys were conducted in Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah. Approximately, 450 plots were surveyed across these states.

Le Conte's Thrasher nest. M. Tobin
In total Nevada surveyed 126 plots:112 which were part of the region-wide survey effort, 12 were exploratory surveys, and 6 plots were revisits to areas where thrashers were found last season. As part of the survey protocol each of the 118 plots (112 region-wide and 6 resurvey plots) plots were surveyed three times throughout the season. Due to time constraints the exploratory plots could only be surveyed two times during the season. Therefore, our total survey effort for the season was 378 surveys.

In addition, to surveying for birds on each plot habitat assessments were also conducted at the plot center. We used a point center quarter method to evaluate the habitat. In addition, we recorded information on fruit-bearing shrubs, Yucca species, ground cover and composition, and measures of disturbance and invasive species.

In 2018, in Nevada, we also began our adopt-a-thrasher program. This program was designed so that volunteers could revisit known Bendire’s Thrasher territories and document presence/absence of this species. We focused specifically on Bendire’s thrashers, because this species has been very difficult to capture on surveys, and multiple questions still remain about the basic life history, phenology, and occurrence of this thrasher.

Le Conte's Thrasher nestlings, Jen Tobin.
We are currently in the process of entering all our data from the season, but preliminary numbers suggest that our thrasher counts are higher than last season. We recorded at least 16 observations of Bendire’s thrashers this year, which appears to be double the number we observed in 2017. For LeConte’s thrashers, to date, we have entered 165 records for these birds. However, this represents multiple visits to plots and therefore could be an inflated number of actual territories. We hope to finish up data entry by the end of June, and have more concrete numbers and an analysis of our habitat data by the end of the summer.

 - Dawn

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Surveying birds in Arizona grasslands

Central Arizona grassland.
Last year, we began working with our partners at the Arizona Game and Fish Department on grassland bird surveys in spring, summer, and fall. The state of Arizona has several programs aimed at restoring historical grasslands across the state, with the goal of improving habitat for wildlife such as pronghorn as well as improving rangeland. The main purpose of our surveys was to understand how these ongoing grassland treatment activities are affecting breeding birds. For bird surveys, the AZGFD also partnered with the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies to use their Integrated Monitoring in Bird Conservation Regions (IMBCR) program. We started the season in central and northern Arizona, covering both public and private land across Yavapai and Coconino counties. In July and August, once the monsoon rains began to fall, we moved to southeastern Arizona. There, we surveyed ranches in Graham, Cochise, Santa Cruz, and Pima counties.  

Pronghorn kept us company on some surveys.
In central and northern Arizona, surveyed habitats ranged from high desert grasslands sprinkled with acacia and prickly pear, to rolling hills of pinyon-juniper, to prairie dog-dotted flats. Thrashers were particularly interesting in this region. Crissal Thrashers were common throughout, and we found quite a few Bendire's Thrashers (one of our focal species on our thrasher project) in open juniper-barberry woodland east of Flagstaff. We even turned up a very rare Brown Thrasher near camp in the same area! In southeastern Arizona, most of our surveys were in semidesert grassland, in both the Sonoran and the Chihuahuan deserts. Here we were serenaded by the cascading songs of Cassin's Sparrows on nearly every survey, as well as the bouncing-ball song of Botteri's Sparrows and of course the ubiquitous Black-throated Sparrow. In a few pure grassland sites, we recorded the very local breeding Grasshopper Sparrow. In July, we enjoyed watching the monsoons build over the mountains almost every day, but were only caught in a few downpours!

We're looking forward to continuing and even expanding this monitoring effort to increase our understanding of grassland birds in Arizona this year!

We kicked off our southeastern Arizona grassland surveys in mid July with some beautiful scenery

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Who We Are, and Why We Work

Several of us were talking last month about why we do what we do – what started us down this path, and why we keep on it.  We thought we’d share those thoughts with you in 2017, in a series of interviews.  In this preamble to the series, I’ll talk a little bit about Great Basin Bird Observatory, what it is and why it’s here, and then move on to introduce myself - since in the successive installments, I’ll be transitioning to the role of Interviewer!

