Colorado Grouse Apr 21—30, 2011

Posted by Kevin Zimmer

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Kevin Zimmer

Kevin Zimmer has authored three books and numerous papers dealing with field identification and bird-finding in North America. His book, Birding in the American West: A Han...

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Few birding experiences in North America can top the arrival of spring in the prairies and high basin parklands of Colorado. And few things are less predictable than the spring weather in the Rockies. Both points were hammered home to us during this year's Colorado Grouse II tour.

We started our tour with a predawn vigil east of Gunnison. Word had it that the Gunnison Sage-Grouse were spookier than usual, due to repeated incidents of predation at the lek from coyotes and Golden Eagles in just the past couple of weeks. That observation from the volunteers overseeing the public lek proved to be spot-on. As we sat, huddled in the blind, with dawn slowly breaking, it became apparent that there were only four male grouse at the lek. They were dancing at first, although with a stiff wind blowing it was difficult to hear their sounds. But just as it was getting light enough to really make out plumage details in the scope, the birds seemed to lose interest in displaying and appeared nervous and in a state of high alert. Within minutes, they had walked off or flown off the lek, ending the show somewhat prematurely. The weather was changing too. By the time we made it back to the hotel for breakfast and checkout, it was already snowing on Monarch Pass. This seemed to bode well for our chances of finding rosy-finches in Crested Butte, so off we went. Despite snow flurries that continued throughout our time in Crested Butte, it did not appear that rosy-finches were being driven from the mountains above into town. We did find a number of other birds that were, however, ranging from Red-naped Sapsuckers and Cassin's Finches to less expected Yellow-headed Blackbirds and Vesper Sparrows. After a couple of hours of cruising every neighborhood in Crested Butte for feeders, we headed back to Gunnison, only to spot a flock of more than 100 high-flying rosy-finches headed in the other direction. We turned around and gave chase, but never could catch up with them, and their specific identity was destined to remain a mystery.

The hours spent in Crested Butte had allowed time for the snowplows to open up Monarch Pass, which had been treacherous just a few hours earlier. We made it over without problems and birded our way to Pueblo, scoring a nice Osprey, a pair of Dippers feeding young, a very responsive Juniper Titmouse, and multiple Townsend's Solitaires in the process.

The next day found us birding our way along the Arkansas River Valley and adjacent plains east and south to Lamar. Stops at various lakes yielded lots of goodies, from a flock of 300+ Franklin's Gulls and side by side Clark's and Western grebes at Lake Meredith to a Barn Owl and Scaled Quail at Lake Henry, and a nice assortment of shorebirds (including American Avocets, Black-necked Stilts, Snowy Plovers, and Baird's Sandpipers) at Lake Cheraw. But the biggest highlights of the day came after lunch, when a stop near Las Animas yielded both a stunning Lewis's Woodpecker and crippling views of a badger at point-blank range. Several Wild Turkeys and a rookery of Great Blue Herons were a nice bonus.

The following day found us up before dawn once again, this time in pursuit of displaying Lesser Prairie-Chickens. Our blind here was mobile, in the form of an old school bus that we parked within viewing distance of a lek located on private land. The birds were about 100 m away, but we were able to set the scope up inside the bus and obtained nice views once the light allowed. And unlike the Gunnison Sage-Grouse, these chickens were really in the mood to dance. We enjoyed a wonderful, prolonged show, followed by a hearty chuckwagon-style breakfast back at Fred and Norma's place. Then we headed south of Lamar for the Comanche National Grassland. Along the way, we stopped to glass a prairie dog town and hit on a trio of Mountain Plovers that turned out to be the only ones we would see on the trip. After several minutes of scope study and nice views, we continued on our way, headed for Cottonwood Canyon. Stops en route were numerous, for everything from Long-billed Curlews, Ferruginous Hawks, and Chihuahuan Ravens to Cassin's Sparrow and Lark Buntings. The canyon itself produced its typical interesting mix of birds, ranging from more southwestern fare like Greater Roadrunner, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Bushtit, Canyon Wren, Rufous-crowned Sparrow, and Canyon Towhee to Wild Turkeys, Eastern Phoebes, and side by side Downy and Hairy woodpeckers.

Awaking the next morning to cold temperatures and misting rain was a mere prelude to the jolt I got upon discovering that we had a severely flat tire. Fortunately, it took only an hour or so to find a garage whose road service team could repair the flat, and we were on our way, thankful that the mishap hadn't happened the previous morning, which would have cost us the Lesser Prairie-Chickens. After securing some eastern species (Red-bellied Woodpecker and Brown Thrasher) at the Lamar Community College, we headed east and then north toward Wray. A stop at Bonny Reservoir yielded two big treats in the form of multiple Virginia Rails and a Long-eared Owl on a nest. Upon arrival in Wray, we made a recon trip out to the Greater Prairie-Chicken lek, and enjoyed watching 28 males booming away in the late afternoon sun. We returned to that lek pre-dawn the next morning, and reveled in the cacophony of cackling, hooting, and booming that marks the displays of these dancers of the dawn. Just sitting in the dark, surrounded by the sounds of the chickens, was a spectacular treat—one made even better with the arrival of light. Once again, there were 28 revved-up males, with a succession of females wandering on to the lek and stirring things up. Best of all, they were close, really close. And with females hanging around, the males were in overdrive, performing as if there were no tomorrow. The show went on, and on, and on, and when it was over, I had to concede that this was probably the best single performance I had ever seen at a Greater Prairie-Chicken lek in over 20 years of leading grouse tours.

