Nevada Commission on Tourism

Binoculars are key.

At Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge near Fallon, you can see Arctic tundra swans, northern harriers, canvasback ducks and hundreds more bird species — depending on the season.

“But you really need a good pair of binoculars,” said Susan Sawyer, who manages Stillwater’s Visitor Services program.

Non-birders can enjoy Stillwater’s wide-open desert landscape and learn about the Lahontan Valley’s cultural and geological history, thanks to interpretive signs placed along some of the refuge’s walking paths. Plan for a true outdoors adventure — there are no services on the refuge, the roads are unpaved and the restrooms are vault toilets. Despite that, Stillwater draws visitors to bird watch and, from October to January, to hunt. Managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Stillwater is a crucial stop for migrating waterfowl and shorebirds on the Pacific Flyway (a major north-south route for birds) and a nationally and internationally recognized area for bird watching.

Sawyer, the visitor center manager, suggests visiting three areas if you are a first-timer or short on time: Stillwater Point Reservoir; the Foxtail Lake loop drive (which has areas to park); and the Tule Trail. If you are approaching Stillwater from Fallon, she suggests stopping at the Refuge Headquarters, 1000 Auction Road, to pick up a map and brochures before continuing on to the refuge, about 20 miles east of Fallon. Although the office is not open on weekends, a sign board outside contains handout maps and information, and there is a supply at the refuge entrance kiosk as well. From Fallon, plan to spend at least two hours: that would include driving to the Stillwater refuge, viewing wildlife and returning to Fallon.

 

Stillwater Point Reservoir

Don’t let the quiet fool you — there are probably hundreds of birds among the cattails and bulrushes lining Stillwater Point Reservoir. If it’s spring, look for white-faced ibis, great and snowy egrets and Forster’s terns. The fall brings waterfowl (ducks, geese, swans) as well as species seeking warmer climates such as horned larks, sage sparrows and loggerhead shrikes.

Stillwater Point Reservoir can be seen shortly after entering the refuge: it will be on your right, a few minutes’ drive from the refuge entrance. Just off the parking area, find an orientation sign that features a refuge map and information on the history of the Lahontan Valley; there also are birding brochures and other handouts here. A short, gravel walking trail leads to an observation platform overlooking the reservoir. Keep an eye out for antelope ground squirrels flicking their stubby white tails among the sagebrush and rabbitbrush that dot the landscape.

 

Foxtail Lake Loop

The 6.5-mile, one-way loop drive around Upper Foxtail Lake begins across the road from the Stillwater Point Reservoir parking lot, and affords a good opportunity to view wildlife from behind the wheel of your vehicle. Although it may seem counterintuitive to watch wildlife from a car, sometimes it works.

“Your car is going to be your best observation blind,” Sawyer said, during a fall trip.

Drivers are allowed to pull their vehicles to the side of the road — two wheels must remain on the road — to view birds. There’s also a parking area midway through the loop. From here, take the wooden walkway to two observation decks.

Photographers take note: further along the loop drive is a pullout area, with a path that leads to an enclosed 6-by-8-foot photo blind — one of two inside the refuge — near the water. A signal flag on the blind can be raised so others know not to approach.

 

Tule Trail

The Foxtail Lake Loop route brings drivers back to Hunter Road. Turn left, back to Fallon — heading right will take you further into the refuge — to get to the trailhead for the Tule Trail, a 1¼  mile walking trail with 14 interpretive signs and several rest benches along the way. A kiosk at the trailhead in the parking area provides information about the trail and surrounding area. Another photo blind is located about halfway down  the Tule Trail.

The Nevada Commission on Tourism is a part of the Nevada Department of Tourism and Cultural Affairs. For more on Nevada travel, visit the website www.travelnevada.com.

IF YOU GO:

  • Check weather and road conditions before heading out to Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge. Wet weather can make the unpaved refuge roads impassable. Susan Sawyer, Stillwater’s Visitor Services manager, said vehicles have gotten stuck in the mud and remained there until the ground dries. Details: Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge Headquarters, 1000 Auction Road in Fallon, 775-423-5128, www.fws.gov/stillwater (click on the link to Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge.)
  • To get to Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge from Fallon: Take U.S. 50 east through Fallon for about 5 miles. Turn left on Nevada Route 116 (there will be two signs before the turnoff.) Continue on Nevada 116 for 12 miles — Sawyer advises that there are no signs to the refuge on this route. The paved road ends at the entrance to Stillwater.
  • For more on lodging, dining and things to do in nearby Fallon, visit the Fallon Convention & Tourism Authority website, www.fallontourism.com.

DID YOU KNOW

  • The Lahontan Valley Wetlands, of which Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge is a part, has been designated a site of international importance by the Western Hemispheric Shorebird Reserve Network, www.whsrn.org; and an Important Bird Area by the National Audubon Society, www.audubon.org. The American Bird Conservancy lists Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge as a Globally Important Bird Area, www.abcbirds.org.
  • Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge is a part of the Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge Complex, which includes Fallon National Wildlife Refuge and Anaho Island National Wildlife Refuge.

Photo credit: Mike Peters, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (photos of the whiteface ibis and yellowhead blackbird); Nevada Commission on Tourism (photos of the refuge)