Birding in the Basin: Lake Tahoe is home to several signature species

Claire McArthur / Tahoe Daily Tribune
Baby common mergansers are known for catching rides on their mother’s back in Lake Tahoe.
Provided/Jenny Sweatt

From the branches of towering Ponderosa pines to the wetlands filtering snowmelt into the crystal clear lake, Tahoe is a birds’ — and birders’ — paradise. Whether you’re a die-hard twitcher or casual admirer, a hike through the basin can yield an impressive number of bird sightings if you know where to look. 

“It’s a motivation to get outside and go to all of these beautiful places,” says Don Harriman, an avid birder and former South Shore tour guide of local and migratory avian. So grab your binoculars and zoom lens, and head out to discover Harriman’s selection of six birds — though some may be easier to find than others. 

Steller’s jay

Spotting the bright blue Steller’s jay in Tahoe might be as easy as stepping outside the front door, says Harriman. A member of the whip-smart corvid family alongside crows and ravens, the Steller’s jay is noisy, curious and bold; you’ll often find them scavenging for food left by humans around campgrounds and parks. You’ll recognize the bird by its blue lower body and black crest with white streaks.  

The Steller’s jay is easy to spot with its brightly colored plumage and noisy nature.
Provided/Kendall Madsen

Mountain chickadee

Though you may be familiar with the telltale “cheeseburger” call of the pint-sized mountain chickadee, Harriman hears a different tune. “We say they are calling ‘Hey, sweetie’ because it is part of the nesting behavior, attracting a mate and claiming territory, which is why birds sing in the springtime,” explains Harriman. Outside of spring, the mountain chickadee chirps its namesake “chick-a-dee” as it flits overhead in evergreen forests in search of insects or seeds from cones. The tiny bird has a long gray tail and round belly with white cheeks and eyebrows and a black cap and throat. At Chickadee Ridge, a popular year-round trail north of Incline Village, the birds have become so used to people feeding them, they will fly right into your hands (though wildlife experts ask that hikers stop this practice for the wellbeing of the birds). 

The mountain chickadee is sometimes referred to as the “cheeseburger bird” for its springtime mating call.
Provided/Kendall Madsen

White-headed woodpecker

“The whiteheaded woodpecker is one of Tahoe’s signature birds and unique to the mountains of the far west,” says Harriman. The glossy black bird has a white head and neck, while the males feature a red patch atop their head. The woodpecker feeds heavily on large pine seeds, so look up at old growth ponderosa and sugar pines in search of the bird. To eat the seeds, the bird wedges them into crevices in the bark of the tree and hammers to break it open. 

The white-headed woodpecker can be found in old growth trees searching for pine seeds to crack open.
Provided/Kendall Madsen

Common merganser

Common mergansers are large ducks with long, straight red bills. The male is mostly white with an iridescent green head, while the female and juveniles have a gray body, white chest and rust-colored head. 

The female sports a shaggy cinnamon crest on the back of her head. “You can see a female merganser along the lakeshore or in the Truckee River or one of our streams with a line of baby ducks following along behind her and climbing up onto her back for a ride,” says Harriman. In the late summer and early fall, the nonbreeding season, the males’ plumage changes to look very similar to the female merganser. Unlike dabbling ducks which feed mainly at the surface, the merganser is a diving duck and plunges down into the lake to catch fish. 

Baby common mergansers are known for catching rides on their mother’s back in Lake Tahoe.
Provided/Jenny Sweatt

Wilson’s phalarope

Wilson’s phalarope is a rare sighting in Tahoe, with a lucky birder spotting just a few every spring and fall during migration, says Harriman. The small shorebird has a long black bill and legs with a slender neck. Breeding females sport a blue-gray and rust colored back, white underside, peachy neck and dark stripes across the eyes. The males are duller in color and lack the stripe. 

“Phalarope are the whirling dervishes of the water world,” explains Harriman. “One way that they feed is that they spin in a circle, making a vortex, which stirs up sediments and brings food up so they can pluck morsels of food out of the water.” Wetland areas around the basin, like the Upper Truckee Marsh in South Lake Tahoe, are good spots to search for the phalarope. 

Wilson’s phalarope is a rare but exciting sighting in Tahoe during migration.
Provided/Jenny Sweatt

Bald eagle  

Every year the Tahoe Institute for Natural Science holds a bald eagle count, a tradition since 1979, and last year, 42 of America’s national bird were tallied. Both male and female bald eagles have white heads and tails, dark brown bodies, and yellow legs and bills. Their wingspan ranges from 5.9 – 7.5 feet, though female eagles tend to be a third of the size of males. Before growing adult plumage at five years, juvenile bald eagles are brown with brown and white mottled wings. 

“Bald eagles have several strategies for getting food, one of which is taking it from someone else,” says Harriman. “In the summertime, when we’re down at Taylor Creek or the Upper Truckee Marsh, you will see an osprey, which is a fish hawk, catch a fish and you can often see an eagle come to take it away from them.” It’s also a fascinating experience to watch a bald eagle hunt down smaller waterfowl on Lake Tahoe, like the black-feathered, white-billed coot. 

The bald eagle, while a master hunter, can also be found stealing food from other birds of prey.
Provided/Kendall Madsen

Editor’s note: This story appears in the 2022 summer edition of Tahoe Magazine.

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