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This Greater Prairie-Chicken strutted atop one of our tour vans at a lek near Wray, Colorado. See below for a video of the roof chicken experience! Photo by guide Tom Johnson.
April marks one of the most interesting birding months of the year in Colorado, and we were there to see a LOT of it. On this giant figure eight of the state (plus the two unexpected, bonus states of Kansas and Nebraska), we became acquainted with five species of lekking grouse and found plenty of the region's specialty resident and migrant species along the way. Overall, the weather held quite nicely for us, and the tour went off without a hitch.
On our first full day, we drove east along the Arkansas River corridor, stopping first in desert habitat near Pueblo to see Scaled Quail, Mountain Plovers, and Sage and Curve-billed thrashers. Farther east, we birded several large reservoirs, finding a large assortment of waterfowl and grebes and a marsh full of Red-winged and Yellow-headed blackbirds.
After receiving some bad news about the Colorado Lesser Prairie-Chicken leks, we decided to head farther east than planned, rising early to get to the area north of Dodge City, Kansas (!) before dawn. We enjoyed a good morning experience with several Lesser Prairie-Chickens at a lek, and also scored some Greater Roadrunners and a delicious breakfast buffet before we "got out of Dodge".
A long afternoon drive sent us back into Colorado by way of Nebraska, and we met Bob Bledsoe at Bledsoe Cattle Company in the evening to learn about his ranching practices and scout out the Greater Prairie-Chicken lek for the following morning. The next day dawned clear and still, and we had an absolutely fantastic experience with nearly 30 chickens at their lek. We even had one fly up onto the roof of my van, so close that we could hear its toenails clicking on the roof above our heads (check out the video below). Leaving Wray on a major bird high, we stopped at Bonny Reservoir, picking up several eastern landbirds like Yellow-shafted Flicker, Eastern Phoebe, and Eastern Bluebird. A storm front blew across the plains in the afternoon, and our visit to the agricultural fields of Arriba was ill-timed to coincide with the most blustery part of the day. However, we quickly found a hurricane of McCown's Longspurs (over 4,000 - easily the most that Chris and I have ever seen!) and some very confiding Mountain Plovers.
The next morning, we ate a hearty Rocky Mountains breakfast in Idaho Springs before ascending to nearly 12,000 ft in elevation at Loveland Pass. There we were met by some terribly cold and windy weather, but tenacious searching helped us find our target -- two White-tailed Ptarmigan popped out of a snow cave and fed in a patch of willows for some amazing views. What an experience! We warmed up and headed for Silverthorne, where we enjoyed all three species of rosy-finches as well as Clark's Nutcrackers and a Gray Jay. The afternoon drive was marked by vistas of some incredible Rocky Mountain peaks. A flock of Pinyon Jays interrupted our drive to Gunnison, but we got in to town in time to enjoy a nice dinner and an early bedtime.
Another early start found us going east of Gunnison to the famous Wuanita Hot Springs lek, the only publicly accessible Gunnison Sage-Grouse lek in Colorado. From the bench seats of a trailer blind, we scoped these rare grouse on a distant ridge, and also enjoyed some good views of local predators like Golden Eagle, Red Fox, and Coyote. The afternoon took us north of Gunnison to Crested Butte, and we found American Dipper, Red-naped Sapsucker, and a whole bunch of finches. Feeders in Crested Butte held all three species of rosy-finches (great looks at Black), Cassin's Finches, and even two Pine Grosbeaks! We retraced our steps to Monarch Pass and turned up a female American Three-toed Woodpecker, another Pine Grosbeak, and a soaring pair of Golden Eagles.
The tour's sixth full day took us from Gunnison to Grand Junction, with some scenic stops and driving along the way. First, we scoped Barrow's Goldeneye at Blue Mesa Reservoir, and then we looked for Dusky Grouse (no dice) at Black Canyon of the Gunnison, finding enchanting, snow-covered rocks, Evening Grosbeaks, and Townsend's Solitaires instead. Continuing on to Grand Junction, we tracked down five Lewis's Woodpeckers before touring the majestic Colorado National Monument in the golden sunlight of late afternoon.
