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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Colorado: Lekking Grouse

2022 Narrative

IN BRIEF: Like rolling thunder across the prairies, the Colorado Chicken Tour (as it is affectionately called) was an explosive success! We were lucky enough to be joined by senior leaders Jon Feenstra and Susan Myers to assist with keeping this veritable army of birders moving across the landscape. It was quite the merry escapade, and the weather was certainly a notable antagonist in our adventures, but our group was cheery, determined, and full of pluck and we had a fantastic and successful trip. We traveled far and wide, traveling extensively through Colorado, but we also dipped into Kansas, Nebraska, and even Wyoming! We got all the lekking species of grouse, with a few species of bonus chicken. But we also enjoyed a wide selection of other Rocky Mountain/western plains goodies like Lewis’s Woodpecker, Pinyon Jays, longspurs aplenty, Mountain Bluebirds, and Townsend’s Solitaires, and lots of high quality finches like Pine Grosbeak, Cassin’s Finch and Brown-capped and Black Rosy-Finches. Waterfowl and gulls diversity was great and we even pulled off a trick difficult to do in even Alaska by having a FOUR loon species day; Common, Red-throated, Pacific and Yellow-billed!

IN DETAIL: We started our adventures in the sunny foothills above Denver where we started to tally in quintessential birds of Rocky Mountains such as Say’s Phoebe, Black-billed Magpies, Townsend’s Solitaires, White-throated Swifts, and a delightful pair of American Dippers. We then stopped by a reservoir just as the weather started to turn, spiting a mix of snow and rain. However, waterbirds are rarely deterred by such trivialities, and in addition to a nice selection of ducks, we had SIX species of gulls- no easy feat in Colorado. A beautiful adult “Thayer’s” Iceland Gull and two Lesser Black-backed Gulls were nice finds and our first eBird flagged rarities of the trip. We then started our long haul out to Gunnison, made longer by the hard weather at the higher elevations. Rather than navigate snowy mountaintops, we took the long way around the mountains, extending our journey but giving us repeat looks at our first Pronghorns of the tour.

The next morning found us still half asleep waiting in the darkness of a trailer waiting for enough light to see out on the willow flats. As it always does, the sun rose and one by one, the shadowy forms of displaying Gunnison Sage-Grouse were revealed to us. This critically endangered species can only be found in a few locations in western Colorado and Utah. Most are on private land so the best way to see these spikey goth-grouse is to do exactly what we were doing that morning- using a USFW blind to observe the breeding displays of these wild looking animals. For the second half of the day we were going to head out to the Black Canyon but were stopped short by substantial road construction. Always ready for a plan B, we instead wandered around enjoying Mountain Bluebirds, both Bald and Golden Eagles as well as some fantastic looks at Sage Thrasher.

The next morning we headed up to the Ski Lodge town of Crested Butte with a specific target in mind: Rosy Finches! It took some tracking down, but eventually found some feeders that had quite the flock Brown-capped Rosy-Finches. Within their ranks were a couple of Black Rosy-Finches, a lifer for nearly everyone in the group! A good cross selection of Dark-eyed Juncos included Pink-sided, Gray-headed and our only Slate-colored Juncos of the journey. But now it was time to start heading eastward. This time the weather cooperated so we took the high road over the Monarch Pass. Nothing too crazy awaited us in the pass, but we did have great looks at Steller’s Jay and Mountain Chickadees. Some post lunch birding yielded fantastic looks at Lewis’s Woodpecker and much poorer looks at Clark’s Nutcracker. Our only Barrow’s Goldeneye was in a pond next to the highway, and a scenic roadside rest stop had a robust flock of Pinyon Jays and some great looks at a trio of Bighorn Sheep.

The following day was another grouse-free day, but we did start our morning with great looks at a Scaled Quail and our only Chihuahuan Raven, White-winged Dove and Canyon Towhees for the tour. We then headed to the expansive Pueblo Reservoir. We were happy to see four species of Grebe here (Horned, Eared, Clark’s & Western), but were floored to get four species of Loon!! A Yellow-billed Loon had been seen on and off over the winter, and we were lucky enough to relocate this beast of a bird! But that was not the only loonage we had; a handful of Common Looks were present as well as singles of Red-throated and Pacific Loons- a four loon day is not an oft successful day, even in Alaska.

We were up early the next day in the farm fields of Kansas tracking down a year-old report of a Lesser Prairie-Chicken lek. I was nervous about the gamble but it paid off, and we were delighted to witness these foot-stomping silly birds; like the Gunnison Sage-Grouse, another critically endangered species. After a hearty breakfast we started to drift northwards into Nebraska enjoying the warmer spring-like temperatures  and newly arrived migrants. One stop along a bushy creek bed had a delightful flock of Harris’s Sparrows, and another stop at a small sewage pond had goodies like Baird’s Sandpiper and Purple Martins.

