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Colorado, April - May 08

Published by Mark Harper (markharper AT surfbirder.com)


Introduction

The main reason most birders visit Colorado is for the seven species of Grouse (excluding Ruffed that is rare in extreme Northwest), which occur there and the best time to see them is when they are lekking. This takes place between mid-March and early May, outside of this period they can be very difficult to see.

Most of the bird tours go in early to mid-April for the middle of the lekking season when activity at the leks should be at its peak. We opted for the end of April / beginning of May in hope of warmer weather and a few spring migrants, which on the whole was very successful.

With the exception of Lesser Prairie-Chicken all the grouse can be seen from public roads, although there are tours available that should offer better views of some of the species. In previous years there was one Lesser Prairie-Chicken lek on a publicly accessible site in Colorado at Campo, but this was closed for the 2008 season after the number of birds visiting the lek fell to just two or three in 2007. As a result the nearest public lek is at Elkhart in Kansas, although there are a few leks on private land.

It should be noted that despite being viewable from public roads you are supposed to have a Colorado Department of Wildlife Habitat Stamp to visit these and other areas, the current cost is $10.25. We were never asked to show ours despite Rangers stopping to talk with us whilst in areas for which they were required. These can be purchased online or like us from a petrol station when in Colorado. It may be a good idea to buy online before visiting as it took around 30 minutes for the lady in the petrol station to enter all the details for the three of us.

On the whole the itinerary drawn up before travelling was followed, but we did have to make a few changes due to the weather conditions and occasionally overestimating the amount we could achieve in a day.

We hired a Toyota Highlander from Hertz and over the ten days that we were there we clocked up 2,288 miles. As things turned out it proved to be a wise decision to go for a four-wheel drive. Upon returning the vehicle at the end of our holiday all the other vehicles being returned looked as clean as when they were collected, whereas ours looked as though it had been used for rallying.

We only booked the first nights hotel in advance and a stay at a ranch to visit a Lesser Prairie-Chicken lek and this worked fine apart from at Hayden when the only hotel was full and we had to stay in Craig about 16 miles away.

Itinerary

24 April – Direct BA flight from Heathrow to Denver. Night at Holiday Inn Express at Wheatridge to the Northwest of Denver.
25 April – Pine Valley Ranch Park, Red Rocks, Mount Evans, Loveland Pass. Night at Super 8 Motel, Georgetown.
26 April – Blue River, Windy Gap Reservoir, Arapaho NWR, Walden Reservoir, Delaney Butte Greater Sage-Grouse Lek. Night at North Park Inn, Walden
27 April – Walden Reservoir, Rabbit Ears Pass, Hayden Route 20 Sharp-tailed Grouse Lek. Night at Bear Valley Inn, Craig
28 April – Colorado National Monument, Uncompahgre Plateau. Night at Holiday Inn Express, Grand Junction
29 April – Black Canyon of Gunnison, Sweitzer Lake, Blue Mesa Lake, Waunita Hot Springs Lek, Night at Super 8 motel Gunnison.
30 April – Waunita Hot Springs Gunnison Sage-Grouse Lek, Temple Park, Canon City Riverwalk, Pueblo Reservoir and Lakes Henry and Meredith. Night at Holiday Inn Express, La Junta
1 May – Cottonwood Canyon and Two Buttes Reservoir. Night at home of Norma and Fred Dorenkamp, Granada.
2 May – Lesser Prairie-Chicken Lek. Night at Butte Motel, Wray.
3 May – Wray CR 45 Greater Prairie-Chicken Lek, Red Lion SWA & Jumbo Reservoir, Tamarack Ranch, Prewitt Reservoir, Pawnee Grasslands. Night at Select Stay Hotel Greeley.
4 May – Pawnee Grasslands, Barr Lake. BA direct flight from Denver to Heathrow

Daily Account

24 April


Our flight from London Heathrow to Denver was around an hour late leaving partly due to having to unload bags from a couple of passengers that did not appear. By the time we arrived in Denver is was starting to get dark and was completely dark by the time we set off in our hire car. The process for collecting the hire care from Hertz was prolonged as we wanted a 4x4 with a boot space cover so that all our bags would not be visible during the day when we were out birding. That sorted, it took around 30 minutes to drive to our hotel at Wheatridge.

25 April

We awoke, on a fine frosty morning, eager to seek out our first birds and the honour of first bird of the trip went to, Double-crested Cormorants as several flew over, closely followed by American Robin and Northern Flicker. After a quick breakfast we were soon on route to Pine Valley Ranch Park added to our itinerary quite late in the day as it seemed to be the most reliable spot for American Three-toed Woodpecker.

