Ruby Lake: a stunning desert wetland


The wetlands that comprise Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge were both beautiful and very birdy.

After My successful Himalayan Snowcock hike, I took it easy the rest of that Tuesday (June 16), got my camping stuff dried out, and got ready to head for Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge the next day. I got a very early start on the one and a half hour drive from Lamoille Canyon, and I was at the start of the northern-most auto tour route in Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge just before sunrise on Wednesday morning. It was a glorious morning -- cold (38F at sunrise), dead calm, and crystal clear. The setting for the Ruby Lake wetland was spectacular. The green reeds and blue water of the wetlands contrasted against the dry mountainsides that formed the Ruby Valley. I had the place totally to myself. I didn't see another person or pass another car until 3 hours later when I stopped at the campground between the north and south auto tours. There are no highways nearby (just the dirt road along the edge of the refuge which had no traffic). No planes passed overhead. It was absolutely peaceful. I commented in earlier blogs that the Cheyenne Bottoms wetlands in Kansas hold relatively few breeding birds in June compared to the Bear River Refuge in Utah. Ruby Lake was on par with Bear River Refuge for bird abundance and diversity--although the abundance of big birds like ibis was a bit lower. It was non-stop fun birding.

There were numerous breeding canvasback at Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Nevada.

Canvasbacks are one of the stars of the show at Ruby Lake. In my world, Canvasback is a scarce winter visitor and I have rarely seen them on their breeding grounds. In the Ruby Valley, there were breeding Canvasback in every pond along the auto tour with many hens leading groups of hatchlings around. When I was planning for the trip, I was hoping that I might call up a Virginia Rail for my Nevada list in the Ruby Lake wetlands. It turns out, on a calm morning in June, Virginia Rails are grunting all over the place in these wetlands. It was probably the highest density of breeding Virginia Rails that I've encountered anywhere. The habitat looked great for them and based on the number of calls they appeared to fill the reed beds. As I drove slowly along, stopping wherever I felt like it, my list of marsh birds grew long: Sandhill Crane, Forester's and Caspian Tern, Wilson's Phalarope, Black-necked Stilt and American Avocet, Black-crowned Night-heron, Northern Harrier, and numerous species of ducks. There are two sections of the Auto Tour and as I was driving from the north unit to the south unit, I heard and recorded a Willow Flycatcher. Long-billed Curlew called from the drier grassy areas between the two auto tours.

Black-crowned Night-herons turned out to be easy to find at Ruby Lake NWR in June.

American White Pelicans come in for landing at one of the wetland ponds in Ruby Lake NWR.

My time at Ruby Lake may have been my favorite mornings of birding in the whole trip, but the spell began to wane as it approached mid-morning. The soft morning light gave way to a harsher, mid-day desert blare and the wind went from a breeze to a blow. With all the marsh birds that I added to my state list at Ruby Lake, I had pushed my Nevada list to way over 100 species. I wanted to stop by and see Great Basin National Park on my way out of Nevada and that park was a few hours drive to my south. So, a bit reluctantly, I bid farewell to Rudy Lake.

To Ruby Lake, I had planned my trip very closely. I knew exactly what routes I intended to take along each stretch of the trip through the first six days. As I made to depart from Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge, my route was a bit less certain. I knew that I was headed for Great Basin National Park next, but I hadn't mapped out an exact route from Ruby Lake to Great Basin NP. Normally, that would be no big deal--I would be moving from a National Wildlife Refuge to a National Park--but I had no cell service anywhere in the Ruby Valley. Even worse, I had no paper map except the refuge map from the kiosk at the auto tour entrance. I knew that Great Basin National Park was south, but I hadn't planned out exactly what highway to take. And driving randomly out into the desert and figuring that you'll run into cell service soon enough is a bad idea. Fortunately, at the bottom of the refuge map there was an arrow pointing south on HWY 3 indicating that it was 95 miles to the town of Ely. I remembered that Ely was on the way to Great Basin National Park so I headed south on HWY 3.

The route along Highway 3 from Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge toward Great Basin National Park was 80 miles of gravel road through a land with no people.

