Birding in Nevada
Apr 27, 2009
Birdwatchers from around the nation are flocking to Nevada to catch a glimpse of the more than 450 species of birds that claim Nevada as their permanent home, winter getaway or migration trail. With 900 bird species in North America, Nevada is home to more than half of them. Nevada is a virtual jigsaw puzzle of wildlife refuges, vegetative zones and recreation areas that contribute to the vast number and diversity of birds.
Nevada is divided into three regions — western, eastern and southern — and within these regions is a virtual jigsaw puzzle of wildlife refuges, vegetative zones and recreation areas that contribute to the vast number and diversity of birds and wildlife. Despite its reputation as a dry, flat wilderness, Nevada is actually the most mountainous state in the nation with more than 300 mountain ranges. Elevations sink as low as 500 feet and rise skyward to more than 13,000 feet while the topography ranges from flat sagebrush-covered plains to rolling hills of green forests to jagged, snow-capped mountains. Its variety in elevation, and thus variety of vegetation and climate, makes each part of Nevada a unique viewing place for different species of flora and fauna.
While half the fun of birding is exploring the terrain and discovering favorite vantage points on one’s own, each region has a few must-see spots to help get the viewing started.
City of Henderson Bird Viewing Preserve
Henderson, just southeast of Las Vegas, boasts the third largest body of water in Southern Nevada: the water treatment facility, which encompasses the city’s Bird Viewing Preserve. Thousands of birds make their home in the 140 acres of preserve and its nine ponds surrounded by paved and dirt paths.
Fall is an excellent season to visit the preserve and view the migratory waterfowl and shore birds. Expect to see wood warblers, flycatchers, verdin and roadrunners. Winter brings duck season, and the preserve boasts a variety of beautiful species such as gadwall, northern pintail, bufflehead and wood ducks.
The Henderson Bird Viewing Preserve is open daily from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. and offers binoculars on loan. A weekly posting of birds seen in the preserve is available online at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit http://www.cityofhenderson.com/ for information on the preserve and directions.
Clark County Wetlands Park
Still in the construction and growth phase, the Wetland Parks Nature Preserve in Las Vegas shows potential as a thriving birding area. In the main preserve area, there are about two miles of paved trails and many more unpaved trails that wind around ponds and creeks. Perched on the edge of the city, the preserve and adjacent Duck Creek Trail is a quiet sanctuary to hike, bike and spot ducks, grebes, sandpiper, quail and herons. However, because it is situated in a bustling city and still under construction, the park may be a better place to catch some fresh air than to catch sight of a rare bird, but as the park grows it promises to become an urban respite for birds and visitors alike.
The park was designed to protect and enhance the Las Vegas Wash, an essential water supply in Southern Nevada, and the results have extended even further than anticipated. More than 3,000 acres were cleaned and restored, and now the area is a beautiful and serene park just minutes from the Las Vegas Strip.
Corn Creek Field Station
Corn Creek Field Station is a primary access point to the Desert Wildlife Refuge, the largest refuge in the continental United States at 1.5 million acres. More than 320 bird species thrive in the Sheep Range, the largest of the refuge’s six mountain ranges, thanks in part to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Constant improvements to the area’s bighorn sheep habitat include developing new water sources and maintaining existing ones, resulting in dependable year-round water sources, food and cover. The result is an area hopping with avian activity.
Corn Creek Field Station can be accessed off Highway 95, about 23 miles northwest of Las Vegas, and a visitors’ alcove provides maps and general information on local flora and fauna. Within the area, visitors may see roadrunners, pinyon jays, great blue herons, red-tailed hawks and golden eagles. Other animals common to the area are mule deer, coyotes, badgers, bobcats, foxes and bighorn sheep.
Also within the Desert Wildlife Refuge is Yucca Forest, a popular dwelling for golden eagles, black-throated sparrows, Scott’s orioles, cactus wrens and pinyon jays. True to its name, the area has an abundance of yucca plants, Joshua trees and cacti, all of which help provide the protection and sustenance for birds and wildlife. Spindly yucca plants are a sight to behold, and the gently sloping valley receives plenty of rainfall to make it a prime home for desert birds.
While Yucca Forest is visible from some parts of Las Vegas, the isolated forest cradled by mountain ranges helps remind visitors that it is indeed the rugged Western frontier, accessed only by a long, bumpy dirt road. Visitors can get there from Corn Creek Field Station off Highway 95, but be prepared for a rocky ride.
Mount Charleston/Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest
The limestone peaks and lush canyons of the Spring Mountain Range, collectively referred to as Mount Charleston, its highest peak, are covered with pine and juniper trees. Aspen groves transform to fiery waves of amber and yellow in early autumn while winter’s snow melts into running streams and alpine waterfalls in the spring and summer. The mountainside is a verdant haven for all sorts of wildlife and birds, and visitors will spy most species of birds nesting in the valleys between the mountains and in the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest. This forest’s 6.3 million acres make it the largest forest in the lower 48 states and is encompassed primarily in Nevada, with a small portion jutting into Eastern California.
Mount Charleston, Nevada’s third-highest peak at nearly 12,000 feet, is approximately 60 miles northwest of the Las Vegas Strip and has 52 miles of marked and unmarked hiking trails, some of which are paved and wheelchair-accessible. The lower elevations yield numerous desert bird species while the higher elevations, lush with vegetation, provide a nice change of scenery but fewer bird species.
Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge
The Ruby Mountains in northeastern Nevada are among the state’s most lush mountains. They’re also home to the elusive Himalayan snowcock, a large bird that feeds on grasses above 10,000 feet. The Himalayan snowcock was introduced to Nevada in 1969, and the Ruby Mountains are reportedly the only area in the United States where it lives. The best time to search for it is mid-July through August at Island Lake at the end of Lamoille Canyon. Besides the Himalayan snowcock, other species that thrive in the area are Canada geese, trumpeter swans, gadwalls, canvasback ducks and cinnamon and blue-winged teals.
