Photos with this report (click to enlarge)
To go on a birding trip in Colorado in April means throwing yourself at the weather’s mercy. Strong winds can howl across the plains and late-season storms dump several feet of snow on mountain passes, bringing cross-Rockies traffic to a standstill. Naturally, you are also at the mercy of the birds. Colorado’s five lekking grouse species—Sharp-tailed Grouse, Greater and Gunnison Sage-Grouse and Greater and Lesser Prairie-Chicken—are fairly predictable performers, weather permitting. But then there are the non-lekkers, White-tailed Ptarmigan and Dusky Grouse, experts at hiding, despite the fact that they are good-sized birds. Add to that specialties like fickle flocks of rosy-finches and Pinyon Jays, and we had a bunch of wildcards on our bird wishlist.
We were four birding buddies from four corners of the country: Don Kienholz from Duluth, MN, Kevin Liberg from San Francisco, CA, Joe Thompson from Tallahassee, FL, and myself from New York, NY. Our heartfelt thanks go to all the local birders, state wildlife commission officials, professional bird guides, and birding friends for their great help before and during the trip.
Most professional birding tour groups allow about 10 days for the popular “Colorado Chicken Run.” We had to come up with a shorter itinerary because of limited vacation time. The trick was to leave just enough flexibility to chase after the more difficult targets or make up for weather disruptions. This led to our seven-day journey and we skipped the popular Pawnee Grasslands in the northeast and Colorado Monument out in the west, places that would have been great to pad the trip list. Instead we took a tighter loop from Denver via Estes Park, Walden, Steamboat Springs, Gunnison, Lamar and Wray back to Denver. After months of planning, great luck with the weather and a few patience-trying searches, we ended the trip with all major targets—and a few great bonus sightings—under our belts, putting 1,998 miles on the rental car.
A special-achievement award goes to the lady working at the breakfast room of the Super 8 at Denver Airport, who had the Sisyphean task of cleaning up a malfunctioning, sticky waffle maker over and over, just to watch it get gummed up again by the next unsuspecting hotel guest, a full-time job she met with great patience while maintaining conversations in rapid-fire Spanish on the tiny cell phone wedged between ear and shoulder. We watched in awe.
Saturday, April 10: Prewitt Reservoir State Wildlife Area
Kevin, Don and I met up a day early because airfares were much cheaper. I was the last to arrive at the Hertz car rental lot at Denver airport by mid-afternoon. Kevin and Don had passed their waiting time with careful comparisons of mid-sized SUVs and opted for a Mazda CX-7 since it had the most luggage room. Good thing they did, as it turned out that we needed every inch, and loading the cargo space every morning became a game of pre-dawn Tetris. Hertz’ AAA rate had been the best deal we could find. Additional drivers could be added to the policy for free, as long as they were AAA members, which prompted Don to join the club on the spot via cell phone.
With a few hours of daylight remaining, we headed for Prewitt Reservoir in the flat northeast corner of the state. The chance to find Northern Bobwhite was a big draw for Kevin and me. We had often, and sometimes jointly, dipped on this bird before. Along the highway, a light-form Ferruginous Hawk welcomed us to the vast grasslands of this region. At Prewitt itself, we missed out on Bobwhite once again. Still, there was a good mix of birds, water birds on the reservoir and land birds in the woods and fields below the dam. Clark’s Grebes, various ducks and a flock of White Pelicans were bobbing on the water. In the woodlands, an Eastern Screech-Owl peeked out from its nest hole in an old cottonwood, an early-arrival Say’s Phoebe went after insects over open grassy areas, and Eastern Bluebirds and Blue Jays added some color to the still-leafless trees.
For a bedtime treat, we watched a Barn Owl haunt the eaves and gables of the towering La Quinta Inn next door to our Super 8 Motel at Denver Airport.
Sunday, April 11: Denver Airport to Estes Park
With a few extra hours before Joe’s late-morning arrival, we checked out the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge. This superfund site of grasslands dotted with a few ponds and reservoirs is a convenient birding stop just minutes from the airport. The visitor center feeders produced the trip’s first grey-headed form of Dark-eyed Junco and a few Cassin’s Finches. On Lake Ladora, a Horned Grebe in transition from nonbreeding to breeding plumage fed close to shore. The grasslands were still quiet this early in the season aside from singing Western Meadowlarks and yipping prairie dogs. Just as we thought we were done with the place, a Great Horned Owl sailed out of a Cottonwood Tree near the visitor center and a Golden Eagle soared along the horizon, offering unexpected excitement. Then it was time to pick up Joe and head for the mountains!