We headed straight up the Park View trail, which was where the Woodpecker had been reported from most recently. A small mixed flock part way up the trail held White-breasted Nuthatch, Mountain Chickadees, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Mountain Bluebirds and Dark-eyed Juncos, of the Grey-headed race. The trail climbs up the hill and once over the top there is a good view across many fire-damaged pines, the preferred habitat of American Three-toed Woodpeckers. We soon heard a Woodpecker drumming and quickly located it, it was our target bird, whilst watching and photographing this bird we became aware of another Woodpecker nearby, but this was different, a Red-naped Sapsucker another lifer for us. Heading back towards the car we also picked up Belted Kingfisher, Song Sparrow and Cassin’s Finch.

Having seen our target bird we decided to push on to our next destination Red Rocks part of the Mount Evans loop in the “Birders guide to Colorado”. Our third lifer of the day did not take long to add to the list as the first of many Black-billed Magpies was seen on route.

Arriving at Red Rocks there were quite a few tourists around including school parties so we didn’t stay long, but did manage to find Western Scrub-Jay, Canyon Wren, Spotted Towhee, Black-capped Chickadee and House Finch next to the steps to the Ampitheatre. Overhead White-throated Swifts and American Kestrels were seen.

Despite visiting Colorado later than most bird tours there was still plenty of snow around and as we drove around Mount Evans we found Lake Echo where we had planned to stop was still frozen solid and covered in snow. We had hoped to pick up Grey Jay whilst driving around, but saw very little at all.

Arriving at Georgetown we found a hotel and dropped off our bags, before heading up to Loveland Pass. This is the site in winter for White-tailed Ptarmigan since the traditional site of Guanella Pass is not accessible as it is no longer cleared of snow during the winter.

We headed straight for the top of the pass and no sooner had we got out of the car than a flock of about 20 birds landed in an area clear of snow close to the car park. A quick look at these revealed them to be Brown-capped and Grey-crowned Rosy-Finches, these were a couple of key target birds that we were expecting to be difficult, visiting so late in the season. After a short time the flock took flight and flew further up the hillside where they joined about another 80 birds, amongst which we were able to find Black Rosy-Finch and the Hepburn’s subspecie of Grey-crowned Rosy-Finch. Our itinerary included several possible sites for Rosy-Finches mostly at garden feeders, so seeing them this early in the trip was a definite bonus, particularly as we cleared up on all three species.

We then spent quite some time scanning for White-tailed Ptarmigans and even climbed a distance up the mountain, before the cold and a biting wind got the better of us. We vowed to return for another try in the morning and retreated to the ski centre where we added Vesper Sparrow to the list, before going back to our motel just in time to see a Sharp-shinned Hawk crashing into a bush full of House Sparrows and Red-winged Blackbirds opposite the entrance.

26 April

Snow overnight had covered the roads when we awoke and made a return trip to Loveland Pass to look for the White-tailed Ptarmigan doubtful. As we passed accidents and stranded cars along the I70 we were grateful that we had opted for a 4x4. Well before we reached the turn-off for Loveland Pass we had decided we would not be going up there, and with the snow still falling and the signs indicating all vehicles required chains on to go over the pass we drove on by and waved goodbye to our only chance of White-tailed Ptarmigan.

The road north to Walden ran alongside the Blue River initially so we made a stop at the Blue River Water Treatment Plant where a couple of Barrow’s Goldeneye’s had been reported recently. No sign of the Goldeneye, but there were several Green-winged Teals, Gadwalls and Goosanders. Further along the river we stopped for short break and found our only American Dipper of the trip, although we didn’t particularly search for them later.

Next stop was Windy Gap Reservoir where the car park was closed so we pulled up along the roadside and walked down to the parking area where there were picnic tables and some shelter from the bitterly cold strong wind.

The reservoir contained up to 50 Barrow’s Goldeneyes with lesser numbers of Common Goldeneyes. Also on the reservoir were Western Grebes, lots of Lesser Scaup, Ring-necked Ducks, Cinammon Teal, Ruddy Ducks, Buffleheads, a lone female Canvasback and a large group of American White Pelicans.

