Fall Update: Partners Work Together to Monitor Shorebirds and Their Habitat in the Lahontan Wetlands

National Fish and Wildlife Foundation grant allows for more bird surveys in Nevada.

Last spring, Audubon announced the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) awarded more than $1 million in funding for shorebird planning at desert terminal lakes. Audubon received a portion of that funding to work in partnership with Manomet, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), the Nevada Department of Wildlife (NDOW), and Lahontan Audubon Society (LAS) to identify habitat management opportunities for migratory shorebirds and increase shorebird and habitat monitoring capacity at Nevada’s Lahontan Valley Wetlands Site located near Reno.

The project is well underway, with partners making progress on a number of activities, including mapping historic and current shorebird habitat, creating priority shorebird species profiles and identifying opportunities to enhance shorebird habitat through on-the-ground management.

A major component of the project entails a comprehensive community science-based volunteer shorebird-monitoring program spearheaded by LAS that aims to add capacity to ongoing USFWS and NDOW shorebird monitoring efforts. Alan Gubanich, a retired biology professor for the University of Nevada, Reno, and Michael Goddard, former project leader of Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge, both LAS members, led the volunteer shorebird-monitoring program. The team is helping USFWS and NDOW staff monitor shorebirds and their habitat within the 220,000 acre Lahontan Valley Wetlands, designated as a Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network (WHSRN) site of Hemispheric Importance.

“Our first field season was challenging and successful,” said Goddard. “The volunteers worked hard to learn species identification skills and survey techniques, and we received an incredible amount of support from NDOW and USFWS. I look forward to next spring when the shorebirds return in breeding plumage."

LAS leaders developed a shorebird identification program, teaching volunteers how to use accepted survey methodology and estimate the number of shorebirds in the large flocks. Sixteen volunteers participated in virtual and field-based training in June and July, and performed three coordinated surveys with agency staff in August and September of 2021. Volunteers will participate in surveys during the 2022 spring and fall shorebird migrations.

“I had been looking to get involved in bird conservation in Nevada, so I was really excited to learn about the opportunity that Mike and Allan were organizing and I’m grateful that I get to be a part of it.” Said Brendan Bucy, one of the volunteers that conducted shorebird surveys this fall. “The first field season was enjoyable and productive and all the partnering organizations did a lot of work to make sure that we were fully equipped and prepared when we got out there. I even got to try my hand at conducting surveys from an airboat. Jonathan Garrison, from USFWS, gave me a quick crash course in airboat monitoring procedures as the sun rose over Stillwater NWR and before I knew it, we were gliding across the placid water of Foxtail Lake counting birds. It was a great experience and it was a joy to work with Jonathan and Bethany Chagnon of USFWS.” 

What did the surveys reveal this fall? Like much of the arid West, the Lahontan Valley Wetlands were impacted by severe drought, which resulted in lower water levels and drier wetlands in Lahontan Valley. Shorebird surveys revealed that large swathes of habitat, usually covered in water—and productive for shorebirds— were dry this year. The conditions emphasize why the NFWF grant program is so important: it provides Audubon and its partners with the unique opportunity to examine how extreme conditions—like drought—affect the Lahontan Valley. As the future of water availability becomes more unpredictable, partners can use the information gathered to adaptively manage water resources and maximize benefits to shorebirds.

“Shorebird surveys for this past fall were incredibly challenging.” Said Bethany Chagnon, Deputy Project Leader for Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge. “While record heat, drought, and wildfires caused widespread air quality impacts and less than ideal survey conditions, the dedication of our partners and volunteers was a breath of fresh air.  We would not have been able to be as successful as we were without their flexibility, enthusiasm, and willingness to help. These partnerships have greatly improved our monitoring program.  I look forward to seeing our programs grow and learn from these surveys so that we can better manage our wetlands for shorebirds in the future.”

As the project enters its second year in 2022, the partners will continue working together to better understand shorebird habitat and distribution.  Survey results can contribute to a larger, longer-term dataset that can be used to inform and enhance management of water resources and wetlands in Lahontan Valley so they can continue to support the thousands of shorebirds that rely on this Great Basin oasis each year.

Disclaimer: The views and conclusions contained in this document are those of the authors and should not be interpreted as representing the opinions or policies of the U.S. Government or the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and its funding sources. Mention of trade names or commercial products does not constitute their endorsement by the U.S. Government, or the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation or its funding sources.