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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Colorado - The Great Grouse tour

Tour Narrative

In Brief: Early spring in Colorado is a dynamic time, both for weather and for birds.  This year we found the prairies to be warmer than average, with many trees already leafing out.  Over much of the Rockies there was little snow, but at the highest elevations we were thwarted somewhat by high winds and a deep snowpack.  If the weather and habitats were varied the birds were even more so.  Of course the highlight honors of any spring Colorado trip must fall to the grouse.  This year we had exceptional views of all five species of lekking grouse, and excellent looks at a female Dusky Grouse foraging along a thicket of stunted oak trees.  The stately but somehow supercilious displays of Greater and Gunnison Sage-Grouse provided a great contrast to the frenetic and comical antics of the three Prairie-Chickens.  The supporting cast was wonderful as well; from the first returning shorebirds using prairie reservoirs as stopover sites, to Mountain Plovers and Burrowing Owls standing around in expansive Prairie-Dog towns, from all three species of Rosy-Finches swirling around a snowy village, to a roosting Long-eared Owl that remained still for over a half-hour as we filled up our camera cards.  We also managed a true rarity in the form of a Black-chinned Sparrow singing in a beautiful dry foothill canyon, and several early arrivals in the prairies.  It was a wonderful voyage around the scenic and bird-rich state of Colorado, with a great group of participants, and I very much look forward to the next rendition!

In Detail:

Our first stop on day one was the mountain town of Estes Park.  Here we enjoyed a surprise Prairie Falcon coursing over conifer-clad slopes, a perched Band-tailed Pigeon, and several stunning Mountain Bluebirds, trying their best to out-color the sky.  Feeders and neighborhoods south of town and at nearby Allenspark failed to produce the hoped for Rosy-Finches (likely due to good weather) but a host of more common montane birds such as Cassin’s Finch, Pygmy and White-breasted Nuthatches, and Black-billed Magpies, Hairy Woodpeckers, Mountain Chickadees, and a wealth of varying subspecies of Dark-eyed Juncos kept us well entertained.  Later, after a wonderful lunch stop at a local bakery, we attempted to drive up to Loveland Pass in search of White-tailed Ptarmigan.  In contrast to the nice weather around Estes we discovered howling winds (gusting to 40mph) and blowing snow at the top of the pass, and after an hour of searching decided that the Ptarmigan were likely tucked into snow banks awaiting better weather (and thus proving themselves the smarter animal).  On the drive north to Walden we made several stops, admiring perched Swainson’s and Red-tailed Hawks, a soaring Golden Eagle, our first Ospreys and a cooperative pair of American Dippers along a rushing mountain stream.  I think the near-constant stunning background scenery provided for a very exciting first day!

As dawn broke on day two we waited in the van near a Greater Sage-Grouse lek.  For over an hour we watched as eight males vied for the attention of nearly 15 females.  The males, with their comical filoplumes, puffed up chests and large yellow throat sacs made an impressive display.  Each male stood with his head erect and tail fanned, occasionally stretching forward and inflating his throat sacs before releasing the air and making a deep “ker-plunk” call.  The females on the whole seemed to be less impressed than we were…  Enroute back to Walden for breakfast we sorted through the impressive showing of waterbirds on Lake Walden.  Amidst 50 American White Pelicans and dozens of gulls and cormorants were hundreds of ducks; in quick succession we worked through Lesser Scaup, Ring-necked Duck, Canvasback, Redhead, Bufflehead, Common Merganser, Gadwall, Mallard, Northern Shoveler, Green-winged Teal, and Common Goldeneye, as well as a small group of Western Grebes with a single Clark’s Grebe.  Definitely a visual bounty significant enough to whet ones appetite for breakfast!  Later in the morning we elected to follow up on a tip by driving east to Gould.  Here at a state forest visitors center we were thrilled to find several beautiful Pine Grosbeaks, and, after awhile of waiting, a surprising single Brown-capped Rosy-Finch.  Soon after the snows set in, and as we drove westwards to Craig it remained cold and uninviting for much of the afternoon.  After a few hours rest at our hotel the weather cleared and we attempted to track down one of the more elusive grouse in Colorado, the Dusky Grouse.  Although we did not find a displaying male at a known location the walk up the scrubby valley did produce exceptionally close views of a roosting Long-eared Owl in a short oak tree, and several pairs of cooperative Sandhill Cranes.

