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Birding in Nevada's Lahontan Valley

Northern Nevada and Lahontan Valley provides birders with birding galore with shorebirds, waterfowl and more.

David Lukas
Posted: May 7, 2013, 4:45 p.m. PDT

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Nevada's Lahontan Valley offers serious birders a year-round kaleidoscope of adventure, beauty and birds.

A virtually unknown world-class birding site lurks in the wide-open desert just east of Reno, Nevada. As I headed east for my first visit during the grueling heat of an August morning, I knew I was in for a treat. The site is, after all, a Western Hemispheric Shorebird Reserve. I was joining a great birding team, too: Graham Chisholm, Director of the Great Basin Bird Observatory; Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge staff and a host of volunteers for the Tenth Annual Lahontan Valley Shorebird Count.

Black-Necked Stilts
Black-necked stilts are only one of a number of bird species you'll see in Lahontan Valley.

What I saw that day knocked my socks off: shallow lakes teeming with 20,000 American Avocets and tens of thousands of other shorebirds — 25 species in all.

Through July into September, until the first cold fronts nudge the birds onward, nonstop waves of shorebirds stop in the Lahontan Valley to feed. The kaleidoscope of species shifts from Wilson's Phalaropes and Greater Yellowlegs to American Avocets and Black-necked Stilts, then to Western and Least Sandpipers, wrapping up with Dunlins. What makes birding here so fun are the surprises — Pacific Golden-Plovers, Red Phalaropes, Stilt Sandpipers, Ruddy Turnstones, Red Knots, Curlew Sandpipers, Sharp-tailed Sandpipers and Ruff, any of which could excite a serious birder.

Nonstop Birds in Motion
A mixture of habitats and birds characterizes Nevada's Lahontan Valley — from Carson Lake north to the vast Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge. During the Ice Age, the flat basin of Lahontan Valley lay completely under water. Erosion marks from the ancient lake shoreline still stand out on hillsides around the valley like a giant bathtub ring. As Lake Lahontan began to shrink, 11,000 years ago, it left behind pockets of lakes and wetlands. Each is now a gold mine for birders. Just north of Lahontan Valley, the Truckee River, another Sierra Nevada stream, still feeds a fragment of ancient Lake Lahontan, known today as Pyramid Lake.

My first impression at Carson Lake was of constant movement. Avocets moved like choreographed dancers, Black-necked Stilts chased each other with shrill cries, and dense carpets of ruffling Western Sandpipers and Long-billed Dowitchers undulated. It was almost too much. Only as the day and the shorebird count progressed did other details fall into place.

Behind us stretched a complex of wetlands overflowing with grebes, pelicans, egrets, ibis and ducks. Though the shorebird count left us little time for sightseeing, we were constantly aware of the bird multitudes around us. Forster's and Black Terns worked the waters with an occasional Bonaparte's Gull, while Black-crowned Night Herons and White-faced Ibis made appearances among the cattails, and small groupings of Eared Grebes and Ruddy Ducks dove and preened.

At the end of the shorebird count, the tired crews joined up and pooled their tallies. Even though our vehicle was stuck in a tenacious clay wallow for three hours, my group still pulled in several Baird's Sandpipers and a Solitary Sandpiper at close range. One ebullient crew picked up a fourth state record of a Ruff; another spotted a couple of Least Bitterns. Everyone was worn out at the end of the day, but we were forever hooked on this remarkable place.

Fall Migration
In the following weeks, I returned to Lahontan Valley twice to explore other parts of the region. I was amazed to discover that only a handful of birders regularly cover the vast expanse of western Nevada. The task is daunting but the rewards are limitless for birders who pay a visit.

Late-summer and fall birding in the Lahontan Valley is ideal for newcomers. The hot, languid days of July pick up speed with the shorebird migration that stretches into September. More than 500,000 shorebirds stop here. Anyone who brings a canoe will be rewarded with access to extensive wetlands that are far from any road.