On our morning out of Grand Junction, we first searched for Gambel's Quail (quick success!) before spending time in the rocky canyons of Cameo. Here, among the boulder-strewn slopes, we found Rock and Canyon wrens and our target chicken, the introduced Chukar. A long drive north to Craig gave us some extra time in the afternoon to search for grouse. While we struck out on late-in-the-day Dusky Grouse, we DID see a porcupine up in a tree.
Coming down to the wire for Dusky Grouse, we made a predawn stop near Hayden, and THERE HE WAS! A male Dusky Grouse was strutting in the middle of the road in our headlights, and we enjoyed some solid views of this low-density chicken before our main stop of the morning, a Sharp-tailed Grouse lek south of Hayden. Here we got to see the wing-rattling, cocked-tail displays of these acrobatic chickens, and even saw a bonus Greater Sage-Grouse crouched in the lek. After a filling breakfast in Steamboat Springs, we drove east over Rabbit Ears Pass into North Park. Due to some deep snow near our target Greater Sage-Grouse lek, we did some afternoon scouting, finding over a dozen sage-grouse that ended up strolling right across the road between the two vans. Lucky!
The final full day of the tour started quite early with a trip up to the lower reaches below Rabbit Ears Pass to a spot where we heard a spontaneously singing Boreal Owl. Despite our best efforts, we couldn't see this bird because he was too far off the road, but we did have a nice listen. Heading back into North Park for dawn, we were soon parked alongside a large lek of more than 50 Greater Sage-Grouse fanning their spiked tails and popping their egg-yolk colored air sacs in the sunny morning light. These huge birds courted, mated, and even fought each other while we watched in awe at close range. Incredible! The trip back to Denver was a bit of a blur after that amazing sage-grouse experience, but we did see a group of 63+ Barrow's Goldeneye on Windy Gap Reservoir, and Red Crossbills and a Williamson's Sapsucker at Genesee Park to wrap up our final afternoon.
Though we ended up driving even farther than originally anticipated due to our unexpected side trip through Kansas and Nebraska, Chris and I thoroughly enjoyed this tour, both for the outstanding birds and the great group. Whether it was the lekking grouse, the spiffy ducks, the thousands of longspurs, or any of the varied mammals along the way, there was a lot for everyone. It was wonderful to spend time with all of you, and I hope that you had some memorable experiences during this exciting loop through Colorado (and adjacent states).
Thanks, and good birding!
KEYS FOR THIS LIST
One of the following keys may be shown in brackets for individual species as appropriate: * = heard only, I = introduced, E = endemic, N = nesting, a = austral migrant, b = boreal migrant
Anatidae (Ducks, Geese, and Waterfowl)
GREATER WHITE-FRONTED GOOSE (Anser albifrons)
SNOW GOOSE (Chen caerulescens caerulescens)
ROSS'S GOOSE (Chen rossii)
CANADA GOOSE (Branta canadensis)
GADWALL (Anas strepera)
AMERICAN WIGEON (Anas americana)
MALLARD (Anas platyrhynchos)
BLUE-WINGED TEAL (Anas discors)
CINNAMON TEAL (Anas cyanoptera)
The Greater Sage-Grouse near Coalmont put a nice bow on the set of lekking grouse for this tour. Check out that tail! Photo by guide Tom Johnson.
NORTHERN SHOVELER (Anas clypeata)
NORTHERN PINTAIL (Anas acuta)
GREEN-WINGED TEAL (AMERICAN) (Anas crecca carolinensis)
REDHEAD (Aythya americana)
RING-NECKED DUCK (Aythya collaris)
LESSER SCAUP (Aythya affinis)
BUFFLEHEAD (Bucephala albeola)
COMMON GOLDENEYE (Bucephala clangula)
BARROW'S GOLDENEYE (Bucephala islandica)
COMMON MERGANSER (Mergus merganser)
RUDDY DUCK (Oxyura jamaicensis)
Odontophoridae (New World Quail)
SCALED QUAIL (Callipepla squamata)
GAMBEL'S QUAIL (Callipepla gambelii)
NORTHERN BOBWHITE (Colinus virginianus)
During a windstorm near Arriba, this Mountain Plover was hunkered down along the side of a farm road. Photo by guide Tom Johnson.
