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Henderson Viewing Preserve

April 22, 2010

When I cannot avoid a visit to Las Vegas, I find a bit of birding helps improve my attitude. One could, I suppose, attempt to bird The Strip, but the common residents, typically rock pigeons, house sparrows, and starlings, are usually vastly outnumbered by transients – peacocks, roosters, sitting ducks, and jail birds – and as these latter species are generally featherless, they shall receive no further mention in this note. Moreover, was one to wander The Strip with a pair of binoculars, however innocent and pure one’s intent might be, I suspect one would be less than warmly received.

The Henderson Bird Viewing Preserve is located a few miles southeast of the downtown area. It is not only sufficiently far from the madding crowd, it is excellent habitat, both for native Mojave Desert residents and for thirsty transients. The preserve, roughly one hundred acres in size, uses reclaimed and treated water to fill a series of large ponds and lagoons, lined with native trees, brush, and aquatic plants. I have come specifically to look for least bitterns, Ixobrychus exilis, a rare but breeding species on the preserve. Least bitterns were at one time thought to be uncommon breeders in the marshes along the shores of the Great Salt Lake, but their Utah status has declined in the last thirty-five years from uncommon to occasional to accidental, the last documented sighting occurring in 1999. With Utah finding itself exilis-less, those wishing to view the bird must travel elsewhere.

As I enter the preserve a greater roadrunner calls from the top of a tree, sounding rather more like a whining dog than a bird. I check with the preserve staff and take a short walk to Pond 9. The brush surrounding the ponds teems with verdin and other small shy birds that chip and call but remain unseen. Marsh wrens scold from the cat-tails. Hundred of ducks, coots, and common moorhen dapple the ponds. Shorebirds and waders lounge on small islands. I walk around one pond and then another, seat myself on a cement bench, shaded from the hot morning sun by a mesquite tree, and wait. After twenty minutes the first bittern appears, emerging from the cattails across the lagoon to cackle loudly and brazenly, long enough to find it and view it well before it returns to the safety of the green shadows. A short time later and twenty-five yards further north, a pair of bitterns chase each other over, under, around, and through a maze of foliage. The victor pauses on a bent brown reed and poises, as tense as lightning, waiting to strike at breakfast when it swims beneath the bird. Shortly thereafter the bird gods bless me with a fourth bittern, flying from one clump of vegetation to another, across the water. I can’t believe my good fortune. Perhaps I should drop my gear and run to the nearest casino. Instead, I shoulder my spotting scope and begin the walk to the next pond, wondering what luck will bring me.

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