Watching a bald eagle on its nest, River Fork Ranch, Carson Valley NV, Sierra Nevada College Winter Raptor field course, January 2018
Students in the winter ornithology field courses studied raptors and wildfowl in their habitats.

Birds on the Wing

Students in SNC’s weekend ornithology field courses learn to identify the birds they’re studying and the factors that drive their migrations. They then head out for two full days in the field, led by adjunct professor and professional guide Kirk Hardie. There they put their observational and research skills to work. They survey the birds; practice distinguishing between similar species, adults and juveniles, and males and females; and observe the birds’ behavior in the wild.

Winter Raptors

January 19 – 21, 2018

This year the class spent one day in the Carson Valley, and one in the Sierra Valley north of Truckee. One surprise this year was the number of Ferruginous Hawks. Usually we see one to two over a weekend, but this year we saw a dozen. There are always lots of Red-tailed Hawks, but it’s unusual to see enough of other kinds of hawks to make good learning comparisons. At the Nature Conservancy’s River Fork Ranch near Genoa, we able to observe a Bald Eagle on its nest!

The students conducted their surveys using the Central Valley Winter Raptor Roadside Survey Protocols. This year they recorded 7 Bald Eagles (including 6 on the ground eating a jackrabbit), over 60 Red-tailed Hawks, 1 Red-shouldered Hawk, 12 Ferruginous Hawks, 6 Rough-legged Hawks, 1 Prairie Falcon, and more than 12 American Kestrels. In other years, we have also sighted Golden Eagles and Peregrin Falcons.

Red-tailed Hawk and Ferruginous Hawk, Sierra Valley CA, Sierra Nevada College Winter Raptor field course, January 2018A Red-tailed Hawk and a Ferruginous Hawk, Sierra Valley CA.
Searching for raptors along Hwy 395, Minden NV, Sierra Nevada College Winter Raptor field course, January 2018Searching for raptors along Hwy 395, Carson Valley NV.
Bald eagles and ravens with a jackrabbit, Sierra Valley CA, Sierra Nevada College Winter Raptor field course, January 2018Bald Eagles and Ravens with a jackrabbit, Sierra Valley CA.

Winter Waterfowl

February 2 – 4, 2018

The first day the class visited Swan Lake, north of Reno. This is usually a great location, but this year the birds were too far out for good viewing. Waterfowl are easy to observe because they are large and typically stay on bodies of water. However, when they are quite far out and swimming, using a scope challenging! The second day we visited Washoe Lake and the Tahoe Keys.

In general there were fewer waterfowl than in previous years. We discussed several possible explanations. The class was held a few weeks later than last time, so some birds may have migrated already. There might have been unusually favorable conditions further north this year, so they didn’t need to migrate this far south. Or they might just have found conditions they preferred at other locations in the Reno/Tahoe area.

Despite the lack of waterfowl in some locations, we still found 16 different species of ducks and geese: Greater White-fronted Goose, Canada Goose, Mallard, Gadwall, Northern Pintail, American Wigeon, Green-winged Teal, Northern Shoveler, Canvasback, Redhead, Ring-necked Duck, Barrow’s Goldeneye, Bufflehead, Common Merganser, Hooded Merganser, and Ruddy Duck.


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