Further heavy snow showers over Willow Creek Pass prevented any birding there so we pushed on to Arapaho NWR where we headed straight for the visitors centre but being a weekend it was closed. We ate our lunch there and watched a couple of Swainson’s Hawks flying overhead before heading over to the wildlife drive. Northern Pintail and Redhead were added to our growing list of ducks and Bald Eagle, Northern Harrier and Prairie Falcon to our raptor list. Passerines were thin on the ground, but Sage Thrasher and White-crowned Sparrow were trip firsts.

On our way to Walden we thought we would check out the Coalmont Greater Sage-Grouse lek so that we could find it in the dark the next morning if necessary. After much debate we located the area where we thought the lek probably was, before pushing on to Walden to find a motel. Whilst unloading the bags several Yellow-headed Blackbirds flew over. We then made a short trip to Walden Reservoir, which was largely frozen over, but had several American Avocets and Willets around its edge, a few Clark’s Grebes and a Bald Eagle stood on the ice.

An early evening meal gave us sufficient time to go and check out another Greater Sage-Grouse lek, this one was at Delaney Buttes. A quick stop for a roadside Burrowing Owl was soon followed by a pair of Sandhill Cranes. The lek is about 12 miles from Walden, heading west on CR 12W, it takes a right fork after about 6 miles and then take Colorado 7 north after another 2 miles. The lek is on the right approximately 4 miles up this road. The directions we had downloaded from the internet referred to a steep uphill section, this should have said downhill travelling in our direction and this caused some confusion until we realised this and noticed that there was a portable hide set up for viewing the Sage-Grouse. About 7pm we found our first Greater Sage-Grouse displaying, then another couple materialised seemingly from nowhere and by the time we left we had seen 11 birds

Viewing from the road at this site has the sun behind in the evening and whilst the views are distant with a telescope they are good. With binoculars alone it would have been very difficult to find the birds and almost impossible if they hadn’t been displaying (white flashes keep appearing amongst the sage).

27 April

Having seen the Greater Sage-Grouse the previous evening we decided we could have a bit longer in bed and still make an early start on our way to Hayden. Our first port of call was Walden Reservoir, which had an even greater percentage of its surface frozen than the previous day. The advantage of this was that it allowed good close views of the ducks including a pair of Canvasbacks.

Driving along the road towards Hayden we made regular stops to identify the various raptors sitting on the telegraph poles and fence posts. Swainson’s Hawks were the most common, with several Red-tailed Hawks, a couple of Golden Eagles and a single Rough-legged Buzzard.

Another roadside stop found our first Dark-eyed Junco’s of the race known as Pink-sided Junco, all the previous having been of the Grey-headed race and whilst watching these we heard and then saw our first Coyotes.

Crossing Rabbit Ears Pass we made several stops in the hope of finding Grey Jays, without luck, but we did see our first Townsend’s Solitaire. Nearing Hayden we visited the 20 mile road Sharp-tailed Grouse lek to familiarise ourselves with the area. (Take the CR27 south about 4 miles east of Hayden and travel 6.5 miles and park adjacent to a green gate on the left hand side of the road, one mile beyond where the power lines cross the road).

Just north of Hayden is the Route 80 lek for Greater Sage-Grouse where Dusky Grouse are occasionally seen so we headed there to eat our lunch. Unsurprisingly there were no Grouse to be seen at this time of day, but we did get great views of a couple of Green-tailed Towhees and Western Kingbird.

Returning to Hayden we were surprised to find the only Motel in the town had no vacancies. The next closest motels were in Craig, which is 16 miles west of Hayden, and well over 20 miles from the Sharp-tailed Grouse lek, so we headed over there to find somewhere to stay, noting our first White-faced Ibis on route.

Having found some lodgings we visited the Yampa River SWA, the place was largely devoid of bird activity, but we did see a couple of Beavers and a Marsh Wren. Returning to the car a Sora was calling, but we didn’t have time to look for this as we needed to get a meal before visiting the Sharp-tailed Grouse lek.

Arriving at the lek we heard a Sharp-tailed Grouse almost immediately, but then all went quiet, probably as a result of the Northern Harrier quartering the hillside and another Coyote harassing a group of Elk and it was 30 minutes before they started calling again at around 7.00pm. It took a little more time to locate the birds as we needed to walk further up the hill in order to be able to see them as they were fairly low down and hidden by bushes from where we had parked. Eventually we saw five birds and happily drove back to Craig, glad that we didn’t need to return in the morning.

28 April

Having seen the Sharp-tailed Grouse the previous evening staying in Craig played to our advantage by saving us 16 miles on the drive to our next destination. Despite an early start it was still late morning by the time we arrived at Colorado National Monument.

