Colorado Grouse Apr 10—19, 2015

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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This year’s Colorado Grouse tour encompassed all the seasons in a week’s time. From 12,000 feet at Loveland Pass with snow falling on a foot of fresh snow to t-shirt weather in Cottonwood Canyon, Colorado threw everything at us. The grouse still danced, and we witnessed these timeless spectacles at leks all over the state. The Dusky Grouse emerged on a roadside to give us exceptional looks at its ancient hooting ritual. Even the White-tailed Ptarmigan revealed itself two times in the thin air two miles high. All this and we were surrounded by spectacular mountain vistas, canyons, and wide-open expanses of the prairies of Colorado.

Loveland Pass

Loveland Pass— Photo: Brian Gibbons


Leaving Denver with blue skies buoyed our hopes that when we made it to 12,000 feet at Loveland Pass, the White-tailed Ptarmigan would be easy to find. Well, we heard it, and it called several times before we found the white-on-white bird that makes for some of the most amazing camouflage in the animal world. After watching the bird for several minutes, another emerged from the snow nearby! A quick check of feeders in Silverthorne revealed Brown-capped and Gray-crowned rosy-finches, lifers for many folks, before we started the official tour in Gunnison.

On our first morning the chill of the Gunnison basin was still with us when the early light revealed the Gunnison Sage-Grouse strutting on a distant ridge surrounded by sagebrush. Though distant, we noted the thick filoplume ponytail and its banded tail feathers. With this first grouse in the bag, we headed to Monarch Pass at more than 11,000 feet. Calm winds allowed us to locate four (!) American Three-toed Woodpeckers, a trip highlight for many folks. Downhill for the next few days took us through the Arkansas River Valley with many bird highlights: Lewis’s Woodpecker, Pinyon Jay, Evening Grosbeak, Scaled Quail, and a few Mountain Bluebirds. Bighorn Sheep even scaled the cliffs in the canyon at Cotopaxi. East of Pueblo in the shortgrass prairie Linda spotted the much-sought Mountain Plover in the midst of the barren landscape of a Black-tailed Prairie-Dog town. Burrowing Owls and Curve-billed Thrashers also lurked in the cholla grassland. In southeast Colorado, in the sandhill grassland, a few sneaky Cassin’s and Grasshopper sparrows were starting to sing their songs for the spring. In the canyon country of Cottonwood we caught up with southwestern species like Canyon Towhee, Rufous-crowned Sparrow, Greater Roadrunner, Rock and Canyon wrens, and a wayward Common Black Hawk!

Greater Prairie-Chicken

Greater Prairie-Chicken— Photo: Brian Gibbons


Fred Dorenkamp met us at 4:30 for our next quest. Bumping along in the school bus, we parked in a field south of Holly. Hooting and cackling filled the air before the sky lightened to illuminate the vigorous display of the male Lesser Prairie-Chickens and their maroon air sacs. Afterwards Norma fed us a hearty country breakfast in the breakfast room constructed of salvaged bricks from Camp Amache, a World War II Japanese Internment Camp where Wendy’s maternal grandparents were interned for two years. As we sat down for breakfast, the wind kicked up and wouldn’t abate for a couple of days. It whisked us north to the sand sage hills of Northeast Colorado, home of the Greater Prairie-Chicken. After learning about farming and ranching from our host Bob Bledsoe, we enjoyed an excellent meal at Fourth and Main. After another short night we again found ourselves in the dark of the prairie with the wind whistling and a nearby windmill churning away. Not a single human light was visible as the dark night faded.

Dusky Grouse

Dusky Grouse— Photo: Brian Gibbons


The cooing and cackles of the prairie-chickens soon filled the air. The males danced vigorously for a while after dawn, but with few females visiting, they settled into their crouched face-offs. After this display we headed west to catch up with more prairie birds in the Pawnee National Grassland. Staging Chestnut-collared Longspurs were easy to find this year, and we enjoyed scope views of several striking males. McCown’s Longspurs were already on territory in the sparse grassy areas. A spring thunderstorm curtailed our watching and had us sliding our way to Fort Collins in the early afternoon.

Sharp-tailed Grouse

Sharp-tailed Grouse— Photo: Brian Gibbons


The wind, which whipped at forty miles an hour, abated and the snow started shortly after we entered Poudre Canyon. A couple of hours with minimal birding brought us to North Park where the feeders at Moose Visitor Center were swarming with birds. Late in the evening we did a moose cruise which produced 15 moose, several elk, and a wonderfully unexpected Long-eared Owl pair. The next morning, again in the snow, the Greater Sage-Grouse display was somewhat muted in the blizzard. Then at 6:43 it was over; 40 birds flew off simultaneously to the north, and a Golden Eagle flapped by seconds later. After fortifying ourselves with bacon and eggs at the Moose Creek Café, we headed over to Steamboat Springs for our quest of the toughest bird, the Dusky Grouse. That evening we headed to the oak woodlands near Hayden. Much to our surprise, a male was displaying on the roadside shortly after our arrival; scope views delighted everyone. This obliging bird hooted and displayed for a half-hour as we all watched his ritual. Finally we had to leave, the bird still hooting.

Our last lek was in the rolling grassy hills of the Yampa River Valley where we found a very active lek of Sharp-tailed Grouse. Fifteen males spread their wings, stomped their feet, and spun around, all the while inflating the lavender air sacs on their necks. A lone male rehearsed for us on a roadside fence post before jumping down for a full dance. The last grouse was in the bag as we finished an excellent circumnavigation of Colorado.

Thanks for traveling with VENT. I look forward to our next birding adventure.