Skip to navigation, or go to main content.

WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Colorado: Lekking Grouse

2017 Narrative

In Brief: Early spring in Colorado is a dynamic time, both for weather and for birds.  This year we found the prairies, and indeed even the mountains to be warmer than average, with many trees already leafing out.  Over much of the Rockies there was little snow and no appreciable precipitation at all during our tour, although persistent winds were an issue over a couple of the days in the field. 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 male Dusky Grouse that seemed utterly oblivious to our presence, even allowing us to sit down next to it.  The White-tailed Ptarmigan performed perfectly in their picturesque alpine home, with two birds casually feeding in a small clump of willows that were protruding from the rapidly thinning snowpack.  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 perched above a feeder in Crested Butte, to the flock of Harris’ Sparrows that we teased out of a woodlot in central Kansas and the roosting Barn Owl that showed well for us as it circled overhead.  It was a wonderful voyage around the scenic and bird-rich state of Colorado, with a two-day side trip out into the prairies of Kansas and Nebraska, and even a short excursion into southern Wyoming!

In Detail: We started the tour off this year by visiting a large reservoir in Southwest Denver.  The fields, mixed deciduous woods and open water provided a nice mix of habitats and a good introduction to a wide selection of birds common to the front range of Colorado.  On the lake itself we enjoyed point blank views of a breeding plumaged Horned Grebe, found a loafing Common Loon and ogled a distant adult Bald Eagle perched on the shoreline.  In the grassy fields around the lake we found a seemingly inexhaustible supply of singing Western Meadowlarks and Black-billed Magpies and at one stop along the lakeshore we found a nesting pair of Cooper’s Hawks and some quite cooperative Downy Woodpeckers.  We walked around the marshy and forested inflow of Plum Creek picking up a selection of passerines such as Spotted Towhee, Song Sparrow, Black-capped Chickadee and American Goldfinch and then, acting on a tip from a local birder, stopped at the main river crossing and located a pair of Eastern Phoebes that seemed to be beginning a nest construction under the eaves of a public restroom.  We then drove into the foothills and made a quick stop along a rushing rocky creek where we immediately found an American Dipper that was quietly sitting under a small bridge.   It bobbed about and splashed into the swiftly moving current several times before zipping off downstream. Here too were several Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jays (a recent split from Western Scrub-Jay) that perched up for a lengthy study, allowing a spirited discussion of Scrub-Jay taxonomy to finish its course before politely flying off.  Nearby in Red Rocks Park we marveled at the complicated and tortured geologic formations and then reveled in our views of a pair of nesting Prairie Falcons that were sitting in a cleft in one of the huge red cliffs.  While we watched the falcons, and acted as good citizens by showing seemingly half of Denver the birds in the telescope we were happy to see about a dozen White-throated Swifts coursing over the ridges above us.  Then we were off to Loveland Pass, a high mountain pass just a little south of the I-70 corridor that harbours multiple ski resorts, soaring peaks over 13,000ft, deep snow and with some luck White-tailed Ptarmigan.  We arrived to find conditions clear but windy, with the pass mostly covered in snow.  By sitting down in a sheltered side of the ridge near the road we were able to scan the hillsides.  Luck was with us this year, as within just a few minutes of scanning we picked out a pair of impossibly well-camouflaged Ptarmigan quietly feeding in a fairly close patch of exposed willow bushes.  When the birds hunkered down and faced away they simply disappeared even with telescopes trained on them.  We walked a little closer for some photographs, but eventually the chill in the air won out over our elation and we elected to descend back to Silverthorne where we hoped to encounter Rosy-Finches coming into feeders around town.  Although all three species of Rosy-Finch occur in Colorado in winter the flocks are mobile, and can be quite unpredictable.  When the weather is bad and the peaks are too windy or snowy, ravenous mixed flocks of Rosies can descend into the valley floors and completely denude feeders in minutes.  Just the week prior to our visit a snowstorm had hit Silverthorne and flocks in the hundreds were reported from various sites around town.  On this day though the sky was largely blue, and although we spent quite some time looking we failed to find any large groups.  Two handsome male Brown-capped Rosy-Fiches did show well for us though, and during our search we also enjoyed our first Mountain Bluebirds, Mountain Chickadees, Pygmy Nuthatches, Gray and Steller’s Jays and Hairy Woodpeckers.  A few Red Crossbills and a female Pine Grosbeak rounded out the cast, making for quite a diverse crop of birds coming in to the feeders.    The drive up to North Park and Walden is beautiful as it winds over several small passes, along sweeping vistas and eventually drops into the sage brush covered North Park; a huge intermountain valley surrounded by high peaks.  Raptors such as Red-tailed Hawks, Osprey and Golden Eagle enlivened the drive, and we stopped to admire our first herds of Elk and Mule Deer that were foraging at the base of a nearby ridge.  We pulled into the small town of Walden, nestled near the northern tip of North Park just in time for a cozy dinner at the local steakhouse, our heads filled with the amazing array of scenery that we were witness to in a short 12-hour period.

