My bedside alarm went off right on time, but I ignored it for at least another 90 minutes. As I was about to discover, being open to the unexpected is a hallmark of living in Las Vegas. I had planned to leave the house around 5:30 and get to the City of Henderson Bird Viewing Preserve when it opened at 6 a.m. The Bird Viewing Preserve is located on the grounds of the Kurt R. Segler Water Reclamation Facility in northeast Henderson near Boulder Highway. Several years ago, local birding enthusiasts discovered that thousands of birds stopped by the settling ponds of the reclamation plant on their yearly migrations. Usually such ponds are off-limits to everyone but utility workers, but in a very unusual partnership, the City of Henderson and the Red Rock Audubon Society created an 80-acre preserve here 10 years ago and opened it to the bird-watching public.
I figured that walking around the settling ponds in summer could be brutally hot and uncomfortable if I didn’t get there early. Unfortunately, my extra snooze meant that I reached the front gate of the reclamation plant at nearly 9 a.m. But even with a menacing sun already higher in the sky than I’d planned, I decided to take a detour down Pabco Road, an inviting, newly-graded gravel road that seemed to head toward the Las Vegas Wash on the east side of the bird preserve.
Within minutes, I found myself driving along the southern edge of the Las Vegas Wash Wetlands Park. The riparian area that makes up the park is not very broad—probably less than a mile or two at its widest point—but the wash transports a staggering 150 million gallons of water per day, on average, from the Las Vegas Valley to Lake Mead. It’s a surprisingly moist environment to find in “the middle of the howling desert,” and one that has always intrigued me.
A couple of years ago, I visited the park headquarters, on the east side of Boulder Highway near the intersection of Tropicana Avenue and Broadbent Boulevard, but I had never explored this section of the wetlands before. An astonishing amount of rehabilitation work is currently underway here. Crews have planted hundreds of native plants along the wash, and many of the four-wheel-drive dirt tracks that used to zigzag through the area have been closed. Several acres adjacent to a new housing development along Russell Road are being irrigated “plantation-style” from a submersible pump in the wash. Some interpretive kiosks have been erected, too.
As I strolled along the riverbank, I was impressed by the diversity of wildlife in and around the wash. Never having been much of a birder myself, I don’t know exactly what I saw out there, but there were birds just about everywhere I looked, along with an enthralling variety of dragonflies. I gave the wasps a wide berth, but I couldn’t help noticing they were graceful in flight. I’d heard that beavers have returned to this area, so I kept an eye out. Alas, I didn’t see any toothy evidence of them.
As the humidity and heat kept rising, I headed back to the bird preserve. It was easy to find. Official-looking blue signs along Sunset Road directed me to turn north on Moser Drive. I pulled up to an intimidating closed metal gate at the entrance to the water reclamation facility. Fortunately, when I called up the bird preserve office from the entry kiosk, a very friendly person responded within seconds, opened the gate electronically, and invited me in.
The 13 settling ponds of the water treatment center constitute the third-largest body of water in southern Nevada (behind Lake Mead and Lake Las Vegas), and several thousand birds spend time here during their seasonal migrations. Nine of the ponds are open for public viewing and are accessible from paved paths. While visitors can’t drive out into the preserve, there are plenty of benches, and the setting is peaceful and relaxing.
Visitors must check in at the office, where they can also learn about some of the recent bird arrivals. Staffers maintain an impressively long list of birds and other animals that have been seen at the preserve. When I checked in, I received a checklist of species I might see, and there were nearly 500 different bird species on the list. This same list is used by birders in the nearby Wetlands Park.
After reminding me that falling into the ponds is not a good idea, the docent sent me back out into the sweltering heat to see what I could see. I don’t know whether I saw more than half a dozen different bird species, but I did get a nice glimpse of one animal I do recognize: a desert cottontail. I also got a nice look at a few more dragonflies, along with a stunning view of Frenchman Mountain and the multihued hills of Rainbow Gardens. Unlike the stream in the wash, which often has a bit of effluent odor, the settling ponds have no discernible smell and are quite pleasant to walk around.
All too soon, I had to retreat back to the air conditioned comfort of the bird preserve office, where I tried out the spotting telescopes. The park also provides free binoculars to visitors, and all the workers I met were knowledgeable and friendly. The park is open from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m., and tours and other educational programs are available; there is also a gift shop.
If you can stand a little heat, I recommend wandering around the ponds on a summer day, when no one else is there except someone as crazy as I am. But even during cooler seasons, it’s unlikely that you’ll see more than a handful of bird-watchers. More information about visiting the preserve can be found on the Bird Viewing Preserve’s Web site.