Mojave Desert Adventure Part V
On January 13th we were scheduled to join a birding group at Las Vegas Springs Preserve, so we made our way in to the city in the early morning equipped with our 600mm zoom camera. Las Vegas Springs Preserve is a lush oasis in an wasteful opulent concrete jungle. The 180 acre preserve is owned an operated by the Las Vegas Valley Water District. Located just three miles west of the strip, this preserve is built around the original water source of Las Vegas. There are several miles of trail that meander through desert botanical gardens and wetland habitat.
On our three mile birding walk we spotted 26 different species including: Yellow-rumped Warner, Great-tailed Grackle, Abert’s Towhee, Song Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow, House Finch, Phainopepla, Hermit Thrush, Northern Mockingbird, Bewick’s Wren, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, Verdin, Common Raven, Woodhouse’s Scrub Jay, Say’s Phoebe, American Kestrel, Northern Flicker, Red-tailed Hawk, American Coot, Costa’s Hummingbird, Anna’s Hummingbird, Rock Pigeon, Gambel’s Quail, Ring-necked Duck, Mallard, and Canada Goose. After thoroughly exploring the preserve and identifying many unique birds, we made our way north to Rainbow Owl Preserve to locate Burrowing Owls. This was at the prompting of one of the Red Rock Audubon Society members.
Apryle and I had seen Burrowing Owls a few years prior nesting in irrigation ditches in the distinctly agricultural hub of Othello, Washington. The small ground dwelling owls were difficult to pick out from the surrounding landscape and created their homes in the most unlikely of locations. The Burrowing Owls of Las Vegas were no different, they made a home out of cinderblock and black irrigation tubing. This home selection was more out of necessity than preference. The Red Rock Audubon Society purchased land slated for development in North Las Vegas and created artificial burrows for the owls in prime Burrowing Owl habitat.
Burrowing Owls typically use burrows created by Desert Tortoise, Prairie Dogs, or Ground Squirrels, but since humans nearly eradicated many of these species and altered so much of the desert habitat that it is necessary to create artificial burrows. On a positive note, these owls are quite resilient and have no trouble nesting in human-made materials. They are resourceful animals, often lining their burrows with animal dung in order to attract insects to eat. Additionally, they are known to cache dead rodents when brooding chicks in order to ensure food supply.
Apryle and walked on the concrete sidewalks bordering a series of vacant lots where the inconspicuous owl preserve was located. Essentially, the preserve was made up of a several disjointed lots lined with chainlink fence. Inside each parcel of land there were 4 to 6 artificial owl burrows made up of cinderblocks, rocks, black tubing, and wood branches. It was the least aesthetically pleasing place we had visited yet, but the up close encounters with the Burrowing Owls still made this unexpected side trip a memorable one.
Following our morning birding, we pivoted back to hiking and petroglyph hunting. We made our way south through the heart of Las Vegas to Sloan Canyon. The route to Sloan Canyon National Conservation Area was a convoluted maze through sprawling suburbia. However, once we finally arrived at the trailhead it was the typical vast wilderness of the Mojave Desert that we expected. Sloan Canyon is a 48,438 acre conservation area that contains a portion of the McCullough Range that forms the southern border of Las Vegas and Henderson.
We took the petroglyphs trail, which started on an upland plain and eventually dove into a dry creek bed. From there the we took the cowboy trail split which gradually ascended into the craggy upland landscape. We scanned the rocky slopes everywhere for Desert Bighorn Sheep but the only ones to be found were etched into the ancient rocks in the canyon. Shortly before rejoining the the petroglyphs trail we saw a teddy bear cholla cactus with the most spikes we had ever seen on a plant. Once we started back northbound into the canyon we began to see the most amazing series of ancient art. We attempted to see all 1700 designs and I do believe we got very close to achieving this goal.
The petroglyphs are thought to be over 4000 years old and it is hard to imagine that they have survived for so many years without fading away. We spent hours marveling at the designs that continued to emerge around every corner. Eventually we returned to the trailhead as the sun was setting to the west.
After arriving back in Pahrump we decided to use up every last inch of daylight and find the Swan Geese and other waterfowl as they settled in for the evening on the Discovery Park pond. As we watched the beautiful birds gracefully gliding on the glassy surface of the water we reflected on an unforgettable trip to the Mojave Desert.