Saturday, April 30, 2011

Colorado: Day 6 (Apr 7) - Craig to Grand Mesa to Denver

This morning's big target bird was the last of the lekking chickens and last of our 8 big target species: Sharp-tailed Grouse. We felt pretty good about this one having scouted the location the day before, plus awaking to dry weather this morning. We sat in the car and waited until a few SHARP-TAILED GROUSE flew into their lek site on a grassy knoll. It took them a while to warm up and start displaying, but eventually they got going. Our max count was 7 birds. Of the five lekking grouse, this dance is the most bizarre.

the grouse lek on one of the grassy knolls on the left (west) side of the road

At this point we all exchanged handshakes and high-fives at the completion of our quest for the lekking chickens and rosy-finches. We thought we might need all week to do it, but we still had nearly three full days left to bird Colorado. Time to focus more on secondary targets.

We drove further west to Oxbow State Trust Wildlife Area to see SAGE SPARROWS. We weren't sure if we'd be too early in the season or not, but there were a couple territorial sparrows singing away. Also on site were many more SAGE THRASHERS and stunning MOUNTAIN BLUEBIRDS.

Sage Sparrow

Mountain Bluebird

sage habitat at Oxbow

From here the plan was to head SW toward the Grand Junction area for at least one full day's worth of birding. Our first stop was Coal Canyon primarily for a try at Chukar (introduced). No sign of Chukar there, but we did find some more PINYON JAYS plus ROCK WRENS and a BLACK-THROATED SPARROW.

Coal Canyon

Next we headed for another drastic change in scenery: from the southwest-like Coal Canyon up to elevation at Grand Mesa. Here the wind really started to pick up, making the birding very difficult. Grand Mesa was incredibly unbirdy. We had designs on staying until dark and trying for Boreal Owl, but it was apparent that wasn't going to be an option with the wind. We were able to pull out a RED-NAPED SAPSUCKER on territory in the aspens at the Powderhorn Ski Area. Otherwise all we had were some more PINE GROSBEAKS and CASSIN'S FINCHES (not that we were complaining about them).

Grand Mesa - skies not looking very friendly!

At this point we had a big decision to make. Should we stay in the Grand Junction area as planned, or actually head back to Denver a couple days early? Since we had just gotten Pinyon Jay for everyone we didn't have a reason to stay in the area. We laid out a plan for two full days of birding in the Front Range area, then drove back to just outside Denver for the night.

- NB

Colorado: Day 5 (Apr 6) - Walden to Craig

We awoke to snow showers (but zero wind) and started the 20-minute drive back to the Greater Sage-Grouse lek we had visited the night before. We took a wrong turn that set us over 15 miles in the wrong direction (chalking it up to sleep deprivation at this point), but we had started early enough to get to the lek site before it got too late. Still, not the way you want to start your day when you're worried you might actually miss this species! Even though we were admittedly nervous, we were comforted by the fact that we were ahead of schedule at this point thanks to getting all our big targets quite easily thus far. We could theoretically spend 2 or 3 days trying for Greater Sage-Grouse if we had to.

But I digress. We arrived at the Coalmont lek to a steadily falling snow. We got out of the car to walk up the muddy road (which was now mostly frozen and solid at the surface). We slowly advanced up the road, well short of the lek site, peering over the snow banks. Bill spotted two GREATER SAGE-GROUSE just over the crest of the hill, with only the top half of their bodies showing. We all got scope views between the snowflakes and took a big collective sigh of relief! We advanced a bit further up the road where we eventually saw 10 birds hanging out at the lek site. The males were not full-on fact they appeared to be doing more feeding than anything. At this point we were all covered in snow, our optics were wet and fogging up, but we were all smiles. Everything on the trip had come too easy before this moment! It was nice to have to work for a bird for once. The setting of these large grouse feeding in the steady snow just seemed appropriate...this is what I had in mind when I pictured Colorado in early April. I wish I had been able to get a shot of the snow accumulating on their backs.

Phil and Bill search for GRSG as the snow piles up on them

We watched the grouse until our optics were too wet to see through. Instead of dawdling around the area we thought it best to continue west up-and-over Rabbit Ears Pass before the roads became really dangerous. As we headed up the pass the roads got a bit slippery; we passed a few disabled vehicles along the way, and the truckers were putting their chains on. We made it over without issue, into Steamboat Springs for breakfast, and then down to Hayden.

snowy Rabbit Ears Pass

There are two grouse sites in the Hayden area: one for lekking Sharp-tailed Grouse, and one for displaying Dusky Grouse. We scouted both locations that morning so we wouldn't get lost later that night or the following morning in the dark. Then, with some mixed snow and rain falling and no target birds to see in the middle of the day, we actually decided to check into our motel and relax for a few hours. We reconvened in the evening and headed to the Dusky Grouse spot, which was a rather unimpressive scrub-oak hilltop. Bill and Phil took one side of the hill while I stood watch on the other side. None of us ever saw any DUGR. Bill and Phil heard one bird calling but it wasn't audible from where I was standing. A great surprise was a flock of 30 noisy PINYON JAYS that touched down in the oaks briefly before moving on. I was the only one to see them as they were on my side of the hill. We stayed until it was nearly dark before throwing in the towel on the Dusky Grouse. This wasn't one of our eight 'Tier 1' target species but we would spend some time looking for it later in the trip.

scrub-oak at 80-mile Road in the falling snow

Night in Craig (no motel vacancies in Hayden itself).

