Trip Report

 

VENTURE to:

Colorado

April 3 - 12, 2015


April 3-  Arrive in Denver; drive to Limon, Eads and night in Holly

April 4-  Morning at Lesser Prairie-Chicken lek; Lamar Community College               trail; Bledsoe Ranch

April 5-  Morning at Greater Prairie-Chicken lek; Sterling State Park;             Haxtun WWTP; Riverview Cemetery; Prewitt WMA; drive to Greeley

April 6-  Pawnee National Grassland; drive to Denver, Loveland Pass and                      Silverthorne

April 7-  Silverthorne to Kremmling; Seymour Lake and drive to Walden

April 8-  Greater Sage-Grouse lek; Walden Lake; Yampa River Preserve and             drive to Craig

April 9-  Sharp-tailed Grouse lek; drive to Grand Junction

April 10- Cameo; Colorado National Monument; Audubon Sanctuary, Redland

April 11- Black Canyon of the Gunnison; Chipeta Museum grounds; drive to              Gunnison

April 12- Gunnison Sage-Grouse lek; Monarch Pass; Salida; Griffin Regional              Park, Canon City and drive back to Denver

A feeder of Rosy-finchesEveryone was ready to go when I arrived at the hotel directly from the Denver Airport (and directly from Guayaquil, Ecuador with no clean clothes!) so off across the prairie we went. A brief stop at a nearby Prairie-Dog town produced no Burrowing Owls, so we set our sights on Limon and eventually the small town of Holly in the far southeastern corner of Colorado. Despite being April, the countryside was still brown with barely any spring leaves at all. The birds mirrored this as most of the winter birds were still around, with only a few spring and summer birds beginning to arrive. After lunch at a local restaurant we walked around a nearby wetland. It was cold! A few Green-winged Teal flushed and flew off, a couple of Yellow-headed Blackbirds played hide-and-seek in the reeds and a single Greater Yellowlegs was obviously a recent arrival. As we continued Black Canyon of the Gunnisonsouth we stopped at various wetlands and roadside “Dog Towns”, and yes, it was not long before we had great views of 3 Burrowing Owls. Holly is a small and attractive town set in the ranching area of the state and would be our base for the first “chicken” of the tour, the declining Lesser Prairie-Chicken. After dinner at a pig-inspired restaurant most of us went to bed (aside from those who needed to do laundry at the local laundromat!) as we had a very early start the next morning.

 

Colorado Sunset4:30 AM is very early (did I mention it was cold?) as we boarded our old school bus for the trip out to the chicken field. As the sun barely broke through the early morning mist we could hear our first LPC’s calling from the nearby lek. What a sight it was as they displayed, trying to attract the females, as we watched and took photos of this sight that has been going on for millions of years. After a brief walk along the trail at Lamar Community College we went inland looking for some reported Mountain Plover. The habitat seemed badly degraded and we felt that we were back in the time of the dust-bowl – very inhospitable with barely a green leaf in sight.  We did not find the plovers, but had our first Swainson’s Hawk of the tour- a bird just arriving in from the Pampas of Argentina where it spends the northern winter. An afternoon visit to the Bledsoe Ranch north of Wray got us oriented for our next chicken. Bob Bledsoe’s ranch was very large, with thousands of head of cattle and over 100 active Greater Prairie-Chicken leks; quite the operation.

 

Again it was an early start as we got situated at the GPC lek Greater Prairie Chickenwell before dawn, but this time in our own vehicle as well as a couple of “dummy cars” to adjust the birds to visiting birders. Again, as the sun came over the horizon, the birds flew in to “dance”- and so close to us at times. What an experience to watch them as they raised their feathers, inflated their pouches and called. We even had one sitting atop one of the vehicles. A couple of Burrowing Owls had just arrived from their wintering grounds and were adding to the general goings-on in this early morning frenzy. A stop at Haxtun WWTP produced a very good selection of waterfowl, including a stunning drake Cinnamon Teal, as well as a single Franklin’s Gull. The latter showing the delicate pink flush to its breeding colors. Sterling Park had some high fly-over Sandhill Cranes and the nearby Riverview Cemetery had a very obliging Great Horned Owl that just glared at us from a tall Cottonwood tree. The following morning found us on the wide open spaces of the Pawnee National Grasslands. With the golden prairies stretching in front of us to the Rockies on the western horizon, this was a beautiful spot. Add to this the songs of Western Meadowlarks, Pronghorn Antelope galloping across the fields and small flocks of longspurs flitting along the roadsides- a great morning. Lunch was a nice surprise at a gas station in Fort Collins, where we had delicious sandwiches with Osprey nesting nearby. It was then time to cross the Rockies to spend the night in Silverthorne, but Denver,Dickcissel, Fort Morgan with all of its roadworks and congested traffic, was in the way. Despite getting somewhat snarled in traffic we made it to Loveland Pass in plenty of time to search for the elusive White-tailed Ptarmigan. This is never an easy bird and after an hour wandering around in snowy conditions at 12,000’ we still had not found the bird. No-one really wanted to try again the following morning, so when we watched a photographer in action half way up the slope we were pleased to find 2 male Ptarmigan at his feet – phew!

