Rainy Christmas bird count keeps bluebirds in hiding but brings out ducks

Gray, overcast skies on the leading edge of four days of persistent rain showers made perfect weather for the annual Christmas Bird Count, if you happen to be a duck.

And there were plenty of ducks to be found at Tule Springs and the Corn Creek count area that included ponds at the Las Vegas Paiute Golf Club Resort.

Take, for example, 157 ring-necked ducks or the 130 American wigeon that were sighted along with numerous mallards, redheads, mergansers, ruddy ducks, canvasbacks, buffleheads and a few shovelers, scaup and teal.

One thing was certain during the Dec. 18 count by Red Rock Audubon Society observers: It wasn’t a bluebird day by any means.

Nary a bluebird was seen, not the mountain bluebird, which is Nevada’s state bird, nor its cousin, the Western bluebird, a musical blue-throated whistler whose chestnut-colored shoulders distinguish it from the sky-blue-colored mountain bluebird.

Unlike the 2000 count, when 34 mountain bluebirds were tallied at survey locations in Southern Nevada, there probably wasn’t enough cold weather and snow to drive them down to lower elevations in search of insects in open, pasture areas.

Weather does play a role in where and when certain bird species will be seen, said environmentalist John Hiatt. He led Red Rock Audubon’s Corn Creek count in and around the Desert National Wildlife Range, 30 miles north of Las Vegas.

"Overall the weather was overcast, windy and kept bird numbers down," Hiatt said. The count is a snapshot "of what you see when you’re there."

This year’s Corn Creek-Tule Springs count turned up 77 species for total of 4,264 birds.

Last year’s count had many of the same species, yet there were fewer species (58) and fewer birds, too, (1,185).

Absent from this year’s count was a pair of greater white-fronted geese, a Ross goose, a blue-winged teal, three common goldeneye, six cactus wrens, one spotted towhee, a dark-eyed slate-colored junco and 19 Western bluebirds.

But added to this year’s list were a double-crested cormorant, a black-crowned night-heron, a great egret, 109 Canada geese, a snow goose, a cinnamon teal, 19 canvasbacks, a pair of sharp-shinned hawks, 11 red-tailed hawks and 119 Gambel’s quail.

A killdeer, a ring-billed gull, seven burrowing owls, four Anna’s hummingbirds, two ladder-backed woodpeckers, a black phoebe, some kingbirds and an assortment of blackbirds, cowbirds, warblers, sparrows and nine American goldfinches were noted this year but not last year.

One bird that always seems to show up at Corn Creek is a great horned owl. This year, he was well camouflaged, sitting in the fork of a Russian olive tree. Only when he blinked his eyes or slowly turned his head as observers walked by could he be distinguished from the bark of the tree’s trunk.

The Corn Creek count dates back to 1942, but counts weren’t conducted during a few years in the 1940s and 1950s, Hiatt said.

He and his wife, Hermi, have racked up more than three decades on the local Christmas Bird Count scene.

During the winter season, counts are conducted in 15-mile-diameter circles around Henderson, at Moapa Valley, 45 miles northeast of Las Vegas, and at Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, 80 miles northwest. For some of the locations, this marked the 42nd year for National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count in Southern Nevada.

John Hiatt has noticed an overall decline in raptor numbers that he attributed to 10 years of drought that reduced their prey, rodents.

"Usually there’d be a half dozen red-tailed hawks here, but now there’s none," he said, standing on a trail along the marshy, brushy fringe of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Corn Creek station.

At the Paiute golf course, Jack Ruckdeschel observed a loggerhead shrike perched in a Joshua tree and ready to pounce on a little feathered friend.

"They sit there and eat small birds," Ruckdeschel said. "He’s like a miniature hawk. He holds them down and gnaws at their bellies. They don’t like drumsticks."

Contact reporter Keith Rogers at krogers@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0308.

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