Cassia Crossbills, Himalayan Snowcocks and more Flams than the eyes can see!

Flammulated Owl in Utah (more on him later) - Photo: Melissa Hafting

I was able to get down to Idaho, Nevada and Utah on an incredibly cheap flight/hotel deal this past week. It was a nice trip. I started off in Nevada and near Wells I saw several Pronghorn (antelope) which was cool to see. My first destination was Cassia County near Twin Falls for the Cassia Crossbill. It was a beautiful lush green drive in Idaho. I went from barren desolate sagebrush where I saw the Antelope to beautiful tall Lodgepole Pine where I ended up seeing 6 Cassia Crossbills. When I arrived at Diamondfield Jack Campground it was really cold I was glad to have my sweater and jacket. The park was full of bird song especially from Juniper Titmice. I walked up past the group picnic area on a short hike where I saw a Hairy Woodpecker and then a small flock of Cassia Crossbills flew in . They made their distinctive calls I practiced learning before I got there. I also noted the females and males but especially the males looked more muted than our Red Crossbills. I was glad I learnt the call. However, most of the Cassias there were banded, making identification easy for those who don't like to rely on calls alone. It is sad that this new species is critically endangered. To read more about their plight click HERE.

Banded Female Cassia Crossbill in Sawtooth National Forest, ID - Photo: Melissa Hafting

On the drive up to the park from Nevada to here I had some good birds including a family of American Avocets and their cute young, Great-tailed Grackles, Yellow-headed Blackbirds, Brewer's Sparrows, Loggerhead Shrikes, Black-billed Magpie, Western Meadowlarks, Mountain Bluebirds, Cliff Swallows and Canyon Wren, Red-tailed and Swainson's Hawk, American Kestrel, and Prairie Falcon, just to name a few.

In the park itself I had Mountain Chickadee, Red Crossbill, Cassia Crossbill, Hammond's Flycatcher, Red-naped Sapsucker, Hairy Woodpecker, Violet-green Swallow, House Wren, Turkey Vultures, Common Raven, Northern Flicker, Golden and Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Cassin's Finch, Pine Siskin, American Robin, Hermit Thrush, Red-breasted Nuthatch and Yellow-rumped Warblers.

The next day I hiked up to Island Lake at Lamoille Canyon in the Ruby Mountains in Elko Nevada. I was  in search of Himalayan Snowcocks and Black Rosy-Finches.They tell you to be at the trail head at 4am latest and that you should hike up in the dark with a flashlight so you are in place to hear the Snowcocks vocalizing before they fly down the ridges and feed and disappear well I didn't want to hike up in pitch black when snow was still on the trail and I'm all alone so I got there for 5:30 am at sunrise. Black-billed Magpies greeted me on my entry up the mountain. As I walked up the trail it was full of bird song! Mac Warblers, Slate Fox Sparrows, White-crowned Sparrows, Green-tailed Towhees, Western Wood Pewees and Dusky Flycatchers were singing away. A Rock Wren was singing non stop! As I winded up the switchbacks on this 2 mile each way hike I saw a lone Clark's Nutcracker and a few Mountain Chickadees and a Cassin's Finch. There were many Ravens, Violet-green and White-throated Swifts about I also saw Red-tailed and one Ferruginous Hawk. The views and vistas were pretty stunning too as I approached the top I was glad to see the trail was all snow free except for one tiny section. Lots of water on the trail from snow melt so I was happy to have worn waterproof shoes. As I got to the top I could hear the Himalayan Snowcocks chucking. I couldn't see any birds I had my scope with me and then 2 rocketed past I think they were snowcocks at least (right shape and size) but they were just too distant for me to count it as a lifer. I also don't count heard onlys.... I walked back down a bit disappointed at myself for not starting in the pitch blackness. I sat down to lick my wounds by the wooden bridge when I decided to buck up and scan the rocks again. Within 10 mins I had a SNOWCOCK! This is a very heavy crop but compared to what I was expecting to get ...a distant speck I am thrilled.

Himalayan Snowcock in Nevada - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Ok these are introduced birds but they are stunning birds and huge ones and it's a hike early in the morning so I was thrilled. I watched him ruffle his feathers and walk around. He was not far I could see him with bins. I pinched myself to make sure it wasn't a mirage. The last person told me to be prepared for a distant speck but boy were they wrong. I later talked to 2 anglers who told me at this time of year when there is a bit of snow left, it is the best time to see them in the summer with all the foot traffic they move wayyy high up and are usually distant specks. I guess I got lucky! Green-tailed Towhees, American Robins and Yellow-rumped and Mac Warblers and Chipmunks and Ground-squirrels escorted me out of there. I was so happy. Yes I dipped on the Black Rosy-Finch but at least I can get that bird in other states. The Himalayan Snowcock just like the Cassia Crossbill are endemic to these specific regions only. It was a beautiful hike and such a cool bird. I didn't think I would enjoy twitching an introduced bird this much!



Himalayan Snowcock country in NV was really beautiful - Photos: Melissa Hafting

I have 2 friends going on this adventure this summer. I hope they get this lucky! People told me this hike was so hard yes it is all uphill but it has switchbacks and only 2 miles it doesn't compare to hikes I've done in BC like Flatiron or in AZ like Ramsey Canyon. Anyone who has done those hikes or is of average fitness will have zero trouble on this hike. Apparently some very wealthy people hire helicopters and flush the poor birds on the top of the mountain which sucks for anyone walking up looking for those birds. Luckily no helicopters were on site during my visit.I wish some Mountain Goats had been though I only had Chipmunks and Ground-squirrels to keep me company.

