So what IS the deal with Stillwater out in Fallon, anyway? How big is it, what kind of animals do you have the chance of spotting, and what else can I do out there? These were some serious questions I was asking myself before one person changed it all.
Meet Susan, Queen of Visitor Services out at Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge.
As the Visitor Services Manager at Stillwater for the past seven years, Susan spends most of her days out on the refuge showing people just how cool the place is. And all this exists just a few short miles of the legendary Loneliest Road in America, right outside of Fallon.
WHY DO I NEED TO MAKE VISITING STILLWATER FIRST THING ON MY SUMMER TO-DO?
Stillwater is its own world; it’s an amazing place that is absolutely underestimated. There aren’t many national wildlife refuges in Nevada to begin with. Plus desert wetlands are exceptionally rare, and what you’ll find at Stillwater is a remnant of ancient Lake Lahontan, which was 300 feet deep at one time and covered a huge swath of the Great Basin. Walker and Pyramid Lakes are terminal lakes as a result too. There is little nature inflow from the Carson River now, as it’s been diverted and regulated since 1903. Water comes in, but there is no outlet, so they are terminal. This valley is where the Carson River ends, in the Carson Sink, so that makes it even more special.
STILLWATER IS RECOGNIZED AS A GLOBALLY IMPORTANT RESTING PLACE FOR MIGRATORY BIRDS. EXACTLY WHAT MIGHT I SEE IF I MAKE A TRIP?
Stillwater truly is an oasis in the desert and the marsh attracts a huge variety of birds; it’s remarkable in fact. Over 250 species of birds have been identified here, like migratory shorebirds, wading birds, waterfowl, songbirds, upland, raptors and more.
All of this happens twice a year [both spring and fall,] which is the reason Stillwater received so much national and international recognition in the birding world. Where else can you see tundra swans, snowy lovers, gyrfalcon, orioles, burrowing owls, bald eagles, coyotes, lizards, and scorpions in the same place? I call it the Stillwater chef salad—when you visit this amazing place, you get a little bit of everything tossed in. It’s super cool.
STILLWATER IS SOME KIND OF MAGIC. WHY DON'T PEOPLE KNOW ABOUT THIS AMAZING SLICE OF HEAVEN?
There are so many locals that have never been here before, that think all desert is the same and Stillwater is just more of the same thing. Mostly, it’s the birders and hunters who saw the real threats of losing this place, and fought so hard to protect and save it. They ultimately pushed Congress to create a water rights program so the wetlands wouldn’t go dry. That was an interesting dichotomy because you have people of the opposite sides of the tracks working together to conserve the Lahontan Valley Wetlands that are so unique to this area.
I wish more locals were loyal, even aware of, or had more of a stewardship ethic toward Stillwater. If you look at what happened at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge this year, it took a huge armed standoff to get people to realize what treasures national wildlife refuges truly are, and that these places are for the people to truly enjoy. It’s the best of public lands for everyone to immerse themselves in.
IF YOU HAD TO CHOOSE JUST ONE, WHAT IS YOUR SINGLE MOST FAVORITE THING ABOUT THE REFUGE?
It’s hard to describe my single most favorite thing about Stillwater. I think it’s the combo of it all...it’s so different from Idaho, and the tribal history of the area is amazing. How the Paiute culture lived and thrived here for so long, and how very in tune they were with the marsh, wildlife, and nature. They had everything they needed to survive for centuries here. Plus, I always like making connections with the people who visit and sharing Stillwater’s nature with them. I live for those ‘Ah Ha!’ moments. It’s the best when they ‘get it,’ finding something they can relate to out here.
TELL ME ABOUT THE COOLEST NATURE-SPOTTING INCIDENT YOU'VE EXPERIENCED AT STILLWATER.
It’s hard to identify my favorite nature-spotting experience, because there are sincerely so many. But, in spring [April and May normally] the larger, deeper wetlands units like Foxtail Lake on the public tour route, is a great place to see some serious action. The birds deck out in their breeding colors, beginning their mating rituals, and none is better than the dance of the big clarks grebes. They form in pairs and do this ballet on the water surface—a total synchronized swimming act of the bird world! They run, bow, bend, bob, weave, and dive together—they’re natures ultimate choreographers.
There was also one time when I saw a coyote climb a tree…but that’s a story for another day. The nice thing about the refuge is, it’s open all the time, no fees, and you never know what you might see out here.
TAKE ME THERE
Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge
The Loneliest Road in America