GBBO is a non-profit science organization dedicated to the conservation of birds and their habitats in the Great Basin and adjoining regions, through research, partnerships, and education.  We are not an advocacy organization: our agenda is to collect the best bird (and other wildlife) information that we can, and to share that information with land managers, biologists, and the public (and not necessarily in that order!).  We were established in 1997 – incredibly, this year is our 20th Anniversary!  We will be celebrating that with the 2017 Great Basin Bird Conference, from May 17th to the 21st, and you can find more information about it here.

Our origin story:

Nevada Bird Count Transects
Back in the late ‘90s, biologists, managers, and other sundry bird enthusiasts began to gather information on the birds of Nevada for a Partners-in-Flight [1] bird conservation plan for the state.  In the process, it became clear that there were a lot of holes in the knowledge available about Nevada’s birds and their status within the state.  GBBO was formed in 1997 to try and meet that need, and the Breeding Bird Atlas project was born.  While the atlas field work started up in 1997, it really picked up steam in 1998, and continued through 2000.  Ted Floyd was the Director of GBBO at the time, but he eventually moved on to new projects (including his current work at the American Birding Association), and Elisabeth Ammon was brought in as the new Director in 2002. 

Elisabeth started up the Nevada Bird Count program in 2002, a statewide monitoring program that consists primarily of point count transects.  We now have 15 years of data collected across almost 1000 transects located across Nevada and into adjacent states.  Not all transects are surveyed each year – some transects have only been surveyed once, while others have been surveyed year after year.  In some cases, where transects were established prior to the GBBO’s NBC program and were pulled into the NBC framework – such as those established by Elisabeth in the late ‘90s along the Truckee River - we now have close to 20 years of data!

LCR project area, courtesy BOR
As the decade wore on, the number of biological staff began to increase, taking a big leap up in 2008 when (among other things), we began our work on the Lower Colorado River (LCR) program.  For the LCR program, surveyors conduct area searches in riverside habitats, mapping birds’ locations – and where possible, their territories.  Overall, more than 1000 plots have been surveyed using their rapid area search method, and approximately 150 plots have been surveyed using their intensive survey method!  It forms an enormous database of location-specific information.

While these have been our largest, and most overarching programs, we do a wide array of research and monitoring - everything from lagomorph surveys (rabbits and hares) and small mammal community studies, to Golden Eagles to Pinyon Jays to Elf Owls.

My origin story:

As for me, I’m the daughter of a forester/former farm kid and a zoologist, and most of my earliest memories are of field sites, camping trips, and backpacking adventures (evidently in those earliest adventures, I was the one in the backpack).  My parents hunted, dad was a keen wildlife watcher, and mom gardened, embraced her inner geologist, and watched birds – plus she was always bringing bug larvae into the house “to see what they grew up to be.”  With that upbringing, it’s probably not surprising that for as far back as I can remember, I wanted to be a wildlife biologist.  It’s also become evident over the years how helpful it was to be able to – without realizing it – absorb how they dealt with the many and interesting situations that crop up whenever you spend a lot of time in the outdoors, hiking in different terrains, and driving crazy roads!

After several years of school and working on everything from bats to plants to birds, I ended up as a biologist at Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, in southeastern Oregon.  It was there that I was introduced to GBBO, when Ted Floyd was looking for atlas volunteers – so my field tech and I worked some atlas blocks into our survey schedule on Hart’s sister refuge, Sheldon NWR, in northwestern Nevada.  Later, when Elisabeth came on board, I helped out with some of the point count transects in the Sheldon area.  By 2005, I’d moved on from Hart Mountain & Sheldon, and was working in a much more office-bound position, daydreaming about field work on my lunchtime bird walks.  Serendipitously, a position as the monitoring coordinator opened up here at GBBO.  You can probably picture me in that moment – chained to a computer in a beige cubicle under fluorescent lights, with little thought bubbles arising from my head:  Birds!  Field work!  Nevada!  GBBO!   (Very) long story short - I applied for the job, and started up here in 2006.