The drive south down HWY 3 out of Ruby Valley was, on the one hand, completely uneventful. There were no obstacles. I didn't break down. I just drove along and looked at birds and Pronghorn Antelope. On the other hand, it was one of the most fun and exhilarating drives I've ever made in the U.S. because it was 80 miles of unpaved road and I wasn't absolutely positive I was heading the correct way or that the road was passible for small sedan. I knew mistakes could be costly in this part of the country because I was traveling through a vast unpeopled land. By unpeopled I mean that I did not pass a single dwelling for 80 miles. There were signs of people--fenced rangeland, wind turbines, the odd two track leading off to the distance. But I didn't see any people. I did not pass a single vehicle for 80 miles. I simply drove and drove and drove. When driving on an expressway, 80 miles is not that far. A million Americans probably commute 80 miles to work every day. On an unpaved road in a remote part of Nevada, 80 miles is a long, long way.

The eighty miles on unpaved roads between Ruby Valley and Eli was an endless series of assents into low mountains and descents into very dry valleys.

At one point in the drive, far ahead I could make out two shapes in the road. Visibility was typically many miles and so at first I could not make out what the objects were. I was guessing cows. As I got closer, I could see that it was two Pronghorn Antelopes standing in the road at a point where barbed wire fencing was strung along both sides of the road. I expected the antelope to run away long before I got to them like deer back in Alabama but these antelope just stood and looked at me. Finally as I got so close I had to brake so I didn't drive right up on them, they started to move off. But instead of jumping the fence like I expected such fleet and athletic animals to do, they each took a turn wiggling under the bottom strand of barbed wire. It looked just plain silly. I later read that Pronghorns can't jump fences and that low-strong fences are an impediment to their dispersal.

Eighty miles doesn't seem that far in an era of high speed expressways but you had better have gas in your tank and water in your trunk if you want to try the deserted route between Ruby Valley and Ely Nevada.

Finally, after about two and a half hours rolling down my unpaved road, I intersected with HWY 50 and I was instantly back in civilization. HWY 50 is a paved, high-speed road, and traffic was whizzing by in both directions. Compared to anywhere in the east, it wasn't that much traffic. I was still in eastern Nevada. But after having the world to myself on the dirt road, I found it sort of jarring to pull back into high-speed traffic.

On my way to Great Basin National Park, my primary target bird was Sagebrush Sparrow. Long ago, when this bird was still Sage Sparrow, I used to see them in the winter in the sagebrush flats on the west edge of Bosque del Apache NWR south of Albuquerque. I lived in Albuquerque for three years in the early 1980s and I think I saw them at least once each of those winters. That is the last time I had seen one. I had gone almost 40 years with one sighting of Bell's Sparrows (the pacific coast Sage Sparrow population that was split from Sagebrush Sparrow) but no sightings and thus obviously no photos of Sagebrush Sparrow.

On the drive from Ruby Lake to Great Basin NWR the whole world is Sagebrush Sparrow breeding habitat, but I wasn't confident that I could just pull over and find one. This is a low-productivity land with generally low densities of birds. I wanted to look in habitat where Sagebrush Sparrow had been recently seen. The problem was that most of the pins for Sagebrush Sparrow in eBird were treks of a mile or more that were usually linked to linked to a park. That sort of information was not nearly specific enough for me. I wanted some exact locations. Thankfully, a few birders had dropped pins for stationary counts scattered along HWY 50/HWY 6 on my route to Great Basin National Park. It was warm and windy in the middle of the day when I stopped at one of the stationary pinned locations, but it only took me a few minutes to start to hear Sagebrush Sparrows singing. I played a song from my cell phone and a bird flew right in to give me a nice view and let me take its picture.

Once I had some specific locations provided by some recent eBird lists, Sagebrush Sparrow was not hard to find, even in the mid-afternoon wind.

Great Basin National Park was beautiful. I am embarrassed to admit that I had not heard of this park before I started planning my trip west. It is a park worth knowing about. Not only is the scenery spectacular, but the birding was quite good. I took the paved and well-maintained Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive, which takes you above 10,000 feet on the 13,000 foot Wheeler Mountain. I stopped at pullouts beginning in the Pinyon-Juniper Woodlands at about 8000 feet and finally reaching Douglas Fir and Aspens around 10,000 feet.

© 2015 Geoffrey Hill

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