Colorado Grouse Apr 07—16, 2011

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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Our first morning found us sitting quietly in a dark, cold trailer, most of us strangers. The sky paled in front of us, fading the morning stars. The snow-capped peaks emerged, as well as sounds from the valley—not the hoped for grouse, but coyotes, right from the middle of the lek. I was horrified. A few tense minutes later we saw at least three coyotes scampering about the lek, the Gunnison Sage-Grouse seemingly unconcerned. The birds danced and displayed for more than an hour to our delight. Our first, and often most-sought, grouse was under our belt.

Greater Prairie-Chicken

Greater Prairie-Chicken— Photo: Brian Gibbons

Next, we were off to Crested Butte for the rosy-finches. Bluebird skies never bode well for finches, but we found numerous Brown-capped Rosy-Finches in the trees around town. An improbable sighting by Michael at Monarch Pass allowed us to see Black Rosy-Finches on a little piece of wind-swept tundra. We crossed the Continental Divide and birded around Poncha Springs and down the Arkansas River. Cassin's Finches, Hairy Woodpecker, Red-naped Sapsucker, and Townsend's Solitaire were among the many birds we sighted. On the outskirts of Pueblo we found a very obliging Scaled Quail that sat on a railroad tie fence calling for us.

The following morning we found ourselves in the short grass prairie east of Pueblo. Burrowing Owls, pronghorn, black-tailed prairie-dogs, and a bonus Prairie Falcon were there, but no Mountain Plover. We continued moving downriver to Lake Meredith, which was oddly devoid of birds but for a few pelicans and Clark's Grebe. Lake Henry was birdier, but something had changed. The wind had come up, gusting to 55 mph that afternoon. We detoured around a wildfire near Fort Lyon. The next morning we birded through the continuing wind at Comanche National Grassland. There we found a migrant flock of Chestnut-collared Longspurs coming to a tank for water. Chihuahuan Ravens also cruised the grasslands. Perhaps most exciting was a flight display of the Long-billed Curlew. Cottonwood Canyon was quiet except for a few targets—Rock and Canyon wrens, Rufous-crowned Sparrow, and Eastern Phoebe. On our trip back north, a sprawling prairie-dog town tempted us to stop for a look. Several Mountain Plovers were sighted. We briefly saw a flight display and much tail-wagging. We also noticed that these birds were stained from the ochre dirt. Late in the afternoon the wind died enough for us to enjoy Lamar Community College Woods. Northern Cardinal, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Marsh Wren, and a Barn Owl brightened up the place.

Our earliest departure, short of four a.m., found us driving to meet Fred Dorenkamp in Granada. He would take us out to see the booming Lesser Prairie-Chickens. The chickens popped their brick-red air sacs and chased each other all over the lek. All the while Norma was cooking up an amazing breakfast for us. Along the way to Wray, Long-eared Owls on the nest were betrayed by a wisp of ear tufts at Bonny State Park.

The Greater Prairie-Chicken is often a favorite because of our proximity to the lek; this year was no exception. Surrounded by prairie sandhills, more than 30 males boomed, cooed, and cackled at the females that strolled through blithely. To my eyes the alpha male was a bit tattered with a scab on his left air sac, but he had the performance the ladies were looking for.

From the sandhills we headed west to the short grass prairie of Pawnee National Grassland. A few beautiful McCown's Longspurs were back on their breeding grounds, as was a Mountain Plover. A cloudy morning saw us returning to the mountains in Poudre Canyon. American Dippers dipped along the river. We also saw several Clark's Nutcrackers and Red Crossbills. As we climbed the mountains, the beetle-killed trees were obvious. In an area of Lodgepole we finally got good scope views of a male American Three-toed Woodpecker.

After a quick snack lunch we crested Cameron Pass and dropped into North Park. The Colorado State Forest Moose Visitor Center was birdy, with Pine Grosbeak being a highlight. In the willows on the way to Walden we found our first moose. Walden Reservoir, thawed at the edges, held a variety of waterfowl. Common Merganser, Bufflehead, Scaup, Redhead, and lots of dabblers cruised the edge of the ice. Some ice-skating Marbled Godwits were entertaining.

The forecast was ominous: snow and wind. We planned an early departure to allow for road conditions that might slow us down on the way to the Coalmont Greater Sage-Grouse lek. The huge males were there in the snow and wind, tails fanned, puffing out their chests, popping their yellow air sacs, and swishing their wings. Several females watched as they sat on their hands. It was over too soon, just as the light was bright enough for photography. All the birds flushed; cruising overhead was a pair of Golden Eagles.

Our return to Walden was slowed by deteriorating road conditions. Pronghorn in the snow-covered winter grass were perfectly camouflaged. Rabbit Ears Pass after breakfast would be much worse, but we made it to Steamboat. An evening run to California Park Road near Hayden left us a few hours to search for Dusky Grouse. We walked and stared into the oak woodland; just when we were about to head home, Michael heard a bird hooting quite close. Twenty minutes passed before Elizabeth (BA) spotted a male just at the edge of a copse of oaks. Eventually we got the bird in the scope and beautiful views were had by all.

Our coldest morning found us standing on the roadside watching the wind-up toy antics of the Sharp-tailed Grouse. Lavender air sacs inflated, wings spread, and tails pointed to the heavens are what this show is about. As usual, females wandered through the lek paying no mind. Our return passage of Rabbit Ears was less snowy than the day before, but the wind was again ravaging the spruce fir forest. One last grouse was on our mind. During lunch the road closure was lifted so we would at least have a chance at White-tailed Ptarmigan. It was not to be; blowing snow, 40 mph winds, and the white bird in a white land at 12,000 feet didn't materialize. Down the hill we marveled at a fine Williamson's Sapsucker at Genesee Mountain Park. The Western Bluebirds and Pygmy Nuthatches were numerous, and this was a perfect way to end our circumnavigation of Colorado.