Roadrunner vs Cowbird At Spring Mountain Ranch State Park

spring mountain ranch I need to get back to Spring Mountain Ranch State Park in Nevada.  I blogged earlier that I given the advice by the Red Rock Audubon Society to visit here, since there would be different species than we would see in and around Las Vegas. We saw some great birds and I got a life bird, but I also saw one of the coolest birding interactions I have ever seen.


It started when we reached the actual ranch part of the park. That's Clay and Non Birding Bill setting up their cameras.  Clay spotted a predator in the grass:


Can you see it?  Believe it or not, there is a greater roadrunner lurking in that grass.  Clay gets them in his backyard in Corpus Christi. Roadrunners are incredible predators that will eat snakes, reptiles and even birds. In Clay's yard, the roadrunner stalks house sparrows.  He recognized this bird as being on the hunt right away.  Most of my experiences with roadrunners has been watching them scurry along a road, so to watch it in full on skulk mode for the hunt was incredible.

roadrunner head

The roadrunner would crouch down in the tall grass and slink along with just the top of its head visible. Almost like a feathered shark fin breaking the top of an ocean. Periodically, it was stop for an insect and gulp it down while using the grass for cover. What was this bird stalking for a meal?


A flock of unsuspecting cowbirds. They were following the cow and the horses in the field. The area was recently grazed and the grass was short for the cowbirds to feed, but nearby the taller grass hid a predator actively stalking them.  Clay, Bill and I all staked out a position to get photos of whatever was about to happen.

lone cowbird

One lone cowbird made the fatal error of straying away from the safety of the flock. I tried to line this shot up so that the cowbird was in front of the roadrunner, but the roadrunner had crouched so low, you couldn't see it.  Suddenly, the cowbirds took flight, some went right over the roadrunner.  The predator leaped into the air, grabbed a cowbird with it's beak, whacked it a few times against the ground, and took off running.  NBB actually got footage of that, which you will see when we get the videos edited together.

roadrunner with cowbird

I got a shot of the roadrunner crossing the road in front of us with the dead cowbird in its mouth. I previewed this photo on Twitter with the question, "Guess what's in the roadrunner's mouth?" A few were insistent that it was a house sparrow, but this is a young cowbird--note the size in relation to the roadrunner, the white throat patch, the thick dark bill, and the vertical streaks on the breast (young cowbirds have vertical streaks). House sparrows and brown-headed cowbirds are unpopular birds.  House sparrows are an introduced species that can wreak havoc on nesting bluebirds, chickadees and nuthatches. Brown-headed cowbirds are natives, but their nesting habit of laying their eggs in other birds nests has caused problems for species like Kirtland's warblers. Many people don't mind a roadrunner eating those particular species. But like any successful predator, roadrunners are generalists.  They don't go for just he unpopular birds, many in the western US are chagrined to find roadrunners stalking their hummingbirds feeders.

amy hooper

As we worked our way around the trails, we made it to Lake Harriet, which was an oasis of color.  Above is WildBird on the Fly scanning the water for ducks.  It was quiet apart from some young coots incessantly clucking. I think this would be packed on a weekend, but on a week day this was a spot where you could imagine being the only person for miles.

bill filming

It was weird having NBB along on this trip (my birding and non birding world was colliding, my compartments were getting mixed up).  I sat at this spot and leaned against NBB for a moment.  I'm so used to seeing a beautiful vista and wishing he were next to me or wondering what he'd be doing while I'm and about, it was a treat to have him there to see this with me.  My filmmaker husband did surprisingly well on this trip.  I must admit that I was nervous with how we would handle being around my birding friends for 5 days and out doing some hardcore watching and filming in the heat.  But I think since he was focused on getting footage, he was able to do it.  I'm so proud, he got some great footage--especially that roadrunner.  Editing is going to take longer than I thought, but this video series is going to be so cool, it's about how you can watch birds anywhere and we're using a small HD camera while Clay experimented with a cheaper hand held video camera with the new Swarovksi UCA adaptor and I took video with my Cannon A570's point and shoot video feature and my scope.  On the fly birding videos for the internet, I love making these.

young coot

This little lake was chock full of young coots.  They don't quite look like the black adults, but when this young bird stepped out of the water, those lobed toes gave it away as a total American coot.  Again, I wish we could have explored further, there's an old cemetery in the park and it would have been fun to visit that too.  This park was a great suggestion from Red Rock Audubon.

wild burros

We saw signs around the park that wild burros were possible and as we were packing up to leave NBB said, "Look, burros."

There they were!  Wild burrows...well feral burros...oh heck, we all shouted, "Wild Asses!"

Just what we came to Vegas for!

wild ass

These are feral burros, they were brought over as a beast of burden by the Spanish because they do well in arid climates.  The ones that roam the west are the result of escapees or released animals from well over a century ago.  They behaved pretty much the way a captive burro would behave and I'm not sure why I got so excited over seeing feral ones.  What is it about seeing an unfettered ass that makes me so happy?

So, this is a very cool park and if you have some time in Vegas, check it out.  You could easily spend a full day here, but we did it in half a day.  It was easy to get in and get out with a rental car.  If you don't have a rental car, if you contact Red Rock Audubon Society, you could probably find a guide to take you there for a reasonable fee.

I'm going to end this with some video of the cowbirds.  Note how they keep their tails cocked up while they feed.  I wonder if they are releasing heat from their vent area as a means to keep cool?