Colorado Grouse Apr 13—22, 2007

Posted by Brian Gibbons

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Brian Gibbons

Brian Gibbons grew up in suburban Dallas where he began exploring the wild world in local creeks and parks. Chasing butterflies and any animal that was unfortunate enough t...

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We enjoyed a memorable eight days traversing the amazing state of Colorado?1,700 miles during which we saw snow, wind, blowing dust, and waving trees. Even so we still had great success tracking down quality birds and obtaining stunning looks at most of the grouse we were seeking. Our highest altitude sightings were at Loveland Pass at 11,990 feet, which we quickly passed on our way up to the White-tailed Ptarmigans hunkered down at 12,400 feet. Though one of these birds was starting to transition into summer plumage, the conditions were decidedly wintry with blowing snow, but it was definitely worth it. Our lowest sighting was the Lesser Prairie-Chicken at around 3,500 feet.

We started in Gunnison on a frigid morning. From a blind we observed more than 30 Gunnison Sage-Grouse strutting around and throwing their dense filoplumes forward. As the light brightened the sky we also noted their distinctly banded tails, a field mark that separates this bird from Greater Sage-Grouse. After breakfast we were off to Crested Butte for a feeder-watch at the Powers. The Powers have probably hosted more rosy-finch watchers and rosy-finches than anybody else in Colorado during the last five years. We were not disappointed; there was a nice flock of Brown-capped Rosy-Finches as well as Cassin’s Finch, Evening Grosbeak, and other finches. After a great lunch in Salida at the First Street Café, we cruised Poncha Springs. We were rewarded with Pinyon Jay and a cooperative pair of Western Bluebirds. In the evening we had a great meal at Rosario’s in Pueblo.

The first highlight bird of the next day was along IL road near Boone. We saw several Mountain Plovers in an area of prairie that was very sparsely vegetated, as they like it. We also saw Scaled Quail, Curve-billed Thrasher, and Burrowing Owls. Heading south and east, we were amazed to see remnant snow cover on the ground around Lamar. The storm just missed us on Friday the thirteenth. Several miles south of Lamar, we were rewarded with a stunning and cooperative adult Ferruginous Hawk.

Our third morning found us at the unoccupied lek of the Lesser Prairie-Chicken, disheartening for a leader. Amazingly, a lone male flew in after dawn and danced alone for us for 20 minutes. Whew! Cassin’s and Grasshopper sparrows were singing away in the Comanche National Grassland after the lone chicken departed. After a good down home breakfast at the Campo Café, we headed for our picnic spot in Cottonwood Canyon. We enjoyed Rock Wren, Rufous-crowned Sparrow, Canyon Towhee, and other southwestern birds in this area.

Our next day was mostly a cruise from southeast Colorado up to the northeast quadrant of the state. We made a few stops along the way, the most memorable of which was the Lamar Cemetery where a singing male Scott’s Oriole greeted us upon our arrival. This bird performed for all of us and even allowed Janeal Thompson, a local birder, to view him after she raced over. No one ever saw this bird again after we left. Also of note was a pair of Red-bellied Woodpeckers, a very rare breeder in Colorado, at the Lamar Community College woods. Finally we arrived in Wray where we were stunned by the fine dining at Fourth and Main.

The sun crept up on us the next morning as we were awed by the coos and cackles of Greater Prairie-Chickens. This amazing show won “bird of the trip” honors for the Greater-Prairie Chicken. They were point-blank this year, giving us great looks and listens. After another big country breakfast we were off to the Wray State Fish Hatchery where we found a few birds including a local rarity, White-eyed Vireo. At this point someone cued the wind and it did blow?for the rest of the day. Later that day, at Pawnee National Grassland, I had quit?seatbelt on and iPod stowed?when a call crackled over the radio before it died?something about Chestnut-collared Longspur. We raced backwards. Kim found a couple of birds in the wind and we all obtained good scope views. What luck! Earlier we had enjoyed stunning studies of McCown’s Longspurs in their skylarking display flights. Our day ended with another fine dinner at Austin’s in Old Town Fort Collins.

One of my personal “foraging” highlights of this trip is breakfast at the Silver Grill in Fort Collins. In a food-induced stupor we headed into the mountains. We greatly improved our looks at the American Dipper with a confiding trio along the Poudre River. Along the way, in the lodgepole pines, we had great looks at many Red Crossbills. We managed to catch one beautiful male that had been stunned by a car; later it flew off strongly, to our delight. Higher still, on our way to Cameron Pass, we were in the spruce and fir zone where we had a stunning discovery; a pair of White-winged Crossbills delighted us at close range. Then we dropped down to the Moose Visitor Center where we had more feeder luck with Pine Grosbeak as the star of the show. Near Walden, the Delaney Buttes hosted a pair of Prairie Falcons.

Greater Sage-Grouse performed for us the next morning as the night faded away, revealing their lek. After watching the amazing show, we headed to Steamboat Springs and then on to Hayden. We finally saw a Dusky Grouse after much searching. We returned to a great dinner in Steamboat.

On our final birding morning we visited the Sharp-tailed Grouse lek. I was a bit disappointed by the high grass, but we maneuvered around until we could see the wing-spread dance fairly well. We also had great luck with Williamson’s Sapsucker, Three-toed Woodpecker, Gray Jay, and more finches at the Muddy Creek Recreational parking area. Next we were off to Loveland Pass at 11,990 feet where we successfully scoped a couple of hunkered down White-tailed Ptarmigans in blizzard-like conditions?our last productive stop on a tour that allowed us to study all of the native Colorado grouse. Thanks for traveling and birding with VENT.