Phasianidae (Pheasants, Grouse, and Allies)
CHUKAR (Alectoris chukar) [I]
RING-NECKED PHEASANT (Phasianus colchicus) [I]
GREATER SAGE-GROUSE (Centrocercus urophasianus)
GUNNISON SAGE-GROUSE (Centrocercus minimus)
WHITE-TAILED PTARMIGAN (Lagopus leucura altipetens)
DUSKY GROUSE (Dendragapus obscurus obscurus)
SHARP-TAILED GROUSE (Tympanuchus phasianellus columbianus)
GREATER PRAIRIE-CHICKEN (PINNATUS) (Tympanuchus cupido pinnatus)
LESSER PRAIRIE-CHICKEN (Tympanuchus pallidicinctus)
When we arrived at the Greater Prairie-Chicken lek to scout it out on the evening before our dawn visit, a flock of prairie-chickens flew in from the adjacent prairie and landed on the lek, cackling all the way. Photo by guide Tom Johnson.
PIED-BILLED GREBE (Podilymbus podiceps)
HORNED GREBE (Podiceps auritus)
EARED GREBE (Podiceps nigricollis)
WESTERN GREBE (Aechmophorus occidentalis)
CLARK'S GREBE (Aechmophorus clarkii)
Phalacrocoracidae (Cormorants and Shags)
DOUBLE-CRESTED CORMORANT (Phalacrocorax auritus)
AMERICAN WHITE PELICAN (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos)
Ardeidae (Herons, Egrets, and Bitterns)
GREAT BLUE HERON (Ardea herodias)
Cathartidae (New World Vultures)
TURKEY VULTURE (Cathartes aura)
OSPREY (Pandion haliaetus)
Accipitridae (Hawks, Eagles, and Kites)
GOLDEN EAGLE (Aquila chrysaetos)
NORTHERN HARRIER (Circus cyaneus)
SHARP-SHINNED HAWK (Accipiter striatus)
This male Eastern Bluebird sang beautifully for the group at Bonny Reservoir in eastern Colorado. Photo by guide Tom Johnson.
COOPER'S HAWK (Accipiter cooperii)
BALD EAGLE (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)
SWAINSON'S HAWK (Buteo swainsoni)
RED-TAILED HAWK (Buteo jamaicensis)
RED-TAILED HAWK (HARLAN'S) (Buteo jamaicensis harlani)
ROUGH-LEGGED HAWK (Buteo lagopus)
Rallidae (Rails, Gallinules, and Coots)
AMERICAN COOT (Fulica americana)
SANDHILL CRANE (Grus canadensis)
Charadriidae (Plovers and Lapwings)
KILLDEER (Charadrius vociferus)
MOUNTAIN PLOVER (Charadrius montanus)
Scolopacidae (Sandpipers and Allies)
GREATER YELLOWLEGS (Tringa melanoleuca)
WILSON'S SNIPE (Gallinago delicata)
Laridae (Gulls, Terns, and Skimmers)
BONAPARTE'S GULL (Chroicocephalus philadelphia)
FRANKLIN'S GULL (Leucophaeus pipixcan)
RING-BILLED GULL (Larus delawarensis)
We made it exciting by leaving Dusky Grouse to the last possible day, but this male, strutting around in the predawn, certainly made the wait worthwhile! Photo by guide Tom Johnson.
CALIFORNIA GULL (Larus californicus)
Columbidae (Pigeons and Doves)
ROCK PIGEON (Columba livia) [I]
EURASIAN COLLARED-DOVE (Streptopelia decaocto)
MOURNING DOVE (Zenaida macroura)
GREATER ROADRUNNER (Geococcyx californianus)
GREAT HORNED OWL (Bubo virginianus)
BURROWING OWL (Athene cunicularia)
BOREAL OWL (Aegolius funereus) [*]
WHITE-THROATED SWIFT (Aeronautes saxatalis)
BELTED KINGFISHER (Megaceryle alcyon)
LEWIS'S WOODPECKER (Melanerpes lewis)
WILLIAMSON'S SAPSUCKER (Sphyrapicus thyroideus)
RED-NAPED SAPSUCKER (Sphyrapicus nuchalis)
This extremely gray Pine Grosbeak sat in the open for us at the top of Monarch Pass. Photo by guide Tom Johnson.
