Written by Michael McGuire
Photos © Michael McGuire
Edited by Alison M Jones
Michael McGuire is a wildlife and nature photographer from Kenosha, Wisconsin. At Univ. of Vermont (Class of 2020), he studies Wildlife and Fisheries Biology and Geography. At February’s Las Vegas Summit for the North American Nature Photography Association, he joined its College Program to create a video on that city’s Clark County Wetlands Park. As a result of that experience, he is now planning a career in conservation photography.
What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Las Vegas? It probably is not nature, water or wildlife; but all can be found a mere 24-minute-drive from the infamous Strip! Located just outside the heart of Las Vegas, the Clark County Wetlands Park is an unexpected desert oasis.
A rising moon shines down on Las Vegas from inside the wetlands park.
Though not crowded with slot machines or neon lights, this oasis is teeming with life. This is largely due to the Las Vegas Wash that runs through the park. The Wash is an urban river fed by shallow groundwater, reclaimed water and stormwater runoff. It runs underneath Las Vegas before flowing into the Wetlands Park. The Wash may look like an insignificant stream when compared to more mighty rivers, but in this desert landscape where water is scarce, this waterway provides critical wetland habitat for many wildlife species, such as resident and migratory birds, rabbits and beavers.
Habitat is not the only thing these lush wetlands provide: they also act as a natural filtration system, essentially the environmental equivalent to our kidneys. Harmful residues from oils, fertilizers and other contaminants that enter the system through runoff are filtered by the multitude of wetland plants in the park.
Ring-necked ducks raft up on wetland vegetation in the Las Vegas Wash.
After the wetlands filter the valley’s excess wastewater (an average of 150 million gallons a day), it flows into Lake Mead – the largest reservoir in the country and provider of much of Las Vegas’ drinking and extravagant Bellagio fountain water.
Some wildflowers are smaller than a fingernail.
Now, let’s take a step back to the wetlands of Clark County. The surplus of water attracts a multitude of wildlife from all over the surrounding desert. The water in this wetlands park fuels the growth of native trees, shrubs, flowering plants, grasses and wetland vegetation which provide food and shelter for the park’s many inhabitants. Within each of these habitats, one can find many different kinds of wildlife uniquely adapted to each environment. There are four main habitat types within the park.
- Aquatic Habitats: Containing many animals not found in the nearby desert, they are an important rest stop for migratory birds.
- Riparian Habitats: Found on the periphery of the wash, this type of habitat contains the widest range of biodiversity in the park.
- Mesquite Woodland / Alkali Meadow: Found further from water, these meadows provide natural drainage for flash floods and are “home to some of the last stands of desert saltgrass and alkali sacaton in the [Las Vegas] Valley.”2
- Desert Scrub Habitats: These driest areas in the park represent typical habitat found in much of the Mojave Desert.
Aquatic and Riparian Habitats
Herons and egrets slowly stride in the reeds. They gaze fiercely into the murky water looking for any sign of movement, eager to stab at a frog or fish. The familiar sound of ducks reverberates through the chill morning air, as they cluster together in a raft, nuzzle their bills through their feathers and bob up and down foraging on vegetation in the wash. American coots let out humorous calls reminiscent of a clown horn. Many of them fly up the faster-moving water just to float back down – almost as if they get a thrill from the ride.
An American coot pulls its head out of the water.
An osprey hovers overhead, pointing its aerodynamic body into the wind to get a lock onto an unsuspecting fish. It dives feet first with its wings tucked back, crashing into the water. While unsuccessful this time, its persistence will eventually be rewarded.
A black-crowned night heron sneaks around in wetland reeds.
Northern flickers and red-naped sapsuckers (both woodpeckers) hop around among tall cottonwood and aspen trees, while an Anna’s hummingbird forages nearby for nectar among the flowers. Raccoon and bobcat tracks, imprinted in the soft mud of the riverbank, are clear evidence of the park’s nocturnal visitors.
An Anna’s hummingbird alights upon a cottonwood branch.
Mesquite Woodland/Alkali Meadow and Desert Scrub
A roadrunner swiftly strides along the ground, hoping to strike upon unsuspecting lizards in the underbrush. A northern harrier slowly soars overhead, keeping its eyes and ears trained for movement in the grassland below.
A northern harrier searches for prey at dawn.
Gambel’s quails sprint past rabbits munching on quailbush foliage while keeping a vigilant eye open for stalking coyotes. The hard-to-pronounce Phainopepla (looks much like a black cardinal) lets out a sprightly call, reminiscent of a Star Wars laser gun, from the tallest screw-bean mesquite tree in the heart of dry shrub land.
A rat and a rabbit enjoy each other’s company while foraging for food.
All of these animals are drawn to this park because of water – whether directly, as is the case with ducks, or indirectly via the habitats that water creates. Without the water that the Las Vegas Wash brings, this park would not be the wetland oasis that it is.
A spiny softshell turtle peeks above the water.
So, next time you are in Las Vegas and tired of all the flashing lights and casinos, think about taking a walk in the wetlands. If you slow down and look closely, there’s wildlife at every turn!