Return to Red Rock Canyon

Cactus Wren

Thursday was our last full day in Vegas. We had no plans that day, as we had hoped to fit in a day trip to the Grand Canyon, but the logistics of such a trip proved more difficult and elaborate than we had anticipated. After deliberating about where to spend our day, we chose to go back to the Red Rock Canyon for a “real” hike. First, however, we stopped in at the Visitor Center to look for the Cactus Wrens we had missed on our first trip. They like to feed on dead bugs on the parked cars, and are said to be easily found there. We parked in a spot well apart from the other cars, close to the edge of the desert, and wandered around the Visitor Center for a bit. By the time we got out we found a couple of birds in the scrub close to our car. Sure enough, they turned out to be the birds we were looking for!

I fell in love with the Cactus Wren as soon as I saw it. It was twice the size of our familiar eastern wrens (House, Marsh, and Winter) but much more colourful with the white streaks on its brown back, black spots on its beautiful orange belly, and a brown face with a white supercilium like a Carolina Wren.

Cactus Wren

There were at least three of them running around on the ground, probing for bugs and calling to one another as they scurried across the parking lot. This one popped up right in front of us and immediately ran over to our jeep! As it is the middle of December there weren’t many bugs to be found on our windshield.

Cactus Wren on Jeep

When I pished at one of the wrens to get its attention, it responded!

Cactus Wren

According to Cornell, the Cactus Wren is found in open areas wherever cholla or prickly-pear cacti grows, such as desert, urban, or suburban parks. Their nests are conspicuous football-shaped clumps of vegetation attached to a cactus, and they may be found by listening for their rusty sounding calls. Watch for them perching atop cholla cactus, prickly-pear cactus, yuccas, or mesquite shrubs or chasing each other around.

After viewing the wrens we got in the jeep and drove the circular Scenic Drive. We had time to stop at various viewpoints and take some photos this time. My favourite view was of the Calico Hills with their stunning rusty-orange Aztec sandstone. An inviting-looking trail led from the parking lot down into the ravine, but the wind was so strong (it was our only windy day of the trip) that we decided to hike somewhere less exposed.

Calico Hills

Calico Hills

Calico Hills

Eventually we made our way to one of the better birding areas in the park, the Willow Spring Picnic Area. As soon as we got out of the car we found a couple of Dark-eyed Juncos, including the hooded Oregon subspecies, and a couple of White-crowned Sparrows. We startled a larger bird, and when it flew into a different tree I was surprised and happy to identify it as a Townsend’s Solitaire! This was a species I had hoped to photograph on our trip, so I was happy when this one obliged!

Townsend’s Solitaire

We hiked the loop between the Willow Spring Picnic Area and Lost Creek. Willow Spring itself is located in a deep canyon where the La Madre Mountains running east-to-west meet the Spring Mountains running north-to-south. It is one of the better spots for seeing wildlife because permanent water is available here at two springs: Willow Spring at north end of the picnic area, and Lost Creek Spring, about half a mile south of the picnic area. The trail starts on the sunny east side of the road, crosses the road, and continues at a slight elevation along the side of the canyon.

I spotted movement on a rock ledge above our heads, and expected to see a bird hopping on the ground. I was surprised when the “bird” turned out to be a small rodent; it had pointy ears, so I knew for sure that it wasn’t a White-tailed Antelope Squirrel! It was later identified for me by Jim Boone who runs the Bird and Hike website as a Panamint Chipmunk, the only chipmunk species at Red Rock Canyon. There is one other species in the Spring Mountains, but Charleston Mountain Chipmunks live in the Ponderosa forest at higher altitudes while Panamint Chipmunks live in the Pinyon-Juniper forest. I got one poor photo of it sitting in the shade, but you can see the two stripes on the face. Panamint Chipmunks also have reddish brown shoulders and sides, while the flanks are gray.

Panamint Chipmunk

There were some neat rock formations along the trail, such as this shelf of rock jutting out and forming an overhang.