In Estes Park, a scenic small town surrounded by snow-covered peaks at the edge of Rocky Mountain National Park, we met up with Scott and Susan Rashid. Scott, a wildlife rehabilitator, painter, bird bander and author of a recently published book on mountain owls, had kindly offered to be our local bird guide for the afternoon. Our first stop was the Fawnbrook Inn in nearby Allenspark. The feeders in front of this restaurant attract flocks of rosy-finches when the weather conditions are right, when snowfall drives these birds from their usual habitats high in the alpine tundra down into the valleys. Trouble was, the weather was much too nice. While the tourists along Estes Park’s main drag basked in balmy sunshine, we were wishing for gray skies and snowflakes. As feared, there were no rosies at the Fawnbrook Inn. But not all was lost. Three different races of Dark-eyed Juncos hung out around the feeders and offered great comparison studies. And we were thrilled when a Common Redpoll showed up in treetops next to the inn, an irregular Colorado visitor and an unexpected life bird for Kevin.
Next, Scott led us to the Wild Basin Trail area of Rocky Mountain NP, a few miles north of Allenspark. Scott had mentioned this as a possible Dusky Grouse spot and we were eager to try our luck. We walked along the dirt road/trail for about two hours without any grouse sightings—a long shot to begin with—but still had a great time. There were several mountain specialties that we hadn’t even hoped to find given our tight itinerary: a cooperative male Williamson’s Sapsucker flashed his lemon-yellow belly and bright red throat, a female Three-toed Woodpecker quietly moved up tree trunks right in front of us, a couple of Clark’s Nutcrackers worked their way through the pines, and Pygmy Nuthatches squeaked from the treetops. In a stream lined by deep banks of snow and towering evergreens, Don spotted an American Dipper hopping among the rocks.
On a private property back in Estes Park, Scott led us to a large nest box high up in a pine tree. Suddenly, the head of a Northern Saw-whet Owl poked out! Next, we walked up a small valley, all of us except Scott experiencing the humbling effect of thin air at 8,000 feet elevation. A couple of hundred yards later, the four of us huffing and puffing, Scott told us to look around for Northern Pygmy Owl. Before long, Kevin spotted this fierce, brown fluff ball of a bird about halfway up in a young pine tree. As we walked back down to the car, the tooting of another Saw-whet Owl brought us to a halt. Scott’s owl-expert eyes quickly found the bird hidden deep inside a short, dense spruce tree.
Based on reports of Pinyon Jays at feeders in nearby Lyons, we decided to spend the night at the Holiday Inn in Estes Park instead of moving south toward Loveland Pass. Don’s Holiday Inn club membership at the hotel paid off in form of vouchers for a round of free drinks at the restaurant. When we found out that the complimentary breakfast buffet would open too late for our early next-morning departure, Joe upped the ante and asked for more drink vouchers instead of breakfast coupons. The nice young woman at the reception was happy to oblige, which led to a pleasantly beer and wine-soaked evening to kick off the trip.
Monday, April 12: Estes Park to Walden
Most birding trips have one difficult day that tests everyone’s patience and commitment, and this was going to be ours. No, we weren’t hung-over. Just not very lucky. After the encouraging discovery of an open Starbucks along Estes Park’s main drag at the crack of dawn, things went downhill. Pinyon Jays, which had been reliable at a feeder in a neighborhood north of Lyons until recently, were nowhere to be seen or heard. Driving along dirt roads past fancy log homes produced little besides Magpies and Spotted Towhees. And so we headed south via Boulder and Golden to Loveland Pass to look for our first chicken, White-tailed Ptarmigan.
Snow and wind were in the forecast for the next 24 hours, threatening our plans. We had wanted snow for rosy-finches, but now we needed calm conditions for the ptarmigan search. The layer of gray clouds that thickened as we climbed into the Rockies on I-70 summed up the mood inside the car. A powerful, icy wind yanked at the doors as we got out at Loveland Pass’ main parking area at 12,000 feet, prompting some desperate luggage diving for every single item of cold-weather clothing we had brought along. Eyes watering on spotting scopes and binoculars, we scanned the vast slopes and patches of vegetation of from various pullouts along the road. The ruckus from a bunch of kids on skis and snowboards didn’t help, and neither did a pair of Red-tailed Hawks soaring and screeching on the west side of the pass. This was a good day for ptarmigans to stay out of sight.
Four miserable hours later, fed up with wiping wind-induced tears from our optics, we called off the search, piled back into the cozy car and headed north to Walden. Fortunately, the weather improved along the way, and the sun came out just in time to light up the bright orange and red willow thickets that are characteristic of North Park, a vast intermountain valley that reaches all the way up to Wyoming.
