Colorado Grouse I Apr 17—26, 2009

Posted by Brian Gibbons


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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From the alpine tundra at Loveland Pass to the riparian woodlands in Cottonwood canyon, we traversed Colorado seeking grouse, from a high elevation of 12,000 feet to a low of 3,500 feet in southeast Colorado, where we found the Rufous-crowned Sparrow. We got off to a great start with a fine, albeit distant display of 35 Gunnison Sage-Grouse. Our circumnavigation of Colorado had begun. Poncha Springs was busy with birds delayed by the snowstorm. Western Bluebirds, Clark's Nutcrackers, Red-naped Sapsuckers, sparrows, and finches were all around town. The prize of Poncha was finally seeing Pinyon Jays exceptionally well. Along the Arkansas River valley we saw American Dipper, Juniper Titmouse, Townsend's Solitaire, Mountain Bluebirds, and White-throated Swifts.

Eastbound from Pueblo we were seeking Mountain Plovers, Scaled Quail, Burrowing Owls, and Curve-billed Thrashers, and we found all of them. Around the reservoirs of southeast Colorado we found 10 species of ducks as well as grebes, gulls, and shorebirds. The Snowy Plover at Cheraw was a key bird in these outings. The next day we birded our way through the extreme southeast part of the state. Rufous-crowned Sparrow, Long-billed Curlew, Lark Bunting, Rock and Canyon wrens, Cassin's Sparrow, and Wild Turkeys filled out our list. Swainson's Hawks were obviously invading the prairie from their southerly wintering grounds. A Merlin waited for us on a fence post in Comanche National Grassland. The top raptor for the day was the Ferruginous Hawk on a nest near Springfield.

After a very early start, the next morning we enjoyed a great show put on by the Lesser Prairie-Chickens. Fred Dorenkamp and the school bus made for a great lek experience. We could easily hear the popping and cackling sounds made by the males. Also around the lek were a few cooperative Grasshopper Sparrows. Six Ferruginous Hawks presented themselves for an amazing tally. After a great breakfast prepared for us by Norma, we were off to Wray, with a very productive stop at Bonny State Park. We had a couple of adult Great Horned Owls before Mark spotted the fuzzy young poking their heads out of a cottonwood snag. Soon after that we were able to make out the face of an incubating adult at the nest of a Long-eared Owl. The lake was full of waterfowl with a few shorebirds thrown in. Ross's Goose and Marbled Godwits were our best finds there. In the evening we tried for the Greater Prairie-Chickens, but they weren't going to display for us in the evening, so—another early start.

It was worth getting out of bed for, to say the least. The cooing calls of the Greaters were very different from the popping Lessers. We were nearly surrounded by more than 30 displaying males. One even saw fit to survey the lek from the top of our van. The Haxtun sewage lagoons were a distraction on our way to an afternoon visit at Pawnee National Grassland. We saw a couple of Rough-legged Hawks that were still lingering on the wintering grounds before heading to the Arctic. We also had another pair of Ferruginous Hawks, which added to the amazing trip total. McCown's Longspurs were displaying, singing, and chasing around the Pawnee, and Golden Eagle was a nice addition in the shortgrass prairie. However, the star of the Pawnee was undoubtedly the swift fox that was amazingly cooperative until it had had enough of the big white vans and disappeared down its burrow. Finally, a few stunner Chestnut-collared Longspurs made their appearance.

Poudre Canyon was incredibly scenic as always, and, as usual, Common Mergansers were paddling in the river. Higher in the boreal forest we lucked into a cooperative male American Three-toed Woodpecker—scope views for all. Across Cameron Pass we stopped at Moose Visitor Center where the feeders were crawling with finches, including three species of rosy-finches, Pine Grosbeaks, siskins, and Cassin's Finches. Around Walden Reservoir we had great diversity of waterfowl. The Bald Eagles were setting up house at their usual nest. In the sagebrush of North Park the strutting Greater Sage-Grouse were battling for prime positions in the lek.

From Walden we headed to Steamboat Springs and our first (unsuccessful) attempt at the Dusky Grouse. In the half light of dawn the next day we watched a nice male strutting his way up the road toward us. He then displayed in an opening where we were all able to get scope views.

The Sharp-tailed Grouse was our quarry now. We enjoyed great scope views from the roadside. The males with their lilac neck sacs and their pointy tails were putting on a show. In the mountains east of Steamboat a quick roadside stop produced a singing male White-winged Crossbill—scope views for all.

Next we were off for the Everest of the grouse tour—Ptarmigan. After only a few minutes of searching, Kim found a quiet bird that was very cooperative. Everybody got excellent looks and the leaders sighed in relief. Our last birding stop was in the fog and drizzle at Genesee Mountain Park where we found Pygmy Nuthatches and our last target, the Williamson's Sapsucker, in the mist.