One of my favorite places to visit and record in northern Nevada is Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge, near Fallon. It’s a collection of ponds, ditches, and marshes, where the Carson and a portion of the Truckee Rivers end. It is such a critical oasis in the arid Great Basin that it’s part of the Western Hemispheric Shorebird Reserve Network, and listed as a Globally Important Bird Area. It provides breeding and wintering habitat for a large variety of swans, geese, ducks, hawks, shorebirds, herons, egrets, many other birds, plus mammals, insects, amphibians and reptiles. At the eastern edge of the Pacific Flyway, it’s also an important stop for migrating birds. Every visit is different, not only the different voices of animals but also the ever-changing light on the water, vegetation, and surrounding mountains.
In spite of this wonderful diversity, it can be a challenging place to record. Nearby Fallon is also home to the Fallon Naval Air Station. So, occasionally, visits to the refuge are accompanied by loud overflights of fighter jets and military gunships. Patience usually pays off, though, with a few minutes of clean recording. There are few other human visitors to the refuge (at least the southern portion, where hunting is not allowed), so the military aircraft are the primary disturbance. The water on the refuge is intensively managed though a variety of ponds, ditches, and gates, and in coordination with water levels at nearby Lahontan Reservoir. It’s the final stop for the Carson River, and in very dry years, after the farmers, ranchers, and desert sun have taken their share, there may be few drops left to replenish the ponds. With fewer ponds with water, many of the migrating birds don’t stay, so there are fewer voices to record. But if the creeks are running and the jets stay home, it’s a magical place, with an abundance of life that provides respite for the soul.
I stopped by Stillwater in early July this year, on my way north. My first stop was at Stillwater Lake, near the entrance of the Refuge. This is a great place to see and hear wildlife as the pond usually has water, there is a large reed bed that the birds seem to really like, and there is a nice viewing platform. I arrived just as the sun was setting. I got out of my car and was inundated with a cacophony of sound – birds, insects, and amphibians. I quickly set up my recording gear:
After I recorded for about half an hour, I drove further north, to a camping area on the northern part of the refuge. “Camping area” for the refuge means a parking lot and a bathroom. I continued on to a boat ramp near a small lake, and set up my recording gear. With the darkness came the mosquitoes. Clouds and clouds of them. Luckily the window screens on my CR-V kept them out. The small lake was full of coots, ruddy ducks, and some other noisy birds. They were calling all night, occasionally joined by coyotes and nighthawks, filling the whole area with luscious sound.
Fast forward a few months and the sights and sounds are quite different. The insects and amphibians have gone silent. The geese and swans are back. The green vegetation has turned to rust and gold, and the ponds are covered with a skim of ice. The Refuge seems much more subdued, as animal energy is devoted to surviving the cold temperatures, rather than breeding. And yet, there was still a wonderful variety of sounds as Mallards and teal repeatedly flushed when a pair of Northern Harriers sailed overhead, as Tundra Swans and Canada Geese conversed in the distance:
I am so happy to have this area nearby. I look forward to many more visits and watching the changes with the seasons.
For more recordings on previous visits to Stillwater, click here.
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