Chasing the Vermilion Flycatcher

Cinnamon Teal

Thursday turned out to be just as sunny as the previous days, with the temperature rising even higher. I had checked eBird the night before to see if any interesting birds were being seen at the Henderson Bird Viewing Preserve or Red Rock Canyon, and when I saw that a Vermilion Flycatcher had been present at Henderson for the past month, I immediately knew this was Thursday’s destination. Males are bright red with black wings, a black back, and a black mask, and if I had chosen a most-wanted bird of the south this would be it. Unfortunately the photos showed that the bird was a female, which is much drabber and looks more like a Say’s Phoebe, but would still be a life bird. Doran and I headed out to the Henderson Preserve early in the morning, and this time we only drove two blocks past the entrance before figuring out we had missed it (my map application had improved since our last visit, but not by much).

There were no Northern Rough-winged Swallows or Gambel’s Quail outside the visitor center this time, and we proceeded straight to the front counter where I asked about the Vermilion Flycatcher. I was told that it was most often seen along the path between ponds 1 and 2. When I asked about the White-faced Ibis, a bird I had only seen in flight last time, the woman told me that it usually hung around pond 1 when it was present. She also told me that there were some Wood Ducks on pond 3, and that a Great Horned Owl had been hanging out in the trees near the boardwalk at pond 4, although a photographer had flushed it the day before when leaving the trail in order to get closer – they weren’t sure whether or not it had come back. I thanked her and we proceeded into the garden to see what was around.

The Henderson Bird Viewing Preserve is an amazing place, and if you only have time to visit one natural area in Las Vegas, this is the one I would recommend. There are so many birds and so much activity the moment you walk out into the preserve that it’s difficult to know where to look first. There were a couple of House Finches at the feeder, about 20 Mourning Doves on the ground, a few Red-winged Blackbirds in the trees, and a couple of hummingbirds chasing each other by the sugar water feeders. And, of course, there were ducks scattered all over the ponds – mallards and Northern Shovelers and American Coots and Pied-billed Grebes.

Northern Shoveler

We followed the path to the area where the Vermilion Flycatcher was most often seen, chatting with a couple of birders as we walked along – this was the only place on our trip where I found other birders. One of them was carrying a scope, and said she was going to set it up on the Great Horned Owl if it was present. They walked on ahead, while I stopped to check out the birds flycatching from the shrubs lining pond 1. Surprisingly, most turned out to be Yellow-rumped Warblers; they confused me at first because their call notes sound different from the ones in Ottawa. Whereas our Yellow-rumps give an easily recognized “chup” call, these calls were slightly higher in pitch, resembling the call notes of a lot of other species! This made it difficult to filter them out when listening for other species.

I also saw a small flycatcher actively hunting at the edge of the pond. It often flew out chasing insects, but seldom returned to the same branch. It was brownish above and pale below, so it wasn’t a Black Phoebe. It was either a Say’s Phoebe or the Vermilion Flycatcher, as both have an orange wash on the belly and underneath the tail. However, the female Vermilion Flycatcher has a whiter throat and breast, fine streaking on the breast, and a pale supercilium instead of a uniformly brown head. I spent some time trying to get close to it for a good look, then switched to my camera instead. Eventually I got one photo from directly below the bird which shows the streaks on the white breast and pale orange underparts, confirming its ID!

Vermilion Flycatcher (female)

Eventually she flew around the corner of the pond and down another path, so I told myself that I’d try to get a better picture when we returned that way from our walk. As it turned out I didn’t see the flycatcher on our next pass along the trail that runs between ponds 1 and 2, so this is my only clear shot of this dainty-looking flycatcher.

We passed by the outflow pipe where we had seen the Cinnamon Teals last time, but the water wasn’t running and the teals were absent. Many other waterfowl were present including Canada Geese, Ruddy Ducks, Mallards, Pied-billed Grebes, Common Gallinules, Green-winged Teals, and Bufflehead. I thought I saw an Eared Grebe but didn’t get a great look and wasn’t able to refind it.

We stopped by the observation tower where we had seen the Crissal Thrasher last time, but this time it did not come walking conveniently out of the shrubs to be added to my eBird list. I did hear a Marsh Wren singing and saw a few Ruby-crowned Kinglets and several White-crowned Sparrows as we made our way to the boardwalk at pond 4, where the birders had already set up their scope. They told us the owl was still there, and both Doran and I peered through the scope before I took a few distant photos. A screen of leafless branches obscured the view, and would make the owl less visible to less experienced birders.

Great Horned Owl

We walked to the platform at the end of the boardwalk, but this time a line of trees blocked our view of the pond – they had grown since our last visit. A small Song Sparrow was foraging along the edge of the water, just like last time, but this time there was no cooperative Lincoln’s Sparrow feeding out in the open.

Boardwalk at Pond 4

From there we walked along the trail between ponds 4 and 8 to the back of the preserve which looked out over the desert. We saw a Northern Harrier flying over the desert, a couple of White-crowned Sparrows on the ground beneath the chain-link fence, an Abert’s Towhee scrambling for cover beneath a shrub, and a Say’s Phoebe hunting along the fence-line. Doran thought he saw a Greater Roadrunner but it disappeared into a shrub and I wasn’t able to spot it.