LADDER-BACKED WOODPECKER (Picoides scalaris)
DOWNY WOODPECKER (Picoides pubescens)
HAIRY WOODPECKER (ROCKY MTS.) (Picoides villosus orius)
AMERICAN THREE-TOED WOODPECKER (ROCKY MTS.) (Picoides dorsalis dorsalis)
NORTHERN FLICKER (Colaptes auratus)
NORTHERN FLICKER (YELLOW-SHAFTED) (Colaptes auratus auratus)
NORTHERN FLICKER (RED-SHAFTED) (Colaptes auratus cafer)
Falconidae (Falcons and Caracaras)
AMERICAN KESTREL (Falco sparverius)
MERLIN (Falco columbarius)
PRAIRIE FALCON (Falco mexicanus)
Tyrannidae (Tyrant Flycatchers)
EASTERN PHOEBE (Sayornis phoebe)
SAY'S PHOEBE (Sayornis saya)
LOGGERHEAD SHRIKE (Lanius ludovicianus)
Corvidae (Crows, Jays, and Magpies)
GRAY JAY (ROCKY MTS.) (Perisoreus canadensis capitalis)
PINYON JAY (Gymnorhinus cyanocephalus)
STELLER'S JAY (INTERIOR) (Cyanocitta stelleri macrolopha)
This is the same Greater Prairie-Chicken featured at the top of the trip list. Check it out as he struts around and even pauses to cackle from the roof of our van! Video by guide Tom Johnson.
BLUE JAY (Cyanocitta cristata)
WESTERN SCRUB-JAY (WOODHOUSE'S) (Aphelocoma californica woodhouseii)
BLACK-BILLED MAGPIE (Pica hudsonia)
CLARK'S NUTCRACKER (Nucifraga columbiana)
AMERICAN CROW (Corvus brachyrhynchos)
COMMON RAVEN (Corvus corax)
HORNED LARK (Eremophila alpestris)
TREE SWALLOW (Tachycineta bicolor)
Paridae (Tits, Chickadees, and Titmice)
BLACK-CAPPED CHICKADEE (Poecile atricapillus)
MOUNTAIN CHICKADEE (Poecile gambeli)
RED-BREASTED NUTHATCH (Sitta canadensis)
WHITE-BREASTED NUTHATCH (Sitta carolinensis)
This is about 1/4000th of the total number of McCown's Longspurs that we saw milling around agricultural fields near Arriba, Colorado. Incredible numbers! Photo by guide Tom Johnson.
PYGMY NUTHATCH (Sitta pygmaea)
BROWN CREEPER (Certhia americana)
ROCK WREN (Salpinctes obsoletus)
CANYON WREN (Catherpes mexicanus)
MARSH WREN (PLESIUS GROUP) (Cistothorus palustris plesius)
AMERICAN DIPPER (Cinclus mexicanus)
Turdidae (Thrushes and Allies)
EASTERN BLUEBIRD (Sialia sialis)
WESTERN BLUEBIRD (Sialia mexicana)
MOUNTAIN BLUEBIRD (Sialia currucoides)
This was one of two Sharp-tailed Grouse that ran right past our vans while we were watching their lek near the town of Hayden. Photo by guide Tom Johnson.
TOWNSEND'S SOLITAIRE (Myadestes townsendi)
AMERICAN ROBIN (Turdus migratorius)
Mimidae (Mockingbirds and Thrashers)
CURVE-BILLED THRASHER (CURVIROSTRE GROUP) (Toxostoma curvirostre oberholseri)
SAGE THRASHER (Oreoscoptes montanus)
EUROPEAN STARLING (Sturnus vulgaris) [I]
Motacillidae (Wagtails and Pipits)
AMERICAN PIPIT (Anthus rubescens)
Calcariidae (Longspurs and Snow Buntings)
CHESTNUT-COLLARED LONGSPUR (Calcarius ornatus)
MCCOWN'S LONGSPUR (Rhynchophanes mccownii)
Emberizidae (Buntings and New World Sparrows)
CHIPPING SPARROW (Spizella passerina)
FOX SPARROW (SLATE-COLORED) (Passerella iliaca schistacea)
DARK-EYED JUNCO (OREGON) (Junco hyemalis oreganus)
This bird involved some great luck, as the weather gods weren't smiling on Loveland Pass during our visit. Our White-tailed Ptarmigan blended in perfectly with the surrounding snowy landscape. Photo by guide Tom Johnson.
