Birding the Americas Trip
and Planning Repository
Return to the Main
Return to the North
Return to the U.S.A.
Return to the Nevada
U.S.A. -- NEVADA: Ruby Mountains
Notes regarding Himalayan Snowcock
08 - 11 August 1999
by Don Lewis
This report will add a few details concerning the challenging search
for Himalayan Snowcocks in the Ruby Mountains of northeastern Nevada,
but anyone interested in trying for the birds should definitely check
all trip reports in the BirdChat archives and read the article in
Winging It, vol. 7, #2, February 1995.
My partner, Ed Hall, had spent a weekend four years ago unsuccessfully
looking for the birds so knew the ropes. We decided to stay in
Elko and drive and walk up every morning until we saw the birds.
This worked out well because both of us were more willing to walk than
It is a half-hour drive from Elko to the trailhead in Lamoille Canyon
(at 3AM) and an hour’s walk by flashlight up the two-mile trail to
Island Lake. The trail is easy and the 700-ft elevation gain is
well graded, with lots of birds on the way back down in the
afternoon. From the lake, it is a 15 minute scramble up another
couple hundred feet to the flattish camping and viewing area among the
last trees, at about an elevation of 9900 feet. From this
vantage, one can scan the entire southeast cirque of Thomas Peak and
the cliffs and talus slopes along the east ridge. The main “black
wall” cliff in the cirque is some 1000 feet above this spot and about a
half mile away horizontally. The areas where the Snowcocks have
been most frequently reported are above and below the Black Wall.
Ed and I met at the Reno airport Sunday morning, August 8. In a
rented car we made the easy drive to Elko in some 4 hours and
immediately drove to the trailhead to check things out, find the
correct trail, etc. Lamoille Canyon is truly a scenic
place. Even if one isn’t going to chase the Snowcock, the canyon
drive is worth every minute. Jagged peaks, pretty stream, flowers
and meadows everywhere. We spotted a Mountain Goat from the
Monday, August 9, we left Elko at 3:00 AM and arrived at the viewing
spot at 5:15 AM, just as it was getting light enough to see
birds. Great anticipation slowly yielded to resignation.
After a few hours we made the STEEP climb up to a flat spot in the
cirque at about 10,500-ft elevation. From this point we were able
to see the slopes above and just below the Black Wall much
better. We scanned and scanned in the beautiful weather, to no
avail. There was a lot of Snowcock scat here but we saw none
lower down. In mid-afternoon we retreated to the first viewing
spot, the better to see the east ridge talus slopes. At 5:00 PM,
we started back down the hill. We neither saw nor heard a
Snowcock all day and we were scanning and listening almost the entire
time. A biologist camping nearby doing a Pika survey told us the
next morning that 2 Snowcocks flew across the slope, from south to
north, at 5:05 PM. We were of mixed opinion whether that was good
or bad news.
Tuesday, August 10, we were again in place at 5:15 AM. It rained
on the way up and began to rain steadily around 8 AM, accompanied by
lots of wind and temperature of 40 degrees F at the most. We were
slowly petrifying (see recommendations, below), so we got smart and
headed down at 8:15 AM. This was not an unwise decision, as it
rained most of the day, including a major thunderstorm in
mid-afternoon. From 5:15 to 8:15 AM, we neither saw nor heard a
In the afternoon, after drying out at an Elko laundromat, we went south
to Ruby Lake NWR. This is a really great place and we recommend a
visit for any birder in the area.
Wednesday, August 11, we left Elko at 3:30 but there we were again at
the viewing place by 5:15 AM, freezing and worrying about the gathering
clouds again. We suddenly warmed up at 5:47 when we heard for the
first time the unmistakable “bugling” call of the Snowcock. The
calls continued until about 6:30, coming from the cirque. Then
everything went quiet for the rest of the day. We saw no movement
in the cirque during all the calling. After a couple hours of
concentrated scanning and desultory conversation concerning whether
“heard only” was good enough, we headed up to the cirque again.