Stopping at the west entrance we soon tracked down a calling Gambel’s Quail, which was sat on top of a bush. A pair of House Finches singing from a telephone wire nearby proved very photogenic before we headed to the Devil’s Kitchen picnic area.

Upon arrival we could hear a Plumbeous Vireo singing and we soon saw this as well as a Juniper Titmouse. A short walk around the picnic area added a very smart Black-throated Grey Warbler and a Say’s Phoebe, which sat atop a picnic table. Our first Broad-tailed Hummingbird of the trip was displaying in the same area.

Opposite the turn-off to the picnic site was a parking area and a couple of trails, a short walk found a very photogenic Black-throated Sparrow along with another Plumbeous Vireo and an Orange-crowned Warbler.

Heading through the park we took the second road to Glade Park, which is apparently a good place for Grey Flycatchers in the summer. About a mile along this road we heard one calling, but it took quite a while before we were able to get a good albeit brief view as well as our second Red-naped Sapsucker.

The afternoon was spent on the Uncompahgre Plateau, which is probably a better destination in summer as it was fairly quiet although we did obtain much better and prolonged views of Grey Flycatchers.

29 April

The Black Canyon of Gunnison is the place to see Dusky Grouse in Colorado and the best time is dawn or dusk so an early start from Grand Junction was necessary to get there for dawn. It was actually about 6.15am by the time we arrived at the south rim of the park and only a couple of minutes later before we saw our first Dusky Grouse stood on the edge of the road halfway between the pay station, which was closed at the time we arrived, and the visitors centre.

Many photographs were taken of this male Dusky Grouse, before we left him in peace and continued west along the canyon rim. Another male was seen and then a pair was found with the male in full display necessitating lots more photographs to be taken. A final male was found just before we reached the end of the drive, bring our total to four males and one female, all seen stood on or right next to the road.

From the car park at the end we were able to watch our first Virginia’s Warbler of the trip, which spent some time in the company of an Orange-crowned Warbler. We also spent some time tracking down a bird that was giving a three-note whistle that sounded uncannily like a Harris’s Sparrow only to find it was being given by a Mountain Chickadee. Driving back to the visitor’s centre along the same stretch of road we failed to see a single Dusky Grouse, making us especially glad we had made the effort to get there early. A quick mention should be given to the scenery that is truly spectacular with 3,000 feet high cliffs running through the park.

Before long we had to leave, but not before stopping at the pay station that had now opened. Interestingly the woman there refused to accept our money because we had entered before the pay station was manned.

We then backtracked our route to Sweitzer Lake, which was covered in Western Grebes, with a few Black-necked Grebes and a Great Northern Diver thrown in for good measure. Further searching found our first Long-billed Dowitchers, whilst in the scrub around the edge we found our first Lark Sparrows. Back by the visitors centre the trees held Bullock’s Oriole and Hairy Woodpecker.

The Birder’s Guide to Colorado mentioned a nearby site for Sage Sparrow, so whilst in the area we thought we would have a look, but in the 10 years since the book was published the roads seem to have changed and when we found what we think was the right area there did not seem to be much suitable habitat farmland probably having encroached over the intervening years.

Next stop was Blue Mesa Lake which held small numbers of ducks all of which we had seen before, but more interesting for European birders were the Franklin’s Gulls and Wilson’s Phalaropes.

We then pushed on to Gunnison where we found a motel for the night and grabbed a meal before heading out to the Gunnison Sage-Grouse lek on the road to Waunita Hot Springs. At this site there is a lay-by with boards informing visitors about the Sage-Grouse and rules for their observation. From the lay-by you view across a river-plain to a hillside beyond, the top of which must be close to a mile from the viewing area and it was right on the top that we saw our first Gunnison Sage-Grouse as it walked over the top of the hill and out of sight. Despite staying until it got dark that was the only sighting we had that evening and hence we vowed to return the next morning.

30 April

We arrived about an hour before first light at the lek, as required under the protocols, to find two vehicles already in the lay-by. A woman came from one of the vehicles to make sure that we knew all the regulations and presented us with a questionnaire to complete about our visit.

As the light improved we were able to see the first Gunnison Sage-Grouse as they displayed, not on the hillside opposite, but about three-quarters of the way across the river-plain a distance of only half a mile or so. Whilst the views at this distance were fairly good through the telescope it wasn’t that easy to make out the key features that separate this bird from the similar Greater Sage-Grouse, with which is was lumped until fairly recently.

