March 25, 2021
This grayish bird stands roughly two-feet tall and can weigh six pounds. A sizeable, deftly camouflaged bird that possesses uncanny wariness and paranoia. To find them is one thing. To actually bag one is a whole other ball game.
The sharp granite peaks of the Ruby Mountains rise abruptly from the valley floor to elevations reaching 11,000 feet. If you are the sort of person who yearns for solitude to commune with nature, you couldn’t pick a more idyllic place.
As a longtime Nevada resident, I had talked about hunting snowcock for years. It never evolved to much more than that, until I met Alaskans Terry and Matt Hardinge. We set out on our inaugural trip in 2018 and managed to successfully bag four birds between the three of us—a rare feat.
We ventured into the 2019 season with tempered expectations but were equipped with a far better understanding of bird behavior and the grueling mountain conditions. Our biggest unknown was going to be human pressure. To try and stay one step ahead, we backpacked six miles into the wilderness. This put our camp just below 10,000 feet and would allow us to maximize our daily coverage of suitable habitat.
The winter of 2018/19 in the Rubies stretched far into the spring and remaining snow patches supplied readily available water runoff. This gave us the ability to move faster and lighter.
Opening morning came to us at 4:30 in the morning from either too much anticipation or the inability to breathe through clogged sinuses. Temperatures never dropped below 45 degrees, which made for an uncomfortably warm night. The year prior, we awoke to a thin crust of frost over our sleeping bags, so we weren’t complaining.
The climb to the ridgeline straight out of camp was rough first thing in the morning. By the time we reached the top, sweat permeated the layers of our dermis and we were well and truly awake.
Immediately, we began to see signs of their presence in the form of fresh droppings, dusting bowls, and feathers. A thrill to see, but our elevation was too high for this time of the morning and we knew the birds were somewhere in the canyon below. However, we needed this high ground to take advantage of viewing a larger swath of country. Snowcock are very gregarious. You will often hear them but will still have a difficult time visually locating them unless they fly.
Terry, Matt, and I had hidden ourselves separately, near some available pine trees in the off chance a bird did appear. As the sun’s warm rays began to bathe the canyon walls, the distinct call of snowcock broke the morning’s silence. I raised my binoculars, trying desperately to pinpoint the origin of the call. More calling. Soon, three birds took flight from the opposite side of the canyon and disappeared behind a tree that was obscuring my line of sight. I adjusted my position and began glassing a flat, green area at the top of the canyon about 500 feet below.
Contrasting against a background of lush green grass was a large body that initially struck me as a Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep. As the image profiled itself, I immediately saw I was wrong. The distinguishing outline of a snowcock appeared. Neither Terry or Matt had managed to visually locate the birds, but I implored them to believe me that we needed to move fast. Quickly, angling down the mountain, a steep cliff broke up our forward progress requiring Terry to move above and Matt and I to skirt below. I paused for a moment, lifting my binoculars. Excitedly, I could see four other birds had joined the one I had glassed, making the descent all the more appealing.
Suddenly, a cacophony of crashes and smashes reached my ears and I looked up to see rocks sliding above me. I retreated away from the cliff, allowing myself to safely observe an enormous slab of granite and a dead tree that came barreling off the cliff fifty yards away. I half expected to see a wiry Alaskan come tumbling down the mountain as well—thankfully not. That slab of granite was easily large enough to be considered a widow maker.
Our element of surprise was gone, and I watched as one of the birds flew to the cliffs on the other side of the canyon. I couldn’t tell where the others had gone but reasonably concluded that they hadn’t hung around either. I loudly called up to Terry since there was no point in talking quietly. Moments passed before his reassuring voice trailed over the cliffs above stating he was alive and well.
Matt decided he was going to descend to the bottom while I waited for Terry. He disappeared into the trees and I watched as Terry down-climbed to me. In a sobering tone he relayed how he had stepped on the granite slab, which broke free and threw him over a ten-foot drop! He described literally surfing it, desperately trying to avoid it running over his leg.
We both concluded that any bird within the entire mountain range would have heard the commotion and split. Not quite sure of Matt’s current location, we decided to return to the ridge where we had seen game sign earlier and wait.
Himalayan Snowcock Hunting Methods
There are two methods to hunting Himalayan snowcock: passive and aggressive. Passive would best be described as finding a location they could potentially be and waiting. The aggressive tactic is to spot-and-stalk or jump shoot. I have yet to have success with the passive approach.
