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


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