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December 15, 2017

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Your guide to Southern Nevada bird watching

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Red-tailed hawk

The threatened sage grouse might make the most headlines, but it’s far from the only bird making its home in Southern Nevada. For those wanting to see for themselves, birding as a hobby rewards patience and curiosity.

“Get out there and don’t be afraid of being new,” says Angel Poe, a teacher and member of the local Red Rock Audubon Society chapter. “Don’t wait — join a group, get active and you’ll learn really quickly.”

What might you see?

• Say’s Phoebe (Sayornis saya): A year-round resident of Southern Nevada, this bird feeds almost entirely on insects. You’re likely to spot it in open terrain while it’s eating: It will perch on a rock or in a low bush and dart out to capture bugs mid-flight. Sometimes it will also hover low over the grass while on the lookout for a meal. You can recognize it by its peach-colored belly.

• Red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis): The most widespread hawk in North America is identifiable by its vibrantly colored tail. It will perch in high places when it’s not flying and can be spotted soaring high in desert areas, though more hawks are adapting to urban areas as well. Television productions often substitute this hawk’s piercing call for a bald eagle’s.

• Eared grebe (Podiceps nigricollis): This migratory water bird is named for the tufts on the sides of its face. It can be found at the Henderson Bird Viewing Preserve and at Wetlands Park. Eared grebes have been known to mistake a black asphalt parking lot for a body of water. Because they can only take off in water, they’ll become stranded. The Red Rock Audubon Society has rescued several birds and brought them to local ponds.

• Pygmy nuthatch (Sitta pygmaea): This bird is found in western pine forests such as on Mount Charleston. Keep an eye to the tops of tall trees, where they like to hang out in groups. They eat insects and collect seeds from the trees on which they perch. Nuthatches will roost together at night and even help bring food for the hatchlings of other paired birds.

• Burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia): This owl can be seen in the daytime standing guard on its long legs outside its burrow in the ground. The way they cock and nod their heads in greeting led cowboys to call them “howdy birds.” Urban sprawl and human intervention have shrunk available habitats for owls, and they’re now considered endangered. They can be spotted outside Gilcrease Orchard in North Las Vegas.

Get started on a guided walk

The Red Rock Audubon Society holds Meetup events and monthly guided bird walks, which are a great introduction for beginning birders. No reservation is required, just show up and be sure to bring a pair of your own binoculars. The next walks will be held:

• 7:30 - 9 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 7 at Discovery Park in Pahrump

• 7:30 - 9 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 14 at Springs Preserve

More information and other events can found online at redrockaudubon.com

When to go

Sunrise and sunset are the best times. That’s when birds will be most active feeding, as well as when migrating species will be either taking off or landing. Birds avoid the hottest parts of the day and will stay quiet and hidden. The Red Rock Audubon Society’s Angel Poe calls it “birdie siesta time,” a term she borrowed from another birder.

What to bring

• Binoculars. More often than not, you’ll be viewing from afar. Make sure you can see!

• Sun protection. It can be easy to forget how long you’ll be in the sun. Cover up and apply sunscreen to any parts left exposed.

• A hat. Shading your eyes will both help protect them and better allow you to see birds, and a hat will get your binoculars to your eyes without sunglasses in the way.

• A guide. Whether you prefer to use a paper copy or an app on your phone, you’ll want to be able to identify the birds you’re spotting.

Popular guides

• Merlin Bird ID (free): Published by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, this app is great for beginners. It will ask you questions about a bird’s size, color and location to bring up possible matches.

• iBird (free-$19.99): With multiple price points, the free version offers an illustrated catalog of 50 common species. Also has an add-on journal app that you can use to keep track of what you’ve spotted where.

• Audubon Bird Guide: North America (free): This app includes the NatureShare community, which shows what types of birds have been seen around your location and where you can post your own sightings.

What to do

• Be as quiet and still as possible. Remember that you’re an observer. The quieter you are, the more likely you’ll be able to see birds going about their daily lives.

• Be courteous of other birders. If you see someone taking photos or looking at something that seems interesting, be as cautious as possible when approaching. If you scare off the bird they’ve spotted, you won’t get a glimpse either.

• Do no harm and leave no trace. Birders adhere to a philosophy similar to other outdoor enthusiasts: If you bring anything along, make sure your trash leaves with you as well.

Should I play bird calls in the wild?

Birding offers you an opportunity to exercise your ears just as much as your eyes, and experienced birders learn to identify birds by their call. Historically, people have used calls to attract birds to their location, says local Audubon Society member Dave Bradford. Having an app on your phone can make it even easier to check a call you just heard. Before you do, however, make sure you won’t be disturbing either other people or the animals themselves:

Don’t play calls during mating season. If you see birds actively flying around and singing the same cues, its likely they’re trying to attract a mate. You can tire a bird out as it tries to find what it thinks is another bird and prevent it from breeding. A tired bird is also more likely to be eaten by predators.

Don’t play calls around active bird nests. You can distract birds from taking care of their young.

Don’t confuse other birders. If you’re around other people or in a popular birding spot, it’s taboo. You might even see signs banning the playing of bird calls, Bradford said.

• If you’re out looking for a specific bird, do play its call while you’re alone or at home to learn it. Then you’ll be prepared to listen for it in the wild.

Where to go: Popular local birding spots

1. Desert National Wildlife Refuge + Corn Creek Springs Field Station: About 1 mile of easy walking on gravel.

2. Spring Mountain National Recreation Area (including Mount Charleston, Kyle Canyon and Lee Canyon): High elevation, 10-20 degrees cooler than the valley.

3. Henderson Bird Viewing Preserve: Nine ponds allow opportunities to see waterfowl not present in other parts of the valley. Three-fourths of a mile of easy walking. Has binoculars available on loan.

4. Sunset Park: Combo of walking paths and grassy areas.

5. Floyd Lamb Park at Tule Springs: Walking and dirt trails.

6. Red Rock Canyon: Variety of trails and hiking conditions.

7. Spring Mountain Ranch State Park: Lots of walking on dirt trails.

8. Springs Preserve: Easy walking and lots of other activities, including the Nevada State Museum.

9. Aliante Nature Discovery Park: The man-made lake offers opportunities to see waterfowl. Paved paths, picnic sites and other playgrounds and amenities.

10. Wetlands Park Nature Preserve: Has a bird-viewing blind for concealment. Concrete and gravel trails.

Further out:

11. Discovery Park Pahrump: Rehabilitated by the Red Rock Audubon Society to make it more inviting to both people and wildlife.

12. Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge: The largest remaining oasis in the Mojave Desert.

13. Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge: Dirt paths, easy walking.

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