Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge sign

Beneath Still Waters

Wildlife refuges are some of my favorite places.  Little pockets of wild that provide critical habitat, they are usually great places to see and hear wildlife.  On my frequent trips to northern Nevada, I try to get to Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge near Fallon on each visit.

Stillwater is part of a complex of refuges in northern Nevada that protect vital lowlands for migrating and resident birds.   It is the last vestige of Pleistocene Lake Lahontan, whose ancient shorelines can be seen on the hillsides near the refuge.   It is a sink, a basin that is the endpoint for a river in the Great Basin.  In this case, this is where the Carson River comes to die (see also The Dead-End River).  Through dams creating Lahontan Reservoir, and and extensive series of check dams and dikes, the US Fish and Wildlife Services carefully manages a series of ponds and marshes for wildlife.

The recent drought in the west is taking a toll on the refuge.  The rivers that feed Lahontan Reservoir haven’t had the Sierra snows they need to make it all the way to the end, so the reservoir is very low.  When I visited Stillwater in October, managers had just opened the floodgates to fill a couple of the ponds in anticipation of fall migration.  The rest of the refuge was a glaring white salt pan.

Goose Lake is now a salt pan.

Goose Lake is now a salt pan.

When I visited the refuge a week ago, most of the refuge was still dry, with only a few of the larger ponds with water.  I thought that would mean a big concentration of wintering swans, geese, and ducks, but there were far fewer birds than I expected.  The winter has been very warm – running 10-15 degrees above normal for weeks now.  There was a cold snap at the end of December, so a few remnants of ice still hung around the shores of the ponds.  Out of curiosity to see what was going on under the water, I dropped a hydrophone into one of the ponds.  As the sounds were being recorded, I peered into the water, and watched water bugs darting into and out of the dense detritus on the edge of a thick reed bank.  The water was barely above freezing, but sill life abounded.

It was a lousy day for recording, at least out of the water.  It was windy, and the air was assaulted by the sound of jets on training runs from nearby Fallon Air Station.  But I really wanted to record some tundra swans.  So I pressed on to Nutgrass Lake at the northern half of the refuge, where a recent drizzle and freezing mornings had turned the road into gumbo.  Finally I found my swans.

Tundra Swans at Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge

Tundra Swans at Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge

So I braved the brisk wind, and used a parabolic mic to pick up the musical sound of the swans conversing out on the lake.  It took a lot of editing to clear out the noise of the wind and a jet that inconveniently chose that moment to rip through the sky, but I was left with the beautiful sound of swans talking to each other, with a background of wind through the reeds and a few Canada Geese honking.

The clouds started to break up as I headed home, leaving some lovely reflections on the water.

Reflections on the water

Reflections on the water, Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge

In past trips to the refuge, I have observed many more hawks, eagles, herons, ducks and geese than I saw during this trip.  I would have thought that the few lakes would have been crowded with waterfowl.  Perhaps they knew of nearby ponds that I didn’t (highly possible).  Perhaps they sought other wintering grounds.

So far this winter has been even dryer than last year.  I fear what this portends for both wildlands and wildlife.  The extreme drought that has a hold on this region, and it’s accompanying wildfires, are changing sagebrush habitats to grassland and forests to scrublands.  Many of these habitats will change faster than their resident wildlife can adapt.  This makes it incredibly important to have wild corridors between protected areas, so wildlife can move if they need to.  Protecting wild streams and marshes is also critical, and requires careful planning and management during droughts.

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