Colorado Prarie Chickens Trip Report (2010)

APRIL 8 – 17, 2010
Trip Report by Forrest Davis

WEZIL AND I MET OUR GROUP AT THE DENVER AIRPORT on Thursday, April 8th. We drove to Pueblo for the night and had a nice Mexican dinner there. Early Friday morning, we headed for Lamar, Colorado. We made a brief stop on Sparrow’s Road, west of Pueblo, where we found lots of Scaled Quail and a Curve-billed Thrasher. From there, we drove to Holbrooke Reservoir. For a change, the wind was quite moderate (it’s usually blowing hard on the Colorado plains). We saw many Western and Clark’s Grebes, giving our guests the opportunity to compare the two closely. Numbers of White Pelicans were also present as well as other waterfowl. Close-by, we saw our first of several Burrowing Owls popping out of prairie dog burrows. We drove from there to Cheraw Lake and were greeted by at least a dozen Snowy Plovers, our target bird for this location. Some years, these are very difficult to find. This year, they were abundant, probably because the water was reasonably high.

After lunch, we continued on our way, making a productive detour to a reservoir. One of our members spotted some shorebirds that were well-camouflaged. Excellent scope views revealed another of our major targets, Mountain Plovers in breeding plumage. We saw several others along this route as well. Given our difficulty finding them last year on the Pawnee Grasslands, we were ecstatic! We continued on Raven Road and found some skittish Chihuahuan Ravens, but finally got good scope views.

We were up bright and early (3:15 AM!) Saturday morning for our meeting with our rancher friend who owns the land containing a private Lesser Prairie Chicken lek almost on the Kansas border. We arrived about 5:00 AM. We began hearing the birds at about 5:30 AM though it was still very dark. By 6:00, We could see them in the morning lights. There were approximately 20 birds, a good number for the Lesser. We were within about 50 yards, and everyone got great looks as the males made every effort to impress the females. We left at 7:00 for a fine ranch breakfast. We were treated as well to a Great Horned Owl’s nest full of young outside their door.

Our drive north to Wray was relatively unproductive. We made a couple of stops along the way finding Wild Turkey and some ducks and Eared Grebe on a lake. We did spot our first Rough-legged Hawk of the trip. We checked in to our hotel and went for our usual cattle and Greater Prairie Chicken orientation with the rancher on whose property is the private lek we visit. He’s always entertaining and very knowledgeable. He led us to a different lek this year. I’m always a bit apprehensive when we change leks, but there was no need to be. There were a number birds at the lek on our early evening drive, so we knew they would be displaying in the morning. Sure enough, we arrived about 5:15 AM and almost immediately began hearing them booming. By 6:00, we could clearly see them, and as usual, our vehicles were surrounded by 50 + Greater Prairie Chickens.

Upon departure, we headed for Gunnison. Our first goal was Loveland Pass and White-tailed Ptarmigan. As usual, we spent about 30 minutes scanning the hillsides and dwarf pines looking for footprints in the snow. About 75 yards up a snowy hillside, I noted some footprints moving up the hillside where they stopped next to a rock. It took a moment to resolve the black bill and eye, then the body since it was surrounded by snow. Sure enough, we had a White-tailed Ptarmigan (Can you spot it? Centre-left in the photo above, just below the foliage sticking through the snow), and everyone got great scope views.

We departed for our next stop: Buena Vista. Our target here was Lewis’ Woodpecker, and we found a pair after driving around for a bit.

We arrived in Gunnison in the late afternoon and headed for one of our favorite restaurants, Garlic Mike’s. An excellent wine list and excellent Italian cuisine! We were up again by 3:45 for our meeting with the lek coordinator who we followed out to the Gunnison Sage-Grouse lek. We observed about 30 birds from the trailer. We were fortunate on this trip that we didn’t have a straggler male that kept us like our one last year that stayed at the lek until almost 8:30! 3½ hours!! We were finished by about 7:30 this time to everyone’s relief!

After doing a nice breakfast and replenishing of supplies, we headed for the Almont Bridge and some cooperative American Dippers, then up to Crested Butte for Rosy-Finches. Our first stop was at the B&B that hosted finches in past years. Unfortunately, it was closed and up for sale, and no feeders were out. We went to our second feeder location and quickly found a flock. Among the many Brown-capped Rosy-Finches, we found a couple of Gray-crowned and one very cooperative Black Rosy-Finch. We left happily for our next stop, Grand Junction. Along the way, we stopped at Blue Mesa Reservoir, but it was still 90% iced over, so very few waterfowl. We drove directly to Coal Canyon to look for Chukars. We spent a couple of hours, but no luck so we headed back to Grand Junction to check in. Dinner was at the exceptional Il Bistro, another Italian restaurant with a fine wine list and good food.

In the morning, we headed for Colorado National Monument looking for Pinyon Jay and Juniper Titmouse. We found both as well as some soaring White-throated Swifts. Gambell’s Quail were abundant in the residential area adjacent to the Monument. We also found Western Scrub-Jay in the same area.

After one more unsuccessful effort to find Chukar, we headed for Craig. Another early morning found us at the Sharp-tailed Grouse lek. Unfortunately, a van was already there with people out of the vehicle right at the lek. We parked about 100 yards down the road where we were able to get good looks at the grouse displaying. We would have had closer looks had the other people stayed in their vehicle. It’s our policy to stay in the vehicle at all the leks we visit, even though they are all private leks with the exception of Gunnison. The vehicle is an excellent blind and it’s normal protocol to use it as such.

Nevertheless, everyone was happy with their views of the Sharp-tailed, and we proceeded to the Dusky Grouse area. We immediately observed at least ten Sharp-tailed, and they stayed around the area for at least another hour. We glassed and scoped for over two hours looking for the Dusky with no luck. Just as we were about to give up, Wezil spotted a well-concealed Dusky in the wooded area. We were able to get a scope on this nice male, and he proceeded to display for us.

We departed the Craig area and headed for Walden. We stopped along the way at the Greater Sage-Grouse lek and found a Sage Thrasher. We spent some time at Walden Lake looking at waterfowl as well. Early the next morning, we were off to the Sage-Grouse lek. We parked along the road as usual and, as it got light, we started seeing those characteristic white blobs that gradually resolved into male Greater Sage-Grouse. Again, we were within 25 yards or less of the birds, who were oblivious to our presence. We counted 54 birds, 50:50 male and female. It’s usually heavily weighted in favor of the males, but not this time.

Many photos later, we headed out to Colorado State Park along route 14. We found many Hairy Woodpeckers in the park, but no Three-toed or Williamson’s Sapsuckers. At the visitor’s center, we had excellent looks at Pine Grosbeaks. As we headed through the mountains, we made a stop at a pullover where Wezil heard Three-toed. We had excellent views of two pairs before heading for Greeley.

In the morning, we left Greeley for Pawnee National Grasslands. Within a quarter mile of entering the grasslands, we located a very cooperative Chestnut-collared Longspur singing away on top of a barb-wired fence. Shortly after, we located a mixed flock of McCown’s Longspurs and Horned Larks. Finally, we had another Mountain Plover. It took us about one hour to find all these birds whereas, last year, we spent several hours and never did find the Mountain Plover or Chestnut-collared Longspur. This was likely due to a heavy winter and late breeding, but it was very frustrating. What a difference a year made!

We made one final detour looking for a reported pair of nesting White-winged Crossbills, very rare in Colorado. Unfortunately, a squirrel had apparently taken the young the day before, and the adults had abandoned the nest.

We ended our trip with a nice dinner at Ted’s Montana.

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