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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Colorado: Lekking Grouse

2023 Narrative

IN BRIEF: We completed a spectacular, gigantic loop drive through the middle of the United States, passing through three states and many small towns with a very congenial and happy group of participants. Incredibly, we managed to see all the possible species of grouse along the way. The dominant theme in the mountainous, western part of our itinerary was snow – and lots of it on the ground. Fortunately, it was already on the ground, and none fell while we were birding. Yes, we had some cold mornings and three days with some obnoxious wind, but they were totally expected, and we were overall extremely fortunate with the weather. The very different eastern part of our loop was still affected by a drought, so prairie-chicken numbers were depressed compared to recent years; the two species still were top highlights for many. Thanks to Audubon of Kansas, we had an exceptional experience at a lek in Gove County where a dozen highly animated Lesser Prairie-Chickens were joined by two Greater Prairie-Chickens and a happily displaying but frustrated hybrid. Our fabulous Greater Prairie-Chicken experience in Nebraska was very similar, enhanced by the amazing hospitality of the folks from the McCook/Red Willow County Tourism. The sounds and sights of the displaying and dueling birds just yards away was unforgettable. Greater Sage-Grouse were also fantastic, and the last-minute Dusky Grouse and White-tailed Ptarmigan were icing on the cake. Sharp-tailed Grouse was our most abundant chicken, but alas they were not displaying. Other favorite birds of the tour were Pine Grosbeak, Golden Eagle, Northern Pygmy-Owl, Steller’s Jay, Mountain Plover, Red Crossbill, Brown-capped Rosy-Finch, Rough-legged Hawk, Mountain Bluebird, Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch, and American Dipper. Read more about them below.

IN DETAIL: Our first morning began with calm weather at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge with a good assortment of water birds. A treat was getting to watch Horned Grebe and Eared Grebe side-by-side. A Long-billed Dowitcher was a bit on the early side and would be our only one for the tour. Among the land birds we made friends with our first Black-billed Magpies, which would accompany us on all days we were in Colorado. A Harris’s Sparrow was tricky to see at first, hiding most of the time and seeming to use the several White-crowned as decoys. We then spent too much time walking along the South Platte River in Denver, but we eventually ended up with our first American Dipper while enjoying superb views of Northern Shoveler and Bufflehead, pretty spectacular ducks when so close and in such good light. Time spent in the foothills would not have been that productive anyway, as the wind was beginning to pick up. The front passing through kept us away from Loveland Pass, so we took a more southerly route through Kenosha Pass. A stop near the Collegiate Peaks Overlook and Big Sandy Draw was good for juncos, including some pretty Pink-sided Juncos as well as our first Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jays. We had yet to navigate Monarch pass to make it to Gunnison, and though the pass had been closed overnight and in the early morning, it was just passable as we white-knuckled it to safety in the Gunnison Valley.

Our grit was tested on our first lek outing – braving a super early morning, one of the coldest of the tour, and our ability to stay quiet for a long period of time. We had what one certainly can call countable views of Gunnison Sage-Grouse, but any view of a federally threatened species should be considered acceptable. Some who were looking in the right direction saw a flock of 80 birds fly off before they really began displaying within view of the whole blind; this species seems to be doing better than any of the other lekking grouse. After a late morning checking fields and trees by the airport, we grabbed lunch to go from a Subway, and those who ordered early walked the very birdy neighborhood and found what appears to be the first county record of Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, a write-in on our master list. We made excellent use of the rest of our day traveling west to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, making stops as we saw fit. We stopped along the highway for a pair of Western Bluebirds, not realizing we’d be seeing more of these beauties on the entrance road to the park. We also saw several gorgeous Mountain Bluebirds, and while stopping for them noticed a group of Evening Grosbeaks (Type 4) feeding on the ground under some pinyon, which led us to spotting a beautiful Red-naped Sapsucker at the same spot. The end of the road was less birdy, hidden by feet of snow, and simply gorgeous. The drive back to Gunnison was just as fruitful, with a roadside Steller’s Jay cooperative where we could stop due to bad road in a construction zone. And then a stretching stop right after that led to a wonderful sighting of a pair of Prairie Falcons around a rock cropping overhead; while we were enjoying that, a hallelujah moment happened with a flock of migrating Sandhill Cranes overhead, bugling and lit from below from reflection off the reservoir. We finished the day with an easy stroll around the old cemetery, which was birdier than we expected, with Mountain Chickadee, Great Horned Owl, and our first Red Crossbill.

