Birding Big Year 2016

April 24, 2016

Epic Birding Trip Part 2: What Happens in Vegas…

Filed under: Adventure, Birding, Birds, Parks, Travel, Uncategorized, Wildlife — wfkeck @ 12:03 am

Ruby Lake NWR below the Ruby Range

Snow.  Are you kidding me?  At least I am headed in the right direction – south to Nevada, Arizona, and Texas.  Still, I’m a bit concerned about what it might be doing down at Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge where I will spend the first night of this 15-day epic birding trip.  Setting anxiety aside, the Jeep rolls across the cattle guard that separates Idaho from Utah.  The loud metal clang flushes the second bird of the trip – Black-billed Magpie.  I might as well check him off early.  Quick to follow are sightings of Horned Lark, Common Raven, and European Starling.  Common birds help prop up a healthy trip list.

The Jeep bounces down the Lynn Road, reaching the all but abandoned community of Lynn.  A right-hand turn takes me up the steep grade that levels at 6,960-foot Cotton Thomas Pass.  I pause to take a few photos of the Goose Creek Mountain peaks and reflect on the utter absence of human beings and the absurdity of a roadside sign that reads:


You would have to be a Columbian drug lord to be that paranoid.  I haven’t passed a single vehicle in over 45 minutes, not even as I roll through one of my favorite (not-giving-up-the-ghost) towns in Utah – Grouse Creek.  This unofficial county seat of northwest Box Elder County has a small elementary school, LDS Ward, post office, and the Grouse Creek Mall, a one-room store that boasts “Grouse Creek Mall Has It All.”  A few years back I stopped in for some road snacks.  The Mall did have it all…but only one of each.  I bought the last Mountain Dew, the last peanut butter crackers, and (you guessed it) the last Payday candy bar.  I suppose it’s my fault that they had to drive to Wells, Nevada and resupply.

The high desert is a battle ground between dry air and snow squalls.  As I turn west on Utah Highway 30 (which quickly becomes Nevada Highway 233), the snow surrenders.  Under partly cloudy skies, I push on through one of Nevada’s barely-breathing cattle towns – Montello.  The last census guessed about 84 souls, but in its railroad heyday Montello boasted ten times that. I have passed through Montello a dozen times in 20 years and always marvel at the never-say-die persistence of the town’s two bars and small market. However, I take it as a bad omen for them when listing Trip Bird #11 Turkey Vulture here. Twenty-one miles later, with 10,716-foot Pilot Peak constantly in view, I meet I-80 at the recently deceased dry-spot called Oasis. Next stop Wells.

This stretch of I-80 offers little to write home about, unless you are one of the minimum security offenders placed at the Wells Conservation Camp within view of the highway.  Interstate signs read:


Suddenly, I remember how bald my tires are.  Somewhere on the downhill side of Pequop Summit it hits me.  I forgot to sign everyone’s digital timesheets before leaving the office!  I had caught up all of my email correspondence and left Carl in charge for the next 15 days…but he won’t be able to take care of this duty due to security protocols.  Think…..I have my cell phone with me…..I have my laptop.  I do my best thinking when driving through Nowhere, Nevada.  I also promised myself to leave the car radio off and CD player empty the entire trip.  I want to hear my own thoughts.  I want to see what comes to mind.  I want to let God speak to me through the silence. Ah ha! There’s a McDonalds up in Wells.  I’ll pull into the parking lot, skim the WiFi and take care of this final chore.  I don’t expect to be near the internet for a few days, and my cell phone data plan is hit and miss in these parts.

After topping off the tank in Wells, I drop south on US 93, marveling at the scenic grandeur of 11,306-foot Hole in the Mountain Peak.  By the time I reach Nevada Highway 229, The clouds yield to the afternoon sun, and snow is a distant memory. The highway turns north and over Secret Pass, but I steer south on Ruby Valley Road, along the east side of the Ruby Range.  The awesome grandeur of the Rubies, from Verdi and Liberty Peaks to King and Tipton Peaks (all in excess of 10,000 feet), rival that of any Rocky Mountain Range.  They are to me among the most seductive ranges, nursing my life-long addiction to mountains.