In total we counted 26 males and 3 females at the lek, the number of females presumably low as late in the season they are off nesting. Considering that it only got light enough to begin to make out the birds at 5.45am the display did not last long with the last of the birds departing at 6.15am. We completed the questionnaire as best we could, but how does one answer a question like “Where did you first hear of Gunnison Sage-Grouse?” In the end we opted for “It’s in the field guide.”

We had another long drive ahead of us if we were to reach La Junta that evening so we were soon on route to Canon City, via Temple Park where we saw nothing new of note. In the middle of what is effectively desert the Arkansas River in Canon City is surrounded by trees, which attract a host of migrants. As soon as we pulled up in the car park we were met with birdsong of greater volume than anything heard on the trip so far.

We soon began sorting through the birds and found that much of the noise was being created by a party of American Goldfinches, but there were also large numbers of Pine Siskins and Yellow-rumped Warblers of both Myrtle and Audubon’s subspecies. Further searching found our first Lazuli Bunting, Western Wood-Pewee, Western Tanager and a probable Lewis’s Woodpecker that didn’t stick around long enough for us to confirm our ID.

Our next stop was at Pueblo Reservoir, which was fairly crowded with boats so we only stayed long enough to add Canyon Towhee in the visitors centre car park before heading off to Lakes Henry and Meredith just to the north of La Junta.

As we approached the south shore of Lake Henry we stopped to check out a couple of plovers in the fields, whilst the first was just another Killdeer the second was one of our target birds, a Mountain Plover. The wind by this time was blowing strongly creating a lot of dust in the air and making photography difficult. On arrival at Lake Henry the water was so choppy that it was difficult to see any birds and this soon became impossible as a cloud of dust swept in reducing visibility to less than 100 metres.

We then drove the short distance down to Lake Meredith stopping along the way for a fine male Lark Bunting. In the northeast corner of the lake was an area of shoreline where we were able to park and watch shorebirds at close distance. This provided a great opportunity to study Western Sandpipers with one or two Semipalmated and Least Sandpipers providing good comparisons.

1 May

Cottonwood Canyon was our main destination today and we had several target species here, and hoped to find a few migrants as well. A Curve-billed Thrasher was seen shortly before we arrived and this was to be our only sighting of the trip. Our first target bird was heard as soon as we got out of the car at the campground and we wasted little time in tracking down a group of six Wild Turkeys, not only a lifer, but a new family to boot. Our second target bird didn’t take long to find either as a party of five Lewis’s Woodpeckers flew around making a lot of noise, occasionally stopping to drum. A Ladder-backed Woodpecker also put in an appearance whilst we were watching the Lewis’s Woodpeckers.

Two of our targets down we could take our time and enjoy the other birds around. Ash-throated Flycatchers, Eastern Phoebes, Bewick’s and Rock Wrens were common, whilst Chihuahuan Ravens occasionally passed overhead. A pair of Mississippi Kites sat in the trees by the campground and a Merlin flew past. No sooner had we commented that we had not seen a Bushtit, a family party was found working their way through roadside bushes.

Leaving the canyon we managed to find our other target, several Cassin’s Kingbirds were calling loudly and showing the diagnostic features that separate them from the Western Kingbirds we had seen in the canyon.

Heading north our next stop was Two Buttes Reservoir, which was really a few small pools in a canyon and it was not until we had already driven across the dam wall that we realised we had reached the site. A quick scan from the above the reservoir found a Great Horned Owl perched on the rock walls before we drove down to the parking area within the canyon.

On the way down we stopped to look at a party of White-crowned Sparrows that were feeding on emerging buds. A different looking sparrow turned out to be a Harris’s Sparrow, which had been reported from this site over the previous few weeks. Parking the car at the bottom I was able to walk back and get some photos of the Harris’s Sparrow and found a Hermit Thrush in the process.

Walking around the pools we saw lots of Yellow-rumped Warblers and found a Lazuli Bunting in amongst these, but our best find was a Kentucky Warbler that worked its way through the low scrub around edge of one of the pools. Before leaving we also found our trip first, Brown Thrashers and Northern Mockingbirds.

Next we headed up to Granada where we were to stay with Fred and Norma Dorenkamp, who run Arena Dust Tours, and have access to some of the only Lesser Prairie-Chicken leks in Colorado. On arrival they welcomed us into their home and told us of the snow which had decimated the populations of Scaled Quails and Lesser Prairie-Chickens a couple of years earlier. They had around a metre of snow where they lived and their car had been completely buried next to their house for three months. We had wondered why we had not yet seen any Scaled Quail, which were described as common in the “Birder’s Guide to Colorado”, apparently whilst there used to be thousands in the area, Fred hadn’t seen one for a couple of weeks.

