4:25 AM, Island Lake Trailhead, Ruby Mountains, Nevada.
Himalayan Snowcock. This introduced game bird is legendarily very hard to add to you ABA life list. Partly because it has an extremely small range in the Ruby Mountains in northeastern Nevada. It is also very skittish because, well, it’s a game bird after all. The snowcock, a native of southern Asia, was introduced in the Ruby Mountains in the 1963 and has a sustained breeding population.
To add this bird to your list you have to put in some sweat equity or have a ton of money (like the Steve Martin character in The Big Year, who hires a helicopter to see this bird!)
To see this bird with sweat and effort takes a two mile hike up the Island Lake Trail. From the trailhead to the lake is an elevation gain of about 1,000 feet and features many switchbacks.
What makes this trail perhaps a little bit more challenging is that most of the hike is done in darkness. The snowcock begins calling at about 5:45 AM and I planned to be in place by 5:30 to listen for and scan the ridges for snowcock. They seem to be harder to find later in the morning and in the afternoon.
And so I found myself, after a restless night of sleep, at the Island Lake Trailhead at 4:25 AM. On my forehead was the 400 Lumen Black Diamond Storm headlamp and on my back was an unwelding backpack with my scope, tripod, bins, camera, and sketchbook. In my hands where trekking poles to help with balance and pace and to fend off mountains lions or bears.
The headlamp provided a great pool of light to see the trail ahead. I turned my beam downslope and I picked up eyeshine. I boosted the power and was relieved to see that it was just a deer. Wait, where there is deer, there is mountain lion!!
About 15 minutes into my assent I came to the first switchback. Even in the glow of my headlamp I could see the trail was surrounded by wildflowers. I was looking forward to my return journey in morning light, hopefully with snowcock in the bag.
By the time I reached the wooden bridge across the falls, I was at the halfway point of the accent. At this point it was light enough to see and I stowed my headlamp. Here is where the switchbacks begin in earnest.
After a while I lost count of how many times the trail switched back on itself but I finally saw the ridge line in the half light and I knew I was near the end of the trail at Island Lake.
At the lake the trail forked and I headed to the right and soon the scrabble up to the northwest was to begin. This is where having trekking poles pays off. I headed up to one of the last group of trees, near a creek and I found a boulder seat to set up my scope and scan the ridges. It was now 5:30 AM.
Now was the waiting time. Other reports had snowcocks calling from the ridge at 5:45. It was just a matter of time. But I also knew that snowcock is not always a given. Part of the unsigned agreement with the Birding Gods is that the more effort you put into seeing a bird does not guarantee seeing the bird.
At 5:55 AM I heard the far off bugle of a snowcock! The call in reminiscent of an elk bugle. I scanned the ridges with my scope to look for a bird silhouetted against the sky. At 6 AM I spotted the snowcock! I had the bird in view for about ten minutes and I was able get some far off photos to document the sighting.
The snowcock moved up slope and then dropped down on my side of the ridge where it disappeared amongst the rock. I pulled out my panoramic sketchbook and sketch the jagged ridge line of the Ruby Mountains and I drew in an arrow where I had first seen the Himalayan snowcock.
What a great experience with a much sought after ABA bird. Any lister wants this bird on their list and it is only found in one place in the United States. It was well worth the effort and the scenery and the return hike amongst the high elevation wildflowers was a nice coda.