This time, knowing that the birds were there somewhere, we scanned
again and again and again, until, freezing and still looking at the
clouds and debating whether lightning was in the offing, we headed back
to the first viewing point about 1 PM. By then, we had studied
every single rock above and below the Black Wall. We identified a
number of good rockbirds but none of them were what we wanted.
By 4:10 PM we were discussing at which fast food place to eat in a
couple hours when we noted a soaring Golden Eagle. Being
birdwatchers and not being stupid, we followed its flight across the
cirque from north to south. It then began to circle tightly above
the Black Wall and suddenly three Snowcocks burst from the cliff
face. They flew out, calling, forming a fleur-de-lis as they
separated but with all three heading northeast toward the east ridge of
Thomas Peak. We got great overhead views, noting whitish wing
patches. They landed in a grassy gap in the cliff at the very top
of the east ridge. Scrambling for the scope (we had been caught
100 feet away from it) we then got superb 40x views for five minutes as
two of the birds emerged from hiding and walked along the grassy area
and eventually appeared on the top of a huge rock and
disappeared. High Five Time!
The two birds we saw well were much lighter than the painting in the
NGS field guide. The overall impression was of whitish or light
gray birds with some gray-brown. The white face and throat was
sharply demarcated from the grayish back and breast. The head of
one was tawny, the other pure white. The flank stripes were much
more prominent than shown in the NGS, appearing to be on a white
background. White undertail coverts were very visible.
Sketchy information available to us suggests that juvenile Snowcocks
are whiter than mature birds. The overall jizz while the birds
were walking and feeding was similar to a pheasant.
- Take the best
scope you have. If our experience is typical, there will be a
great deal of scanning, looking for birds and separating rocks from
birds. When we did see the birds, they were a half-mile away and
a thousand feet above us. We had very satisfying views with the
78-mm scope but with binoculars they were little more than small,
whitish birdshapes. I had no trouble carrying the scope and
tripod everywhere, in my good daypack.
- When thinking
about the weather, consider the 5000-ft elevation gain above Elko
forecasts. This applies both to temperature and the likelihood of
wind and mountain storms. We knew that this is an unusually cool
summer and thought we had plenty of clothes but still were cold, even
at mid-day on Wednesday when the temperature probably didn’t much
exceed 40 degrees.
- Don’t just look at
brown rocks. Our birds were light gray overall.
- Our strategy of
avoiding Saturday and Sunday worked well. Besides two camped
biologists, we only saw people at Island Lake twice in three
days. Of course, Elko residents maybe were too smart to hike in
the weather that we did the last two days.
- Search the cliff
faces in addition to the grassy slopes and rocks. Our birds
debouched from a very small ledge below the top of the Black
Wall. We don’t understand how they got there unobserved but they
- This is one place
where more people looking can only help you. In addition, there
is a lot of steep climbing on somewhat difficult terrain and a buddy to
aid you in the event of trouble is highly recommended.
- When heading up to the first viewing area from Island Lake, do
not head straight up the slope. Instead, angle up the slope to
the right, heading directly for the southeast cirque, which is visible
on the skyline even in first light. Continue around to the right
when you reach the flatter area with creek and meadow.
Without really trying, we saw 26 kinds of non-Snowcock birds, including
Black Rosy-Finch, Mountain Bluebird (hundreds, it seemed), Townsend’s
Solitaire, and other high altitude things.
We saw several Mountain Goats, Long-tailed Weasels, Marmots, Pikas, and
two kinds of Ground Squirrels.
We had never seen so many wildflowers. It is really a great
place, even if the Snowcocks don’t cooperate.
By Karen Forcum
The search for the Himalayan Snowcock was indeed a challenge for
us. One we did lose. But there was no remorse over the
loss. This was perhaps one of the most splendid trails we have
ever hiked. Each step and turn brought a new array of the most
splendid flowers we have ever seen in the mountains.