We started the second day with a bit of a surprise in store.  Contrary to the forecasted slight chance of rain we awoke to find several inches of fresh snow on the ground, and more falling in fairly heavy winds.  Consequently the drive out to the lek site took a little bit longer than usual and we arrived just before dawn.  Once we arrived we stopped the vans along the road and were thrilled to see dozens of male birds on both sides of the road, virtually surrounding the cars.  We watched for about 5 minutes, as males showed off their wispy filoplumes and repeatedly puffed out their chests exposing their large paired yellowish throat sacs.   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 that we were…  A passing Coyote spooked the birds and it took quite a while for them to return to the lek site.  Our patience was rewarded though, as when they returned they paid no attention at all to our presence.  We estimated about 60 birds in total, including 20 or so females and were able to witness at least two mating sessions as well as male-male territorial squabbles and lots of displaying.  At one point two males wandered over to nearly the front wheels of the car, too close to get in the frame of our very busy cameras.  In all the trips that I have taken in Colorado this year’s experience with Greater Sage-Grouse was the most satisfying.  As we drove back to Walden we stopped to admire a perched Rough-legged Hawk, the first of several individuals that we saw around North Park and several flocks of very cooperative Horned Larks. After a nice warm breakfast back in Walden we were surprised by the sudden strong winds that were whipping up whitecaps on the large Walden Reservoir.  Despite the less than optimal conditions we sorted through the large array of waterfowl to locate our first Canvasback, Redhead and Cinnamon Teal among a diverse mass of waterfowl.  Out on one of the small islands in the lake we found a large group of loafing American White Pelicans, several sporting impressively large bill casques that typify the breeding plumage of the species.  Here too were some sitting California and Ring-billed Gulls and a flock of Bonaparte’s Gulls that seemed hesitant to land.  We left Walden and headed uphill towards Gould, stopping to admire several close Golden Eagles, a passing Prairie Falcon and several more Rough-legged Hawks.  Once at Gould we stopped in at a state forest visitors’ center we arrived to find the fully stocked feeders attracting huge numbers of Dark-eyed Juncos (virtually all of the local Gray-headed subspecies) and Pine Siskins, and a few Cassin’s Finches.  Mountain Chickadees, some bright blue Steller’s Jays, Red-breasted Nuthatches and hordes of Red-winged Blackbirds rounded out the cast. Our main reason for visiting the feeders here though was the hope that the recent snowy conditions might have caused Rosy-Finches to come down from their montane haunts.  The plan (sort of) worked, as with some scrutiny of the birds at and around the feeders we located a small number of Brown-capped Rosy-Finches hopping around the seed below the feeders.  Just before we left a flock of about twenty Rosy-Finches flew in and briefly landed in a bare tree before dropping into the thick undergrowth along the creek.  As far as we could discern all of these birds were also Brown-capped.  After lunch back in Walden we drove out of North Park and then west towards Hayden, stopping for a rest stop in Steamboat Springs where spent a few minutes checking out one of the more affluent neighborhoods for bird feeders.  We drove further west and dropped into the comparatively verdant Yampa River Valley where we found the trees were beginning to bud out, and it felt much more like mid spring than late winter.    The drive along the Yampa River Valley was pretty as always, and was punctuated by several pairs of Sandhill Cranes. We had heard from several other birding groups that the traditional lek for Sharp-tailed Grouse near Hayden was not particularly active this year, with just a handful of birds present in the mornings rather than the “normal” few dozen males we decided to pay a visit in the afternoon to see if any birds might be present and active. Unfortunately no birds were around the lek site, so we decided to head to our hotel in Craig, pinning our hopes on the following morning.  Dinner at a great little Mexican restaurant soon followed, and then it was time for a well-deserved night’s rest.

