The quest for Inyo's Gray Vireos...a success!

From: Chris Howard, Rosie Beach, Jon Dunn
Remote Name:
Date: 06/30/02
Time: 12:57 PM


Click here to hear an audio sample of the Grapevine Mountains, Inyo County, Gray Vireo recorded on 29 June 2002 Both song and call trill can be heard- (100kb .wav format).

It all began in 1891 when the A. K. Fisher expedition found and documented Gray Vireos in the Grapevine Mountains, east of Death Valley, on the border of Nye County, NV and Inyo County, CA. The state border generally runs down the crest of the Grapevines.  Unfortunately, the expedition didn't specify if the vireos were found on the Inyo side or the Nye side.  The Grapevine Mountains are, to this date, the only known breeding location of Gray Vireo in Inyo County.  And, they are very rarely found in migration, so to see this bird, means a trip to it's breeding ground.

In 1940, Miller (of Grinnell and Miller) found and published a new record of Gray Vireo in the Grapevines, but only on the Nevada side.

In 1991 Tom and Jo Heindel, one hundred years after the A. K. Fisher expedition,  thoroughly researched the literature, studied Gray Vireo life history, and analyzed  topographic maps.  Their 1991 expedition to finally find and document Gray Vireo in Inyo County was a success.  They succeeded by finding one Gray Vireo in Inyo County, pinpointed the location on a map, and detailed their observations.  Despite the rarity of this breeder in Inyo, they vowed never to make the trip again...the road was the worst they had ever driven.  Nobody else had made the arduous trek to see Gray Vireo since Tom and Jo's 1991 observation until now.

On 28 June 2002, we left Bishop in the afternoon.  It was dusk by the time we neared the Grapevines and our truck flushed 6 or so Common Poorwills up off the dirt road.  Parts of the road required four-wheel-drive, and one particular section of steep loose cobbles was too much to attempt in darkness. We camped under the stars in the pinyons. At 6AM, we again tried low range to get up the impasse in the road.  The deep, steep cobbles and large boulders and holes were too much for our Toyota 4X4.  We were just spinning our wheels so we packed a bunch of water and lunch and hiked about 3.5 miles over very difficult, steep terrain, much of which was trail-less

The habitat of the Gray Vireo is dry, impoverished, scattered juniper trees with good shrub cover.  When we neared the proper habitat, Jon played a tape every couple hundred yards hoping to gain a vireo's interest.  Nothing but curious Bewick's Wrens and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers.  Finally, as we approached the area Tom and Jo documented Inyo's first certain Gray Vireo 11 years ago, Jon heard one singing partial songs down-canyon.  Walking downstream we found a pair.  We played the tape a few more times and the two birds flew around us from juniper to juniper.  This area is so remote, the last people down there could have very well been Tom and Jo 11 years ago.  We watched, photographed, and recorded them for 15 minutes. 

A word of caution:  this trip was very strenuous with no water, miles from any help, no cell phone service, very bad roads, hot hiking with no trail, much elevation gain and loss, etc.

Gray Vireo in the Grapevines, Inyo County - 29 June 2002.

Close-up of photo at left.

Gray Vireo scattered juniper habitat.