Las Vegas in December: Sunset Park

American Coot

American Coot

Doran and I spent a week in Las Vegas from December 9-15, 2017 to see some shows and do some birding. We’d been planning this trip for a while, and I was excited because (a) I’ve never been to the American southwest before; and (b) I was only 19 species away from hitting 500 species on my life list. I felt I had a reasonably good chance; the target list I generated from eBird for Clark County during the month of December showed that there were 15 species with a frequency of more than 10%, and 37 species with a frequency greater than 1%. The top 15 included three birds on my “most wanted” list, namely, Cinnamon Teal, the only new duck species I could expect; Phainopepla, a desert bird I’d never heard of until one showed up in Brampton, ON in the winter of 2009; and Great Roadrunner, because I grew up watching the Bugs Bunny show and really wanted to see what one looked like in real life.

We stayed at the Cancun Resort on Las Vegas Boulevard less than 10 kilometres south of the Strip. We didn’t want to stay in the heart of the Strip as we figured it would be too bright and busy, and too difficult to navigate when we wanted to go birding. The Cancun Resort was quiet and peaceful, and there were even a few birds around to hold my interest. My first Nevada bird was the Rock Pigeon, as a group of them seemed to live out in the front. This was followed by a Great-tailed Grackle walking on the lawn outside the restaurant and a couple of House Sparrows flitting around. The grackles were definitely not as numerous as those in Costa Rica, but definitely more interesting than the ones I had at home. I recognized and enjoyed listening to their various vocalizations.

Cancun Caribe resort

The Pool (closed for the season)

We had some time to kill before our room was ready, so I suggested driving over to Sunset Park about 15 minutes away. This was one of the larger hotspots in the area, and had an amazing list of both desert and water birds. The split personality of this urban park is what makes it great for birding: half is groomed for heavy public use with ball fields, grassy lawns, picnic areas, and a man-made pond for fishing. The other half preserves rare desert dune habitat, though I wasn’t sure how many desert birds we would see in the middle of the city.

As soon as we left the main road and entered the side streets there was no mistaking the fact that we were in the desert: there were very few lush lawns or gardens, and empty lots looked like sandy, scrubby pieces of desert poking out of the pavement of urbanization. We found one yard next to such a vacant lot with a lot of bird activity and stopped to take a look. I was amazed by the Northern Mockingbirds hanging around, and counted at least six of them! There were also a couple of White-crowned Sparrows in a shrub with about 10 House Sparrows. I got my first life when I spotted a Verdin in a tree – its pale body and yellow face were unmistakable!

I was reluctant to leave without a picture, but hoped that Sunset Park would have more. When we arrived, we parked close to the water and walked over to the “pond”. It was encased in cement and looked more like a giant pool than a pond, complete with a concrete island in the middle. However, it was full of waterfowl, with a nice mix of species that I normally don’t see up close in Ottawa, including over a dozen Redheads, two Ruddy Ducks, three Pied-billed Grebes, two Hooded Mergansers, about ten American Wigeon, a few mallards, a couple dozen Canada Geese, several Double-crested Cormorants, and well over 100 American Coots. I noticed a few people throwing food to the ducks, and I was surprised when not only mallards swam in, but also diving fish-eaters such as Ring-necked Ducks and Redheads. Even the American Coots joined in!

American Coot

I spent a good ten minutes trying to get good photos of them all, and was happy with the results, particularly since the diving ducks in Ottawa don’t spend much time close to the shore.

Ring-necked Duck


There were some domestic waterfowl present too, and I did a double take when one of the white birds on the island turned out to be a goose. Its small size, round head, and stubby bill with a bluish-gray base helped confirm that it was a Ross’s Goose, not a Snow Goose. I was thrilled to find this bird as I’ve never been this close to one.

Ross’s Goose

I checked the gulls in case any California Gulls were present, but found only the usual Ring-billed Gulls. Seeing one next to a Palm Tree, however, is not a common occurrence in Ottawa!

Ring-billed Gull

There were plenty of Great-tailed Grackles around. This is the third country that I’ve seen them in now (Mexico and Costa Rica are the others).

Great-Tailed Grackle

A Great-tailed Grackle chasing a smaller blackbird caught my attention, and I was delighted to see my lifer Brewer’s Blackbird. I had tried for this bird in Ontario while attending the Huron Fringe Birding Festival with my mother several years ago, but missed out. It was great to see this Canadian resident completely at home in an unfamiliar (to me) setting!

Brewer’s Blackbird

This is the most pishable Ruby-crowned Kinglet I’ve ever seen…when I started pishing it actually flew at my head before going back to the vegetation. This species is a winter resident of the park, absent from mid-May through mid-September. In Ontario we only see them during migration in April and October, so it was quite neat to see one in December!

Ruby-crowned Kinglet 2

Sadly, this was the only other songbird species I found on our walk, bringing the total up to three. The only other species we saw was a Red-tailed Hawk which flew over and perched on one of the lights overlooking one of the playing fields. It took us so long just to walk around the pond that we didn’t have time to check out the undeveloped desert portion of the park, which might have added more life birds to my first day in Vegas. As it turned out, we ended up with 22 species on our first day, with two lifers. Not bad for a quick visit to the park!

Sunset Park


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