Colorado Grouse Apr 23—May 02, 2010

Posted by Steve Hilty

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Steve Hilty

Steve Hilty is the senior author of A Guide to the Birds of Colombia, and author of Birds of Venezuela, both by Princeton University Press, as well as the popular Birds of ...

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Time was short for us (as it was for our 2009 tour group, led by Kevin Zimmer). We also scanned every exposed rock outcrop and patch of willows atop Loveland Pass multiple times. But this year there were several differences. There were no ptarmigan vocalizations. There were hordes of snowboarders and skiers everywhere, and numerous dogs as well. And worst of all, it was very cold, there was a strong wind, and it was snowing, eventually so much that we had only limited visibility. So our search did not end in "Jackpot" (as Kevin exclaimed in 2009). Instead, we abandoned our search, tried Guanella Pass (which was closed for road construction), and admitted that ptarmigans were not to be seen on this trip. But we ended the trip in Genesee Park with a gorgeous male Williamson's Sapsucker seen front and back, a dozen or more beautiful Western Bluebirds, numerous Pygmy Nuthatches, some Red Crossbills, and a couple of wonderful Abert's squirrels, whose black coats and long pointed ears imparted an almost sinister appearance.

Colorado in the spring (and maybe all year-round) is like this. Everything is weather-dependent. We enjoyed great weather most of the trip and were able to see all five species of grouse display, including a male Dusky Grouse. We also saw a number of "eastern" vagrants. But, by the time we reached the Pawnee Grasslands, we were about to experience one of those famous Colorado spring storms (or maybe it was two storms?) because we endured wind, and then snow and muddy roads in the Pawnee, and snow and ice-packed roads at high elevations right through to the end of the trip. The upside of the snow was a frosty glaze on the conifer trees on the west side of Rabbit Ears Pass that turned the entire area into a frosty fairyland of almost indescribable beauty.

Highlights singled out by group members included the Long-eared Owl, Williamson's Sapsucker, McCown's Longspurs, Lewis's Woodpeckers, Brown-capped Rosy-Finch, and the incredible display and mating performance (including numerous interrupted attempts) of the Greater Prairie-Chicken. And there were other highlights too. In fact, the entire trip was a splendid journey in and out of spring as we circumnavigated the states from mountains to prairies, and then back to mountains.