Birding Las Vegas, Part 2: Superb Owl Sunday

Burrowing Owl

On Sunday, February 2nd Doran and I went birding with Bird Las Vegas in order to see some new places and fill in some gaps in my life list after our first trip to Las Vegas in 2017. It was not only Groundhog Day, but Super Bowl Sunday, although any dedicated birder recognizes this day as Superb Owl Sunday instead. When I booked the day-long excursion with Justin Streit, I told him there were two species I really wanted to see: Steller’s Jay and Burrowing Owl. We had already found the Steller’s Jay; the owl was number 16 on my list of target birds, having been reported on 1.0% of all complete checklists in February. The low number bears little correlation to the actual likelihood of the owls being found, however; Justin told me most birders visit them in January to tick them for their year list.

After leaving Mount Charleston we returned to the lower elevation of the city. The Rainbow Owl Preserve near Gilcrease Orchard at the north end of the city is home to a small population of Burrowing Owls. Maintained by the Red Rock Audubon Society, this protected area mimics the natural habitat preferred by the owls, except for the man-made burrows installed by dedicated volunteers. The volunteers also remove trash and weeds, and plant native vegetation as needed.

Signage at the Rainbow Owl Preserve

While the owls normally use natural dens such as old ground squirrel or prairie dog dens, these ones are man-made, descending about 10 feet deep into the earth. Many burrow entrances were situated close to each other, mimicking the natural mammalian dens with multiple entrances close together. At this time of year the owls are just beginning to pair up for the breeding season, and often spend time outside the entrance of their chosen den. The first burrow we checked was empty, but the second had a pair of owls sitting just outside the entrance!

Justin told me that they were quite skittish, so we stayed in the truck while I took some photos. Burrowing Owls have proportionally longer legs than other owls, and the one in back was standing at full attention. The one in front was crouched down, and stared at us with a deer-caught-in-the-headlights look almost the entire time we were there – we waited for it to blink and eventually gave up, declaring the owl the winner of the staring contest.

Burrowing Owls

The same owl five minutes later:

Burrowing Owl

Burrowing Owls hunt during the day, and like other small owls, often cache extra food when prey is plentiful. They typically live close to prairie dog and ground squirrel colonies, not only using abandoned burrows originally dug by these rodents, but also feeding on them. They are also clever in placing animal dung at the entrance of their burrow to attract dung beetles and other insects that will serve as food – this is the only bird species I know that has takeout delivered! Because of their close association with these small mammals, the decline of the Burrowing Owl population has been tied to the decline of both ground squirrels and prairie dogs, as well as loss of habitat due to human activity.

Burrowing Owls

The preserve is protected by a chain link fence to eliminate threats such as mammalian predators (including domestic cats and dogs), vehicular collisions, and pesticides/rodenticides used by farmers to control grasshoppers and ground squirrels. I was able to photograph the owls right through the fence without any trouble. I asked Justin if they had any issues with baiting, and he said no, the locals are quite protective of the owls. Maybe this is because the city of Las Vegas recognizes their declining populations as a result of development (they are not yet considered endangered in the U.S. the way they are in Canada), but perhaps the fact that Burrowing Owls eat mainly insects such as grasshoppers and beetles has something to do with it as well; southern photographers don’t go around collecting beetles to toss in front of the owls.

I thought I had had my fill of photographing these tiny owls, but when we stopped again about 30 feet down the road to check out a Greater Roadrunner making its way across the preserve we looked back and saw the same hunched-over owl still staring at us over the top of a rock.

Burrowing Owls

Eventually it climbed up onto one of the rocks protecting the entrance, and Justin turned the truck around so we could take another look.

Burrowing Owl

These owls were so cute it was hard to tear myself away a second time, but I told Justin we should go someplace else, otherwise all he would hear from me was how adorable they are.

Burrowing Owl

We left again, and checked a couple of other burrows, finding one more owl pair much further back from the fence. We also saw a small squirrel which Justin called a Round-tailed Ground Squirrel. This drab-looking desert dweller was a lifer for me, and our fourth rodent species of the outing.

Round-tailed Ground Squirrel

Although the huge eyes made me think that this squirrel is nocturnal, the Round-tailed Ground Squirrel is most active in the morning and evenings in order to avoid the intense midday heat. These squirrels also inhabit burrows, either ones dug themselves or abandoned by other mammals, and spend the hottest part of the day either underground or in the shade of a plant. These ground squirrels hibernate from late September or early October to early January, although in some parts of its range it remains active all year round.

Round-tailed Ground Squirrel

We eventually left northern Las Vegas for a small green area east of Sunset Park to look for a Pacific Wren. These birds usually over-winter further west in California, but one has been hanging around the Pittman Wash since January. They look just like the Winter Wren of the east, and at one time the two were considered to be the same species. In 2010 the “Winter Wren” was split into the Pacific Wren of the West, the Winter Wren of the East, and the Eurasian Wren in Europe — the only wren species that occurs outside the Americas. I had my doubts about going to look for a bird that looked exactly like one I see fairly often back home (including one overwintering bird on New Year’s Day), but a lifer is a lifer so off we went.

Justin also told me that this park was also a good spot to see White-winged Doves, a bird I had seen in Mexico and Costa Rica but not in the US, and that Bushtit and Bewick’s Wren were also good possibilities here. We descended a steep slope into a vegetation-lined gully, hearing a few Verdin moving in the shrubs and seeing some pigeons flying overhead. Then we spotted a few doves on the ground – at first all we saw were Mourning Doves, counting nine of them altogether.

