To discover birds in the desert, look for springs, pools, sewage ponds, lakes and reservoirs, riparian wetlands, and oasis. These drinking holes dot the terrain among magenta mountain ranges, desert yucca, and shoulder-high, wind-blown pines near the treeline.
Las Vegas, surrounded by desert and mountains, is an excellent location for exploring southern Nevada for birds. Great birding may be found under the shadow of the glittering Las Vegas strip, but you must avoid the draw of bright lights and opulent casinos. Visit Sunset Park, Floyd Lamb State Park, Henderson City Bird Viewing Preserve, Boulder City Wetlands Park, Lake Mead, or Spring Mountain Ranch State Park instead. Except for the latter two, all are located inside the metropolitan area. These are just around an hour’s drive from Las Vegas. Then go to the desert.
Las Vegas Vicinity
Sunset Park features the most diverse ecosystem among the metropolitan parks, with a small lake and desert habitat that borders residential buildings. Several types of waterfowl visit the lake, and I’ve observed flocks of American Avocets circling the water during migration. Migratory warblers and songbirds flock to the dense mesquite vegetation around the administrative buildings. A number of hummingbird feeders kept by park employees attract a variety of species, who come on a regular basis and compete for access to the feeders. Cottonwood trees scattered throughout the park’s grassy regions are home to warblers, vireos, and orioles.
Black-tailed Gnatcatchers and Abert’s Towhees are common in the desert scrub and mesquite. Crissal and Sage Thrashers, on the other hand, are more difficult to locate. You’re also likely to come across Phainopeplas, which may be identified in flight by their white feathered underwings. Even during the day, coyotes may be seen prowling around this section of the park, which is surrounded by walled residential backyards.
The Henderson Bird Viewing Preserve, part of the city’s water reclamation system, attracts a variety of duck, wader, and shorebird species to the south. The park has 200 acres of basins, ponds, and lagoons that the City has worked hard to enhance with natural tree and shrub plantings. The preserve features a list of nearly 170 different species.
Waterfowl, songbirds, and thicket dwellers such as Abert’s Towhees and thrashers may be seen on many walks around the various ponds with a scope. During the late autumn and winter, approximately twenty species of ducks, Tundra Swans, and several species of herons are common. Prairie Falcons, Red-tailed Hawks, and Northern Harriers may be seen in the sky.
Visit the Boulder City Wetlands Park, which is next to the Veterans Memorial Park a few miles to the southeast. The park’s wetland ponds are home to the endangered Razorback suckers, which can only be found in the Colorado River Basin. The fingerlings are grown to 8 to 10 inches before being caught and released into Lake Mojave.
A large flock of resident Yellow-headed Blackbirds may be seen up close in this rather small marsh region. To obtain the greatest views of these beautiful birds, drive beside the little ponds. Common Yellowthroats and numerous sparrow species may also be seen in the greenery around the ponds.
Floyd Lamb State Park, popularly known as Tule Springs, is located on the northwest limits of Las Vegas. Native Americans, prospectors, a stagecoach route, and farmers exploited the springs for centuries. It’s now an oasis in the midst of fast-paced urban expansion.
Check the cottonwood trees and hedges near the parking lot for Western Kingbirds, Say’s Phoebes, and migrating songbirds as you approach the park. Then, make your way to the park’s far end, beyond the ancient structures, where mesquite thickets and big cottonwood trees dominate the scene. Look for a spring near the treeline, which is a great place to see songbirds that feed in the dense flora above and birds that migrate from the desert to the water.
Spring Mountain Ranch State Park is part of the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, located 15 miles west of Las Vegas. It is home to the valley’s second oldest structure, which dates back to 1864. Spring Mountain Ranch is on the National Register of Historic Places, and it has a colourful history. The spring was on a trail that was used as an alternative to the Spanish Trail, which was a major route for pack and waggon trains until the railroad superseded them in the early 1900s. Outlaws and bandits were numerous along the path, and they often robbed caravans of passing western-bound settlers. Early gold miners frequented the path as well. For many years, the land was a functioning ranch. Howard Hughes, German industrialist Alfred Krupp, and other families have all owned it.
The treed picnic area east of the visitor centre (ranch house), the new reservoir (Lake Harriet), and the ash grove behind the visitor centre to the south are the greatest places to see birds in the park. Follow the route that runs beside the former reservoir and into the adjacent desert. Early in the morning, a spring and pool at the foot of the tallest cottonwood tree is ideal for birds. During migration, you may expect to see Abert’s Towhees, Bewick’s Wrens, Black-tailed Gnatchatchers, Say’s Phoebes, and other songbirds. Cactus Wrens and Crissal Thrashers are common in the desert scrub. Several kinds of ducks and waders may be found at the new reservoir. It’s also possible to detect migrants among the shrubs and trees along the coast.
