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WINGS Birding Tours – Itinerary

Colorado: Lekking Grouse

Friday 4 April to Monday 14 April 2025
with Skye Haas as leader
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Greater Prairie-Chicken in full display, one of the natural world’s most amazing sights and sounds. Photo: Chris Wood

April is a spectacular time of year in Colorado. Late winter and early spring combine stunningly beautiful snowcapped peaks with the first blush of green on the river-edge cottonwoods and prairies. It’s also the time when the five lekking grouse species—Sharp-tailed Grouse, Greater and Gunnison Sage-Grouse, and Lesser and Greater Prairie-Chickens—are engaged in their amazing foot-stomping, cackling, hooting, and/or moaning displays.

Our travels to the grouse leks involve long drives, but what drives! We’ll travel along the Colorado River and the magnificent Black Canyon of the Gunnison, through montane spruce-fir forests and expansive sagebrush flats and grasslands, and past more than a dozen 14,000-foot mountain peaks. Along the way we’ll look for a variety of resident, early-arriving, or late-departing species, including White-tailed Ptarmigan, Dusky Grouse, and all three species of rosy-finch. Mammals will be unusually well represented too: we may see Bighorn Sheep, Pronghorn, Elk, White-tailed and Mule Deer, Moose, Coyote, Red Fox, and, with great luck, Bobcat or even Mountain Lion.

Day 1: The tour begins at 6:00 p.m. at our hotel near Denver International Airport. Night in Denver.

Day 2: We’ll depart early for the foothills outside Denver, where we may see three species of nuthatch, Mountain and Western Bluebirds, and Williamson’s Sapsucker. If the weather cooperates, we’ll make our way to one of the high mountain passes in an attempt to locate the difficult-to-find White-tailed Ptarmigan, still white at this season. During some years rosy-finches linger into April, and occasionally we’re lucky enough to see all three species. In the afternoon we’ll have a few hours’ drive through spectacular mountain scenery before crossing Monarch Pass and dropping into Gunnison. Night in Gunnison.

Day 3: For our first grouse morning we’ll visit a lek of Gunnison Sage-Grouse. This highly localized bird was only recognized as a full species in 2000, and visits to the lek site are strictly regulated. We’ll absorb the ritual dance-displays of these wild looking grouse, and then we’ll head west out of Gunnison to the breathtaking Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, where we’ll search for Dusky Grouse, Fox Sparrow, and others. Along the way we’ll pass the Blue Mesa Reservoir, which could harbor Barrow’s Goldeneye and other waterfowl. Night in Gunnison.

Day 4: If we haven’t encountered rosy-finches yet, we’ll head up to nearby Crested Butte where all three species can be found. From there we’ll meander our way east through the mountains, enjoying majestic scenery and stopping to look for Pinyon Jay, Clark’s Nutcracker, American Three-toed Woodpecker, Williamson’s Sapsucker, and others. We’ll then arrive to the Canon City area in search of arid-loving species such as Juniper Titmouse and Rufous-crowned Sparrow. Night in Canon City.

Day 5: We’ll continue the next morning in our explorations of the dry brushlands looking for Scaled Quail, Canyon Towhee, Canyon Wren, and Curve-billed Thrasher before starting a long drive for Kansas. We’ll take a few stops along the way looking for Clark’s and Western Grebes and huge numbers of migrating waterfowl, while impromptu stops could yield migrating Mountain Quail, flocks of Chihuahuan Ravens, or interesting raptors. Night in Hays, Kansas.

Day 6: This morning we will visit a blind for Lesser Prairie-Chicken, a species that has undergone dramatic population declines across its already limited range. We’ll arrive early to the blinds and observe these handsome birds court while being serenaded by Western Meadowlarks. We’ll make our way north for the afternoon enjoying spring unfolding on the prairies. Night in McCook, Nebraska.

Day 7: Thanks to the help of the Red Willow County Visitors Bureau in McCook, we’ll witness sunrise at a Greater Prairie-Chicken lek. We’ll likely hear the eerie calls that accompany the magnificent dance of this species even before we can make them out in the dim light, with the tinkling of Horned Larks in the dark sky above. After the birds have finished displaying, we’ll head west for Fort Collins, taking a short birding break in the renowned and expansive prairies of Pawnee National Grasslands. Night in Fort Collins.

Day 8: We’ll have a flexible morning to look for any rarities in the Fort Collins area before we start to work our way over the mountains to Cameron Pass; we could even return to the Pawnee Grasslands if birding conditions are favorable. Rock Wren, Pygmy Nuthatch, Northern Pygmy-Owl, and American Three-toed Woodpecker are some of the birds we may see along the very scenic drive. Any feeders on the west side of the pass will be our afternoon goal, with rosy-finches, Pine Grosbeak, and Cassin’s Finch all possible. In the mid-afternoon we’ll make the drive to our hotel in Walden. Night in Walden.

Day 9: We’ll rise early to witness the extraordinary display of the largest North American grouse, Greater Sage-Grouse. As we watch the lek, we’ll pay particular attention to the plumage and behavior that distinguish this species from Gunnison Sage-Grouse we observed at the start of the tour. After leaving the lek, we’ll spend the rest of the day exploring the nearby wetlands and sagebrush flats of North Park, where Sage Thrashers might already be in residence. We may see the courtship of newly arrived Cinnamon Teal and American Avocet, and perhaps lingering winter birds like Rough-legged Hawk and Northern Shrike. We’ll also look for Moose as Walden is reputed to be the Moose capital of Colorado. Wolves are also known to be in North Park. Night in Steamboat Springs.

Day 10: We’ll have an early start to search for Sharp-tailed Grouse, one of the more difficult of the “chickens” on this tour. With some luck we’ll witness the wonderful foot-stomping display of this species. If the weather conditions will allow for it, we’ll may want to make another attempt for White-tailed Ptarmigan and any remaining rosy-finches we may still need. Because early spring weather in Colorado can be unpredictable, we may be unable to reach the snowy, high-elevation ptarmigan country; in that event, we’ll spend one last afternoon birding the foothill forests or some of the many fine reservoirs or migrant traps along Colorado’s Front Range. We’ll make our way southeast, arriving in Denver in the late afternoon. Night in Denver.

Day 11: The tour concludes this morning in Denver.

Created: 18 December 2023

Prices

  • 2025 Tour Price Not Yet Available
  • (2024 Tour Price $4,150)

Notes

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Questions? Tour Manager: Stephanie Schaefer. Call 1-866-547-9868 (US or Canada) or (01) 520-320-9868 or click here to email.

* Tour invoices paid by check carry a 4% discount. Details here.

This tour is limited to 7 participants with one leader or up to 14 participants with two leaders

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