Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, Nevada. Photo: Kaitlin Godbey/TravelNevada/Flickr CC (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Birding the States

Birding in Nevada

National Wildlife Refuges National Parks Acreage of Important Bird Areas
9 3 6,431,941

Nevada is big—really big. Lots of landscape stretches between its top birding locations. Drive one of the lonely highways across the Great Basin and you’ll see why it’s the nation’s most arid state—yet it also encompass mountains, forests, lakes, and marsh.

The great majority of the state’s citizens live in and around Las Vegas, and the city offers some excellent birding within a short drive. Nearby are the dry scrubland of Desert National Wildlife Refuge and the high-elevation coniferous woodland of Mount Charleston, in the Spring Mountains National Recreation Area. In one day near Las Vegas it’s easy to see both Verdin and Black-tailed Gnatcatcher in the lowlands and Clark’s Nutcracker and Mountain Chickadee in the mountains.

Venture further north, about 200 miles, for more highland species at Great Basin National Park. One of America’s least-visited national parks, it’s nonetheless a striking destination that impresses all who make the long journey to explore it.

Migrant and wintering waterfowl can be abundant at wetland sites, including Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge in the east and Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge in the west. Not far from the latter is Lake Tahoe, with its lush forests and high-country birdlife. Even developed, as it is now, it’s still easy to see why Mark Twain said Tahoe “must surely be the fairest picture the whole earth affords."

Nevada Birding Hotspots

 

Desert National Wildlife Refuge

This 1.6 million-acre tract is America’s largest national wildlife refuge outside Alaska. Located 25 miles northwest of the Las Vegas Strip, it’s also the site with the largest species list of any Nevada birding destination.

Much of the refuge is remote and either roadless or reached via very rugged roads. The focus of most birding is the area around the Corn Creek visitor center. The vegetation here acts as a bird magnet, attracting migrants and vagrants seeking food and shelter in the desert. Several trails are located near the visitor center, including some that are universally accessible.

Birding starts on the 3.5-mile road crossing the desert from Highway 95 to the visitor center. Look for Gambel’s Quail, Greater Roadrunner, Le Conte’s Thrasher (scarce), Black-throated Sparrow, and Sagebrush Sparrow. Once at the visitor center, with its wetlands, trees, and trails, the possibilities grow enormously.

Some of the nesting birds in the area are Lesser Nighthawk, Black-chinned Hummingbird, Anna’s Hummingbird, Costa’s Hummingbird, Black Phoebe, Say’s Phoebe, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Bell’s Vireo, Verdin, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, Crissal Thrasher, Phainopepla, Lucy’s Warbler, Hooded Oriole, and Scott’s Oriole.

Henderson Bird Viewing Preserve

Just seven miles east of the Las Vegas airport is a site with one of the highest species totals of any birding site in Nevada. A wastewater-treatment facility is now Henderson Bird Viewing Preserve: 140 acres encompassing nine ponds accessible by walking paths.

Up to 20 or so species of waterfowl may be here in migration, along with an equal number of shorebird species, plus several types of gulls and terns. Nesting waterbirds here include Cinnamon Teal, Ruddy Duck, Pied-billed Grebe, Eared Grebe, Western Grebe, Least Bittern, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Common Gallinule, Black-necked Stilt, and American Avocet. Rarities such as Long-tailed Duck, Neotropic Cormorant, and Black Skimmer have been seen here.

The preserve is home to more than waterbirds. A walk around the ponds in spring can bring sightings of Gambel’s Quail, Greater Roadrunner, Black-chinned Hummingbird, Anna's Hummingbird, Costa's Hummingbird, Black Phoebe, Verdin, Marsh Wren, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, Crissal Thrasher, Abert’s Towhee, and Yellow-headed Blackbird.

Floyd Lamb Park at Tule Springs

In the desert on the northern outskirts of Las Vegas, Floyd Lamb Park at Tule Springs offers good birding for both typical birds of the region and migrants, including some rare strays.

This 680-acre park features lakes surrounded by trees and lawn, which must look like a true oasis to birds flying overhead. Quite a number of ducks dot the lakes in migration, and Ruddy Duck nests here, along with Pied-billed Grebe and Black-crowned Night-Heron. Double-crested Cormorant is seen often, and Neotropic Cormorant has showed up regularly.

