Colorado Prarie Chickens/Grouse Trip Report (2011)

Organized by Love Creek and Seven Ponds Nature Centers with High Lonesome Bird Tours

April 17-25, 2011

Trip Report and Sightings Notes Compiled by Kip Miller and Mike Champagne

Sunday, April 17 – Denver Airport to Gunnison

The tour was scheduled to begin at mid-day today, but everyone in the group arrived a day early – so naturally many spent the morning exploring around our airport hotel with binoculars in hand. Here we got the trip off to a start with the first of many Western Meadowlarks, Horned Larks, a few Say’s Phoebes and a pair of Loggerhead Shrikes.

Around noon we all linked up with Forrest, loaded the vans (surprisingly quick!) and departed for Gunnison. En route it quickly became apparent what a great scenery trip it was going to be, as we enjoyed views of mountains and more on the drive down Highway 285. The birding highlight of the drive was a stop in Buena Vista where some time walking around town yielded great views of two or more Lewis’s Woodpeckers. Other birds seen during our neighborhood bird walk included Black-capped and Mountain Chickadees, Northern Flicker, Townsend’s Solitaire, Pine Siskin and Pink-sided Junco. We wrapped up the day with a great dinner at Garlic Mike’s in Gunnison, joined by our guide for the next morning, Rebecca.

Monday, April 18 – Gunnison Sage Grouse Day & Crested Butte Birding

The day started dark and early (this would become a reoccurring theme!) with our first predawn lek visit of the tour. After departing the hotel at 4:30 a.m. we arrived at the lek site about 5:00 a.m. We entered the blind (a trailer of sorts…) and 20 minutes later windows were opened providing views of a still dark landscape. As it became light the dark forms of a dozen or so Gunnison Sage Grouse could be seen in the distance, but aargh – just as it was getting light enough for all to actually see them, most of the grouse flew off the lek and out of sight in the sage brush! Eventually one remaining male was located (whew!) and we enjoyed respectable scope views of it until it flew off (providing a great in-flight view) at about 7:00 a.m. Also seen from the blind was a Golden Eagle, which may explain the sudden and early departure of the rest of the grouse gang!

After returning to the hotel for breakfast and a reduction in clothing, we headed for the mountain ski town of Crested Butte. We initially drove past the location we were searching for, but this turned out to be a fortunate error, as we found a small group of Long-billed Curlews and Willets standing in the snow! (That’s right, big shorebirds in the snow….) After soaking up this unusual scene we located a feeder attracting Cassin’s Finches, Brown-capped Rosy-finches and a few Gray-crowned Rosy-finches. Just as we A Lewis’s Woodpecker in a cottonwood in Buena Vista. Gunnison Sage Grouse viewing from the “trailer blind.” were loading up to leave a larger flock of rosy-finches dropped in and we found at least a couple of Black Rosy-finches in the bunch. Great views for all and lifers for many! En route back to Gunnison for lunch we stopped in Alton where with a bit more patience we found American Dippers in the East River. After lunch, it was a travel afternoon with a straight-through drive to Georgetown.

Tuesday, April 19 – Loveland Pass (not…) and on to Grand Junction

Sometimes the best of plans don’t work so well…. After being staged in the right location for an early morning “assault” on Loveland Pass to search for the elusive Whitetailed Ptarmigan, we were forced to abandon due to snow and road conditions. So…. we continued west on I-70 where we experienced mildly challenging driving conditions due to the snow and later after dropping in elevation, heavy rain! Eventually we moved out of the rain and enjoyed a fun (and sunny) afternoon of birding in rocky Coal Creek Canyon. We had no luck with the elusive Chukar, but had great views of a handsome Black-throated Sparrow and many Rock Wrens. A pair of Golden Eagles and a distant flock of Pinyon Jays were additional highlights.

Wednesday, April 20 – Colorado National Monument and on to Craig

We began our “non-grouse” day with a drive through the scenic red rock canyons of Colorado National Monument. At a roadside pull-off we were successful in attracting a pair of Juniper Titmice and enjoyed views of both Mountain and Western Bluebirds. Continuing to another roadside area we found a small group of Pinyon Jays. The lighting was not as good as yesterday, but they were much closer and the distinctive shape was easy for all to see. After backtracking through the Monument and an always appreciated rest stop, we explored a nearby residential area where highlights included Gambel’s Quail and Western Kingbird.

Later we continued north to Craig. After checking into the hotel we did some scouting of locations where we hoped to find Dusky and Sharp-tailed Grouse the next day. No grouse were seen, but we found a couple of flocks of feeding White-faced Ibises, an adult Bald Eagle feeding on a deer carcass and perhaps most surprising – a Porcupine that seemed to be “grazing” in the middle of a field!

Thursday, April 21 – Sharp-tailed Grouse Day and on to Walden

We left the hotel for the Sharp-tailed lek at 4:30 a.m. in the rain and wondered what effect it would have on the grouse and their display behavior. However, as we approached the lek site the rain changed to snow (!) – but by the time we arrived, the falling precipitation ceased. As it became light it was obvious there was a bit of snow cover on the ground, but fortunately this did not seem to bother the grouse. They began to appear and teased us by coming up and over the ridge and by disappearing over the back side where they could not be seen. However with patience we were all treated to scope views as they displayed and performed their comical (to us, not to them….) dance maneuvers. Satisfied with our views, we left for the area where we hoped to find a Dusky Grouse. No luck with this species, but we did find more Sharp-tails displaying and we enjoyed the scenery and views of other birds, including a singing Spotted Towhee.