The things that drew me to apply are the things that have caused me to stay.  I love that work draws me outside, and that that work occurs at different scales.  For some projects, I am exploring new areas; for others, I am digging into well-known locales and communities.  Plus, the different protocols give me greater insight into the natural world – for example, our point count transects extend across 2 miles of habitat (not including the hike into them, of whatever length), which allows me the opportunity to see the changes in habitats across the landscape, and how birds, other wildlife, and plants respond to the different conditions.  Our intensive area searches, on the other hand, allow me the chance to closely observe the same plot of ground over and over again – sometimes for years – and really dig into the seasonal and annual variations.  And that’s not including our mammal surveys or our species-specific surveys for birds like Golden Eagles or Snowy Plovers!  I’m not a lister by nature [2]; while I enjoy finding vagrants and all of the natural history that is involved in that, my driving interest is in why birds (and other species) call a particular location home – for a year, a season, or even a temporary rest stop on a migratory byway!    Our primary field season occurs in April through July, though there is work scattered throughout the year.  When I’m not in the field, I’m in my “chained to my laptop” mode.  Some of that is more necessary than fun – the payment made for enjoying the rest of the job.  But some of it is also a core joy – having the opportunity to dig into the data that were collected during the field season, and turning up new connections I didn’t know existed, confirming some thoughts about relationships, and complicating or even upending others!  Lastly, this job has given me the opportunity to work with and mentor some fantastic, outdoorsy, bird/mammal/herp/bug/plant-loving people.  The staff here are a close-knit, supportive bunch, and I appreciate the opportunity to learn and grow.  Plus, we’ve had some brilliant folks come through the Nevada Bird Count, who continue to go on to do amazing work.  I have so enjoyed getting to know them, have learned from them and been inspired by them – and I hope they can say the same of me!

All the best in 2017!

[1] Partners-in-Flight is a collaborative partnership and network dedicated to bird conservation throughout the Americas, and includes government agencies (federal, state, county, and local), non-profit organizations, researchers, and individuals throughout the Western Hemisphere.  Their website is here: , and you can download their recently-completed (2016) landbird conservation plan for the US and Canada from the site.

[2] I do keep lists, though – one of my favorite listing “games” is not a presence/absence species list for the counties within Nevada, but a list of species by county with their breeding status – e.g., confirmed, probable, possible, and observed – and trying to get as high a breeding status for all of the species in all of the counties that I can.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

#OptOutside 2016

The day after Thanksgiving, seven intrepid souls gathered in the chilly morning to go birding around Reno and Sparks.  Three of them were new to the area, so welcome to Nevada!  We started off at the Sparks Marina, where we found 17 species.  One of the highlights for several of us were close-up views of an icy-backed Black-crowned Night-Heron along the shoreline.

Canada Goose
Northern Shoveler
Common Loon
Pied-billed Grebe
Eared Grebe
Double-crested Cormorant
Black-crowned Night-Heron
American Coot
Ring-billed Gull
California Gull
Herring Gull
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Brewer’s Blackbird

After a short stint there at the Marina, we headed off to Oxbow Nature Study Area, and wandered along the Truckee River.  We found 41 species – the highlights were the Red-shouldered Hawks and Black Phoebe, both lifers for some of the folks there.  And seeing a Merlin knife its way through the sky – that’s always a treat!

Canada Goose
California Quail
Sharp-shinned Hawk
Cooper’s Hawk
Red-shouldered Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
American Coot
California Gull
Rock Pigeon
Eurasian Collared-Dove
Mourning Dove
Red-naped Sapsucker
Downy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
American Kestrel
Black Phoebe
Steller’s Jay
California Scrub-Jay
Black-billed Magpie
Common Raven
Mountain Chickadee
Bewick’s Wren
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Hermit Thrush
American Robin
European Starling
Cedar Waxwing
Orange-crowned Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
White-crowned Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Spotted Towhee
Red-winged Blackbird
Brewer’s Blackbird
House Finch
Lesser Goldfinch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

After Oxbow Park, we stopped at a nearby coffee shop to refuel with either hot cups of caffeine or some breakfast, and then zig-zagged our way to Rancho San Rafael, where we turned up 30 species.  We started our loop through the arboretum, made our way to the pond, and then down along the willows, before heading back up.  The willows were pretty quiet, birdwise, but beautiful as ever, and rewarded us with some almost-within-arms-reach views of Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Bewick’s Wren, and Mountain Chickadee.

