Trip Report:
Vegas Vireos - 2005 Edition

Carl Perretta

Vegas Vireos - 2005 Edition

Carl Perretta

Vegas Vireos -- The Sequel

From May 4 through 9, 2005, it was again my pleasure to lead an intrepid group of club members on a trip to Las Vegas, Nevada. Our last trip to Sin City was in 2003, and I guess there was enough good buzz around the club that I didn't have too much trouble convincing Denis Brennan, Jorie Rathbone, Elaine Patrikas, Dale Kendall, Carol Majors, and Ed and Anne Laufenberg that a birding trip to this seemingly unlikely destination would be worthwhile.

Las Vegas offers an ideal combination -- excellent, inexpensive hotels and meals, easy air access from Philadelphia, and a variety of habitats in or near the city, with excellent one-day excursions from the city possible. On this trip, I chose the Orleans casino-hotel as our base. It is a very large New Orleans-themed place, with all the comforts you could ask for, including marble fixtures in the bathrooms. I think we averaged about $75 per room per night -- to be split by two people. Getting up at birders' hours gets you the early bird breakfast specials in the casino coffee shop - dishes like eggs, pancakes and sausage for something like two or three dollars. We met daily in the coffee shop before we set out on the day's adventures.

Thursday the 5th was our first full day, and we elected to head up to Zion National Park in Utah, in order to avoid the weekend crowds that can converge on this beautiful spot. From our 2003 trip, I knew that a stop in Bunkerville, NV, a town on the way to Zion, could be productive. It was. A bridge over the Virgin River, the same river flowing from Zion, produced Bell's Vireo, Cliff and Violet-green Swallows, Osprey, Black Phoebe and others. The Vermilion Flycatchers which have been breeding at the public park in Bunkerville were present again, as were Lesser Goldfinch, lots of Western Kingbirds, Great-tailed Grackles, Bullock's Oriole , and others. One local resident ushered us into his beautifully landscaped garden to pick up very fine views of Black-chinned Hummingbird, while another came out of her house with bottles of water for the group after one of us had asked to drink from her hose. Many thanks to the fine people of Bunkerville. If we kept stopping though, we'd never get to Utah, and so we piled back into the vehicles and continued on to our destination.

Zion itself is a gem of a park, and the park service's decision to try to preserve its beauty by taking private vehicles off its road was a good one. The visitor parks in the lot, and, after entering the park, boards a tram, which travels up the ever-narrowing canyon of the Virgin River. Numerous stops allow you to explore various scenic wonders or hiking trails, if that is your preference. The real target bird for Zion is American Dipper, which can be found working up and down the river here. Due to excessively heavy spring rains, though, the river was extremely high, fast and muddy. The Dippers had not been spotted for some time. We would have to content ourselves with other finds. One bird we found on the river itself was a lone female Common Merganser. We laughed hysterically when she inched out from a quiet eddy into the rushing stream and went from zero to sixty (or what seemed like it) in about two seconds. None of us had ever seen a turbo-charged merganser before. Hiking on the paved path from the uppermost tram stop toward the extremely narrow cut that holds the river (indeed, if you want to continue hiking upstream, you must actually get IN the river and walk), we saw a small bird flitting back and forth across the path. It turned out to be a Painted Redstart, a bird previously reported from the park, but actually quite far north of its usual range. It put on quite a show for us, and provided the highlight for Zion. A female Turkey, Canyon Wren (as usual, heard rather than seen), Lazuli Bunting, Black-headed Grosbeak, Western Tanager, and Spotted Towhee were also picked up at Zion, along with other common western species. We headed back to Las Vegas in gathering dusk, and dined at a roadside restaurant so the still jet-lagged group could retire as soon as we got back to the hotel.

After another early bird(er) breakfast in the Orleans coffee shop, we were off to explore Corn Creek station of the Desert national Wildlife Refuge, and Mt. Charleston, visible across the highway from there. We were again lucky to have the expert guidance of Carolyn Titus, author of "Southern Nevada's Birds -- a Seeker's Guide," who gives unselfishly of her time to help out many visiting birding groups like ours. Corn Creek is essentially a natural spring oasis in the desert, and as such, a migrant magnet. The road into the site has breeding LeConte's Thrashers, and they are a real target for the day. My previous visits have produced only about a 50% success rate for the bird, however, and this trip was to be in the unfortunate half, unlike the 2003 trip. Consolation, however came in the form of a singing Crissal Thrasher at the pond, who put on a show out in the open, unusual for this somewhat shy species. The oasis produced Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, White -winged Dove, Long-eared Owls with young, Olive-sided and Ash-throated Flycatchers, Say's and Black Phoebes, Western Tanager, and other common-for-the-west but great-for-easterners birds like Lucy's Warbler and Phainopepla.