2 May

A 4.00am departure was necessary to get to the Lesser Prairie-Chicken lek, which was close to the Kansas border 35 miles to the southeast of where we were staying. The land on which the birds are located is private property owned by a friend of our hosts.

Upon our arrival at the site it was still dark, but immediately we were able to hear the birds calling. As the sky began to lighten dark shapes could be seen as they leapt a couple of metres into the air and then ran backwards and forwards across the plain. All around us Grasshopper Sparrows started to sing and as it got light we were able to see one sat atop a small plant quite close to the car.

To avoid disturbance of the Prairie-Chickens viewing was from a couple of hundred metres away from within Fred’s 4x4, he also has a school bus for use with larger groups. As the sun got up and the light improved we were able to see the colours on the birds and better enjoy the spectacle. Being unable to use a tripod from within the vehicle made photography difficult, the distance was too great without digiscoping and that was rather difficult whilst trying to rest the scope on the window frame.

A couple of Short-eared Owls put in an appearance which caused the Prairie-Chickens to go quiet for a while, but they soon started again once the Owls moved on. Eventually the Prairie-Chickens display started to slow and we decided to head back for breakfast, with a couple of stops along the way for Mountain Plover and another Short-eared Owl that was attacking a fox.

After a good breakfast we said our goodbyes and got on the road north towards Bonny State Park where we hoped to find a few more migrants, picking up our only Long-billed Curlew on the way. When we left Fred and Norma’s ranch the wind was starting to pick up and as we drove on it seemed to get stronger and was whipping up a dust storm with visibility down to just a few metres every time we passed bare fields. At a short stop for a sandwich at Burlington the shop owner was telling us that the wind had blown down traffic cameras in the town and was forecast to continue for the rest if the day.

We put on the car radio just in time to hear a forecast of blizzards for the Burlington area, which seemed surreal as the temperature the previous couple of days had been up in the 80’s. Sure enough though within 10 minutes the first flakes of snow appeared within the brown dust. As we continued north the snow got heavier, but fortunately the strong wind was preventing it from settling on the road. As we reached the turn-off to Bonny State Park the snow was heavy and the wind was gale force so we opted to continue to Wray to find a motel thinking that if conditions improved we could head out later. Upon arrival in Wray we found the US 385, the main road to the north that we were to take the next day, was closed due to the snow. Having found a motel we settled in and watched the snow fall for the rest of the day with snowploughs driving past every 30 minutes or so.

3 May

The snow had stopped and the US 385 was open so we headed up it for the 11 miles to the CR 45 turn off, the road was incredibly icy in places and the going was slow, but we eventually made it. CR 45 had not been cleared of snow, but as no vehicles had travelled along it prior to us, it was actually easier driving than on the ice that covered the US 385. 1.5 miles along the road a small windmill can be seen on the right, continuing a couple of hundred metres past this the road passes over a small hill from here we looked back towards the windmill and the Greater Prairie-Chicken lek which is just to its left. There was only one male displaying on top of a ridge, but there could have been others behind the ridge and the one we were watching disappeared out of sight after a while. Having a full itinerary we decided not to wait to see if he would reappear, but would push on to Red Lion SWA and Jumbo Reservoir As we were getting back into the car another Greater Prairie-Chicken flew close past on the opposite side of the road.

Along the road north we passed at least 8 cars that had been abandoned in roadside ditches after crashing the previous day, making us very glad that we had pushed on to Wray forgoing our visit to Bonny State Park. By the time we arrive at Red Lion SWA the snow had melted and the sun made it feel quite warm.

Alongside the road at Red Lion SWA were several marshy pools that contained a mixture of shorebirds, nothing new for the list, but 10 Least Sandpipers provided great views.

The Reservoir in Red Lion SWA held our first Ross’s Goose of the trip and a bit of a rarity in the form of a single male Eurasian Wigeon. Adjacent to the reservoir a marshy area had a mixture of shorebirds, including a trip first Solitary Sandpiper and our only Semipalmated Plover.

Jumbo Reservoir was one of the best bodies of water visited during the whole trip and contained every specie of duck that we had seen so far with the exception of the two Goldeneye’s. A little bit of searching produced a summer plumage Slavonian Grebe and the only Bonaparte’s Gull of the trip.

