Toree’s Stories: Lack of Tahoe winter has given us rare wildlife sightings
March 4, 2015
Though we have not yet experienced winter as we have come to expect here in the mountains, I am observing signs of spring in the plant and animal world as I stride through the forest with my dog friends.
One month ago, I heard my first robin. A couple of days ago, I heard a mountain chickadee briefly sing his mating song, which many of us call the "Cheeseburger Song."
And this morning I noticed that certain manzanita bushes are well along in developing their bell-like pink blossoms.
We can't do anything about the weather, so we may as well take advantage of the snow-free trails and get out there and enjoy nature.
My friend, Incline Village resident Franny Bryan, an enthusiastic nature seeker who, along with her husband, Chris, spends all the time she can out searching for wildlife, hiking or taking drives to different places.
Franny and Chris were on their way to Carson City one afternoon in mid-February, Fran gazing out the window at the lake, when she suddenly exclaimed, "Stop the car!"
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Chris, in his infinite patience found a reasonable place to pull over and Fran hopped out, camera in hand. She had spotted something white and large on the lake and she knew she had to investigate.
They hiked down to Hidden Beach to get a closer look. They realized they were looking at tundra swans — birds that may pass through here in the winter on their way south from the Arctic, then again in the spring, on their way back.
The tundra swan is small as swans go, ranging from 45 to 59 inches with a wingspan of 6-7 feet. Compare that to the largest, a trumpeter swan who reaches a length of over 60 inches, and a wingspan of up to 10 feet.
Intrigued, Fran and Chris followed the swans to Sand Harbor, until the pair swam deeper into the lake, out of sight.
They had bird-watching fever now, so with thoughts of running errands in Carson City receding, they decide to take a jaunt to Cove East, an area off the Tahoe Keys in South Lake Tahoe.
Not disappointed, they spot a killdeer ,foraging for food among the brush. Killdeer are considered a shore bird, but they often live far from water in grassland habitat or coastal farmland. During breeding season, the killdeer builds a nest in the ground, a simple structure that resembles its surroundings and is well camouflaged. The eggs are speckled and look like stones.
The killdeer will feign a broken wing to lure predators away from its nesting site, and flies off when it has lured the predator far enough away.
Actively looking, Chris and Fran spot a hawk high up in a tree, possibly a juvenile red-tailed hawk, looking for an easy meal. Soon he is joined by an angry magpie, who scolds him until he flies away. Shortly after, the magpie also flies off, mission accomplished.
Franny and Chris often make trips to outlying areas in search of wildlife. One area they like to visit is the Swan Lake Nature Study Area in Lemmon Valley, Nev.
During a visit in the fall of last year, they took this photo of an American avocet, a large wader in the stilt family, who was most likely stopping by along his migration from his breeding grounds in upper North America to his winter home in Mexico.
His cinnamon-colored head molts to grey in the winter, but they caught him still wearing his cinnamon hat. He has black and white plumage on his back, with white on his underbelly and long grey legs. He waves his long bill, upturned at the end, back and forth in the water, seeking crustaceans and insects.
The Swan Lake Nature Study Area is a small marshy area located in the middle of developing Stead and Lemmon Valley, near Peavine Peak, north of Reno.
It was formally dedicated as a nature study area in 1999, sponsored by the Nevada Army National Guard, the Bureau of Land Management, the Lahontan Audubon Society and others. More than 150 bird species have been observed there.
The area consists of more than 1,800 acres of land, with water supplied by nature and the Reno/Stead Sewage Treatment Plant. The wetland area varies depending upon the amount of natural precipitation received, from 100 to 1000 acres.
On the southwest side of the marsh, a floating boardwalk has been constructed, complete with interpretive signs and benches. Some species you might see are the burrowing owl, tundra swan and American avocet, as well as other ducks and shorebirds.
Toree Warfield is an avid nature lover, and writes this column to teach and stimulate interest in the marvels that surround us. See the new website: saveourplanetearth.com to read columns and to find links to bird song recordings, additional photos and other content.