The ash grove provides an old growth buffer between the springs and the parched desert, which is teeming with both ground and canopy feeders. During migration, look for thrashers, wrens, Bushtits, Verdins, Lazuli Buntings, Greater Roadrunners, various sparrow species, and a wide variety of songbirds. The number of birds in the ash grove may be breathtaking.
Since you’re nearby, a trip to Red Rock Canyon is just a few minutes’ drive north. Pick up a map at the tourist centre and drive around the base of the magenta cliffs for 13 miles. Keep an eye on the multicoloured rock formations as they change from russet to saffron to beige. Several local community organisations assist with the upkeep of picnic sites and walking paths along the road, one of which is guarded by the “Parrotheads,” a local Jimmy Buffett fan club.
Keep an ear out for wild horses and burros hee-hawing to each other over the arid terrain. Birdlife is scarce, with the exception of the rare raptor. You will, however, be treated to a breathtaking panorama of colourful, weather-worn rock formations.
Lake Mead, with the Hoover Dam at its southern point, is located just east of Las Vegas. Lakeshore Scenic Drive, northeast of Boulder City and close to the visitor centre, is a great place to see ducks, waders, and other surprises. Look for a mobile home park near the lake’s shore after heading north along the picturesque route.
Residents of the park like feeding hummingbirds, and there are several feeders strung around their mobile homes. If you want to see a lot of people, go to the lakefront street. Hummingbirds flit between feeders and flowers along the flowery buffer between the beach and the mobile homes. Male and female Black-chinned, Anna’s, and Rufous Hummingbirds will be competing over feeder portals and diving and chasing one other incessantly.
Along the lakefront route, there is also a “quail crossing,” which is a feeding station alongside the road where a seed mix is often distributed to attract birds. Stop for a moment and observe. You will almost certainly see Gambel’s Quail. However, you may spot a Lark Sparrow or two, as well as a Black-throated Sparrow.
Further along the gorgeous route, you’ll come across various lakefront access roads, including Boulder Beach. Each location should be scouted for waders, shorebirds, and waterfowl. Loons and big flocks of American Avocets are not uncommon.
You’re ready for a desert adventure after experiencing city sites.
Northwest of Las Vegas
When travelling in the desert, you will often see Common Ravens and little else. They crisscross the sky far above, coming and departing at random. The distance between drinking holes where wildlife congregates in the desert is often enormous, and even though the miles fly by at 70 mph, you’ll have plenty of time to ponder where these ravens came from and where they’re going.
Despite the appearance of a barren and lonely area, there is a plethora of species on the desert floor and in the mountains. Mule deer, coyotes, desert spiny lizards, and black-tailed jackrabbits may all be found in southern Nevada. However, the desert is home to a variety of less visible animals, including Mojave rattlesnakes, tarantulas, burros, and horses, as well as enormous desert hairy scorpions, desert kit foxes, mountain lions, and desert bighorn sheep. Similarly, there are several types of cactus and other blooming flora. To notice discrepancies, you’ll need to examine attentively. However, in order to discover birds, you must first look for water sources.
Corn Creek, located 25 miles northwest of Las Vegas on Highway 95, is one of the most prolific oasis.
Corn Creek Desert National Wildlife Refuge It’s a tiny section of the 1.5-million-acre Desert National Wildlife Range near Nellis Air Force Base. Corn Creek contains big cottonwood trees, a meadow, and spring-fed ponds, and was initially utilised as a Native American encampment, stagecoach stop, and ranch. This real migration trap has attracted almost 240 species.
The finest birding is on a half-mile track that runs beside the desert and through the oasis. There are many entry sites into the desert scrub where you may seek for Crissal Thrashers, Verdin, and migrating warblers and vireos that feed near the trees and springs. Raptors such as Prairie Falcons, Sharp-shinned and Red-tailed Hawks are likely to fly above.
A friendly and popular Mallard named “Jake the Drake” will welcome you at the first pond and ask for a handout. During migration, you may easily spend a morning at Corn Creek looking for songbirds including Northern Parulas, Yellow and MacGillivray’s Warblers, as well as tanagers and orioles.
Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge is located west of the California border (NWR). Over 22,000 acres of spring-fed wetlands and alkaline desert uplands in this oasis offer home for at least 24 flora and animals found nowhere else on the planet. Ash Meadows contains the highest concentration of endemic species in the United States, thanks to a massive subterranean water system that spans over 100 miles to the northeast.
The refuge bird checklist has 210 species, and although trips during migration are the most fruitful, outstanding year-round birds include Phainopepla, Verdin, Crissal Thrasher, and Lucy’s Warbler. While there is a tempting walkway across the marshes that leads to a lovely blue pool, some of the greatest birding can be found near the administrative office. Early in the morning, look for a route that goes into the mesquite thickets, where you’ll find spring-fed streams and a slew of feeding birds.
