Colorado Grouse Apr 01—10, 2016
Posted by Brian Gibbons
Twenty-three hundred miles, elevations from 3,000 to 12,000 feet, and some of the best weather we have ever enjoyed defined our circumnavigation of the great state of Colorado* (the asterisk, of course, for our unplanned detour to Kansas for Lesser Prairie-Chicken, as the Colorado birds continue to decline).
On our first morning, just west of Denver, we searched in vain at Loveland Pass for the master of camouflage, White-tailed Ptarmigan. We did enjoy all three Rosy-Finches at Silverthorne and a great lunch at Blue Moon Bakery. After a little birding, the day was dedicated to getting over to Gunnison to rest up for our first early start of the trip. We spied Pinyon Jays and a few Mountain Bluebirds along the way. As usual, the first morning in the blind was cold. Horned Larks sang, unseen in the dark, before we could study the very distant Gunnison Sage-Grouse. Several males strutted on a distant sage-studded hillside, and their tails glowed in the backlight of the rising sun. Heading east over Monarch Pass, calm winds greeted us, and we were rewarded with a quick Red Crossbill and three American Three-toed Woodpeckers. After the pass we headed downhill into the Arkansas River Valley and Piñon woodland around Salida. We enjoyed the flycatching antics of several Lewis’s Woodpeckers as Pinyon Jays called and roamed through the area. The river hosted American Dippers feeding young under a bridge, and in the dry hillsides west of Pueblo we found a cooperative Juniper Titmouse. In the evening we enjoyed an excellent meal at Rosario’s in downtown Pueblo, along the Riverwalk.
A late start and light winds provided a good introduction to the dry shortgrass prairie east of Pueblo. Here, amongst the cholla grassland, we found Curve-billed Thrashers (at the northern limit of their distribution), Scaled Quail, some migrant Sage Thrashers, and our main target. The Mountain Plovers were seen very well in the scope as they stood in a copulating posture for several minutes! Lake Meredith was full of birds (as we usually find it), and the highlight in a nearby pond was a Snowy Plover. We worked our way to Lamar, Colorado where we discovered there were no Lesser Prairie-Chickens in the usual area, so we made hasty arrangements and a couple of days later found ourselves watching the chickens in Kansas, but not before enjoying the grasslands and canyonlands of southeast Colorado: Long-billed Curlews, Burrowing Owls, Western Meadowlarks, Canyon and Rock wrens, and Eastern Phoebe—and our glimpse of Western Scrub-Jays would allow us to see ten species of Corvids on the tour. After an enjoyable morning in Comanche National Grassland we were off to Dodge City, Kansas to see one of the rarest birds on the tour, Lesser Prairie-Chicken. After a distant viewing of the chickens we found a couple of Field and Harris’s sparrows, which would be very rare if we had stuck to Colorado! A north wind had us rocking north as we headed to Wray for the Greater Prairie-Chicken at the Bledsoe Ranch in Yuma County.
The rolling Sandhills hosted us for another early morning; we didn’t have to wait long in the half light as the cackles and cooing of the Greaters surrounded the vans. There were many females around the 20 males, and did they dance! One of the truck-blinds even had a chicken land on it a few times! There were a few Burrowing Owls in the lek, and with squinty eyes were trying to will the show to end. The wind was still with us as we headed west to the Pawnee National Grassland. Along the way we added Rough-legged Hawk, Bald Eagle, and Chestnut-collared Longspur. In the grassland we found a few McCown’s Longspurs settling in to their summer shortgrass prairie home. Just west of the grassland is Fort Collins where we fortified ourselves with a great meal and another well-deserved late start the following morning.
Our first stop on the way out of town was Silver Grille Café, a great way to prepare yourself for the scenic drive up Poudre Canyon. Along the river we saw Common Mergansers, American Dippers, and tallied one of our few Belted Kingfishers for the tour. The feeders at Moose Visitor Center of the Colorado State Forest hosted Cassin’s Finches and Pine Grosbeaks, as well as a Red Fox! After a quick picnic we headed into North Park to check Walden Reservoir, which we found to be largely frozen, but a few waterfowl, pelicans, and California Gulls were there, ready for the thaw. On our evening in Walden we made the pilgrimage back towards the mountains on our moose cruise. We were not disappointed; more than a dozen moose had emerged from the willow thickets to browse, including three that were right off the road. Other mammal highlights in North Park included a Striped Skunk on the snow and a busy American Mink along a stream.
The rolling sage of North Park is home to the hulking Greater Sage-Grouse and their deliberate strutting dance; more than 50 birds put on quite a show. A quick check of Walden Reservoir revealed newly arrived Canvasbacks and Cinnamon Teal. On the way to Steamboat Springs, a quick stop in Rabbit Ears Pass yielded Gray Jay, our only sighting of this species. In the snowy fields around Steamboat we found our first nesting Sandhill Cranes. Dusky Grouse necessitated an early dinner to get to the oak woodlands where they sometimes display in the evening; well, a couple of distant hoots was all we got, so we had to return at dawn the following morning. We wouldn’t leave empty-handed, as a Long-eared Owl made several passes over the group, illuminated by our flashlights and ushered closer by our squeaks.
We saw a male Dusky Grouse on the road, silhouetted against the gray morning sky, hooting to some unseen female. Across the highway in a grassy valley, several Sharp-tailed Grouse were dancing vigorously, spinning in circles, wings spread while stomping their feet. Occasionally we even saw the beautiful lavender of their small air sacs. Our last grouse target was White-tailed Ptarmigan, and this meant another run up Loveland Pass. Along the way, a quick gas stop revealed a “Storm Wigeon” on a nearby pond. “Storm Wigeons” have a very white face compared to a normally marked male. The Loveland Pass weather cooperated, but alas, the ptarmigan didn’t. Eastward, on to the Denver area, we had time for one last stop to chase the handsome Williamson’s Sapsucker among the Ponderosa Pines. We didn’t find the handsome male, but we did see a very cooperative and subtly marked female. Red Crossbills, Cassin’s Finches, Western Bluebirds, Pygmy Nuthatches, and a Golden-Mantled Ground-Squirrel were our last additions to the swelling trip list.
Thank you for birding with VENT. I look forward to our next birding adventure, wherever in the world that is!