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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 to camp.

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 parking lot.

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 Snowcock.

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.



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.

Don Lewis
Lafayette, CA


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 energy.

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 Idaho time.)

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.

Cindy Hudson