Trip Report:
Vegas Vireos - 2003 Edition

Carl Perretta


Vegas Vireos - 2003 Edition

Carl Perretta

Viva Vegas Vireos!

Las Vegas, Nevada usually doesn't conjure up thoughts of adding to a birder's life list, but there are a surprising number of wonderful natural areas near or just a day's jaunt from the city. That is what persuaded nine of us to venture out to Sin City from May 1 to May 5. I have found Las Vegas to be an ideal destination because of a combination of great birding, easily available, comfortable and bargain accommodations, and the after-birding activities that have made the place so famous.

I was already in Las Vegas vacationing with my wife, Jill, when most of our group (Janis Zane, Virginia Emerson, Rick and Sharon West, Susan D'Amico, and the irrepressible Nick Pulcinella) arrived on May 1. They picked up a van before meeting me at our hotel, and headed to Floyd Lamb State Park, which lies within the city limits. The lifers for much of the group started showing up immediately. Greater Roadrunner, Verdin, Gambel's Quail, breeding-plumaged Eared Grebes, White-winged Dove and Great-tailed Grackle quickly adorned the life lists of many of the first-time visitors to the west. Nick and his party then headed off to the Fiesta Rancho hotel to meet up with me and my own part-time birding neighbors, Tom Sherman and Nancy Middlebrook. After dinner at Bonito Michoacan, a fine Mexican restaurant (I had the birria de chivo - goat stew. Delicious!), we turned in early for the next day's drive to Zion National park in Utah. This day was to be trip's longest, and a very ambitious one. If possible, I wanted to include a drive to Vermillon Cliffs in Arizona, the site of the Fish and Wildlife Service's Condor release program. Another possibility was a visit to the Lytle Ranch, a nature Conservancy site. The day started inauspiciously with a Utah-bound driver backing into Nick's van in the hotel parking lot, but after the mandatory swapping of info and hotel security department reports, we were on our way. On the way to Zion, we stopped at a park in Bunkerville, Nevada and picked up Vermillon Flycatcher and Lesser Goldfinch, along with Western Kingbird and Say's Phoebe. Bunkerville also produced Black Phoebe, Ash-throated Flycatcher and Cliff Swallow, among others. The town of Springdale, UT lies at the entrance to Zion, and a walk along the Virgin River, behind the Best Western hotel got us Western Bluebird, Black-headed Grosbeak, Virginia's Warbler and more. Familiar birds like Yellow Warbler, Turkey Vulture, Northern Rough-winged Swallow and Red-tailed Hawk greeted us at the entrance to Zion. My plans to search for condors and visit Lytle Ranch turned out to be much too ambitious, however, as the tram drive into Zion and the river walk at the end of it proved much too time-consuming for other stops, given the drive back to Las Vegas. We did manage to combine our birding efforts with a group from Utah who also conveniently carried FRS radios, and they helped us find the real target bird for the day, Dipper. I hope as you read this, that Jim Lockyer has managed to post the video clip of the Dipper on the club's Website. A rumored Painted Redstart was not to be found, but we would have better luck with this bird later. Lazuli Bunting, Red-shafted Flicker, Audubon's Warbler quickly joined the growing trip list. Alas, no condors, which sometimes stray as far north as Zion, and which actually had been seen at a tram stop two weeks earlier and just outside the park boundary on the day before our arrival. There is a condor coda to this story, though. Keep reading.

The plan for Saturday was to bird the Las Vegas area with Carolyn Titus, author of "Southern Nevada Birds - A Seeker's Guide." I have birded with Carolyn before, and she is an excellent source of local bird knowledge and a great birding companion. Before meeting her we discovered that there are two types of people who get to eat the "All-the-pancakes-you-can-eat-for-99¢" breakfasts. One is former Education Secretaries/Drug Czars who are playing video poker all night, and the other is birders. I had steak and eggs for $2.99, and several others enjoyed the 99¢ bacon and eggs. Nancy ordered toast for $1.29, then discovered she could have had bacon, eggs AND toast for 30 cents less! I told you Las Vegas was a bargain. Back to birding. The first tick of the day was one of our target birds, the elusive LeConte's Thrasher. The road into Corn Creek station at the Desert National Wildlife Range is bordered by a saltbush flat, the preferred habitat for this bird. Very quiet listening produced a singing bird in the distance. He was very quickly located (though it seemed to take forever for the eager birders), and gave us terrific and extended telescope views. Corn Creek is a desert oasis and therefore a migrant magnet. In the station itself, we located Crissal Thrasher, Townsend's Warbler, Plumbeous Vireo, Brewer's Sparrow, Orange-crowned Warbler and Bullock's Oriole among others. After spending most of the morning there, we headed off to our second destination for the day which we could see looming in the distance, Mt. Charleston. As we climbed the mountain in our cars, we could easily observe the weather moving in over the mountain. Rain had been predicted as a possibility in the area that day, with snow possible at higher elevations. Up around 8000 feet the snow and frozen rain arrived. The road was getting more snow-covered as we climbed. It looked as if the list of target montane species was in danger, and indeed, we had to retreat to a lower altitude, but not before finding a busy feeder at the fire station. We managed to add Pygmy Nuthatch, Cassin's Finch, Gray-headed Junco and Pine Siskin before having to descend the mountain. We also managed to stop for a photo in the snows of sunny Las Vegas. The group then retreated to Floyd Lamb State Park for a late lunch and some more birding. This was the site that Nick and his group had birded two days before. This time we added Cassin's Vireo, Anna's Hummingbird (a beautifully plumaged adult male), and saw a female Bullock's Oriole sitting in a nest made entirely of green plastic grass from an Easter basket! Cinnamon Teal was on the pond. The group went their separate ways for dinner and retired early for the trip's second long drive, to Hualapai Mountain Park in Arizona.

