Highly successful trip in the company of Wenfei Tong to see 7 grouse species and more… We ended up with excellent to reasonably good views of all seven grouse (and photos of five of them), plus a host of other specialties and a few unexpected bonus birds. The only dips involved Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch, which is tricky this late in the season, and two grassland species (Chestnut-collared Longspur and Ferruginous Hawk) which refused to show up on an extremely windy day in the Pawnee National Grasslands. The site accounts are in chronological order and are followed by the trip list:
Genessee Mountain Park (Gen): The early morning of the first day was spent marveling at Williamson’s Sapsucker on this mountain in the outskirts of Denver, with a bonus Townsend’s Solitaire and Red Crossbills.
Estes Park (EP): The best part of Day 1 was spent here in the company of Scott Rashid, who took us to various feeders to see Black and Brown-capped Rosy-Finches (the two most range-restricted and important targets) and amazing Pine Grosbeaks. Bonus birds at the feeders included our trip’s only Red-naped Sapsucker and many Pygmy Nuthatches. Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches had been around recently but became increasingly unreliable on the day we were there. A hike around Lily Lake produced great views of our lifer American Three-toed Woodpecker, the trip’s only Clark’s Nutcracker plus our second (and last) Townsend’s Solitaire. Searches by the reservoir in town turned up a migrant Brewer’s Sparrow along with some commoner sparrow species.
Dillon/Silverthorne (D/S): A late-afternoon search at three feeder locations in this twin town did not turn up the hoped-for rosy-finches, but Wenfei gripped me off by briefly viewing another female Pine Grosbeak while I was stuck in the snow.
Kremmling (Kr): Our final stop on Day 1 took us to the cliff face near this town, where we searched for Prairie Falcon without success, but instead enjoyed watching a Golden Eagle on its impressive nest. A beautiful Rocky Mountain Hermit Thrush at dusk remained the only one of the trip.
Hayden (Hay): Following a very cold night in the car, our frantic searches around the Sharp-tailed Grouse leks along Twenty-Miles Road came up empty. As a back-up, we had a tip-off from a cop for a supposed Sage Grouse lek south of town, but a brief subsequent foray to this place was equally frustrating. By the time we hit the main lek area north of town, it was already mid-morning, but to our great astonishment, there were more than a handful of Sharp-tailed Grouse foraging in the valley, and one male even displaying on the road for great photo ops. The literature calls this a stake-out for Sage Grouse, so these sharp-tailed individuals were certainly a surprise. As if to mock our dawn performance, we even saw a male perched on a bush by the roadside in bad agricultural habitat a mile back towards Hayden on our way out.
After our excursion to Timberlake (see next), we returned to this Hayden lek area in the mid-afternoon to search for more grouse species. A nomadic band of Pinyon Jays kept our spirits up during the search, and at the very last minute we were rewarded with close views of a male Dusky Grouse by the pass.
Timberlake (Tim): Hoping to bag Sage Grouse later in the morning of Day 2, we sped to this lek area close to the Wyoming border. However, extensive hikes through the plains here failed to turn up any grouse. As a little compensation, there was an impressive Golden Eagle.
Coalmont (Coa): With one more chance for Sage Grouse to go, we decided it would be worthwhile to drive the long way to Coalmont for the dusk slot. Nice wetlands en route were teeming with ducks, waders and our first Swainson’s Hawks of the trip. In the new Coalmont lek area, birds of any creed were few and far in between. Arriving early, we had to wait for three hours until it became darker. We never witnessed any lekking grouse here, but in the end we were relieved to see an unanimated, feebly displaying male Greater Sage Grouse and his female in the last 15min of daylight.
Colorado National Monument (CNM): The morning of Day 3 saw us at Devil’s Kitchen in the southern part of this park, where thanks to an eBird tip-off we soon admired a slightly out-of-range Black-chinned Sparrow in full song. The whole sage valley was very birdy, and we quickly added Black-throated Sparrow, Virginia’s Warbler, Gambel’s Quail, Juniper Titmouse and many other birds to the list. The subsequent drive through the national monument provided breathtaking views of the canyon, with an occasional bird bonus in the form of Black-throated Gray Warbler, Pinyon Jay and White-throated Swift.