The cloud cover was gone when we arrived just south of Walden at Arapaho National Wildlife Refuge, revealing majestic peaks all around. Some of the ponds at Arapaho had thawed and turned into bird magnets, allowing us to add more duck species and American Avocet to the trip list. We soon discovered that there would always be some body of water nearby to fluff the day list with ducks in Colorado, a possible saving grace for any professional bird guide faced with impatient clients. All in all, things were slow at Arapaho. A distant raptor could have been a Prairie Falcon but it was a tiny dot by the time we had gotten our binoculars on it. At least Pronghorn Antelopes had the good sense to stand close to the car and stare at us, a great photo op with snow-covered mountains in the background. Open water at the south end Walden Reservoir offered an OK mix of ducks, gulls and a Great Blue Heron. A few early White Pelicans and Double-crested Cormorants hung out on an island farther out.
After an early dinner, it was time to focus on Greater Sage-Grouse, our main target around Walden. During my pre-trip research, I had stumbled across controversy surrounding their lek sites, making it unclear where we should actually go to see these birds. There used to be a popular viewing site southwest of Walden at the tiny hamlet of Coalmont but the state had lost its lease and the property was now on private land. The new landowner had little patience for birders stalking his property. Many birders had moved on to another lek site nearby but it, too, was on private land, and wildlife officials had warned me of possible harassment by the landowner. The CO Division of Wildlife had started to steer birders to a Greater Sage-Grouse lek site on public land, at Delaney Butte State Wildlife Area west of Walden. For some reason, birders were slow to adopt this site. Half of the guides and local birders contacted before the trip had never heard of it, the other half dismissed it because of bad road conditions.
We had to weigh viewing grouse from a spot where private land owners might give us a hard time—even though we’d be watching from a public road—against risking poor road conditions at the state-sponsored site. A call to the local CO Divison of Wildlife office informed us that the road at Delaney Butte had just been plowed and was in good condition, so we opted for the latter. And we would not be disappointed.
Shortly before sunset we approached Delaney Butte, a large rock outcropping at the western edge of the vast North Park valley, and drove past the two scenic lakes at its base. We had not even come to a halt at the designated parking spot when there was movement: two Greater Sage-Grouse hens close to the car, stalking among the rows of snowdrifts and open patches in the sagebrush. And there, about 100 yards in front of us, three males gracefully strutted back and forth, tossing back their heads and shaking their oddly green, uhm, boobs. More males continued to strut into the lek area from the south, all following a predetermined catwalk-like path through the low sagebrush. Over the next half hour, we counted 20 birds, 13 males and 7 females. A great show at our first lek site of the trip!
Tuesday, April 13: Walden to Steamboat Springs
The weather had turned once again and we woke up to snow showers. Bad conditions for grouse viewing, but great for finding rosy-finches, and so we skipped a return visit to the Greater Sage-Grouse lek and headed straight for feeders in the mountains. The nearest promising site was only twenty miles east, in the Medicine Bow Mountains, at the Moose Visitor Center at State Forest State Park. Or was it State Park State Forest? Apparently, you can be both in Colorado. What a state.
Fittingly, a moose galloped along the road to Moose Visitor Center. Flakes came down steadily but melted on the road, so conditions were perfect: bad enough for rosy-finches, good enough for driving. Now all we needed was for these birds to actually show up.
The feeders behind Moose Visitor center were atwitter as we pulled into the empty parking lot: hundreds of Red-winged Blackbirds had swooped in from the nearby cattail marsh, joined by Mountain Chickadees, Cassin’s Finches and, of course, lots of juncos. But, to our dismay, there were no rosy-finches in sight. The center didn’t open until nine, which meant we had almost an hour to kill and huddled behind the building, where snow drifts and massive icicles hung from the roof, offering some shelter as flakes continued to twirl through the air and a harsh wind blew around the corners.
Even without rosy-finches, there was lots of activity to keep us entertained. Suddenly, all the blackbirds turned quiet and flew off in a massive cloud. A fox strolled in, carefully sniffed the ground around the feeders, munched on sunflower seeds, and disappeared back into the thicket. The birds quickly returned, the fox visit a likely part of their daily routine. Suddenly a different kind of alarm calls rang through the air, and this time the birds scattered in different directions. A Northern Goshawk dove in for an inspection, circled above while eyeing the feeders and us, and moved on.
