Collaborative Efforts Elevate Shorebirds During Spring Migration in Lahontan Valley

A conversation about the future of Nevada’s shorebirds.

As I made my way across Nevada at the end of April, signs of the continuing drought persisted each and every westward mile. From parched reservoirs to dust clouds rising thousands of feet from the desert floor, I could see the stark impacts of the lack of water manifesting on the rugged Nevada landscape. About 65 miles north of my destination of Fallon, Nev., I stopped by Humboldt Wildlife Management Area (WMA), a property managed by the Nevada Department of Wildlife (NDOW) that historically has provided an oasis of shorebird habitat in the desert. The scene I observed was otherworldly: not a drop of water, and a massive dust cloud.

I continued my journey down to Fallon, where I would spend the next week with Audubon’s on-the-ground partners who manage habitat within the Lahontan Valley Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network site. For the past year, Audubon has collaborated with US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) staff at Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) and NDOW staff at Carson Lake WMA to enhance habitat and water management to benefit shorebirds. Carson Lake and Pasture was transferred last year from U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to the State of Nevada.  In addition to agency partners, chapter volunteers from Lahontan Audubon Society (LAS) have worked with Audubon, USFWS and NDOW in building knowledge of shorebird usage at the sites.

During my visit, I interviewed Mike Goddard and Jonathan Garrison about their work in Lahontan Valley, and the challenges resource managers are facing in light of the ongoing drought. Mike Goddard was the Stillwater NWR manager from 2000-2012, and since his retirement he has been an active Board Trustee and part of the Education Committee for LAS. Jonathan Garrison is the current Wildlife Refuge Specialist for the Stillwater NWR Complex. Here is what they had to say. (Editor’s note: These interviews were slightly edited for clarity and conciseness.


Q: Like much of the western United States, Nevada and Lahontan Valley have faced a long-term drought. How has the drought affected the Lahontan Valley wetlands and shorebirds that rely on them? What are your main concerns going into the future?

Mike: Drought has a severe effect on shorebird populations in the Lahontan Valley. When the irrigation allocation is less than 100 % the effect is two-fold. First, the wetland managers at NDOW and USFWS have less water to deliver to the wetlands and secondly, less irrigation water to farmers means less drain water available to the wetlands. Carson Lake, which depends heavily on drain water to maintain habitat, is especially susceptible. For example, this year the irrigation allocation is only 70% and NDOW only had enough water to maintain about 200 acres of wetland habitat during spring migration.

Jonathan: Shorebirds need suitable habitat. Drought can alter their migration patterns and could potentially cause them not to stop in the Lahontan Valley if there is not suitable habitat for them. If there is habitat is available, then shorebirds are likely to stop along their migration. A main concern for me would be: What can we do at the local level to ensure there is viable habitat during drought years, and how can we work together with other stakeholders (partnering organizations, farmers, the public) in the Lahontan Valley to tackle this issue?

Q: Over the past year, USFWS and LAS have collaborated with National Audubon Society, NDOW and others to build capacity and perform more rigorous shorebird surveys at the Lahontan Valley Wetlands. How has the volunteer monitoring program helped you, USFWS and the volunteers when it comes to understanding shorebird populations and distribution?

Mike: Since starting the monitoring program, LAS volunteers have become more aware of the variety of species using the Lahontan Valley wetlands and of the dynamics of shorebird migration. The volunteers no longer see migration as a single monolithic event but as much more complicated and elegant dance. The volunteers also have a newfound appreciation for the importance of the Lahontan Valley wetlands to shorebirds.

Jonathan: With limited staffing, the partnerships have been super beneficial. We are able to survey more of the Valley and get a better look at the shorebird numbers and what areas they are utilizing the most. I would like to give a special thanks to all our volunteers and partners who help make this possible.

Q: How do you see the program informing future management for shorebirds and their wetland habitats?

Mike: Budgets in NDOW and USFWS go up and down and staffing levels fluctuate, sometimes making it difficult to conduct shorebird surveys properly. Our program provides a cadre of trained volunteers to call upon, enabling the agencies to survey the entire valley on the same day. I also think NDOW has been somewhat surprised by the interest in Carson Lake from the birdwatching community. As a result, shorebird management will receive enhanced attention during NDOW’s on-going management planning effort.  

Jonathan: From all the survey data, we will be able to determine the peak migration pattern of shorebirds through the Lahontan Valley. This data can help us ensure we have the suitable habitat for shorebirds when they are migrating.

Q: As somebody from the area and a wildlife professional, what is your vision for management of Lahontan Valley wetlands going forward?

Mike: My vision is for coordinated management of Lahontan Valley wetlands by NDOW and USFWS and for a renewed interest in acquiring wetland water rights. Stillwater NWR and Carson Lake WMA each provide different but complementary shorebird habitat. Coordination could provide the variety of habitat conditions needed by shorebirds while maximizing the use of wetland water.

Jonathan: My vision for the management of the Lahontan Valley wetlands would be continuing building partnerships and relationships to ensure the success since we all can provide critical habitat for shorebirds.

What’s next?

Despite the challenges on-the-ground that managers in Lahontan Valley are facing, the efforts of the partners are making visions for management, like Mike and Jonathan’s, possible. On May 5th, I participated in a volunteer shorebird survey, the last of three carried out during the 2022 spring migration window.

Even with 70% water deliveries this spring from the Truckee Carson Irrigation District, Stillwater NWR and Carson Lake WMA managers were still able to provide some important habitat for migrating shorebirds. The two wetland units I surveyed at Stillwater NWR held over 500 shorebirds, including a diversity of species like Long-billed Dowitchers, Dunlin, Least and Western Sandpipers, Snowy Plovers and more.

This spring, the NDOW WMA team that manages water at Carson Lake WMA was able to work with the irrigation district and local farmers to shallowly flood areas and create shorebird habitat in one of their management units for the first time ever. This type of creative, innovative effort is an example of how managers may need to think outside of the box to provide habitat and food resources for birds, even during times of drought. But placement of water on the landscape isn’t quite enough -- moving forward, partners will need to consider the best timing, quality and depth of water – all factors that need to align to provide the best habitat possible for migrating shorebirds.

Documenting management actions like NDOW’s, and coordinating management across the WHSRN site is critical to maintaining shorebird habitat through difficult times. In addition to informing management in Lahontan Valley, the partners hope their work will inform management at wetlands throughout the drought-stricken West.