The great migration

Grab your binoculars, and embrace your inner nature geek—flocks of birds are hitting Nevada skies for the spring migration.

Photo caption Jim Lytle, above left, is president of the recently held Spring Wings festival, a celebration of the spring migration.

Photo caption Jim Lytle, above left, is president of the recently held Spring Wings festival, a celebration of the spring migration.

Photo By David Robert

• Find out more about Spring Wings and bird migration at
• For more details about bird-watching in Nevada, consult the excellent Nevada Birding Map, available from the Lahontan Audubon Society, (775) 324-2473 or
• To help with population surveys and bird counts, contact the Great Basin Bird Observatory at (775) 323-4226 or
• For an amazing display of different bird species around the world, watch Winged Migration, available at most movie rental outlets.

Look up. Look past the roof of your car. Look beyond the neighborhood coffee house. Check out the clear blue skies of Northern Nevada. They are teeming with life.

Hawks are gliding smoothly through the air all around town. Swallows are darting to and fro. You might see eagles dive-bombing for the afterbirth of calves in Carson Valley. You may well notice that we are in the throes of an epic bird migration.

That migration, along the renowned Pacific Flyway, takes place every spring as birds head north to breed and every fall as they head back to their winter nesting grounds. Lucky for Reno residents, the epicenter of Nevada birding is right in our own backyard.

This tree holds a rookery, or communal nesting site.

Photo By David Robert

The Stillwater Wildlife Refuge Complex is only an hour and a half from Reno, and it encompasses three areas of interest for birders: Stillwater Refuge in Lahontan Valley, Anaho Island Refuge near the eastern shoreline of Pyramid Lake and Fallon Refuge at the terminus of the Carson River. The 90,000-acre complex has been designated by the American Bird Conservancy as a “Globally Important Bird Area,” and this time of year, the wetlands are really popping.

“We’re seeing an excellent turnout,” says Jim Lytle, president of Spring Wings, the annual celebration of spring migration held recently in Lahontan Valley. He points out that 106 species were observed over a three-day period during the festival last year, and 158 species were sighted in 2004. While the final bird count for 2006 wasn’t available by press time, organizers of the festival estimated there were at least as many species as last year. Some of them, like stiff-tailed ducks and old squaws, are rare, while other birds, like the black-necked stilt and American avocet, come back by the thousands every year.

The extent and vitality of the wetlands depends upon snowfall in the mountains, and this winter has been another good season for precipitation. Birds are everywhere. In dry years, however, the marshes depend more upon water rights, which the refuge has been buying up for years.

But now that property values have increased and water has become more of a commodity, the refuge struggles to compete with developers. “Development looms, and that’s a big consideration for conservationists,” observes Brad Goetsch, former commander at Fallon Naval Air Station and current Churchill County manager. He says developers can usually afford to outbid the refuge for water rights, and development in the area encroaches on wildlife habitat.

Tourists paddle out in a canoe to watch birds in Lahontan Valley near Fallon.

Photo By David Robert

Other problems faced by wildlife refuges, not just in Nevada but also around the world, are habitat contamination and global warming. At Kesterson Reservoir in California’s Central Valley, selenium contamination associated with agriculture irrigation is blamed for an epidemic of avian fatalities and chick deformities. Within the Stillwater Complex, irrigation water flowing to Pyramid Lake and the Lahontan Valley wetlands is tainted by pesticides and fertilizers, according to the state Bureau of Water Quality Planning. As for global warming, bird conservation groups, as well as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, say changes in air temperature, water temperature and sea level will likely impact habitat and affect bird distribution worldwide. But when conditions are favorable, birds flock to Northwestern Nevada.

Finding refuge
In both a figurative and literal way, birds make the world a smaller place. The same snowy egret might be seen by a fisherman in Panama and then a student at UNR. Some birds, like the Arctic tern, migrate more than 14,000 miles each way, twice a year. Birds live in our skies, in our wetlands and in our trees. They watch us as we run around, keenly aware of our movements, and we live our lives, oftentimes, oblivious to theirs.

But now is a good time to take note, as conditions are favorable. The mid-May dates of the recent Spring Wings Bird Festival in the Lahontan Valley coincided with the apex of bird activity.

With names like gadwall, bushtit and sage thrasher, one might confuse these transitory birds with big-time metal bands. Well, in the avian world, they are rock stars. “Bird watching is the largest spectator sport in the country,” said Lytle during a recent tour of Stillwater. “These birds have a following.”

Cindy Goddard adjusts her scope as she and Letha Clark view birds such as the long-billed dowitcher at Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge.

Photo By David Robert

In fact, there is a definite movement to put Nevada on the international birding map. Underground as it may seem, birding in Nevada is being touted in Audubon magazine as “Wildly Unexpected,” and people from all over the country are taking note. Because of the positive economic impact from tourism, the bird-watching and wildlife-viewing campaign developed by the Fallon Convention and Tourism Authority is backed by the state tourism commission.

Fans of the American white pelican will want to make their way out to Pyramid Lake to watch this enormous shorebird from a respectful distance. Admirers of the long-billed dowitcher won’t want to miss the show at Stillwater. Visitors to Carson Lake can take in the deep, guttural grunt and iridescent plumage of the double-crested cormorant.

And don’t forget to look in the trees. Communal nesting grounds are called rookeries, and they’re not to be missed. The same birds come back to nest year after year, and different species live within earshot of each other. On a recent afternoon, a group of savvy human observers spotted a pair of great horned owls and a blue heron in a dirt-road rookery, which consisted of several very large, very old trees on the way out to Stillwater.

“This is a real treat,” said Cindy Goddard as she gazed through a scope at the magnificent birds. “There are so many birds this year.”

Her husband is Mike Goddard, project leader of Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge. “The refuge is a work in progress,” he says. “It’s a cooperative effort.”

Indeed. Goddard is an employee of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Department of the Interior, one of the multitude of entities working to manage and improve the refuge. Partners include Churchill County, Fallon Convention and Tourism Authority, the Paiute and Shoshone tribes, Bird Life International, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and the Nevada Commission on Tourism.

These groups are collectively responsible for recent tourist-friendly improvements at Stillwater. For example, Seabees from NAS Fallon did all the work on the new overlook at Stillwater, and an interpretive path was recently completed so visitors can walk easily through part of the wetlands. Future projects include an environmental education facility and administrative center.

Emphasis on bird watching and wildlife viewing, in addition to the Wide Open Nevada campaign (a state tourism promotion effort), might indicate a bit of a shift for our traditionally consumptive state. Improvements and attention to the Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge Complex are welcomed by tourists, naturalists and locals alike. They are certainly appreciated by visiting and resident birds; after all, they’ve come a long way to be here.