Colorado Grouse Apr 05—14, 2013

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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This year’s circumnavigation of Colorado that we call the Colorado Grouse tour was wildly successful. Although the weather was not in our favor, it did help us with a few birds. We braved 50-mile-an-hour dust storm winds near Lamar, and as the dust settled we breathed a sigh of relief—only to drive into a blizzard. From short-sleeve weather in Cottonwood Canyon in the southeast part of the state, we entered the deep freeze as we drove north. The coldest temperature I ever recall on this tour was the 13° we saw in Wray after a fine dinner at Fourth & Main. Things mellowed out as we entered the mountains. Then, as we climbed Cameron Pass, we got into heavy snow, but not before an American Three-toed Woodpecker, followed by a flyover Northern Goshawk, made our morning. Finally we were headed to Loveland Pass at 12,000 feet to try our luck with the white chicken; within minutes Elton had spotted the White-tailed Ptarmigan feeding on willows. This, our last grouse, made the list complete, and we were happy and headed to Denver.

Starting in Gunnison we nailed down the rarest grouse first, the Gunnison Sage-Grouse. Distant scope views were enough to see his flop of heavy filoplumes and his banded tail, separating this bird from the larger Greater Sage-Grouse we would see in a week in North Park. The finch list kicked into high gear in Crested Butte with six species tallied, including the rare Common Redpoll. Our drives through the mountains were punctuated with the sky-blue of Mountain Bluebirds. Near Salida we finally caught up with a huge flock of Pinyon Jays; more than 140 birds streamed past, calling and sitting briefly for us to study them.

The next morning found us in the dry shortgrass prairie east of Pueblo. Mountain Plovers were on territory in the Black-tailed Prairie Dog town and, amongst the cholla, Scaled Quail crept through the grass and a Curve-billed Thrasher surveyed his domain. A lovely trio of Lewis’s Woodpeckers lent a little color to the wan landscape. Birding the reservoirs towards Lamar we counted numerous ducks, five species of grebes, Burrowing Owls, and even a lost Little Gull.

Our early wake-up was rewarded by the presentation of the Lesser Prairie-Chickens; they danced and pranced for the ladies all morning long. One unfortunate bird made breakfast for a lucky harrier. As we drove south, the wind increased and the depth of the drought was very evident. We saw a couple of Long-billed Curlews and several Ferruginous Hawks in the wind. The following morning dawned brown with an epic prairie dust storm. As we headed north towards Wray, the dust turned to snow and frigid temperatures. Along the way hundreds of longspurs of three species were halted by the storm. The next morning, with powdery snow kicked up under stomping feet, the Greater Prairie-Chickens put on a fantastic show. Again the wind whistled over the prairie. A quick look at Haxtun sewage ponds revealed myriad waterfowl including our only Ross’s Geese. A couple of windswept ears betrayed the Long-eared Owl seeking refuge in the trees at Crow Valley Campground.

The next morning we headed up Poudre Canyon, where a pair of dippers were just starting their nest along the river. High up in the lodgepole forest a cooperative American Three-toed Woodpecker made everybody’s day. The Goshawk that followed had everyone in awe. We summited Cameron Pass in the fresh snow and made our way to Moose Visitor Center, hopeful the rosies would be in; they weren’t there, but next door there were Brown-caps and Gray-crowneds. That evening on our moose cruise we weren’t disappointed; perhaps a dozen moose emerged from the willows to graze for the evening.

Another cold morning found us on the snow-covered lek of the massive Greater Sage-Grouse. Two dozen males strutted their stuff, but the ladies’ minds were made up. The alpha attracted all their attention; nearly forty females gazed upon him, smitten! Walden Reservoir was just released from its wintery grip and the thawed edges teemed with waterfowl; Canvasbacks, Redheads, Buffleheads, Wigeons, Mallards, and Pintails were all accounted for, but the star was the odd duck. Obviously from a mixed background, a gorgeous male duck looked like part Bufflehead and part Goldeneye. Another mountain pass lay ahead of us, the Rabbit Ears, which we navigated easily before descending to Steamboat Springs for an early dinner. That evening we were seeking the toughest grouse and second largest, the Dusky! Not a lekking species, this bird is sought in the oak hillsides in spring. Just before dusk a few birds were calling and performing their courting flutter. Mike caught sight of one that everyone was eventually able to see in the scope as darkness descended.

The next morning, a late one due to our success with the Dusky, found us gathering in the parking lot at six a.m. I alerted everyone to the presence of a Dusky Grouse sitting in a spruce tree in the Holiday Inn parking lot. Soon nearly everyone was enjoying scope views of this improbable sighting. The grouse left for the day’s routine and we were off to seek our last lekking species, the Sharp-tailed Grouse. Along the way a beautiful Yampa Valley sunrise and a coyote slowed us down. Soon enough we were watching the spread-wings and stamping feet of the sharp-tails. Their lavender air sacs are such a rarity in the animal kingdom. Suddenly the sharp-tails exploded in every direction and it was obvious, with the swoosh of wings, that Peregrines were afoot. The larger female narrowly missed one grouse right in front of us and they both chased the quarry, eventually retiring from the chase—another exhilarating life event for the grouse and the watchers.

With more great mountain birds to seek, we headed south to Silverthorne where we encountered a fantastic flock of rosy-finches; all three species were ticked including the greatly desired Black. After a great lunch at the Blue Moon Café we headed up to take our chances with the white one. Loveland Pass at 11, 990 is temperamental. Snow and howling winds can abort any attempt to find the ptarmigan. We weren’t dissuaded by the plumes of powdered snow we saw whisked off the highest peaks of Summit County. Within minutes of our arrival we were enjoying scope views of Elton’s Ptarmigan, then another and another! Exceptional luck was with us and we watched three crisp white ptarmigans, nibbling willow buds comfortably in the chilling air, their feathered snowshoe feet carrying them across the snow. But we weren’t finished yet. We got better looks at Red Crossbill and our first looks at a female Williamson’s Sapsucker at Genesee Mountain Park. Finally we were headed to Denver, completely satiated for now with our birds and scenery and memories of both.