Birding Las Vegas, Part 1: My Most-Wanted Species

Pygmy Nuthatch

Doran and I flew to Las Vegas on Saturday, February 1st for a week in the desert. This was our second time there, but our flights did not go smoothly. Our 7:00 am flight was supposed to land in Toronto at 8:15, then our second flight was supposed to leave Toronto at 9:30. However our plane in Ottawa had been sitting at the gate all night, and we needed to some time to de-ice it. This took about 20 minutes. Then, when we arrived in Toronto we needed to wait a another 20 minutes on the tarmac as another plane had taken our gate because of a medical emergency. We worried about not having time to clear customs before our second flight boarded, but as it turns out this plane was late, too, due to a “mechanical issue.” Then that plane, too, needed de-icing, so it wasn’t until after 12:00 that we got airborne. The strangest part was, after we showed our passports and boarding passes to the flight attendants at the gate, we were quizzed by US security people before entering the jet bridge – where were we going? Did we know the limits on how much cash we could bring into the country? How much were we bringing? When did we book our flights? We hadn’t encountered anything like this before; even my boss who had recently traveled to the U.S. thought it was weird. In any event, this is the third Air Canada trip in a row where we’ve had annoying delays, so I don’t think I will book with them again anytime soon.

We arrived at McCarran airport in Las Vegas without further incident, though when we got to our hotel (the Tahiti Suites Resort), our room wasn’t ready so we went for an early supper then checked out the grounds. While waiting we saw the usual Great-tailed Grackles, a pigeon, a House Sparrow, and a Eurasian Collared Dove – a bird I hadn’t seen on our last trip to Las Vegas. The weather was gorgeous, but once our room was ready we stayed in as we had an early morning ahead of us: a full-day birding tour with Bird Las Vegas.

I met Justin Streit the last time we went to Las Vegas when Doran and I signed up for a free Audubon walk at Red Rock Canyon. I was happy to hear that he had started his own business as a bird guide shortly after we left, and as soon as Doran and I made plans to return I signed up for a full day of birding. I gave him a list of lifers I still needed for Clark County, and told him my most-wanted birds were Steller’s Jay and Burrowing Owl. Because the list of target birds wasn’t long, I also gave him a list of U.S. life birds I needed. Justin took over the planning from there.

He picked us up at 8:00 and told us the day’s itinerary – a visit to Corn Creek for Bell’s and Sagebrush Sparrows, LeConte’s Thrasher, and Lesser Goldfinch; then up to Mount Charleston for Steller’s Jay, Pygmy Nuthatch, and Band-tailed Pigeon; a stop to the Burrowing Owl site; a stop at Pittman Wash for Pacific Wren, Bewick’s Wren and Bushtit; and finally, the Clark County Wetlands to round out the day. He was concerned about a forecast of high winds making the birding difficult, but the sky was bright and clear and the air was still as got underway.

Desert NWR entrance

It was still cool as we got out of Justin’s truck along the entrance to the Desert National Wildlife Refuge at Corn Creek. We scanned the vast expanse of low-growing, green-gray sagebrush for sparrows moving through the vegetation, and were rewarded by a flock of about 20 White-crowned Sparrows – I had forgotten how common these sparrows were in Las Vegas in the winter. Justin used a combination of playback and pishing to try to lure in our target species, the Bell’s Sparrow and Sagebrush Sparrows. These two sparrows look a quite similar and were once considered to be the same species, the Sage Sparrow; they were split into their present taxonomy in 2013. The Sagebrush Sparrow (Artemisiospiza nevadensis) and the Mojave Bell’s Sparrow (Artemisiospiza belli canescens) both overwinter in southern Nevada, and are often found together in mixed flocks. According to my target list, Sagebrush Sparrow was reported more than twice as often as Bell’s Sparrow; it was number 8 on my list, having been reported on 1.6% of all February checklists for Clark County, while Bell’s Sparrow was number 20, having been reported on 0.64% of all complete February checklists for Clark County.

Both species are dapper-looking birds with gray heads, white eye-rings, white bellies, and brown backs. The Bell’s Sparrow shows a stronger contrast between the gray head and brown back, as well as a darker malar stripe and a plainer back. The Sagebrush Sparrow is paler, has a more heavily streaked back, and shows a weaker malar stripe.

The Sagebrush Sparrow popped up first, perching on a distant plant, then eventually moved in close enough to photograph. These two photos are of the same individual – in the top photo, notice the weak malar stripe that appears the same shade of gray as the head and the overall paleness of the bird.