Mourning Dove

Then Justin found a pair of White-winged Doves strutting along, minding their own business as I tried to get a few photos. When one stood up on a small rock the light fell on it perfectly, illuminating its blood red eyes. This species was originally native to the south-western United States, Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean, however, its range has expanded east into Texas all the way to coastal Mississippi. It is believed that increased urbanization and backyard bird feeders is chiefly responsible for this expansion.

White-winged Dove

It was an easy tick, and we continued on our way down the trail to look for the Pacific Wren. Along the way we were thrilled when first a pair of American Kestrels flew over, followed by a Sharp-shinned Hawk. As we approached the water a white egret flew up out of the vegetation; I didn’t get a look at it as it flew west down the gully just below the line of shrubs. Justin led us to a small rise above the water and told us this was where he had had the Pacific Wren last time. He played its calls twice, leaving a long pause in between, but we heard only silence each time. In the east Winter Wrens are very reactive to pishing or playback; they often appear out of the densest tangle of branches to scold me with their responding chatter and “dit-dit” calls, bobbing up and down on their little legs as though to convey the full force of their irritation. I had assumed the Pacific Wren would be just as responsive, but perhaps it was out searching for food in another part of the gully.

Justin led us down another slope to an area where the trail crossed the stream of water via a cluster of emergent rocks. He played the calls again there, and after waiting several minutes with no response we gave up and continued down the trail on the other side of the creek.

Pittman Wash at the trail crossing

We saw a beautiful male Anna’s Hummingbird sitting out in the open, but the sun had disappeared behind a bank of clouds and refused to light up the bird’s fiery red throat – this was the best I could do.

Anna’s Hummingbird

We heard a couple more Verdin along the way and saw some Gambel’s Quail, but found little else of interest – the Bushtits and Bewick’s Wrens I was hoping to find were probably off hunting with the Pacific Wren.

From there Justin decided to stop at a couple of places along the Las Vegas Wash when I mentioned my adoration of shorebirds. The first place we checked along the Flamingo Arroyo Trail where it crosses E. Vegas Valley Drive was literally a concrete canal filled with dirty water and floating garbage. It would have been worth the stop if the dowitchers Justin mentioned had been present, but all we saw were a couple of Greater Yellowlegs, mallards, several American Coots, and a huge flock of blackbirds composed solely of starlings and Brewer’s Blackbirds. We were about to get in the truck when we spotted two hawks in the open corridor behind us: a female Northern Harrier which flew straight toward us and a Red-tailed Hawk perched on a hydro tower in the distance.

Our last stop was the Pabco area of the Las Vegas Wash, just east of the Henderson Bird Viewing Preserve. The truck jolted down an unmaintained road to get to the water, and along the way we saw a Peregrine Falcon, a Northern Harrier, and a Red-tailed Hawk – so far it was turning out to be a fabulous day for raptors even if the Cooper’s Hawk at Corn Creek proved to be a no-show.

The water at the end of the road flowed through a wide valley, down a series of steps, and into a deeper vegetation-lined valley. The ducks were plentiful – we saw lots of American Coots and Gadwall, about half as many Northern Pintails, a few Green-winged Teals, a Hooded Merganser, a Pied-billed Grebe, seven Lesser Scaup, and a couple of Canada Geese. In addition to the ducks we saw a Black-crowned Night-heron flying upstream, another Northern Harrier, another Red-tailed Hawk, another bird of prey perching on a post across the wash (probably an Osprey, but too far to tell in the waning light), a Great Blue Heron flying upstream, several Ring-billed Gulls flying downstream, two Snowy Egrets and two White-faced Ibises. It was an amazing spot, even with the low light and high winds that blew tumbleweeds across the ground and into the water (we saw at least three commit suicide by tumbling over the embankment and falling into the water – this was another first for both Doran and me). It was only 5:00, but we had to bring this amazing day to an end as the sun disappeared behind the mountains in the west and left us basking in the embers of the sunset.

Sunset over the mountains

The large bank of clouds that seemed intent on swallowing up the sky earlier had broken up, leaving us with the breathtaking kind of sunset the desert is so famous for.

Sunset over the mountains

It was a perfect way to end a perfect Superb Owl Sunday, and I was more than a little sad that it was over – I would definitely recommend Bird Las Vegas for anyone looking for a guide on a trip to Las Vegas, whether or not you already have a large life list and need to fill in some gaps as I did, or if you are looking for a nature-oriented experience away from the crowds and traffic of the Strip. Altogether we had 57 species, including six life birds (Bell’s Sparrow, Sagebrush Sparrow, Lesser Goldfinch, Steller’s Jay, Pygmy Nuthatch and Burrowing Owl), one ABA bird (White-winged Dove), and seven birds of prey (three Northern Harriers, one Loggerhead Shrike, one Sharp-shinned Hawk, two American Kestrels, one Peregrine Falcon, three Red-tailed Hawks, and four Burrowing Owls). If you asked me which was my favourite, it would have to be a tie between my two most-wanted species, the Steller’s Jay and the Burrowing Owl. However, I think the nod would have to go to the Burrowing Owl because I got much better views of it and much better photos. Still, the Pygmy Nuthatches were quite charming, and the Bell’s and Sagebrush Sparrows were very striking. I was thrilled to get much better views and photos of the Phainopeplas, and happy to see the Mountain Chickadees and Clark’s Nutcrackers again. And a lifer owl on Superb Owl Sunday – what a better way to spend the day?

2 thoughts on “Birding Las Vegas, Part 2: Superb Owl Sunday

  1. What a thrill to see this owl species, eh?

    Most shocking to me was the lack of bird photographers. A great peaceful lifer moment it was. I always love and cherish those.

    • Yes, it was nice not to have to join a crowd to see the birds in Vegas. The only place I saw any birdwatchers or photographers was the Henderson Bird Preserve, and they were all friendly and respectful from what I could see.

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