The next morning we set out again for the Sharp-tailed lek near Hayden, arriving in the predawn light, surrounded by a wide valley of grass ringed by scrubby and largely snow-free hills.  We scanned the usual ridgetops for several minutes before noticing a single grouse leaping up out the taller grass and fluttering back to the ground.  With some patience we could occasionally see parts of the bird displaying in the grasses and jumping above the grassline.  As the bird seemed to largely be on the far side of the ridgeline we elected to try driving around and looking from below the hill.  The lucky participants in that exploratory van were witness to the bird flying back up to the lek site from the valley below, landing on an exposed part of the hill.  It then commenced a full display, with its flared purple tympanums, quivering drooped wings and an erected tail.  Although no females (or competitor males) were present the bird displayed several times for us before flying back down the valley.   Although all of this year’s participants saw the bird at some point it was hardly the experience that we typically manage here, resulting in a plan to look for the species again once we were out in the Colorado prairies.  We returned to Craig to warm up, pack and enjoy breakfast and then started our journey south to Grand Junction.  The scenery on the drive south is incredible, with towering bluffs, juniper-pine covered slopes, rushing rivers and open agricultural fields interspersed with small lakes and snow covered peaks.  We stopped just outside Craig, where some sheltered ponds held nearly the full complement of expected waterfowl species, including our first Ring-necked Ducks and Blue-winged Teal and a large mixed species flock of swallows including Tree, Barn and Cliff.  Raptors abounded here, with excellent and instructive views of Golden and Bald Eagles, and several Red-tailed Hawks.  A few miles south we stopped in at the town of Meeker occupied about a half hour of our time, as we located active feeders with hordes of American Goldfinches and a few House Finches and Pine Siskins.  Just outside of town we stopped to check out a bird perched in a roadside pine tree.  To our great surprise it turned out to be a Lewis’s Woodpecker! This aberrant woodpecker is a real stunner, with a glossy green-black back, crimson face, gray collar and red and gray streaked underparts.  Beyond plumage though Lewis’s Woodpeckers simply refuse to act like proper woodpeckers.  Flycatching for insects, soaring in thermals, and flying without the characteristic bounding woodpecker flight are all common behaviors for this species.  We found three individuals and watched as they foraged along a juniper-clad slope above the road, frequently landing in open bare trees and allowing extended scope views.  Here too were several raucous Clark’s Nutcrackers, which taken together with the woodpecker made for the double Lewis and Clark lifer combo for several of the participants.

At the nearby Rio Blanco Reservoir we toyed with a very vocal but only somewhat cooperative Marsh Wren, enjoyed a lakeside picnic, and found a breeding plumaged Common Loon and our first Clark’s Grebe (a somewhat unexpected species for this location).  We took the back road to Clifton, which winds through a scenic valley surrounded by Pinyon-Juniper on the upper slopes, with a small creek and verdant green fields on the valley floor.  Once arriving in Clifton we took a short afternoon siesta, and then, after an early dinner, headed upslope to the Grand Mesa for some owling.  The drive up at dusk rewarded us with some superlative scenery, as the canyon parallels a nice mountain creek, in a steep sided valley with reddish sheer cliffs and interesting rock formations. Although the weather up at the top of the mesa was incredible, with well above freezing temperatures and virtually no wind and an incredibly bright full moon we were sadly unsuccessful with Boreal Owls, but it was a memorably atmospheric experience.

