Zen and the art of birdwatching — a pastime, passion, and, for many, a lifelong obsession
KATHY KLEIN HAD an epic 11-hour drive ahead of her. She was meeting family in southern Idaho for the holidays in December. But her friend Nate Hutt was on the phone, trying to entice her into taking part in an early-morning Christmas bird count survey at Lake Mead National Recreation Area’s 33 Hole Overlook.
Six hours of birding before an 11-hour drive across the length of Nevada? Without missing a beat, Klein said yes. “I’m greedy,” she says. “I want it all.”
“The best part of that story,” Hutt recalls, “is our friend said to meet there at five in the morning, and when I arrived, Kathy had already been there for an hour. We birded until nine or 10 in the morning, and then she drove to Idaho.” Klein says she arrived at her destination around 11 that night.
Klein’s devotion to birdwatching may sound exceptional — even eccentric — but it’s typical among avid birders in Southern Nevada. To call it a mere hobby or pastime doesn’t capture their zeal for finding, observing, identifying, studying, and cataloging birds. For them, it’s a passion, a lifestyle — even a duty. (Right, chukars near Mount Charleston)
“Birding has really transformed how I view and live my life in Las Vegas,” says Klein, 63, a volunteer docent at Spring Mountain Ranch State Park. “Prior to birding, I had a more urban lifestyle, and my time in outdoor settings was minimal. I viewed winter as an inconvenience and couldn’t wait for warmer weather. But now, having just located an old ski coat in storage, I can’t wait for next winter.”
In the preface to his popular 2021 book, Birdpedia: A Brief Compendium of Avian Lore, naturalist Christopher Leahy hints at the quiet mania that drives birders: “If people now spend billions of dollars annually on optical equipment, identification guides, bird-feeding paraphernalia … it might be worth looking into a little book to find out why so many otherwise sane people are staring into the trees or scanning smelly mudflats these days.”
I myself am one of those (allegedly) sane people. In high school, my sister and I were taken underwing, so to speak, by a teacher who was a wildlife biologist and would become a family friend. I took part in raptor rehabilitation, helping birds of several species — golden eagle, turkey vulture, long-eared owl — return to the wild. Later, in college in Humboldt County on the far north coast of California, I would arise early on weekends (while friends slept in or nursed hangovers) and brave the disagreeable gray weather in search of turnstones, oystercatchers, and — if I was lucky — shearwaters or storm-petrels, pelagic birds that are sometimes blown closer to shore.
Life happened in the meantime, and my interest in birdwatching waned — until early 2019. A little more than three years ago, I made my first trip to Corn Creek Field Station, the visitors center and western entrance to the Desert National Wildlife Refuge that also happens to be one of the best birding locations in Clark County. I returned the following week. And then the next day. I was becoming an official birdwatcher. I could no longer remember why I hadn’t kept up with birding over the previous three decades. I was hooked — for good. (Left, an osprey clutches its prey after a dive at Floyd Lamb Park in Las Vegas.)
I re-familiarized myself with David Allen Sibley’s Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, upgraded my camera gear, went down internet rabbit holes on topics like separating Cooper’s hawks and sharp-shinned hawks in the field (it’s much trickier than many people think) and spent up to four hours most days wandering the county in search of Grace’s warblers or black-legged kittiwakes. And, of course, I faithfully logged my findings into the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s online database, eBird.org. (More on that later.)
What draws us to birdwatching? Why all this time, effort, and expense? The reasons are as varied as the people who take part: the thrill of finding rare species; the satisfaction of keeping lists; the peaceful communing with nature; the challenge of becoming a better identifier.
“Part of the fun and frustration of birding is the element of the unexpected,” Klein says. “Sometimes you head out with expectations of what you will see, and sometimes the expectations are met. But sometimes there is disappointment. There is a birding ‘high’ when a species you haven’t seen before, or one that’s particularly beautiful, suddenly appears.”
There’s also the peace and tranquility of nature — and, for some, the evocation of old memories.
“Birding fills a couple of spaces in my life,” says Hutt, a military veteran now studying avian conservation. “It makes me feel reconnected with my dad. It’s probably the most peaceful activity I’ve found, and helps a lot with managing my anxiety and some of the mental health issues I’ve dealt with over the past few years. It’s challenging intellectually, but also gets me outside, both of which I love. And strangely, it’s helped me connect with people. Birding has become an epicenter of my social circle, too.”
