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U.S.A. -- NEVADA
Big Day (Bird Race)
03 May 1996
by Larry Neel
- 150 species
- 0430 to 2100 hours
Lake Tahoe State Park, Six-Mile Canyon, Breakaheart Canyon, Carson
River Diversion Dam, Carson Lake, South-Line Reservoir, Indian Lakes,
Timber Lake, Harmon Reservoir.
- Species of
Note: Ross's Goose (Late, Staked Out), Blue-winged Teal (Rare),
Red-breasted Merganser (Rare, Staked Out), Whimbrel (Rare), Swainson's
Thrush (Rare), Virginia's Warbler (Rare), White-throated Sparrow
(Vagrant), Golden-crowned Sparrow (Late).
A good day of pre-scouting paid off big for the Lost Gonzo Bird Team,
but the record was finally made vulnerable when we convinced our
Lahonton Audubon Society committee to hold the Birdathon a week earlier
than normal. This gave us access to shorebirds in the wetlands
that would be gone in the next few days. Our observation is, in
Nevada, too much effort is expended by teams in the high elevations
trying to pull sexy forest birds out of the woods. Teams get
behind the clock, and fail to work the lower riparian habitats at the
right time of day. Our advice is, take what the mountain gives
you, and STAY ON SCHEDULE!
1996: FALLON TO CARSON CITY
WEATHER: 70 F; WIND NW 20 mph; CLOUD 40 % LENTICULARS
Run For The Record actually began as Martha chauffeured Bob Flores and
I over to Carson City for an overnighter at Motel 6. As we
dropped off the Swingle Bench into a highway construction bottleneck,
we observed a UPS truck make an end run around the stoppage by way of
the old highway frontage road. "Hey!" Bob said, 'Look at
that!" I countered, "We may have to remember that tomorrow.
I've made Graham aware of this construction stop. I don't know
how he'll want to handle it."
1996: THE BIG DAY
WEATHER: 70 F; WIND NW 10-30 mph; CLOUD VARIABLE
and I were waiting outside the lobby door when Graham's little blue
4-Runner came slicing through the black Carson City morning. We
tossed our gear into the back, and jumped into our seats. "Wind's
up", I said. "Yeah." was the generic reply. Keith Geluso
was riding shotgun, well-rested and pumped. "You ready for
this?" I asked. "You bet!" We wouldn't have to worry
about him today. My own stamina, however, was in question.
I was on the tail end of a gruelling schedule that had seen me pull off
three weekend wildlife events and three days of employee interviews in
Las Vegas in the previous 14 days. "I may be the one to go under
today, guys." "Naaaah..." Graham was supportive.
We were the Lost Gonzo Bird Team. Because I handled most of the
pledge work and keep the clock, they tolerate my label of Team
Captain. They call me The Commander because I usually wear a
black commando sweater until the sun gets up. Graham Chisolm of
The Nature Conservancy is the driver and Co-Captain; he's aggressive,
but always under control behind the wheel. We leave logistical
decisions up to him. Graham negotiates with me on behalf of the
rest of the team for more time at sites. Most of the time, we
compromise. Keith Geluso, University of Nevada, Reno graduate
student in biology rides shotgun. He has quick eyes and rarely
makes a mistake. Bob Flores, Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge
Assistant Manager, rides tail-gunner. He is also our official
cheerleader. Bob has incredible energy, which he expends on a
steady, controlled burn. It gives him awesome staying power.
We were halfway up Spooner Summit when Graham couldn't stand it any
longer. "Shall we try for Poorwill?" he proposed as he pulled off
at a cut bank. Yeah, let's get it out of our system. We
bailed out and scrambled up the cut bank. At the top we were met
only by the ominous heavy breath of a wind that promised only to get
nastier as the day progressed. Even if a Poorwill was calling in
such a wind, we wouldn't be able to hear it. We didn't dally.
