Cottonwoods and canoes: Down the river with the Audubon Society

The Carson River delta from Fort Churchill State Historic Park to Lahontan Reservoir is an Audubon Society Important Bird Area. The international program identifies places critical to birds during some part of their life cycle and works to minimize the effects of habitat loss and degradation on avian populations.

Don McIvor, director of bird conservation and coordinator of the IBA program for Lahontan Audubon Society, says the Carson delta is the last, best remnant of cottonwood-willow riparian forest in northwestern Nevada. Other areas with that vegetation were clear-cut for fuelwood, grazed, and eliminated as rivers were diverted or dammed. Natural flood cycles, which release cottonwood seeds during receding spring waters, now rarely occur, if at all.

Many bird populations dependent on the cottonwood/willow habitat have experienced dramatic declines, and important migration corridors have been reduced.

On Saturday morning, McIvor organized a Lahontan Audubon-sponsored canoe trip in the Carson IBA. Seventeen birders in polypropylene, Tevas and floppy canvas hats launched canoes and kayaks from Fort Churchill's Fremont Picnic Area for an easy, 4 -1/2 hour, 9 mile float down the tree-lined river.

No one told the birds that they are imperiled. Binoculars swiveled to identify 42 species. At the put-in, a pair of Western bluebirds, the male with bright-blue back and head over a rosy breast, shot in and out of a nest hole in a cottonwood. A notoriously soft wood, cottonwood is ideal for the many cavity-nesting species on the Carson. McIvor pointed out manmade nest boxes on posts set up by state park personnel.

Downy woodpeckers gave their distinctive "whacka, whacka, whacka!" between drumbeats. Four species of swallows chased gnats and swooped in and out of cavity nests in the riverbank. Black-headed grosbeaks called out their evocative, question-and-answer song. Western kingbirds, with their distinctive puffy crests, and red-winged blackbirds bobbed on willow stalks on beaver dams. An osprey clutching a fish gave canary-like chirps as boats drifted by.

Outraged great blue and black-crowned night herons and great white egrets squawked, then flapped insolently away from paddlers. A red-tailed hawk flew in circles, trying to shake off a smaller bird "mobbing" the raptor when it got too close to its nest.

American white pelicans, with 9-foot wing spans and sun shining through the orange of their huge beak pouches, flew low over the boats. Spotted sandpipers and kildeer worked sand banks for insects.

Other highlights were multiple flycatcher species, kestrels, red-and-yellow Western tanagers, orange-winged northern flickers, orange Northern orioles and a sky-blue Lazuli bunting.

Pulling in to the takeout near Lake Lahontan at the end of Silver Springs' 9th Street off Alternate 95, paddlers left the reed-filled and tree-shaded river for the sage and rocks of Northern Nevada's desert. It is hard to believe that, according to McIvor, the above-ground flow of this stretch of the Carson usually vanishes from early July until mid- to late-October.

For more information

Membership in the Lahontan Audubon Society is $20 per year for an individual. Write to P.O. Box 2304, Reno, NV, 89505; call 324-2473; or go to


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