Say’s Phoebe

I heard the calls of a group of Killdeer flying over and we eventually located them in the shallow water at the northwestern corner of pond 4, along with a Greater Yellowlegs and a small flock of Ring-billed Gulls. It looked like a great spot for shorebirds, and I wondered what it would be like in migration. The Killdeer and yellowlegs were too far to photograph, but I never tired of looking at and photographing the shovelers.

Northern Shovelers

I also took the opportunity to photograph a Pied-billed Grebe before it swam away.

Pied-billed Grebe

I heard some chip notes I didn’t recognize and was thrilled when I found a pair of Orange-crowned Warblers foraging in a leafy tree. They were both much more yellow than the ones we see in Ontario, but the dark line through the eye, slightly darker cap, and yellow supercilium helped me to identify them.

I also spotted another Abert’s Towhee foraging in the shadows beneath a shrub and more Yellow-rumped Warblers flitting about in the trees. Movement on the ground caught my attention, and when I moved so that I could see the bird I was surprised to see a Hermit Thrush before it disappeared into a thicket of shrubs – this was a bird I wasn’t expecting as I had only seen them in the desert at Red Rock Canyon last time.

We made our way around pond 3, where we did see the three Wood Ducks as advertised, and back to the trail that circled around pond 1, looking for the Vermilion Flycatcher again. I came upon a group of birders watching something down in the reeds, and was surprised when they pointed out a non-breeding White-faced Ibis hunting among the cattails! It didn’t stay in view for very long, and then eventually flew to the far shore and began picking its way along the water’s edge. Doran and I resumed our search for the Vermilion Flycatcher, but found a cooperative Black Phoebe instead.

Black Phoebe

This bird will always have a special place in my heart as the 500th species on my life list. It was just as active as the Vermilion Flycatcher, sallying out, then returning to a different spot each time.

Black Phoebe

We began heading toward the spot where the White-faced Ibis had landed. To my delight, the water was flowing out of the pipe in the corner now and Pied-billed Grebes, American Coots, a couple of shovelers, and five Cinnamon Teals were foraging for food in the churning water. The males are still one of the handsomest ducks I’ve seen, bright red with a heavy black bill.

Cinnamon Teal

The females more resemble female Blue-winged Teal, a species which is also possible here but not as common.

Cinnamon Teal (female)

After leaving the ducks we continued on our way back toward the Visitor Center. An odd bird in a tree a couple of feet above the water caught my attention; it was a Common Gallinule, and flew down to the pond a moment after I spotted it. Apparently it’s not unusual for them to roost in trees or even nest in them.

Then we passed a clump of cattails. I casually glanced down at the water and was stunned to see the White-faced Ibis standing RIGHT THERE next to the shore. It was probing in the water with its long, decurved bill, then would periodically turn around and probe the water in the clump of cattails. Its back feathers were a light, metallic hummingbird-green that reminded me of the Christmas decorations my mom hung up when we were kids. Its neck was mottled brown and white, and it lacked any white on the face, meaning it was still in non-breeding plumage.

White-faced Ibis

This is only the third one I’ve seen and the second one I’ve photographed; my first was an adult near Point Pelee back in 2010. This was definitely the closest I’ve ever been to one, and it wasn’t skittish at all. I watched it for a good ten minutes, delighted to have such a great opportunity to watch and photograph this bird.

White-faced Ibis

A Sora weaving in and out of another group of shaded cattails close by almost seemed unremarkable in comparison; I have a hard time finding these birds out in the open anywhere in Ottawa, but have now seen adults out in the open at the Henderson Bird Preserve both times I’ve visited!

Back at the Visitor Center at least three hummingbirds were chasing each other beneath the trees. One hovered right in front of me – a gorgeous male Costa’s Hummingbird with his lilac-coloured gorget shining in the sunshine. This was a bird I desperately wanted to photograph in the right light, but it flew off after its altercation with the other hummingbird, disappearing over the fence and landing in a shrub in the desert beyond. The other hummingbird flew to the feeder closest to the Visitor Center, and I finally got a photo of the Anna’s Hummingbird showing its red throat – more of a magenta colour in the shade. Interestingly, the gorget of the Anna’s Hummingbird extends over its head.

Anna’s Hummingbird

I was also captivated by the more than 25 Mourning Doves on the ground below the seed feeders. I scanned them carefully for White-winged or Eurasian Collared Doves but found none. At that point we had been there almost 2.5 hours and it was lunch time, so we decided to leave. I checked my eBird map and found we had only covered four of the nine ponds; I never did find the Eared Grebes, Snow Geese or Ross’s Geese reported on eBird, nor did we check the desert on the north and eastern sides of the preserve. As such, I ended up with “only” 39 species, a total that is difficult to obtain in a full day’s worth of birding this time of year in Ottawa, but is slightly below average from what other people have recorded at Henderson on eBird – other people found 47, 48 and 53 species the same day we were there! I could have easily spent the whole day here, even though it closes early – 2:00pm in the fall, spring and winter, and noon in the summer. This place is well worth every minute spent here, and if there is one place I would revisit if we had the time, this would definitely be it!

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