The Great Basin is a rough, corrugated landscape of rugged mountain ranges separated by desert flats. Although each one differs a bit, most of the valley bottoms are decorated with bursage, big sage, and salt flats. When the glaciers melted at the end of the Pleistocene, these basin were filled with large lakes, primarily Lake Lahontan in the west and Lake Bonneville in the east, with smaller lakes appearing in isolated valleys. As the glaciers retreated and the climate dried, only the deepest lakes remained, including Great Salt Lake, Pyramid Lake, Walker Lake, and Lake Tahoe. In other areas, small pockets of wetlands remain, some of these managed by either US Fish and Wildlife Service or Nevada Department of Wildlife as wildlife refuges and for hunting and fishing. These remnant marshes provide critical stopover habitat for migrating ducks, geese, swans and shorebirds, as well as important breeding habitat.
In the middle of June, I stopped by Ruby Marsh (technically Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge), in northeastern Nevada, to check out the wildlife and recording opportunities. This is one of the largest of the remnant marshes, forming a 17,000 acre oasis of rushes, sedges, and open water, surrounded by grassland and shrub-steppe. It’s an incredibly beautiful marsh, lying beneath the rugged peaks of the Ruby Mountains. It had snowed 2 days before I arrived in June, and the high peaks still bore a fresh dusting of snow. Baby ducks and geese were everywhere, and I even saw a tundra swan sitting on a nest.
Like many of these marsh refuges, it is divided into separate ponds that allow managers to adjust water levels and conduct vegetation treatments (burning, pesticides, grazing). A nice series of access roads ran among the ponds, allowing close access to many of the animals. It was great fun to watch the baby coots, grebes, geese, and canvasbacks, and watch the ruddy ducks do their “bubble-pop” displays.
With this huge diversity of birds, the sounds were abundant and varied, especially around dawn. Unfortunately, there was a fish hatchery on one side of the refuge that produced a loud, low hum, and military aircraft frequently flew over the refuge. With so many birds sitting on eggs or feeding young, much of the cacophony of courtship was already past. But I still managed to get some decent recordings, including this one, recording just after dawn:
I also set out a mic overnight at the edge of the refuge near a sage brush flat. As I was driving out to set the mics, I saw a large cloud of dust in the distance, which turned out to be a large herd of wild horses (or possibly two herds meeting). They stayed in the area overnight, and even came close enough for the mics to pick up some of their sounds. The highlight of the recording was a long segment of bittern calls.
I look forward to future visits to the refuge at different times of the year, and listening to how the sounds change with the seasons.
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