I say this because as we sat and waited, a thundering BOOM, BOOM erupted across the canyon. Matt had located a covey of birds across the canyon and managed to seal the deal. As tempting as it was to immediately abandon our strategy and join Matt, we stayed put. It took him awhile to make it back to us, but when he did, Matt recounted stalking in on a covey after he heard them chattering in the cliffs. He slid his backpack off and undid the drawstring revealing a beautiful grayish/white bird with the tell-tale yellow streak through its eye.
Terry and I maintained our strategy throughout the remainder of the day to absolutely no success. We returned to camp that evening where we devised a plan for the following day.
Will to Succeed
After a restful night’s sleep thanks to cooler weather and tired muscles, we ascended to the ridge. It was much quieter than the previous morning. We mentally prepared ourselves for the possibility that we would not see any activity—when suddenly we began to hear snowcock faintly chatter in the distance.
I glassed the cliffs with my binoculars, trying to identify the origin of the noise, but nothing emerged. Suddenly, three shapes in unison blurred across the sky towards the cliffs below us. We had the advantage of being above them. We devised a plan to approach from three different elevations: ridge top, mid mountain, and from the canyon floor. If any of us bumped a bird and weren’t successful with our shot, it might provide an opportunity for someone else to get a shot off.
I dropped to the canyon floor, trying to quietly down-climb through the cliffs and not disturb the loose rock. For a stretch, each step felt like I was stepping on marbles as the rocks broke free and tumbled down the mountain. I sighed with relief when I found more stable footing toward the bottom. I slowly crept up the canyon, hugging the cliffs, attempting to hide my presence. The alarm call sounded as two birds burst into the air from the cliffs 150 yards above and ahead of me. The BOOM from a shotgun erupted, trailing the birds as they escaped into the abyss. Seeing our chance flying away, I pushed on to our predetermined meeting spot.
On the rim of the canyon that ran adjacent to the one we were in, I heard the chatter of a snowcock. I pulled my binoculars to my eyes just in time to see the silhouette of a snowcock sky lined above me. I watched as it, and then three others, moved behind a large rock. I hurriedly moved up to the rim where I came across Terry, who had heard the snowcock as well. He hadn’t seen the birds like I had, so he allowed me to go ahead as he followed behind. My heart was trying to beat its way out of my chest from the nervous excitement of being so close.
Approaching the last place I saw the birds, Terry and I split up in anticipation of surprising these birds from both sides. Before me was a rock formation resembling the steps of a giant. I slid my Remington 870 onto the top step as I crawled with hands and feet to a position where I could lay across the top, hoping to spy the birds for our ambush. 50 yards to my left, a rock dislodged and I could hear the hollow sound as it fell. There, perched on a precipice, were three Himalayan snowcock!
I had patterned my shotgun with a buffered load of 2 3/4" #4s to 60 yards and even without a range finder I knew they were within range. Still laying on my right side, I seated my shotgun into my left shoulder and aimed. BOOM! BOOM! I fired at the two birds standing closest to each other. Two birds flew off the cliff and a third bird waddled towards a lone bush and disappeared behind it. I sprang to my feet, pulling extra shells from my pocket, frantically reloading while I leapt over crevices trying to put eyes on the bird.
Suddenly, I noticed the white underside of a wing frantically flapping from behind the bush. I knew some of my pellets had successfully met their mark. Standing on the rim above, relief flooded over me like a wave as I saw the large gray body of the snowcock motionless on the rocks below. My immediate thought was to throw caution to the wind and climb directly down, but Terry’s voice broke my focus as he suggested we take the safer route down to the bird.
The coloring of snowcock blends in so well with its environment that as I neared the bush, I couldn’t find the bird. My heart sank for a moment believing it had escaped. My eyes adjusted and the bird was exactly where it had been. I lifted the heavy bird from the ground and examined the rust coloring that fringes the tail and flight feathers. Small pin feathers were poking out between the larger feathers and from its size and lighter coloring I could tell it was a first-year bird. From what I have learned, mature birds are noticeably larger. Regardless, I didn’t care. I was happy to hold this bird and appreciative of how difficult they are to hunt.
The Himalayan snowcock embodies the essence of true adventure. To pursue the bird requires tenacity, sweat, and a steadfast will to succeed.