Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Chasing Game Birds in the West

The American Birding Association (ABA) is in charge of telling us birders which birds are "countable" on our lists and which are not. The general rule for a bird to be countable is that the bird must be viewed within North America, alive, and wild. All of these rules are debated by birders during dull moments or over beer.

  • "North America" has definite boundaries but birders try to stretch is all the time. If you are in a boat off the coast, are you still in North America? What if you are standing in Mexico along the Rio Grande river and see a bird on the U.S. side of the river? Can you count it? The ABA also changes it's rules from time to time. For instance, Hawaii was never included until last year. 
  • "Alive" is pretty straight forward. Or is it? What if you see a bird hanging out of the a cat's mouth? Is it countable? I think only if it wiggles. Gross. 
  • "Wild" is a tough one. Most are obvious but some birds in North America didn't start out as wild. Some were brought here as pets or as hunting targets. These birds escape and either die because they can't survive in our climate or they continue to live in their new "wild" home. The ABA changes rulings about these birds a lot. If the escaped birds establish successful breeding populations, they end up countable. 

You can read the official rules here: http://listing.aba.org/aba-recording-rules/

The ABA has allowed a handful of game birds in the west to be counted. I joined a tour run by Tim Avery, a Utah guide to search for "Mountain West Most Wanted" to see some of these birds in addition to some others that I'll tell you about later. Tim took us to 3 states to get the birds. We started in Nevada to chase (I'm not kidding here) Himalayan Snowcocks. Yes, the birds are from the Himalayan mountains. You can imagine that they are quite comfortable in the high mountains and generally stay above 10,000 feet. To get to the right habitat, we had to start our day at 3:30 AM. We drove to a parking lot in the State Park at about 8,000 feet of elevation. We hiked for over an hour and climbed to about 9,800 feet - in the dark!

Nevada dawn
 You have to get there before sunrise so that you can scan the ridges for the birds. They hide out in the cliffs at night and then walk over the ridge to feed in the alpine meadows. Here we are scanning the ridge line for the buggers.

Searching for Snowcocks
I'm not one to brag, but I did see the first bird crest the ridge :-) but once it moved off the ridge, it took all of us to spot it again. Tim found the bird and about 8 others in the meadow. Can you see them?

Snowcocks
I took the liberty of pointing them out for you.

Himalayan Snowcocks
There is no way to get closer to them without hiking another 500 feet up which is very difficult for someone like me who lives at sea level so we just enjoyed the views from a distance. We found a few other birds on our way back to the van. You can just about make it out in the photo. And WOW, the scenery!

Heading down the mountain
With mission accomplished, we left Nevada and headed to Idaho in search of more birds including another game bird called Gray Partridge. This bird prefers much different habitat. They are most often found in farm fields or sage brush areas. No need for hiking to see this bird. We just drove around scanning the fields for anything that resembled a brown softball with a head. We can play the "find-the-bird-in-the-photo" game again. Here it is:

Partridge spotting
I made it easier by cropping the photo to reveal the bird. You can just see the bird's head poking out of the prairie grass.

Gray Partridge
We spotted a few more after more searching. Tim saw them along the road but they darted into the grass when the van approached. I volunteered to walk over to the edge of the road and viola:

Gray Partridge
That was the best view of the birds that we could get. They landed and disappeared.

The last game bird that we wanted to see was Chukar. This is a bird that Connie and I saw back in the 1990's but never officially recorded on our list. Once again, we needed different habitat to search. Chukars like rocky fields with sage brush. We kept our eyes peeled every time we saw suitable habitat but didn't see any. On our last day, we headed to the quarry just outside of Salt Lake for a last ditch effort to find the birds. At the ninth hour, we spotted a Mom and a few babies! You can see the baby in the shade of the sage brush.

Chukar with baby
Mom hunkered down when she saw us get out of the van.

Chukar
She was the last of our "most wanted" species. After that, we headed for lunch and the airport. More stories to come. I am still sorting through the trip and the photos to figure out how to tell the stories.
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