Our experiences with dancing grouse continued on the morning of day three, where we found ourselves greeting the dawn in a wide valley of grass ringed by scrubby and snow-covered hills.  A group of 11 Sharp-tailed Grouse were seen strutting along the ridge of a nearby hill, with the males’ purple tympanums, drooped wings and erected tail peeking up from the grasses.  While we were watching the males running around their prospective mates, quivering their tails and stamping we were distracted by a quietly foraging female Dusky Grouse which was along the road just a few meters downhill from the car!  This species is common in Colorado in the appropriate habitat, but can be frustratingly difficult to locate on command.  Flush with success we began our journey south to Grand Junction ahead of schedule.  Soon after departing Craig we stopped to admire a foraging flock of nearly 50 Pinyon Jays that were feeding on a nearby slope.  Later we investigated some of the neighborhoods in the small town of Meeker and happily found a small group of Evening Grosbeaks mixed in with a large group of Cassin’s Finch, American Goldfinch, and Pine Siskins.  The rest of the drive turned up several more birds of interest including a Common Loon and a pair of White-faced Ibis at a large reservoir, and several groups of migrant swallows.  In the afternoon we chose to chase the 4th Black-chinned Sparrow for the state of Colorado, which was being reported quite close to Grand Junction.  A short walk through a trail in the Colorado National Monument produced our quarry as well as our first Say’s Phoebe, Juniper Titmouse, and Black-throated Sparrows.  We then drove the main road through this remarkably scenic monument, with its winding roads, steep canyons, and bright red rocks on our way to a reservoir near the Utah border.  As the sun set on a very productive day of birding we enjoyed excellent views of our first Loggerhead Shrike, a fine Sage Thrasher and a mixed flock of gulls including a surprise (first for the tour in the last 8 years) Caspian Tern.  Unfortunately our normal optional owling trip up the Grand Mesa was scrapped due to high winds and precipitation.

We slept in a bit the next day before heading to the nearby Little Bookcliffs Monument.  This steep sided and arid canyon supports a sparse growth of juniper and pinyon pine, and a small population of the introduced and very beautiful Chukar.  The density of this species in the canyon fluctuates from year to year, and this year appeared to be a down year.  Despite much searching we managed only to hear a brief burst of calls from one individual.  The multitude of cooperative Rock Wrens, several more Black-throated Sparrows and a flock of White-throated Swifts provided some excitement, and we even managed to find two of the “Wild” Horses that make the upper part of the canyon their home.  Enroute to our next base of Gunnison we stopped at several wetlands around Delta, where the sunshine, green leaves, and flowering trees provided a welcome change from the wintry north.  Amongst the number of regular species we located a trio of Red-breasted Mergansers and a single Blue-winged Teal, as well as several Clark’s Grebes.  Of particular interest though were a number of Forster’s Terns (typical later in April) and a wonderful Lewis’s Woodpecker.  We skipped viewing the geologically interesting Black Canyon of the Gunnison this year due to our earlier success with Dusky Grouse, and this allowed us to make the extra drive up to the ski town of Crested Butte, with its chalets, numerous artworks (including an excellent Sir George vs. the Dragon), and quaint shops.  We drove around town for a while in a light snow but failed to connect with any finches.  At the last moment I decided to drive uphill as far as possible, and to all our surprise, a flock of about 170 Rosy-Finches appeared!  Although a little flighty we all managed to see a few Black Rosy-Finches and a Hepburn’s Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch amidst the large flock of predominantly Brown-capped Rosy-Finches.  A nice dinner at a local steakhouse was followed by an early bedtime to prepare for the next morning’s visit to the Gunnison Sage Grouse Lek.

