Colorado Grouse Apr 09—18, 2010

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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Finding the White-tailed Ptarmigan at 12,000 feet on the last day of our Colorado Grouse tour is always a wonderful relief for the tour leaders. It usually means that we have completed the entire family of Colorado's native grouse, seven species in all.

It all started seven days earlier with our first early rising to observe the incredible filoplumes of the Gunnison Sage-Grouse. An amazing 80 birds, half of them strutting males, made for a great start to our grouse-watching. Sandwiched in between grouse were some amazing Colorado birds. Before our next lek we would find three species of rosy-finches, Clark's Nutcrackers, Burrowing Owls, Mountain Plovers, and Lewis's Woodpeckers.

A windy morning greeted us for our next dawn vigil from the bus. The Lesser Prairie-Chickens did not disappoint. Eleven males strutted, cackled, and jumped for the ladies. Later that morning we practically coasted to Wray with 50 mph tailwinds. We stopped just long enough to enjoy a couple of Long-eared Owl nests at Bonny State Park.

The next morning dawned calm, a welcome relief. We heard the cooing of the Greater Prairie-Chickens before we could see them. They cackled, hooted, and cooed to our delight from point-blank range. Their dancing earned them "display of the trip" honors, which they had to share with the Greater Sage-Grouse.

Then we were off to the west. A very productive afternoon in Pawnee National Grassland garnered a couple of great birds—McCown's and Chestnut-collared longspurs.

The next morning we wound our way into the mountains up Poudre Canyon. Common Mergansers were swimming in the stream surrounded by the incomparable beauty that is Poudre Canyon. The American Dippers stole the show though, as they came in to a nest right on the roadside; stunning views were had by everyone. Farther up the canyon the winds were still light. We were able to find an American Three-toed Woodpecker that came in a few times to check us out.

A quick snack lunch at Cameron Pass was enjoyed by all and we were off to the Moose Visitor Center. The bird feeders there are always a highlight of this tour since they offer a great chance to see some fine birds very up-close. The Pine Grosbeaks were in and we had wonderful views; also around were Cassin's Finches, Gray Jays, and others. Near Walden the reservoir was just starting its thaw. Consequently, the ducks and other birds were right on the roadside. After dinner we went cruising for moose. We were very successful, finding 11 of these monster ungulates, including a cow with a couple of overgrown calves.

Greater Sage-Grouse were our early morning target near Walden. Just 15 males gurgled, swished, and pranced for some 36 females, the greatest sex-ratio disparity I have ever seen on a lek of any species. The alpha male mated at least 12 times, sending the shaking and preening females on their way. The close display with lots of "action" earned this grouse the top spot for displays (shared with Greater Prairie-Chicken).

Next we were off to Steamboat Springs and the toughest of the grouse, the Dusky. Since they don't display in large groups or out in open country, they are always a challenge to find. After we first flushed one from the roadside and glimpsed a couple more stealthily walking through the brush, we finally found a cooperative female that gave everyone great looks.

Sharp-tailed Grouse were calling our name, so we were off again, hoping to see an evening display so that we wouldn't have to get up early for another dawn vigil. Interrupting our evening run was a romp of otters. Curling around each other, rubbing and rolling, they seemed to be enjoying themselves without a care in the world. The gray skies and cooler temps moderated the Sharp-tailed Grouse displays, but we got them. The next morning we would try again, but our weather luck had run out. Mild temps were good, but the spitting rain was not. The birds were there, as it is their duty, but displays were modest again. On the way out of Steamboat, Doug spotted a Dusky Grouse on the side of the highway, just for good measure. 

Our next target would be the White-tailed Ptarmigan. Finding this bird is more weather-dependent than any other Colorado grouse. Since it prefers the alpine tundra of 11,000+ feet, blowing snow and poor visibility are a constant part of the challenge. We were not let down. An icy snow pelted our faces as we searched for an all-white bird in an all-white world at 12,000 feet on Loveland Pass. The snow let up and our resolve strengthened. I tried the other side of the highway; we usually don't see ptarmigans over there. To my surprise, a male flew in, calling, attracted to the tape. Scope views for everyone! And a big sigh from Michael and me.

While a variety of birds were chosen for "bird of the trip" honors, the rosy-finches garnered the most votes. We found 166 species of birds and an amazing 26 species of mammals on this circumnavigation of Colorado.