The Las Vegas strip is a dream location for some. However, if nature is your thing, this sterile, urban environment makes it real challenging to get your daily wildlife fix. Recently, I found myself in the middle of the strip and decided to pit my skills against that challenge. I had very limited time for exploring, (maybe a half hour in mornings & just over an hour of daylight on my first evening) so I took to the strip with low expectations to see what a crazed birder could see in this most unbirdy spot in the dead of winter. I realize of course that just off the strip you get into actual habitat, and the nearby patches of desert with mountains just beyond are full of spectacular specialists, but again there was just not enough time.
This was partially driven out of necessity as well as I’d accepted to take on the „Bird-a-day“ challenge (and had stupidly decided I would post a picture each day as well). I really didn’t want my run to end after only a couple weeks!
My first birds, came right outside the door, and as expected the most abundant „urban“ birds were easily found. I began much as expected with introduced, feral Rock Pigeons, ubiquitous Great-tailed Grackles, and some Brewer’s Blackbirds mixed in.
Other „old world“ introductions, House Sparrows (actually a weaver finch species) and European Starlings were also readily found in the limited brush along the margins of the parking areas or perched on the buildings… my species total had soared to 5.
With most of the easy and expected species out of the way, I’d have to work harder now and use intuition. I had a free hour or so in the evening of my first day so put it to good use. Standing on a raised bridge over the strip, I used a „birds-eye view“ and thought, „if I were a bird flying over this sea of concrete, where would I go?“
A block down, I could see what looked like an oasis. Although when I got there I realized it was a man-made „Mirage“. Still this largest patch of green still represented my best bet in the immediate area at possibly seeing something different, as it offered at least two of the three necessities for wildlife – cover & water (wasn’t sure about food though).
While undoubtedly purified, sterilized, and devoid of much biotic matter for feeding, the water in the Volcano pools at the mirage did offer habitat and attracted some water birds by offering them at least somewhere to land. More Grackles & Blackbirds bathed here, and Mallards of dubious origins (6 species) paddled about as well. Wild or not, seeing these free-flying birds, eased my anxiety as I scanned the pool. Almost point blank was my 7th species…
Mixing with these Mallards was a beautiful, tiny drake „American“ Green-winged Teal and a couple American Coot, likely drawn in by the numerous Mallards. The species total climbed to 8!
I went back to thinking like a bird, and felt that less habituated birds would likely flush away from the throngs of people, and racing taxis on the strip proper so retreated to the brush that was as remove from the hustle & bustle as possible. It was now wholly shaded by evening, as I made my way toward the most secluded areas I could find (a relative term here).
Along the edges of the parking garages and in the „dog walking“ areas, I got away from foot traffic, but birding by ear was still near impossible. To complete the feeling of a very unnatural experience, all of the landscaping here includes loud speakers which blares music all along the strip. At least at the Mirage, much of the music was by the Beatles which I enjoyed though!
I found a lone Mourning Dove wandering around on a patch of lawn in full shadow as flocks of noisy Grackles gathered overhead. I followed it snapping a few images and the grackles lifted off and flew down the strip. For a period I found myself in a comparatively, quiet moment between passing taxis & rumbling monorails, with the sounds of falling waters muted by an artificial mountain between us, and far enough away from the closest speaker that I could almost hear myself think. I took another image of the dove and heard a surprising sound, „chip…“, then again, „chip…“ I could not hear it well, but it was unmistakably a dry and resonant call of a yet unidentified American wood warbler. I turned my head back and forth cupping my hands behind my ears looking for the direction of the mostly obscured sound cocking my head to one side to aid in height as well. I walked back and forth and circled a small grove trying to triangulate the barely audible sound, coming finally to a tall spiky palm tree.
Even 20 feet below the source, I couldn’t quite hear the sound clearly. I pulled out my phone and scrolled through my warblers app listening for a match. It knew the call was not that of the most expected warbler here, the „Audubon’s“ Yellow-rumped Warbler, so was thinking what other species might occur here in winter. I played Orange-crowned… similar, dry and sharp in tone, but different. Then Wilson’s Warbler which was not even close. My mystery bird, had a staccato sharp call very unlike the husky-sounding Wilson’s note. My mystery bird continued calling and I could see it occasional movement behind the bases of the formidable fronds.
I’d made the decision to leave my binocs behind and was carrying only my camera, as there was only an hour of light and truly wasn’t expecting to find anything out of the ordinary. I tracked the bird as it moved from left to right, catching flashes of movement in the thick thorny mass above me. It finally reached the far right side and stuck its head out for just a moment. It was too far to identify with the unaided eye, but with practice, I’ve gotten quick with my V-lux camera, so I pulled it up and rattled off a full shutter burst of 12 frames in that instant. Only two of these showed the bird clearly, but I really only needed one. I was astounded at the image that I saw on my camera’s viewfinder…
Holy Crap, an adult MacGillivray’s Warbler!!!… I’d actually discovered a rarity in perhaps the least bird friendly spot in the USA!
MacGillivray’s are a notoriously, skulky species, and like other members of the Geothlypis genus (formerly Oporornis), tend to stay hidden in dense low brush, preferring to be on or near the ground. They are more often heard than seen, and they are certainly NOT a species you’d expect near the top of a tall palm tree on the Las Vegas strip, especially in winter!
MacGillivray’s breed in the slopes & mountains of the Western United States, between the Rocky Mountains and the California coast reaching as far north as the panhandle of Alaska in summer. However, in winter these birds are generally only found from southern Mexico through Central America. The map above is a screen grab of a data search I did on eBird. It shows all reported sightings from January & February 2016. Note the single purple blob in Las Vegas, NM as the northern most report with the next closest sighting nearly 900 miles (over 1400 km) further south between Sonora & Sinaloa, Mexico (most considerably further south yet). Additional searches on eBird showed that there have only been 8 other January reports from the US over the past decade: 3 from coastal California, 1 near Tucson, AZ, 1 from Brownsville, TX, 1 near Miami, FL, 1 from North Carolina, and the last near Washington D.C.
MacGillivray’s Warbler is a species I don’t see annually (they have restricted ranges and there is no guarantee of finding one even when you’re in the proper habitat at the right time of year), so I was understandably elated with this incredulous sighting. Just goes to show that birding TRULY is something you can do anywhere. Birds have wings and they will often make their way to the most improbable of locations as this little „Mac Warbler“ had. I made my way back to the hotel, as sunlight faded and the neon glow of the strip began to outshine the sun. I wore a smile on my face and had a bit more bounce in my step, as I had truly birded even though I hadn’t expected I could!
Other species captured with the Leica V-lux (typ 114) camera along the Las Vegas strip: