Western Water News

Protecting and Celebrating an Oasis for Birds in the Great Basin

Lahontan Valley's wetlands provide critical habitat for birds.

For the first time in my life, I flew from Salt Lake City to Reno, Nev. I snagged a window seat, and was able to see first-hand the formidably arid and rugged landscape of the Great Basin. The towering snowcapped mountain ranges provide a precious lifeline for birds and other wildlife, acting as natural reservoirs that distribute water each spring as temperatures rise.

For the first half of the flight, while flying over the Great Salt Lake Desert and Salt Flats, I noticed a complete lack of water. But as we approached Reno, reflective pockets of water, reservoirs and lakes, dotted the landscape. I imagined myself as a migrating waterbird with the daunting task of crossing the Great Basin, and what it would be like to see one of these waterbodies through the reflection of moonlight. After flying hundreds of miles it must be nice to finally find a place to rest.

I flew to Reno to attend a celebration of the Lahontan Valley Wetlands and their importance to birds. The Spring Wings Bird Festival is held on Migratory Bird Day weekend. Friends of Stillwater, Lahontan Audubon Society, the City of Fallon and Great Basin Bird Observatory know how to throw a bird festival—they’ve been doing it since 1998. Janet Schmidt, former Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Services Manager has helped organize the festival for years and is the heart and soul behind the event. The tour guides, known locally as “the two Bills”—Bill Henry and Bill Grossi—really know their way around the wetlands. Both have been guiding tours for the festival since the beginning.

The Lahontan Valley Wetlands consist of Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), the Fallon Paiute Shoshone Tribal Wetlands, and Carson Lake and Pasture. The wetlands are within the Carson River Watershed, a terminal basin surrounded by mountains.  Spring Runoff from the Sierra Nevada, Virginia, Pine Nut, Dead Camel and Stillwater mountain ranges provide water for Lahontan Valley each year. The wetlands seemingly appear out of nowhere and the juxtaposition with the surrounding greasewood desert is dramatic. Approaching the wetlands from Fallon, flocks of White-faced Ibis fly over the desert vegetation.  I thought, “What are they doing here?” until I saw the water. The wetlands are surrounded by irrigated agriculture and flooded fields, perfect habitat for foraging White-faced Ibises. Between the agriculture and the wetlands, it truly is a desert oasis for birds.

The Lahontan Valley Wetlands were designated as a Western Hemispheric Shorebird Reserve Network (WHSRN) site in 1988, recognizing its importance internationally to migratory shorebirds.  Lahontan Audubon Society, WHSRN, Stillwater NWR, the Fallon Paiute Shoshone Tribe, the Nevada Department of Wildlife and other local partners celebrated the 30th anniversary of the WHSRN Designation in last year. The State of Nevada recognizes Lahontan Valley as a priority Important Bird Area (IBA) given that it is home to the world’s largest nesting colony of White-faced Ibis (up to 10,000 individuals). The wetlands also offer important foraging habitat for the American White Pelican nesting colony on Pyramid Lake’s Anaho Island. 

Some Highlights from the Spring Wings Festival:

Bill Henry (one of the Bills), led our morning tour of the Fallon Paiute Shoshone Tribal Wetlands and Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge. Bill, a retired wildlife biologist, generously shared his history with the refuge and the long-time fight with the invasive vegetation—specifically Salt Cedar (Tamarisk). The hard work had paid off. The Cottonwood trees he planted years ago are now over 20 feet tall.

Bill knew the area intimately. He knew where to look for American Bitterns and the best nesting habitat for Black Terns in the valley. At Stillwater Refuge, he knew where all the owl nests were. Bill pointed out Clark’s Grebes, Forster’s and Caspian Terns, Ruddy Ducks, and more. On the way back to Fallon, he showed us his special shorebird spot, where we spotted a Semipalmated Plover.

During lunch, Jenni Jeffers, a biologist for the Nevada Department of Wildlife, gave a wonderful presentation on Nevada’s owls.  Jenni brought rescued and rehabilitated live owls, Barn Owl chicks, and Great Horned Owls chicks. She went through each owl species’ life history and specialized hunting adaptations.

In the afternoon, Bill Grossi (the other Bill), retired Wildlife Biologist for the Bureau of Land Management and member of Lahontan Audubon Society, led the tour of Carson Lake and Pasture. The American Avocets, Black-necked Stilts and White-faced Ibis were everywhere. Bill helped us spot Snowy Egrets, Cattle Egrets, Cinnamon Teal, Redheads and Ruddy Ducks. There was a hen Canvasback with chicks in one of the canals. At one point, one of the tour attendees asked, “What are we looking for?” Bill replied, “Anything different, especially shorebirds.” Bill found us some shorebirds, including Long-billed Curlews, Long-billed Dowitchers, Marbled Godwits, a single Greater Yellowlegs, Spotted Sandpipers and Wilson’s Phalaropes. By the end of the day, I had tallied 74 species in Churchill County, Nevada.

The Lahontan Valley Wetlands are a special place for birds. In Audubon’s recent “Water and Birds in the Arid West” report, the Lahontan Valley Wetlands were identified as a priority site for conservation, as 84 percent of the wetlands have been lost over the past 150 years. The Lahontan Wetlands are a key component of the saline lake network in the Great Basin—this network of irreplaceable wetland habitats is critical to long-distance migratory shorebirds and other waterbird species. Ensuring that the right amount of water is delivered at the right time of year to meet different species needs is essential to maintain their value to birds. With care, Lahontan Valley and other saline lake systems in the Great Basin will continue to be oases for birds to use for generations to come. And be sure to join us at the Spring Wings Festival next May.

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