Colorado Grouse Apr 10—19, 2014

Posted by Brian Gibbons


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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Colorado’s diverse habitats held our targets; to access these birds we covered more than 2,000 miles of Colorado’s roads from freeways to dirt two-tracks. Starting in Gunnison, we made our way over passes, through a spring snowstorm, across the parched shortgrass prairies, past endless miles of wheat fields, and up and down mountains. This wild circumnavigation brought us through the native habitats of seven species of grouse, from 12,000 feet at Loveland Pass to a surprise spring snowstorm as we watched the Lesser Prairie-Chickens dance.

Lesser Prairie-Chicken

Greater Prairie-Chicken— Photo: Brian Gibbons


We began in Gunnison where the newly described Gunnison Sage-Grouse haunts the sage hills. With the smallest world range of any of the birds we would seek, this was perhaps the most prized. They strutted for a couple of hours in the morning sun, unperturbed by the Rough-legged Hawk nearby. We then headed over Monarch Pass where we found a few Red Crossbills, knocking out a nemesis for Jim. Near Salida we searched the pinyon-studded hills above the Arkansas River and were rewarded with a noisy flock of Pinyon Jays. Working our way downstream we added a few birds; the rarest was a Black Phoebe along the river. We ended the day with a fine meal along the river walk in Pueblo, dining in shirt-sleeves.

The next morning we left the mountains behind and headed for the wide open landscape of shortgrass prairie. Here the Black-tailed Prairie Dogs and Pronghorns rule the land. We saw Mountain Plovers, which favor the dog towns for their barren nature—which makes it impossible for a predator to sneak up on the ground-nesting plovers. Cholla cactus was the only perch available for the Curve-billed Thrasher whose range barely sneaks into southern Colorado. We scanned reservoirs and fields all over the river valley. Burrowing Owl, Horned Grebes, ducks, Scaled Quail, and a few raptors made the list in this parched landscape. The next morning, with the wind howling, we birded through Comanche National Grassland and found a few birds, but were largely foiled by the blast from the north. Right in Campo we had a Roadrunner stalking the lawns of this tiny town. We found a little relief from the winds in Cottonwood Canyon, but few birds; Wild Turkeys were among the visible beasts.

Greater Sage-Grouse

Greater Sage-Grouse— Photo: Brian Gibbons

Three-thirty A.M. came all too quickly and we were off to seek the Lesser Prairie-Chickens in fresh snow—a first for me! Undaunted by the four inches of white stuff transforming their lek, the Lessers cackled, hooted, and stomped their way around. When their ardor subdued, we took it as our cue to warm up at Fred and Norma’s in Granada. Fortified, we headed north with just one stop along the way to tally three nesting Long-eared Owls! Bob Bledsoe, our host in Wray, has graciously allowed access to his land for decades to watch the Greater Prairie-Chickens among the Nebraska sandhills. Cooing and cackling for more than a couple of hours, they gave us a wonderful show; a little larger and more darkly colored than their smaller cousin, they were no less pugnacious, often squaring off head-to-head, leaping into the air to kick and peck each other in an effort to intimidate their rivals and win the prized alpha position.

Our last prairie stop was in the wide-open Pawnee National Grassland. The Buffalo Grass is very short and only the occasional yucca or a tiny prickly pear broke the pattern of miles of short grass. We saw the flight display of the McCown’s Longspur, heard the song of the Western Meadowlark, saw more Long-billed Curlews and Burrowing Owls, and finally tracked down a gorgeous Chestnut-collared Longspur that cooperated for scope views. With the mountains visible to our west, we headed that way; we were done with the prairies and the mountains called again. Silver Grill Café provided an excellent breakfast to get our trip up Poudre Canyon started. American Dipper, Common Merganser, Steller’s Jay, and Red-naped Sapsucker all showed well for us as we wound our way through the spectacular canyon, slowed down only by a small herd of Bighorns that decided to loaf in the road. At Moose Visitor Center we had a snack lunch and kept on birding. Nearby in Gould, we found finches. Evening Grosbeaks, Cassin’s Finches, Pine Siskins, Red Crossbills, and a single male Brown-capped Rosy-Finch that was a real crowd pleaser all put in appearances.

White-tailed Ptarmigan

White-tailed Ptarmigan— Photo: Brian Gibbons

The next morning (another cold one), sitting in the van waiting for the sun to come up found us at the lek of the biggest grouse, the Greater Sage-Grouse. Even before dawn we could hear their swishing feathers and gurgling displays. The males were inflating their huge white-ruffed chests and popping their boiled egg yolk-green air sacs. When challenged, they sidled along and whacked their opponents with strong wings, and gave an occasional peck for good measure. In the half-light a Golden Eagle made a pass through the lek startling all the birds, but many came back to continue their performance. Later, a passing pair of Prairie Falcons gave us exceptional views and the grouse hardly noticed. Walden Reservoir, just thawing on the edges, hosted a variety of waterfowl including our first Redheads, Canvasbacks, and Pintails. Keeping watch on the slowly thawing reservoir was a Bald Eagle on its nest.

California Park Road at dusk, scrub oaks among the sage brush, is the springtime habitat of the Dusky Grouse. We heard a few wing-flutters before Jim found one on the ground. We had great scope views, and then a half-hour later the bird strutted across the road, begging the age-old question. Some of us celebrated with gelato before another short night. The next morning found us in the ranchlands and rolling hills near Steamboat Springs. Sharp-tailed Grouse were doing their hyper spinning and foot-stomping display with their small lavender air sacs inflated.

One last grouse awaited. Though we had seen the Ptarmigan earlier in the trip, our group was not complete and we had to find it again. Gordon had it this time in minutes, a beautiful white bird nibbling on willow buds in the soaring mountainous landscape at 12,000 feet. The grouse were complete!