Greater Prairie-Chicken in full display, one of the natural world’s most amazing sights and sounds. Photo: Chris Wood
April is a spectacular time of year in Colorado. Late winter and early spring meet, with stunningly beautiful snow-capped peaks and the first blush of green on the river-edge cottonwoods. It’s also the time when the five lekking grouse – Sharp-tailed Grouse, Greater and Gunnison Sage-Grouse, and Lesser and Greater Prairie-Chickens – are engaged in their spectacular, foot-stomping, cackling, hooting and moaning displays. These leks are probably the most fascinating wildlife show in North America, and yet they are seen by very few people. Our tour is designed to give us ample time to watch it all.
Our travels to the grouse leks will involve long drives, but what drives! We’ll travel along the Colorado River enshrouded by mesas, the magnificent Black Canyon of the Gunnison, through beautiful spruce-fir forests, expansive sagebrush flats and grasslands, and past more than a dozen 14,000-foot mountain peaks. We’ll look as well for a variety of resident, early-arriving or late-departing species, including White-tailed Ptarmigan and Dusky Grouse. Mammals will be unusually well represented too, and we might see Bighorn Sheep, Pronghorn, Elk, Mule and White-tailed Deer, Moose, Coyote, Red Fox and, with great luck, Bobcat or even Mountain Lion.
Note that our sister company WINGS run many other tours in North America not listed on our website. You can find full details by visiting the WINGS website. All WINGS tours can be booked through the Sunbird office.
Day 1: The tour begins this evening in Denver, Colorado. Night in Denver.
Day 2: We’ll depart early for the foothills outside Denver where we may see three species of nuthatches, Mountain and Western Bluebirds, and Williamson’s Sapsucker. If the weather cooperates we’ll make our way to one of the high mountain passes in an attempt to locate the elusive White-tailed Ptarmigan, still white at this season. During some years, rosy-finches linger into April and occasionally we’re lucky enough to see all three species. In the afternoon we’ll cross Willow Creek Pass and drop into North Park. Night in North Park.
Day 3: We’ll rise early to witness the stunning display of the largest North American grouse, Greater Sage-Grouse. As we watch the lek we’ll pay particular attention to plumage and behavioural differences distinguishing this species from Gunnison Sage-Grouse, newly discovered and a target later on in the tour. After leaving the lek, we’ll explore the nearby wetlands and sagebrush flats of North Park, where Sage Thrashers might already be in residence. We might see the courtship of newly arrived Cinnamon Teal and American Avocets, and with luck we’ll find a lingering Barrow’s Goldeneye or two. In the afternoon we’ll cross Rabbit Ears Pass, stopping to listen and look for high-country species such as Pine Grosbeak and American Three-toed Woodpecker. Along watercourses we’ll search for the stream-loving American Dipper. Later we’ll drive to Yampa River Valley. Night in Craig.
Day 4: We’ll depart in the pre-dawn hours for a Sharp-tailed Grouse lek, where we’ll witness the remarkable display of this foot-stomper. The surrounding meadows and valley support a wide variety of wildlife including nesting Sandhill Cranes, several raptors and many mammals. After breakfast, we will head south through the town of Meeker, where we will look for Evening Grosbeak and Cassin’s Finch. In the evening, if the weather is suitable, we’ll join friends-in-the-know to look for owls. Northern Saw-whet, Long-eared, Western Screech-, and even Boreal Owls are possible. Night in Clifton.
Day 5: We’ll spend the morning birding the canyonlands in aptly named Mesa County where we should see Rock and Canyon Wrens, White-throated Swift and other characteristic birds of Colorado’s dry West Slope. We’ll also keep our eyes on the ground for Gambel’s Quail and Chukar. The scenery is spectacular, and there is no better place to find Dusky Grouse and Pinyon Jay. Night in Gunnison.
Day 6: This morning we’ll visit a lek of the Gunnison Sage-Grouse. With the displays of Greater Sage-Grouse still fresh in our minds we’ll be able to appreciate the differences that led to the recognition of this bird as a separate species. After enjoying the grouse, we’ll drop into the Arkansas River Valley where we’ll search for several species near the northern limit of their range including Scaled Quail, Curve-billed Thrasher, Rufous-crowned Sparrow, and Canyon Towhee. The nearby hills usually hold Juniper Titmouse and Bushtits. Pueblo Reservoir often produces a surprise or two, and a city park should provide close-up views of Wood Ducks. Night in Pueblo.
Day 7: We’ll search for birds as we head east along the Arkansas River Valley, one of the most exciting birding places in Colorado. Riparian cottonwoods, just beginning to show green, are oases in a sea of short-grass prairie and collect newly arrived migrants, perhaps including Say’s Phoebe or Harris’s Sparrow. The reservoirs and pools may host waterfowl and early-arriving waders such as American Avocet, Baird’s Sandpiper, Long-billed Curlew or Wilson’s Phalarope. Mountain Plovers nest in small numbers in the grasslands and we will hope to find a pair or two. Night in Elkhart, Kansas.
Day 8: Today we will drive south into the Oklahoma Panhandle, stopping to look for birds at several oasis and wooded patches on our way back west to Cottonwood Canyon, Colorado. This delightfully wooded canyon in the extreme southeast of Colorado has hosted many rarities over the years and features residents such as Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Greater Roadrunner, Curve-billed Thrasher, and Rufous-crowned Sparrow. We’ll also visit the sewage ponds and patches of woods around Elkhart itself, seeking out early migrant passerines and waders, Long-eared and Barn Owls, and waterfowl. Night in Elkhart.
Day 9: We’ll rise early and travel to the short-grass prairie of the Cimarron National Grasslands to watch the displays of Lesser Prairie-Chicken. We’ll search the grasslands for nesting birds such as Chihuahuan Ravens and Long-billed Curlews, and look for Burrowing Owl and Ferruginous Hawk in the prairie dog towns. As we head north we’ll stop at Two Buttes Reservoir, one of the state’s most interesting migrant traps, as well as other reservoirs, and isolated patches of trees that may harbour migrants. Night in Wray.
Day 10: Thanks to the help of the Colorado Division of Wildlife and the Yuma County Historical Society, we’ll witness sunrise on a private ranch in the rolling hills of Yuma County overlooking a Greater Prairie-Chicken lek. After the birds have finished displaying, we’ll slowly return to Denver, stopping en route at Bonny Reservoir where, in the wooded fringe, we may see species more typical of eastern North America including Northern Cardinal, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Eastern Bluebird and ‘Eastern’ White-breasted Nuthatch. Night in Denver.
Day 11: The tour ends this morning in Denver.
This tour is arranged by our American partner WINGS
Updated: 10 February 2017