Some of the other birds seen commonly or fairly often in the park are Gambel’s Quail, Cooper’s Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, White-winged Dove, Greater Roadrunner, Burrowing Owl, Black-chinned Hummingbird, Anna’s Hummingbird, Costa’s Hummingbird, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Black Phoebe, Say’s Phoebe, Verdin, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, Phainopepla, Lucy’s Warbler, Yellow Warbler, Abert’s Towhee, Yellow-headed Blackbird, and Bullock’s Oriole.

The park’s oasis aspect makes it good in migration, and it has seen rarities such as Mountain Bluebird, Prothonotary Warbler, Scarlet Tanager, and Painted Bunting.

Mount Charleston

Spring Mountains National Recreation Area is a high-country region just northwest of Las Vegas that serves as a popular getaway from the urban area’s summer heat. It’s also a great place to see many western high-elevation birds. Locals often refer to this area as Mount Charleston, since that 11,918-foot peak is the centerpiece of the Spring Mountains.

Highways 157 and 156 both lead into the recreation area, and both lead to side roads (Kyle Canyon and Lee Canyon) that dead-end at various communities and tourist attractions. Many picnic areas and campgrounds are located along the roads, and birders often stop at as many of these as possible on the way up. At the end of the road are trails such as Mary Jane Falls leading higher into the mountains.

In 2015, the U.S. Forest Service opened an excellent new Visitor Gateway on Highway 157 about 16 miles from Highway 95. Exhibits, maps, and advice are available here.

Just a few of the upper-elevation birds that might be seen are Band-tailed Pigeon, White-throated Swift, Broad-tailed Hummingbird, Williamson’s Sapsucker, Steller’s Jay, Clark’s Nutcracker, Mountain Chickadee, Pygmy Nuthatch, Townsend’s Solitaire, Grace’s Warbler, Red Crossbill, Cassin’s Finch, and Pine Siskin.

Great Basin National Park

Almost on the Utah border in eastern Nevada, Great Basin is one of our least-visited national parks. Yet this remote spot has made many fans among those who have explored its mountains and the underground wonder of Lehman Caves.

The highest point in the park is 13,063-foot Wheeler Peak, rising over the sagebrush-juniper habitat of the lower park. This means that a drive up the park’s 12-mile Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive passes from arid scrub into ponderosa pine, aspen, Douglas-fir, Engelmann spruce, limber pine, and bristlecone pine. Of course, bird life change as elevation rises.

In the lower areas you may see Common Poorwill, Black-chinned Hummingbird, Pinyon Jay, Western Scrub-Jay, Juniper Titmouse, Bushtit, Black-throated Gray Warbler, and Green-tailed Towhee. In middle and high elevations, the species include Broad-tailed Hummingbird, Red-naped Sapsucker, Williamson’s Sapsucker, American Three-toed Woodpecker, Cordilleran Flycatcher, Steller’s Jay, Clark’s Nutcracker, Mountain Chickadee, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Townsend’s Solitaire, MacGillivray’s Warbler, Western Tanager, Cassin’s Finch, and Pine Siskin.

One of the special birds of the park is Black Rosy-Finch, found sparingly in the highest areas above treeline, where some of the twisted bristlecone pines are more than 3,000 years old.

Lamoille Canyon Scenic Byway

A beautiful location to see some high-elevation birds is this 12-mile drive in the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, about 17 miles southeast of Elko in northeastern Nevada. Beginning in the community of Lamoille, it climbs alongside Lamoille Creek to reach a dead end at 8,800 feet in the Ruby Mountains, Nevada’s wettest mountain range.

There’s a campground part-way up the canyon, where cottonwoods and aspens are giving way to conifers on the higher slopes. Some of the birds seen in Lamoille Canyon are Dusky Grouse, Golden Eagle, White-throated Swift, Broad-tailed Hummingbird, Lewis’s Woodpecker, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Hammond's Flycatcher, Dusky Flycatcher, Cordilleran Flycatcher, Clark’s Nutcracker, Violet-green Swallow, Mountain Chickadee, American Dipper, Mountain Bluebird, Townsend’s Solitaire, MacGillivray’s Warbler, Western Tanager, Cassin’s Finch, and Pine Siskin.

Strenuous hikes continue up into the peaks of the Ruby Mountains, where Black Rosy-Finch nests. The most famous bird of the area is the Himalayan Snowcock, an introduced species that is found only here in the United States. Birders who want to put a checkmark next to this species must hike to places like Island Lake and hope for good luck.

Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge

Important wetlands dot an area of western Nevada called the Lahontan Basin, site of a huge ancient lake. Tens of thousands of waterfowl and shorebirds use these lakes and marshes throughout the year, offering rewarding birding opportunities.