We slept in a bit the next day before heading to the nearby Little Bookend Cliffs Monument.  This steep sided and arid canyon supports a sparse growth of Juniper and Pinyon Pine, and a population of the introduced and very beautiful Chukar, which seem somehow to belong in the rocky arid habitat here.  It took about an hour but we eventually heard a couple of tell-tale clucks emanating from the slope above us and with a bit of effort we tracked down a pair of Chukar running upslope.  We later found another two pairs down along the main road, making the trip quite a success.  Perhaps more excitingly though were the dozen or so Pinyon Jays that were calling and flying around the canyon.  These nomadic jays can be tricky to locate on command, as they generally follow the seeding crop of Pinyon Pines.  Quite social, and possessing a remarkably long and fine-tipped bill for a jay these birds are a delicate navy-grey blue quite unlike the blues of our other local jays.  At first the birds were largely up along the ridgelines, actively flying around, and alighting on distant trees.  With patience though several individuals came down to the road, eventually giving us excellent views.  A multitude of cooperative Rock Wrens and one very tame Canyon Wren, dazzling and approachable Mountain Bluebirds, a territorial pair of Loggerhead Shrikes, several handsome Black-throated Sparrows, nesting Say’s Phoebe, some Golden-mantled Ground-Squirrels all provided some excitement as well.  We then decided to try for Juniper Titmice at the nearby Colorado National Monument.  Although we quickly were successful at locating a Juniper Titmouse, feeding young in a large juniper tree no less, I suspect that the geologic aspect of the site is what will stick with the participants for some time.  The road is literally dug into the side of a cliff, passing through hand-hewn tunnels and offering sweeping views of red rock terraces, pinnacles and Pinyon-Juniper clad bowls.  Along with our excellent views of the Titmouse we also located several small groups of the tiny and always charismatic Bushtit and were able to watch them as they clambered and chattered through the shrubs.  About an hour and a half later we arrived at the spectacular Black Canyon and with a short drive around one of the loop roads in the park were soon watching a male Dusky Grouse sitting near (and then on) a picnic table in the campground.  The bird watched us for a while, and as we apparently posed it no threat decided to ignore us completely.  Several people in the group began to wonder if it was even alive as it remained motionless and allowed one of us to even sit on the opposite side of the table!  These grouse are common in Colorado but are often very difficult to locate, so any year that we have such good views is to be celebrated.  We then hurried up the main road to enjoy some scenic views of the steep sided canyon formed by the erosional powers of the Gunnison River.  Although admittedly smaller than the Grand Canyon the Black Canyon is nonetheless a stupendous sight, and we had the place nearly all to ourselves. With the addition of the day’s near perfect weather it made for quite an experience. Watching White-throated Swifts as they flew below us in the canyon was quite memorable. A scenic drive took us further east across Blue Mesa, where we quickly located some Barrow’s Goldeneye near the east end of the lake, and then on into Gunnison was a great way to end a really fun day in the field.

