Friday, March 7, 2014

Searching for Chukar at Antelope Island State Park, December 24

There had been recent snow in the Salt Lake City area.  When I arrived last evening, there was at least 6 inches or more on the ground and with snow still on the edges of the streets and roads.  It was cold.  I decided to wait until the sun was up (sunrise at 7:50 am) to drive approximately 45 miles to the entrance to Antelope Island State Park, because last night when I arrived there were areas on the streets that had a thin glaze of ice.  I picked up breakfast to go and drove north on I-15 along the east side of Great Salt Lake.  The road was clear but with a few snowy and slushy areas.  There had been reports of Chukar in eBird: 10 on 11/03/13 with a photograph on Antelope Island Road, four were reported from another location on Antelope Island Road on 12/09/13 and had been heard from that same location on 11/05/13 and 11/18/13 and 8 were reported along the causeway to Antelope Island on 12/09/13.  I had recorded the GPS locations of all these locations.  I arrived at the entrance gate at about 9:25 am, paid the entry fee and drove slowly toward the island on the causeway, a distance of about 5 miles.  Everything was snow covered on the sides of the causeway road.  It should have been easy to see a grayish Chukar against the snow.  However, I did not find a Chukar along the causeway.

I decided to go to the location where there were three different reports of Chukar during November and December prior to my visit.  Antelope Island Road followed the coast south along the island and was the only road in that direction.  The road was mostly open but had a few places that were ice covered but which had enough open areas with wheel tracks that the icy areas could be negotiated.  I got to the GPS location and got out to scan the rocky slopes and to listen for possible Chukar calls.  It is often difficult to determine if the GPS location in eBird is the location of the sighting or if that just happens to be where the report was entered.  I scanned the rocky slopes with binoculars and telescope, and briefly played Chukar calls.  However, I had no luck in finding a Chukar.  There were Common Ravens and Black-billed Magpies flying along the slopes well uphill from my location.  A white pickup truck stopped, and the driver asked me what I was looking for.  He thought that I was looking for bighorn sheep also found on the island.  When I told him that I was looking for Chukar, he told me that he was a hunter, and that a better place to look was not far south of my location around the corner and uphill from a black-topped parking area with a cable across the road uphill from the parking area.  He told me that there were many Chukars if one walked up to a gravel parking area beyond the black-topped parking area.  I thanked him for the information and decided to check out this location.
Around the corner and south, a herd of bison was in the grassy area on the lakeside of the road.  There were other vehicles there watching the bison.  I continued beyond the bison herd and found the parking area.  I parked in the parking area, gathered my camera, binoculars and backpack with water and wet suit coat and pants just in case I needed another layer.  The road up to the flat gravel area was hard packed snow and slippery and was an elevation change of about 200 feet in about 0.5 mile.  Apparently, the road had been open before being closed, and the vehicles had packed the snow hard.  I walked along the side of the road in the crusted snow, where I had better traction.  The habitat looked good for Chukar.  The uphill steep slopes had rocky outcroppings interspersed with snow covered grass and vegetation.  As the hunter had stated, there was a relatively large flat gravel area, an apparent parking area but now snow covered.  I birded this area for about 40 minutes but found no Chukar.  The flat area had been cut out of the hillside, and the steep sides prevented me from scanning the uphill slopes for Chukar.   At the south end of this flat area, there were trailhead signs for Frary Peak Trail and Dooly Knob Trail.  I climbed the short distance up to the trail head and signs.  As I was scanning the south slopes, I found a coyote, hunting the slope.  The coyote also was watching me, but soon disappeared.  I hiked up the Frary Peak Trail for a short distance of only several hundred yards and maybe only 50 feet of elevation change.  With the snow cover, the trail was too treacherous for the foot gear I was wearing.  It looked like others had hiked the trail with crampons on their hiking boots.  I did get far enough up the trail to be able to scan the uphill slopes, and found only Common Ravens and a Black-billed Magpie, but no Chukar.  However, I did find footprints in the snow, three toes forward and one backward that were probably Chukar footprints.  Apparently, there had been Chukar in this area since the snow fell.  I took a telephoto photo of the uphill area to show the habitat.  See photo below of the uphill area from this trail.

Chukar habitat
I carefully hiked down the trail to the flat parking area, where I found a small flock of American Goldfinches and a Snow Bunting.  At least there were a few birds around.  I continued back down the road to my car, and had some lunch that I carried with me.  More people had arrived at the parking area.  Consequently, I was glad that I got there early.  They asked me about the condition of the road for hiking, and I shared my experience with them.  Two groups started hiking up the road.  The view was excellent from up there.  It is appropriate that this location is named Mountain View Trail Access.  I continued scanning the slopes uphill but was not successful in spotting a Chukar.
I decided to drive to the Visitor Center to see if there might be someone there with information about how to find Chukar.  I arrived at the Visitor Center close to 1:00 pm.  The lady at the desk knew about Chukar.  She said there was a large group every morning when she arrived, waiting for her to fill the feeder.  If I walked around the area outside near the outcroppings, I might still see a Chukar.  I told her of my experience in the morning.  She said that the north end of the island was better for Chukar.  She was not aware of many Chukars in the southern part of the island.  Another place to look was Buffalo Point Trail.  She gave me directions to Buffalo Point Trail.  I knew that Chris Hitt had seen Chukar on this trail during his Lower 48 Big Year.  However, he did not wait until winter to find his Chukar.  I had previously looked at the glossy brochure handed out at the entry booth, but did not find Buffalo Point Trail on the map in that brochure.  However, much later after I had found Buffalo Point Trail, I looked carefully at a two sided one page listing of Antelope Island Trails and found Buffalo Point and the trail on the map.  Should have looked carefully earlier!

