Southwest Colorado: Birds & Butterflies Jul 15—25, 2009

Posted by Michael O'Brien


Michael O'Brien

Michael O'Brien is a freelance artist, author, and environmental consultant living in Cape May, New Jersey. He has a passionate interest in bird vocalizations and field ide...

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For the second year in a row, a cool, damp spring resulted in a slight shift in brood timing of butterflies and we found a number of species, such as Silvery Blue and Persius Duskywing, that are normally done by mid-July. But the shift didn't hurt butterfly diversity at all, with an amazing 82 species on the trip list! The damp spring also gave us quite possibly the most spectacular wildflower display we have ever seen, particularly at Grand Mesa and Boreas Pass. The birding was also excellent. Not only did we find most of the specialty birds such as Dusky Grouse, Gunnison Sage-Grouse, and Brown-capped Rosy-Finch, but we also found a couple of rarities: two singing Dickcissels at Monte Vista and two singing Alder Flycatchers at Gunnison! And one of the real delights of birding in Colorado in midsummer is seeing the frenzy of nesting activity. On this "nursery" tour, we found active nests or dependent young of over a third of the bird species we encountered!

We started out just a short ways from our hotel in Denver by visiting our favorite black-tailed prairie dog and Burrowing Owl colony. We saw thirteen owls on this visit, including six adults and seven young. Every year we expect to see this pasture paved, but hopefully it will continue as a thriving colony for years to come. We then made stops in the Front Range at Red Rocks Park and Apex Park. Red Rocks was quite active in the early hours and we enjoyed nice views of such typical western species as Broad-tailed and Rufous hummingbirds, White-throated Swift, Western Scrub-Jay, Canyon Wren, Spotted Towhee, Lazuli Bunting, and Bullock's Oriole. As it began to warm up, we moved on to Apex Park and turned our attention to butterflies. A short hike along Apex Trail produced Two-tailed Swallowtail, Gray Copper, Behr's and Striped hairstreaks, Variegated and Aphrodite fritillaries, Weidemeyer's Admiral, Hackberry Emperor, Common Wood-Nymph, and Delaware Skipper. Our picnic lunch among the ponderosa pines at Genesee Park was enlivened by the incessant chatter of Mountain Chickadees, Pygmy Nuthatches, and "type 2" Red Crossbills. A little searching also produced Williamson's Sapsucker, Plumbeous Vireo, and Western Bluebird. To round out the list of habitats for our first day, we went above treeline to search for butterflies among the rockslide at Loveland Pass. At 11,992 feet, we moved slowly but were very successful, finding such specialties as Mead's Sulphur, Lustrious Copper, Magdalena Alpine, and Grizzled Skipper. We also had our best views of American pika there.

Our next day began with an optional early morning outing north to the Blue River, where we saw our only Red-naped Sapsucker, American Dipper, and "Slate-colored" Fox Sparrow of the trip, and also saw a busy little Ruby-crowned Kinglet trying to satisfy the appetite of a baby Brown-headed Cowbird. This has to be the smallest bird we've ever seen feeding a cowbird! As we headed south, we made several stops along Boreas Pass Road where the wildflowers were just spectacular. Among the meadows, we found Pale Swallowtail; Ruddy Copper; Silvery, Melissa, Greenish, and Arctic blues (many of the blues "puddling" at roadside seeps); Field Crescent; Common Ringlet; Common Alpine; Persius Duskywing; and Draco Skipper. Although more attention was paid to butterflies and wildflowers, birds were also active and we saw Dusky Flycatcher, Wilson's Warbler, Lincoln's Sparrow, Cassin's Finch, and "type 5" Red Crossbill. On the long drive south to Alamosa, we stopped to enjoy a small group of pronghorns and a Swainson's Hawk nest with three young.

The high-elevation sagebrush flatlands and marshy ponds around Alamosa and Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge provided a very different setting from the previous two days, and also a different set of birds and butterflies. Here we found eight species of waterfowl (including a male Canvasback and female Redhead that seemed to be paired!); Pied-billed Grebe; numerous White-faced Ibis (along with a hybrid White-faced x Glossy that was discovered after photos were reviewed!); American Avocet (with two of the cutest little chicks, complete with tiny upturned bills!); Wilson's Snipe; Wilson's Phalarope; Common Nighthawk; Marsh Wren; Sage Thrasher; Brewer's, Vesper, and Savannah sparrows; and Yellow-headed Blackbird. A big surprise was the presence of two singing Dickcissels in a field at Monte Vista. This species is very rare in Colorado away from the plains. Among the butterflies here, we were happy to find Bronze Copper, Viceroy, Monarch, and Garita Skipperling, along with an abundance of dragonflies. As we headed west to Durango, we stopped to enjoy a small colony of Lewis's Woodpeckers, as well as a pair of Trumpeter Swans with a cygnet. The swans were released here a few years back and are now breeding (well south of their normal breeding range).