I’ve never met a mountain I did not quickly like
Nor one which did not whisper as bidding me to hike
I have yet to cross a stream not flowing in a dream
Or have failed to meet Your peaks -aflamed by morning beam
I’ve treasured all Your colors: the alpine fl’rs of spring
and sung the songs from mem’ry that all Your birds do sing
Now own my heart eternal, I promise and recount
I will forever climb them, yet never to surmount

Soon the shallow and deeply blue waters of Ruby Lake appear, and I ready the binoculars and camera for what I hope will be the spillway of rapid sightings and hurried listing. First comes Trip Bird #13 Canada Goose, followed by Mallard and coot. Ugh.  I could see these anywhere!  I really didn’t need to drive all this way for the dandelions of the bird world.  But then I hear them: the raucous and rasping rattle of two First-of-year (FOY) Yellow-headed Blackbirds. The male perches perfectly in the sunlight, but my Canon misfires.  Then I remember the birder’s meme – Birders bird, and photographers photograph – one must decide who they will be to maximize success.  I put down the camera and my field of view invites a preponderance of waterfowl. They are all here – teal, bufflehead, ruddy, redhead, ring-necked, etc.

Entirely too soon, the sun slips behind Sherman Mountain.  It’s time to secure a campsite in South Ruby Campground, Humboldt National Forest.  I find site #2 tucked away into the pinyon-juniper woodland and to my liking. Over the howling wind, I hear the familiar sounds of home – Pinyon Jay, Western Scrub-Jay and Mountain Chickadee.  Although my Nevada sky is clear, these winds are hurried north by a storm system exploding over southern Idaho.  The National Weather Service is predicting more than a foot of wet snow there over the next few days.  It is cold here too, and I opt for the added shelter of the Jeep.  My body heat will be retained better in the vehicle than tent; plus, I am too lazy to set it up.  I record my sightings, feast on a can of tuna, and pay one last visit to the comfort station.  I have tallied an unimpressive list of 27 birds for the trip, and only one FOY.  One by one the stars appear; their gravitational pull slowly overpower my eyelids.

Saturday, March 26, 6:05 a.m.  I have spent the last two hours fighting what campers often describe as the dreaded piss-shivers. The pre-dawn morning bottoms out at 15 degrees, and I can no longer neglect the biology of the bladder. The most frustrating malady of winter camping is the precise moment you are forced to choose between internal physical relief or bodily warmth, death by uromysitisis poisoning or hypothermia. I can hear a Great Horned Owl laughing all the way to the comfort station.  Minutes later, with the Jeep’s heater at max, I am toasty, packed, and driving down to the wetlands.  I want to photograph the moonbeams bouncing off the lake, catch the sunrise, and list a few more birds.

I depart the refuge with another dozen species, including Big Year Bird #115 Savannah Sparrow. Not far down the gravel road (and still within the refuge) I am pleasantly surprised to find Fort Ruby National Historic Site (1862-1869). There’s not much here beyond the wayside exhibits, an old cabin, and a vast and lonely landscape.  The fort was intended to thwart skirmishes between California-bound emigrants and Shoshone warriors.  The small military presence also lent security to the Pony Express that ran between Salt Lake City and Carson City.  The War Department called Fort Ruby the “worst post in the west” probably for all the same reasons I am enjoying the place – silence, desolation, a place of undistracted contemplation.  Trip Bird #40 Sage Thrasher warbles in the weeds.  Check!  Moving on.

I proceed south on White Pine County Road 3 (I have no idea where county roads 1,2, or 4 could possibly be).  There are no directional signs or civilization south of the fort. The road eventually leaves the Ruby Valley, crosses over the Maverick Springs Range and enters the accurately-named Long Valley.  I encounter no sign of human life until passing through the Butte Mountains and into the north end of Jakey Valley.  Here, US 50 (aka the loneliest highway in America) leads me east into Ely.  This desolate and almost entirely graveled route covered a distance of 95 miles, and admittedly, I was ready for company.  In downtown Ely, I locate the city park and partake of crackers, a trail mix bar, and water-packed mandarin oranges.