As birds began to reappear, a flock of Pine Grosbeaks and a few Cassin’s Finches arrived at the feeders, soon followed by… a Brown-capped Rosy-finch! As more birds flew in, mostly juncos and Cassin’s Finches, we noticed more brown-caps arriving with them. Eventually, we counted 10 Brown-capped Rosy-finches surrounding one of the platform feeders. Then, out of nowhere, two Grey-crowned Rosy-finches materialized. They went straight for the tube feeders, hanging there without any troubles while their brown-capped cousins stayed closer to the ground.
With all these distractions, we had almost forgotten how cold it was. But when Deb, the lady who runs the visitor center, arrived and unlocked the doors, we rushed in and were more than happy to watch the spectacle through large windows next to the gift shop. As we told her about our sightings so far, Deb casually mentioned that she had all three rosy-finch species regularly at her feeders, including earlier this morning. You could have heard a pin drop as the four of us processed this information. We had just seen a couple of Brown-capped and Gray-crowned Rosy-finches, but we still needed Black Rosy-finch. Thankfully, Deb welcomed visitors to her property in exchange for birdseed contributions. Even better, it turned out that her home was near Walden, which we would pass later on our way to the Hayden area anyway.
We made a beeline back to our car, stormed into Walden’s Ace Hardware store for sunflower seeds, and were on our way to Deb’s home, the aptly-named Rosy Ridge Ranch B&B. As we pulled into the driveway, hundreds of rosy-finches swarmed around a wheelbarrow that Deb keeps filled with seeds. Two Black Rosy-finches were in the mix, and so was one Hepburn’s-race form of the Gray-crowned Rosy-finch. Its all-gray head stood out well in the otherwise brownish-pinkish mass of birds. We spent the next half hour mesmerized, sitting there in our overstuffed SUV in Deb’s driveway, until a distant raptor spooked the birds and put an end to the show. Finally, we had caught up with these elusive birds and gotten great looks at their namesake pink markings, such colorful contrasts to the birds’ harsh, monochromatic habitat high above the treeline.
Steamboat Springs came as a shock after tiny, rustic Walden. Tourist shops and restaurants lined the long main thoroughfare, which was torn wide open for construction, causing traffic jams all through the town. Unfortunately, we would have to deal with this mess again. Our next destination was the small town of Hayden, about 25 minutes west of Steamboat. There was one motel directly in Hayden but online reviews were terrible and so, like many professional bird tours, we opted for commuting in and out of Steamboat Springs to get to Hayden's bird hotspots.
Three grouse species put Hayden on the birding map. To the north of town, there’s Greater Sage-Grouse and Dusky Grouse. South of town are several Sharp-tailed Grouse leks. When we got there, the road to Hayden’s Greater Sage-Grouse lek was still snowed in. Two daring birding parties had gotten stuck there in the last few days. Thankfully, with Greater Sage-Grouse already out of the way, we could focus our search on the remaining two species. We decided to spend as much time as possible looking for Dusky Grouse. This grouse doesn’t gather on leks, so there was more to finding one than showing up at a designated place and time to watch a bunch of love-crazed males shake their stuff. A thorough search was in order.
All afternoon, we roamed the brushy oak thickets along Rt. 80, also known as California Park Road. Scattered knee-deep patches of snow didn’t make things easier. Rustling sounds in the oak leaf litter made our hearts stop a couple of times, but it always turned out to be just another foraging Spotted Towhee. We finally took an early dinner break, vowing to return before the day was over. Along the way into Hayden, a couple of good sightings cheered us up. A Sage Thrasher stared at us from a hedgerow, and a pair of Sandhill Cranes paid little attention to us as they foraged in a pasture close to the road.
In Hayden, the Double Barrel Steakhouse had just opened its doors the week before, and so the town now had its own, legit restaurant. Local patrons seemed unaware of the groups of birders coming in and out of Steamboat to look at the grouse in their backyards. Several stopped by for curious, polite conversations with the four strangers that sat there at the corner table with binoculars dangling around their necks. The town of Hayden is overshadowed by a huge coal power plant, and it’s strange that one can find three species of grouse, cranes, and many other special birds and forms of wildlife within view of the massive smoke stacks. We were more than happy to tell the locals about the great birds around their town. Hopefully, the fact that nature lovers like us are willing to travel great distances and are happy to spend money on the local economy—as long as there are places to spend money at—will make a small difference in the way people in Hayden feel about the natural resources around them.
