Trip Report:
Vegas Vireos - 2006 Edition

Carl Perretta

Vegas Vireos - 2006 Edition

Carl Perretta

Vegas Vireos III -- Soaring in Sin City

Well, it happened again. I was able to convince a group of BCDC members that the unlikely destination of Las Vegas, Nevada is a good spot for a birding trip. On May 10, BCDC members Daryl Kezell, Elizabeth Robinson, Gary Becker and I met up in Las Vegas with Daryl's sister Donna Zwigart for four-plus days of birding the city and environs.

First, the good news. My nemesis species -- Zone-tailed Hawk and Gray Flycatcher, fell into my "got 'em" list, along with Cordilleran Flycatcher. The bad news is that now I've got to find a couple of new species to frustrate me. The leading contenders as of now are Dusky and Hammond's Flycatchers.

For the second year in a row, we chose the Orleans Casino/Hotel as our base of operations. For those of you keeping score, and maybe thinking about coming along in 2007, the hotel cost each person (double occupancy) exactly $183.55 complete, for all five nights. This is for a very nice room with granite bathroom sinks, sofa/sitting area in each room, and other amenities. As usual, we are always up early for birding and into the coffee shop in time for the red-eye breakfast specials, which feature a full breakfast for two or three dollars. You can't do better for your birding dollar unless you camp out!

Oh yeah, the birds. As is our usual custom, we headed out early Thursday morning for Zion National Park in Utah, with a couple of stops along the way for areas which have produced well in the past. It's a good idea to avoid Zion on the weekends, when it can become quite crowded. We now make a customary stop in the town of Bunkerville, NV, to search for a regularly occurring pair of breeding Vermillion Flycatchers. On the way into town, we made a stop at a bridge over the Virgin River that has proved productive in the past. Cliff, Violet-green, and Northern Rough-winged Swallows, Bell's Vireo (heard), Ash-throated Flycatcher, Wilson's Warbler, Plumbeous Vireo, Black Phoebe, and ubiquitous Western Kingbirds presented themselves. Continuing into Bunkerville, a brief stop just before reaching town produced McGillivray's Warbler, great looks at Black-throated Sparrow and a pair of Rock Wrens feeding young. Entering the town itself, stopping the car enabled us to add Eurasian Collared Dove, Say's Phoebe, and familiar birds like Great Blue Heron, Northern Mockingbird, Robin and House Finch. At the park where we did sight the target Vermillion Flycatchers, we also added Lesser Goldfinch, Common Yellowthroat, Red-winged Blackbird and Bullock's Oriole. We made a quick stop at a local house I knew of with hummingbird feeders and added Black-chinned Hummingbirds.

Continuing on the interstate toward Zion, we picked up a Western Meadowlark before stopping at a sewage treatment facility that proved productive on last year's visit. This year was no exception. Some of the group added lifers at this spot, where we found Cinnamon and Green-winged Teal, Eared Grebe, Wilson's Phalarope, Franklin's Gull, Redhead, Bufflehead, Lesser Scaup, Black-necked Stilt, and common species like Gadwall and Ruddy Duck. It was tough to leave, but we did have to get up to Zion with enough time to actually do some birding. Before entering the park, we stopped for a picnic lunch at a public park in the tiny hamlet of Springdale, which lies just outside the park's entrance. A quick stroll along the river after our meal turned up House and Bewick's Wrens, Song Sparrow and Yellow Warbler.

The real target bird for Zion is American Dipper, and we did get the bird, after getting a little help. In Zion, visitors ride a tram system along the road leading up the ever-narrowing canyon of the Virgin River, passing the spectacular cliff formations along the way. The canyon narrows to a point that the road cannot continue, and terminates at a spot called the Temple of Sinawava. To continue upstream, you must walk along a paved trail that is easy-to-moderate in difficulty. This is the trail we usually have to follow to spot the Dippers somewhere along the river, although they do occur downstream also, and can sometimes even be spotted from the tram. It's usually a question of whether you run into a Dipper or a Dipper runs into you, as they work up and down the river in their feeding activities. After emerging from the tram, we started upstream, and detoured along a short path which continued just feet from the rushing stream itself. No luck. Getting back onto the paved path, we started the walk up the canyon and expected we'd have to keep a close lookout along the water for the passing of our quarry. This is how they are frequently detected as they call while moving. We had been walking for about five minutes when we ran into a small group of people who asked if we had seen the Dippers. "No," we replied, "Where were they?" The fellow described the very spot we had just left. Turning on our heels, we retraced our steps to the streamside area we had just abandoned, and found two Dippers feeding a third, who seemed that it could devour every insect larva the river held. The creature was just insatiable, and the parents were busy keeping up. I swear the birds weren't there when we walked by earlier. We got to watch all of this from a distance of about thirty feet, and the family was still there when we decided to continue our walk upstream. On last year's visit, we were unlucky enough to miss the Dipper, because of exceptionally high and fast water, but lucky to spot a Painted Redstart, which had already been reported in the area this year. This bird is north of its usual range if present, but this year we would have to be satisfied with the Redstart much farther south, in Arizona. Getting such good looks at the Dipper made up for the miss, though. The trail managed to let us add Black-headed Grosbeak, Lazuli Bunting, Warbling Vireo, Northern Flicker (red-shafted), Hairy Woodpecker, Western Tanager and White-throated Swift to the trip list. An added bonus was a displaying male Turkey in the tram lot, who seemed to be trying to interest the female a few feet away. We headed back to our hotel in Las Vegas and met up for a fine Mexican dinner at Bonito Michoacan, a place we've patronized on previous visits, and one which I recommend if you visit Las Vegas.

