Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge is a 35,000-acre expanse of marshland that is home to healthy concentrations of waterfowl. Drive the dike roads through the marshes looking for pronghorn and badgers, and check off burrowing owls, pinyon jays, short-eared owls, northern harriers, yellow-headed blackbirds, marsh wrens, and—the refuge’s real attraction—thousands of ducks, geese, and other waterfowl. You can depend on seeing canvasback, cinnamon teal, gadwall, ruddy duck, northern pintail, green-winged teal, redhead, American wigeon, northern shoveler, bufflehead, common goldeneye, ring-necked duck, lesser scaup, and even an occasional wood duck. There’s also a chance here to spot sandhill cranes, white-faced ibis, double-crested cormorants, great egrets, western and Clark’s grebes, long-billed curlews, and Nevada’s only resident population of trumpeter swans. Ferruginous hawks and golden eagles often can be seen in the tall trees near historic Bressman Cabin on the refuge, and northern harriers are common in the marshes.
If your quest goes beyond waterfowl, the areas around Cave Creek near the refuge headquarters and the nearby Gallagher State Fish Hatchery are a haven for broad-tailed, Calliope, rufous, and black-chinned hummingbirds; yellow-headed blackbirds; black-billed magpies; lazuli buntings; and Williamson’s sapsuckers. An impressive number of turkey vultures roosts in the trees near the refuge headquarters in the summer.
The hatchery is always a fruitful birding spot, and a wide variety of birds can be picked up there—a state-record white wagtail was spotted in the parking lot in 2010. The willow trees ringing the outflow ponds just behind the hatchery are a reliable area for picking up downy and hairy woodpeckers, yellow warblers, marsh wrens, a variety of sparrows, and an occasional long-eared owl. The trail into Indian Creek, two miles north of the refuge headquarters, is a good place to spot mountain goats, loggerhead shrikes, chukar, bushtit, western bluebirds, and mountain chickadees.
Watch for Lewis’s woodpeckers on the telephone poles along the road to the refuge (for a period each spring it seems as if there is one on every third or fourth pole). Closer to the refuge headquarters, refuge staff recently added several artificial burrows to increase the population of burrowing owls.
The refuge offers essentially three-season birding, because the road across Harrison Pass from the west is often impassible and even the road from Wells can sometimes be problematic. If you do go in winter, you can see tundra swans, as well as a good number of overwintering rough-legged hawks.
The refuge and adjoining areas are also home to some interesting historical sites. The infamous Donner Party temporarily camped about 1,000 feet south of the current refuge headquarters building near Cave Creek. And a few miles farther south, the original Pony Express Trail transected Ruby Valley. The crumbling remnants of Fort Ruby, an 1860s-era U.S. Army outpost that was constructed near the Pony Express Trail to protect riders and settlers from Native American raiders, are still evident along the refuge road. The fort was so remote that soldiers stationed there called it the “Worst Post in the West.”