A few weeks ago Friends of Black Rock – High Rock hosted its 10th annual Rendezvous event out on the playa. There were presentations, tours, raffle prizes, a Dutch oven cook-off, lots of dogs roaming about. One of the tours went out to Soldier Meadows, a spring-fed wetland north of the Calico Range. (Here’s a little more on the area and why it’s important.) My co-worker Michael co-led that tour with a BLM biologist named Kathy, and afterward I asked him what they had seen. He listed the usual suspects: pronghorn, golden eagles, meadowlarks, spring snails, basalt cinquefoil creeping across the alkaline soil. (Quick aside: Michael is not a bird person. But he knows I am.) He paused in his recollection. “And…what else…oh yeah! Kathy pointed out this bird hanging out near the springs. It was…” His face slowly lit up, eyes wide and mouth agape in an expression of coolly measured enthusiasm—he knew I was eagerly anticipating this one—“It was…a long-billed curly!” He pantomimed the decurved bill as I burst out laughing. “Right? I think that’s what Kathy said.”
The flycatchers perch conspicuously on bare branches, flicking their tails and chirping. They sally forth with a flourish, nabbing a passing insect and alighting at their original spot, whereupon they eat and resume their flicking and chirping. Their plumage is mostly gray, olive, drab. Around these parts you get the Willow, the Dusky, the Gray, sometimes the Pacific-slope or the Hammond’s flycatcher. They are best identified by their songs—which is great if you’re keen of ear but exasperating if, like myself, you’re not, because when you’re struggling to follow their swoops and sallies through binoculars they’re all but indistinguishable in appearance. Hell, even if they sit still I have a hard time confidently differentiating between, say, a Dusky and a Gray. I content myself with knowing that these drab-colored tail-flicking birds are of the Empidonax genus, that they are fast and flighty, and that they are a pleasure to observe.
High above the mouth of the Truckee River—where it connects its lacustrine lifeline from Tahoe to Pyramid—scads of turkey vultures and ravens and American white pelicans catch thermals on outstretched wings and spiral heavenward. Bird people call this behavior “kettling,” and it’s fascinating to watch such disparate species converge at the same aeolian elevator, tightly packed and determinedly non-communicative, each clique seemingly oblivious to the other as the ground beneath them falls further and further away. Do the vultures, with their bloodhound sense of smell, object to the fishiness of their pelican elevator-mates, or the trashiness of the ravens? Are they aware of their own pestilent fetor? As I stand watching through binoculars from the riverbank, the elevator reaches the topmost floor and the birds disperse, each hurrying off to their respective errands and obligations.