The shallow alkaline waters of Carson Lake are especially well-suited for shorebirds. They are also the easiest of any in the valley to view from a vehicle. The lake is shallow, so long-legged waders, such as Black-necked Stilts, American Avocets and Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, can poke about the entire width of the lake. Dense concentrations of Long-billed Dowitchers pack every water bar and various "peeps" ring the shoreline. Dry alkali flats adjacent to the lake are home to ghostly Snowy Plovers.

Late summer is also when American White Pelicans congregate in the valley wherever fish are available. I saw many pelicans during my visits, both up close and as white groups shimmering in the distance. Away from the edge of the lake, I found myself exploring riparian forests of willows and cottonwoods along the Carson River corridor, from the Diversion Dam to the Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge. Land bird migrants crossing large tracts of desert seemed eager to stop over in these small oases, along with predators such as Sharp-shinned and Cooper's Hawks. Clusters of activity revealed mixed flocks of flycatchers, vireos, warblers and tanagers feeding in the brilliant autumn light.

A final stop one late afternoon at Big Soda Lake on the western outskirts of Fallon was a peaceful way to end a day in Lahontan Valley. Tucked into a crater formed by a volcanic blowout, this small circular lake attracts far more birds than its size merits. Some of the valley's most exciting birds have been observed here, including Pacific Loons, Oldsquaws, White-winged Scoters, Curlew Sandpipers and Sabine's Gulls. I set up a scope on the grassy shoreline and watched hundreds of coots and ducks as they fed, preened and slept. It was so quiet that I could hear the soft calls from birds all over the lake.

Winter Waterfowl
Winter in western Nevada can be gray and cold or magnificently sunny and almost warm. The desert comes alive in winter, with unexpected hues and lakes that reflect snowcapped peaks with crystalline clarity. The Lahontan Valley is one of the warmest sites in northern Nevada at this time, and large numbers of birds stay here. On Pioneer Road, along the Carson River, flocks of White-crowned Sparrows gather in agricultural fields in the company of Wild Turkeys and California Quail. Patches of forest attract birds such as the always active Ruby-crowned Kinglets and Yellow-rumped Warblers. Elusive Long-eared Owls have also been observed here.

During winter, Rough-legged, Red-tailed and Ferruginous Hawks are concentrated in agricultural areas. At times, it seems as if every tree has its own hunched silhouette. Fields are regularly dotted with watchful hawks and eagles looking rather baleful as they squat on the cold ground.

The Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge is a mecca for waterfowl. Up to 350,000 ducks and 12,000 Tundra Swans use the Stillwater from September through April, with more than 100,000 waterfowl remaining through winter. The refuge thrills birders because of its size and maze of access points. Many visits are necessary to fully explore this area. At first glance, the flat monotonous landscape seems unpromising, but even the slightest rise can hide a large lake covered with ducks. During milder seasons the Stillwater is best explored on foot, by mountain bike or, preferably, by canoe.

Take your time here — use caution driving on wet dirt roads and retreat often to the city of Fallon to warm up in roadside cafes with cups of hot chocolate. Explore several access points into the Stillwater, check Harmon Reservoir off Stillwater Road and explore the S-line Reservoir off Indian Lakes Road. For a change of pace, you can travel east onto the lower slopes of the Stillwater Range to look for birds inhabiting the sagebrush uplands, such as Townsend's Solitaires, Mountain Bluebirds, Chukars and American Robins.

Winter in the desert is a time of supreme solitude. Let your mind spread to the wide-open horizons and wander freely in search of birds.

Spring Vagrants
Lahontan Valley shines during spring migration, but it is easy to become distracted by gaudy numbers of waterfowl and shorebirds. I suspect the real stars of the show may well be vagrant landbirds that have slipped by undetected (so far) due to lack of birders. It would be an understatement to say that birders have generally overlooked this area, but it is only a matter of time before it is discovered in a big way. A few dedicated pioneers have already staked a claim with sightings of Northern Parula and Black-throated Blue Warblers, Ovenbirds and Hooded Warblers. Many new records are possible here.