The Gunnison plateau was snow-free this year, in stark contrast to previous year.  According to the locals the snow melted in mid-March, about a month and a half earlier than “average”.  The Sage-Grouse seemed to have responded by winding down their activity at the lek earlier than normal (they generally display into May).  We arrived at the lek viewing area in the dark and awaited the dawn.  As the sun began to lighten the horizon we soon were able to see a few males displaying to a group of females.  The females departed before the day began to really brighten, but several males remained on the lek site for about half an hour more.  Although quicker than normal the views were satisfying and the warm conditions more than comfortable.  As an added benefit we had more time to bird enroute to Pueblo.  Most years we make frequent stops along the road through Monarch Pass, which climbs up into Douglas fir forest at nearly 11000ft before dropping down to the Salida Valley.  This year we encountered snowy conditions that began abruptly when we arrived at the pass and precluded our options for birding.  Although we thus missed Gray Jay, Clark’s Nutcracker and our best chance for the always difficult American Three-toed Woodpecker we made up for it with excellent studies of six species of swallows, a Black Phoebe, a pair of Western Bluebirds (amidst a large flock of Mountain Bluebirds) and our first flock of Great-tailed Grackles all around the wonderfully progressive little town of Salida (where we ate lunch at a local café).  As we dropped further in elevation towards Pueblo through the very scenic Arkansas River Canyon we were delayed by a herd of Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep feeding along the road, and also by a brief stop near the base of the canyon to observe the world’s tallest suspension bridge, spanning the Royal Gorge.  In Canyon City we (fittingly enough) found Canyon Wren and Canyon Towhee, as well as a single Evening Grosbeak.  In the late afternoon we visited the neighborhood of a friend of mine in Pueblo West, where we found a pair of Curve-billed Thrashers and a small covey of Scaled Quail lurking inside a dense stand of cholla cactus.  The drive down the Arkansas River Canyon, from high alpine forest to arid rocky slopes and then out onto the plains provides a truly remarkable suite of visual treats, and is one of my favorite drives in Colorado.

We slept in a bit the next morning and then undertook the journey further out onto the plains and into our base for the next two nights, Elkhart, Kansas.  Driving east one quickly looses all sense of the mountains, as agricultural fields, open rangelands and small prairie towns soon envelope the senses.  The little towns that we passed through were full of character, some poor, and others affluent, but all containing friendly folk and wonderful old trees that provide shade and forage for migrant and resident birds alike.  Searching these towns can be productive, and entertaining both for the birds (our first warblers, and a White-winged Dove) and the sights (who can forget the tank and tummy gas station?).  The main birding highlight of the drive to Elkhart though was provided by stops at several reservoirs.  Mid-April is the peak migration time for several species of waders, and we managed to find 13 species during the day.  Chief among these were likely the several breeding plumaged Snowy Plovers and the flock of 25 Baird’s Sandpipers around Holbrooke Reservoir but we also tallied our first Lesser Yellowlegs, Spotted Sandpipers, Semipalmated and Least Sandpipers, and Long-billed Dowitchers.  Other birds of interest on the lakes included a singing Eastern Phoebe, large numbers of Western and Clark’s Grebes, and side-by-side comparisons of breeding plumaged Horned and Eared Grebes.  Once in Kansas we made a few stops in patches of native grasslands and were rewarded with our first Vesper and Lark Sparrows, and a newfound understanding of cattle operations.  During a brief tour of the dusty town of Johnson City we studied Audubon’s and Myrtle Warblers side-by-side and were also surprised to find a Capuchin Monkey hanging out on the bed of a pickup truck, and wearing a diaper.  We watched it for a while but it did not appear to be able to fly.  An after-dinner check of the sewage pond in Elkhart produced views of a perched Great Horned Owl and two flying Barn Owls.