Canada Goose
Ring-necked Duck
Hooded Merganser
Pied-billed Grebe
Golden Eagle
Sharp-shinned Hawk
Cooper’s Hawk/Sharp-shinned Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
Black-crowned Night-Heron
American Coot
Mourning Dove
Unknown Sapsucker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Steller’s Jay
California Scrub-Jay
Mountain Chickadee
Bewick’s Wren
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Hermit Thrush
American Robin
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Dark-eyed Junco
White-crowned Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Spotted Towhee
House Finch
Lesser Goldfinch

All in all, a happy way to start a Friday!  Thanks to everyone for coming out, and we’ll see you next year!  

- Jen


Thursday, September 1, 2016

Surveying the Laguna Division Conservation Area along the Lower Colorado River

Below is a guest post by Kaitlin Murphy, one of GBBO’s seasonal surveyors on the Lower Colorado River project.  Thanks for sharing your experiences, Kaitlin!

Dawn splashes amber light over the vertical stripes of marsh plants all around me, illuminating the intricately patterned bodies of two silhouettes in a dead cottonwood tree above my head. The silhouettes swivel their heads to look down at me. Razor claws gripping dead branches and golden eyes drooping with sleepiness, they perk up at the hoots of a distant neighboring pair. The male stands up on his perch, leans forward, almost as if he is going to somersault into the marsh, and puffs his white-feathered throat, letting out a low, booming answer. The female joins in with slightly higher-pitched hoots and few cranky yelps. Then they retreat into a huge thorny mesquite where they will doze in the shade until dusk falls and hunger draws them out again. Their nightly pursuits are written in the sand each morning.

If you've never spent much time in the desert, or especially if the only time you have spent is staring out the car window blasting down the interstate at 85mph, you might be tempted to believe there's nothing but a lifeless wasteland out there. Endless shades of brown – tawny sand, rust-tinged hills, dusty mountains carved by winding dry riverbeds, scraggly plants barely squeezing any green into the landscape. Aside from a few wheeling ravens, and ramshackle trailers that may or may not still be occupied by snowbirds, signs of life are slim. That is, until you pull your car over to the shoulder and step into a dry wash to relieve yourself (the nearest gas station still 80 miles away). The glaring sun keeps your eyes low, and scanning the cracked earth you discover a foreign language scrawled across the sand.

I'm standing knee-deep in a crystal clear marsh, but up beyond the bank is a sparse mesquite bosque, each sand-marooned shrub wreathed by tiny footprints – the paired dots of bouncing kangaroo rats, galloping four-paws of desert pocket mice and cottontails, patterned tick-marks of little grasshopper feet, and even the unusual squat-stamps of toads. The night crew of the desert. Alongside the pitter-patter, larger tracks trundle across the open sand, sometimes interrupted by dug holes and messy attacks– coyote, bobcat, raccoon, skunk, and Great Horned Owl. The owl tracks are unmistakable -  longer than my forefinger with two toes pointing forward, one pointing back, and one sticking straight out to the side. Owls are what ornithologists call zygodactyl – their inner front toe able to swivel to the back, maximizing the surface area of deadly talon potential during an aerial pounce. The sand here is so fine, I even found a full-spread wing imprint of an owl touching down. But wait, you say, do owls really walk on the ground? These ones apparently do, quite a lot, as evidenced by their sloppy gait traced across the dunes. By the time I arrive at dawn to survey for avian life, the authors of all these stories have tucked in to their burrows, tunnels, and hiding places under dense brush.

For the past 5 years, GBBO has been leading the breeding bird surveys along the Lower Colorado for what's called the Lower Colorado River Multi-Species Conservation Plan. Through on-the-ground surveys and data analysis, GBBO documents the use of virgin, disturbed, and created riparian habitat by breeding and migratory birds. Each spring, GBBO sends out intrepid field crews to riparian plots around Yuma, Blythe, Lake Havasu City and Lake Mead to conduct area search and spot-mapping surveys of bird activity, with a focus on six of the more-imperiled passerine species. Other agencies and crews monitor endangered populations like Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Southwestern Willow Flycatcher and Elf Owl. Then in the fall, GBBO conducts extensive vegetation surveys to link the bird data with environmental conditions. The analysis of this data contributes to current and future management plans.