Indeed, for Hutt and Klein, birdwatching is equal parts social network and bucolic solitude. “It’s like our version of everybody meeting at the bar for drinks,” Hutt says.
And as in a bar, odd pairings abound in the world of birding. For instance, you wouldn’t peg Hutt and Klein as likely friends. Hutt is 36 and has the physique of a professional bodybuilder. Each of his many tattoos has a story. Klein, on the other hand, resembles the aunt who took you on outdoor adventures when you were young. But they both became serious birdwatching enthusiasts during the global COVID-19 pandemic, approached their newfound pursuit with boundless energy, and formed a friendship.
Hutt has a life story that could have been dreamed up by a Hollywood scriptwriter. He was a high school dropout, and then briefly homeless, before he went to a Marines recruitment office and signed up. (“If someone has to die, might as well be me,” Hutt recalls thinking.) It turned out he had facility with guns and mission planning. He did two tours of duty as a sniper in Iraq and one in Libya.
Upon returning to the states, he went to college and earned a Ph.D in physical therapy. But he wasn’t done. This past winter, Hutt enrolled at Oregon State University with his eye on another bachelor’s degree (“I like writing large checks to institutions of higher learning,” he jokes), this one in natural resources and avian conservation. He is currently working as a biological field technician, studying raptor nesting habits, fatality monitoring for birds and bats, and conducting vegetation surveys. Marine sniper to wildlife biologist sounds like a strange journey, but it’s not as strange as you think.
“Every part of being a sniper in the Marines has a direct correlation to birding,” Hutt says. “In my new job, I plan routes through inaccessible areas, and the data collection has to be meticulous. It’s almost identical to what I did in the Marines,” he says, “except the guns.”
Klein is a longtime community volunteer who also enjoys the outdoors. Like Hutt, who developed an interest in wildlife as a kid traipsing Connecticut’s Blue-Blazed Trail system with his dad, Klein’s birding roots go back decades. She started in the 1980s in western Washington, but then lapsed. “I just got preoccupied with other things,” she says. “And with the weather in the Northwest, you have to be hearty. It’s not nearly as much fun as it is here.” Those other things she became preoccupied with included working with an Episcopalian junior ministry in Olympia, taking young people camping and backpacking. She imparted to her charges things she had learned from her mother about the natural world. “I grew up singing around campfires,” Klein says. Birding, she says, became a gateway to tranquil solitude.
As for me, an interest in wildlife photography is what lured me outdoors. But eBird is what kept me there. Managed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, eBird is a bird data collection portal that also serves as something of a birdwatcher social media site. If you hear two birders meeting for the first time saying, “Oh, I know who you are” or “I know your name,” that’s largely thanks to Cornell’s massive data-gathering project, where pretty much anyone can create a profile and log a sighting.
The endeavor only stokes the passion of birdwatchers by introducing a participatory element of citizen science; and the statistics that eBird yields lend fascinating insights into history and ecology, as well as help guide avian conservation efforts. According to eBird, there have been 429 species of bird recorded in Clark County. The first local record in eBird’s database is of a snowy owl shot by a trapper in late 1929, according to Nevada historical records. The latest first sighting is of a Nelson’s sparrow, photographed October 5 at 33 Hole Overlook. (Right, a mountain bluebird perches on a twig at Floyd Lamb Park.)
The county’s total number of sightings is equal to that of the entirety of Minnesota and Iowa — and more than in 13 other states. In other words, Clark County is bird country. (Not to brag, but a look at my personal eBird page shows I’ve recorded 276 species in Clark County.) With desert habitats ranging from 800 to 4,000 feet above sea level, from the high peaks and pine forests of the Spring Mountains to Lake Mead, the county has an impressive variety of ecosystems. Little wonder there are 193 eBird “hotspots” — Cornell’s designation for prime birding locations — in Clark County.
Several of them are dotted along the Las Vegas Wash, prime hunting ground for Southern Nevada birdwatchers. Creating a strong wetlands environment helps county residents of both the human and feathered varieties, says Zane Marshall, director of water resources for the Southern Nevada Water Authority and an avid birdwatcher himself. “The effort to re-establish the wetlands along the wash is important, because that emergent vegetation plays a role in improving the quality of the water before it gets to Lake Mead, which is our main source of drinking water,” he says. Better flora means better water, but it also means better birding. As of April, 270 species had been recorded at Clark County Wetlands Park. That’s thanks in part to the fact that more than 500 acres of native vegetation have been restored along the wash, according to Marshall. Birders are clearly flocking there, too: They’ve collectively filed more than 5,000 eBird checklists from the area.