After a picnic lunch at Corn Creek, we headed up Mt. Charleston for the birds that can be found in its different habitats. The drive up the mountain takes you through the different life zones that can be observed in just a few minutes of driving through the altitudinal changes in a place like this. You leave behind an extremely arid and hot saltbush desert flat like the one at Corn Creek, and begin to observe yuccas, and then as you climb, oaks and juniper, and finally a pine forest. Each zone has birds which prefer the individual habitats available. The list after the ascent includes Pygmy Nuthatch, Mountain Bluebird, Northern Flicker (red-shafted), Mountain Chickadee, Cassin's Finch, Broad-tailed Hummingbird, Western Wood-pewee, and Black-throated Swift. In 2005, for the second time, we got to take a group photo in the snow at 9000 feet in the mountain's upper parking lot. We called it a day in late afternoon, and met up again with Carolyn for dinner at Bonito Michoacan, the same excellent Mexican restaurant we patronized on our earlier visit. One specialty there that I am fond of is the nopalitos -- prickly pear cactus pads sautéed with onions and jalapeños. I recommend you try it when you visit.

On Saturday we were again lucky to have the expert guide services of Mike Baker, a former Arizonan who now lives in Boulder and works for the Bureau of Reclamation. Mike is very familiar with the birds of the southwest, and has now twice graciously consented to be our guide to Hualapai Mountain Park in Kingman, Arizona. The drive into Kingman passes through some northern patches of Sonora-type desert and we are able to pick up birds like Curve-billed Thrasher, Gambel's Quail and Cactus Wren on the way to the park. The park itself offers another chance to observe the tremendous effects of altitude change on the wildlife, and it's not long before our stops are producing birds like Cassin's Kingbird, Western Wood-pewee, Townsend's Solitaire, and Western Bluebird. Other stops are known to be good spots for finding Black-throated Gray Warbler, Grace's Warbler, Acorn Woodpecker and Painted Redstart. All these spots produced their birds, but lucky Denis was the only one to get a good look at the BTGW. One target bird for this beautiful park is Zone-tailed Hawk, a bird known to breed here and one of the most desired ticks for my life list. Unfortunately the bird avoided us, just as it did in 2003. I think we're arriving just a little early. Note to self -- bring 2006 group out a week later. The lookout we use to scan for the Zone-tail did produce Black-chinned Sparrow, however, so it wasn't a total loss. Spotted Towhee and Virginia's Warbler also joined the list at Hualapai.

On the way back to Las Vegas, we saw two Peregrines in the air just a little south of the Hoover dam, where we also stopped for a group photo. My notes tell me we also got Golden Eagle that day, though I have no mention of exactly where. Continuing our drive after passing into Nevada, Mike decided to show us a new spot. It is a quiet cove called Las Vegas Bay located on Lake Mead, the huge water impoundment behind Hoover Dam. What a terrific spot this was. I believe we added 15-20 new birds to the trip list from this one place. Many are familiar to us east-coasters like Dunlin, Spotted Sandpiper, Black-crowned Night Heron, Snowy Egret and Ring-billed Gull, but many were birds we have to go west to find like Clark's and Western Grebes, Franklin's Gull, White Pelican, Long-billed Dowitcher, Eared Grebe, and Marbled Godwit. We will no doubt be including Las Vegas bay in future outings. Again, many thanks to Mike for his generous offer to lead our group.