 

Silverthorne is a skiing area and several folks in the area had filled their bird feeders attracting in hundreds of Rosy-Finches. It was a real treat to see “blizzards” of all three species coming to feed, mixed with Mountain Chickadee, Steller’s Jay and a single Pygmy Nuthatch. Walden, inPronghorn Antelope the northern part of the state, was our next destination and a date with the wonderful Greater Sage-Grouse. After a long drive out of the mountains and through arid valleys, with both Ferruginous and Rough-legged Hawks along the way, we ended the day in Walden; a somewhat out-of-the-way destination with a great old hotel that looked straight out of the “wild west.” The next morning was certainly one of the highlights of the trip. As dawn rose over the snow-capped Rockies, we heard the odd calls of the Greater Sage-Grouse from the surrounding prairie and for the next hour or so we had front-row seats to a time-old tradition. What a privilege this was and it’s an image I treasure. We made a short stop to look for waterfowl on Walden Lake where we had our first California Gulls of the tour, before driving to Craig, via the Nature Conservancy’s Yampa River Preserve. The birding was rather quiet along the river; probably due to the cold, windy conditions; the highlight being small numbers of Tree Swallows on their way north.

 

Rockies & Greater Sage GrouseWe awoke the next morning to a couple of inches of snow. Thankfully we did not have far to go and soon found ourselves parked along the snowy roadside (along with 2 other vanloads of birders!) waiting for the next show to begin. This was a lek of the fairly widespread Sharp-tailed Grouse. We sat and waited (in the warmth of the van) for a while waiting for the grouse to perform. And perform they did, the males shuffling around with drooping wings trying to woo the females; all the time uttering their strange calls. A good breakfast was then in order before we headed south towards Grand Junction with a little detour en route along some rather rutted and muddy roads. Thankfully we did not get stuck……..

 

The following morning we hiked up some rocky canyons in Sage Thrashersearch of the partridge-like Chukar. Several birds were calling from the rocky slopes as soon as we arrived and eventually we had great views of this introduced, yet elusive, species. Small flocks of White-crowned Sparrows were feeding along the roadside, and another highlight was several beautiful Black-throated Sparrows in the dry bush. Colorado National Monument is spiraling rocks, breath-taking views and dramatic drop-offs along the winding roads. The birds were also good with White-throated Swifts flying along the cliff faces; Western Scrub-Jays in the scrub and eventually, Sage Thrashers in some nearby sagebrush. Lunch was at a very nice café in Redland, with delicious soups and sandwiches; a very nice break before spending the remainder of the afternoon at the large Audubon Sanctuary. Several pairs of Osprey were nesting on the artificial platforms and a long hike through some riparian woodland produced a Great Horned Owl nesting in a basket along the trail – thanks to some advice from some local folks. The children from a local school also enjoyed seeing this beautiful bird through our scopes.

 

Watching the DipperThe Black Canyon of the Gunnison is another spectacular place with a visitor center overlooking a plunging canyon. Some of us walked down to a precipitous overlook, while others preferred to view from a distance. We never did find the Dusky Grouse, but many other birds made up for it. Clark’s Nutcrackers and Townsend’s Solitaires flew amongst the pines and Golden Eagles soared over the wide expanses; a hike in some brush along the rim produced a lovely Green-tailed Towhee. We spent an hour or so exploring the Chipeta Museum grounds before driving to Gunnison. A pair of Black Phoebes was a surprise here this far east, but apparently this species is colonizing appropriate habitat east of the Plains.

 

The town of Gunnison is situated at a high elevation and boy, was it cold first thing in the morning when we were in the grouse blind. White-tailed PtarmiganThe radio announced that we were the coldest spot in the nation at 18F – brrrrrr! We were shivering and the Gunnison Sage-grouse were s-o-o-o-o-o far away. Thankfully we had a scope and could see the displaying males silhouetted against the rising sun. This species is declining rapidly due to disturbance on its breeding grounds as well as continuing oil and gas exploration in the area. It took us a while to warm up once we returned to the hotel, but we had another grouse under our belt. We spent the rest of the morning along the river at Griffin Regional Park along the river where east means west in this part of the country. A male Summer Tanager was a real surprise,Yellow-headed Blackbird  as was an Eastern Phoebe – both somewhat unexpected in Colorado. Another stop produced a small flock of Pinyon Jays in a mountainside neighborhood. It was then back to Denver and the end of an excellent trip. I am not sure how many miles we drove, but I am sure it was a lot. We crisscrossed the state of Colorado and finished with all of the grouse except for Dusky, excellent views of most species at their leks and a supporting cast of raptors, ducks and sparrows. Thanks to Mike for suggesting the trip and for everyone who came along – and despite it being a little cold at times, it was a great trip.

 

Simon Thompson