Overhanging Rock Formation

Most of the birds we saw were the same ones from our first trip to Red Rock, including Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jays, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, a Western Bluebird, Oregon Juncos, White-crowned Sparrows, and a Spotted Towhee.

White-crowned Sparrow

Woodhouse’s Scrub Jay

Doran noticed a woodpecker perched atop a dead tree; I wasn’t able to get my binoculars on it before it flew, so I followed it to its next perch. Fortunately it stayed there long enough for me to get a few photos and identify it as a Ladder-backed Woodpecker. This was the only other life bird of the day, but at no. 23 of my list of target species, it was one I had expected to see. This southern species was once known as the “Cactus Woodpecker” and lives in deserts, desert scrub, thorn forests, pinyon pine, and pinyon-juniper forest. Its range barely extends into the southern portion of Nevada – it is found year-round from southern California, east to Texas, and south all the way to the Yucatan Peninsula!

Ladder-backed Woodpecker

A couple of Woodhouse’s Scrub Jay were flying around. I love how these birds spend so much time out in the open, making them easy to watch!

Woodhouse’s Scrub Jay

One the west side of the road the trail was shaded by the mountain. We found this boardwalk on our way to look for the waterfall; it was constructed to protect the fragile spring habitat after heavy visitor use resulted in compacted soils, trampled plants, and damage to the riparian habitat. Lost Creek Falls is a seasonal waterfall fed by rain and snowmelt that flows in the late winter and spring. It was too early for any snowmelt, so we didn’t get to see the water flowing.

Boardwalk at Lost Creek

We heard something scratching around the dense thickets growing near the spring, but saw only a Spotted Towhee. There were fewer birds here than there were on the other side of the road, and after leaving the spring we followed the trail back out into the sunshine.

Trail at Lost Creek

Something flitting along the wall of the canyon caught my attention, and it paused long enough to see the white throat and brownish belly of a Canyon Wren! It actually disappeared into a fissure where two rock walls met before flying back out into the open, busily probing into rock crevices and climbing up rock faces so unlike the wrens back home. The Canyon Wren’s body is specifically adapted to a life in the mountains; the slightly flattened skull and high placement of the first vertebrae allow the Canyon Wren to seek food from tight crevices without damaging its head.

Canyon Wren

I was so excited to get a better look at a Canyon Wren that when Doran called out that he was watching a covey of quail on the other side of the rock I ignored him. It didn’t occur to me until after I was done photographing the wren and the quail had vanished that the Gambel’s Quails aren’t the only ground birds in the Willow Spring area – they have Chukars there, too. Even though I was thrilled to get a good photo of the Canyon Wren, I had to kick myself for not verifying the identity of Doran’s birds!

I also had better views of a Rock Wren when the trail crossed the road again and continued on the east side. We found this bird walking along the ground and followed it for a good five minutes. Rock Wrens are browner overall, with a yellowish or peach-coloured wash on the lower belly.

Rock Wren

The Rock Wren is migratory; some birds breed in the arid or semiarid areas of southern Alberta and Saskatchewan, and winter in the southern US or Mexico. It is found year-round in the southwestern states and Mexico, with small populations found south to Costa Rica. It was fun watching this bird dart around the desert floor, hopping up on rocks and scurrying through the sparse vegetation.

Rock Wren

As we neared the parking lot we got a good view of one of Red Rock Canyon’s most famous pictographs. Five red hand prints scrawled across a rock just above my head comprise the pictograph known as “Hands Across Time”. Made by native peoples hundreds or thousands of years ago, it is believed that they were created when the natives covered their hands in paint made of powdered minerals, clays, or charcoal mixed with plant juices, saliva, or egg whites, then pressed them against the surface of the rock. The red colour comes from iron oxide mixed in the paints. In 2010 vandals spray-painted these pictographs, but the Friends of Red Rock Canyon Organization were able to recover and restore them so that we and future generations would be able to enjoy them.

“Hands Across Time” Pictograph

We enjoyed our short hike at Red Rock Canyon, and I was happy to see all three of the wren species in better light. I think, however, that next time we will have to visit in the spring or fall when the water is flowing and the breeding birds are present!

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