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/or moaning displays.
Our travels to the grouse leks involve long drives, but what drives! We’ll travel along 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 6:00 p.m. 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 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 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 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 through the Yampa River Valley, which hosts nesting Sandhill Cranes. 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 raptor species, and many mammals. After breakfast we’ll head south through the town of Meeker, where we’ll look for Evening Grosbeak and Cassin’s Finch. In the evening we’ll venture down a small county road which winds south through Pinon Juniper clad slopes where in the past we’ve seen flocks of Pinon Jays scratching around on the gravelly soil. Once we reach Clifton and have dinner, and if the weather is suitable, we’ll head up to the towering Grand Mesa to look for owls, including (with luck) Boreal Owl. Night in Clifton.
Day 5: We’ll spend the morning birding the canyonlands of the aptly named Mesa County, where we should see Rock and Canyon Wrens, White-throated Swift, and other birds which are characteristic of Colorado’s dry Western Slope. Although not as impressive as further downstream the Colorado River has cut a deep canyon along the north side of the Grand Mesa, a tantalizing hint of the geologic wonders found further downstream and a great backdrop to our morning in the field. We’ll keep our eyes on the ground for Gambel’s Quail and Chukar, and our eyes on the cliffs for Bighorn Sheep or perhaps a herd of wild horses. After lunch we’ll visit a large and generally springlike reservoir where hordes of Western Grebes may be engaged in courtship displays and where large cottonwoods often support Lewis’s Woodpecker. On the way to Gunnison we’ll stop at the impressive Black Canyon of the Gunnison. 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 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 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 Bushtit. Pueblo Reservoir often produces a surprise or two, and a city park should provide up-close views of Wood Ducks. Night in Canon City.
Day 7: We’ll bird our way east along the Arkansas River Valley, one of the most interesting birding areas in Colorado. Riparian cottonwoods, just beginning to show green, are oases in a sea of short-grass prairie and attract newly arrived migrants, perhaps including Say’s Phoebe or Harris’s Sparrow. The reservoirs and pools may host waterfowl and early-arriving shorebirds such as American Avocet, Baird’s Sandpiper, Long-billed Curlew, or Wilson’s Phalarope. Mountain Plovers nest in small numbers on the grasslands, and we’ll hope to find a pair or two. Night in Lamar.
Day 8: We’ll drive into 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 north toward Wray, with stops along the way as time and birding conditions allow. Night in Wray.
Day 9: 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 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. In the afternoon we’ll venture through the Pawnee National Grasslands to look for early-returning Chestnut-collared and McCown’s Longspurs, Long-billed Curlew and Mountain Plover, and breeding Ferruginous Hawks. Night inFort Collins.
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 driving back up into the mountains to look for flocks of Rosy-Finches or for White-tailed Ptarmigan (if missed on day 2), 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 south, arriving in Denver in the late afternoon. Night in Denver.
Day 11: The tour concludes this morning in Denver.
Updated: 05 May 2015
* Tour invoices paid by check carry a modest discount. Details here.
This tour is limited to 7 participants with one leader or up to 14 participants with two leaders