In the afternoon we continued on to Walden where we spent some time exploring after checking in to our motel. Afternoon highlights included several Swainson’s Hawks, a single Rough-legged Hawk and an impressive diversity of waterbirds on Walden Reservoir. Shortly after we wrapped up our birding it started to snow. It was coming down rather heavy as we concluded dinner and returned to the motel and it left us wondering what the impact might be on our attempt to view Greater Sage-Grouse on the following morning…. Hmm, stay tuned….

Friday, April 22 – Greater Sage-Grouse Day and on to Fort Collins  

When we gathered at 4:30 a.m. we were relieved to see the snow had stopped and the moon was out – favorable conditions to access the lek site and conditions that should not impact the grouse behavior. Shortly after we arrived at the lek site and dealt with a minor van issue (Oops, briefly stuck, but pushed out with a great team effort!), we noticed dark shapes against the snow to our left. Greater Sage-Grouse! Eventually a total of 60 or more gathered and put on a great show. As one participant noted, it felt like we were in the middle of National Geographic wildlife special!

After breakfast in the motel, we returned to the Walden Reservoir to enjoy the many waterfowl present. In addition to the species we found yesterday, we located a large raft of Western Grebes, which also included at least a few Clark’s Grebes. We later continued to the east and over Cameron Pass to Fort Collins for the night. A highlight of the drive was a stop at the Colorado State Park visitor center for great views of Mountain Chickadees, Cassin’s Finches, Brown-capped Rosy-Finches and a few bright Pine Grosbeaks at the feeders.

Saturday, April 23 – Pawnee Grasslands and on to Wray

This morning we explored the wide open spaces of the Pawnee National Grasslands – a very different setting from the mountainous regions of recent days. The most conspicuous birds were Western Meadowlarks, Horned Larks and Vesper Sparrows, but we also noted good numbers of migrant Sage Thrashers, Swainson’s Hawks and resident and/or migrant Loggerhead Shrikes. Additional highlights included 2-3 Mountain Plovers (unfortunately, not an easy find in the Pawnee Grasslands anymore….), 2-3 Burrowing Owls, a Ferruginous Hawk and several McCown’s Longspurs.

After completing the drive southeast to Wray, we met with Rancher Bob Bledsoe who owns the ranch where we hope to watch the Greater Prairie Chickens at their lek site. After Bob filled us in on the workings of the ranch and a bit of history on the Prairie Chickens, we made a quick drive to the lek site, where at least 20 birds were present. On the way back, some added another “chicken” to the trip list, when a pair of Bobwhite Quail walked across the road! A well camouflaged Sharp-tailed Grouse… Some not-so-well camouflaged Greater Sage-Grouse! Cold, but happy, birders at Walden Reservoir.

Sunday, April 24 – Greater Prairie-Chicken Day and south to Lamar

Rancher Bob told us the region only receives about 16 inches of precipitation per year, but we awoke early to rain. Hmmm….. Undaunted we departed at 4:45 a.m. for lek site. It was still raining slightly when we arrived and as it became light there were no prairie-chickens to be seen, though a few Burrowing Owls were visible. After a short, but nervous wait (would they show up in the rain?), several prairie-chickens flew in and immediately began vocalizing and displaying. Though the performance was less active than usual according to Forrest, we still had good views of approximately 30 males and enjoyed the show.

After returning to Wray for breakfast at “Cafe Davis” and to pack up, we headed south for Lamar. En route we drove through a wooded area where a number of eastern species, including Eastern Bluebird, Red-bellied Woodpecker and Blue Jay were seen. We also made stops for waterbirds at Bonney Reservoir and at Queen’s State Wildlife Area near Lamar. At Bonney we scoped a flock from the dam that included American Avocets and Marbled Godwits. A particular highlight here was a flock of breeding plumaged Franklin’s Gulls that flew in and landed. Many showed an obvious pinkish cast to the breast that most had never seen before. At the Queens State Wildlife Area we found a nice mix of additional waterbirds – highlights of which were a few Snowy Plovers and Baird’s Sandpipers.

Monday, April 25 – Lesser Prairie-Chicken Day and return to Denver

Our final day featured our earliest start. We departed the hotel in Lamar at 3:45 a.m. to link up with Fred Dorenkamp in Holly. From here we were to ride in a school bus to the lek site, but Fred was worried about the potential of getting stuck if rains had been heavy, so we followed most of the way in the vans. After reaching the lek site, we transferred to the bus and rolled out into the field. At dawn it was obvious a fog had settled on the area. We were able to see the Lesser Prairie- Chickens, but it took patience due to the distance and fog. Later we enjoyed a “rancher’s breakfast” back at the Dorenkamps, which Fred’s wife Norma had waiting for us when we arrived.

After returning to Lamar to pack up, we hit the road for the drive back to Denver to wrap up the tour. En route we made a stop at the Holbrooke Reservoir where we found Western and a few Clark’s Grebes (with heads up!) and another Baird’s Sandpiper. Our final stop of the trip was an all too brief visit to Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs where we enjoyed views of the rock formations and two of the resident Prairie Falcons. A nice way to end a great birding adventure!

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