After dinner, still before sunset, we drove south of town to scout Sharp-tailed Grouse leks for the next morning. This should have been a slam-dunk. The usually helpful website of the Colorado Field Ornithologists listed two spots along CR 27, AKA 20 Mile Road. But, in this case, the CFO directions were off. When we got to the first spot, five miles down the road, the described pullout was nowhere to be found. The second spot, a few miles farther down, looked more promising—except for signs of recent construction. A fresh trench had been dug close to the road and a new fence had sprouted next to it. This site looked both disturbed and disturbing, and we doubted that any grouse would feel like putting on a show here. We moved on, worried of we would find Sharp-tailed Grouse somewhere along this road the next morning.
We returned to a promising Dusky Grouse spot along Rt 80 at dusk. Soon there were rapid, heavy wingbeats in a nearby oak thicket, possibly part of the male grouse’s display. But we couldn’t see a thing. Then there were a few distant vocalizations, probably from another bird higher up in the hills. The teasing got worse when, now in near darkness, an owl flew over, flushing at least two grouse-sized birds from the sage scrub close by. The birds went out of sight before any of us could get a good look at them. There must have been Dusky Grouse all around us. Now all we needed was a real look at the bird…
Annoyed but hopeful, we made our way back to Steamboat. Thankfully, traffic flowed much better now. Back at the hotel, I googled the keywords “Hayden”, “Sharp-tailed Grouse” and “confusing”. Lo and behold, there were results! Several birders had posted their troubles with directions to these Sharp-tailed Grouse lek site and offered better instructions.
Still, we went to bed feeling unsettled. Would we be able to see, and not just hear, a Dusky Grouse the next morning? And would we manage to find a Sharp-tailed Grouse lek along 20 Mile Road, an unexpected challenge?
Wednesday, April 14: Steamboat Springs to Gunnison
We left the hotel around 5:00 to be back at the Dusky Grouse spot at the earliest daylight. There we got out of the car and lined up in a row along the road, scanning the oaks and shrubs that had taunted us with signs of grouse activity the night before. In the half-light, Kevin and Don suddenly froze and stared down the road. “He’s behind the car!” one of them whispered. The Dusky Grouse ambled along the road. He stood out well in the half-light with light spots on his flanks and white feather patches at the throat. After walking a few yards, he strode off the road and disappeared into the oak thicket without a sound.
We hightailed it down to 20 Mile Road, back to Sharp-tailed Grouse lek site confusion. Monster-sized coal trucks on their way to the power plant barreled down the road and made slow driving while looking for grouse leks dangerous, if not impossible. But soon we saw a telltale sign, a bird tour van parked along the road. As we pulled up behind it, we noticed several Sharp-tailed Grouse very close to us at the top of a grassy slope. Too close! Our presence could have easily bothered the birds. Farther down the road, another group of birders pointed their binoculars and scopes right in our direction. By following the bad example of the van in front of us, we had inadvertently managed to block the view of the group uphill and probably stress out the birds by getting too close. We moved on as discreetly as possible and joined the other, better-behaved group, whose members graciously accepted our apologies. We got decent looks at about 20 lekking males, partially obscured by tufts of tall grass at the top of the knoll. The incessant coal trucks didn’t help, either. With the road between us and the birds, they constantly whizzed through the scope views, and I ended up with about as many digiscoped images of blurry trucks as of dancing grouse.
Still, we enjoyed the most comical grouse display of the trip. Like crazed wind-up toys, the males hunker down, spread their wings, stick their white, pointy tails high in the air, stomp their feet as if they are impatient to go and then dart off, just to come to a screeching halt, turn around, and run off in another direction. It was choreographed chaos, like watching mice running around in a maze.
After a quick final stop in Steamboat for breakfast, we drove back south to Loveland Pass for a second stab at the ptarmigan. What a difference from our first visit! A bright blue sky and little wind created downright pleasant conditions. It had warmed up and avalanche warning signs were now posted all over the place, which kept skiers and snowboarders away. We searched with renewed hope, this time focusing on the east (Atlantic) slope of the pass. Don was the first to notice tracks of chicken-like feet among the willow shrubs that stuck out through the snow, indicating that the birds had been around and feeding on tender leaf buds. But, despite these encouraging signs, the birds themselves stayed out of sight.
The clock was ticking, and we still had to drive 150 miles to get to Gunnison before dark. After two hours of fruitless ptarmigan scanning, Joe and I decided on a last-ditch effort and climbed down a slope through fairly deep snow until we reached the willow-covered top of a small knoll, which looked like the perfect ptarmigan feeding area. And, indeed, their chicken-like tracks came in and out of stunted spruce patches nearby. Like a little ghost, a White-tailed Ptarmigan stood there at the edge of a spruce cluster right in front of us! Size and shape similar to a bowling ball, just all in pure white, the bird quietly looked us up and down, turned, and waddled back into the patch where he hunkered down, still in good view. Joe noticed some movement deeper in the spruce patch and found two more birds hunkered down.
