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Flocking to Fallon

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.

red tail hawk
Falconer Chloe Bowen with her Red Tail Hawk Dartanyan

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.”

wildlife refuge, water
Kayaking on Tule Lake in the Stillwater Refuge

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.

These Yellowheaded Black Birds were chattering up a storm.
These Yellowheaded Black Birds were chattering up a storm.

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.

Can you spot the burrowing owl?
Can you spot the burrowing owl?

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.

Michael Goddard, our expert guide for Spring Wings.
Michael Goddard, our expert guide for Spring Wings.

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.

Some youth getting in on the scope action.
Some youth getting in on the scope action.


The American Coot was one of the Paiute’s favorite foods.



On safari in the Carson Lake area.
On safari in the Carson Lake area.


My new favorite bird: the American Avocet.
My new favorite bird, the American Avocet, enjoying a tasty treat.


The Safari mobile in "Lake" Carson Area, which is more an interconnected network of canals and marshland.
The Safari mobile in “Lake” Carson Area, which is more an interconnected network of canals and marshland.


Red-winged blackbird flying low over the Lake Carson refuge.
Red-winged blackbird flying low over the Lake Carson refuge.



Old Pony Express station designated with rocks.
Old Pony Express station designated with rocks.


This little yellow-backed spiny lizard was a much better subject than most of the skittish birds.
This little yellow-backed spiny lizard was a much better subject than most of the skittish birds.


My other new favorite bird: the phallarope. They spin around in circles- it's funny.
My other new favorite bird: the phalarope. They spin around in circles- it’s funny.


The town's old high school finds new life as the Oaks Park Center.
The town’s old high school finds new life as the Oats Park Center in Fallon.




  1. Tom
    Boulder, co
    August 16, 2013, 8:22 pm

    This sounds great, we simply have to go. Thanks for the article.

  2. dennis doyle
    Stillwater ,nevada
    July 8, 2013, 8:00 pm

    Our little town thanks you and all of the great folks associated with Spring Wings.. We get this area to ourselves most of the year and it is a pure pleasure to share with great folks.. dennis

  3. Eric D. Grimes, Executive Director, CEDA
    Fallon, NV
    May 29, 2013, 11:41 am

    Susan – thank you for an amazing story on the Spring Wings Festival and our dessert oasis community. You are correct – there is too much to do in Fallon it’s easy to lose track of time and not see it all. When you make it back let us know and we can arrange for you to see other sights here, such as Grimes Point or Nevada’s first estate winery, Churchill Vineyards, just to name a few!

    • Shannon Switzer
      May 30, 2013, 1:15 am

      Wow, sounds like I missed even more than I realized. Thanks for your comment, Eric!

  4. Larry Neel
    Fallon, Nevada
    May 28, 2013, 10:23 pm

    Great blog, Shannon – so happy to see Fallon’s Spring Wings Festival make the National Geographic map. just one little correction – the “collared lizard” in the photo is actually a yellow-backed spiny lizard, although it shares a black “collar” with the other, better-known species. I noticed one of my friends that was also on the tour made the same misidentification. Little stuff – thanks for your great thoughts 🙂

    • Shannon Switzer
      May 30, 2013, 1:17 am

      Hi Larry, thank you for the correction- apparently I’m no expert lizard spotter either!

  5. susan sawyer
    Fallon NV
    May 28, 2013, 3:14 pm

    Shannon – thank you SO MUCH for the excellent write up and the photos! I am so glad you got to experience our little neck of the desert for Spring Wings! I hope others are as intrigued as you were, and make Fallon and the Lahontan Wetlands a destination visit for the best natural and cultural history in northern NV!. We would love to host you again if you get the chance to return; Fall is a great time of year as well!

    • Shannon Switzer
      May 30, 2013, 1:20 am

      Thanks Susan! I’m so glad you enjoyed the article and will definitely take you up on a return visit in the near future!

  6. Bradley Gore
    Las Vegas field office US Fish and Wildlife
    May 28, 2013, 2:45 pm

    Thanks Shannon for the great article and super photos. A most refreshing view of Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge.

  7. Laura Read
    May 28, 2013, 2:41 pm

    Awesome photos! I’ve been to Grimes Point. It is a short walking tour of several petroglyphs next to Highway 50.

    • Shannon Switzer
      May 30, 2013, 1:20 am

      Sounds intriguing!

  8. blanche nonken
    fallon, nv
    May 25, 2013, 4:06 pm

    Did nobody take you to see the petroglyphs at Grime’s Point? It’s just 8 or so miles east on US50.

    • Shannon Switzer
      May 25, 2013, 11:26 pm

      They were mentioned, but we ran out of time! Too much to do in and around Fallon….who knew!?!