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STILLWATER NWR: Pelicans of Anaho Island NWR Thriving on a Desert Island
California-Nevada Offices , July 28, 2011
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Juvenile American white pelican and an adult preen on Anaho Island NWR, in Pyramid Lake, NV. (Marilyn Newton/USFWS)
Juvenile American white pelican and an adult preen on Anaho Island NWR, in Pyramid Lake, NV. (Marilyn Newton/USFWS) - Photo Credit: n/a
Donna Withers, Refuge Specialist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, left, and Beverly Harry of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, leave Anaho Island, background, after a day of research. (Marilyn Newton/USFWS)
Donna Withers, Refuge Specialist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, left, and Beverly Harry of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, leave Anaho Island, background, after a day of research. (Marilyn Newton/USFWS) - Photo Credit: n/a

By Susan Sawyer, Visitor Services Manager, Stillwater NWR Complex

Anaho Island NWR, located in the midst of Pyramid Lake in northern Nevada, is probably one of the most unique places in the world. A volcanic formation studded with tufa deposits resembling science fiction creatures, the island is home to one of the few nesting colonies of American white pelicans in the country.

Anaho Island was established as a wildlife refuge and sanctuary for American white pelicans and other shorebirds by President Wilson in 1913.  This year, with plentiful water in the rivers, and a reserve snowpack in the Sierra Nevada mountains, lots of fish provided food for 4 times more pelican chicks than last year.  This increase in production puts a big smile on the face of Donna Withers, Refuge Operations Specialist for Anaho.  Withers spends the bulk of her work life studying the islands' inhabitants, both feathered and scaled. 

One result of the big water was a big run of the pelicans' primary food source - cui-ui (pronounced qwee wee), a lake sucker-type fish. Roughly 8000 adult pelicans converged on the island this spring and summer, producing about 2000 young birds, which fed almost exclusively on the cui-ui. Beverly Harry, Environmental Specialist for the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, said with the large run of spawning  fish, that success translates to excellent pelican survival. "It's an amazing relationship (between the fish and birds)," Harry said. "The pelicans have always been here, this is their home." 

The island also supports a large colony of nesting California gulls and Double-crested cormorants, and surprisingly, a large number of Great Basin rattlesnakes.

How the snakes got here isn't exactly known, but Withers suspects a long-ago land bridge provided access from the main shore. "All we know is they are on the island, and we don't know much else about them," Withers said. 

They are smaller than typical Great Basin rattlesnakes, less than 2ft in length, she explained.  Not much is known about what the snakes eat, since there is a small population of mice, but not enough to support the number of snakes.  Withers suspects they eat lizards. Currently, a research project is underway through the Univeristy of NV/Reno to discover more about this isolated group of snakes.  And research on this unique island has been going on since at least the 1920's.

Previous researchers discovered the abundance of the island snakes during a pelican study in 1927.  Scientists from the Wisconsin Museum of Natural History had set up camp for a month on the island, and recorded finding "more rattlesnakes per the square yard than any other place on Earth, or at least so we thought," she said.  Snakes, like the pelicans, are fairly safe on the island due to the lack of predators such as coyotes, and the fact the island is closed to all public access.

Withers never tires of her many visits to the island each year, saying they learn something new every time.  Anaho Island is indeed a desert island, but certainly not deserted. 


Contact Info: SUSAN SAWYER, 775-423-5128, ext. 228, susan_sawyer@fws.gov



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