And who are these birdwatchers, anyway — these people wielding their binoculars and cameras, scanning ponds and peering into dense vegetation? It’s true that many birdwatchers are retirees or wildlife biologists. But they’re also professors and high school students; information technology professionals and taxi drivers; graphic designers and magazine editors, even. And, yes, they’re overwhelmingly white — an issue the birding community is aware of. What can be done to promote inclusivity? Doug Chang, past president of the Red Rock Audubon Society and enthusiastic birder, believes one of the answers is kindness. Fortunately, birders are some of the most welcoming and warm people you’ll ever meet.
Chang, whose family is originally from China, first got involved in birdwatching while living in Cincinnati. He was invited on a birding excursion to Lake Erie. “They just asked me if I wanted to go,” Chang recalls. “I said, ‘Sure,’ and we went up there. I just got intrigued by how birders took care of each other.” Chang retired from Procter & Gamble in 2012 and moved with his family to Las Vegas. From 2014 to 2020, he was president of Red Rock Audubon, an organization dedicated to the conservation of wildlife habitats, specifically for birds, in Southern Nevada.
“What matters to me,” he says, “is to see, to experience or, more importantly, to help someone else experience nature five minutes from now, a year from now.” And one way to do just that requires only a pair of binoculars, a decent pair of shoes — and a little bit of quiet patience.
Where to Watch
You need only a few items to start birdwatching: a decent pair of binoculars; a small notebook or cell phone to record sightings (eBird has a mobile app); and, especially if you’re new to birding, a copy of Sibley Birds West. Got all that? Then you’re ready to hit the trails. Here are five spots that provide a good introduction to Clark County birding, along with eBird hotspot rank, and number of species recorded. (Right, birding hotspot Calico Basin sits just inside Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area.)
1. Henderson Bird Viewing Preserve (eBird rank: 1, with 310 species)
350 E. Galleria Drive, about a mile east of Cowabunga Bay water park
Like ducks? This is your place. Northern shovelers and ruddy ducks by the hundreds, cinnamon and green-winged teals and American wigeons are all easy to find on the nine ponds at this complex.
2. Corn Creek Field Station (eBird rank: 2, with 309 species)
Look for the Desert National Wildlife turnoff on U.S. 95 north of Las Vegas between the two Mount Charleston turnoffs
Little Corn Creek is what’s known as a “migrant trap,” with its spring-filled pond, orchard, and mesquite and cottonwood trees. It’s literally an oasis in the desert. If you go in the spring or summer, watch for the annual, Game of Thrones-style pitched battle for nesting spots between the common ravens and Cooper’s hawks.
3. 33 Hole Overlook (eBird rank: 8, with 251 species)
Lake Mead National Recreation Area
This visit will require a hike — just under a mile — down to the ever-dwindling shoreline. But it’s arguably the best place in the county for certain rarities like vagrant ducks, loons, and gulls. Most times of the year, you’ll see dozens of brilliant, and very large, American white pelicans.
4. Spring Mountain Ranch State Park (eBird rank: 10, with 227 species)
6375 Highway 159, adjacent to Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area
There are multiple very high desert (3,700 feet elevation and higher) trails, including the 1.2-mile Sandstone Canyon Loop, above Lake Harriet. The long-dormant lake has been refilled. Sadly, it has two perimeter fences that make waterfowl viewing difficult. Another downside: There is a $10 fee to enter the park, which doesn’t open until 8 a.m. When you go, do look up: Golden eagles nest in the cliffs of the canyon.
5. Deer Creek Picnic Area (eBird rank: 34, with 140 species)
State Route 158 between the two canyons, Spring Mountains National Recreation Area
Various species common in the valley during fall and winter months repair to higher elevations to escape the summer heat — and birders can, too. The Spring Mountains are home to Steller’s jays, hairy woodpeckers, mountain chickadees, various nuthatches and, in the spring and summer, certain warblers that would be rare sightings in the Las Vegas Valley. CW