Sierra Valley, the largest intermountain valley in the Sierra Nevada, lies at 5000' elevation just 35 miles northwest of Reno, Nevada. Nearly the entire valley floor (c. 100,000 acres) is comprised of large, privately-owned ranches, and is covered with sagebrush scrub, broken by freshwater marshes, grasslands and riparian woodland. The western portion of Sierra Valley supports unique vernal pools, and the entire edge of the valley supports coniferous forest and chaparral, protecting the headwaters of the Middle Fork Feather River (a Wild and Scenic River).

Updated by Plumas Audubon, August 2008

Ornithological Summary

Like the Klamath Basin, Grasslands Ecological Area and the Salton Sea, superlatives define this IBA and its avifauna. But, unlike these areas, Sierra Valley is still in a relatively pristine state, not having been radically transformed by agriculture or human manipulation. Thanks to long-time monitoring by many professional and amateur ornithologists (including the Sierra Nevada Field Campus of San Francisco State University), the avifauna of Sierra Valley is exceptionally well-known. It contains what is probably the largest freshwater marsh in the Sierra Nevada, and supports several breeding species not found on managed wetlands (e.g. impoundments), including Black Tern, Wilson's Phalarope, Willet and 13 species of waterfowl (incl. Canvasback). The breeding colony of White-faced Ibis (c. 1000 pr., Ivey et al. 2002) is one of the largest in California. During the breeding season, the wetlands of Sierra Valley are heavily used by American White Pelican on feeding runs from Nevada's Pyramid Lake colonies (D. Lukas, via email). Up to 1000 Sandhill Cranes have been counted during spring migration. During early spring (mid-March to mid-April), Sierra Valley supports thousands of northbound waterfowl, notably Greater White-fronted Goose (up to 2000/day) and Cinnamon Teal (up to 1000/day) (P. Hardy, in litt.). Shorebird migration is less spectacular, but still significant for the Sierra, with over 200 Willet and 100 Common Snipe recorded during the same period. The concentration of wintering raptors may be unsurpassed in the Sierra, rivaling the top locales elsewhere in the state. It has had the second-highest count of Rough-legged Hawk on national Christmas Bird Counts (recent high counts of 93 on single-day surveys in 2000, P. Hardy, via email). Burrowing Owl, now essentially eliminated from most of northern California, still maintains a small population here. Conditions for riparian birds are expected to improve with continued restoration activities - small numbers of Willow Flycatchers have been detected singing in the Carman Valley area, and may eventually nest.

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Conservation Issues

Currently, construction of second homes ("spillover" from the Lake Tahoe market) has been the greatest threat to open space and bird habitat in the Sierra Valley, with water running a close second. Although water is pumped to for alfalfa and turf farms and diverted to irrigate pasture during the summer, the water table of this enclosed system is been replenished each year by snowfall. However, recent development pressures (including that related to the expansion of Reno) threaten to upset this balance. The result of this lowering of the water table has been the incursion of sagebrush into meadows and wetlands (often addressed by the ranchers by applying herbicide). Local overgrazing by livestock remains a constant conservation issue within the Sierra Valley, particularly given its lack of land explicitly managed for wildlife. Plumas Audubon has taken a proactive role in helping shape the Sierra Valley General Plan to minimize these effects and to encourage local ranchers to adopt grazing practices that also support wildlife.

Ownership

Nearly the entire valley floor (c. 100,000 acres) is comprised of large, privately-owned ranches.

Habitat

The valley floor is covered with sagebrush scrub, broken by freshwater marshes, grasslands and riparian woodland. The western portion of Sierra Valley supports unique vernal pools, and the entire edge of the valley supports coniferous forest and chaparral, protecting the headwaters of the Middle Fork Feather River (a ?Wild and Scenic River?).