The next morning found us back among the ponderosa pines at Junction Creek where both birding and butterflying were excellent. Highlights included Band-tailed Pigeon, Warbling Vireo, some of our only Steller's Jays (alarmingly scarce this year), Brown Creeper, Townsend's Solitaire, Virginia's and MacGillivray's warblers, and Evening Grosbeak. A little trail along a sunny hillside provided great butterflying with sightings of Pine White; Colorado, Banded, and Hedgerow hairstreaks; Nais Metalmark; Great Spangled Fritillary; Afranius Duskywing; and Woodland and Taxiles skippers. During our afternoon visit to Mesa Verde, we enjoyed viewing the ruins and also had good luck with butterflies on rabbit brush, including Tailed Copper, Great Purple and Juniper hairstreaks, and Pahaska Skipper.

Some of the most breathtaking scenery on our tour loop was on our drive north through the San Juan Mountains, famous for the narrow gauge heritage railroad that runs 46 miles between Durango and Silverton, and also for the Million Dollar Highway from Silverton to Ouray. Our first stop on this route was at Haviland Lake where we had nice comparisons of Hammond's and Dusky flycatchers, and also found two Calliope Hummingbirds and a family group of Grace's Warblers, among an abundance of other birds. Although it was a little cloudy, the sun did come out long enough for us to have nice studies of Atlantis Fritillary and Northern Cloudywing. After our picnic lunch at Andrews Lake, some of us got to see three Gray Jays (we missed it last year—still scarce this year), and we all had nice looks at Northern Blue and Mormon Fritillary. In Ouray, we visited the spectacular Box Canyon Falls and had close views of four Black Swifts on their nests. We also got to watch six more swifts in their element, flying high overhead.

We visited another completely different habitat and enjoyed some lovely scenery at Escalante Canyon, a rugged, arid canyon with pinyon-juniper hillsides and a cottonwood-lined stream. Among the many highlights were two different family groups of Chukars (one per vehicle, thankfully!), Ash-throated Flycatcher, Loggerhead Shrike, Rock and Canyon wrens, Lark Sparrow, Blue Grosbeak, and Lazuli Bunting (as well as a hybrid Lazuli x Indigo!). We also found one little spot that was full of butterflies including Becker's White, Purplish Copper, and the very local Yuma Skipper. Other interesting critters here included white-tailed antelope squirrel, and an amazing encounter with three bighorn sheep. To cool off in the afternoon, we headed up to Grand Mesa where the wildflowers were simply breathtaking—certainly the best we've ever seen them. Of course, butterflies were numerous and we enjoyed finding Scudder's Sulphur, Mormon and Purplish fritillaries, and Milbert's Tortoiseshell. And on the drive up, some of us were lucky enough to see a long-tailed weasel dash across the road.

Heading east, we visited the spectacular gorge at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. Without a doubt, the avian highlight there was a family group of Dusky Grouse that allowed leisurely views along the side of the road. They even stayed put as several cars and motorcycles drove past. Serendipitously, we found these birds by overshooting one of our favorite butterfly spots. So after enjoying the grouse, we went back and found some wonderful butterflies, including Blue Copper; Coral and California hairstreaks; Great Spangled, Edward's, and Callippe fritillaries; Common Branded-Skipper; and Russet Skipperling. Heading east to Gunnison, we took a detour along Gold Basin Creek to look for the very local Gunnison Sage-Grouse, and lucked into a little family group seeking shade from the afternoon sun. We were all thrilled to find two good chickens in one day!

Upon departing Gunnison the next morning, we discovered what was certainly the rarest bird of the trip, from a Colorado perspective at least: two singing Alder Flycatchers (along with the more expected Willow Flycatcher) along Tomichi Creek. We had stopped there to look at some elk. Alder Flycatcher is only known as a very rare migrant through eastern Colorado, so the presence of two males singing on territory is unprecedented! As we headed to Dillon we crossed Boreas Pass again, this time stopping at some meadows on the south side of the pass where Colorado Alpine and Chryxus and Uhler's arctics were new for us.

On our final day, we visited Mount Evans where we reached the highest elevation of the trip (about 12,800 feet at Summit Lake). We began with a quick stop at Eco Lake where we were treated to excellent views of two Pine Grosbeaks eating gravel in the parking lot. We continued up to Summit Lake where we were greeted by a group of mountain goats feeding by the port-a-potties. We had excellent views of these animals, which allowed close approach. After a short walk, we quickly found our primary target bird, Brown-capped Rosy-Finch. We saw several of them foraging along the lake shore below us and saw another group apparently flycatching along a distant cliff. Although butterfly diversity is never high there, the sunny conditions brought out quite a few species including hundreds of Rocky Mountain Parnassians flitting over the tundra. A delightful way to end the tour!