The office for Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge is in the town of Fallon. Stop there to pick up a map and ask about road conditions and any other visitation issues. (Water levels of lake can vary greatly.) Then continue to Stillwater Point Reservoir, the start of the refuge Foxtail Lake auto tour route. There’s an observation deck at the reservoir, and later on the route a 1.25-mile interpretive trail.

Great flocks of ducks, grebes, Double-crested Cormorant, and American White Pelican can be here, along with herons, egrets, ibises, Wilson’s Phalarope, and Red-necked Phalarope. Black-necked Stilt and American Avocet breed. Bald Eagle and Rough-legged Hawk can be found in winter, and Peregrine Falcon is seen regularly.

About 15 miles southwest, the Carson Lake Wetlands area (eight miles south of Fallon, then east on Pasture Road) offers similar birding opportunities. Visitors can drive levees and take advantage of three observation towers to see the flocks of birds here.

Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge

Waterbirds are the main focus of birding at this refuge 80 miles north of Las Vegas. In the midst of the arid, scrubby Mojave Desert, the lakes and marshes here attract thousands of waterfowl and other birds traveling the Pacific Flyway to rest and feed.

Pahranagat’s 5,382 acres include 580 acres of open water, as well as marshes, wet meadows, and streams with riparian vegetation. The two main lakes are four miles apart; the refuge headquarters is between them. Roads and trails provide viewpoints, with the three-mile Upper Lake Trail a birding favorite.

More than a dozen species of ducks can be present in migration. Pied-billed Grebe, Eared Grebe, Western Grebe, and Clark’s Grebe nest here, along with waders including Black-crowned Night-Heron and Glossy Ibis. Other birds seen regularly around lakes and marshes include American White Pelican, Osprey, Virginia Rail, Sora, American Avocet, Marsh Wren, and Yellow-headed Blackbird,

Land birds found in Pahranagat’s riparian and desert habitats include Gambel’s Quail, Greater Roadrunner, Lesser Nighthawk, Peregrine Falcon, Willow Flycatcher, Black Phoebe, Say's Phoebe, Vermilion Flycatcher, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Phainopepla, Lucy’s Warbler, and Bullock’s Oriole.

Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge

Amazing Ash Meadows is famed as the home of plants and animals found nowhere else on earth. The springs and other wetlands create an oasis where unique forms of life have evolved in the Mojave Desert. (Ash Meadows is less than ten miles from Death Valley National Park.)

There are no endemic birds here, but birding can be excellent, especially in spring and fall. Wetlands attract waterfowl, wading birds, and shorebirds, while riparian areas and desert provide habitats for a range of other species. More then 230 different types of birds have been seen over the years.

Look in ponds for ducks such as Cinnamon Teal, Redhead, and Ruddy Duck, as well as Pied-billed Grebe, Eared Grebe, American Bittern, White-faced Ibis, and Virginia Rail. Shorebirds such as Black-necked Stilt and American Avocet can be present.

Check riparian areas and desert shrubland for Gambel’s Quail, Greater Roadrunner, Say’s Phoebe, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Loggerhead Shrike, Verdin, Crissal Thrasher, Sage Thrasher, Phainopepla, Lucy’s Warbler, and Black-throated Sparrow.

Trails good for birders at the refuge include three universally accessible boardwalks for viewing springs.

Spooner Lake

The high country of the Sierra Nevada around Lake Tahoe is home to some great birding to go with the fabulous scenery of conifer-blanketed, snow-capped mountains.

One place to enjoy these birds is Spooner Lake, southwest of Carson City via Highway 50. A more scenic route is Highway 28 from Incline Village, a road that parallels the Lake Tahoe shore.

Several trails lead into the woodland around Spooner Lake. A flat, two-mile trail traces around the lake, and a popular five-mile trail provides a route to Marlette Lake. Some of the birds that might be seen here are Mountain Quail, California Quail, Sooty Grouse, Northern Pygmy-Owl, Calliope Hummingbird, Williamson’s Sapsucker, Red-breasted Sapsucker, White-headed Woodpecker, Dusky Flycatcher, Cassin’s Vireo, Steller’s Jay, Clark’s Nutcracker, Mountain Chickadee, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Pygmy Nuthatch, Townsend’s Solitaire, MacGillivray’s Warbler, Western Tanager, Black-headed Grosbeak, and Cassin’s Finch.

On Spooner Lake, look for Ring-necked Duck, Common Merganser, Osprey, Bald Eagle, and Spotted Sandpiper.

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