For a change from the small to the conspicuous, travel north to Pyramid Lake. Here, you can witness the spectacle of breeding American White Pelicans at Anaho Island. The lake itself is huge and moody, defying superlatives and changing your definition of the word "blue" with each shift of light. Birding can be quite productive here, though the entire area is privately owned by the Pyramid Lake Indian Reservation and access is limited. Stop by the lakeside facilities at Sutcliffe or at the I-80 Smoke Shop in Wadsworth to purchase a day-use pass and pick up a map with current regulations. While in Sutcliffe, visit the exceptional museum adjacent to the general store and bird from the marina.

A long stretch of unsigned dirt road along the west shore provides overlook points from which to scope the lake for loons, grebes and waterfowl. Eleven miles north of Sutcliffe, a sizable grove of cottonwoods and willows attracts numerous migrants, including flycatchers, vireos and warblers. On the north side of the grove an unmarked dirt road provides access to the lakeshore. At the very southern tip of the lake, the road along the west shore looks out over the delta at the mouth of the Truckee River — this site offers the best year-round birding at the lake. Large numbers of grebes, pelicans, waterfowl, gulls, terns and shorebirds gather here to feed and bathe in the freshwater flow from the Truckee River. 

California Quail
California quail can be found in Nevada during winter.

The highlight of spring at Pyramid Lake is definitely the 10,000 nesting American White Pelicans on the east shore of Anaho Island. Protected from predators by its isolation, the island is also home to large colonies of nesting Double-crested Cormorants, Great Blue Herons and California Gulls. Dirt roads north of the town of Nixon provide viewing access. Another possibility is boating across the lake, leaving from the marina at Sutcliffe.    

A Legion of Possibilities
All of Nevada, from the Lahontan Valley and Pyramid Lake outward, hides oases ripe with rich rewards for adventurous birders. Much of this area remains unbirded. Valleys and wetlands are alluring first stops, but also explore the secret canyons of any of Nevada's hundreds of mountain ranges. You can wander sagebrush uplands, pinyon-juniper woodlands and riparian forests to your heart's content. Above all towers one intriguing remote mountain peak after another.

Early spring brings wildflowers to the mountain slopes and the first signs of breeding birds. Long sloping hillsides of sagebrush resonate with the buzzy trills of Brewer's Sparrows and the quick notes of Gray Flycatchers. Adjacent pinyon-juniper woodlands ring with the scolding calls of Pinyon Jays, Mountain Chickadees and Juniper Titmice. I love exploring these hillsides, buoyed by the songs of birds while looking out across endless miles of desert.

Highway 50, the Loneliest Road in America, snakes eastward from Fallon into the remote heart of the American West. I will have to return another day to explore that remote country. Now, I turn and travel west toward the Sierra Nevada and leave Nevada behind.

West of Fallon, the highway passes Lahontan Reservoir, where a remnant and furtive colony of Yellow-billed Cuckoos lurks deep in the impenetrable thickets. To the south, at Fort Churchill State Park, migrant songbirds feed in the late-afternoon light while White-throated Swifts flit among the cliffs along the Carson River. Farther west, I turn up Six Mile Canyon toward Virginia City, and wind up the narrow canyon through riparian forest that's busy with birds.

Eventually, the road crests out onto high slopes and I turn to look one last time back into the Great Basin. For me, this has been a surprising landscape — at first glance so flat and empty it could break one's heart, but after additional contemplation so full of life it becomes hard to leave. Far below, I know avocets are skimming briny waters with their long curved bills as the sunset sky reflects off the hundred lakes of the Lahontan Valley.

Check out other birding locations:

Birding America: South Dakota Smorgasbord

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