Red Rock Canyon

Variegated Meadowhawk

On our last full day in Las Vegas Doran and I went to the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area to spend some time in the desert. We returned to the Pine Creek Canyon trail, the place where our last trip to Las Vegas began. We got a late start, and were dismayed to see two long lines of vehicles waiting to enter the park. In addition, the price had risen to $15 per vehicle – on our last trip in December 2017 it had only been $7. As long as the money goes toward preserving the area or public education (the Visitor Center has some wonderful exhibits) I’m happy to pay an entrance fee, but the increase was a bit of shock.

We started our visit at the Visitor’s Center. As it was quite crowded we stayed away from the center itself, and walked around the parking lot looking for Cactus Wrens. This was my favourite bird from my last visit here, and I was disappointed when none appeared. We did see a White-tailed Antelope Squirrel scurrying across the parking lot, and I was worried that it would be hit by a car.

Before we even left we saw a Eurasian Collared Dove on our hotel roof

The conservation area was just as beautiful as I remembered, and once we entered the one-way loop through the park the caravan of cars ahead of us was driving slow enough for me to take some photos of the Calico Hills – the most colourful hills of Red Rock Canyon – out the window.

About 180 million years ago, giant sand dunes covered a large portion of the southwestern U.S., extending from Red Rock Canyon to Colorado. The sand of this arid region was completely at the mercy of the winds, forming dunes more than a half mile deep in some locations. Over time the sand dunes were buried by other sediments and eventually turned into sandstone through a process known as lithification. The presence of iron oxide gives the rocks their bright red and orange colours.

The prominent cliffs of the Red Rock escarpment are made of this sandstone, which is known locally as Aztec Sandstone. The tan or buff-coloured rock is buff shows where the iron has been leached out by subsurface water over time, or perhaps where the iron oxide was never deposited.

Some of the tan areas of the Aztec Sandstone are decorated with round red spots known as Indian or Moqui Marbles. We didn’t get close enough to see them; these spots are formed by iron concretions (hard, solid masses formed by the local accumulation of matter) where subsurface water has precipitated iron oxide around a nucleus in the sandstone. These concretions are more resistant to erosion than the surrounding sandstone, and become visible as the softer sandstone weathers away.

The gray mountains in the background are formed from limestone. More than 500 million years ago, long before the formation of the sand dunes, Red Rock Canyon was deep beneath the ocean. Limestone from the shells of the various sea creatures accumulated at the bottom of this ocean for over 250 million years during the Paleozoic Era. During the Cretaceous Period (sometime between 145 and 66 million years ago), the oceanic Farallon Plate began subducting (moving underneath) the western edge of the continental North American Plate. The resulting motion created the Spring Mountains, thrusting the older limestone on top of the younger Aztec Sandstone. Today, the limestone that once formed the bottom of the ocean now form the Spring Mountains, and fossils of the sea creatures that once lived below the water’s surface can be seen in the rocks along the trails.

Fortunately, by the time we reached the Pine Creek Trail parking lot near the end of the loop we had lost much of the traffic at other trails. We made our way down the slope to the creek at the bottom of the trail, and I was happy to see that it full of water – in the desert, water means life, and I was hoping that the visit would be just as bird-filled as our previous one with the Red Rock Audubon Club.

Unfortunately, that turned out not to be the case. I heard a few birds calling, but didn’t recognize their calls; I spent some time tracking them down, to no avail. Then a couple of Western Bluebirds flew in and perched high up in one of the pines; they were high in the shadows and refused to sit still for more than a moment, making it impossible to get any photos. A White-crowned Sparrow foraging in a shrub was much lower, but still moved too quickly to photograph. A pair of Woodhouse’s Scrub Jays also showed up; I was really hoping to photograph these neat-looking corvids, but they flew deep into the shrubs instead of perching out in the open.

While the creek seemed fairly birdless at first, the longer we stayed, the more we saw. I heard the call of a Northern Flicker, and saw a Red-tailed Hawk fly over. About half an hour later we saw a pair of Red-tailed Hawks soaring overhead together, possibly flying together in a courtship display. Then I heard a bird singing fairly close by. It sounded like a Song Sparrow, following the same pattern with a couple of quick, snappy introductory notes, followed by a complex middle part, and ending with a trill; the song was high and thin rather than rich and robust, and when I spotted the singer I was surprised to find a wren instead.