Back to the car and back on the road. I decided it was time for a
reality check. "Look, guys, with this wind, there's not going to
be any records broken today. We'll be lucky to get 136." (Our
total two years ago). Graham wouldn't have it.
"Maaaan. Listen to this... it's not even 4:58 and the guy
is already counting us out. C'mon, let's have a little
optimism." I grumbled to myself, but silently vowed not to bring
it up again.
shot into the Spooner Lake Campground parking lot, felt our way to a
parking spot, and climbed out of the car. "Guys, I would really
feel good if we were in the car heading down Spooner Summit by 0730," I
said. The Time Keeper had established his annoying
presence. Still feeling our way in the darkness, we moved like
wraiths through trees and snowdrifts down to the North Canyon
trail. Our ears were finely tuned for owl hoots. We figured
to get pygmy owl, at least. At the bottom, we were greeted with
the "Wipwipwip" of a startled American Robin. followed quickly by
the "RASHRASHRASH" of a Steller's Jay. The list had begun.
We tried hard to make every creaking tree an owl hoot, but we never
achieved consensus on anything that removed all doubt. It was not
to be an owl day. The birds on the meadow began to stir --
Killdeer; Song Sparrow; Fox Sparrow. Our quest for forest birds
was slow starting. On the other hand, it was a beautiful morning
to be out. We had the whole mountain to ourselves.
The wind was steadily pushing overhead, but the canyon itself was
relatively calm, so we couldn't complain about conditions. The
birds were just slow to wake up. By the time we turned around and
started back down the trail, we had only ticked 11 species, and were
frustrated by several woodpeckers that would not reveal
themselves. Finally, we nailed a Red-breasted Sapsucker to salve
our wounded egos.
Coming back down the trail, we began to pick up steam. A
White-breasted Nuthatch and a Clark's Nutcracker were seen in the dying
pine stand to the north. Bob remarked, "We're crankin' now,
guys." We slogged our way down the creek and across the
meadow. Not having that much experience with Fox Sparrow song, I
reeled at every Fox Sparrow call, much to the amusement of the
team. After a while, I started faking a "What's that?"
pose. Gotta have a sense of humour about oneself... We left
Spooner Lake with 24 species. Our confidence was slightly
shaken. We were edgy and quiet.
left the Campground on time, but I had failed to allow for some
scouting along Lake Tahoe. It was O.K... Half hour max. We
picked up five species, including a pair of Pygmy Nuthatches, giving us
the nuthatch trifecta, which isn't easy.
we were fifteen minutes late, but we tallied a Canada Goose as we
hurtled past the meadow toward Spooner Summit junction, giving us 30
species going down the hill, which was Graham's target. We took
what the mountain would give us, and didn't fret over what it kept from
There is no down time on a Run For The Record, particularly between
sun-up and noon. We added seven species on our way around Carson
City and eight more up to Virginia City. We were ready to rumble
at the foot of the Sugarloaf in Six-Mile Canyon by 0915, a full hour
earlier than two years ago. The wind was holding steady at a
manageable ten mph. "Now, keep in mind, Virginia's Warbler is a
distinct possibility here," I warned. "Really?" Bob countered
with measured scepticism. To keep things challenging, however,
the male Cooper's Hawk from the nest downstream was on patrol up canyon
and had a dampening effect on our dickey birding.
Bob got onto a frazzled gray passerine down in the willows.
"Hey! What's this?" I looked. Keith looked. It
was almost without a distinguishable field mark. Its tail
feathers were frayed; it had moulted almost all of its undertail
coverts, except for a thin dirty yellow wash along one side. It
had a dirty, ill-defined eye-ring. "What is that?" Bob asked
again. I looked at Keith; he looked at me and stated the
incredulous, "It's a Virginia's Warbler!". Yes, Virginia, it
was. A scruffy, hard-travelled specimen, to be sure, but
undeniably a Virginia's. Moving downstream, Bob shook his
head. "I can't believe you called that one! 'Look for
Virginia's Warbler here...' Yeah, right!" Great bird!