Lamoille Canyon is in the heart of the Ruby Mountains and offers some of the most breathtaking views of the mountains from the maze of more than 100 miles of hiking trails. Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge is actually an open-water marsh encompassing 37,632 acres of water, wetlands and grass-covered islands. It is a vital supply of fresh water for the birds and wildlife that thrive in the area. The water supply remains so clean and pure that it does not need treatment before being piped to offices and residences.
Carson Lake Wetlands
The Carson Lake Wetlands and nearby Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge are key respites to migratory birds along the Pacific Flyway. Shorebirds are common in the wetlands, approximately 70 miles east of Reno, and waterfowl arrive by the hundreds of thousands in the late fall.
A driving loop in the Carson Lake Wetlands features three lookout towers that make the area an easily accessible bird-viewing sanctuary. Watch for American avocets, black-necked stilts, black terns, cinnamon teal, tundra swans and bald eagles.
Activity at Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge reaches its peak in October and November when hundreds of thousands of ducks, primarily teal, pintails, shovelers and canvasbacks, take shelter there on their migration south. Whistling swans are prominent in January while March and April brings the return flight of ducks on their way north. Cinnamon teal, gadwall, herons, egrets, grebes, avocets and stilts make their home at Stillwater all summer long. The refuge lists 161 species that can be spotted and another 24 that may be seen in the area but have not been counted recently.
Oxbow Nature Study Area
Reno has several urban parks and wildlife areas that are easily accessible to visitors. The Oxbow Nature Study Area runs parallel to the Truckee River just a few miles upstream of downtown Reno. It is the first park of its kind in Nevada and is quickly being duplicated in other areas of the state. The lush banks, thick cottonwoods and willows and quiet paths create an Eden just a short hike from the hustle and bustle of downtown.
Two miles of trails snake through the area, and interpretive signs explain the flora and fauna to be found along the river. Parts of the park are wheelchair accessible, and wooden benches along the way make it a perfect destination for a leisurely stroll.
Look skyward at the willow trees to find Anna’s hummingbird, and then look down toward the water for green heron and sora. Other usual finds are the white-throated sparrow, winter wren and cedar waxwings.
Just a few miles away is Virginia Lake, another urban retreat within the Reno city limits. While taking a walk around the lake, be sure to check out the small island in the south end of the lake, which is a nesting habitat for the California gull, double-crested cormorant and black-crowned night heron. Virginia Lake also features a jogging path, soccer fields, picnic tables and barbecues.
Northeast of Reno is Pyramid Lake, a 125,000-acre saltwater lake that contains the Anaho Island National Wildlife Refuge. This refuge is one of the largest nesting colonies of the American white pelican in the United States. The island and surrounding waters are closed to the public, but binoculars are sufficient to see the graceful avian inhabitants of the land.
Pyramid Lake is on Paiute Indian land, so visitors must pay for a day-use permit, but the wealth of bird species, including the burrowing owl, sage thrasher and common loon, is worth the $6 permit. Visit http://plpt.nsn.us/ for information and regulations.
Washoe Valley spans the short drive on Highway 395 from Reno to Carson City and includes wildlife areas, two shallow lakes, extensive marshes and a state park. The highway is heavily traveled, so use caution and be sure to pull off at East Lake Boulevard to access the park headquarters, camp sites and boat launch. Birds abound in the area, and visitors are likely to see pelicans, herons, white-faced ibis, magpies and killdeer, as well as raptors such as the golden eagle and red-tailed hawk. Tundra swans and bald eagles frequent the area in the winter, making Washoe Valley a year-round birding sanctuary.
Nevada’s bird population thrives, thanks in part to several organizations that work tirelessly to maintain habitats, track migration patterns and preserve wildlife areas. Birdwatchers can get in on the action by attending “field trips” hosted by Audubon Society members. The Lahontan Audubon Society (http://www.nevadaaudubon.org/) serves Northern Nevada while the Red Rock Audubon Society (702-390-9890) serves Southern Nevada, and both strive to improve habitats while educating the public on the importance of tracking bird species. A third group, the Great Basin Bird Observatory (http://www.gbbo.org/) formed in 1997 to help count bird populations, study breeding habits and spearhead conservation issues in the Great Basin National Park region of Eastern Nevada.
Eagles and Agriculture, February
Swoop down to Carson Valley in February for the annual Eagles and Agriculture event, four days of up-close bird watching and education. The Eagles and Agriculture tours and workshops focus on the influx of birds of prey that come to the scenic Carson Valley to feed on the rodents and nutrient-rich afterbirth during the winter calving season. This unique interaction between nature and agriculture attracts photographers, birders and nature-lovers of all kinds who come to observe bald and golden eagles, hawks, falcons, owls and a variety of other bird/wildlife species.
Participants take a private group tour of Carson Valley ranches and have an opportunity to observe and photograph birds of prey from vantage points not available to the general public. Other activities include a two-day photography workshop with a nature photo shoot on location at an area ranch and a guided raft/canoe trip to observe eagles, hawks and falcons from the beautiful Carson River. Fees vary for each of the workshops and activities, and area hotels are offering special rates for participants, so log on to www.visitcarsonvalley.org for more information, hotel rates and an event reservation form.
Spring Wings, May
Spring Wings is a celebration of birding in and around Fallon, the Lahontan Valley Wetlands and Stillwater Wildlife Refuge – on the Pacific Flyway and home to hundreds of species of birds. The three-day event features workshops, field trips, tours, guest speakers and a banquet. Visit www.springwings.org for more information.