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 and prairies. It’s also the time when the five lekking grouse species -Sharp-tailed Grouse, Greater and Gunnison Sage-Grouse, and Lesser and Greater Prairie-Chickens - are engaged in their amazing foot-stomping, cackling, hooting, and moaning displays.
Our travels to the grouse leks involve long drives, but what drives! We’ll travel alongside the Colorado River and the magnificent Black Canyon of the Gunnison, through beautiful spruce-fir forests and expansive sagebrush flats and grasslands, and past more than a dozen 14,000-foot mountain peaks. Along the way we’ll look for a variety of resident, early-arriving, or late-departing species including White-tailed Ptarmigan and Dusky Grouse and all three species of rosy-finches. Mammals will be unusually well represented too. We may see Bighorn Sheep, Pronghorn, Elk, White-tailed and Mule Deer, Moose, Coyote, Red Fox, and, with great luck, Bobcat or even Mountain Lion.
Day 1: The tour begins at 6 pm at our hotel near Denver International Airport. Night in Denver.
Day 2: We’ll depart early for the foothills outside Denver, where we may see three species of nuthatch, 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 difficult-to-find 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 Steamboat Springs.
Day 3: We’ll have an early start to search for Sharp-tailed Grouse, recently one of the more difficult of the “chickens” on this tour. With some luck, we’ll witness the wonderful foot-stomping display of this species. We’ll spend the rest of the day enjoying general birding, becoming acquainted with the birds of the region. We’ll look for Mountain Bluebirds, Townsend’s Solitaires, and perhaps lingering winter birds like Rough-legged Hawk and Northern Shrike. We’ll also look for Moose as we make our way to our hotel in nearby Walden, reputed to be the Moose capitol of Colorado. Wolves are also known to be in the North Park. Night in Walden.
Day 4: 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 the plumage and behavior that distinguish this species from Gunnison Sage-Grouse, newly discovered and one of our targets 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 make the drive to Fort Collins, perhaps through Wyoming, with impromptu birding along the way. Night in Fort Collins.
Day 5: We’ll head east to the spectacular Pawnee National Grassland where we’ll spend most of the day enjoying the rolling short-grass prairies with good chances for early-returning Chestnut-collared and McCown’s Longspurs, Long-billed Curlew and Mountain Plover, and breeding Ferruginous Hawks. In the afternoon we’ll make the drive to our hotel in Wray. Night in Wray.
Day 6: 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. We’ll likely hear the eerie calls which accompany the magnificent dance of this species even before we can make them out in the dim light. After the birds have finished displaying, we’ll stop at the nearby Bonny Reservoir, in whose 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 Lamar.
Day 7: This morning we’ll drive towards the grasslands of far eastern Colorado. At a private ranch with remnant short-grass prairie we’ll view the wonderful displays of Lesser Prairie-Chicken, a species that has undergone dramatic population declines across its already limited range. After our visit with the acrobatic, vocal, and often comical chickens we’ll head for the beautiful Two Buttes Reservoir, one of the state’s most interesting migrant traps, where a riparian gallery forest flanks a small creek with huge rock pools surrounded by hundred-foot-high red cliffs. The grasslands near the reserve offer excellent habitat for Black-tailed Prairie-Dogs, and with some searching we may encounter Mountain Plover, Chihuahuan Raven, Ferruginous Hawk, Burrowing Owl, and perhaps migrant longspurs. Later we’ll head west to Canon City.
Day 8: We’ll spend the morning birding around Canon City looking for arid-loving species such as Canyon Towhee, Rufous-crowned Sparrow and Canyon Wren, as well as Curve-billed Thrasher and Scaled Quail. From here we’ll meander our way west towards the mountains, enjoying spectacular scenery and some opportunities for Juniper Titmouse, Bushtit, Clark’s Nutcracker, Williamson’s Sapsucker, and others. Depending on when we arrive in Gunnison, we may make the drive up to Crested Butte in search of rosy finches, which frequent the feeders here. All three species are possible. We’ll settle into our hotel in lovely Gunnison, where we’ll stay for two nights, with the opportunity for some perhaps much-needed rest.
Day 9: This morning we’ll visit a lek of 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 absorbing the grouse, we’ll head west out of Gunnison to the breathtaking Black Canyon of the Gunnison, where we’ll search for Dusky Grouse, Fox Sparrow, and others, passing the Blue Mesa Reservoir along the way, which should harbour Barrow’s Goldeneye and other waterfowl. If we haven’t found all the rosy finches yet we may head back to Crested Butte before returning to our hotel, or we may decide on something else as weather and needs dictate. Night in Gunnison.
Day 10: Because early spring weather in Colorado can be unpredictable, and many of the birds of interest on this tour are somewhat or wholly dependent on certain conditions, we have set aside this last full day to track down species we may have missed. This could entail looking for flocks of rosy-finches or for White-tailed Ptarmigan, or American Three-toed Woodpeckers, or spending time exploring the foothill forests or some of the many fine reservoirs or migrant traps along Colorado’s Front Range. We’ll make our way northeast, arriving in Denver in the late afternoon. Night in Denver.
Day 11: The tour concludes this morning in Denver.
This tour is arranged by our American partner WINGS
Updated: 27 July 2017