Once again, the following morning found us sitting in rancher’s trailer waiting for the arrival of Greater Prairie-Chickens to the lek. The landowner Angus was brimming with pride and excitement to share these goofy bird’s outrageous displays and as the golden rays of sunshine started to light up the lek, the Prairie-Chickens quickly moved in and begin their dances, brimming with wild cackles and hoots and occasional scuffles between the males. It was delightful! Definitely one of the highlights of our adventure, the light and weather cooperated with the birds to make a very special morning for everyone. We then were off to start our drive back into Colorado. As we did, the wind started to really blow, kicking up dust storms as we drove across agricultural lands and generally being a real pain to bird in. We did spend some time birding in Pawnee Grasslands but the wind had clearly blasted the landscape clean of all passerines. We did however pluck out our only Mountain Plover, huddled from the wind behind a Prairie Dog mound. Taking this find as a win, we then rolled into Fort Collins for a well-deserved early day.

Well rested, we set out the next morning back towards the Rockies, headed for the town of Walden. It was a gorgeous morning and we stopped frequently along our drive enjoying birds like Pygmy Nuthatches, American Three-Toed Woodpecker, more Dippers, and a fantastic look at a pair of Golden Eagles. Our lunch break at a US Forest Service Nature Center was fantastic- they had a great feeder set up that had several Pine Grosbeaks coming in along with many Cassin’s Finches and both Mountain and Black-capped Chickadees. We all loved the rustic charm of our historic Inn along the front street of the Village of Walden; I could have easily stayed there for days for the ambience alone. For some pre dinner birding we rolled over to the Walden Reservoir where we enjoyed a diverse selection of waterbirds, including a pair of Wood Ducks, Cinnamon Teals, and a wild-looking Cinnamon X Blue-winged Teal hybrid!

No romp of this length is immune to the occasional wild card, and when we awoke early the next morning to head out to a Greater Sage-Grouse lek, we woke in darkness- a snowstorm had killed the power to most of Walden overnight. But as I said earlier, this group was full of pluck and determination and we headed over to the lek to see the displays of the turkey-sized Sage Grouse. While far from common, Greater Sage-Grouse are more widespread than Gunnison’s, so we were able to just pull up on the side of the road to watch their displays. The birds were present (70 in all!), but with the blasting winds and falling snow, the hens were uninterested in the male’s dancing rituals and sooner than expected the displays dropped off as the flock dispersed to find better cover than the exposed ridge of the lek. As we drove back into town, the reservoir that was full of ducks just hours before was mostly frozen this morning, pushing most of the birds out of the area and likely down to lower elevations. We too decided to simply head back to the Inn so we could get a well-deserved hot breakfast and figure out the scope of the storm. As it turned out, the storm was extensive and not going to let up, and the road to our next destination of Steamboat Springs was closed due to the snowy conditions. So it was time for a leader huddle to stitch together a new plan. With the help of Stephanie back at the WINGS office we quickly sorted through a host of ideas and decided the best-case scenario was to flee the high country and slip into our fourth state of the tour and spend the night in Laramie Wyoming. So we trundled up and slowly and safely descended back out of the mountains. It was cold and windy in Laramie and although we did get a good look for the group at a Franklin’s Gull, we decided another early night was the way to roll.

While we may have been cheated out of our Steamboat Springs stay- this worked out ultimately as we left Laramie early the next morning and headed back to Pawnee Grasslands to try for our last lekking species of grouse. I had a buddy send me some rough info on a spot, so I was very unsure how it would unfold. But to my surprise and everyone else’s delight we were soon enjoying the goofy shuffling displays of the handsomely patterned Sharp-tailed Grouse! After a satisfying experience with the Sharp-tails, we meandered over the prairies getting a second chance to try for grassland birds, being that it was so windy on our previous trip through this area. Flocks of longspurs were moving through and we had good looks at Chestnut-collared and Thick-billed Longspurs as well as plucking out a single Lapland Longspur. And for our final new bird of the trip, we stumbled onto a couple of Burrowing Owls, freshly returned from points south to spend their summer nesting in a prairie dog town. Satiated and satisfied with our adventures, it was time to bring this tour in for a landing and we returned to Denver for a farewell dinner to end the 2022 Colorado Chicken tour.

                                                                                                                                                                                -          Skye Haas

Created: 20 October 2022