Colorado Grouse II Apr 25—May 04, 2009

Posted by Kevin Zimmer

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Kevin Zimmer

Kevin Zimmer has authored three books and numerous papers dealing with field identification and bird-finding in North America. His book, Birding in the American West: A Han...

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Time was getting short. We had already scanned every exposed rock outcropping and patch of willows multiple times without so much as a suggestion of a ptarmigan. If only the bird hadn't quit calling. But then, just as I was contemplating bagging it, the White-tailed Ptarmigan called again. And from my new vantage point, I could tell that he wasn't calling from the rocky point where we had focused our attention to this point, but rather, from much farther to our right. There were no rocks in this direction, nor anything more than the smallest tips of exposed willows. It was a winter wonderland of snow, with a few patches of stunted spruce—a nightmare scenario for spotting an all, or mostly white bird. A quick scan of the more promising and more distant patches of spruce revealed nothing. But what if the wind and traffic were muting the bird's voice, and he wasn't as far off as he sounded? There was only one tiny patch of exposed spruce anywhere near us, so I trained my scope on that. JACKPOT! There, amidst windblown clumps of snow trapped by the tiny trees, was a nearly immaculate lump of white with beady black eyes, a black bill, and the beginnings of black scaling on its crown and chest—a male White-tailed Ptarmigan! For the next half-hour we reveled in fine scope studies of this, our 7th grouse species for the trip, and the least expected. In many years, all of the ptarmigan would have left Loveland Pass by now, and would be safely ensconced in their breeding territories, out-of-reach of visiting birders until the highest mountain roads are opened at the end of May.

All that was left at this point was a brief stop at Genesee Park, where the ponderosa pine forest provided us with point-blank looks at a stunning pair of Williamson's Sapsuckers and a pugnacious, but extremely cute pair of Pygmy Nuthatches. It was a fitting conclusion to a tour that had started nine days earlier at a predawn vigil in Gunnison. There, we sat huddled in a blind with our scopes trained on a lek of strutting Gunnison Sage-Grouse, their "ponytails" of filoplumes flopping wildly with each display. When the birds were finished, they burst into flight and came right at us, barely topping the blind. After breakfast, we were greeted by falling snow, which called for a change in plans. Instead of heading west to Black Canyon of the Gunnison, we went north to Crested Butte, hoping the snow would drive some rosy-finches down out of the high country. We found no rosy-finches, but we did score several Red Crossbills and Cassin's Finches, a magnificent Peregrine Falcon, and the first of several Great Horned Owls that we would find on nests.

Working our way to Pueblo, we netted a number of good birds, from a pair of American Dippers along the Arkansas River to Mountain and Western bluebirds and Juniper Titmouse. Of particular note was getting a nice Lewis's Woodpecker in a year in which they were not present in many of their usual haunts in the southeast canyons. But my personal highlight of the day had to be the flock of more than 50 Pinyon Jays that we happened onto shortly after stopping for the woodpecker.

The next day saw us working our way from Pueblo to Lamar, alternating between grasslands, agricultural land, and various reservoirs and playa lakes. The prairie habitats provided us with superb views of elegant Scaled Quail, singing Cassin's Sparrows, migrant Brewer's Sparrows, and skulking Curve-billed Thrashers, while the latter provided side by side comparisons of Clark's and Western grebes, rosy-tinged Franklin's Gulls, and a pair of cryptic Snowy Plovers. After some searching, we finally found a Mountain Plover, our only one of the trip, and studied it at length.

The next morning found us exploring the grasslands and canyon lands near Campo, in the extreme southeast corner of the state. Fueled by a great breakfast at the Campo Café, we birded through persistent mist and fog for much of the morning (getting some first-arriving Lark Buntings and a Long-billed Curlew in the process), but the weather cleared in time for our picnic lunch. We scored a couple of surprises in Carrizo Canyon, with a fly-by White-winged Dove (the first I've seen in Colorado) and a lovely male Rose-breasted Grosbeak. These complemented more expected fare, which included close studies of a singing Canyon Wren, strutting Wild Turkeys, and recently arrived Black-chinned Hummingbird, Ash-throated Flycatcher, and Cassin's Kingbird. A Ferruginous Hawk on a nest was the capper to the day.

After two "leisurely" days of birding, it was time for another predawn start. We met Fred and his trusty school bus in Granada, and then drove to a Lesser Prairie-Chicken lek located on private land. It was getting late in the season for the Lessers (which start displaying earlier in spring than the other grouse), and the wind was howling. Nonetheless, eight birds danced intermittently for us, and the bus provided a nice blind and platform from which to use our scopes. After a hearty "chuckwagon-style" breakfast at Fred & Norma's, we made a stop at the Lamar Community College woods. Hoped-for migrant passerines were not much in evidence, but we did enjoy nice looks at singing Brown Thrashers, a Red-bellied Woodpecker (very local in eastern Colorado), and a fearless Virginia Rail who left no doubts as to whose territory we were in! Heading north, we stopped at Bonny Reservoir before cruising in to Wray. There, we met up with Bob Bledsoe, who entertained and informed us at length before escorting us to the prairie-chicken lek that we would be visiting the next morning. We had nice looks at a number of chickens that were hanging around the lek, which only served to whet our appetites for the next morning.

