On a cool mid-October morning, with extreme high winds in the forecast, I led a group of nine birders into the mountains to see what we could see at this time of year. Seven of us were local Red Rock Audubon-ers, and we had two out-of-state visitors (one from Ohio and another from Texas).
We drove up Lee Canyon Road talking about the ecology of desert vegetation zones as they change with elevation, then turned onto the Mack’s Canyon Road and took the 4-mile dirt road through the Pinyon-Juniper Forest. The lightly maintained road was fine, such as a narrow, winding road can be while traversing hillsides with steep drop-offs and grand views north across the Nevada Test Site.
When we had climbed into a forest of Ponderosa Pine and White Fir, we stopped at Mack’s Spring. We were glad to find that water was still flowing this late in the year (despite 10 years of drought), and we found lots of wind, but birds were not to be seen. Disappointed, I figured that the wind and cold were keeping them away — and I feared that another “bird-and-hike” would be a birding bust. We did hear something barking in the woods, which we attributed to a squirrel, and we saw a Townsend’s Solitaire and three Dark-eyed Juncos, but who wants to drive that far and see only a handful of birds?
Trying to save the day, we shifted from birding to hiking and started up Mack’s Canyon where we started seeing Bristlecone Pines and lots of just-past-bloom Rubber Rabbitbrush. We also started seeing birds and stumbled into a fairly large mixed flock of Audubon’s Yellow-rumped Warblers, Mountain Chickadees, and Pygmy Nuthatches. Interestingly, the flock came from the direction of the spring and were quickly moving farther up the canyon.
After the flock had passed by us, we decided to salvage the birding by moving to Deer Creek Picnic Area and giving that area a try. Returning to the spring, we realized that the area was now full of birds with lots of Townsend’s Solitaire and Cassin’s Finches. A Brown Creeper came in and gave us a nice, close look while it hunted on “our side” of the tree. Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Pygmy Nuthatches, and Yellow-rumps came in for baths (the kinglets showed off their damp ruby crowns). We were most impressed by the large number of Solitaires all in one place — as many as four Solitaires in the binoculars at one time. Perhaps Solitaires aren’t so solitary during fall migration? Also, with so many Townsend’s Solitaires, we realized that our “squirrel barking in the woods” was actually the call of a Townsend’s Solitaire. We did, however, see four Mt. Charleston (Palmer’s) Chipmunks and one Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel, plus one 4-point buck Mule Deer.
We used up our “Deer Creek” time at Mack’s Spring, but all decided to stay a little longer and visit Deer Creek Picnic Area anyways. We drove over and started up the trail. The pond at the bottom was dry, but soon we saw water trickling in the streambed. Just after passing a noisy group of kids playing in the water, we started seeing them again: lots of Townsend’s Solitaire! We counted 10, and we saw most of them at the same time!
We saw three species of woodpeckers: Red-naped Sapsucker, Northern Flicker, and something that we called a Downy Woodpecker because of its small bill, but we now think it was a Hairy Woodpecker with a shorter than average bill. We also saw one Cedar Waxwing — who’s ever seen just one Cedar Waxwing?
We birded Deer Creek for only an hour, but before we left, we heard that squirrel barking in the woods again, but this time we saw a Mt. Charleston Chipmunk on the hillside flicking its tail in time with the bark. I wonder if he was trying to confuse us or the Townsend’s Solitaire?