For our second day of birding, we stayed in the Las Vegas area. After another bargain breakfast, we started out for Corn Creek station of the Desert National Wildlife Range, the largest wildlife refuge in the nation, established to protect the Desert Bighorn Sheep. This place is essentially an oasis in an arid desert, and as such, can produce quite a variety of migrants and accidentals. A special target bird for this part of the trip is the scarce and local LeConte's Thrasher. The bird occurs in conjunction with saltbush flats, which can be found here. I have been about 50% successful on previous visits in getting the thrashers to show themselves. This year's trip was in the good half. Stopping on the entrance road, we all quieted down and I played the bird's song from my pocket mp3 player through a small portable speaker. No audible response, but scanning the desert brush, I spotted what might be a bird that had come up for a look. Bingo! The bird, though mostly backlit, was close enough for everyone to get more than adequate looks through the scope, and one of the tougher targets was bagged. The desert area also was home to Black-throated and Sage Sparrows and Horned Lark. Continuing into the oasis area itself, and walking around the ponds, we saw Lucy's and Yellow-rumped (both Audubon's and Myrtle) Warblers, Phainopepla, Western Wood-pewee, and Killdeer. As we loaded up the car to continue our day's activities, we met a young fellow from California in the parking lot who asked if we had seen the LeConte's Thrasher. We told him we had, and said how and where we had done it. He expressed that kind of frustration that only birders and regular lottery players, who neglected to play their usual number on the very day it hit, can exhibit. It seems it was the last possible day he had available to look for the thrasher, and he had actually spent the night sleeping in the saltbush flat in order to catch the bird as it (he hoped) sang at first light. No luck. I asked if he had tried a recording, as that had produced our bird. He replied that he did not have the proper recording with him. Well, we've all been there, and I'm sure we'd like to have had a little help when we needed it. I remembered that there is a road leading behind the station that has been productive for the locals who search for this bird. Last year's group tried it without result for the thrasher, but the area did hold an Olive-sided Flycatcher at that time. The poor fellow was so down that I offered to lead him out along the road and play the song to see if a bird turned up (the man was also already thankful for our presence -- he got his life Lucy's warbler when I pointed it out earlier). At our third stop along the road, a bird popped up for a look, and darn if it wasn't a LeConte's, giving us even better looks than we had earlier. The Californian was now beside himself with joy, and I gave him a copy of the birdsong CD I had to make his trip a little easier. There's a coda to this story, and a good one. Following the road back to the station, a small bird flew in very close to us and gave us some very good looks. We needed them, because it was an Empidonax flycatcher, always a frustrating ID challenge. Was that lower mandible yellowish? Yes. And isn't the little fellow doing an awful lot of tail-flipping? Yes. It was my Gray Flycatcher! Actually, everybody's, but I was particularly happy about spotting a bird that I've been trying to chase down for years. After the way we helped the young man from California, is there any doubt that a good deed will be rewarded? And so soon! A Crissal Thrasher made a quick fly-by, but we'd get much better looks at this bird in a few days. On the way out of Corn Creek, Donna shouted, "Hey, wait a minute. What was that?" Backing up, we spotted the bird you don't want to leave the desert without seeing, Greater Roadrunner. The bird was at close range, and with a sizeable lizard in its mouth. It actually headed toward the car, giving everyone tremendous looks. For her prowess in sighting the Roadrunner, Donna Zwigart will forever be known as the Coyote.

