The state of Nevada is more than just the vibrant energy of the Las Vegas strip or the countless conspiracy theories that shroud Area 51. Although it is the most arid of the fifty states, there are plenty of mountains, lakes, forests, and marshes to explore in the country’s seventh largest state. From Lake Tahoe to the Snake Mountain Range, Nevada has an impressive roster of recorded wildlife species across nine national wildlife refuges, three national parks, and more than six million acres of designated Important Bird Area. With so much territory to cover, we’ve narrowed the list down to five birding and wildlife-watching hotspots to help you hit the jackpot while you’re in the Silver State.
Desert National Wildlife Refuge
Not including Alaska, this is America’s largest national wildlife refuge, with an impressive 1.6 million acres of protected land. Desert National Wildlife Refuge was created in 1936 with the goal of providing habitat and protection for desert bighorn sheep, which are still year-round residents in the area. The refuge spans six major mountain ranges, with the highest peaks reaching nearly 10,000 feet in elevation, and is just 25 miles northwest of Las Vegas. It also has the largest bird list in Nevada, clocking in at 320 different species.
The refuge is virtually roadless, and what roads it does have are very rugged. You can reach the visitor center via Corn Creek Road off of the Veteran’s Memorial Highway. Don’t race down the road in a hurry to reach the refuge, though— this four mile long stretch is a prime birding and wildlife-watching area. Watch for Anna’s Hummingbird, Say’s Phoebe, Crissal Thrasher, Lucy’s Warbler, Hooded Oriole, Scott’s Oriole, and Bell’s Vireo. Once you reach the visitor center, you’ll notice that the vegetation and pond surrounding the area are a magnet for Gambel’s Quail, Greater Roadrunner, Sagebrush Sparrow, and, if you’re lucky, LeConte’s Thrasher.
Spotting other types of wildlife on the refuge is trickier. Because of the high daytime temperatures, many of the mammals and reptiles are nocturnal. More often than not, you’ll spot desert bighorn sheep during the hottest part of the day around waterholes. However, keep a watchful eye out for the occasional mountain lion, coyote, bobcat, fox or badger, or any number of collared lizards sunning themselves on the rocks.
Great Basin National Park
Established in 1986, Great Basin is one of the country’s least visited national parks. But don’t let that deter you —nearly 70% of all North American mammals are found here, and from the time you leave the nearby town of Baker to the time you reach the end of Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive, you’ll travel through five different habitats, gaining 10,000 feet in elevation as you ascend. This scenic drive will take you through arid scrub and forests of ponderosa pine, bristlecone pine, and aspen, giving you great opportunities for birding and wildlife-watching along the way.
Lower elevation species to watch for include Western Scrub-jay, Green-tailed Towhee, Bushtit, Pinyon Jay, Golden Eagle, Common Raven and Loggerhead Strike. As you climb higher and the habitat begins to change, you’ll start to see Broad-tailed Hummingbird, Clark’s Nutcracker, Mountain Chickadee, Townsend’s Solitaire, Western Tanager, American Three-toed Woodpecker, and the occasional Red Crossbill. Although not nearly as common, you may get lucky and spot a Black Rosy-finch above the tree line, or a flock of Green-winged Teal or Great Blue Herons soaring overhead in search of nearby ponds.
Although many of the park’s mammals are secretive and low in population density, it’s possible to see a wide array of them depending on the time of day you visit. Mountain lions and coyotes are most frequently spotted during dusk and dawn, at which point they are actively hunting mule deer and elk. Bobcats are nocturnal, though if you’re lucky, you may spot one just before sunset. During the day, black-tailed jack rabbits can be spotted in the sagebrush, while packrats can be found in caves and cliffs. If you spot a rock pile in the park, you may very well also spot a yellow-bellied marmot nearby.
Part of Lake Tahoe-Nevada State Park, Spooner Lake is situated a short distance from, you guessed it, Lake Tahoe. This mountain lake sits at 7,100 feet and is most easily accessed from the two mile long Spooner Lake Loop Trail. It’s recommended that you visit between May and July to experience the best birding and wildlife-watching, as well as optimal weather conditions.
Year-round residents you can expect to find along the trail include Clark’s Nutcracker, Brown Creeper, Mountain Chickadee, Steller’s Jay, Osprey, and Downy, Hairy, and White-headed Woodpeckers. Spring migration brings Common Loon, Spotted Sandpiper, Bar Swallow, Hermit Thrush and Western Wood-pewee to the area. The most elusive species in the area are the Northern Pygmy Owl and the Black-backed Woodpecker. If you happen to spot either, consider yourself one of the lucky few!
While you have your eyes turned up to look for birds, you may also spot the American Marten jumping between branches as it hunts tree squirrels. Redirecting your eyes to the ground may yield sightings of black bears, beavers, coyotes, porcupines, raccoons, and yellow-bellied marmots.
Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge
A critical resting spot for millions of birds during migration and a designated Important Bird Area, Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge is a wetland area with small lakes and marshes leftover from an ancient lake where the Lahontan Basin is presently located. Lake levels can vary from season to season, impacting the number of waterfowl and shorebirds present, so be sure to check in at the office in nearby Fallon before you head out.
Great flocks of ducks, grebes, and American White Pelican can be spotted during migration, along with herons, egrets, ibises, Wilson’s Phalarope, and Red-necked Phalarope. Bald Eagles and Rough-legged Hawks circle above during the winter, while Peregrine Falcon are seen rather frequently. Visit between February and August for White-faced Ibis, avocet, stilt, dowitchers, curlews, sandpipers, terns and gulls setting up their nesting sites, and from August through the start of winter for Gadwall, Mallard, Northern Shoveler, Cinnamon Teal, and Canada Geese making their southward journey down the eastern edge of the Pacific Flyway during migration.
Additionally, a variety of wildlife including mountain lions, bobcats, mule deer, bats, mink, kit fox, turtles and frogs can be found in the refuge. The refuge’s extensive trail system, boardwalks and observation decks make looking for and observing wildlife easy for everyone, no matter your level of expertise or skill.
In the heart of the Ruby Mountains, Nevada’s wettest mountain range, lies Lamoille Canyon, providing access to the state’s high country. Follow the twelve mile byway up as it snakes through the canyon and reaches its dead end at 8,800 feet. About halfway up, you’ll likely see Dusky Grouse, Golden Eagle, Lewis’s Woodpecker, American Dipper, Mountain Bluebird, Yellow Warbler, Violet-green Swallow and Townsend’s Solitaire.
If you’re up for a bit of a hike, there are several trails in the area that will provide the best chance at spotting a black rosy-finch. We recommend the three mile back-and-out Island Lake Trail as it takes you above the tree line, where you may see the Himalayan snowcock—an introduced species from Asia that thrives in high alpine meadows and mountain slopes, and can only be found here in the United States.
Viewing other types of wildlife is best during the months of April and May, and again during November and December. Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep and mountain goats are commonly spotted along rocky cliffs and mountain slopes, while observing ponds may give way to daytime beaver sightings, and rocks near the northern slopes house yellow-bellied marmots and pika.
From low-lying marshes to arid deserts to towering mountains, Nevada’s landscape brings a little of everything to the table. A wide variety of birds and mammals call the state home, whether they’re permanent residents or just stopping by. If you get a chance to visit any of the spots we’ve listed, be sure to let us know!