Mack (near Fruita): Using eBird, we knew of a location for Sage Sparrow in the sage scrub northwest of Mack, near the Utah border. The Sage Sparrow duly obliged at noon, accompanied by a Brewer’s Sparrow, but our subsequent quest for Scott’s Oriole in this area and the nearby Rabbit’s Ear Pass came up empty. Perhaps it was a tad bit early in the season or late in the day…
Fruitgrower’s Reservoir (FR): This pleasant lake around Delta provided a welcome respite from the more frantic birding on the previous day. The Lewis’s Woodpecker in the giant trees by the trailer home made a reliable appearance, and in the reeds the air was filled with Marsh Wren song (despite the late time of day), although seeing them took some effort. The lake teemed with waterbirds, the best of which were Wilson’s Phalarope, Marbled Godwit, Willet, Redhead, Canvasback, as well as Western and Eared Grebe.
Sweitzer Lake (SL): This lake out of town near Delta is not nearly as productive as the previous site, but we gave it a random try and were not disappointed to see a single Clark’s Grebe, a species that had eluded us at the Fruitgrower’s Reservoir. Our trip’s first Prairie Falcon prompted us to stop right on the highway near Delta, where we got decent binocular views.
Black Canyon of Gunnison (BC): With a bit of daytime left on Day 3, we decided to give the Black Canyon a go. After a birdless two hours along the rim drive, two male Dusky Grouse came out right at dusk and performed on the road. Wenfei obtained photos and video, and this was one of her top-three moments of the trip.
Gunnison (Gu): We drove to the designated lek an hour before dawn and eagerly awaited sunrise. At first light (5.35am), 11 male Gunnison’s Sage Grouse appeared on the lek, with no apparent lekking display. Viewing distances are quite far, and birds only stayed for 15min, after which they took to their wings, briefly landed close behind the car and scuttled off into the brush. This was not our favorite grouse sighting, but it was an essential experience on this trip. The mid- and late morning was then spent with Jim Berry at his feeders 7 miles north of Gunnison. Jim had had all three rosy-finches there the day before, but we arrived on a snowless day and only saw a single Brown-capped Rosy-Finch. A Green-tailed Towhee was an unexpected bonus.
Salida: The rest of Day 4 was spent driving to Kansas, but a brief roadside stop outside of Salida was interesting in producing the trip’s only two American Dippers, along with several Audubon’s Warblers and four species of swallow.
Cimarron National Grasslands (CNG): We really hit the gas pedal to make it to Cimarron Grasslands in Kansas in time, with Burrowing Owls and Lark Buntings all seen at 80mph. We arrived an hour before dusk, and the Lesser Prairie-Chickens were already lined up around the lek near the eastern hide. As it became dark, these birds put on the best dance show of the trip. In terms of lekking behavior, this was my favorite grouse. With the last rays of sunlight, a desperate tape attempt did bring in a Cassin’s Sparrow to close quarters, but the lack of light made it difficult to appreciate its stunning plumage.
Bledsoe Ranch (near Wray) (BR): An exhausting night drive took us to the northern side of the Colorado-Kansas border, where we arrived in the sagebrush plains of the Bledsoe Ranch near Wray just in time for the next grouse. Always remaining on roads within this private property, we ended up having OK scope views of more than a handful of displaying male Greater Prairie-Chickens on a hilltop. Again trying for Cassin’s Sparrow, this time an individual came in for well-lit views. On the subsequent drive to the Pawnee Grasslands, we saw two different individuals of Prairie Falcon.
Pawnee National Grasslands (PNG): This was perhaps the only disappointing site of the trip. Having read so much about these once-impressive grasslands, we arrived in the late morning, finding an area of prairie plots interspersed with agricultural land. The day was too windy for any great raptor activity. Although we saw plenty of McCown’s Longspurs, their rarer high-grass cousins remained elusive despite prolonged searches. Walking for miles in a promising area turned up a surprise Short-eared Owl, and great relief ensued when extensive scanning of burnt areas finally produced a single Mountain Plover.