And this is where I come in. This is my third spring season with GBBO's LCR crew. The first year I was hired, I was living in Maryland and looked forward to hiking among dry dunes and cacti. Contrarily, the LCR surveys are some of the wettest I've ever participated in! It's true, I've yet to be caught in a rainstorm. But with the intermittent water flows, I never know when I am going to be knee-, thigh-, or even chest-deep in marsh water. I've even had the pleasure of surveying by kayak!

Today, though, the marsh is lowering. Just a week ago, I was tip-toeing through a channel with my pack above my head. This season I am stationed in Yuma, Arizona to survey two big habitat creation projects: Yuma East Wetlands on the north-east edge of town, and Laguna Division Conservation Area (LDCA) about 20 miles upriver, straddling the California-Arizona border. Yuma East is older, with some nice big cottonwood stands, plenty of bird-life and even a resident bobcat. LDCA is brand new, a baby habitat growing up fast. In 2011, the tamarisk sea was bulldozed and re-graded to create winding channels, varied slopes for ecotones, and larger bowls of open water for wintering ducks and future recreational fishing. Water delivery and control systems were constructed to direct water in what are called “pulses”, from Imperial Dam at the north end and back to Laguna Dam at the south. The next season, marsh plants and tiny saplings were planted by these crazy machines that look like 4-driver tuktuks with a harvester on the back, but instead of harvesting, it inserts baby trees into the ground. With this new technology, the painstaking process of hand-planting trees has been reduced to 10% of the time and energy necessary.

By the time I arrived early April 2016, the marsh areas were fully grown and humming with the sewing-machine songs of Marsh Wrens, witchity-witchity of Common Yellow-throats, hilarious guffawing of Yellow-headed Blackbirds, and terrifying growling of Great and Snowy egrets, White-faced Ibis, and Black-crowned Night Herons. Cormorants were sunbathing and an osprey was fishing from dead snags left purposefully by the dozer crews. A beaver slapped the water in warning and fish darted in the shallows. The trees are still young, some just reaching above my head. They were arranged in sweeping rows with willows lining the waterways, cottonwoods above them, and mesquite and desert riparian grasses on the drier islands. As I weave between the glowing deciduous leaves, the air is relatively quiet, except for the bombs going off in the hills to the east. On the other side of Mittry Lake lies Yuma Proving Ground, and often my “flyovers” category could include all manner of mechanical birds, not to mention paratroopers floating on the horizon.

The current lack of birds in the young “forest” is not in the least disheartening, though! In fact, all that photosynthesizing lends an excitement to the air, I can almost taste the potential in the wafting pollen. This habitat may be quiet now, but in a few years I can envision a winding row of towering cottonwoods ringing with Yellow Warblers and willow thickets so dense only small creatures seeking shelter can enter. If Yuma East Wetlands can be used as a gauge, the future is hopeful. Just across the highway from downtown, you can be transported into a wildlife wonderland. Bobcats, mule deer, Gambel's Quail, legions of lizards, even a few rattlesnakes dart among the well-crafted shrubland and forest plots. Marshy ponds harbor rails and herons, and flocks of thousands of migrating swallows roosting for the night The magic is only interrupted by winks of human design – concrete canals slicing through cottonwood groves, sputtering irrigation tubes winding around mesquites and shady burrows harboring squeaking ground squirrels. This sort of cyborg nature seems slightly disingenuous – wilderness on life-support – until you witness the results in blossoming biodiversity.  

