Birding Big Year 2016

May 5, 2016

Epic Birding Trip Part 3: Leaving Las Vegas

Filed under: Adventure, Birding, Parks, Travel, Wildlife — wfkeck @ 2:52 am

City of Henderson Bird Viewing Preserve

In a city that never sleeps, I did just fine.  With the dusty desert drive of yesterday washed from my skin and memory, I head down to the hotel lobby for the complimentary continental, and my first real cup of black joe in 48 hours.  Outside, the streets are strangely calm, but then again it is early Sunday morning, and many a partier has yet to reach a state of awareness let alone repentance.  I set the cell phone GPS to guide me from the Henderson Comfort Inn to the City of Henderson Bird Viewing Preserve, just three and a third miles away.  I travel like Moses through a parted Red Sea.  Within moments I am at the entrance sign as inviting as a flashing neon on the east bank of the Jordan: “Welcome (Birders) to the Promised Land.”

More appealing than the Bellagio, Paris Las Vegas, and the Luxor combined, is the 100 acres of sewage lagoons spread out before me.  After a quick sign-in (basically a release form) at the office, I proceed to the first pond and immediately list Common Gallinule.  Verdins make sharp kissing sounds from the trees around me. Check! Tree and Rough-winged Swallows dart to and fro.  A Gambel’s Quail nearly runs across my feet.  Cinnamon and Green-winged Teal paddle nonchalantly near the island that is being guarded by a dozen shovelers.  It’s a cornucopia of avian delights.  I can’t check them off the list fast enough. I mark one, and suddenly two more species pop into view!  The preserve boasts a checklist of 275 species.  I see 33 within the first hour, just a short walk from the visitor center.

Between pond #2 and #4 is oddly not pond #3, but a dry basin with a few small trees and brush. I work them thoroughly and tease out great photo images of Black-tailed Gnatcatcher and Black Phoebe. In the northwest corner of pond #6, a Green Heron stands perfectly motionless while a gallinule pokes at the submerged vegetation within a few feet of him.  The Green Heron is an uncommon, yet permanent resident of the preserve, according to the checklist, but the guides at the visitor center are surprised to learn that I have observed one.  “Did you get a photo of it?” they ask.  As a matter of fact, I did, and then call it up on the camera.  “Sure enough.”  Birders challenge birders all the time on ID, but a crisp clear photo usually settles the matter quickly.

The preserve has very knowledgeable guides, and I drill them for information about where to see this or that.  Tired from the walk, I find a shady picnic table just outside the center and chat with birders who come and go.  Some are newbies, excited at their first sighting of a mallard, others like me aim cameras at the feeders, hoping for a stellar shot of a Costa’s Hummingbird.  Some families walk passed with no interests in birds at all, but merely the walk itself.  The older guide, probably in his late 70’s shares his knowledge with a couple he has just led around the ponds.  I eavesdrop and glean all the inside information.

Suddenly the Costa’s arrives, bold and beautiful.  The young husband and wife next to me begin to pull the triggers on their cameras, as do I.  Stunning!  Vegas is full of contradictions and anomalies.  A city known for its decadence, depravity, gambling, prostitution, crime and all things shameful, is also filled with loving families, generous hotel clerks, SOS Christian radio, strange beauty (like birds on sewage lagoons), and soul-stirring architecture that rises from the red-rock desert to the deep blue door of heaven itself.  Packing up, I muse privately – This preserve is certainly one of the top three most enjoyable places I have birded in a decade.

By 11:30 a.m. the city has awakened and the arteries slowly clog.  I am making my way to McCarron International Airport to pick up Harry, long-time friend and colleague who is flying in from XNA (Northwest Arkansas).  He will join me for the eastbound leg of this epic birding adventure.  We were both interpretive naturalists at one of Arkansas’ finest – Devil’s Den State Park.  During my nearly five and a half years deep in Lee Creek Valley of the Boston Mountains Plateau, Harry and I took a number of cross country adventures together.  We backpacked the Maroon Bells, the Needles District of Canyonlands (as well as jeeping the Maze District), hiked the Chisos Mountains of Big Bend, and many others.  In recent years, age has physically reduced us to shorter hikes and longer auto tours, but the important thing is that we continue to explore the natural, historic, and geographic.  Harry is not a birder, but there are many other distractions for him along the drive.  I’ve brought a second pair of binoculars on the long shot that he might want to convert.  Hey, it’s Vegas; you never know.

We hone in on each other’s locations via cell phones.  “I am over here by door number 3.”  “OK, I am over by the luggage carousel.”  Within minutes we are exciting the relatively safe concrete parking structure and heading back into the fray.  Harry is disoriented, and I am winging it without a fully-functional co-pilot.  We have all the time in the world.  There’s no harm in simply taking the open road that seems most likely to extract us from the city.  However, after five minutes westbound on the Bruce Woodbury Beltway neither of us feel quite right about our choice.  Being men, self-proclaimed geographers, and pathfinders (Note: my middle name is Fremont), we are reluctant to consult maps or GPS phone apps. Fortunately, a Walmart appears near an off-ramp and we decide to stock up the food pantry, ….and sure, why not check the map while we’re parked.

Apparently, we were well on our way in the complete opposite direction. And yet divine guidance must be playing a part.  Not only do we resupply and get our wits together, but I also feel this gnawing in my gut to purchase a set of tires.  It turns out that buying tires on a Sunday afternoon in Walmart is a fairly easy process – no waiting, not even in Vegas.  30 minutes later with peace of mind, we are heading the opposite and correct direction on I-215, latching on for dear life to US Hwy 93 South to Kingman.  175 miles south of electric glow and completely exhausted, we roll into the BLM-managed desert campground of Burro Creek.  The last pink hue of dusk fades, and we soon find ourselves in the dark.  I am too wired from the drive to fall asleep, but have practically no energy to fix supper.  On the other hand I haven’t eaten a hot meal since last Thursday, and my new camp stove is begging for a trial run.  Stew for me and stars for Harry.  It’s a perfect night for gazing.  He sits in the camp chair, beer in hand mumbling philosophies and good-time memories while I burn my lips on over-cooked beef chunks and potatoes.  A few unfamiliar birds are calling, but they will just have to wait until tomorrow.  The International Space Station passes overhead; the galaxy displays; but sleep ultimately wins.

(Stay Tuned for Epic Birding Trip Part 4: Birding Burro Creek to Cave Creek)



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