The Gunnison plateau was snow-free this year, in stark contrast to previous years.  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 birds were definitely distant, but as the sun came up we eventually obtained sufficiently good views to see the more extensive white in the tails and larger filoplumes of the displaying males.  The global population of this rare grouse is currently estimated at fewer than 4500, with 85% of the birds living in the Gunnison Basin.  Given their scarcity we felt privileged to see about two dozen birds spread out along the ridge.  After breakfast and a bit of time off for packing we turned the vans north to the skiing community of Crested Butte.  The drive winds steadily uphill, culminating in a beautiful sweeping valley that was still largely snow-covered.  In the small community nestled near the top of the road and adjacent to the many ski resorts we found a couple of houses with stocked and active bird feeders in their yards.  To our great delight one of the feeder arrays was hosting a swirling flock of Rosy-Finches.  We watched the feeders for about an hour, as small groups of finches came and went, and the small stock of seed dwindled in the feeding trays.  Most of the birds were Brown-capped Rosy-Finches, the expected species in late spring, and our excellent views allowed us to begin to tease apart the many plumage states of these highly variable birds.  With some scrutiny we also picked out three different Black Rosy-Finches.  All three were males, with one particularly handsome bird clad in hot pink and inky black.  Although we were all elated by our find I suspect that the sighting was particularly appreciated by the participant for whom Black Rosy-Finch was his 700th ABA bird.  Just as we were gearing up to leave a sharp-eyed and prepared participant spotted a different looking bird up high in a nearby aspen tree.  As she suspected it was our missing Rosy-Finch, and a sharply marked Gray-crowned to boot.  With the generally warm weather and seemingly early spring conditions throughout Colorado I was quite worried that we would not succeed in the coveted Rosy-Finch trio, so this hour at Crested Butte was most welcome.  It wasn’t all about the finches though, as in the adjacent yard to the feeders Evan spotted a quietly sitting male Rusty Blackbird that remained for over a half-hour.  Most unexpected in Colorado, especially at such a high-elevation location the sighting marked a write-in for the tour and a life bird for many participants.  We returned to Gunnison for a delightful lunch at a downtown café and then set off to the east over Monarch Pass.  The calm and sunny conditions continued and although it did take a bit of time we were successful in tracking down a pair of American Three-toed Woodpeckers.  This often-tricky species occurs in low densities in high-elevation forests throughout Colorado.  The male eventually capitulated and lingered on an eye-level spruce tree for several minutes, allowing us to really appreciate the heavy flank barring, yellow crown and striking black and white back.  We then dropped further in elevation towards Pueblo through the very scenic Arkansas River Canyon which starts in the high alpine forest around Monarch Pass, passing through arid rocky and juniper-clad slopes and then on out onto the plains providing a truly remarkable suite of visual treats, and is one of my favorite drives in Colorado.  A brief stop near the base of the canyon was complicated by high winds, but we eventually located a pair of foraging Canyon Towhees that were keeping company with a small flock of White-crowned Sparrows.  We pulled into Pueblo and had an enjoyable dinner along the newly constructed River Walk that winds through the center of town.

The next morning we began by birding around some of the suburban neighborhoods in Pueblo West. In the desert grasslands, with scattered shrubs and patches of cholla cactus we encountered several Curve-billed Thrashers and had an excellent study of cute, and very close, Scaled Quail glowing in the morning sun and showing their cleanly marked breasts and puffy cotton tops.  At a small roadside park we stopped to study Great-tailed and Common Grackles that were parading along the sidewalk, and were happy to find our first Yellow-headed Blackbirds perched in the surrounding trees. We then started our longer-than-normal drive out into the Prairies. For the 2017 tour we found the need to head quite a ways out into Kansas to ensure our best chance for finding Lesser Prairie-Chicken.  Rare over most of their increasingly limited range, Lesser Prairie-Chickens face an uncertain future and a variety of threats from hunting, land-use changes, habitat fragmentation and widespread drought.  The population in the grasslands of Eastern Colorado has recently plummeted, with fewer than 50 individuals remaining in the state.  Over the last several tours we have gone out to Elkhart, Kansas or to a private ranch near Lamar, Colorado to view our Lessers but both of those populations have vanished as well.  We stopped at Holbrook Reservoir to find that the lake levels were much higher than in previous years.  Nonetheless we were happy to record an amazing 5 species of Grebes (including lots of breeding plumaged Eared Grebes and several pairs of Clark’s Grebes), a flock of Franklin’s Gulls, our first Red-breasted Merganser and a single foraging Forster’s Tern.

