Colorado Grouse Apr 13—22, 2008
Posted by Brian Gibbons
Snow punctuated our circumnavigation of Colorado. We also slipped into Kansas, and spent no more than twelve seconds in Oklahoma. The grouse are the highlight of this tour, and they did not disappoint. From our chilly morning in the Gunnison valley, we passed over the Continental Divide to the drier east slope. Once we left the Rocky Mountains just west of Pueblo we would not see them again for a few days until we ended our prairie run when we wound our way up to Walden. Again, in Walden, we were surprised by the amount of snow. These valleys for the last six years have been snow free; this year there were fence posts that had barely made an appearance. Steamboat Springs had a record snowfall of 40 feet, still very much in evidence. This led to our only disappointment, the Dusky Grouse, which did not show. Finally, on our last day, we drove up to 12,000 feet to spy two very well-concealed White-tailed Ptarmigans on Loveland Pass. They were mostly white, their winter plumage betrayed only by a few dark freckles around the face.
Our first grouse was the very rare and range-restricted Gunnison Sage-Grouse. We had a personal best of 63 birds on the lek that morning. They were flinging their heads forward, showing off their thick black filoplumes. From the snowy Gunnison area we headed over Monarch Pass, trying in vain to find montane birds. A great lunch at the First Street Café in Salida provided a midday break. Poncha Springs hosted our only Pinyon Jay of the tour. Further down the Arkansas River valley we found a pair of Juniper Titmice that did their best to avoid being seen by many of us. Dinner at Rosario’s was exceptional.
The next morning we headed out into the plains east of Pueblo looking for the Mountain Plover. It was not around this year, as the prairie dogs had disappeared; we did find Burrowing Owls and Scaled Quail. We birded our way into southeast Colorado to our evening stop at the Starlight Motel in Springfield. Along the way we saw Snowy Plovers in a windstorm, lots of ducks, a few shorebirds, and Yellow-headed Blackbirds.
From Springfield we headed to a great breakfast at the Campo Café. Cottonwood Canyon was our birding destination for the day and for our picnic. The whistling wind and an overfriendly dog ended our picnic plans. We did find some great birds. The Lewis's Woodpeckers were conspicuous and allowed for great scope views. Steller's Jays were unusually common for the canyon. Canyon Towhee, Carolina Wren, Rufous-crowned Sparrow, Wild Turkey, and a lonesome Bushtit were other birds of the canyon. In the prairie east of the canyon country we had one of our strangest sightings, a Hermit Thrush in a little burned patch. En route we found the much-desired Mountain Plover in Colorado then Kansas.
We enjoyed a great show in the wind and rain at the Lesser Prairie-Chicken lek in Cimarron National Grassland. We drove back to Colorado in several hours of rain. Finally it stopped, and we did some productive birding at Bonny State Park. There we saw some late Sandhill Cranes, lots of waterfowl, shorebirds, and two Long-eared Owl nests. A fine dinner at Fourth and Main was the culinary highlight of the tour for some folks.
From Wray we made the short predawn jaunt to Bledsoe Cattle Company land to watch the co-champion bird of the trip—the cooing, cackling, and squawking Greater Prairie-Chickens. One bird even saw fit to display on Michael's van. After Wray we were off to the Pawnee National Grassland in search of longspurs. McCown's were common and we had to hunt for the Chestnut-collared, as usual. The flight display of the McCown's was a highlight, as were the spectacular colors of the Chestnut-collared.
Finally we returned to the mountains, well-fortified after a fantastic breakfast at the Silver Grill Café. American Dipper, Common Merganser, Pine Grosbeak, and American Three-toed Woodpecker were some of the fine birds we found in the mountains that day. We ended up in Walden to get ready for the next grouse.
A Golden Eagle scared off some of the Greater Sage-Grouse, but the birds in front of us remained and put on a great show. Again, the snow cover in a mountain valley amazed me. Walden Reservoir was 95% ice. I had never seen ice on this reservoir before. We moved on after viewing the good variety of waterfowl at the reservoir.
Steamboat Springs and the Yampa River valley were our next destinations. The next morning we found a very close and active lek of the Sharp-tailed Grouse. Their spread-wing, twirling, and foot-stomping pleased all. This was our final day and we had some key birds to track down. The most challenging would be the White-tailed Ptarmigan, which we found easily at Loveland Pass despite the wind. Down the hill toward Denver we went, with a great stop at Genesee Park where we found Williamson's Sapsucker and Pygmy Nuthatch, and had great looks at Western Bluebirds. We dropped out of the mountains and made a smooth return to Denver after our 1,750-mile cruise through Colorado, Kansas, and a tiny piece of Oklahoma.
Thanks for traveling with VENT and I hope to see you all again.