Bewick’s Wren

It was fairly drab in colour, with a long tail and a distinct dark eye-line beneath a white supercilium. It didn’t look like any of the western wrens we had encountered on our previous trip – not the boldly striped and spotted Cactus Wren; not the rusty-red Canyon Wren; and not the paler, plain-faced Rock Wren. I wondered if it was the elusive Bewick’s Wren, still no. 1 on my list of target species, having been reported on 10.9% of all February checklists. I took out my iPhone to see what it sounded like; right in the description in the Sibley app it notes that the Bewick;s Wren songs recall the Song Sparrow “with high, clear notes and musical trills”. I was thrilled to finally come across this species, which should have been much easier to get considering it was reported more often than any other species! A second bird was singing close by, and the two sang a measured duet for a while before the one I was watching flew off.

Not long after that I got my second lifer of the day when I heard the rapid, high-pitched dee-dee-dee of something moving about the bushes at about eye level. These calls sounded just like the calls our Black-capped Chickadees sometimes intersperse with their chatter, and when I saw the small, plain brownish-gray birds with pale eyes I knew exactly what they were – Bushtits, tiny songbirds that forage actively in flock much like our chickadees do. While their habits, calls and appearance made me think they were closely related to the chickadee family, DNA studies show they are more closely related to gnatcatchers and swallows than they are to chickadees. They are the only representative of their family (the Long-tailed Tits) in the New World. The Bushtit was number 6 on my list of target birds, having been reported on 2.2% of all February checklists.

We turned to leave again, and I was again distracted when a few more birds flew by. One landed in a bare tree and began singing; it looked to me just like a Purple Finch, although the song was different from what I’m used to in Ontario. I grabbed a few pictures before it flew off, and was later able to confirm with Justin Streit that it was a Purple Finch rather than the more expected Cassin’s Finch. I was a bit disappointed as I never did get a photo of the Cassin’s Finches we saw here in 2017; but when I emailed my photo to Justin he advised that Purple Finches were rare in December, which was noted by eBird when I updated my checklist.

Purple Finch

After spending over half an hour in the creek area we finally turned to leave. On the way out Doran spotted a male Phainopepla sitting out in the open, although it was too far to photograph. A second bird was flying around the same area, but I wasn’t able to get a good look at it before it flew down into the vegetation.

Pine Creek Canyon Trail

The day was warming up nicely, and I had seen a couple of small butterflies (or maybe moths) fly past me near the creek. I hadn’t seen any dragonflies on the trip and wasn’t expecting any given the time of year, so I was surprised when one landed on a twig right beside the path, right in front of me. It was a species that I recognized from my previous trips to Alberta – a Variegated Meadowhawk! This species is often found in the desert far from water; I was happy to see it, as I only have pictures of them resting on the ground. Note the two-toned stigmas that are dark red in the middle and tan on the outer edges and the two white streaks that shade to yellow at the bottom – these marks help distinguish them from similar-looking meadowhawks.

Variegated Meadowhawk

We left the dragonfly to find what food it could, and continued on our way back to the parking lot. This was the steepest part of the climb, leading up out of the valley.

Pine Creek Canyon Trail

To my surprise I saw a couple of lizards basking on small rocks next to the trail. Both were female Common Side-blotched Lizards (Uta stansburiana), the same species I had seen at the Pittman Wash. A small, stocky lizard, it is one of the most common species of the west; it is also sexually dimorphic, with males and females differing in appearance. The back is mostly brown to gray-brown with light stripes, blotches, or spots; males have small light spots and turquoise-blue speckling that make them look like an entirely different species. Both have a dark spot on the side of the chest behind the front legs. I was disappointed not to see the male, but hoped that a return trip in some future April or May would enable us to see more reptiles and amphibians, as well as some of the breeding birds.

Common Side-blotched Lizard

This lizard is one of the first to appear in the spring, the last to hibernate in the late fall, and may be active on warm winter days when other lizards are still hibernating. Its small size allows it to absorb warmth quickly, enabling it to take advantage of warmer temperatures in the winter and feed on whatever insects, spiders, scorpions, and other prey might be about. These periods of activity help the lizard restore the fat reserves that it needs to survive the colder periods of the winter.

Common Side-blotched Lizard

It was great to get the last two lifers of the trip here even if the trail wasn’t teeming with birds – I was happy to find some bluebirds and some scrub jays, and see the meadowhawk and lizards.

Altogether I ended up with 90 species on our trip to Las Vegas, with 10 new life birds, bringing my life list up to 540. Although most people wouldn’t think of Las Vegas as great spot for birdwatching, it’s a fantastic place to escape where both the nightlife and desert wildlife are fascinating in their own right. It’s a great taste of the southwestern desert for Canadians used to the mixed forests, agricultural fields, and wetlands of our home and native land, and I highly recommend at least one visit there to thrill in its beauty and the wonderful wildlife there.


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