In the spring of 2020, Nevada was the only state I had never visited. I decided to drive over and have a look.
A few years ago, I realized that there were only a few states that I had never visited. I had long-ago visited the two states that are typically the hardest to get to--Alaska and Hawaii. As a matter for fact, I had made multiple visits to both of the outlier states. In 2018 I had the chance to visit Vermont and Maine, the last two eastern states that I had not seen. That left a big hole in the middle of the country, and so last year I did a road trip with my son Trevor to visit Iowa, Nebraska, and South Dakota (see my High Plains Drifter blog from last year). And suddenly there was only one gray puzzle piece left on my eBird profile map of the United States: Nevada.
I started planning my visit to Nevada soon after I finished my trip to the Blackhills last year. My wife Wendy was going to go with me on a 4-day June trip in and out of Salt Lake City from which it was a short drive to NE Nevada, the part of the state that I most wanted to see. Alas, the Covid-19 pandemic caused us to cancel that trip (planes were still flying but we didn't want to risk our health for a non-essential trip). So, I decided to head out on a long road trip and simply drive to my 50th state. There were no between-state travel restrictions and gas was cheaper than it had been in 30 years and I planned to stay away from everyone.
As I headed southwest out of the Cassia Crossbill site in Cassia County Idaho, it was only about an hours drive to Jackpot, Nevada, the town just over the border as you leave Idaho on highway 93. I stopped at the Nevada border to document the culmination of nearly 60 years of picking up states, starting in Kentucky "where he was born and raised".
Nevada was my 50th state. My first experience with Nevada was not the Los Vegas Airport like most people, but the town of Jackpot on the surprisingly chilly high plains in the NE corner of the state.
This would be my last chance to start a totally new state list and I am very happy to report that the very first bird that I added to my Nevada list was a House Finch. Most of my research over the past 40 years has focused on House Finches. On top of that, the Great Basin population of House Finches is the only House Finch population in North America in which males show delayed plumage maturation--males look like female their first year. I had written about the Great Basin population of House Finches but I had never seen one. It was very nice that the little guys were waiting at the border to welcome me to Nevada.
The Ruby Mountains are a rugged set of peaks that rise out of the sagebrush flats of northeastern Nevada. My challenge was to make it up above treeline to look for Himalayan Snowcock.
My primary first destination in Nevada was my campsite in the Thomas Canyon Campground in the Ruby Mountains which would be my staging area for a trek up to see Himalayan Snowcocks. I had all afternoon and evening to get to the campground and to check out the trails, so I birded my way down to the town of Elko and then up the Lamoille Canyon. I also needed to visit a grocery store in Elko to get some food and water.
Elko is a gambling town with numerous casinos, and it was bigger than I expected. The population is only supposed to be around 20,000 but it seemed way bigger than that. I guess isolated towns that are the biggest city for many tens of miles in any direction tend to have more hotels and restaurants (and traffic) than cities of the same size back in Alabama or Georgia, where a metropolitan center is never all that far away. I had been looking forward to an empty Nevada and I found myself getting irritated with the unexpected Elko traffic. It turned out, I'd find plenty of emptiness south of Elko.
Lazuli Bunting was one of several riparian birds that I enjoyed at the mouth of Lamoille Canyon in the Ruby Mountains, Nevada.
Every bird in Nevada was a state lister, so it was fun to add birds like Mourning Dove and European Starling to my state list. I noted some nice juniper woodland habitat on my way out of Elko toward Lamoille Canyon and I'd get some good birds Pinyon-Juniper birds there the next day. I stopped at the first day-use spot as I entered the National Forest at the mouth of Lamoille Canyon, and again I was surprised at the number of people piling around picnic tables. I didn't expect many birds since it was quite windy and there were so many people around but the bird activity wasn't bad. I picked up the ubiquitous Warbling Vireo and House Wren, but I also got Western Tanager, Black-headed Grosbeak, Bullock's Oriole, and Lazuli Bunting. I also got my first of several frustrating views of one of the birds I most wanted to see--Lewis' Woodpecker. I've never photographed a Lewis' Woodpecker and I hadn't gotten a good look at one since the 1980s. On a trip to New Mexico with my wife Wendy a few years earlier, I had a brief view of one at a distance on a telephone pole. At the Lamoille Canyon picnic area I first had one fly past me and out of sight and then I had one fly into a small group of trees not that far from me that should have been in sight, but I could not spot the bird to save my life. I got at least two more looks at Lewis' Woodpecker in flight on this trip but I never did get to study and photograph one.
I had a nice campsite in Thompson Canyon Campground. Too bad it rained and my tent leaked.
I stopped at my reserved camp site in Thompson Canyon Campground and put up my tent while it was still good and light and then drove to the end of Lamoille Canyon road to the head of the trail that would take me up to Himalayan Snowcock the next morning. The Island Lake Trail was surprisingly hard to find but I'll hold off my discussion of that to my next blog devoted to information on how to get Himalayan Snowcock on your list. After I found the trailhead to the Snowcock site, I spent a couple of hours hiking trails that did not climb the mountain so fast and that stayed in more wooded habitat along the stream and I got nice looks at Cassin's Finch, Western Wood-pewee, Dusky Flycatcher, MacGillivray's Warbler, and Mountain Chickadee. I was all set for my climb to see snowcock the next morning.
I went to bed with my alarm set to 4am. I had read that the way to get snowcock is to hike up the Island Lake Trail before sunrise in the dark so as to be at high elevation at sunrise. That was my plan. Things got off track a bit, however, when I was awakened at 11pm with rain water hitting me in the face. Despite a forecast of no rain, it was raining hard and Wendy's old reliable tent was no longer reliable. It was leaking badly, despite have the fly set up correctly. Luckily it wasn't cold so I was just a bit uncomfortable in wet blankets. But I was suddenly worried that my trip up the mountain in the morning might not be safe. I slept fitfully until around 3:30 am when I got up to find that the rain had stopped. I made coffee and headed up to the trailhead to see what the hiking situation looked like.