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Sunday, March 24, 2013

Birding Northern Nevada

Far from the lights and tumult of Las Vegas and Reno, the other end of Nevada is a wild and isolated region that beckons to birders. Northern Nevada is a true remnant of the Old West; sparsely populated, starkly beautiful, and an outdoor delight. All those symbols of the Wild West—hardy cowboys on horseback, working cattle ranches, wild mustang, tumbleweeds—that you thought had faded into oblivion? They’re still here. This is one of the most remote and isolated places left in the lower 48, crowded with snow capped peaks, expansive high desert valleys, open marshes and plenty of wildlife. It is a great place to spot pronghorn, mountain lion, mountain goat, mule deer, bighorn sheep and badgers, as well as hundreds of species of birds.

All this means that if you love the outdoors, you’ll love northern Nevada. In addition to birding, this rugged area is a great place for flyfishing, hiking, skiing or just laid back driving through tiny cowboy towns. It is the antithesis of glittery, pulsating Vegas. It is also the perfect setting for an exciting birding adventure.

Within a day’s drive of each other there are a number of excellent birding spots: Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge, the Goshute Mountains, Lamoille Canyon, Ruby Crest National Recreational Trail and Great Basin National Park. Sprinkle in some intriguing historical sites and spectacular scenery for an unforgettable visit.

The jump-off point for exploring the region is the town of Elko, four hours due west of Salt Lake City on I-80. In the late 1800’s Elko was a stronghold for Basque sheepherders who emigrated from their homeland in northern Spain to raise sheep in the nearby Ruby Mountains. You’re about to embark into a remote region; this could be your last look at civilization for a while so don’t leave town without enjoying a hearty and traditional Basque meal at one of many Basque-style restaurants.

Ruby Crest National Recreation Trail

From Elko head south to the Ruby Mountains, named after the abundant garnets present in the range, and hike among 11,000 foot peaks and picturesque high altitude lakes on the Ruby Crest National Recreation Trail. The Trail is a rugged 38-mile trail that roughly traces the crest of the Rubies. It begins in Lamoille Canyon and ends at Harrison Pass. A strenuous hike? For sure, but it is perhaps the best way to encounter North America’s only population of Himalayan Snowcocks, a quarry that was featured in the movie The Big Year. These birds were introduced from their native Pakistan by the Nevada Fish and Game Commission in 1961 and a wild population has become established. Steve Martin and Jack Black hired a helicopter to bag the Snowcock in the movie, but you don’t need to go to that extreme, although the birds are very elusive. They stay above the treeline and have been reported at higher elevations on Thomas Peak, Wine Peak and Tipton Peak, among other locations on the trail. In addition to Snowcocks, the high peaks of the Rubies offer opportunities to spot Mountain Bluebirds, Golden Eagles, Clark’s Nutcrackers, Black Rosy-Finches and Bald Eagles.

Lamoille Canyon Scenic Byway

If you’re not up to the rigorous trek, opt for the easily accessible Lamoille Canyon. This ten-mile-long canyon features multiple peaks over 11,000 feet and the Lamoille Canyon Scenic Byway winds up through the canyon, offering optimal views of the glaciated walls where Bighorn Sheep, Mule Deer and Mountain Goats may be spotted from your car. Himalayan Snowcocks have also been spotted in the canyon, near the Island Lake area. Keep your eyes open for Clark’s Nutcrackers, Wild Turkey, Mountain Chickadees, Red-breasted Nuthatches, Ferruginous Hawks and Golden Eagles. And don’t go stumbling down the trails with your eyes focused on the trees; porcupines are seemingly everywhere and brushing up with one would definitely ruin your day.

Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge

After you leave Lamoille Canyon, catch a hearty dinner under the watchful eye of a mounted deer head at the quaint Pine Lodge in the town of Lamoille. Then drive south to Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge, a 35,000 acre expanse of marshland that is home to healthy concentrations of ducks and waterfowl. Drive the dike roads through the marshes looking for pronghorn and badgers and check off Burrowing Owls, Pinyon Jays, Short-eared Owls, Northern Harriers, Yellow-headed Blackbirds, Marsh Wrens and--the refuge's real attraction--thousands of ducks, geese and waterfowl. You can depend on a multiple species of ducks including Canvasbacks, Cinnamon Teal, Gadwalls, Ruddy Ducks, Northern Pintails, Green-winged Teal, Redheads, American Widgeons, Northern Shovelers, Bufflehead, Common Goldeneye, Ring-necked Ducks, Lesser Scaup and even an occasional Wood Duck plus the chance to spot Sandhill Cranes, White-faced Ibis, Double-crested Cormorants, Great Egrets, Western and Clark’s Grebes, Long-billed Curlews, and Nevada’s only resident population of Trumpeter Swans. Ferruginous Hawks and Golden Eagles can often be spotted in the tall trees near historic Bressman Cabin on the refuge and Northern Harriers are common in the marshes.

If your quest goes beyond waterfowl, the areas around Cave Creek near the refuge headquarters and the nearby Gallagher State Fish Hatchery are a haven for Broad-tailed Hummingbirds, Calliope Hummingbirds, Rufous and Black-chinned Hummingbirds, Yellow-headed Blackbirds, Black-billed Magpies, Lazuli Buntings and Williamson’s Sapsuckers. A fairly impressive number of Turkey Vultures roost in the trees near the refuge headquarters in the summer.

The hatchery is always a fruitful birding spot and a wide variety of birds can be picked up there--a state record White Wagtail was spotted in the hatchery parking lot in 2010. The willow trees ringing the outflow ponds just behind the hatchery are a reliable area for picking up Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers, Yellow Warblers, Marsh Wrens, a variety of sparrows and an occasional Long-eared Owl. The trail into Indian Creek, two miles north of the refuge headquarters is a good place to spot mountain goats, Loggerhead Shrikes, Chukar, Bushtit, Western Bluebirds, and Mountain Chickadees.