As I sneak along the drying mud in LDCA, eyes scanning the ground for nighthawks, I see millions of mammal and heron tracks – the collective treading of animals over the past three years laid upon one another, never fully washed away by the gently rising and falling water levels. Signs that wildlife are already filtering in to this new opportunity. A barely-audible flickering tickles my right ear, and in my peripheral vision I catch the frantic flapping of a female Lesser Nighthawk. Her Oscar-worthy performance of broken wings and seizures momentarily draws my attention away from her two speckled eggs, laid directly on the sand. Their camouflage is impeccable, and if it weren't for the nighthawks' undying parental devotion, I would worry about accidentally stepping on them. The nocturnal birds spend all day shading their precious investments on exposed gravel bars, even bringing water from nearby sources in their breast feathers to sprinkle on eggs that could go from developing to sunny-side up in sizzling ground temperatures – sometimes up to 20 degrees hotter than Yuma's average triple-digit highs. I take a quick snapshot of the eggs and move on, careful not to leave a dead-end scent trail. Within seconds, the mother is back on her “nest” – more conceptual than practical, but it must work often enough!
Water is life on earth, but it is no more painstakingly obvious than in the desert. Parched by sun and wind, any bit of water effects the plants and animals for miles around. The humidity created by deciduous transpiration effects valley temperatures and weather patterns. A hundred miles upstream, the Colorado is fed by the Bill Williams River, one of the last remaining stands of riparian forest. It is now a Wildlife Refuge, and harbors thirty-four species of butterfly – eleven of which were historically common throughout the river system, but are now only found there. Even elusive creatures that spend most of their time on the dry ridges – bighorn sheep, mountain lion, and ravens – come down to the valleys and springs to fill their gullets with life-saving liquid.

Dams and irrigation have created a lot of opportunity for humans in the forms of agriculture, development, and energy. It's heartening to know that it’s possible to give back a little to the other residents of this verdant desert corridor. It takes a lot of work but it is proving to be worth every drop. I can't wait to come back in a few years and see the habitats all grown up!

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

BioBlitz 2016 at Great Basin National Park

A few weekends ago, ten of us from GBBO, plus some friends, ventured out to Great Basin National Park for the 2016 BioBlitz where we engaged in a weekend of interesting talks, great people, and some fantastic birding. Most of us, even a few that have lived or worked in Nevada for years, have never actually visited the park, which is crazy because it is absolutely stunning! Mountains that spring out of the valley floor, low light pollution accentuating the starry sky, and the ability to escape into incredible, breathtaking landscapes and solitude. Even during a busy BioBlitz weekend, there were times I couldn’t hear the sound of another human being. I was told there are areas in the southern portion of the park where you can go and not see another person for days, even in the peak visiting season. The busiest area was probably Lehman Caves, and for good reason! It felt as though we were walking through King Triton’s castle (pardon the Little Mermaid reference) or some other subaquatic world. The tour guides were entertaining and kept the hour and a half tour interactive the entire time. The only negative was not getting a chance to see the endemic cave pseudoscorpion (Microcreagris grandis) rumored to be seen that day. The park hosts a BioBlitz every year, and previously had focused on invertebrates. This year, they decided to join other National Parks in a national birding BioBlitz to celebrate the centennial of the National Park Service. The park service chose this particular weekend, May 20-22, because it coincided with the week of International Migratory Bird Day, National Citizen Scientist Day, Endangered Species Day, and the International Day for Biological Diversity. Busy week! This is just one of many things the National Park Service is doing to celebrate their 100 year birthday. If you want to find out more about it, you can check out their website:


Great Basin National Park happens to be a great place to have a birding BioBlitz with such a variety of habitats, ranging from the valley’s salt deserts, to dense sagebrush, bustling riparian zones, pinyon-juniper, coniferous forest, up to the alpine zone on Wheeler Peak! The park also lays claim to some of the oldest living trees in its three bristlecone pine groves. Elisabeth gave an informative talk the first night on the different birds that might be seen in the different habitats, and ways to identify them. Hers was the one of over a dozen engaging talks given over the weekend directed at birders of all skill levels, including live demonstrations of birds and reptiles. Participants had the opportunity to hone their bird whistling skills, learn the basics of identification, and practice avian illustration.

Of course the main activity of the weekend, at least for GBBO folks, was birding. The first night at camp we tracked down the singing Spotted and Green-tailed Towhees, and stood in awe at a Cassin’s Finch’s impressive mimicry. Also at camp were Black-headed Grosbeaks, MacGillivray’s Warblers, Warbling Vireos, American Dippers, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Western Tanagers, Chipping Sparrows, White-breasted and Red-breasted Nuthatches, and a rafter of Wild Turkeys with poults. We listened for owls and Common Nighthawks, but the wind and rain made that difficult. There were scheduled birding tours in the mornings, and a few of us from GBBO led some of the groups. It was a great opportunity to explore the park and engage with other birders. The tours we led were beautiful; winding through aspen and coniferous forest with elements of sagebrush and pinyon-juniper communities. The first morning we had a layer of fresh snow that complemented the bright white trunks of aspen and accentuated their fresh green leaves. Mark Dorriesfield mentioned the snow was probably the highlight of his first tour, even with singing Virginia’s Warblers.