I had also told them to keep an eye out for Pinyon Jays flying
overhead. We spread out down below the Cooper's Hawk nest.
Again, the birds were coming a little hard and slow. At the same
instant, Keith and a Pinyon Jay let out a "Hey-ah!" as Keith pointed
upward at the single overflying bird. "I can't believe it," he
would say later. "I've seen two Pinyon Jays in my life; both of
them have been on Birdathon, and both of them have been singles in this
Six-Mile had yielded 13 new species, putting our total up to a
respectable, but less-than-dazzling 58. All but the hummingbirds
had been I.D.'d by the entire team.
We crossed Highway 50 onto the Breakaheart Canyon road and prepared to
parallel the Carson River to Fort Churchill. This was our first
new segment of our route, and we were apprehensive. I had warned
the team that it would take an hour to complete. Two years ago,
Sage Thrasher had been our nemesis bird; a defeat Graham took
particularly hard. This year it was our first bird of the new
route. Things were perking up. The gotta-get birds of
Breakaheart are White-throated Swift, Wood Duck, Spotted Sandpiper, and
We got them all, and a few bonuses: Great Horned Owl, Violet-green
Swallow (a single bird in a mixed flock), and Black Phoebe by the
diversion dam at Table Rock. The owl and the phoebe were Keith's,
and he was hot. He nailed us a Gray Flycatcher for extra measure
as we left the last bend in the river before taking the highlands past
Fort Churchill. As we rolled onto Highway 95 at the Fort
Churchill intersection, we had cranked our list up to 77. It was
1130 and we were back in the chase. Breakaheart Canyon had come
through for us.
we hit our first extended dry spell of the day. Silver Springs -
Lahontan Reservoir - construction stop. We sat in line
impatiently waiting for some sign that traffic would be moving
soon. Nothing so signified... Bob and I told Graham about
the frontage road, and he moved quickly, even though I was
uncomfortable with making trouble with the road crews. Before we
could get cut off from behind, our Fearless Pilot threw the 4-Runner
into reverse, whirled around on the shoulder, and went back to the
frontage road access near the State Park Headquarters entry. "I
mean, this is important stuff we're doing here!" Graham alibied, "We're
raising money for conservation! Precious minutes are bleeding
away!" We snaked our way through gravel truck traffic and slipped
by field headquarters just as if we expected the crews to recognize who
we were and what our mission was. Nobody challenged us. The
frontage road took us right to Pioneer Way, and we made another
executive decision to hit Diversion Dam next.
As far as timing was concerned, noon is not the optimum time to hit the
largely riparian songbird site at Diversion Dam, but I had stumbled
onto a straggler Ross's goose there during shorebird surveys the day
before, and was anxious to include it before it decided to continue its
tardy journey north.
While I probably would have driven right over the river to where I
could spy the Ross's goose, Graham decided it would be productive to
work the riparian below the dam. In almost no time at all, they
had two Golden-crowned Sparrows, stragglers, pinned down in the brush,
and... "Hey, wait a minute... What's this? White-crow-- NO!
WHITE-THROATED! Yellow lores! Here's a White-throated
Sparrow down in this Russian olive!" Graham had his first State
White-throated Sparrow. We were still reeling from our dumb luck
when Keith bellowed, "Warbler! Townsend's Warbler!"
Unfortunately, none of us ever saw it again. It was our only
one-observer tally of the day.
We climbed back into the car and crossed the "A" Canal. "Had a
Downy Woodpecker working back and forth across the canal between these
two trees yesterday," I warned. "Which tree?" Graham
quizzed. "This one." He stopped and stuck his head out the
door. "Oh, there he is." Indeed, the little Downy
Woodpecker was stuck to a lateral limb just as if I'd stuffed it and
pegged it there with a hatpin.