With the tour’s third-shortest drive to our next destination in Cañon City, we had all morning to look for the specialties of Crested Butte north of Gunnison. We drove around the ski village, checking for active feeders, stopping for a Bald Eagle, then finding an American Dipper by the bridge, and then finally found the best feeder. It was dominated by Brown-capped Rosy-Finches, but everyone finally saw one of the three Black Rosy-Finches, while the singleton Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch (Hepburn’s) was more cooperative. On the way eastward, we paused on the highway when we spotted a young Golden Eagle on a deer carcass right next to the road; it didn’t fly right away and was the closest most of us have ever been to one. A short stop at Monarch Pass resulted in memorable Canada Jay and Mountain Chickadee, and then the rest of the day was very windy. Stops for Pinyon Jay in the clouds of dust were useless, but a little side road was a nice break with a view of two American Dippers at a tiny bridge, a Townsend’s Solitaire on a fence, and White-throated Swifts overhead.

In the morning of our fourth day, we were able to squeeze in some birding around Canyon City despite the long drive ahead, snagging Curve-billed Thrasher and a pair of mating American Kestrels at the brush piles and then taking advantage of early spring movement of migrants by checking some lakes. The Cackling Geese that had been there four days earlier were gone, but instead we snagged Franklin’s Gull, a perched Belted Kingfisher, and a few nice ducks. One last stop to try for some canyon birds resulted in an amazing trifecta of phoebes – this being one of the few areas in the world where one could see Eastern, Black, and Say’s while standing in one spot. We made one last birding stop, still hoping for Pinyon Jay, but we did get one target, the adorable Juniper Titmouse before we realized we were a bit behind schedule for the long drive to Kansas. The long drive wasn’t exactly birdless – just skirting the Chihuahuan desert biome means that the smallish ravens we saw out in the desert grassland were indeed Chihuahuan Ravens, and then of course it being migration time, we should not have been surprised when a Mountain Plover flew in front of the van. A quick stop along the back highway showed that there were five that had stopped over in this random field, where, perhaps, none had ever been seen before.

Our day for the Lesser Prairie-Chicken began very early, and we were a good 15 minutes ahead of schedule until we realized that the Google navigator had spontaneously re-routed us to a random ranch house some 15 minutes beyond our target rendezvous. Amazingly, we still got to the lek a few minutes ahead of the drop-dead time bomb set by Jackie, the head of Kansas Audubon, and there we waited in the tents for the magic to begin, which was not long. After having a chance to take it all in, we finally realized that we had both Lesser and Greater Prairie-Chickens right in front of us, and then Jackie also informed us via text that one bird was actually a hybrid. It was then a long but enjoyable sit before the birds began to disperse into the prairie, after which was a very late but super hearty breakfast at a cafe in WaKeeney. With not such a long drive to McCook, we stopped at a couple of small reservoirs with habitat where we padded our Kansas bird lists. The fabulous brush pile at Wild Horse Creek Fishing Area was the top draw, with our only Northern Cardinals and White-throated Sparrow and eight lovely Harris’s Sparrows.

It wasn’t as early and not nearly as cold as some of the other mornings, but the wind at the Greater Prairie-Chicken lek near McCook made this one more of an endurance test. But our experience with the very close displaying birds, along with Horned Larks right in front of our blinds, as well as the fabulous hospitality of our hosts (including a primer slide show the evening before and hand and toe warmers) made the morning well worth the effort. With such a long drive to Fort Collins, the rest of the day’s birding was what we could grab along the way. An impromptu stop when we saw a waterfowl-populated pond next to the highway was the most productive stop all day, with Cackling Geese, Ross’s Geese, and five Yellow-headed Blackbirds there. One of our few planned stops, the Haxtun sewage ponds, resulted in the tour’s only Greater White-fronted Geese, while unplanned stops netted us Rough-legged Hawk, a distant flock of McCown’s Longspurs (with one Chestnut-collared frustratingly heard somewhere near them), three Lapland Longspurs (almost a rarity this late in the season), and a large flock of about 50 Mountain Bluebirds.