On my last night I went to Salt Lake City to do some owling. The place is littered with Flammulated Owls at least that's what they told me. Flammulated Owls aren't a lifer but I do not have a decent photo of one despite seeing them in BC, so off I went. I got in around 7:30pm and birded Salt Lake. It was nice to see so many Forster's Terns, American Avocets, Snowy Egrets, Neotropic Cormorants, Gulls and the like. After being away from water for a few days, it was a welcome change. I hit up a creek and found 2 American Dippers and a Bald Eagle (rare for here), I also had two Common Nighthawks and had a couple Little Brown Bats fly by. The creek was littered with Yellow and Mac Warblers.

American Avocet in Salt Lake City in Utah - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Utah is a beautiful state - Photo: Melissa Hafting

I started owling at 9:30pm and had to dodge several mule deer and porcupines on the road. Once I got out it was bitterly cold and I was able to hear a Flammulated Owl and Poorwills almost instantly, then a Northern Saw-Whet Owl started screaming at me. You know that eerie trill they can do?. He flew right in and I put the flashlight on him and saw his cute face. As I lifted my camera he flew off. I ended up getting 3 Saw-whets that night. Two Great-horneds were calling loudly and I figured I wouldn't see anymore Flams that night because Saw-whets ans Flams are Great-Horned appetizers. Well I was wrong... shortly after moving from that spot 3 flew in and called then 4 more. Was I in the middle of a Flammulated Owl flock? This was nuts. In BC in the Okaganan I've heard a few and seen a couple but never like this. What I heard about this place was true it's the Flammulated Owl capital of the world. What is interesting about this place is that Flammulated Owls here only use aspen and in BC they are predominantly in Ponderosa Pine.

Anyways, I got one Flammulated Owl who came in and sat with me for awhile under the stars and I finally got the photo I have been seeking of this little adorable owl. As I looked up after my night of owling which ended at 11:45pm and saw the big and Little Dipper I felt how lucky I am to be here to see such a glorious sight. I may have got two lifers this trip with the Himalayan Snowcock and Cassia Crossbill but seeing this owl I've seen many times before like this was my highlight and now I have a photo memory I can cherish forever. I had to read up online how to take night photos of owls. All my previous night photography shots have been blurs. I found the sweet spot by setting my camera at 300m and the aperture at 5.6, I used a tripod and a shutter speed of 1/15-1/60 plus an iso of 1600. I tried a few with the built in pop in flash but what made the image was my bright spotlight flashlight from Canadian tire. It's best if you have someone holding it for you but if not take it to your camera and tripod so it can move with the camera and your hands are free. The owl spotlight was never shone on the owl for more than a few seconds and never in his eyes, so not to blind him. I am glad I finally know how to make a sharp image at night ... now I need to learn how to do astrophotography.

All in all I ended up with 12 Flammulated Owls that night, 3 Northern Saw-whets and 3 Great Horned Owls and many Common Poorwills all within a 2 km stretch of road in a couple of hours. Those Flammies are packed in there like Sardines. A great first visit for me to Utah, I'll definitely be back.

1 of 12 Flammulated Owls in Utah - Photos: Melissa Hafting

Comments

  1. Another great adventure Mel. Your shots are stunning.

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  2. Wow; seeing the snowcock that close; amazing!! not to mention your views and the pics of the owls. The crossbill almost seems like a secondary bird after that, and yet it is still a bird sought by many. I can't imagine a more successful trip. Congrats.

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  3. Sounds like a good trip with lots of nice birds found

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  4. mel these are so cool i've never seen a flammulated owl so im envious. the owls must have trusted you to sit there so long for the photos you are obviously very skilled to do night photography so artfully. i very much enjoy your writing style thanks for all your hard work in the birding community. i noticed you have been sad in the last few posts. i hope this trip cheered you up because you bring so much happiness to so many you deserve only good things.

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  5. oh i also wanted to say your snowcock photo is really amazing i dont know if i would have enough courage to do that hike alone even in the daylight!

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  6. Congrats on your lifers - always interesting to read your story as I see and learn things about birds I never even knew existed.

    The flammulated Owl shots worked out terrific - looks like you got that skill down.

    Thanks for sharing.

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  7. Congrats on the lifers! The Himalayan Snowcock sounds like an exciting bird to look for with its spectacular habitat! Also amazing shots of those flammulated owls.

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  8. thanks all for the very kind words :)

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  9. Congrats on the lifers!! Sounds like you had an amazing trip! Your Flam owl pics are absolutely incredible!!!!

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  10. A very enjoyable read. Well done. I, too, think that you are very brave.

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  11. Mel,
    Another wonderful story to go along with a fantastic birding trip. Love to hear of your adventures. Congrats on the Snowcock and the Cassia Crossbills. One day I will get out that way.

    Mike

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    1. Thanks mike for your kind words. i hope to hear all about your recent trip to latin america asap!! :)

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  12. Never cease to amaze Mel with your commitment to get your prey!
    Brings back memories of the Snowcock helicopter scene in the book/film "the big year" from a few years back. Great that you managed so many Owls as well! Very much enjoy your escapades!

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    1. Thank you so much Ian you are so sweet! Ever since I saw the big year I thought I better go! LOL

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  13. Sounds like a great trip - and so many owls! Those little Flammulated guys sure are adorable!

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