I had the good fortune in mid-July of this last summer to visit the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge in far northwestern Nevada. Along with it’s sister refuge, Oregon’s Hart Mountain Refuge, it preserves a wonderful chunk of Great Basin habitat. Wide, open volcanic mesas and corrugated drainages stretch to the horizon. It is an important wintering area for pronghorn, and provides year-round habitat for bighorns, mule deer, and greater sage grouse.
Several reservoirs on the refuge provide important nesting habitat for waterfowl. I camped at Catnip Reservoir, on the western side of the refuge. This small reservoir, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, hosted a rich variety of birds – coots, ruddy ducks and mallards, pied-billed grebes, Canada geese, white-faced ibis, killdeer, sandhill cranes, Caspian terns, ring-billed gulls.
After I arrived, I set up camp, and then scoped out the reservoir. I was surprised to see a flash of white on the far side of the lake. An American white pelican! Just one, which was a bit odd, as they are usually found in flocks. I’m fascinated by pelicans, with their prehistoric demeanor and graceful awkwardness. American white pelicans are one of the largest birds in North American, with a stunning black and white, 9-foot wing span. They often breed on inland lakes, so the pelican’s presence on Catnip Reservoir wasn’t unusual, but its solitariness was. As the afternoon faded, I watched the pelican make a slow circumnavigation of the lake, gracefully tracing the shore counter-clockwise.
After a gorgeous sunset, the full moon rose over the mesa, and a cacophony arose from the lake. I set up a parabolic microphone, pointed toward the lake and listened as waterfowl squabbled, squawked, and splashed, and chorus frogs tried to get their voices heard above the noisy birds.
The night was chilly, and I found ice in the tea kettle in the morning. The cool temperatures didn’t quiet the birds on the lake, though, as they called even louder, joined by finches, blackbirds, killdeer, and wrens on the shoreline.
The sun was bright and the day warmed quickly. The dog and I took a nice hike up to one of the mesas, following game trails across the mesa and returning along a small stream that fed into the reservoir. Along the way we flushed at least half a dozen groups of greater sage grouse – huge, chicken-sized birds that live, feed, breed, and sleep in big sagebrush. Their numbers are in decline throughout their range, mostly due to habitat loss, so it was a real treat to see decent numbers of them on the refuge, a testament to good land management.
On our way back to camp, we ran into a pair of sandhill cranes, feeding in the meadow surrounding the small stream.
We got back to the lake, and watched another day fade, as the pelican continued its counter-clockwise laps around the lake. It got close enough that I was able to see the brown feathers on the back of its head – indicating it was a juvenile. I also enjoyed watching the coots pay extraordinary attention to their little chicks, and male ruddy ducks chasing females and other males, while periodically giving their comedic “bubble-pop” displays (you can hear them in the recordings).
We spent another night on the refuge, then headed up to Oregon to commune with some trees. But before we left, I scanned the lake for the pelican. To my surprise, he (or she) had taken to the air, and was completing his lap around the lake on the wing. I really enjoyed the wildlife and relative quiet of the refuge (except for 30 minutes of low-level military over flights one night). I look forward to visiting again.
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