Our officially shortest drive at just under 100 miles allowed us for a more relaxed morning. Birding a neighborhood of historic Old Town Fort Collins didn’t bring us the hoped-for Bohemian Waxwing, but White-breasted Nuthatch, “Cassiar” Dark-eyed Juncos, and a Lincoln’s Sparrow in a front yard would have to do. One of the best stops of the day was a tip thanks to a friend. He didn’t promise them by any means, but before we had wandered far in the park, Frank spotted a Northern Pygmy-Owl perched in a leafless maple tree. It was soon joined by a second bird, so it was safe to assume they were about to nest nearby. At the foot bridge was a fine American Dipper. A highlight at one snowed-in campground was a Ponderosa Pine full of quietly feeding Type 2 Red Crossbills, some at very close range. Thanks to the good weather, another random stop along the highway at high elevation brought in an American Three-toed Woodpecker, a tough bird to get anywhere. With snow burying every campground on our route, we ate our takeout lunch standing around the van, noting only the lonesome Common Ravens at Montgomery Pass. The feeders at Moose Visitor Center included many Mountain Chickadees and another nice Lincoln’s Sparrow, while Steller’s Jays gave their best show yet. The short drive to Walden was punctuated by roadside Rough-legged Hawk and Golden Eagle, while a bit of scouting south of town resulted in fun sighting of a Red Fox hunting in a field.

This was our morning for viewing Greater Sage-Grouse south of Walden and see them we did. Our van shared the side of the road with two other birding tour groups, with a couple of private cars wedged in between. Though the sun was behind them, they were quite close (close enough to hear), and it was a magical sight. After the short drive and lunch in Steamboat Springs we birded the afternoon outside of town, adding a lovely male Pine Grosbeak in a neighborhood with feeders, lucked into two Moose lounging behind some snowed-in cabins right next to the road, and then drove back roads hoping for Dusky Grouse. Instead, we flushed an early Savannah Sparrow that didn’t stick around and enjoyed a pair of Sandhill Cranes bugling.

Who knew that on the final day of birding we would add three of the seven grouse species hoped for on the tour? At first, we weren’t sure we’d even find the Sharp-tailed Grouse, as all the likely lekking spots were empty and still under feet of snow. But after a drive beyond the usual areas, where we mostly saw a couple Western Meadowlarks, many Black-billed Magpies, and a Cooper’s Hawk, we finally spotted the first group of Sharp-tailed Grouse feeding calmly in a bare patch of ground next to a metal shed. Then as we began the return to town for breakfast and packing, we kept seeing them next to the road, some feeding up in willow trees, eventually tallying 34 for the morning. One of the biggest surprises of the tour was the Dusky Grouse in the parking lot of our hotel right in Steamboat Springs – it was being harassed by a Black-billed Magpie just before the schedule time to have our bags out in the van for packing, but it was in no hurry to leave, and we enjoyed viewed of the unperturbed bird just a few feet away as it rested under a little patch of fir and spruce trees, eventually nibbling on the needles of a fallen branch. The drive towards Denver was highlighted by a scenic detour due to a missed turn in Kremmling, but we discovered it in time and maybe would have missed the great views of the Prairie Falcon on a power pole had we not done it. We snagged the reported Barrow’s Goldeneyes with little trouble, and then took our lunch to Loveland Pass, hoping for the best. It didn’t look great at first – lots of snowboarders and sightseers were around – but patience paid off in the form of two White-tailed Ptarmigan on a distant scree slope, easily seen in the scope. Ka-ching! With time for brief birding stops back to Denver, we did another scenic detour, this one on purpose, and added one last bird, #133– the adorable Pygmy Nuthatch.

                                                                                                                                                                                        -  Rich Hoyer

Created: 21 June 2023