We called Don and Kevin, who had remained up at the road, on their cell phones, and the caravan that ensued down the slope was quite a sight. Don and Kevin had no trouble following our footsteps, but there was a birding tour group with them that had noticed the excitement. Their elderly members, including a recent hip replacement patient, made their way down the slope, too, using walking sticks or just rolling sideways. Kevin and Don arrived first, enjoyed a few good looks at the birds, and then it was time for us to climb back uphill, leaving the other group to their own moment of ptarmigan bliss.
We headed south across Fremont Pass, admiring postcard-perfect views of the High Rockies, then followed the East Fork of the Arkansas River down to Poncha Springs. Don had gotten word from a friend about a possible Pinyon Jay location at a feeder there. We randomly picked a residential road, and just a few hundred yards down a flock of Pinyon Jays was feeding on someone’s lawn! As we looked around, there were at least 15 jays scattered across this and neighboring yards. Oddly enough, they didn’t make a sound, and we laughed at the old Pinyon Jay wisdom, “Oh, you’ll hear them long before you see them.” Well, not in this case.
After the incredible encounter with the mute Pinyon Jays of Poncha Springs we drove west toward Gunnison and crossed the Continental Divide for the fourth time this day, now via Monarch Pass. The Waunita Hot Springs lek east of Gunnison is the only public-access site to view displaying Gunnison Sage-Grouse. Thankfully, it’s clearly marked and has a convenient pullout for viewing, so there wasn’t going to be any confusion over lek locations. We arrived at the Waunita Springs site in time for sunset, hoping to watch some evening lekking activity and were not disappointed. About 15 minutes after sunset, six Gunnison Sage-Grouse males appeared, one after another, to strut their stuff. They were about 400 yards out in the field, too far for detailed binocular views, but we got decent looks through scopes stuck out the car windows, good enough to notice the dense black filoplumes on their heads and the crisp white bands across the tails, two field marks that set them apart from their Greater Sage-Grouse cousins around Walden. Back in Gunnison, we celebrated this fantastic four-grouse day over a big pitcher of tasty, locally-brewed beer.
Thursday, April 15: Gunnison to Lamar
We decided to forego the morning show at the Waunita Springs lek after getting decent sage-grouse looks the night before. We needed an early start for 280-mile drive across the south of Colorado from Gunnison to Lamar, especially with a few birding stops along the way to break up the trip. As we found out later, this was a good decision: two coyotes paid a dawn visit to the grouse lek, causing the grouse to flee for the day before they had a chance to really get into their displays.
A pinyon-juniper habitat near Royal Gorge was our first birding stop of the day. As if on cue, a Juniper Titmouse emerged from a bark fold in a gnarled juniper, likely emerging from its nest site. A Bewick’s Wren sang from the top of a tree, the first wren of the trip. At the next stop, Canyon City’s Tunnel Drive, we added Rock Wren and Canyon Wren to the list. Kevin found a Curve-billed Thrasher at the parking lot as we peeled ourselves out of the car, a process that had become increasingly elaborate as snack wrappers, birding gear, and layers of clothes had formed a dense tangle over the last few days. Canyon Towhee was among the other “rocky” species, and Rufous-crowned Sparrow, probably the most sought-after bird at this location, was most cooperative.
After passing the wintry scenery around Monarch Pass, spring had unfolded with every mile as we followed the Arkansas River into lower elevations and a milder, dry climate. Along Tunnel Drive, gnarly old cottonwoods sprouted bright green leaves before red canyon walls. Calls of an Eastern Phoebe and chipping of a bunch of White-crowned Sparrows added to the spring-like feeling in the air. As we drove off, Don noticed a Scaled Quail perched on a fence, but it hopped to the ground and ran off when it saw it had been discovered.
A quick mid-day visit to Swallows Road on the west side of Pueblo, where suburban sprawl is oozing out into the prairie, was fairly unproductive. We heard Scaled Quail and saw a few Vesper Sparrows, but that was it. More luck was had on IL Ranch Road on the east side of town, where we found three Mountain Plovers moving among dirt piles of a prairie dog town. A dust devil, a mini tornado, sent tumbleweed swirling high into the air right in front of us. Inspired, we tossed our own tumbleweeds and watched them race each other until they got stuck in cacti out there in the vast plains. With so many hours crammed in the car, we needed all the entertainment we could get…
Near the tiny hamlet of Hasty we checked out John Martin Reservoir State Park. It was still too early in the season for most of the area’s specialty birds (like the elusive Black Rail!) but we found Virginia Rail and Marsh Wren. Numerous Swainson’s Hawks hunted the grasslands next to the reservoir. We also, finally, caught up with a pair of Burrowing Owls.
