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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Colorado: Lekking Grouse

2018 Narrative

In Brief: The great chicken chase of 2018 was sweeping in its coverage and, as can be expected, a fine time spent in the early days of spring where prairie meets the Rocky Mountains.  We covered about the distance from New York to Los Angeles, starting in Denver, up to Steamboat Springs, over to Fort Collins via a night in North Park, home of the Greater Sage-grouse, then to the prairies of the Pawnee, all the way to McCook, Nebraska to see the dance of the Greater Prairie-chicken, out into Kansas to visit remnant lekking grounds of the vanishing Lesser Prairie-chicken, back towards the Continental Divide and up into the foothills in Canon City, then to Gunnison, where the Gunnison Sage-grouse is found.  Besides chicken-like birds, we looked at everything, and built up quite a list, at an interesting time of year.  Early migrants, lingering winter specialties, grouse at the height of courtship, a landscape ever-shifting from green budding Spring to deep snowy Winter, and the weather shifting too as we moved from barren mountain passes down into valleys and out onto the open plains: there is much to recommend the chicken tour.

In Detail: After our first night near the Denver airport, we set out early for nearby Rocky Mountain Arsenal in hopes of finding the Harris’ Sparrow that had apparently spent the winter here.  We found the bird along with a flock of White-crowned Sparrows and, unusually, an American Tree Sparrow.  Lots of other commoner birds to look at here, including nesting Great-horned Owls, flickers, robins, our first juncos, a Townsend’s Solitaire.  We then drove across town, making for the mountains and the desirable foothill town of Morrison.  Here, a small riverine park is home to a pair of American Dippers, whose nest is built underneath a small bridge.  There was a slight balminess now in the air and the park was a pleasant spot for a walk, and we found other birds to occupy our time, notably Woodhouse’s Scrub-jay.  From here it’s just a bit to drive right into Red Rocks, the amazing geological site also knowns for its amphitheater.  Here we stood watch by a known Prairie Falcon nest up on the rock face, meanwhile watching a great show from the White-throated Swifts; magpies building their enormous stick nests; Say’s Phoebes sallying out and casting their shadows among the walls, looking at home and even wearing just the same salmony tones as the great smooth rocks.  There were also Spotted Towhees and Canyon Wrens, and feeders at the visitor’s center had four kinds of Dark-eyed Juncos, Mountain Chickadees, and more scrub-jays.  (But no Prairie Falcons).  Then it was lunch on the go and up to Loveland Pass, making a stop for some inquisitive Gray Jays, of the gorgeous snowy-white Rocky Mountain variety.  Up at Loveland the weather was unusually splendid, perhaps too balmy even for our quarry, the White-tailed Ptarmigan, whose members seemed to perhaps be on a high alpine stroll in the sun, and not visible from the vantage points of the pass.  We had to give up scanning the snowy expanse for these all-white grouse and continue on to the other side, and to Silverthorne.  The mountainside residential area here known as Wildernest is a reliable spot for flocks of rosy-finches in Winter, and a squall brewing up in the mountains made it likely that lingering finches would be seeking areas with feeders.  We came upon a flock several hundred strong, containing all four taxa (three species, plus the distinct “Hepburn’s” form of the Gray-crowned).  Pine Grosbeaks, those mild majestic finches of the boreal, were here as well, with Steller’s Jays, Hairy Woodpeckers, and Red Crossbills.  We then steamed it to Steamboat Springs, to our hotel and dinner.

Up for an early start the next morning, we searched a known Sharp-tailed Grouse lekking area at dawn, barely seeing a sign of this locally-scarce gallinaceous gentleman, until finally spotting one from a distance.  We then made the beautiful drive through North Park towards Walden.  A great show of raptors was seen in the pale gray skies.  Prairie Falcons, numerous Golden Eagles and Rough-legged Hawks, and then flecks of blue sky in the Mountain Bluebirds upon the fences.  By afternoon we were at Walden Reservoir, just outside the town of Walden, aka Moose Viewing Capital of Colorado.  The reservoir is an excellent spot for birds, and we saw large numbers of California Gulls here, as well as Ring-billed Gulls, and a Franklin’s Gull, and large numbers of ducks including the always-beautiful Canvasback; and all the while American White Pelicans stood enormous upon the shores.  We then went to Main Street and settled into our rooms at the Antler Inn, with dinner served in the restaurant below.  The whole little town is infused with the surroundings, the smell of willow, the cold hills and remnant snow.  And the Antler Inn is a fine place to stay.

We started out early in the chilly morning for a Greater Sage-grouse lek near Coalmont.  Using our vans as blinds, in place by first dawn, we gradually found ourselves surrounded by the magnificent beasts, tails spread like so many hands of cards, battling out their maleness in the early morning.  Excellent photo opportunities for all.  After this spectacle, we were well-energized and had the appetites for a proper sit-down breakfast at the Moose Cafe back in Walden, after which we eventually packed up and headed out of town, spying one of the famous Moose along the way (Moose were reintroduced in the area after having been eliminated).  We took Route 14 through Poudre Canyon east towards Fort Collins.  Particularly as we neared the eastern slopes, significant northbound bird migration was evident along the roadsides, with thousands of juncos in the mountains.  After a number of impromptu stops in search of Northern Pygmy Owl, one little campground proved a good place for one, with stunning views.  We continued on to our hotel in Fort Collins, on our route east.