- NB

Colorado: Day 4 (Apr 5) - Wray to Walden

After again witnessing the spectacular Greater Prairie-Chicken lek at dawn (see previous day's post), we set out to the west in the direction of the Pawnee National Grasslands. Since we had done so well with grassland species the prior two days, we only had two targets for the Pawnee: McCown's Longspur and Mountain Plover.

view of the Rockies from the Pawnee

Pawnee National Grasslands

We didn't have to work hard for either species. First we came across a few skylarking McCown's Longspurs on CR 96 (0.5 miles west of CR 77). The in-flight views were stunning. I couldn't help but admit that a digital SLR would have come in very handy to capture some nice flight shots. Views on the ground were tough due to vegetation and heat shimmer, but we got some decent looks.

McCown's Longspur

We pulled ourselves away from the displaying longspurs on a search for Mountain Plover. We soon found a pair in a prairie dog town on CR 96 (2 miles west of CR 77). The views were again affected by heat shimmer, but we were still very pleased and moved on, realizing that we were actually ahead of schedule on a day that we figured we would be scrambling to keep up.

Mountain Plover


Now we had several hours to make the drive from the Pawnee to Walden/Coalmont for a shot at Greater Sage-Grouse in the evening. As we drove west along Route 14 we stopped at the North Weld County Landfill where we soon had FRANKLIN'S and CALIFORNIA GULLS among Ring-billed and Herring. A first-cycle LESSER BLACK-BACKED GULL made a few close passes going to/from the landfill. We soon realized that the gulls were commuting from nearby Drake Lake, where we found several hundred roosting gulls including many more Franklin's.

Franklin's Gull

Satisfied with our gulling (I had been in landfill withdrawal), we continued west through Poudre Canyon, which may have been the most scenic drive we had the entire trip. Our target here was AMERICAN DIPPER, which we found singing underneath a roadside bridge over the river. This was a lifer for Bill, and it had been a while since Phil and I had seen one, so we took several minutes to watch the bird do its thing.

American Dipper

Poudre Canyon - these photos do no justice

Just before we found the dipper, we had a flock of four RED CROSSBILLS in Ponderosa Pine along the river. These birds repeatedly gave a clear, blunt 'jip' call, which we thought sounded good for Type 2 but weren't sure at the time. Christian Nunes helped confirm our suspicions, informing us that they were the dominant call type in the area, especially in Ponderosa Pine. This was a life "call type" for me (confirmed types 2, 3 and 10).

Type 2 Red Crossbill

We continued to rise in elevation, having gone from the eastern plains to 10,000 feet in a few hours time. We drove over Cameron Pass and continued down to the Moose Visitor Center where a quick check of the feeders revealed a new trip bird: PINE GROSBEAK.

Cameron Pass

Our final stop of the day would be at the Coalmont Greater Sage-Grouse lek around sunset. The road to the lek itself was almost not drivable, but Phil somehow finagled our rental vehicle through several inches of sloppy mud and got us there. It was quite windy and cold as we stood around waiting for the grouse to appear at their lek site. It never happened. We were just a tad nervous at this point because this was really the only accessible public GRSG lek thanks to recent heavy snows in the area. On top of that, these sage-grouse had a habit of slightly changing their lek site, making it possible that they couldn't be seen from the road.

Night in Walden. We would try the same lek again at dawn tomorrow. Today was another hugely successful day, and another day of drastic elevation and weather changes.

- NB

Colorado: Day 3 (Apr 4) - Lamar to Wray incl. Greater Prairie-Chicken videos

We started the day well before dawn as we met Fred Dorenkamp (of Arena Dust Tours) in Granada. Fred would escort us to a small private LESSER PRAIRIE-CHICKEN lek near the small town of Holly. We arrived before we could see anything, but it didn't take long to hear the cackling of the chickens. As the sun slowly rose, we enjoyed distant views at about a half-dozen birds as they jumped, fluttered, and cackled.

On our way back to Granada we came across two FERRUGINOUS HAWKS, a young light morph and an unaged dark morph. A nice light adult SWAINSON'S HAWK also made an appearance.

From Granada we hoped to intercept some migrant CHESTNUT-COLLARED LONGSPURS in the Lamar area. We followed up on a couple of recent eBird reports. Sure enough we stumbled across a small flock of four, including a couple adult males. The birds proved elusive, so we had to settle for scope views of only a single female. An equal highlight, and very possibly our favorite mammal of the trip, was a golden-colored SWIFT FOX in the grasslands.

Next on the list were a couple bodies of water north of Lamar. Thurston Reservoir held side-by-side WESTERN and CLARK'S GREBES. Neenoshe Reservoir would prove productive for shorebirds including 4 SNOWY PLOVER and a few BAIRD'S SANDPIPERS.

We then headed north to the town of Wray where we would meet a cattle rancher who has over 100 GREATER PRAIRIE-CHICKEN leks on his ranch; he would share one of them with us this evening. We were expecting a good show, but words can't really describe just how amazing this spectacle would be. The eerie cooing sounds, the fascinating (and funny!) foot-stomping dance...we watched nearly mesmerized until the light started to fade.

We returned the following morning to view the lek at its peak activity level, which ended up being 44 birds strong (33 males, 11 females). The photos and videos below are combined from this evening and the following morning (rather than splitting them up into two posts). Videos (with sound) are at the bottom.

Greater Prairie-Chickens

Combine that experience with a UConn National Championship later that evening, and the three of us had an evening we will never forget.

- NB