Almost All of ‘Em

I spent two dawn-to-dusk days prowling a mesquite patch. The birds are very vocal, and going by their calls, I was seemingly surrounded by them. However, they had a superb talent for staying gone. On the final day, I decided to hunt them like turkeys. Before daylight I crawled on hands and knees into the mesquite, found a small opening, and waited. At daylight, the patch exploded with calls. By and by an armadillo came snuffing along. I found that interesting. Suddenly, a chachalaca was standing there watching it also. The bird was close. I must have hit it with every pellet in the 12-bore pattern, as the chachalaca was in sad shape for photographs. I couldn’t have cared less.

The least sporting? Two species vie for that label: the spruce grouse and the white-tipped dove. Had I let her, I’m certain our Lab, May, could have caught spruce grouse herself during a hunt in Washington. And the white-tipped is found in the same mesquite patches as the chachalaca. The one I shot was akin to a bird blasted off my back-porch bird feeder.

Then there was the common gallinule I shot in Louisiana. I will admit I didn’t actually pick up the bird. As I was trying to figure out how to get it, several large alligators surfaced. I left the carcass for them. Also in Louisiana I shot a king rail that appeared to me to be a king–clapper cross. I took it to the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge headquarters to show it to a biologist. He judged it to be a cross as well, but offered that it seemed more king than clapper. That was exactly what I’d wanted to hear.

The bird I haven’t gotten, and likely never will? Tetraogallus himalayensis, the Himalayan snowcock. But believe me, it isn’t for lack of trying.

I will term this bird remarkable in every sense of the word. The snowcock is native to Asia. In 1961 and 1963, the Nevada Department of Wildlife imported stock from Pakistan and released them it the Ruby Mountains. By the early 1980s, the birds were doing well and hunting was allowed.

The impact of an open season on the snowcock’s numbers? Zip. That is still more or less the case today. In 2001, a game biologist told me that between 60 and 70 hunters try for the bird each season, and about six snowcocks are bagged. On our second trip to the Ruby Mountains, I spoke with a hunter camped below us who mentioned it was his 17th year hunting them, and he hadn’t gotten one yet.

The Himalayan snowcock is large. The males are about the size of hen sage grouse. They are so hard to kill for two reasons: First and most important, they’re unbelievably wary. At least in my experience, they flush the minute they see you climbing upward. I’ve had them flush at over a quarter mile away! Not only do they flush, but they also frequently leave the area entirely. I have stood in disbelief as they flew to another basin, miles away. When that happens, let me assure you, everything becomes vacant.

He forgot to mention the near endless boulder slides and rocks the size of cars, which require a hunter to make his way upward either by jumping from rock to rock or crawling between them.

Their extreme wariness puzzles me. These are wilderness birds, having little contact with humans. Other wilderness birds—spruce and blue grouse, ruffed grouse in places, and even early-season chukars—are practically tame. But not the snowcock!

Second, their preferred habitat is “on top.” There are both bighorn sheep and mountain goats in the Ruby Mountains. When climbing for snowcock, you leave the goats and sheep below you. I’ve never seen the birds lower than 9,500 feet. Most were up at 10,000 to 11,000. From up there, the mountain goats below look like white dots.

One writer described snowcock habitat as “steep mountain peaks, escarpments, sheer cliffs, and steep slopes.” He forgot to mention the near endless boulder slides and rocks the size of cars, which require a hunter to make his way upward either by jumping from rock to rock or crawling between them. My guess is that sheep and goat hunters would take all this as a matter of course, and I might have done better if I’d gone in my 30s. But being well into my 60s when I first tried snowcock, I found the challenge formidable. I was especially nervous about walking on the edge of those sheer cliffs, where the snowcocks sometimes perch on ledges to watch for their chief predator, the golden eagle. Regarding cliffs, there have been cases of hunters killing a snowcock yet being unable to get down the rock face to retrieve it.

My wife and I made our first trip for snowcock in 2001. Our guide, Bill Gibson, who no longer guides for the bird, was noted as having the best success getting birds for his clients. It was Bill who guided well-known wingshooter and writer Tom Huggler in the 1990s. Apparently Tom missed three excellent shots during his hunt. That must be some sort of record for actual chances at one. As for myself, about as close as I’ve ever come to a snowcock would have required my .22-250, but with a Leupold scope through which I might see Neil Armstrong’s footprints on a clear night. I think I would rather never have a chance at all than miss one.

On our 2001 trip, we rode horses to hell and gone over the Rubies. There were some trails I’m sure a horse was never meant to be on. Sheer cliffs again. In five days we saw or heard no snowcock. There were good numbers of blue grouse in the lower elevations, and a classic mountain creek with small, colorful brook trout. And we got to watch the many pika drying their hay for the winter on top of boulders. All of this helped make the trip not such a total bust.