Sagebrush Sparrow

In this image the bird has turned its head, and you can see the thin, dark streaks on the back:

Sagebrush Sparrow

We had at least three Bell’s Sparrows, two Sagebrush Sparrows, and one Justin described as “intermediate”. I was able to get good scope views of both species, and was thrilled to see their throats warbling as they sang in response to the playback. One even flew into the shrub right beside us, though I had to walk back to the road to photograph it! Justin was sure that this one was a Bell’s Sparrow, but the malar stripe, while darker than the head, does not seem particularly thick. Other subspecies of the Bell’s Sparrow have very thick malar stripes that are quite striking; however, the subspecies found in Las Vegas in the winter is much closer to the Sagebrush Sparrow in appearance, making identification tricky. I wasn’t able to get a photo of the back so I wasn’t able to determine the extent of any back streaking.

Probable Bell’s Sparrow

I was thrilled to get both species, though it is definitely a challenge to identify them on my own. We also saw a male Northern Harrier (the “gray ghost”) skimming over the vegetation, a couple of ravens flying overhead (crows are very rare in Las Vegas), and a surprise Loggerhead Shrike hunting from a line of fence posts. We watched through the scope as it dropped down onto the ground, then flew back up onto another post.

Loggerhead Shrike

Justin also tried to call in a LeConte’s Thrasher but had no luck. We left for the Corn Creek Field Station after about half an hour, and Justin explained how this green oasis is a migrant trap for birds crossing hundreds of miles of dry, featureless desert. It also attracts its fair share of vagrants, making it the best birding spot in the area. It features a number of trails, a concrete fish pond (the concrete is to prevent crayfish from entering the pond and eating the fish eggs), a small creek, and a great number of large trees and shrubs that must have been swarming with songbirds in migration. Justin pointed out a Cooper’s Hawk nest in one of the trees, and although some photographers told us the hawk was around, we didn’t see it.

Desert NWR–Corn Creek (Field Station)

Desert NWR–Corn Creek (Field Station)

We walked along the trails and heard a Northern Mockingbird, a couple of Verdin and American Robins. One of the birds I wanted better photos of was the Phainopepla, and a male obliged nicely by posing in the sun. Justin was able to call it in, and I was able to see its brilliant red eye.

Phainopepla (male)

A female was perching nearby, and we saw a second pair a little further along. I was happy to get such great views and see both the male and female together – on our previous trip both of the ones I had seen were distant, through a tangle of branches.

Phainopepla (female)

We spent some time at the feeders, although at first no birds were present – possibly because of the Cooper’s Hawk that had been there earlier. Then a junco popped up, then another, and then suddenly the feeders were full of activity as a flock of House Finches flew in and a flock of White-crowned Sparrows popped up out of the shrubs. Justin heard the calls of the Lesser Goldfinch and told me to check the shrubs; it didn’t take long to see the bright yellow belly and dark head of a male sitting out in the open. It flew to the niger seed feeder, while at least three others perched in the shrubs. The feeders were in front of the sun, and in a restricted are behind a fence, so I wasn’t able to get the best photos; still, I was happy with the ones I did get!

Lesser Goldfinch

Lesser Goldfinch

Justin also pointed out a Say’s Phoebe hunting along the fence. This was another species I wanted better photos of, and Justin told me they were quite approachable, so I cautiously began walking toward it. I got a few photos before it flew down into the grass, but it returned to the same fence post and I was able to edge a bit closer.

Say’s Phoebe

After about an hour at the Field Station we continued our trek into the Spring Mountains, climbing up to an elevation of 7,000 feet to a small community of summer homes all set close together on a steep, narrow road. We checked the feeders hanging in people’s yards, and Justin pointed out a Gray-headed Junco, a pretty subspecies that is mostly gray with a pale bill and a chestnut-coloured patch on its back. We had already seen one Oregon and three Slate-coloured Juncos at Corn Creek, so this was our third junco subspecies of the day!

Snow at 7,000 feet on Mount Charleston

Justin rolled the windows down and parked the truck along the the shoulder where two roads met when he heard the distinctive calls of a Steller’s Jay. When we got out we were astonished by all the bird activity. The first bird I saw was a Clark’s Nutcracker, a bird I wasn’t expecting and had seen on our trip to Jasper. I heard their raspy corvid calls and watched as they flew into the tall pines and landed on the roof of a house.

Clark’s Nutcracker

Further down the road, a large flock of Evening Grosbeaks were foraging on a dirty snowbank – they reminded me my trips to Algonquin Park.

Evening Grosbeak

Evening Grosbeak

Then Justin pointed out a stunning Steller’s Jay in a pine tree.

This bird is number one of my most-wanted birds in Canada – unfortunately I would have to travel to the Rocky Mountains to find it, and flights to Edmonton or BC are ridiculously expensive. I was happy when they showed up on my target species list, even though they were such a low number (no. 24, reported on 0.48% of all checklists) that I didn’t think it was possible to get them. However Justin said this was likely because few birders visit Mount Charleston in the winter; they are non-migratory, so chances were good that they would be there.