Loveland Pass (LP): The morning of the last day we headed up to Loveland Pass when Wenfei made a golden discovery in the form of a White-tailed Ptarmigan right by the roadside, before we had even reached the pass. The ptarmigan didn’t stay close for long and quickly scuttled uphill to a willow bush, where it fed for another 15min, carefully documented by Wenfei’s giant lens. We drove off to turn the car around, and by the time we were back, the bird had disappeared. This was probably the most fortuitous sighting of the trip, since the area quickly filled up with skiers, so that we would have struggled to find another ptarmigan later in the day.
Red Rocks Park (RRP): After the quick success with the ptarmigan, we found ourselves with some extra time and decided to give this lovely park a try. The feeder here was nothing short of spectacular and turned up one bonus after the other, starting with Curve-billed Thrasher, followed by Slate-colored Fox Sparrow, a late Harris’s Sparrow, a straggler Golden-crowned Sparrow and dive-bombing Broad-tailed Hummingbirds. Scrub along the road held another Green-tailed Towhee.
Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR): With remaining pre-airport daytime at our disposal, we stopped over at the Arsenal NWR, where the lakes held the usual waterfowl suspects and five species of swallow. This was a perfect ending to a successful trip.
Eared Grebe (FR; ANWR), Pied-billed Grebe (FR; near airport), Western Grebe (FR c30), Clark’s Grebe (SL 1), American White Pelican (FR c10; small flock on a Denver lake), Double-crested Cormorant (EP), Great Blue Heron (Hay, FR, ANWR), White-faced Ibis (Hay 55; ANWR c150; Gu c20), Canada Goose (cm; all appeared to be Common Greater), Mallard (cm), Gadwall (EP; FR; Hay; Coa; ANWR), Northern Pintail (FR; Coa), American Wigeon (near Boulder; Coa; Hay), Northern Shoveler (Coa; FR; ANWR), Cinnamon Teal (Coa; FR), Blue-winged Teal (ANWR), Green-winged Teal (Coa; Hay; FR), Canvasback (1 FR), Redhead (FR 1 pair), Ring-necked Duck (EP; Hay; near airport; FR), Lesser Scaup (FR; ANWR), Bufflehead (2 ANWR), Ruddy Duck (1 FR; 1 ANWR; 1 EP), Turkey Vulture (cm), Northern Harrier (Mack; ANWR; near Wray), Sharp-shinned Hawk (1 PNG), Cooper’s Hawk (1 FR), Swainson’s Hawk (Coa 2; PNG; ANWR; near airport), Red-tailed Hawk (cm; most looked typical Western), Golden Eagle (Kr 1; 1 Tim; 1 Coa; PNG 1+1), Bald Eagle (1 Tim, 1 Hay), Merlin (1 PNG), American Kestrel (cm), Prairie Falcon (1 near Delta; 1 near Yuma; 1 near Wiggins), Peregrine (Gu 1+1), Gambel’s Quail (CNN c5), Ring-necked Pheasant (CNG; h/o BR), Dusky Grouse (Hay 1 male finally found foraging at regular site north of town in mid-afternoon; BC 1+1 males displaying on the road at dusk), White-tailed Ptarmigan (1 LP feeding on willow bush E of road 500m before pass), Sharp-tailed Grouse (Hay: almost 10 seen foraging and displaying on road at Dusky Grouse site in mid-morning c8.30am after having missed them at a supposed lek along Twenty Miles Road at dawn), Lesser Prairie Chicken (CNG: 12, including at least 1 female, with males heavily lekking at eastern hide in the late afternoon and dusk), Greater Prairie-Chicken (BR: 6 males seen displaying, more heard, at dawn near windmill along CR 45 north of Wray), Gunnison Sage-Grouse (Gu: 11 males seen displaying at public lek from 5.35 – 5.50am after which they buggered off), Greater Sage-Grouse (Coa: 1 male and 1 female seen at dusk, with