After parking on the south end of the dam, we walked maybe 70 yards,
when Keith exploded, "There is a WHITE GOOSE!" It had stood up on
its island to see what was going on. I made sure everyone saw the
blue skin above the nares on the upper bill. It was definitely a
Ross's goose. "And it can fly at least 300 yards," I assured
them, "I saw it yesterday." The whole thing was beginning to get
a little surreal to Keith. I breathed a silent sigh of
relief. Diversion Dam yielded 15 species, including four diamonds
that would push us inexorably toward the Chalice.
The little blue 4-Runner careened off Highway 50 onto the Sheckler Road
Cut-off. Now it was Bob's turn to cash in a stake-out. Our
colleague Bill Henry had set us up with a Wild Turkey spot.
The 4-Runner crept tentatively onto Powerline Road. One
field... two fields... "They oughta be right here..." Either
Graham or Keith said, "What's that way back against the fence
there?" A couple of substantial but amorphous shapes were
threatening to disappear into a Russian Olive windbreak. "That's
them!" Bob confirmed. Wild Turkeys in the bag!
Carson Lake was teeming with avian biomass. The sheer energy of
it was overwhelming. Full from two consecutive years of
above-normal snow pack, the historic pre-sump of the Carson River was
producing in a manner unseen since 1986. It was inspiring to
reflect on the roles we had played in preserving and promoting this
most under-appreciated of four-star birding destinations. Now we
cashed in our counters and reaped the bounty we had helped sow.
By now the wind was through holding back. It was cranked up to 30
mph, but we didn't care. We were into the Wind Birds now.
Let 'er blow. The team was calling out species like gunners on a
B-17. "Black-necked Stilt on the right." "Got 'em.
Pelicans on the right." "Got'em. Great Egret, Black-crown
on the left." "Got'em. Four large shorebirds coming in on
the left." "Got'em. Hey, what are those?"
"Whimbrels! They're Whimbrels! Probably the birds we saw
last weekend in the fields." "Probably. Bogeys at four
o'clock low." "Got'em.
As we neared the flooded field north of the Rice Unit fence, I primed
the team again. "O.K... heads up, guys. This is gonna be
our best shot at Blue-winged Teal. We pulled up to the parking
area and stopped. Before I could even get my binocs up to survey
the teeming mass of shorebirds and dabbler ducks, Keith was on the
point, "I'VE GOT ONE! BLUE-WINGED TEAL! I'VE GOT
BLUE-WINGED TEAL!" As Dick Vitale would say, "OH,
BAY-BEE!!! What a sweet pair of young eyes!" And that
wasn't all... We gathered up singles of shorebirds that would be
all but gone in another week to ten days, like bank robbers sweeping
out an untended vault -- Black-bellied Plover; Willet; Wilson's
Phalarope; Red-necked Phalarope; Dunlin.
Back down the Rice Drain -- Long-billed Curlew; Green-winged Teal;
Cattle Egret hanging in the 30-mph wind like a bad cutout mobile on a
string, as if to say, "Don't have Cattle Egret yet, do you?"
As we approached the south end of Carson Lake, the wind was beginning
to wear me down. The shallow water was rolling back before the
wind, and gulls and shorebirds were exploiting the benthic
invertebrates exposed in the shining mud. We stopped at the
southwest corner of the flocks to get our bearings and figure out how
to work the field. Graham jumped out and set up his binocs over
the roof of the car. I could see gulls with black heads through
the front windshield some 100+ yards ahead. "Black-headed type
gulls ahead," I announced. "What do you think they are?" Graham
asked. They were too far away to see eye rings, bill colour, or
hood shape. They were also far enough off the dike that I didn't
think the car would disturb them. "I can't tell, let's move up on
Graham evidently didn't hear me. He got his scope out of the back
and set up on them. There was a short silence. "I don't
know... Larry, what do you think...?" I guess I lost my
patience. "Let's move up on them where we can see them!" I fairly
snapped. "O.K.! O.K.! Jeez! You don't have to
get snippy about it." "Jeez, Larry," Bob added. I was
beginning to pay the price for no lunch and no rest stop. Cell
waste build-up was taking its toll. I didn't take it any
further. Back off. This is supposed to be fun. But
when we did move up so that we could all see them out the side window,
they were easily identifiable as Franklin's Gulls, the first of the
year. We also added Bonaparte's Gulls and Ring-billed Gulls, but
still no new sandpipers or Snowy Plovers.