Tour leaders recorded all the birds seen and heard on their routes by all participants in an attempt to record as many of the species that occur in the park as possible. Some tours were more education-based, teaching the basics of bird identification and pointing out the different songs and calls of common species, while others were focused on data collection using point counts. Throughout the course of the weekend 1843 birds were recorded of 73 different species. The most common species included Mountain Chickadees, Cassin’s Finches, Pine Siskins, American Robins, and Clark’s Nutcrackers. These were seen or heard on nearly all the scheduled tours. There were a few species that really needed to be sought out, including Black-capped Chickadees, Northern Goshawk, Gray Flycatcher, Common Poorwill, and American Dippers. A full species list is included at the bottom, including order of abundance.

One of the greatest things about the BioBlitz was the variety of people that came out to participate. There were professional birders, beginning birders, birding photographers, and folks that knew nothing about birds, but were interesting in learning and interacting with their natural environment. It was impressive the number of young kids in attendance that had fantastic identification skills for their age and were excited to share that knowledge. I think everyone in attendance probably learned something new over the weekend, and got to enjoy the beauty of Great Basin National Park in the process. Thanks to Gretchen Baker and all the staff and volunteers at the park that put the event together. Here are some of the things GBBO folks enjoyed most about the weekend:

As mentioned, Mark said his highlights would include “seeing the Snake Creek Valley covered in freshly fallen snow on Saturday morning, getting amazing looks at a gorgeous adult dark morph Ferruginous Hawk on the drive in to Snake Creek Sunday morning, and seeing a young goshawk pursuing a Dusky Grouse along a ridgeline later that morning”.

Noah must have been on the same tour- “I loved the hikes with expert birders as well as meeting local people interested in birds and conservation. The variety of attendees made it a fun and educational experience. My favorite birds were the Goshawk and dark morph Ferruginous Hawk I was fortunate to see. A great weekend in an amazing landscape.”

And Grace added “I was so impressed by all the bird enthusiasm and knowledge of everyone there. That's the most bird talk I've ever experienced in one weekend!”

You can find pictures of the event on the national park website and on our facebook.  Below is the list of birds we recorded, along with their abundance rank.

- Kelly

Common Name
Abundance Rank
Dusky Grouse
Wild Turkey
Turkey Vulture
Sharp-shinned Hawk
Cooper's Hawk
Northern Goshawk
Red-tailed Hawk
Golden Eagle
Spotted Sandpiper
Eurasian Collared-Dove
Mourning Dove
Common Poorwill
Black-chinned Hummingbird
Broad-tailed Hummingbird
Red-naped Sapsucker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
American Three-toed Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
American Kestrel
Olive-sided Flycatcher
Gray Flycatcher
Dusky Flycatcher
Gray Vireo
Plumbeous Vireo
Warbling Vireo
Steller's Jay
Western Scrub-Jay
Pinyon Jay
Clark's Nutcracker
Common Raven
Violet-green Swallow
Barn Swallow
Black-capped Chickadee
Mountain Chickadee
Juniper Titmouse
Red-breasted Nuthatch
White-breasted Nuthatch
Pygmy Nuthatch
Brown Creeper
House Wren
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
American Dipper
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Mountain Bluebird
Townsend's Solitaire
Hermit Thrush
American Robin
Cedar Waxwing
Orange-crowned Warbler
Virginia's Warbler
MacGillivray's Warbler
Yellow Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Black-throated Gray Warbler
Yellow-breasted Chat
Green-tailed Towhee
Spotted Towhee
Chipping Sparrow
Brewer's Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Western Tanager
Black-headed Grosbeak
Brown-headed Cowbird
Bullock's Oriole
Cassin's Finch
Pine Siskin
Lesser Goldfinch
Evening Grosbeak
Unknown Passerine