Lesser Prairie-Chickens are a species of high conservation concern, rare over most of their limited range, and facing a variety of threats from hunting, land-use changes and fragmentation and widespread drought.  The population in the grasslands of Southwestern Kansas is one of the healthiest extant populations, and the workers in the Cimarron National Grasslands are actively managing to spread the population.  We were in place at a lek near Elkhart just before dawn.  Using the car as a blind we had fine views of nearly 30 birds displaying on the lek.  The erectile pinnae, orangey tympanum and frenetic motions of the males was a joy to watch.  Males would cackle and hoot, run with their pinnae erect, stamp their feet, and sometimes spar with other nearby males, all while their females (and us) stood by watching.  Their frenzied displays were quite the contrast from the rather stately and portentous displays of the Sage Grouse.  After an hour or so we decided to forage for breakfast back at Elkhart before heading out for the day.  A more complete visit to the Elkhart Sewage Works and Cemetery was very productive.  Over the previous week the temperatures were in the sixties or seventies, and trees were leafing out.  A general warm trend in the prairie was bringing summering birds and migrants north in good numbers and we saw several species that we only see on “warm” years.  Northern Cardinal, Northern Mockingbird, Lark, Vesper, and Chipping Sparrows were already present, and Western Kingbird, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Orange-crowned, and Wilson’s Warblers were all likely recent arrivals.  The Cemetery held a Townsend’s Solitaire and a Red-breasted Nuthatch, both holdout wintering birds.  In contrast to most years shorebirds and larids dominated at the sewage pond, with relatively few ducks present.  Our first Wilson’s Phalaropes, resplendent in their breeding finery plied the first pond, along with Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, a Baird’s Sandpiper, and a Yellow Mud Turtle basking in the morning sun.  The Black-crowned Night-Heron roost was very active, with more than a dozen birds visible, and with just a little searching we found both Great Horned and Barn Owls.  Birding the woodlots and trees in prairie towns during migration is always entertaining, as one just never knows what will turn up. 

After our tour of Elkhart we set off into nearby Oklahoma, where a very dilapidated town enroute to the Black Mesa held a Curve-billed Thrasher and a group of Barn Swallows that were entering the now-defunct local theatre through some broken windows.  The Black Mesa is an uplifted plateau at the very west end of Oklahoma that supports a unique avifauna for the state and is a surprising change from the seemingly endless prairie.  The upper slopes are covered in Pinyon-Juniper, and rocky draws, bluffs, and spires dominate the landscape.  Also here is a small state park with a lake and small feeder stream lined with large cottonwoods.  The park serves as a decent trap for migrant birds, and for western Oklahoma the park and surrounding mesa habitats are the crown jewel of birding locations.  The reservoir held a nice selection of ducks and a few turtles sunning on its banks, but little of real note.  We elected to journey just a bit further west into New Mexico, and as we crossed the Cimarron River we were thrilled to locate our first Wood Duck of the tour.  Who else can say that they have only one bird in a state and have that bird be Wood Duck?  The scenery was beautiful, and was enhanced by the feeling of being in a part of the United States that very few people have been able to visit. 

The warm weather brought us continued good luck, with numbers of Lark Sparrows and a nice Cassin’s Sparrow along the road back from New Mexico.  Enroute back to Elkhart we found a large Prairie Dog town with over a dozen Burrowing Owls interspersed among the active burrows.  These charismatic owls are always fun to watch, but we were especially lucky to witness a mating event at fairly close range.  Also enroute home we found several Chihuahuan Ravens and a few Common Ravens, another gorgeous Ferruginous Hawk, and a nice variety of sparrows (including an incredible 650 Vesper Sparrows) undergoing migration or setting up territories.