We came to the Lott Freeway, which takes off to Holmes to the
east. "Do we want to do this?" Graham seemed dubious.
"Yes. Let's take the Freeway," I recommended. We went down
it for a while, pushing white pelicans and gulls off as we
advanced. "How far do we want to go?" Graham felt like we
were spinning our wheels. I realized I was not communicating
well. "We may have to go all the way to the gate. We want
to at least go to the islands in the southeast corner of the Big
Water. It will probably be our last shot at Snowy Plover."
Maybe getting Snowy Plover on our list was more of a matter of honour
with me than it was with the rest of the team.
The first islands we came to had a sprinkling of Least Sandpipers on
them, but no snowies. Keith panned to the next islands ahead,
and, "THERE THEY ARE! I'VE GOT SNOWY PLOVERS!" I smiled
inside. Before we could get turned around on the narrow dike at
the gate, Keith was up again. "Hey! Is that some kind of
falcon? Over there on the fence!" Just as if it had sensed
its discovery, the falcon let the wind sweep it off its perch and it
knifed its way through shorebird flocks at ground level. The wind
and flurry of escaping birds made it impossible for us to get set up on
the falcon. It sat on the ground for a short while about 150
yards down the dike, then disappeared for good amid another flurry of
potential prey. We suspected it was a peregrine, but we had
left Carson Lake thinking we had 133 species. Actually, in
retrospect, we had had 137. We were dangerously close to the
record with lots of daylight left. We strategized at Harmon
Junction as we waited for Keith to get out of the bathroom (my own
difficulties would not get relief for another 3 hours...).
"O.K... S-Line Reservoir. Red-breasted Merganser (I hoped...),
Sora and Virginia Rail, and if we can get to it, I may have a Lesser
Yellowlegs in the north seep pond." "Lesser Yellowlegs!?" Bob
howled. "You didn't even tell us about that!" Must have
On the east side of S-Line Reservoir, we got Virginia Rail and Sora to
respond in unison to my Sora whistle. I directed us around to the
north seep pond. "If you are brave, you can ease up onto that
sand dune. From there I had a Lesser Yellowlegs yesterday."
Graham was brave, and eased the 4-Runner up onto the sand dune in good
shape. "The bird was over here on the right on one of these
little points." I couldn't even get my scope set up before Bob
and Keith had found it. "There's a single bird over here... and
it looks like Lesser Yellowlegs." We all confirmed through the
We bumped along the east access road back to Reservoir Road, and moved
west, slowly scanning the main body of the south bay. Keith
sprang to life. "What's that back against the back shore?
It's sleeping... and it looks like a merganser!" I bailed out
with the scope. It was my Red-breasted Merganser from
yesterday. Keith's sharp acuity for spotting birds was reaping
the harvest of a good day of pre-scouting.
We probably didn't know exactly how many species we had, but we knew we
were close. We talked Graham out of a mad dash to Pyramid Lake in
favour of Indian Lakes and Timber Lake. "Timber Lake could be
good... possible Ash-throated Flycatcher, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher,
Northern Oriole, possible Red-naped Sapsucker... we could do all right
The drive to Indian Lakes yielded Ring-necked Pheasant, Northern
Mockingbird, and Northern Oriole. We approached the uppermost
lake, which may not even have a name. Bob directed us in to its
lower end. "Turn here!" Graham whipped the 4-Runner into a
brushy two-track. We came upon a little pothole from which a
brown-headed bird with a yellow eye scrambled to get into the
air. "Eurasian wigeon?" I said with incredulity.
"NAW! Goldeneye!" Bob was emphatic. "Yeah! I saw the
yellow eye. It was a goldeneye!" I shot back.