Friday, April 16: Lamar to Wray
We met Fred Dorenkamp and his trusty old school bus in front of the Granada general store at 4:15 a.m. Reunited with another birding group that we had met two days earlier at the Sharp-tailed Grouse lek in Hayden, we set out into the grasslands around Holly to see Lesser Prairie-Chicken on the Dorenkamp ranch. Through the birding grapevine, we had heard that Fred’s bus had almost gotten stuck in the mud a day earlier. Fred, mentioning an “embarrassing situation the day before,” announced that we would be going to a different lek site this morning.
The bus stopped in the middle of a huge field, still in complete darkness. We just sat there, windows down, and listened. Normally, you would hear the prairie-chicken calling as they marched into the lek area, even before dawn. But things stayed quiet. My heart sank. Had this mud-forced location change led us to an abandoned lek site? The lesser Prairie-Chicken, along with Gunnisson Sage-Grouse, was the rarest bird of the trip and one of the few that would be new for all four of us. The fields around us slowly became visible in the first light, but not a sign of Lesser Prairie-Chickens.
My heart sank even deepwer when Fred turned on the engine and drove the bus farther out into the field. But as soon as he stopped, there were two male Lesser Prairie-Chicken a couple of hundred yards away. Their pinnae, pairs of feathers that stick up high above their head as part of their lekking display, looking somewhat like an old-fashioned prairie-wife’s bonnet or antennae on a caterpillar, stuck high above the grass, along with their raised tail feathers. As they lifted their heads, we could also see the inflated reddish sacs on the sides of their necks. Three other males showed up but stayed off to the side, probably younger males who kept a respectful distance to the older, higher-ranking birds. Action increased when two females arrived, setting off a series of frenzied displays of erect feathers, inflated sacs, and lots of stomping and running around among the males.
After several hours in the cold school bus, we were starved for food and coffee and looked forward to breakfast at the Dorenkamp Ranch. Norma Dorenkamp had set up a hearty buffet in the barn with its sawdust-covered floor and sold T-shirts featuring an image of the signature bird with the caption “The Little Grouse on the Prairie,” hands down the best souvenir of the trip.
The three-hour drive north to Wray through the prairie landscape of eastern Colorado was uneventful, aside from numerous Ring-necked Pheasants—some alive, others flattened on the road—and a couple of Marbled Godwits at the edge of a muddy pond. At Bonny Reservoir, the only planned birding stop along the way, water levels keep falling as more gets pumped out to meet demand in Kansas, resulting in boat ramps that end in mid-air and closed campgrounds that were once next to the water, now hundreds of yards away. Still, the park offers inviting patches of trees and shrubs in the otherwise barren landscape, and we managed to find several good species. Two Long-eared Owls flushed from a row of tall juniper trees, and a Northern Goshawk flew off his perch at the edge of a meadow as we approached, our second trip sighting of this hard-to-find raptor. Red-bellied Woodpecker and Northern Cardinal added to the mix, East Coast species whose Colorado range is limited to the northeast corner of the state. Close to the park’s southern exit, we found a Great Horned Owl sitting in broad daylight on a stick nest in a leafless cottonwood tree.
Saturday, April 17: Wray to Denver Airport
In a replay of the early morning before, we climbed on a school bus and were driven out into the middle of nowhere, in this case the vast Kitzmiller Ranch property. But instead of staying on the bus, our group of 24 birders who had signed for this tour months in advance, filed into a special viewing trailer. After we had settled in, the accompanying wildlife officer opened one of the sides, revealing a vast panorama of… darkness. Just a few minutes later, a deep note sounded from out there in the dark, soon followed by similar notes from different directions. Male Greater Prairie-Chickens were marching in, announcing their presence by turning the air sacs on their necks into flute-like instruments. Unlike the reddish sacs of their smaller cousins, the Lesser Prairie Chicken, these guys sport bright orange sacs. But it took a while before we got to see it for ourselves. Slowly, in the gray light of early morning, we finally noticed shadows moving about in the grass. More and more birds became visible until we counted a total of 23, all males. Most were clumped together in pairs, engaged in confrontational displays with their closest neighbors.