From Corn Creek Station, the dirt road leads toward Mt. Charleston, one of the peaks of the Spring Mountains. Climbing up the side of the mountain, you leave Mojave-type desert and begin to encounter first, pine-oak-juniper shrub habitat, and as you climb higher, Ponderosa Pine forest. Each habitat has characteristic birds. From previous trips, I knew of a few areas that might produce certain birds, and we were to have some pretty good success with birds we came looking for. The spot where I was treated to my first Grace's Warbler is still a favored breeding location, and we picked up this species, just as we hoped. Familiar birds like Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Chipping Sparrow, Yellow Warbler, Northern Mockingbird and American Robin showed up, in addition to western specialties like Oregon-type Junco, Steller's and Scrub Jays, Mountain Chickadee, Western Bluebird, Broad-tailed Hummingbird (easier to ID by ear than eye), Spotted Towhee, and Cassin's Finch. Always -appreciated entries for the day were Red Crossbill and Pine Siskin. Another very local area that is usually good for breeding Virginia's Warbler yielded up its treasure, and that bird joined the list. While waiting for the group during a comfort stop at the restaurant at the end of the road, I had a quick fly-by of Band-tailed Pigeons. Add a few raptors like Cooper's and Red-tailed Hawks and Kestrel, and you've had a pretty good day.

Saturday, we headed out to Hualapai Mountain Park, near Kingman, Arizona, for a day's birding with our perennial local guide and all-around nice guy, Mike Baker. Mike is an employee of the Bureau of Reclamation, and a keen observer of the birds of the Southwest. This day he was also accompanied by his lovely wife Lidija. I'm being honest when I tell you that I have strictly selfish reasons for heading to Hualapai every year. I want a Zone-tailed Hawk! We've gotten to the park a little early in the year on our previous visits, so I scheduled this year's trip a week later, in an attempt to let this bird catch up to us. The trip to the park goes through some desert habitat, and we got Curve-billed Thrasher and Cactus Wren before even getting to the park. After entering the park and climbing the mountain, we were treated to sightings of Spotted Towhee, Grace's Warbler, Townsend's Warbler, Virginia's Warbler, Cassin's Kingbird, Cedar Waxwing, Black-throated Gray Warbler and Acorn Woodpecker. We also added painted Redstart by hearing its song, but couldn't manage to get our eyes on the bird. Our usual spots for spotting the Zone-tail did not produce one, however, and after a picnic lunch, we headed toward the park exit, with diminishing hopes for the bird. "Never say die," should be the motto for this group, however. At a quick stop on the way down the mountain to try for Black-chinned Sparrow, we checked out a soaring and rocking bird overhead, and Mike announced, "There's your bird, Carl." Indeed, it was a Zone-tailed Hawk that commenced putting on a back-and-forth show at very close range for about ten minutes. Everyone got tremendous looks at all the field marks, and after adding the Black-chinned Sparrow (heard well, but not seen), we moved on from this very productive stop. We ended our day at Las Vegas bay on Lake Meade, whose water level was considerably lower than year, and several species of shorebirds got added to the trip list.

For our last full day of birding, Sunday morning saw the group at Henderson Bird Viewing Preserve, the water treatment and finishing outflow of the Henderson, NV sewage treatment plant. This is a tremendous birding spot, the ponds acting like a series of oases in the desert. If you need good looks at birds like Crissal Thrasher, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, Red-necked Phalarope, American Avocet, Cinnamon Teal, or Long-billed Dowitcher, this is a must-see. After adding all the above and others, we headed out to the beautiful Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, managed by the Bureau of Land Management. We picnicked at the Red Spring area on the access road , and one of the other people visiting strode up to me and asked if I could ID the bird he had just shot with his digital camera. I said I'd try, and he showed me a picture of a Chukar! I'd asked where he shot it, and he directed me to a cliff face, where we headed after lunch. We picked up Chukars, Phainopeplas, and Ladder-backed Woodpecker before entering the 13 mile scenic drive. At the visitors' Center on the way in, we picked up a nesting Say's Phoebe, right over the entrance door! The trip around was good for the usual desert suspects and the beautiful Red Rock scenery, and at Willow Springs, we got a Gray Vireo to answer the recorded call on my mp3 player. Never did get to see him, though. On this trip we added a short visit to Spring Mountain Ranch State park, next door to Red Rock, and while it is a pleasant side trip, the only new sighting was of the wild burros common to the area.

Monday departures did not leave time for any birding before our group had to head for their flights, but it was a productive four days, and I expect to be leading the group again, given enough interest.

The estimated costs for the trip were $300-350 or so for round-trip airfare, $183.55 lodging, $90-110 estimated transportation costs, your own food budget, depending on how indulgently you like to dine. This trip is easily doable under $1000 per person, complete.