Steller’s Jay

There were at least four or five Steller’s Jays present, but they kept flying from tree to tree, often landing in the shadows instead of the light where the sun brought out the deep royal blue of their feathers. They were just as stunning as I had thought they would be, though it was difficult to concentrate on them with all the other activity around – the Clark’s Nutcrackers and Evening Grosbeaks were also flitting between trees, Dark-eyed Juncos were flying from the trees to the ground, a tapping sound turned out to be a White-breasted Nuthatch rather than a woodpecker, and we caught sight of both a Downy Woodpecker and a Red-shafted Northern Flicker flying by. I didn’t know where to focus my camera, and ended up with fewer photos than I wanted as the birds eventually moved up the steep slope at the end of the road.

At one point the jays, nutcrackers and Evening Grosbeaks had all seemingly vanished. We turned our attention to the smaller birds in the area, and I recognized the call of a Red-breasted Nuthatch, while Justin pointed out the soft calls of a Pygmy Nuthatch – a bird I had known we could find here, though I wasn’t expecting to find them so easily. Playback and pishing brought them right down to eye level in the trees along the road, and we had a great time photographing them. At first they were just as hyperactive as the two northern species I am used to, trundling along branches and moving quickly from sunlight to shadow, but eventually one stopped out in the open and spent some time calmly looking around.

Pygmy Nuthatch

Pygmy Nuthatch

Pygmy Nuthatches are smaller than Red-breasted Nuthatches and inhabit pine and fir forests from southern BC to central Mexico. They don’t migrate, and feed on tiny caterpillars, spiders, and other insects found hidden in the flakes of bark, as well as conifer seeds. At number 17 on my list of target species, it was reported on 0.82% of all complete checklists, and I was glad to have seen them as they are just as adorable as the Red-breasted Nuthatches back home.

We also heard the slow, buzzy “chicka-dee-dee-dee” of a couple of Mountain Chickadees, sounding quite similar to the calls of the Boreal Chickadee. However, the normal range of the aptly-named Boreal Chickadee barely extends into the northern U.S., while the range of the Mountain Chickadee extends from the southern Yukon down into western Texas. This is another high-elevation species I was hoping to see, and like the curious Pygmy Nuthatches, they were drawn in by Justin’s pishing. I was thrilled to get some better photos of these birds as I didn’t get any good ones during our trip to Jasper in 2012. This bird didn’t show up on my list of target species because I had only generated a list of birds I hadn’t yet seen in either Canada or the U.S.

Mountain Chickadee

Mountain Chickadee

At some point we realized that the Steller’s Jays and nutcrackers were calling again from the trees near the bottom of the slope, so I tried again to find one to photograph. I had no better luck with the two corvids, but a small mammal scurrying from a feeder to the opening beneath a front porch caught my attention, and when we later drove by the same house we found a Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel sitting out in the open. This is another species I haven’t seen since Jasper; they live in the mountains (including the top of Whistler’s Mountain where we saw one looking for handouts near the top of the tram), and usually hibernate in the winter.

Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel

I was surprised that this one was active in the mountains in early February; however, it appears as though snow cover and elevation both play a role in determining when these squirrels hibernate, which can begin as early as late August or as late as November, and lasts until late March or May. Unlike groundhogs, Golden-mantled Ground Squirrels are not true hibernators that sleep the whole winter away – like chipmunks, they wake up periodically throughout the winter, occasionally emerging from their underground burrows to check out conditions at the surface.

We saw a second small rodent run up the slope nearby. I didn’t get a good look at it, but Justin said it was likely a Least Chipmunk.

While we were getting ready to leave we saw a pair of Lewis’s Woodpeckers fly over; their dark pink bellies were unmistakable. After getting in the truck Justin said he was going to pull around the corner to see if he could spot them. We found one clinging to a tree right across the road, out in the open about halfway up looking just like a Black-backed Woodpecker from that angle. Then it flew up to the lowest branch where I took one backlit photo before we continued on our way.

Lewis’s Woodpecker

We made two more stops on Mount Charleston: one in the small town to look for the Band-tailed Pigeons, a native species found more often in trees than on the ground like our familiar city pigeons; then another to use the restroom. We didn’t find the pigeon, which was number 30 on my list, but Justin heard a Red Crossbill flying over at our second stop. I missed it, and it was gone by the time I got back to the truck.

I was super-thrilled with our time on the mountain as we returned to the desert floor to head over to the next stop on our itinerary. We passed a few cliffs where Red-tailed Hawks like to nest; we had even seen a pair flying over the escarpment together on our way up, until one landed on a nest right against the cliff face. I wasn’t able to get any photos then, but I did spot a hawk perching on top of a cactus almost right next to the road on our drive back to the city. Justin pulled the car over, and I took a couple of photos before it flew off.

Red-tailed Hawk

So far the day was shaping up to be an excellent one, with five life birds already, two fantastic birding stops, and a wonderful mix of both desert and mountain birds. I couldn’t wait to check out our next stop!

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