We were all awakened by the sounds of a monster thunderstorm in the middle of the night, and I was more than a little concerned to discover a few inches of hail on the van in the morning. With Bob's admonitions about hail-induced mortality of prairie-chickens still fresh in our minds, we set out for the lek. Upon arrival, I was disturbed to realize that I wasn't hearing any prairie-chickens in the predawn darkness. Normally they would be booming away by this time. It was over 20 minutes before I heard the first cackle, but within minutes after that, the rustle of wings signaled the arrival of multiple males at the lek. Before long, there were more than 30 male Greater Prairie-Chickens surrounding our van, some of them displaying within 10 feet of us. At one point, one or two of the birds decided to use our van as an elevated platform from which to dance. It was hard not to laugh at the sounds of the busy toenails and feet skittering about the roof, and impossible not to laugh when the roof buckled and then popped back up, sending the startled chicken(s) blasting into flight. We ended up enjoying a fabulous performance, with great light—the best of the entire trip.

With the eerie booming of the chickens still ringing in our ears, we headed north and west to the Pawnee National Grasslands, where we enjoyed large numbers of McCown's Longspurs (including several males performing their "butterfly-like" aerial displays before "parachuting" back to the ground) and a single male Chestnut-collared Longspur, all in beautiful breeding plumage.

Refreshed after a "sleep-in" morning, we set off from Fort Collins up scenic Poudre Canyon, making numerous short stops for various montane birds. A nesting American Dipper feeding young, a couple of pairs of very responsive Red-naped Sapsuckers, and a stunning male American Three-toed Woodpecker were the highlights. A stop at the Moose Visitor Center on the far side of Cameron Pass treated us to a number of good feeder birds, including Pine Grosbeak and numerous Brown-capped Rosy-Finches (with a single Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch). Unfortunately, a Sharp-shinned Hawk discovered the feeder birds too, and his continued presence guaranteed that there would be no more feeder activity for the duration. We continued on to Walden, where we spent the remainder of the afternoon birding the sagebrush flats and marshes.

We awoke predawn the next day to overcast skies, but the predicted bad weather had not yet set in when we headed off for the Greater Sage-Grouse lek. We found a male grouse displaying in the road and watched him in our headlights for a minute before easing past him to continue to the main lek. As it got lighter, we could see 16 males on the lek, convulsing and strutting away, their great white pectoral ruffs and bizarre yellow breast sacs heaving with each shrug of their shoulders. The birds were close and the views were great, but then it started to rain. With no females present, and persistent light (but cold) rain, the male grouse soon lost their enthusiasm for displaying, and they ended up calling it quits a solid hour earlier than they had just a week earlier. The rain dogged us off-and-on the rest of the day, but not before we had seen both Bald and Golden eagles, singing Sage Thrashers, and had a wonderful encounter with a badger, the first I had seen in many years. That afternoon, we had our first views of Dusky Grouse and Sharp-tailed Grouse, although the experience with each species was only a tease for the next day.

With fingers crossed for good weather, we set out in darkness the next morning, hoping to find a Dusky Grouse displaying near the road. The first pass at the expected spot yielded nothing. I continued on to a convenient turnaround, and pulled over by the side of the road to wait a few minutes before driving back. Out the open window, I heard the explosive fluttering of wings that accompanies the display jump-ups of the male Dusky Grouse. It seemed to be coming from upslope, but I couldn't locate the bird with my flashlight. A low hoot from my left caused me to turn and look up the road. There, in the middle of the road, was a male Dusky Grouse, in full display. We repositioned the van, and spotlighted the bird in our headlights. Unperturbed, the male continued to display, and was soon joined and challenged by a second male, undoubtedly the bird that I had heard upslope. We enjoyed a great performance by these two birds as the sky quickly paled. It was time to head to the Sharp-tail lek. Upon arrival, we found more than 20 Sharp-tailed Grouse in full display, with wings bowed, heads lowered, spiky white tails pointed skyward, and feet pounding a rapid beat. What's more, the sky was clear, the sun was peeking over the hills, and the entire lek was bathed in beautiful light. We enjoyed the antics of the Sharp-tails for a prolonged period, then returned to Steamboat Springs to pack up. We were headed to Loveland Pass, with one more grouse, the elusive White-tailed Ptarmigan, to search for…

Thanks to all of you for helping make my return to Colorado so memorable. After devising our first Colorado Grouse tour in 1986, and leading it for more than 15 years, it was a real treat to get back (after a six-year absence) and be present when spring returns to the prairies and Rockies of Colorado. There is nothing quite like it!