Get a map of the refuge from the headquarters and explore the several adjacent springs and reservoirs. Over the years, the Big Spring region has housed a Vermilion Flycatcher family, and Peterson and Crystal Reservoirs normally have plenty of waterfowl even in the summer. Point of Rocks, Rogers, and Longstreet Springs are other excellent options for both spring migratory and resident birds.
Northeast of Las Vegas
Valleys east of the Sheep and Golden Gate Ranges seem greener, and some are endowed with long, narrow riparian wetlands. In certain areas, irrigation enhances the appearance of lushness. The parched desert, however, is never far away, just beyond the reach of scattered wetlands and irrigation holes.
Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge and Key Pittman Wildlife Management Area are both around 90 miles north of Las Vegas (WMA). The Pahranagat refuge is made up of 5,380 acres of marsh, natural grass meadow, and developed farmland. It also has a bird checklist with 240 species. The Upper and Lower Lakes are home to a large number of herons, egrets, and ducks (mainly Mallards, Northern Shovelers, Ruddies and Coots). Several gravel roads near the lakes often produce flycatchers amid the woods and marshes. Migrants should constantly be monitored in riparian zones.
Key Pittman WMA’s two ponds and marshes, located only a few miles north on Highway 95 near the community of Crystal Springs, are also home to a large number of ducks and waders. These arid pools might also surprise you. I recall seeing an Osprey hunting above, a Long-billed Curlew along the coast, and a lone White Pelican eating offshore on a warm late-fall day. White-crowned Sparrows and Lazuli Buntings packed the undergrowth near the pond’s side.
Eastward towards the Utah border, there is a cluster of state parks worth visiting: Kershaw-Ryan, Cathedral Gorge, Echo Canyon, and Spring Valley. Kershaw-Ryan State Park is located near the town of Caliente and is bordered by elms, Gambel oaks, cottonwood trees, and wild grape vines. The canyon’s nature walk is a good place to see Rock Wrens and other desert birds. Local birders frequent the route that heads south from the park along Meadow Valley Wash (SR 317).
Cathedral Gorge State Park, a photographer’s favourite due to its unusual craggy red rock formations, may be a fantastic place to observe raptors, thrashers, and roadrunners. With numerous knowledgeable birders on board, the visitor centre staff can assist you in locating potential places for your target desert birds in eastern Nevada and western Utah. The tourist centre also has a good directory of nearby accommodations.
A riparian valley connects Echo Canyon and Spring Valley State Parks, and the gravel road beside its high cliffs is an ideal spot to search for Canyon and Rock Wrens. Swallow nests are plainly visible amid the rocky overhangs. Both parks contain tiny ponds with marshes connecting them. There are also rich wetland regions underneath their dams. These are good places to look for ducks and summer birds including Great Blue Herons, Great and Snowy Egrets, White-faced Ibis, and Eared and Western Grebes. During migration, the wetlands in both parks are ideal for warblers. Coyotes and mule deer may be seen along the pathways that go from the marshes into the desert.
Warm Springs at Moapa and Palm Creek Resort on the Muddy River are two spring-fed oasis southwest of Pahranagat NWR that may be migratory hotspots. These two attractions, less than a mile apart, offer lush lawns and stands of massive fan palms. The kind proprietors of Palm Creek Resort, which is really a campsite, invite birders to wander among the cottonwood and palm trees, mesquite thickets, and a plethora of wildflowers such as woolly daisies, desert trumpet, yellow-eyed lupine, and Mojave aster.
Warm Springs, a once-famous, burned-out resort that is now the Moapa National Wildlife Refuge, is no longer open to the public. Warm Springs Road, on the other hand, borders the property, and there are a number of spring-fed streams that attract birds that may be viewed from the road. Bird both sides of the road, particularly where the desert meets the boundaries of the oasis. Warblers flying between the tops of fan palms may be difficult to track down and identify.
I strongly suggest two booklets from Red Rock Audubon Society (PO Box 96691, Las Vegas, NV 89193) to prepare yourself for birding in southern Nevada: Southern Nevada Birds: A Seeker’s Guide and Field List of the Birds of Nevada. Barbara Davis’s A Field Guide to Birds of the Desert Southwest (1997) is another useful resource (Gulf Publishing Company, PO Box 2608, Houston, TX 77252-2608).
Jerry Uhlman‘s articles have appeared in Winging It, American Bird Watcher, Refuge Reporter, Birder’s World, Birding, Living Bird, and Outdoors Unlimited. He is also the author of A Birder’s Guide to Metropolitan Richmond (Virginia) and writes a column for the Richmond Times-Dispatch.