Our next to last day was largely a travel day, as the drive back up to Wray takes the majority of the daylight hours to complete.  We made a stop again at the Elkhart Sewage Ponds and found a few birds that were not present the day before (American Pipit, Wood Duck, Bufflehead) and then set off north.  Shortly after leaving Elkhart we found a large Prairie Dog town along the highway, and after some careful scanning I located a single Mountain Plover.  This pale and delicately pattered wader is scarce across its limited range and declining.  They prefer very short grass prairie (like that found around active Prairie Dog colonies) but never occur at very high densities.  Later in the morning we made a stop in at Two Buttes, a scenic watered canyon which forms an isolated oasis in a sea of ranchland and is likely the most famous trap for migrants in SE Colorado.  The short red cliffs that frame the creek and thick riparian vegetation often serve as roost sites for owls, and close to where we parked a Barn Owl was indeed using a deep fissure in the cliff as a day roost.  Although the woods were slow there were hundreds of Chipping Sparrows, our first Brown Creeper, a few Yellow-rumped and Orange-crowned Warblers, a Brown Thrasher and several Canyon Wrens and the sunny walk on a nearly windless day was very pleasant.  As we neared Wray we stopped in Bonny State Park and among the large cottonwood corridor we found Eastern Bluebirds (completing our bluebird sweep for the tour), a couple of largely uncooperative Virginia Rails, a Peregrine Falcon and a huge flock of Wild Turkeys foraging in the grasses lining the river.  We were met for dinner by a representative of the Wray Chamber of Commerce and the head of the Wray Historical Society who provided excellent companionship as they filled us in on the schedule for the next morning’s activities.

An early start seemed well worth it as we were treated to our best lek experience of the tour.  The lek blind is very well situated, being on the east side of the dancing grounds and very close to the action.  As we opened the doors to the blind we were greeted by a crisp dark night sky, and soon afterwards the soundscape of Greater Prairie-Chickens began to wash over us.  Their cackles, whoops, and deep eerie booms surrounded our blind for about 15 minutes before the light was strong enough to begin to make up the shapes of territorial males as they established their positions on the lek.  Pairs of males periodically jumped into the air, beating their wings against their rival, or just jumping up and fluttering back down to the ground.  As soon as birds began settling down the females began to arrive and the tempo increased to a frenzy as males began avidly courting.  Occasionally satellite males attempted to enter the centre of the colony, and then all the dominant males switched to chase mode, as they kicked the interlopers out.  Some of the territorial males were strutting and whooping less than 10 yards from the front of the blind!  The close views enabled us to closely study their banded bodies, long pinnae, and rich yellow tympanums tipped with purple at leisure.  Also on the lek was an active pair of Burrowing Owls that would occasionally chase a male chicken if he strode too close to their nest burrow.  After an hour and a half of one of the most impressive avian spectacles on the continent we wandered out for breakfast at a local café.  Due to the poor weather on day one at Loveland Pass we elected to make a second attempt at finding White-tailed Ptarmigan.  After a few hours driving we arrived at the pass to find patchy blue sky, little wind and a sweeping vista snow dusted trees and a ring of thirteen thousand foot peaks covered in fresh snow.  We scanned the few patches of open rocky ridges and mostly buried trees for several hours, and had fun watching a winter mountaineering club rappel down an icy cliff but alas only managed to hear a ptarmigan cackle once.  The cool air, craggy peaks and numerous cliffs and trees were a welcome reminder that the state of Colorado was not limited to the prairies!  We finished the day in the beautiful Red Rock Park, near the base of the front range.  Against the backdrop of rich red slickrock we watched as several White-throated Swifts flew in and out of crevices below our vantage point.  Here too was a recently returned male Broad-tailed Hummingbird atop a small bare tree, with his rich pink gorget flashing in the sun, and a flock of Western Scrub-Jays coming into a feeder array.  With a bit more patience we were rewarded with views of a flock of White-crowned Sparrows, with a single White-throated Sparrow and a single Harris’ Sparrow in tow!  It was a great way to end a bird-filled tour of Colorado, and I can’t wait to come back again in 2013!

- Gavin Bieber

Updated: May 2011