Birding in the ‘Entertainment Capital of the World’
So you’ve caught Celine Dion at Caesars Palace, oohed and aahed at the Bellagio’s “dancing fountains,” and hit your max at the slots. And while Las Vegas showgirls’ fancy plumage is impressive, nothing compares to the real thing. Fortunately, if you’re a birder in Las Vegas, you’re within driving distance of several Audubon Important Bird Areas (IBAs) that might provide that dose of nature you’re craving. Here are a few worth considering.
The middle marsh at the Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge.
Photo courtesy of Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge
Pahranagat Valley Complex
The site: This IBA includes two important parts of Pahranagat Valley: Pahranagat Valley National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) on the south end of the complex and Key Pittman Wildlife Management Area (WMA) at the north end (separated from privately owned parcels). The refuge, which stretches for 10 miles, is a desert oasis of marshes, grasslands, lakes, and natural springs. The WMA includes two lakes—Nesbitt Lake and Frenchy Lake. Pahranagat Valley is one of two stopovers between the Mojave Desert and the Great Basin where migrating birds can be sure to find water.
Notable birds: A variety of raptors (long-eared, burrowing, barn, and great horned owls, as well as golden and bald eagles), warblers (Wilson’s, yellow), shorebirds (egrets, great blue herons, ibis, sandhill cranes), waterfowl (American coots, mallards, redheads, northern pintails), and vermilion flycatchers.
When to go: Both spring and fall are good times to see a variety of birds (fall migration through the wildlife refuge has resulted in daily counts of as many as 20,000 birds). Winter is a good time to see raptors.
Getting there: From Las Vegas to the NWR: Going north on Interstate 15, take Highway 93 north. The refuge headquarters is on the west side of Highway 93, about 84 miles from Las Vegas, near milepost 32. Plan on an hour-and-a-half drive each way.
From Las Vegas to the WMA: Go north on Interstate 15 to Highway 93. Take 93 north to the intersection of routes 375 and 318. Follow Route 318 for approximately 1.2 miles to the wildlife management area. Key Pittman WMA is about a 20-minute drive from the national wildlife refuge.
Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge
The site: Ash Meadows is at the southern end of one of two routes (the other runs through Pahranagat Valley) that offer cover and permanent surface water for birds—particularly passerines—migrating to or through the western Great Basin. A stroll along the boardwalk adjacent to the refuge office will take you through mesquite forest, riparian stringer (vegetation), and blue springs.
Notable birds: More than 239 species of birds have been documented in the refuge. You might find prairie falcons, southwestern willow flycatchers (low numbers), vermilion flycatchers, crissal thrashers, verdins, phainopeplas, Lucy’s warblers, roadrunners, and various ducks.
When to go: If you’re going for volume and diversity, try visiting during the fall migration (mid-August through September) or during spring migration (usually April-May). However, if you’re into water birds, winter (December-February) is a good time to visit the marshes and reservoirs.
Getting there: If you’re coming from the south end of Las Vegas airport: Take Interstate 15 and head south; get off on the Blue Diamond Highway and head north toward Pahrump. Travel through Pahrump (about four miles). Right outside Pahrump, go west on Bellavista Road (marked by a sign). After about 20 miles, you’ll see a brown sign for the refuge. Travel about seven miles on the main road until you reach the office.
If you’re coming form the north end of Las Vegas airport: Take U.S. 95 going west. Turn south on State Route 373 and travel about 15 miles until you see a sign for the refuge. Plan on an hour-and-a-half drive each way.
The site: The Spring Mountains National Recreation Area makes up most of this area, providing a variety of habitats for birds that aren’t commonly found in other areas of the Mojave Desert. Indeed, you’ll see everything “from Joshua trees all the way out to bristlecone,” says Eric Smith, a biologist at the recreation area. There are plenty of trails for hiking.
Notable birds: Rufous hummingbirds (in July), ash-throated flycatchers, western tanagers, western bluebirds, western scrub jays, violet green swallows, Wilson’s warbler, Grace’s warbler (the only place in the state where the bird nests), peregrine falcons, American kestrels, and maybe even a flammulated owl.
When to go: April to July, after the snow melts.
Getting there: From Las Vegas, take U.S. 95 north to either Highway156 or 157 (156 goes to Lee Canyon, and 157 goes to Kyle Canyon; those highways are connected by Deer Creek Road/Highway 158); either will lead you to the recreation area. Allow about 30 minutes to get to Kyle Canyon and 45 to 50 minutes to get to Lee Canyon.
Wee Thump Joshua Tree
The site: This site consists of a large, dense forest of Joshua Trees, some more than 250 years old, which offer cavities for nesting and as winter refuges.
Notable birds: Bendire’s thrasher, gilded flicker
When to go: Late-February through late June, during breeding season
Getting there: Travel south from Las Vegas for about 58 miles to the town of Searchlight, then turn west (right) on State Road 164, which crosses through the middle of the IBA. The Joshua tree forest can be seen from the highway, and there are several pullouts and unpaved roads accessible from SR-164. The drive takes about an hour and a half from Las Vegas.
A great horned owl outside the visitor center at the Pahranagat refuge.
Photo courtesy of Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge
Overton Wildlife Management Area, in the Moapa Valley IBA
The site: This Mojave Desert site consists of rangeland and riparian habitat near the mouth of the Muddy River. Here, coyotes, foxes, kangaroo mice, and the occasional desert tortoise roam.
Notable birds: Phainopeplas, several species of hawks (marsh, red-tailed), the occasional bald or golden eagle, sandhill cranes, western tanagers, vermilion flycatchers, barn and horned owls, waterfowl (like swans).
When to go: Spring and early fall. This is when “the pretty birds [like songbirds] are moving,” says Keith Brose, wildlife management area supervisor.
Getting there: From Las Vegas, go north on Interstate 15 to Exit 93 (Highway 169); take 169 south about 13 miles through the townships of Logandale and Overton. About 1.5 miles out of Overton, you’ll see a sign for the wildlife management area. The drive takes about an hour and 15 minutes each way.
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