Thursday, February 26, 2015

Blue Skies at Pyramid Lake

Kelly and I completed our second winter survey for birds using Anaho Island National Wildlife Refuge on Wednesday, catching a ride over with the Fish and Wildlife Service, on their boat.  Thank you!  Blue skies, unseasonably warm, and beautiful views.  (I wrote about our first visit here.)  We didn’t see anything unexpected, but Prairie Falcons and American White Pelicans flying overhead are always a treat, and the Say’s Phoebes were new since our January visit.  In some years, the pelicans have started constructing nests by late February; this year, while a few were seen in the area, breeding hadn’t yet started, so we had our last full survey of the island until autumn.  I am still impressed by the sheer numbers of Rock Wrens!

Flowers were starting to bloom, particularly Erodium cicutarium (stork’s bill), and there were huge swathes of blinding white tufa gravel and rocks, interspersed with the dark green and purple plants. 

One of my favorite moments from my time there had nothing to do with birds.  I was walking across a small sand dune -  and then realized that it wasn’t a dune of sand at all, but of shells from long gone freshwater snails.  Evidently, they’d died when the water levels dropped, making the lake too saline for them.  Then the impressive winds coming off the lake did the rest!

Kelly wrote that “there is very little time on Anaho Island that is unimpressive. While doing grids or point counts, it is typically easy to get into the zone of surveying and tune out your surroundings that are not avian related. This doesn’t happen quite as often on Anaho. Walking along the ridgeline of the mountain while looking out over the expanse of Pyramid Lake you feel you are basically alone in the moment with this entire mountain to yourself. I remember looking down to the beach to see six American Coots fighting the waves beside a large rock outcrop, totally unaware anything was watching. Only a few meters out were a pair of Western Grebes unaffected by the waves, diving simultaneously for lunch. Though these are pretty common species in the area this time of year, for some reason they seemed incredibly special in that instant.”

I agree – there is definitely no zoning out on Anaho!  Aside from the beautiful views, it is incredibly rocky: just making sure of your footing can be a challenge.  I’ve heard lots of tales about Anaho as one of the rattlesnakiest places in the state – I imagine a little later in the year it’s going to be interesting trying to combine birding and balancing on rocks, while trying to avoid stepping on lurking reptiles!

While Anaho Island is closed to the public, Pyramid Lake is not – though you will need to have a tribal use permit (you can get them online here).  The Lahontan Audubon Society has a useful run-down of birding at Pyramid Lake – though do note that as of this writing, the eastern shore (their Side Trip C) is closed to non-members of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe.

Happy birding,

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Black-throated Valentine

Black-throated Sparrow, (c) & courtesy of Bill Schmoker
Who doesn’t love Valentine’s Day? It’s the day we officially get to celebrate romantic love with heart-shaped goodies, long-stem roses, candle-lit dinners, and all things milk-chocolatey. But for my wife and me, it’s become the day to celebrate the annual arrival of an old friend.

It all began a long, long, long time ago. February 14, 2014, to be exact. I was out in the field – somewhere – doing bird surveys when the wife texted me. Guess what? read the message, probably in those exact words. I stepped outside this morning and heard two sweet toots followed by a pretty trill. The black-throated sparrows are back!

This was indeed textworthy news. At our little slice of paradise in the Joshua tree forest of northwest Arizona where the Grand Canyon opens its craggy maw upon Lake Mead, Black-throated Sparrows share our two acres of pristine high desert for most of the year. But at some point in November, typically, they abandon us for a few months to head south for warmer climes. Our resident Cactus Wrens no doubt laugh at them. Our resident Black-tailed Gnatcatchers jeer: Wiimp wiimp wiimp wiimp wiimps!

It’s probably true that no one enjoys being mocked, so at some point in the waning days of winter, the blackthroats return – if for no other reason than to shut up the laughing ladderbacks. But when, exactly?

I think I now know. This year – 2015 – I happened to be home on the 14th of February. As is my wont, I awoke just before dawn and stepped outside onto the deck to check the temperature. Then I heard it. Two sweet woodwind toots followed by a piccolo trill. Black-throated Sparrow! First of season!

“Hey! Guess who’s back?” I whispered delightedly.

My wife guessed right. She was as excited as I was.

It was a great Valentine’s Day gift for us this year.  Truly memorable!

- Dave