I first looked out the window of the Visitor Center at the feeder.  There were no Chukars at the feeder.  As instructed, I walked out of the door to the north to look around and walked the walkway around the west side of the Visitor Center.  There were Chukar tracks in the snow everywhere, radiating out from the visitor center like spokes in a wheel!  See photo below. 
Chukar tracks in snow at Visitor Center
I should have stopped here early in the morning!  I walked out around the rocky outcroppings around the Visitor Center hoping to find a Chukar.  I succeeded in finding many additional sets of Chukar tracks in the snow, but no birds!  It was not too late to give Buffalo Point Trail a try before sunset.                                                     
I found Buffalo Point and the trail easily.  The roads there were completely free of snow and ice.  As I approached the parking lot, a coyote was standing in an open area on the left side of the road and would occasionally throw back its head.  When I parked uphill at the parking area, I could see the coyote throw back its head then hear a delayed coyote howl.  That was fun to see.  The trail up to Buffalo Point was icy and covered with packed snow. The lower part of the trail faced east and was mostly in shadow during the whole day; therefore, the sun did not melt the snow and ice.  I was able to negotiate the lower part of the trail by taking advantage of tracks from previous hikers that formed steps.  Further uphill, the trail became more open where the sun had melted the snow and ice.  I got about half to two-thirds of the way up the trail, but had no success.  Further uphill, the trail appeared to become more snow covered and icy and got steeper.  It did not look promising.  I probably could not reach the top.

However, a more promising area seemed to be close to the southeast edge of the hill off of the trail, on a steep gravel and rock downhill slope to the flat area near the lake.  I worked my way over to the edge.  The footing in this area was much better, because the snow and ice was mostly melted.  I scanned the downhill slope, and played Chukar calls.  Then I moved further down toward the parking area and prepared to do this again.  As I looked over the edge, a Chukar streaked, running along the sloping hillside toward my left.  I saw the white face surrounded by the dark border, but not very clearly.  It was difficult to see other details, because I was looking directly toward the glare of the late day sun lowered in the sky.  I tried to find the bird again, but could not.  Chukar is known to be very secretive and elusive.  I continued down the trail and carefully got down the steep icy part of the trail to the parking lot.  There was one last chance to see Chukar well and maybe get a photograph.  Perhaps, Chukar come into the feeder at the Visitor Center late in the day just before sunset.  Hopefully, this brief view of Chukar at Buffalo Point would not be the only one for me.
I arrived at the Visitor Center at about 4:00 pm.  The scenery was beautiful with the partial snow cover, the lake and the distant snow-capped mountains.  I took several photos.  See below.
Scenery looking east across the lake from visitor Center

Scenery looking southeast across the lake from Visitor Center
Scenery looking south from Visitor Center
I walked into the Visitor Center and down the hall to the glass windows and looked out to the feeders.  There was a Chukar all fluffed up against the cold, huddled on top of a snow covered rock by the feeder!  Yes!  Success!  See photo below.
Chukar huddled at feeder

I carefully walked by the window to not spook the bird and quietly walked out the glass doors on the north side of the building.  I quietly walked over to the corner of the building and peeked around the corner hoping to get a better photo not through the glass.  The Chukar saw me and flew down the hill from the feeders followed by four other Chukars that were hidden from my view from inside the building.  I took several relatively long distant photos of the two birds that were close.  See photo below. 
Chukars downhill from feeder

I went back inside the Visitor Center to let the lady know that I found Chukar at the feeder.  I headed to my car and started driving toward the causeway to head south to Salt Lake City.  As I drove the road toward the causeway with the Visitor Center on the right, another Chukar ran across the road.  I observed it walking toward the feeder as I drove on.  The sun was setting and it was almost 5:00 pm.  Before I got to the entry gate I stopped at a pull off and took photos of the pink alpine glow on the snow-capped Wasacht Moutains to the east and of the sunset to the west.  See photos below.
Alpine Glow on Wasacht Mountains
 at sunset from causeway

Sunset at Antelope Island
from causeway
I was hungry and stopped to pick up some hot chocolate and some snacks.  While I was stopped, I made online reservations at the motel where I stayed last night.  Then I headed back to my motel for the night.  The next day was Christmas.  Chukar was a nice Christmas present to me to add to my year list.  I spent the whole day looking but finally succeeded at the end of the day.  That is not the first time that has happened during this Big Year.

I did not make reservations for a flight to my next location until I was sure that I had found Chukar.  That night I would decide for certain my next location, probably Spokane, Washington, to try for Gray Partridge.  Bob Ake had found Gray Partridge near Spokane during his Big Year, and there were a number of reports of Gray Partridge near Spokane on eBird for November and December.  When I got to my motel, I checked for flights to Spokane, WA.  The next day was Christmas, and getting a flight out of Salt Lake City could have been difficult.
Chukar raised my Big Year total to 731 plus two provisionals, Common Redstart and Eurasian Sparrowhawk as of December 24.   (See the final total for the year, 733 + 2 provisionals, reported on January 3, 2014.)

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