feeble display, at new lek location on top of grassy plateau documented on eBird), American Coot (FR; ANWR), Sandhill Crane (Hay; FR), Mountain Plover (1 PNG), Killdeer (PNG and elsewhere), Black-winged Stilt (FR), Lesser Yellowlegs (1 Hay; 1 FR), Willet (Coa 2; FR), Marbled Godwit (1 FR), Wilson’s Phalarope (3 FR), Franklin’s Gull (near PNG), Mourning Dove (cm), White-winged Dove (2 near Delta), Eurasian Collared Dove (Gu, EP, near Boulder and elsewhere; has worryingly spread throughout Colorado), Short-eared Owl (1 PNG), Burrowing Owl (CNG 1+1), White-throated Swift (CNM; BG), Broad-tailed Hummingbird (RRP 1), Belted Kingfisher (1 EP; 1 en route SE Colorado), Lewis’s Woodpecker (1 FR), Williamson’s Sapsucker (Gen; h/o EP), Red-naped Sapsucker (1 EP), Hairy Woodpecker (EP; D/S), American Three-toed Woodpecker (1 EP), Red-shafted Flicker (cm), Say’s Phoebe (EP; CNM; Gu), Western Kingbird (1 ANWR; 1 FR), Loggerhead Shrike (PNG, Gu), Steller’s Jay (2 near Boulder), Western Scrub-Jay (1 CNM; several RRP), Pinyon Jay (1 big flock of c50 at CNM and Hay each), Clark’s Nutcracker (1 EP), American Magpie (cm), Common Raven (cm in W), American Crow (occasional), Horned Lark (Coa; extremely cm at PNG; CNG; Mack), Northern Rough-winged Swallow (ANWR; Salida), Bank Swallow (ANWR; Salida), Tree Swallow (Salida; ANWR), Cliff Swallow (ANWR), Barn Swallow (Salida, ANWR), Juniper Titmouse (CNM), Black-capped Chickadee (RRP, Allenspark), Mountain Chickadee (Gen, EP, RRP), Bushtit (CNM), Red-breasted Nuthatch (1 EP), Pygmy Nuthatch (EP), Western Marsh Wren (several at FR), Rock Wren (CNM, PNG; Rabbit Ear’s Pass near Fruita), American Dipper (2 Salida), Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Gu), Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (1 RRP; 1 CNM), Townsend’s Solitaire (Gen; EP), Mountain Bluebird (cm in W), Western Bluebird (BC, EP), American Robin (cm), Hermit Thrush (1 Kr), Northern Mockingbird (ANWR), Curve-billed Thrasher (1 RRP), Sage Thrasher (CNM; Tim; Gu; PNG), European Starling (cm), Virginia’s Warbler (1 CNM), Audubon’s Warbler (Salida), Black-throated Gray Warbler (CNM 1), Spotted Towhee (Hay; CNM; BC; RRP), Green-tailed Towhee (Gu 1; 1 RRP), Cassin’s Sparrow (1 CNG; 1 BR), Interior Sage Sparrow (1 Mack), Black-throated Sparrow (many CNM), Black-chinned Sparrow (1-2 CNM), Brewer’s Sparrow (1 EP; 1 Mack; 1 PNG), Chipping Sparrow (CNM), Vesper Sparrow (PNG, EP, Gu, Tim), Lark Bunting (CNG), Lark Sparrow (CNM; Mack), Harris’s Sparrow (1 breeding plumage RRP), Golden-crowned Sparrow (1 RRP), White-throated Sparrow (1 RRP), Gambel’s White-crowned Sparrow (EP, RRP; Gu; all seemed to be Taiga breeders, none of the local breeding race yet), Slaty-colored Fox Sparrow (1 RRP), Song Sparrow (RRP), Pink-sided and Gray-headed Junco (RRP, EP, Gu, Gen; both taxa mixed at all locations, but Gray-headed only at Gen; no other junco taxa on this trip), McCown’s Longspur (cm PNG), Western Meadowlark (cm), Brown-headed Cowbird (ANWR; RRP; PNG), Yellow-headed Blackbird (Gu; FR; Kr; near airport; Hay), Red-winged Blackbird (cm), Brewer’s Blackbird (EP), Common Grackle (cm), Great-tailed Grackle (near Boulder; en route SE Colorado), Pine Grosbeak (EP 2 males and 2 females), Brown-capped Rosy-Finch (hundreds EP; 1 Gu), Black Rosy-Finch (3-4 EP), Cassin’s Finch (Gu, EP), House Finch (Gu, RRP, EP, Gen, CNM), Red Crossbill (Gen 2; no call type identified), Pine Siskin (Gen, EP), House Sparrow (cm).