One bird that we had hoped to see today was Upland Sandpiper so a lot of time was spent scanning fence posts on which they are supposed to stand in the early morning without any luck, but as we drove past one of the picnic areas around the reservoir we saw one walking about on the short grass. The picnic area also contained our first Grey and American Golden Plovers and whilst these were happy to have their photos taken the Upland Sandpiper preferred to keep its distance.

The nearby Tamarack Ranch is supposedly the best place to see Bell’s Vireo in Colorado, but we were evidently a little early as there was neither sight nor sound of any. Several very vocal House Wrens were the first for the trip, although I don’t know how we had missed them up to this point.

Eastern Colorado is in the overlap zone for Spotted and Eastern Towhees so at first sight what appeared to be an Eastern Towhee proved to have hybrid characteristics. An Oriole working its way through the tree next to where we had parked the car turned out to have the all-dark head of a Baltimore Oriole rather than the expected Bullock’s.

Further down the South Platte River is Prewitt Reservoir, here we found several more Slavonian Grebes, a second probable Ross’s Goose of the day (it was rather distant) and an American Herring Gull that was chasing one of many Ring-billed Gulls here. The only American Pipit of the trip was found working its way along the tide line and once we had circumnavigated the bird to get the sun behind us we were able to get some nice photos.

In what was a fairly ambitious plan for the day we also had it in mind to visit the Pawnee Grasslands, but by the time we arrived at Briggsdale, the start point for loop we intended to do it was almost 5.30pm so we opted for a shorter drive along CR96 and then to push on to Greeley where we were staying the night. Almost as soon as we set off we had several McCown’s Longspurs sat in the road and providing great views. Try as we might we could not find any Chestnut-collared Longspurs, but another of couple of male Lark Buntings were enjoyed before heading for the hotel.

4 May

Having missed the Chestnut-collared Longspur the previous day we headed straight back to the Pawnee Grasslands. Several stops were made for raptors on the way mostly Swainson’s Hawks, but we eventually struck lucky with a Ferruginous Hawk, which flew overhead and landed on a fence post where we were able to watch it through the telescope.

Turning onto CR96 again we were soon watching McCown’s Longspurs as they sat on the road, but we could not pick out any Chestnut-collared amongst them. The “Birders Guide to Colorado” mentioned that they were found three miles along this road, but gave no further detail and as the book was published 10 years ago we thought this would be a long shot, but as we were passing we may as well look. We stopped at approximately three miles along the road, immediately after crossing a cattle grid and got out for a look around at first we only found McCown’s Longspurs, but then I spotted three Chestnut-collared Longspurs in a field on the right-hand side of the road approximately 30 metres in. There wasn’t that much of a noticeable difference between the grass here compared to where we had seen McCown’s Longspurs, but Chestnut-collared is supposed to prefer longer grass.

With both Longspurs under our belts we headed for Barr Lake, which has the advantage of being only 15 minutes drive from the airport. Parking at the Nature Centre we walked north along the lake edge and soon spotted a Great Horned Owl nest, containing an adult and two large chicks in the top of a large tree that had yet to sprout any leaves so views were excellent. A couple of pairs of Wood Ducks were seen, but were very timid and disappeared almost as soon as we saw them. We only walked as far as the first hide, but the trees here contained both Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers, providing a good comparison. The hide itself is a complete waste of time as there is nothing to hide you from the birds on the lake as you walk to it and hence anything that in front of it is long gone by the time you get into the hide.

The path to the south of the Nature Centre proved to be a bit better with two adults and two juvenile Great Horned Owls showing really well, bringing our total in half an hour to seven. The fringes held a few shorebirds, mostly Wilson’s Phalaropes with lone Solitary and Spotted Sandpipers. A Bullock’s Oriole added a splash of colour, but the only warblers we could find were the two most common during the whole trip, Yellow-rumped and Orange-crowned.

We then made the short drive to the airport dropping off the car with no problems and passed through the security checks in reasonable time, giving us plenty of time to total up the trip list of 193 species before the flight home.