My husband, Ted, and I stayed in Elko and were on the trailhead in
Lamoille Canyon at 5 AM. We did not trust flashlights and
moons! We did check the trail out in daylight the evening before
and went halfway up to get the feel of it. It is not a difficult
trail although coming from "flatlands" of IL you need to be in decent
shape to handle the altitude. Although we were there on Saturday,
we did not see anyone until we got up to the lake and then only one
person. On the way down we did meet two other birders, one of
whom I had met on the Birdchat line before. As we descended the
trail in early afternoon, there were a few people coming up.
People around Elko must sleep in!
We did not see or hear a H. Snowcock. We scanned with our
binoculars and like Don Lewis seen a lot of "rock birds." We saw Black
Rosy-Finch, Mountain bluebirds, and Townsends Solitaire. What we
did find was such peace as we sat in the meadow amid all of the
flowers. This is truly a place not marred by motor sounds and
tracks. You felt like not telling anyone because large groups of
people would surely spoil the solitude and splendor.
We will go back in another year, and hopefully we will have the
exciting experience of adding the Himalayan Snowcock to our life list
someday. In the meantime we have the memory of the sounds,
smells, and sights of that memorable day in pursuit of the elusive bird.
Karen and Ted Forcum
17 - 18 July 1999
by Cindy Hudson
On July 17th 6 members of the Southwestern Idaho Birders Association
(SIBA) gathered in the pre-dawn hours at the the parking lot at the
terminus of the Lamoille Canyon Scenic Byway Road (8,500 feet).
(Closest well-known town is Elko, Nevada)
Our goal - to hike/climb in the Ruby Mountains with the hopes of seeing
the Himalayan Snowcock. It being rather dark at 4 am local time,
some chose to use flashlights, others used their owl-vision. We
were off at a steady pace to the accompaniment of "are we there yet?"
and other comments that seemed extremely humorous only after a rather
limited nights' sleep and an early rising time. 55 minutes later,
we were at 10,500 feet ... some of us with considerably less
We were hiking the Island Lake Trail, and sure enough the dawn light
revealed a lovely little alpine lake. Through the patch of snow
at the water's edge a graceful deer walked. With such an early
morning show from nature - could the cocks be far behind?
We hiked on up to a plateau area where we could view all the snow
patches. Each snow patch was carefully scanned with binoculars
and spotting scopes. Adrenaline raced when a large bird flew down
the mountain and started to feed by a snow patch (just like the book
said, "flies downhill in the morning, then walks back up,
feeding"). Three more large birds flew down! We all got a
glimpse through the scope ... and then the discussions began
..."could be a Blue Grouse", "what was the tail shape?", etc,
etc. Meanwhile a cold wind (we had not exactly dressed for)
didn't stop blowing.
So, half the group decided to stay put and wait for the cocks to show
themselves, and half the group decided to climb higher to warm up and
hopefully flush some cocks. The climbing worked! About 15
snowcocks flew from center right of the cliffs around the right edge of
the rock face and were gone from sight in less than 30 seconds.
Alas, the stay put group were looking elsewhere at that moment!
About then our 7th member was spotted down by the lake, hiking at a
very healthy clip! We decided to be real polite and wait for him
(although the long rest might also have been a motivator) ... at
that I think he beat us to the summit. (He was thinking 5 am
Three hearty gentlemen made it to the top of the ridge and, after a
short hike along the top, could hear the snowcocks calling. That
surged their adrenaline (at over 11,000 feet they needed it!) and they
continued on until they were directly across from the feeding
cocks. At one time they had three cocks in the scope and could
clearly see the facial markings. They even brought feathers back
with them to prove how close they got to the snowcocks. But they
were in complete agreement that one would have to be crazy to consider
hunting snowcocks in Asia ... or whoever first thought to
introduce them to the Ruby Mountains.
All was not lost for the remaining birders. The scenery, for one,
is spectacular. And for two, positive proof of Rosy-Finches
nesting near Island Lake was found and passed on to a birder searching
out that very topic the same day.