Local birder Mike Baker, who leads Red Rock Audubon's annual field trip to this beautiful park had consented to be our guide for the day. We met Mike and his birding companion Lidija at the Railroad Pass Casino, on the way to Kingman, AZ. We arrived at the meeting point early in order to breakfast in the casino coffee shop, and found Mike and Lidija already inside with the same idea. Feeling magnanimous toward our birding guides, I treated them to breakfast. The check for the three of us came to $3.54 complete! A note to birders following in our wake. It is considered bad form to leave your tip for the server based on the artificially low early bird (early birder?) specials. Please be generous with your server. Target birds for the day were my nemesis bird, the Zone-tailed Hawk, Painted Redstart, Black-chinned Sparrow and with luck, Hepatic tanager. One of Nick's targets, the Gray Vireo was also a possibility. A desert stop on the way into Kingman turned up Cactus Wren and Curve-billed Thrasher. We also got to see a Red-tail nest with a couple of young. The park itself has several good birding spots, and Mike knew them all. We were able to tick off Black-throated Gray Warbler, Bewick's Wren, Common Bushtit and lots of Spotted Towhees. However, each Turkey Vulture turned out to be a Turkey Vulture, and my Zone -tail would have to wait for the next visit, as would Nick's Gray Vireo. The migration seemed to be running just a bit late this year, and indeed the weather was cooler than normal for the season. A stroll around one of the campgrounds did produce the Painted Redstart, though, just as Tom and Nancy arrived to meet us after getting a bit of a late start. What a jewel this bird is, especially when seen in sunlight, as we saw it. After lunch, a stop on the way out of the park added the Black-chinned Sparrow and Cassin's Kingbird, but no Hepatic Tanager. Nancy and Tom peeled off from the group at this point to continue their vacation with a visit to the south rim of the Grand Canyon. We returned to Las Vegas via a route different from our outbound journey, which had taken us over Hoover Dam. We crossed the Colorado at Laughlin, Nevada, which is a kind of mini-Vegas accesible to the snowbirds who spend the winter in the towns along the river like Bullhead City and Needles. The group presented Mike with a Lockyer-designed BCDC tee shirt as a thank you for his guide efforts, and parted. We got back to our hotel and met for dinner at San Lorenzo, the Italian restaurant in the Texas Station Casino. As we were eating, I got a call on my cell phone from Tom Sherman, who by now had arrived at the Grand Canyon. "Well, we haven't seen a condor," Tom said into the phone, "but how about six?" Flying overhead at that moment, he had a half-dozen California Condors in view! He managed to get a photo of five of them after landing, which I hope can also be posted to the website. We were all a bit frustrated, but happy for Tom and Nancy. Lights out after dinner.

Our final day included plans for the Las Vegas area, working our way back to the airport. Carolyn Titus again acted as guide as we started the day at Red Rock National Conservation Area, managed by the Bureau of Land Management. Red Rock has beautiful rock formations and is a rock climber's paradise. It is also home to Gray Vireo and Chukar. We got off to a good start by getting good looks at Black-throated Sparrow and a really good tick, a Scott's Oriole. Incredibly, this was the first really good look we had gotten at the sparrow, a common desert bird. A real spectacle, that of a Red-tailed hawk harassing a Golden Eagle, was also part of the show at our first stop. We continued to the Willow Springs picnic area, where I got my own lifer Gray Vireo last July, but it was just a bit early for the bird this year. As I said, the migration seemed to be running just a little late. No Chukar either, but White-throated Swifts, Canyon Wren (voice), Black-chinned Sparrow again and Phainopepla as Broad-tailed Hummingbirds trilled by. On the way out, we were able to add Ladder-backed Woodpecker to the trip list. After dropping Carolyn off at home, and adding Inca Dove and Black-chinned Hummingbird from her back yard, we headed out to the Henderson Bird Viewing Preserve. The town of Henderson, NV has managed to turn lemons into lemonade by welcoming birders to the secondary treatment settlement ponds of its sewage plant. The series of ponds contain already-processed water from the treatment process which is suitable for things like golf course watering without further purification. The ponds also are a magnet for water birds of all sorts, and the trip list grew quickly on what was to be our last stop. American Avocet, Long-billed Dowitcher, White-faced Ibis, Franklin's Gull and lots of breeding -plumaged Wilson's Phalaropes were new birds for many, and old familiar birds like Bonaparte's Gull, Snowy Egret, Spotted Sandpiper, Common Moorhen and Double-crested Cormorant were also in evidence. This stop alone added about twenty birds to the trip list. Reluctantly, we headed back to the parking lot for our own migration back to the airport and then Philadelphia. An even closer birding spot, Sunset Park, actually borders the airport, and is a tiny remnant of desert bosque habitat. We did not have time for a visit, however, and opted for a late lunch at a Korean barbecue. Our luck held as we ordered the lunch specials, offered until 2:30, at 2:29! The remaining money from the "gas kitty" went to paying the lunch check and we headed for the airport and home. The final species tally was 115.

I know I had a great time, as I always do in Las Vegas, and I think my birding companions did, too. I know that Rick told me that he had added over fifty lifers on the trip. It made me jealous of him. When was the last time you got to add that many? So, if you're heading for the home of Siegfried and Roy and the all-you-can-eat buffet, I've got two pieces of advice: First - never double-down on a hard twelve, and Second - BRING YOUR BINOCULARS AND FIELD GUIDE!