Colorado Grouse Apr 06—15, 2012
Posted by Brian Gibbons
One thousand seven-hundred forty miles, 12,000 feet above sea level, 7 target grouse, 148 species of birds, 21 species of mammals, 16 to a balmy 80 degrees Fahrenheit—these are just a few of the numbers from our circumnavigation of Colorado. Most important is the number seven. If you count the apparitions in the fog which we all believed were dancing Lesser Prairie-Chickens, we had a clean sweep of all our targets.
Our first morning found us freezing in the metal box that is the viewing platform for Gunnison Sage-Grouse at the Waunita lek. The grouse were merciful, letting us depart at 6:30 to warm our toes after a decent show. Surpassing the feature presentation was the knoll sideshow after the birds departed the main lek. The flopping filoplumes were easily seen as the birds strutted on the distant ridge. Next we were off to Crested Butte with hopes that some wayward Rosies were in town. Defeated, we headed over Monarch Pass and down the Arkansas River Valley to Pueblo. In Salida the highlight was a great flock of Evening Grosbeaks marauding a feeder and the surrounding elms. The spectacular tumble one took out of the trees was stunning, as was its recovery and departure. The wind in the afternoon hampered our efforts, but we did find Western Scrub-Jay, Prairie Falcon, Golden Eagle, Clark's Nutcracker, and Mountain and Western bluebirds. Cruising into Pueblo, a confiding Scaled Quail staked his territory from the fence.
A beautiful Easter morning found us on the desolate roads of Pueblo County. A black-tailed prairie-dog town where a single Mountain Plover roamed the far reaches of the colony was our best find. Near Rocky Ford we found a confiding pair of the stunning Lewis's Woodpecker. They flew around, chattered for us, and mostly just hung near the nest cavity, one daring the other to go inside. A still day in Southeast Colorado is a gift, and we enjoyed the Burrowing Owls, Western Meadowlarks, and shorebirds including a few Snowy Plovers. After lunch and a few Arnold Palmers, we moved down the Arkansas again. Finally, in Lamar, we spooked a Barn Owl and were ready for a rest.
The grasslands around Campo yielded a few Eastern Meadowlarks (Lilian's subspecies), and just one brief song of the Cassin's Sparrow. The ladies at Campo Café filled our bellies and we were off again to bird the Comanche National Grasslands. Horned Larks, Ferruginous Hawks, Long-billed Curlews, Chihuahuan Ravens, and Swainson's Hawks graced the short grass prairie. In Cottonwood Canyon a surprise pair of Juniper Titmouse was a lucky find, and the rocky cliffs supported Rock and Canyon wrens, as expected. A huge prairie-dog town along the highway hosted another distant Mountain Plover. An early evening allowed for rest, as our muster in the morning would be 03:45!
The fog wouldn't budge. We heard the Lesser Prairie-Chickens, but only glimpsed them when our eyes could convince our brains that those were dancing chickens. Several different liftings allowed for a few studies of these declining prairie birds. The day got better from there, starting with Norma's breakfast and Fred telling us about his dustbowl upbringing! A group picture with a Lesser Prairie-Chicken mount reminded us that we did see that bird in the fog. Later in the morning we headed north for the larger, darker chicken of the sandhills of Northeast Colorado. Bob Bledsoe told us of his family's operation and how their 60,000 acres hosted more than 100 leks of Greater Prairie-Chickens. After a great meal at 4th & Main in Wray we slept well, anticipating the dance. We were not disappointed, as 17 male chickens cooed, cackled, fluttered, and stomped for the ladies. Flushed by the cry of the curlew, but not the trotting coyote, the males performed all morning.
Another transit of the prairie ensued. Pawnee National Grassland hosts longspurs in the summer and they were just returning from their winter quarters. As usual, McCown's are fairly common and the Chestnut-collareds were more of a challenge. After glimpsing a male Chestnut-collared fly across the road, the second bird we encountered was cooperative. He scooted around in the short grass allowing for scope views. Austin's in Fort Collins nourished us for the night.
A few hours later we were drinking fresh orange juice and great coffee while we ate amazing Eggs Benedict, cinnamon rolls, pancakes, and assorted goodies at Silver Grill Cafe. Poudre Canyon, and its amazing river and scenery were on the agenda for the morning. Before we entered the canyon, a nesting pair of Ospreys looked us over and a Bald Eagle surveyed the river from its nest tree. Rafting the river, Common Mergansers cruised the canyon. As we climbed, we reached Lodgepole pine and the realm of boreal birds. Over Cameron Pass we birded around the Colorado State Forest Moose Visitor Center. Cassin's Finches, Pine Grosbeaks, and Redwings were around and we had a quick picnic. In North Park we added some waterfowl and our first California Gulls. After dinner a moose cruise in the snow netted us 14 of the giant Cervids.
The Greater Sage-Grouse on the clean slate of snow-covered sage was a sight to behold. These behemoths of the sagebrush have a more subdued dance, but are impressive for their regal presence and ability to survive a winter in North Park. Their wispy filoplumes, solidly colored tails, and larger size distinguish them from the Gunnison Sage-Grouse. Strutting around, they swish their wings and explosively puff their hard-boiled egg yolk-colored chest sacs out. The ride over Rabbit Ears Pass was easy and mountain scenery with fresh snow was exceptional; the boreal birds, however, were not to be found.
Steamboat Springs was our base for our next grouse forays. With a late dinner planned, we struck out for the oak-covered hills north of Hayden in Routt County. Along the way we found a few sullen Sharp-tails that were content to hide from the harrier. Lauri came through this time with a magical spotting of a calling Dusky Grouse. Nine minutes after we arrived, everyone had seen the bird in the scope, surely a record that will never be surpassed. The bird sat for minutes before displaying as he ran uphill and out of sight. We stood around, delighted when we heard a bird display nearby. Fifteen minutes later we were studying another calling male Dusky from close range, in the scope!
A later start was our reward for finding the Dusky. The next morning we had a nice study of the lek antics of the Sharp-tails as they spun around and spread their wings while they inflated their small lavender air sacs. Next was the Ptarmigan—always the most challenging because it is a white bird, in a white world at 12,000 feet. I was delighted to hear the bird call in response to a tape of its call. Five minutes later it casually walked over the ridge and plunked down in the snow. Scope views for everyone, and the bird of the trip was found! A quick stop at Genesee Mountain Park netted several new birds including three nuthatches.
Thanks to everyone for circumnavigating Colorado with Michael and me. We hope to see you again on another VENT adventure.