The next day was devoted to the beautiful Pawnee National Grassland.  On our way out there, still on Route 14 all the way, we happened to cross paths with a stupendous flock of geese, most of the more than three thousand being of the Cackling variety, and also including a number of Greater White-fronted Geese.  The grasslands were especially beautiful on this day and the birds one looks for here were virtually all in evidence, including Mountain Plovers grazing in the prairie-dog fields; both Chestnut-collared and McCown’s Longspurs, still in flocks; the Western Meadowlarks and Horned Larks in fullest song.  We then made the journey out to McCook, Nebraska, home of the Greater Prairie-chicken.  We drove through early spring much in evidence on the prairie, with great flocks of robins and blackbirds in the red cedar plantings along the roads. 

The next morning we were led onto Angus’ ranch, seated in the dark pre-dawn inside blinds fashioned of old cattle trailers, in place to watch and hear the courtship dance of the Greater Prairie-chicken.  Wrapped in blankets against the cold morning, we were right there among the lek, the alpha of the group even strutting atop the roof of one of the two blinds.  As the morning increased, so did the songs of the other prairie birds, and eventually the games were called off and the grouse dispersed.  The prairie was awake, there were puddles everywhere full of ducks, including Wood Ducks and Blue-winged Teal.  In a park in town, Barnett Park, we found Northern Cardinals, Northern Flickers, and other interesting birds, before heading to Dodge City, in the state of Kansas.  Dodge City would be our base for visiting one of few active leks of the Lesser Prairie-chicken within our reach.

We were at the site at the break of dawn the following day, with a few scattered showers about, and the chickens performing beautifully, and such a striking contrast to the appearance of their close relatives the morning before.  Also of note here was the presence of both Eastern and Western Meadowlarks.  The rain picked up a bit and we left Dodge heading west again now back in Colorado, stopping for huge numbers of waterfowl including two thousand Ross’ Geese and thousands of Northern Shovelers, several Ferruginous Hawks, a Wilson’s Phalarope, and many other birds.  We stopped at Holbrook Reservoir which held many big grebes, both Western and Clark’s, and Bonaparte’s Gulls.  In West Pueblo neighborhoods we found Canyon Towhees, Curve-billed Thrashers, and numerous Scaled Quail.  Our destination for the night was Canon City, just at the threshold of the mountains, in the beautiful Pinyon-Juniper hills.

The next morning we explored that habitat, finding a cooperative Juniper Titmouse at Temple Canyon, and both Rock Wren and Rufous-crowned Sparrow on the expected nearby bouldery slope.  When we reached Salida we started detecting Pinyon Jays and even a few Clark’s Nutcrackers.  We had lunch in Salida, at Sweety’s, then headed up to Monarch Pass, hoping to find an American Three-toed Woodpecker in a likely spot, but being frustrated by the noise of the road, wound up seeking quiet, and in finding it also found our woodpecker, who came in close and stayed for a long time, below eye-level, giving stunning views.  We then continued on to the fine town of Gunnison and dinner and a bed before another early morning date with a chicken…

Long before the day was bright enough to discern any shapes out in the darkness, except for the vague line between earth and sky, we were seated on benches in our blind, awaiting the morning and the appearance of the Gunnison Sage-grouse, the relatively newly-described distinct sister species to the Greater, found within a very small range here.  And they did appear, a long way off, even before the sun, and when the sun appeared their tails lit up golden like yucca plants strutting about in the far distance.  We were fortunate to spot a few down in the valley that otherwise separated us from the main lekking area on the opposite slope.  After a proper breakfast back in town, we went out to Blue Mesa Reservoir and found a number of goldeneyes including several well-showing Barrow’s, among many other ducks.    Farther down the road we observed a pair of vocal Sage Thrashers, charged by the season.  The hope was to wind up at Black Canyon of the Gunnison in a cooling afternoon, but the heat was now persisting and no sign of the hoped-for Dusky Grouse, although we roused a few “Slate-colored” Fox Sparrows from their afternoon slumber.  We enjoyed the breathtaking scenery, the gift shop, the various view points, and we found a Smooth Green Snake, but no Dusky Grouse.  So, we returned and had Himalayan food in Gunnison and decided that some of us would return to Black Canyon for daybreak.

The scene was entirely different then, and even with the headlights still on we spotted a Dusky Grouse seemingly waiting to greet us in the road.  We eventually met up with the bird on foot, a bit later in the morning, and experienced the stupefying fearlessness of the species, walking among us as though we were so many rocks or trees.  It was worth the effort to come.  And with our early start we were still on schedule to reach Denver on time, which we did despite a prolonged, eleventh-hour, ultimately in vain search for the still-elusive White-tailed Ptarmigan at Loveland Pass, this time in a bitter wind that blew snow blindingly about.  Our soldiers defeated, we checked into our hotel in Denver and made plans to have Italian for dinner, and that we did.  It was a lovely group, and the final meal ended in warm goodbyes.  Thanks for a great tour!

Created: 17 August 2018