At the nearby Lake Cheraw the water levels were also high, but at a small ancillary pond we found a flock of about a dozen White-faced Ibis that were wading among clumps of cattails.  Just as a matter of practice we looked through the flock and were surprised to find an adult Glossy Ibis.  Its dark iris, blue-black facial skin, and thin blue-white loral borders all seemed perfect for a pure Glossy Ibis, a quite unexpected find in Eastern Colorado.  Several pairs of Black-necked Stilts kept us entertained as they livened up the shoreline.  Duck diversity was especially high with lots of Lesser Scaup, Bufflehead, Redhead, Ring-necked and Canvasback joining all three species of teal, Mallards, Wigeon and Shoveler.  We arrived in Lamar in the early afternoon, which allowed us to grab lunch and a bit of a stretch before we continued on into Kansas for the drive to Dodge City. Enroute we stopped in at the huge McKinney Reservoir where we found the high winds to be complicating.  By scanning the lake though we were able to pick out several Bonaparte’s Gulls, our first Black-crowned Night-Heron, some close Horned Grebes and a distant Common Loon.  We arrived in Dodge City in the early evening, took a quick dinner and went to bed thinking about the plight of Lesser Prairie Chickens, and perhaps, what growing up in a small Kansas town would be like…

Somewhat nervously and with a definite sense of palpable pathos we were in place at a publically known lek site a few miles out of town just before dawn.  As the light began to spread across the sky we scanned the lek area and were happy to soon spot a few (3) males dancing about 150 yards out. Although the winds were really whipping, virtually rocking the vans from side to side the males seemed intent upon their displays.  Alternately running around with drooped wings, jumping into the air, and flashing their orange-yellow tympanums and comically large pinnae that stick up like huge aerials when erect it was quite a good show.  As we were fairly far away from them we opened the side doors and were able to surreptitiously set up a scope between our parked vans.  This allowed for much better (if colder) viewing as we took turns in the scope, taking care to remain behind the vans and out of sight of the birds. After the birds stopped their displays we drove around some back roads through farm fields enroute back to our hotel and breakfast.  Though the howling wind continued we enjoyed views of a couple of hen Lesser Prairie-Chickens along the road, spotted our first Lark, Vesper, Savannah and Field Sparrows and found a flooded field that contained a few migrant shorebirds including Baird’s, Semipalmated and Pectoral Sandpipers (which prompted a short wader tutorial in the lee of our vans).  After breakfast we made a brief stop in to the wooded section of Ford State Fishing Lake, where we hoped to encounter a few migrant passerines tucked into the shelter of the scattered trees.  Happily the winds abated to some degree and the temperature climbed a bit in the morning sunshine as we walked around the margins of the lake and through a large grove of old cottonwood trees.  We found the birding to be relatively slow at this early stage of migration but a few birds cropped up for our enjoyment.  House Wrens were exuberantly vocal, the resident Northern Cardinals added a splash of colour, and migrant Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Chipping Sparrows and Orange-crowned Warblers livened up the mostly bare trees.  Our star find though was a flock of Harris’ Sparrows that showed well.  These large and colorful sparrows are rarely encountered outside of their central US-Canada flyway, and as such most birders see them only singly as vagrants along the coasts.  We spent the majority of the late morning and afternoon driving north to our base for the next night in Nebraska.  We made one late afternoon stop just north of Oberlin, Kansas though, stopping at a small shelter-belt of dense cedar trees that were adjacent to the highway.  A few of us walked through the incredibly prickly trees towards the waiting group and we were thrilled to flush out an incredibly cooperative Barn Owl, and a less cooperative Short-eared Owl.

We arrived in McCook just in time to catch our official orientation tour administered by the McCook Chamber of Commerce and Angus McCook; the local rancher that runs tours out to his property for Greater Prairie-Chicken.  The meeting took place downtown, and after a brief rundown of the plan for the following morning and a nice summary video and presentation about the behaviour and ecology of Greater Prairie-Chickens we enjoyed a tasty dinner at a local brewery, and then headed to the hotel.