After sunrise, several female prairie-chickens arrived, setting off excited screams and furious displays involving raised feathers, inflated air sacs and lots of foot stomping among the males. Seemingly indifferent to the excitement, the hens slowly walked across the entire lek area while the males around them took turns going crazy when they entered a new display territory. One of the hens allowed for a copulation but the others flew off after much ado about nothing. The last female finally left around eight, the signal that it was now time for our group to leave. The male prairie-chicken would go on to spend another hour or two at the lek site but, unlike the skittish hens, would hardly be bothered by our noisy bus departure. From the pre-dawn arrival of the males to the departure of the females, this was the most thorough lek performance we saw, and an appropriate finale for the trip.
After another hearty breakfast buffet, this one sponsored by local Wray businesses and served by volunteers, it was time to hit the road for the last time, heading for Denver Airport and our flights back home, back to our four corners of the country.
Notes on Dining and Lodging
We opted for independent, locally-owned hotels and motels whenever possible. While all four of us enjoy a good meal, we aren’t especially picky and usually grabbed lunch from one of the many Subway or Dairy Queen franchises along the road. It's just the easiest and you know what you'll get... Breakfasts and dinners, which often had to be timed around prime lek viewing hours, are described below.
Denver Airport: Kevin, Don and I shared a suite at Denver International Hotel next to DEN airport, which was in the process of turning into a Super 8 Motel. Good deal at about $32/person, but instead of the advertised suite it was essentially one large room with a sofa bed next to the two regular beds. Dinner at Ruby Tuesday near DEN Airport. Probably one of the better choices in an odd cluster of buildings in the middle of nowhere, consisting of nothing but hotels/motels and a few restaurants that cater to their guests.
Estes Park: Getting a last-minute reservation at the Holiday Inn was no problem. Dinner at the hotel restaurant was reasonable and basic. Free drink coupons (see narrative above) helped greatly wash it all down. Next morning’s breakfast buffet opened too late for our early departure. At least there was an open Starbucks along Estes Park’s main road.
Walden: We enjoyed our stay at North Park Inn and Suites in comfortable, remodeled rooms.
Dinner at River Rock Café at the Antlers Inn in Walden was pleasant in a rustic, rock-and-timber clad dining room. Breakfast at Moose Creek Café offered your basic greasy-spoon selection, the only game in town for breakfast and perfectly OK.
Steamboat Springs/Hayden: Night at Rabbit Ears Motel in Steamboat Springs. Who could resist a place sporting a large, pink neon rabbit sign? Only problem was a couple of trains thundering by at ungodly hours, even for birders. Dinner at the newly opened Double Barrel Steakhouse in Hayden—highly recommended because of proximity to grouse lek sites, and Hayden could use more support from traveling birders. Right now Steamboat Springs gets most of that business. Food was OK. Certainly beats driving all the way to Steamboat. Breakfast at Rabbit Ears Motel, Steamboat Springs, consisted of a basic, sufficient buffet.
Gunnison: Night at Water Wheel Inn, Gunnison. Birders get a special discount. There are several chain hotels at the east end of town, closer to the grouse lek. But the drive through town takes just a few minutes. The Gunnison Brewery has a basic pub grub menu. Huge plus is their home-brewed beer, right there in a tank next to the dining room. Breakfast buffet at Water Wheel Inn, the best hotel breakfast of the trip with a wide selection including fruit, yogurt and biscuits & warm gravy.
Lamar: Night at Blue Spruce Motel, Lamar. Rooms are OK and so is the price, although room size and furnishings are a notch below prior lodging in the fancier, western part of the state. Dinner at Thai Spicy Basil in Lamar, a great surprise to find Thai food of good quality in this neck of the woods and a nice change from our fast-food-meets-meat-and-potatoes diet. Breakfast buffet served by Norma Dorenkamp at her ranch in Holly was hearty and delightful.
Wray: Night at Sandhiller Motel, Wray—the less said, the better. A well-worn, stuffed albino prairie dog under a glass dome on display in the lobby area sums things up. Dinner at 4th and Main Downtown Grill, Wray, which is very good and has been popular with other visiting birders. The place is hard to find, on the second floor above an empty-looking storefront. Just ask locals for directions. The bar area is perfectly fine, but there is a quieter dining area in the back. Breakfast buffet at the Kitzmiller Ranch, Wray, served by proud local volunteers. Good and plentiful food, and a great way to engage the local community. The Chamber of Commerce is making a great effort to turn this small town into a big birdwatching destination.
American White Pelican
Great Blue Heron
Great Horned Owl
Northern Long-eared Owl
Northern Saw-whet Owl
American Three-toed Woodpecker