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Ruby Marshes: A crossroads for migratory birds

ELKO – There are many things to do at Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge, locally known as the “Ruby Marshes.” Birding sits at the top of the list for some. There are at least 225 species, according to audubon.org.

With such a diverse count, if birds were on social media there certainly would be a lot of “tweeting” going on.

The refuge is considered the most remote national wildlife refuge in the contiguous states. But, we are in luck, the Marshes are only about 65 miles from Elko.

The Marshes were formed and maintained by snowmelt from the surrounding mountains. More than 200 springs contribute to the wetlands each year, and there are several hot springs nearby.

The waters are critical for nesting birds and attract stopover species flying north or returning to wintering grounds in California.

Waterfowl are prevalent. Canvasbacks, mallards and lesser scaup ducks breed and raise their families here.

The trumpeter swan was once an endangered species due to overhunting for millinery, cosmetic and writing purposes. Now the local population is about 40 birds, most residing all year long.

“Depending on the time of year, we could have both trumpeter and tundra swans on the refuge,” said Ruby Lake wildlife biologist Jane Bardolf. “During the breeding season, we just have a few trumpeter swans.”

If you ever have the good fortune of having a trumpeter swan land in front of you, as I have, you will be surprised at their size. The males average about 25 pounds. With this weight, they require approximately a 100-meter long runway of open water for “lift-off.”

Depending on the time of year, during a visit to the Marshes, you are likely to see great blue herons, black-crowned night herons, white-faced ibis, black-necked stilts and avocets. Yellow-headed blackbirds, common yellowthroats, and marsh wrens are plentiful during the warmer months.

Several raptors, including bald eagles, golden eagles, American kestrels, red-tailed hawks, rough-legged hawks, northern harriers, and prairie falcons are common. These birds prey on rodents and other smaller birds, so they are always on the lookout for a “quick bite.”

Yellow warblers and Bullock’s orioles are songbirds you might catch a glimpse of.

Greater sandhill cranes are another very large bird that utilizes the region for courtship and child-rearing.

Ruby Valley has probably been a habitat for the “big bird” since the last glacial period, according to the refuge.

“Spring is a wonderful time to bird at Ruby Lake National Wildlife refuge,” said Lois Ports, Elko Bristlecone Audubon chapter president. The waterfowl are molting into their more colorful breeding plumage which makes identification so much easier. I especially enjoy the male ruddy ducks with their bright blue bills. The marsh wrens and common yellowthroats are singing in the reeds. [It is] just a great time to escape and go bird watching.”

Bardolf said besides having a colorful bill color, male ruddy ducks also have interesting courtship manners.

“Courtship includes hammering their bills, which makes bubbles in the water,” she said. “They are fun to watch and easy to see from the auto tour route.”

According to Bardolf, there are birds at the Marshes all year long, but in May and into early June you are likely to see more variety and abundance.

Waterfowl will be in breeding plumage through July. The refuge is one of the main canvasback nesting sites in the western U.S.

To assist birding efforts, the refuge provides a wildlife checklist that is available outside the headquarters and at several areas around the Marshes.

Bardolf recommends staying in your car when birdwatching at the Marshes.

“Your car acts like a blind. You are more likely to startle birds away if you get out of your car than if you observe them from inside.”

Other wildlife can be seen at the Marshes. Larger mammals include antelope, mule deer and coyotes. Elk usually hang out in the higher mountain regions but might be seen very early or late in the day.

Muskrats, badgers, weasels, mink, and rabbits are common. There are also numerous smaller rodents.

Fish and reptiles can sometimes be seen in and around the waters.

The refuge is open one hour before sunrise and one hour after sunset.

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