Watch for Lewis’ Woodpeckers on the telephone poles along the road to the refuge (for periods each spring it seems as if there is one on every third or fourth pole). Closer to the refuge headquarters, refuge staff recently added a number of artificial burrows to increase the population of Burrowing Owls. The refuge is essentially three-season birding, since the road across Harrison Pass from the west is often impassible and even the road from Wells can sometimes be problematic. If you do go in winter you can see Tundra Swans, as well as a good number of overwintering Rough-legged Hawks.

The refuge and adjoining areas are also home to some interesting historical sites. The infamous Donner Party temporarily camped about 300 meters south of the current refuge headquarters building near Cave Creek (although this was prior to their notorious culinary incident). And a few miles further south the original Pony Express Trail transected Ruby Valley. The crumbling remnants of Fort Ruby, an 1860’s era U.S. Army outpost which was constructed near the Pony Express Trail to protect riders and emigrant travelers from Native American raiders, are still evident along the refuge road. It was so remote it was called the “Worst Post in the West” by soldiers stationed there.

Great Basin National Park

From the refuge the drive to Great Basin National Park near the town of Baker, Nevada is a starkly beautiful drive on Highway 50, the “Loneliest Road in America”. Great Basin National Park is home to the 13,063 foot Wheeler Peak, glacial moraines, 5000-year-old bristlecone pines, mountain goats, bighorn sheep and mountain lions. Hike Wheeler Peak and spot Clark's Nutcrackers, Swainson's Hawks and Ferruginous Hawks.

The National Park elevation ranges from about 5000 feet to more than 13,000 feet so a diversity of habitats means a huge variety of birds. Hike Lehman Peak Trail, which climbs alongside Lehman Creek to spy Western Scrub Jay, Pinyon Jay, Steller’s Jay, Say’s Phoebe and Plumbeous Vireo. Alpine Lakes Loop takes you by two lakes above 10,000 feet and is great for seeing raptors include Northern Goshawk, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Rough-legged Hawk, Swainson’s Hawk, Ferruginous Hawk and Golden Eagle. The steep and rugged Wheeler Peak Summit Trail takes you to the top of Wheeler Peak and you can count on Chukar, Common Ravens, Mountain Bluebirds, Townsend’s Solitaire and Black-billed Magpies.

Spend the night in Baker and enjoy a hearty meal in the eclectic Lectrolux Café--the food is homemade and delicious.

Goshute Mountains

East of Ruby Valley are the Goshute Mountains, dominating the busiest raptor migration route in the western United States. Running north-to-south, the Goshutes act as a funnel, concentrating migrating raptors between the barren Great Salt Lake to the east and the Great Basin mountain ranges to the west. The Goshutes range up to 10,000 feet and in the fall thousands of migrating birds take advantage of this forested finger of bristlecone pines and fir trees to rest and forage during their annual fall migration. The result? A raptor watcher’s dream, with literally hundreds of migrating raptors soaring past on a daily basis.

For over two decades HawkWatch International has conducted bird counts and banding programs in the Goshutes during the migration season (late August to early November). Standing on the crest of the Goshutes, you can observe Golden Eagles, Red-tailed Hawks, American Kestrels, Northern Goshawks, Northern Harriers, Sharp-shinned Hawks, Cooper’s Hawks, Broad-winged Hawks, Swainson’s Hawks, Merlins, Ferruginous Hawks, Bald Eagles, Peregrine Falcons, Prairie Falcons and Rough-legged Hawks. Add in the chance to glimpse Flammulated Owls, Northern Saw-Whet Owls and Great Horned Owls and your raptor quota is pretty much filled up. HawkWatch International welcomes visitors to its observation area and at its banding site where you can observe birds in hand and the banding process up close—and from the observation area on the crest of the Goshutes you can gaze upon soaring raptors at, even below, eye level. Literally hundreds of raptors migrate past the Goshutes in a typical day and the HawkWatch banding station will capture, band and release dozens of birds daily.

Northern Nevada is the whole range of birding in a microcosm: raptors, waterfowl, montane species, woodland birds, prairie birds, and high desert species; all in an area that can be birded in a relatively short period of time. Throw in the harshly captivating mountain ranges, eye-pleasing scenery, cowboy ambience, and untamed spaces and you’ll have a hard time finding a better and more diverse birding destination.

Visitor Information:

Great Basin National Park
100 Great Basin National Park
Baker, NV 89311
(775) 234-7331

Goshutes Mountains Raptor Migration
HawkWatch International
(801) 484-6808

Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge
HC 60, Box 860
Ruby Valley, Nevada 89833-9802

Lamoille Canyon Scenic Byway

Ruby Crest National Recreation Trail
Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest
1200 Franklin Way
Sparks, NV 89431
(775) 331-6444

(This article originally appeared in the April 2013 issue of Bird Watcher's Digest)


  1. I just discovered this post and am very interested in visiting the Goshute Mountains during the raptor migration this fall (I live in Vegas so it's within reasonable reach) ! I checked out the HawkWatch site that you mentioned, lots of good info there - thanks! Wondering if you can recommend any particular locations for photographing the birds in flight during the migration (frame-filling shots, not tiny specks! :) ). I hope to be able to hike to the observation point but don't want to get in the way of those doing the monitoring and banding, etc. Thanks, and great blog!

    1. The observation point is the best place to go for good photos. You will be at altitude and get eye level shots. Take your telephoto lens. Don't worry about getting in the way of monitors, they will welcome you with open arms.