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Spotting these Ruby Mountains birds requires a demanding hike and a great deal of patience.
Photo: Jim Boone (all)
The Ruby Mountains of northeastern Nevada provide high and rugged territory where Himalayan Snowcocks and mountain goats find refuge among rocky cliffs. Scenic Lamoille Canyon provides access to the high country and a plethora of birding opportunities, but a stout hike awaits any birder searching for winged critters among these high cliffs.
Lamoille Creek runs down this scenic glaciated canyon. In some places it does so over rocky cascades, while in others it meanders through beaver ponds and open meadows, providing water and habitat for wildlife.
Finding Himalayan Snowcocks
While we know the woods and meadows of Lamoille Canyon are full of wonderful animals such as mule deer, beavers, dusky grouse, black-crowned rosy finches, long-tailed weasels, and tons of dickey birds and raptors, in this instance who cares? We are looking for snowcocks!
Snowcocks live in the highest, most inaccessible places along the north end of the Ruby Crest; and did I mention that people hunt them, so they are very skittish?
Probably the “easiest” place to see them is above Island Lake when the first rays of the morning sun hit the tops of the highest peaks. Because you need to be in place while it is still dark, you need to hike up and camp at Island Lake the day before, or strap on a headlamp and hike up in the pre-dawn darkness.
From the end of the road at Road’s End, hike the two-mile trail to Island Lake. At Island Lake, hike off trail and up onto the bench above and west of the lake. With a spotting scope, the bench is as far as you need to go.
As dawn breaks, but long before sunrise, you should hear the snowcocks cackling as they wake up. Listen for them, and try to figure out where on the tops of the ridges they were sleeping. You might be lucky and see them on the ledges or against the skyline.
Otherwise, keep watching, and eventually they will fly down from the security of the ridgeline to forage on the slopes below. For as big as they are, this is vast country, so keep a close eye as they fly, and don’t lose them when they land in the rocks.
When I had my chance to see these birds, I hiked in the day before and slept among the rocks in the talus slopes below the highest cliffs. During the afternoon and evening, I neither saw nor heard snowcocks, but I did photograph American pika and mountain goats.
I awoke and packed camp in the early-morning darkness, and as dawn started to dim the stars, the snowcocks started clucking at the top of the mountain above me. They clucked a fair bit, and when the first rays of sun hit them, they flew down and then across the mountainside to the ridgeline far to the north.
I suspect they saw me the day before or in the morning, so they flew away, and I had to spend the rest of the morning clamoring among the peaks and cliffs to finally get a good view of one near the summit of Full House Peak. Of course, it flew off—more than a mile to the mountain across the valley.
Lamoille Canyon and the Ruby Mountains are located in Northeast Nevada, just south of Elko. From Elko, drive southeast on State Route 227 for 22 miles to the Lamoille Canyon Scenic Byway, which is a right turn a short distance before reaching the town of Lamoille. Watch for highway signs. Follow Lamoille Canyon Scenic Byway to Road’s End at an elevation of 8,800 feet.
The city of Elko and surrounding towns provide full services. Thomas Canyon Campground, with 40 sites, provides the only legal camping along the road. Backpacking is permitted everywhere.