After the lek, almost anything else would seem mundane, but we were now headed west, toward the renowned Pawnee National Grassland, with our search images set for longspurs. And find them we did, although not exactly as expected. In most years, both McCown's and Chestnut-collared longspurs would already be on territory by this late date in the spring. But throughout our tour, we would be constantly reminded that this was no ordinary year, and that the northward march of spring was slower than usual. We had little trouble in locating McCown's Longspurs, but they were not on territory, and no males were singing. Instead, we kept encountering small flocks of males and females that fed in one spot for a while and then moved on. Nonetheless, we secured many fine views. But aside from one highly suspect individual that rocketed away before we could check it out, Chestnut-collared Longspurs were totally missing in action. They are almost always later to arrive than the McCown's Longspurs, which themselves appeared to be newly on the scene. Reluctantly, we threw in the towel and headed for Fort Collins where an excellent dinner awaited.

A much later start the next morning found us with our internal batteries recharged, and looking forward to birding our way through the mountains to Walden. Stops in Poudre Canyon produced Common Merganser, Red-naped Sapsucker, Mountain Chickadee and others, but the strong winds that had dogged us virtually throughout the tour to this point persisted, making any birding outside of the vehicle a downright chilly proposition. A stop at Moose Visitor Center allowed us to bird from inside the building, and we enjoyed watching an array of feeder visitors ranging from red fox and least chipmunk to Pine Grosbeaks and Cassin's Finches. We rolled into Walden in time for lunch and check-in, and then headed out to Walden Reservoir and Arapahoe National Wildlife Refuge, where we enjoyed a fabulous assortment of waterfowl, grebes, and shorebirds, not to mention raptors that ranged from Northern Harriers to Bald Eagles.

The next morning found us once again in a pre-dawn vigil, this time for Greater Sage-Grouse. I had pretty much promised that the Greaters would make up for the rather half-hearted efforts of their Gunnison brethren; fortunately, they did not let me down. Although not nearly as frenetic nor as aurally spectacular as the displays of the Greater Prairie-Chickens, the displays of the Greater Sage-Grouse were impressive nonetheless, and at various times we had multiple displaying birds that were almost too close to focus on. And what they lacked in agility and sound, the sage-grouse made up for in size and general impressiveness—these are some whacking big grouse! After a most enjoyable morning spent on the lek, we cruised the Walden area looking for Prairie Falcons, but to no avail. Then it was on to Steamboat Springs, where an afternoon excursion failed to yield the hoped-for Dusky Grouse, but did produce some fairly distant Sharp-tailed Grouse dancing in a stubble field.

Heading out to the parking lot before dawn the next morning had us optimistic that the weather was on our side for a change. Skies appeared to be clear, and temperatures were warm, so off we went, headed for our traditional Sharp-tailed Grouse lek, with a stop to look for Dusky Grouse en route. We pulled up to my Dusky Grouse spot and within seconds of turning off the engine, I could hear not one but three different displaying Dusky Grouse. We waited for it to get light, but the light brought no visible grouse, and time was slipping away. We got out and walked toward the sounds, which stopped almost immediately. Tom and Suzanne spotted a Dusky Grouse slipping silently away through the sagebrush, but then it flushed before everyone could get on it. Fortunately, I followed it to where it landed (upslope), and was able to get it in the scope for everyone, allowing nice views. But there was no time to enjoy this conquest, because, once again, the weather was changing. The temperature was dropping, and it was starting to snow! We raced to Twenty Mile Road and our favorite Sharp-tailed lek, and sure enough, birds were already dancing when we arrived. Sadly, it would not last. The snow was coming down in buckets now, and just trying to keep it from totally obscuring the spotting scope was an impossible task. What's worse, the Sharp-tails themselves were waving the white flag of surrender—there was just no point in dancing when the wind was howling and wet snow was blanketing the landscape. There was nothing left for us to do but head back to Steamboat Springs, pack-up, and hope we could get over Rabbit Ears Pass without too much difficulty. The going was slow on the Pass, and at times near whiteout conditions prevailed. But eventually we made it over and down the other side. Stops for high mountain birds were completely out of the question, so we too surrendered, and headed for Silverthorne and lunch. For a couple of hours, we succeeded in outrunning the storm, but now it had overtaken us once again. Looking for ptarmigan on Loveland Pass was nearly hopeless, although we attempted it anyway. Giving up, we headed down the mountain toward Denver, but not before spending some enjoyable and productive time in the Ponderosa Pine belt at Genesee Park, where close Western Bluebirds and Pygmy Nuthatches took a backseat to a spectacular pair of Williamson's Sapsuckers at the same spot.

This was a very successful trip, in spite of being book-ended by snowstorms on the first and last days, with persistent high winds nearly throughout the trip, that really only abated (thankfully) during our visit to the Greater Prairie-Chicken lek. The abnormally late spring cost us several migrants that we typically would expect to see during the course of the tour, but then again, there's just no predicting the Colorado spring weather. We were witness to some of the greatest natural history spectacles on the continent, in the form of the displays of both species of prairie-chickens and the Greater Sage-Grouse, not to mention an impressive cross section of birds and mammals. You all were a great group and loads of fun, and I hope to see you on another trip soon—hopefully one with less wind and snow!