Truckee River Guide | Documenting the river’s living history

Kelsey Fitzgerald near the Truckee River in Farad. Photo: Truckee River Guides | Courtesy Kelsey McCutcheon Fitzgerald

On a spring morning in Truckee, I was enjoying a coffee outside Züri Coffee Co. and saw a flock of white pelicans fly overhead. Were those actually white pelicans, I wondered. Curious about seeing the coastal birds in the Tahoe Sierra, I did what most people do: I went home and Googled it.

One of the first search-engine results that came up was the Truckee River Guide, a place online where people can document the wildlife they see along the Truckee River. The site confirmed that white pelicans in fact do exist in the Tahoe Sierra.

“I want to make a snapshot of what the river is today, have some sort of record that people could look back on.”
–kelsey mccutcheon fitzgerald

Truckee River Guide began as a master’s project for University of Nevada, Reno journalism student Kelsey McCutcheon Fitzgerald. With a bachelor’s degree in biology from a college in upstate New York, Fitzgerald spent a few years working at wildlife conservation preserves and refuges from Oklahoma to Hawaii. In 2004, Fitzgerald got a job with the Nevada Conservation Corps and fell in love with Nevada.

The Truckee River at Mustang Ranch, downstream from Reno. Photo: Truckee River Guides | Courtesy Kelsey McCutcheon Fitzgerald

“The Nevada desert is just gorgeous,” she says.

Kelsey Fitzgerald

In 2008, Fitzgerald then took a position with an environmental consulting group doing restoration along the Truckee River. She started learning about the different species and their local habitat along the 121-mile river that flows from Tahoe City to Pyramid Lake — and she got the idea to create Truckee River Guide.

“I started learning about the different species, history and what has declined on the Truckee River. I found that a lot of information about it was tied up in confidential government documents and there was no reference book to look at to find out about everything in Nevada,” she says.

A leopard slug near the Truckee River at Ambrose Park in Reno. Photo: Truckee River Guides | Courtesy Kelsey McCutcheon Fitzgerald

Therefore, she wanted to create something participatory, something that everyone could contribute to.

“I spent 10 years working on different jobs in the West and there was not a lot of public outreach regarding what we were doing,” she says. “So, I was hoping that writing about this science and what we were noticing out in the field would be interesting.”

Today, she works as a science writer at the Desert Research Institute.

Double-crested cormorant in downtown Reno. Photo: Truckee River Guides | Courtesy Kelsey McCutcheon Fitzgerald

Since launching the Truckee River Guide in January 2015, people have submitted 275 observations documenting 122 different species of animals found on the Truckee River. There are submissions for mammals, fish, birds, trees, shrubs, grasses, wildflowers, insects and reptiles.

“The one I was surprised in looking at in the observations was the American mink. I didn’t know they lived here,” Fitzgerald says. “And it’s by far the most commonly reported; we’ve had 35 mink sightings.”

Golden currant at Mayberry Park in Reno. Photo: Truckee River Guides | Courtesy Kelsey McCutcheon Fitzgerald

The most common animals on the Truckee River in general are Canada geese and mallards, but when people see something as unusual as a mink, they are more likely to report it. Another interesting find is the leopard slug. Fitzgerald personally likes the hooded merganser ducks and the American white pelicans.

“[The pelicans] go to the California coast in the winter and then migrate to Pyramid Lake in the summer to nest,” she says.

An American Mink on the Truckee River in downtown Reno. Photo: Truckee River Guides | Courtesy Kelsey McCutcheon Fitzgerald

Fitzgerald does do some light vetting when people submit observations because she knows the Truckee River well and will follow up if something is too out of the ordinary or could be confused with another kind of animal. For instance, minks and muskrats look a lot alike, except that minks eat fish and muskrats eat plants. Both have been spotted on the Truckee River.

“I’ve heard there are otters on the Truckee River, too, but I have yet to spot one. If anyone sees an otter, I’d love an observation on that,” she says.

Fitzgerald’s long-term goal is to create a guidebook on the Truckee River that people can refer to; the online guide is a start.

“My goal of the project isn’t necessarily to make a big discovery but to make a record of what’s here and the changing environment,” Fitzgerald says. “I want to make a snapshot of what the river is today, have some sort of record that people could look back on.” | truckeeriverguide.org, Truckee River Guide on Facebook