I’m no twitcher, and before last weekend the closest I’d ever come to the world of birding was watching the surprising blockbuster The Big Year.
But that all changed when I plunged into the 16th Annual Spring Wing’s Festival. The event draws thousands of birders from all over the globe to Fallon, Nevada, a small town that’s packed with history and is just over an hour east of Reno, to observe the annual migration that peaks in April and May.
During this non-stop weekend of festivities, I learned a great deal. For starters, that Nevada, which I’d always pictured as dusty high desert, has wetlands and that they are no ordinary wetlands, but a globally significant oasis for hundreds of thousands of shorebirds and waterfowl migrating along the Pacific Flyway. I learned that “Mallards are sluts” (thank you Melissa Mayntz, birding guru from About.com, for that tidbit), and that I’m no eagle eye when it comes to bird identification. At the beginning of the trip I could’ve mistaken a Hooded Merganser for a Northern Pintail without shame (same is still true after the trip, but now I’d be embarrassed- a little). I also discovered that the energy of birders is infectious; the last day of the trip I found myself trying to identify birds I would have previously overlooked.
The festival kicked off with a fascinating Birds of Prey presentation by master falconer Marie Gaspari-Crawford and her niece and colleague Chloe Bowen, who introduced us to their Red Tail Hawk, Gyrfalcon, and Peregrine Falcon. They explained that the art of Falconry grew to be the most popular form of hunting in Europe, peaking in the 1100-1600s, before the invention of the gun, and that keeping this ancient tradition alive is one of the things that draws them to the sport.
“The type of bird you owned signaled what your class and status was in society. You could even be killed for owning a raptor that was meant for a king,” Gaspari-Crawford explained. She and Bowen also emphasized the impervious bond that develops between a handler and their bird, one built on mutual respect. “These guys could fly away anytime they wanted when we’re hunting them, but they always choose to return.”
The next morning it was time to explore Lake Tule, part of the Stillwater Refuge Complex, which provides the only significant wetlands for birds migrating along the Pacific Flyway to rest and refuel before heading further south. We hopped in kayaks and began our search. Though the lake was quieter than previous years, according to Spring Wing returnees, I saw several birds I’d never seen (that I could recall), such as the noisy Yellow-Headed Blackbird and the spritely Marsh Wren.
As we paddled, I began to compare my companion’s love of birding to my love of surfing. Both depend on the whimsy of a myriad of environmental factors such as, in the case of birding, the changing shape of the wetlands and wind patterns, which makes spotting a “lifer” that much more challenging and that much sweeter when accomplished- just like catching the sea on a glassy, offshore, head-high day. I decided, that this quieter birding session out on the lake added to the the fun of it all.
As did the afternoon activity, “The Owl Prowl.” Who isn’t intrigued by owls with their intense stares and impressive patterns? Even a birding neophyte such as myself can get into spotting them. So when Michael Goddard, president of Friends of Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge, guided us to Great Horned owl babies peering out of a tree nest, Barn Owl babies, and finally a skittish burrowing owl all in the space of two hours, I was hooked. Goddard also shared about the native Paiute people, who inhabited the area on the higher plateaus, utilizing local resources like cattails to make nets that trapped Coots, one of their favorite foods.
The next morning was the opposite of the first. There were birds galore- on the ground, in the water, flying overhead- as we explored the Carson Lake area. I felt like we were on safari as we hopped in and out of the van to set up the scope for optimal viewing whenever Goddard, who was once again our guide, spotted something interesting. The rattlesnake, yellow-backed spiny lizard, and hundreds of cattle roaming the pastureland riddled with rivulets and shallow marshes added to this safari-feel. I adopted two new favorite birds here, the energetic Phalaropes that spin in circles to stir up munchies from the marsh mud, and the dainty American Avocet. As we made our way back over the marshy fields to exit the refuge, Goddard also pointed out the historic Pony Express Station off in the distance. Driving back to the hotel, I said ‘American Avocet’ every chance I got in order to cement my new bird-knowledge as we we passed expansive fields of alfalfa and paralleled endless systems of canals.
In addition to a plethora of birds, we were treated around town to glimpses of Fallon’s surprisingly rich history, with visits to the victorian Douglass House, built in 1904, and the Oats Park Center, which is the town’s old school house revived to a top notch art museum and stunning theatre. On our last evening, dinner at the Slanted Porch was full of local ingredients, including lovingly raised 4H animals. We ran out of time to stroll the charming and recently renovated ‘Maine’ Street (the founder of the city was originally from Maine), or peruse the antique store, Just Country Friends, which was hopping all Saturday long. To remedy this, I plan to make a return visit, for another birding fix, yes, but also to more thoroughly explore all the other goodies this modern wild west town has to offer.