Graham, Bob and I were jubilant. "Goldeneye hen! That's a
hard one to get this time of year!" "That's right!
Wow!" Keith waited for us to settle down, then dropped his
bomb. "Guys, based on what I saw, I can't call that a
goldeneye." We choked. "I've got to check another field
guide. This one (NG) does not match the wing pattern I
saw." "O.K.," I ruled, "We don't get goldeneye unless we get
consensus from Keith. There was a scramble for field
guides. I found Peterson's flying duck plates and thrust them at
Keith. "Oh, yeah! That's it! It was a hen
goldeneye." It would have to count as "goldeneye sp.", number 145
on our list. As far as we knew, the State Big Day Record was ours.
We got several Sage Sparrows in the brush en route to Timber
Lake. The sun was pretty low in the sky when we pulled up to
Timber Lake. The wind had also lost some of its pop. A
Sharp-shinned Hawk completely took us by surprise. Graham got
onto a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, and later showed us several of them back
by the car. A walk south through the all-but-dead cottonwood
grove produced nothing but prodigious mosquito bites. A possible
Ash-throated Flycatcher turned out to be a coy Western Kingbird.
Heading back to the car, Keith spied something rummaging under a
tamarisk. "THRUSH!" Graham was quick onto it.
"Swainson's! No rufous on the tail, and that spotting on the
breast is not very distinct and confined." I was the last to get
onto it. There was little doubt it was a Swainson's Thrush.
As far as we knew, it was the first documented sighting for Lahontan
Darkness fell as we left Timber Lake. We had The Record, but we
were all thinking it would be a shame not to try to round it off to an
even 150. Graham suggested we try for American Bittern at Harmon
Reservoir. We were too tired to know better, and all agreed.
The little 4-Runner felt its way into the gloom around the west side of
Harmon Reservoir. The moon was rising blood red through the
clouds in the east. "O.K... pay close attention here," I
warned. "Not this road... Here! Turn left here!" I
was nearly as confident as I sounded. It was the correct exit,
and led us down onto a salt-grass point that juts out into some
extensive tule beds, a favourite teen-age beer-drinking and
tire-burning spot. We stepped out into the black, our presence
being fully disclosed by the repeated upwardly slurred whistle of a
Sora. I started with my "Guck-goong! Guck-goong!" American
Bittern call, made mostly with Adam's apple and epiglottis.
Nothing but the Sora answered back. We tried for about 10
Keith had wandered off by himself. "What about Least Bittern?"
Graham asked hopefully. I threw in a few "Coocoocoocoo"
calls. Nothing. Finally, I turned and said, "I don't think
it's gonna happen tonight, guys. Let's go." Graham was
firm. "No, now... don't give up yet. We haven't given it
the proper time yet." I turned back to the marsh and let out a
couple more "guck-goongs". Suddenly from way out in the gloom
came, "guh-goongguh-goongguh-goong" in much more rapid cadence.
"I heard it. That's it. Over there!" everyone shouted at
once. That was it. One-fifty. We were done.
High fives all around.
Slumped over in my seat behind the driver, I started laughing softly to
myself. "What?" they asked. "Can you believe what we just
did?" We just felt our way into the pitch-black night along some
stupid marsh road into a teenage beer campsite, jumped out of the car,
made some stupid bird calls, and raised a American Bittern out of the
stupid tules. Think about it... How many other people do
you know that would even try something like it?" We laughed
together, but only for a short while. We fell into a silent
stupor as the 4-Runner trudged back to town. The Lost Gonzo Bird
Team had struck. We had the record, but for how long? How
would the other teams do tomorrow? They would be gunning for
us. Were we to be One Day Wonders? Flashes in the
Proverbial Pan? My body was a wreck. My eyes felt like two
mud-balls in a sandbox. My face looked like a gumball
machine. My colon felt like someone had poured it full of
Borax. Deep inside, a voice would not be stilled, "You're getting
too old for this, Gonzo..."