An early start seemed well worth as we boarded the vans for the short ride out to the lek blind (a converted cattle trailer) where we were treated to our best grouse dancing experience of the tour.  The blind was very well situated, sitting 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.  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, or even flying up onto the blind roofs! The close views enabled us to closely study their banded bodies, long pinnae, and rich yellow tympanums tipped with purple at leisure.  Our two hours with the birds here flew by, and before we knew it the birds flew off to graze in the adjacent fields and we found ourselves back at the hotel devouring our own breakfasts.  A trip to a local park in McCook allowed us to spend a pleasant hour or so just birding along the grove of leaving out trees and open fields adjacent to the Republican River.  Here the birds had a distinctive eastern feel, with Red-bellied Woodpecker, Blue Jay, Northern Cardinal and Eastern Bluebird all showing well.  We picked out a few migrants as well, including a somewhat early Green Heron and both Wilson’s and Orange-crowned Warblers.  We then made the drive back into Colorado, stopping in Sterling for lunch and then continuing on, skirting the edge of the vast Pawnee National Grasslands. Acting on recent reports and some traditional spots we checked a series of farm fields just south of the grasslands and were soon successful in tracking down a mixed flock of Longspurs.  The birds were scuttling through the fallow corn stubble laden field and occasionally perching along the roadside fences, giving us ample opportunity to study their cracking breeding plumages.  The male Chestnut-collared are particularly beautiful, with their jet-black underparts, golden-yellow face and bright chestnut nape.  The McCown’s too are pretty, with a unique grey body paired with a chestnut wing stripe, pink bill and black crescent on their chests.  Counting these milling flocks of birds is always a challenge but we eventually settled on over sixty Chestnut-collared and at least ten McCown’s.  Although both species breed in the nearby grasslands the birds can be quite tricky to see well while on territory, as they typically perform a flight display and then settle down into the dense grasses out of view, so to see them in such a bare field was a treat.  A little further to the East we stopped at another bare cornfield, where we quickly located a small group of Mountain Plovers.  Several birds were well out in the field, but one individual was just a few dozen meters away from our parked cars. 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.  Although not boldly patterned the delicate buff color, white forecrown and thin black crown stripe give the bird a very elegant appearance, and one that blends in perfectly with the golden-buff hues of the spring grasses that abound in the western plains.  We pulled into Fort Collins in time for an hour off and a meal at an excellent nearby Mexican restaurant, ready for our final day in the field.

We generally use our last day of the tour to revisit areas along the front range for any birds that we might have missed.  Often this entails another trip into the mountains in search of Rosy-Finches or White-tailed Ptarmigan, or simply spending the day checking out an array of wetlands and parks between Fort Collins and Denver.  For this year we decided to concentrate on improving on our generally poor showing by Sharp-tailed Grouse around Hayden.  Although not widespread in Colorado, Sharp-tailed Grouse occur in two distinct areas of the state.  We set out very early (enjoying an Easter Sunday breakfast at the only open restaurant in town – McDonald’s) bound for the very northern stretch of the Pawnee National Grasslands along the Wyoming Border.  Here stony ridges punctuate the grasslands, and in an area of mixed farming and native grasslands we soon began flushing Sharp-tailed grouse along the roadside.  Although clearly identifiable in flight we drove around a bit and were eventually successful in spotting a couple of birds on the ground.  Happy with our vastly better views of this more northerly distributed Prairie-Chicken we then decided to take a short detour north, coming back to Fort Collins through a tiny slice of Wyoming, our 4th State for the tour!  A reservoir near Cheyenne proved to be quite productive, with over a dozen species of waterfowl, breeding plumaged Horned and Eared Grebes, a nice flock of quite pink Franklin’s Gulls, our first Lesser Yellowlegs and Brewer’s Blackbirds and Lincoln’s and Vesper Sparrows.  Although I don’t think that many of the participants this year will be actively working on their Wyoming lists any time soon, our 47 species seen over the hour or so in Wyoming was a good start!

Once back in Colorado we packed up and headed just south of Denver where we found the Ponderosa Pine forests around Genesee Mountain to be full of Western and Mountain Bluebirds, Townsend’s Solitaires, Mountain Chickadees and Pygmy Nuthatches, but sadly, perhaps due to some recent extensive clearing around the peak, no Williamson’s Sapsuckers.  It was a nice walk through the pines though, and a change of pace from the many long drives that we undertook in our quest for the grouse of Colorado.  It was with a tinge of sadness that we all said our goodbyes over dinner that night, as the group was extremely congenial and a lot of fun to travel with, and the trip was full of amazing scenery and a suite of spectacular birds.

Gavin Bieber

April 2017

Updated: n/a