The Jeep now fueled, I take the road more traveled (US Hwy 93 South) toward Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge.  I had hoped to take US Hwy 6 to Nevada Hwy 318 and bird the wildlife management areas from Kirch to Key Pittman, but made a tactical decision to get to Pahranagat as soon as possible.  I am beginning to realize that I need about 20% less driving and 25% more birding.  So when in Nevada, take a gamble.  I’m placing all my hopes on a productive return at the federal refuge.  Upon reaching Cathedral Gorge State Park, I whip in at the overlook.  Tired from driving and depressed that I haven’t seen a trip bird in nearly five hours, I hope to add one on the quick.  Not even a raven greets me.  I take a few scenic photos for the journal, and continue.

Finally, just south of Alamo, the cool waters of Upper Pahranagat Lake can be seen.  I have arrived in time to relax, bird from a secluded campsite, and even set up the tent.  I have also arrived in time to discover that the few dozen campsites are packed with families from Las Vegas on a Spring Break Saturday night.  One by one I drive past perfect campsite, perfectly taken.  At the end of the loop.  I park and walk off into the cottonwoods, hoping for a woodpecker and some idea of what to do next.

Down the highway a few miles is the newly-built and architecturally pleasing visitor center.  I fully expect it to be closed, but then discover that I am no longer on Mountain Time, and haven’t been since 2 p.m. yesterday!  The center is open, and the volunteer at the desk is most helpful with advise.  “I am sorry, I know of no place to camp south of the refuge – not even a private RV park.”  She continues, “I suppose you could drive into the Desert National Wildlife Range on Corn Creek Road for a mile or two and find a level place to park, but it’s a four-wheel drive.”  I consider my tires, and quickly discount that option.

I am 90 miles from Las Vegas.  I just won an extra hour.  Perhaps this is the right time to blow my emergency motel stash and “camp” in a Super 8.  As I cover the desolate miles east of the Sheep Range, I can’t help but think of all the bodies that might have been buried here in a season of CSI.  That cheap motel is looking even better. My plan is to secure a motel on the outskirts of the city, but too soon I am swept into the traffic and carried downstream to the heart of the metropolis, eddying-out a few blocks south of the Strip.  Side streets flooded with vehicles form impenetrable log-jams.  The city pulls me under, and I find myself gasping for air.  After treading for an hour, I swim to a Walmart parking lot that rises above the chaos like an island oasis.  I am done for.  I call Susan.  “How’s it going she says cheerfully.”  In my best exhausted and whiny voice I say, “I can’t find a hotel!”  ….[silence]….”You’re in Las Vegas and you can’t find a hotel? Do you hear yourself? Look around…what do you see?”  “I think I see a Comfort Inn,” I answer sheepishly.  Go get you a room, forget the cost, and just regroup tomorrow.”  Such words of wisdom completely refresh me, and soon I am collapsed in a sea of pillows in an air-conditioned suite.

Total birds after 8 a.m. – 0
Total miles driven today – 400
Total hours birding after Ruby Lake NWR – .1

But tomorrow is another day, and my luck is bound to change.  I’m banking on an entire morning at the City of Henderson Bird Viewing Preserve. Somewhere in a distant casino, just before fading off to sleep, I hear a gambler jostling the dice and shouting, “Come on baby, daddy needs a new bird!”

(Stay tuned for Birding Big Trip Part III: Leaving Las Vegas)


  1. Piss shivers 🙂 I never knew there was a name for it, but at least guys don’t have to drop their pants.

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by backwoodtrails — April 24, 2016 @ 9:11 pm

  2. Oh, great blog by-the-way. I’m grateful that I get to “come along”.

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by backwoodtrails — April 24, 2016 @ 9:11 pm

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