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Himalayan Snowcock--not as hard as legend suggests

In North America, Himalayan Snowcock are only found above treeline in the Ruby Mountains, Nevada.

In the movie The Big Year, the Himalayan Snowcock is discussed as if it is an essentially impossible ABA bird. One of the main characters in the movie has to resort to chartering a helicopter to penetrate the mountain wilderness and, against all odds, he gets snowcock on his big year list. Although the movie hyped the situation beyond my previous thinking, I had always thought that Himalayan Snowcock was not a realistic ABA bird to chase. Since I had first started birding, I'd seen it pictured in my field guides, listed as restricted to the Ruby Mountains of Nevada, which sounded remote and mysterious. I never thought that I would have a chance to see one. But a couple of years ago, for the first time, I looked at the species detection map for Snowcock on eBird, and there were actually a lot of pins for the bird in the Ruby Mountains. Regular birders were seeing snowcocks every year, and they were not resorting to chartering helicopters. It was clear that the place to search was the Island Lake Trail at the end of Lamoille Scenic Byway--the main paved road up into the Ruby Mountains.

The trailhead for Island Lake Trail is hard to find. I'm looking back at the parking lot from the beginning of the trail in this photo. Note that the trail starts right where the parking lot circle starts.

I read on a couple of blogs that serious birders who really wanted to add snowcock to their lists start hiking the Island Lake Trail an hour or more before sunrise to be up to the lake in snowcock habitat for the first hour of light . Fortunately, I was smart enough to reconnoiter the route before I tried to launch out on a hike in the dark the next morning. THE START TO THE ISLAND LAKE TRAIL IS NOT EASY TO FIND. Maybe I'm just a confused individual, but I had a very hard time finding the trailhead in mid-afternoon. It was only after some helpful teenagers told me to go 100 meters to the other side of the parking lot that I found the trailhead. The reason it is so hard to find is that there are several trails leading from the parking that are all very poorly marked. There is one main trailhead for many of the trails and one it drawn to this spot as the obvious place for the Island Lake Trail to start. That is where I started looking for the Island Lake Trail. The only thing that stopped me from thinking I had found the Island Lake Trail when I hadn't is that I could see on my cell phone that none of the trails that I found went in the correct direction (I coudn't have seen that in the dark).

The Island Lake Trailhead is 100 meters or more back down the road from the primary trailhead for most trails. It is at the spot where the road splits into the parking lot loop (see my photo above). The trailhead is marked by a very small (1 foot x 1 foot) obscure wooden sign that is almost on the ground at the start of the trail. I would have had a heck of a time finding this trail in the dark at 4am. I would highly recommend to anyone who intends to do this hike to find the trailhead in daylight.

As I mentioned in my last blog, it rained most of the night before I did my hike and I was worried that the rain might have adversely affected trail conditions. It turned out it didn't matter. The trail was great. Also, the winter and spring of 2020 had been a heavy and late snow year in the mountains and i was worried that on my hiking date--June 16--there might still be snow on the trail. There wasn't. It is an easy hike. The only thing at all difficult about the hike is that it goes up the whole time. Going from the parking lot to Island Lake is sort of like climbing stairs for an hour. You have to have a bit of physical fitness but you can go as slowly as you want. I'm 59 years old and in moderate shape and I made it in less than 1 hour without feeling like I was exhausted. So, although you cannot drive to snowcock habitat, it is not all that tough to walk to it.

The rain did not affect the trail, but the unsettled weather did affect my snowcock search. The Island Lake Trail comes up over the lip of the caldera that hold Island Lake and Himalayan Snowcock habitat is laid out before you. There is a sign at the spot where you first overlook the lake that has information about both mountain goats and Himalayan Snowcock (which are both introduced species). The view from the sign is ok but you are still in some trees, so I crossed a small stream moving to the right of the snowcock sign and set up with a clear view of the lake and surrounding talus slopes. Unfortunately, the weather wasn't great when I arrived and got steadily worse over the next hour. The basin that contained Island Lake was socked in with clouds and during the hour I hung around the area the clouds crept down the slopes and eventually enveloped me. The temperature was in the upper 30s, there was a steady 20 mile per hour wind, and just when I arrived and started to get set up, sleet pellets started hammering on me. I think I could have picked a better morning. Despite all of those distractions, I started hearing Himalayan Snowcocks as soon as I settled down.

My iBird Pro app on my cell phone has two sounds for Himalayan Snowcock: what iBird calls a "rally call" and a call that to me sounds vaguely like an elk bugle. If you think elk bugle, you'll recognize that second call immediately. The bugle call was the most common. I heard about 4 or 5 bugles for every rally call. I ended up hearing a lot of calls from about 5:45 to 6:15 with a peak around 6am--more than 20 times I heard Himalayan Snowcock call. If the weather had been decent, I'm sure I could have spotted birds in my scope or even through my binoculars. As it was, I hardly used by scope. Between the gusty wind and my shivering it was not very useful. I mostly scanned with binoculars, and I got one view of a flying snowcock (big gallinaceous bird that wasn't likely to be anything else). I had planned to spend the whole morning, maybe 4 hours, up in the high country but I left after one hour as clouds descended and the weather deteriorated. I had hoped for a photo but that was not to be. I did make a sound recording that I posted with my checklist on eBird.

A few takeaways from my snowcock experience: based on limited information, mostly on ebird but also some birding blogs, most people go after Snowcock from mid-July to the end of August. Almost none of the lists on eBird are from mid-June or earlier. Admittedly, I did run into bad weather, but I do not think you are any safer weather-wise in July or August versus June. I've never heard anyone report hearing Himalayan Snowcock as easily or hearing as many calls as I did in one hour (and the weather conditions were terrible). So, I think mid or even early June might be a good time to go after the birds if you want to make sure that you at least hear one, assuming that they consistently call more earlier in the breeding season.

My second key point is that it is not very hard to get to these birds. The road to the trailhead is an excellent paved road. The trail to Island Lake is like strolling along a sidewalk (not quite, the ground is a little bit uneven, but it is not hard hiking). This is actually a fun ABA bird to go after and I would encourage anyone who likes birding adventures to try for it. Compared to going after Colima Warbler in the Big Bend National Park, a Himalayan Snowcock quest is about half as difficult, in my opinion.

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