Sunday was to be our last full day available for birding, and we had a busy one planned. We headed first to the Henderson Bird Viewing Preserve in the Las Vegas suburb of Henderson, after the now-customary early bird breakfast in the Orleans coffee shop, since this spot was likely be hotter than Red Rock Canyon, our other target for the day. The city of Henderson has made itself a very impressive facility out of its sewage treatment plant, of all places. The treated wastewater effluent is channeled into a series of settling ponds, where many of the nutrients dissolved in the water are taken up by the lush plantings of various species of marsh plants that the city introduces, and constantly experiments with to discover which do the best job of "polishing" the water. These ponds have the effect of appearing to be a desert oasis, and as such are a virtual bird magnet. The place is just loaded with migrating shorebirds, breeding birds, and desert birds who live in the surrounding acres. JeAnne Branca, an interpretive guide to the preserve, and a birder we were lucky to meet by accident on our 2003 outing, took us into the preserve and pointed out the birds that she knows are there by virtue of her being present every day and observing the comings and goings of the avian residents. She is a wealth of information about the preserve and was invaluable in adding to the trip list. Breeding Avocets, Black-neck Stilts, Black-tailed Gnatcatchers, and Verdins joined the list, along with birds familiar to us like Ring-necked Duck, Northern Shoveler, Green-winged Teal, Green -backed Heron and Ruddy Duck. In addition, we added western specialties like White-faced Ibis, Cinnamon Teal, and most satisfying, at least for me, Red-necked Phalarope. JeAnne turned out to be a wizard at separating the Red-necks from the Wilson's -- something easy in the field guides, but much more difficult in the field. Sora, Moorhen, Coot and Killdeer joined the list at Henderson, as did familiar birds like Least Sandpiper and Barn Swallow. As the morning wore on and the sun got higher, we headed off to the other side of town to Red Rock Canyon. This magnificent spot is an area of beautiful rock formations managed by the Bureau of Land Management for mixed use. It is a favorite of rock climbers and hikers, and has a beautiful loop road that takes you through some varied topography that varies about 1000 feet in altitude. We picked up a Cactus Wren at the Visitors' Center -- actually an unusual bird for this place, and started our drive around the 13 -mile loop. Red Rock actually turned out to be a bit slow for birding this day, however, and our most desired targets for this place, Gray Vireo and Chukar, eluded us. After picnicking at Willow Spring in the preserve, we headed up the road for just a little "catch as catch-can" birding and managed to call in a pair of Ash-throated Flycatchers to about ten feet from us by playing a recording of an Ash-throat's call. Lots of shutter clicks on that one. Everyone was pretty well tired out by mid-afternoon because of the early start and the heat at Henderson, so we called it a day and met in the evening for an Italian dinner where we compared notes and impressions of the trip. The group generously treated me to dinner, and I made some notes on everyone's favorite birds for the trip. As I type this, I'm looking at the veal piccata-stained placemat that I made the notes on. The list of favorites included Eared Grebe, Red-necked Phalarope, Long-eared Owl, Clark's/Western Grebe, Cinnamon Teal, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Painted Redstart, Vermilion Flycatcher, Cinnamon Teal, and Ash-throated Flycatcher, among others. Biggest disappointments ('cause we missed them) were Clark's Nutcracker, Dipper, Hepatic Tanager, Zone-tailed hawk, Gray Vireo, Hermit Warbler, Steller's Jay, LeConte's Thrasher, Scott's Oriole and Bewick's Wren. I would have sworn before we left that some of these would have been easy, but the birding gods did not cooperate.

On Monday, some people had to catch early flights, and did not get to join us few stragglers for what turned out to be some really good additions to the trip list. Following a tip from JeAnne Branca, we headed off to Boulder city to locate a Burrowing Owl known to have taken up residence at the airport. Good things started happening right away. We picked up Yellow-headed Blackbird right across the street from the owl site, and then found the area fenced off to protect the owls from disturbance. No owls. But we hadn't made this trek to give up so easily. Popping the Peterson Western CD into the car's CD player, I played the owl's call. Lo and behold, A Burrowing Owl decided to investigate, popping up to a perch where Dale spotted it. Things were going well. We drove back to the Lake Mead Recreation Area and cruised through the trailer community there to search for a breeding Anna's Hummingbird that JeAnne said should be present. We got it along with a Greater Roadrunner that seemed to call the little settlement home. It was great to finally add this bird which should have been an easy addition, but I'm sorry the entire group didn't get to see it. The last brief stop before heading back to Pennsylvania was one at Sunset Park, a tiny remnant of desert bosque habitat in the very shadow of Las Vegas' McCarran Airport. Just hours before the departure of most of our remaining group, we added Western Meadowlark and Abert's Towhee to the trip list.

The remaining birders did the smart thing and headed home at this point, but no -- I had to head out to the Mirage's poker tables. Remind me next time to stick to birding.