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