DARK-EYED JUNCO (PINK-SIDED) (Junco hyemalis mearnsi)
DARK-EYED JUNCO (GRAY-HEADED) (Junco hyemalis caniceps)
WHITE-CROWNED SPARROW (ORIANTHA) (Zonotrichia leucophrys oriantha)
WHITE-CROWNED SPARROW (GAMBEL'S) (Zonotrichia leucophrys gambelii)
SAVANNAH SPARROW (Passerculus sandwichensis)
SONG SPARROW (Melospiza melodia)
SPOTTED TOWHEE (Pipilo maculatus)
Icteridae (Troupials and Allies)
RED-WINGED BLACKBIRD (Agelaius phoeniceus)
WESTERN MEADOWLARK (Sturnella neglecta)
YELLOW-HEADED BLACKBIRD (Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus)
BREWER'S BLACKBIRD (Euphagus cyanocephalus)
COMMON GRACKLE (BRONZED) (Quiscalus quiscula versicolor)
GREAT-TAILED GRACKLE (Quiscalus mexicanus)
We were still on our way to our "Gambel's Quail spot" near Fruita when we spotted this handsome male perched up on a roadside wire. Photo by guide Tom Johnson.
BROWN-HEADED COWBIRD (Molothrus ater)
Fringillidae (Finches, Euphonias, and Allies)
GRAY-CROWNED ROSY-FINCH (HEPBURN'S) (Leucosticte tephrocotis littoralis)
GRAY-CROWNED ROSY-FINCH (GRAY-CROWNED) (Leucosticte tephrocotis tephrocotis)
BLACK ROSY-FINCH (Leucosticte atrata)
BROWN-CAPPED ROSY-FINCH (Leucosticte australis)
PINE GROSBEAK (Pinicola enucleator montana)
HOUSE FINCH (Haemorhous mexicanus)
CASSIN'S FINCH (Haemorhous cassinii)
RED CROSSBILL (Loxia curvirostra)
PINE SISKIN (Spinus pinus)
AMERICAN GOLDFINCH (Spinus tristis)
Good views of Golden Eagle were plentiful on this tour, especially during the last few days between Craig and North Park. This lovely bird was circling over Arapahoe NWR south of Walden. Photo by guide Tom Johnson.
EVENING GROSBEAK (Coccothraustes vespertinus brooksi)
Passeridae (Old World Sparrows)
HOUSE SPARROW (Passer domesticus) [I]
NUTTALL'S (MOUNTAIN) COTTONTAIL (Sylvilagus nuttalli)
DESERT COTTONTAIL (Sylvilagus audubonii)
WHITE-TAILED JACKRABBIT (Lepus townsendi)
BLACK-TAILED JACKRABBIT (Lepus californicus)
HOPI CHIPMUNK (Tamias rufus)
YELLOW-BELLIED MARMOT (Marmota flaviventris)
WYOMING GROUND SQUIRREL (Spermophilus elegans)
ROCK SQUIRREL (Spermophilus variegatus)
GOLDEN-MANTLED GROUND SQUIRREL (Spermophilus lateralis)
BLACK-TAILED PRAIRIE DOG (Cynomys ludovicianus)
WHITE-TAILED PRAIRIE DOG (Cynomys leucurus)
GUNNISON PRAIRIE DOG (Cynomys gunnisoni)
FOX SQUIRREL (Sciurus niger)
RED SQUIRREL (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus)
ORD'S KANGAROO RAT (Dipodomys ordii)
NORTH AMERICAN PORCUPINE (Erethizon dorsatum)
The view from Colorado National Monument has to be seen to be believed. The power of water running over rock over millenia is amazing to ponder at this wonderful natural site. Photo by guide Tom Johnson.
RED FOX (Vulpes vulpes)
COYOTE (Canis latrans)
AMERICAN BADGER (Taxidea taxus)
ELK (Cervus canadensis)
MULE DEER (Odocoileus hemionus)
PRONGHORN (Antilocapra americana)
BIGHORN SHEEP (Ovis canadensis)
Totals for the tour: 147 bird taxa and 23 mammal taxa