Species Lists

Great Northern Diver – One at Sweitzer Lake and another at Barr Lake
Pied-billed Grebe – Fairly common
Slavonian Grebe – A couple on Jumbo Reservoir, Prewitt Reservoir and Barr Lake.
Black-necked Grebe – Common
Western Grebe – Common on most large bodies of water.
Clark’s Grebe – Only noted at Windy Gap Reservoir and Lake Henry, but was probably overlooked elsewhere amongst Western Grebes.
American White Pelican – Common on most large bodies of water.
Double-crested Cormorant – Fairly common
Great Blue Heron – Seen regularly in small numbers
Cattle Egret – One on route to Lake Henry
White-faced Ibis – Several flocks encountered at various sites
Ross’s Goose – One at Red Lion SWA and another on Prewitt Reservoir.
Canada Goose – Common
Wood Duck – Two or three pairs at Barr Lake
Green-winged Teal – Common around larger bodies of water
Mallard – Common
Northern Pintail – A few birds seen at several locations
Blue-winged Teal – Fairly common
Cinnamon Teal – A few birds seen at several locations
Northern Shoveler – Fairly common
Gadwall – Common
Eurasian Wigeon – A male at Red Lion SWA
American Wigeon – Fairly common
Canvasback – Small numbers at six sites
Redhead – Small flocks at five sites
Ring-necked Duck – Fairly common
Lesser Scaup – Common
Common Goldeneye – Just outnumbered by Barrow’s Goldeneye at Windy Gap, another seen at Blue Mesa Lake
Barrow’s Goldeneye – Approximately 50 on Windy Gap Reservoir
Bufflehead – Fairly common
Goosander – Several seen at Pine Valley, Blue River and at Jumbo Reservoir
Ruddy Duck – Common
Turkey Vulture – Seen regularly in small numbers
Osprey – One at Pine Valley Ranch Park
Mississippi Kite – Two at Cottonwood Canyon
Bald Eagle – Seen at Arapaho, Walden Reservoir and Hayden
Northern Harrier – Common
Sharp-shinned Hawk – Several seen
Cooper’s Hawk – Several seen
Swainson’s Hawk – Very common
Red-tailed Hawk – Common
Ferruginous Hawk – One at Pawnee Grasslands
Rough-legged Buzzard – One 20 to 30 miles west of Walden
Golden Eagle – A couple between Walden and Hayden and several in Pawnee Grasslands
American Kestrel – Common
Merlin – One at Cottonwood Canyon
Prairie Falcon – One at Arapaho and another near Steamboat Springs
Common Pheasant – Seen daily in the Eastern plains
Dusky Grouse – Four males and a female at the Black Canyon of Gunnison
Greater Sage-Grouse – 10 males and 1 female at Delaney Butte lek
Gunnison Sage-Grouse – 23 males and 3 females at the Waunita Hot Springs Lek
Greater Prairie-Chicken – Two on CR 45 lek north of Wray
Lesser Prairie-Chicken – 15 on a private ranch in Southeast
Sharp-tailed Grouse – 5 at the Hayden Route 20 lek
Wild Turkey – About 12 at Cottonwood Canyon and a few more at Two Buttes Reservoir
Gambel’s Quail – A couple seen at Colorado National Monument
American Coot – Common
Sandhill Crane – Pairs at Walden Reservoir and near Hayden and a lone bird at Sweitzer Lake
Grey Plover – One at Jumbo Reservoir and another at Prewitt Reservoir
American Golden Plover – One at Jumbo Reservoir
Semiplamated Plover – One at Red Lion SWA
Killdeer – Common
Mountain Plover – One at Lake Henry and another near Granada
American Avocet – Seen at several sites including Walden, Jumbo and Prewitt Reservoirs
Lesser Yellowlegs – One at Lake Meredith and another at Red Lion SWA
Solitary Sandpiper – A couple at Red Lion SWA and another at Barr Lake
Willet – Seen at several sites including Walden, Jumbo and Prewitt Reservoirs
Spotted Sandpiper – Individuals seen at Pine Valley Ranch Park, Cottonwood Canyon, Prewitt Reservoir and Barr Lake
Upland Sandpiper – One at Jumbo Reservoir
Long-billed Curlew – One at Granada
Marbled Godwit – One on way to Windy Gap Reservoir and another at Jumbo Reservoir
Sanderling – Several at Jumbo Reservoir and Prewitt Reservoir
Semipalmated Sandpiper – One at Lake Meredith
Western Sandpiper – Several at Lake Meredith
Least Sandpiper – One at Lake Meredith and 10+ at Red Lion SWA
Long-billed Dowitcher – Small flocks at Sweitzer and Blue Mesa Lakes and at Red Lion SWA
Wilson’s Snipe – Three near Walden
Wilson’s Phalarope – Common
Franklin’s Gull – Fairly common
Bonaparte’s Gull – One at Jumbo Reservoir
Ring-billed Gull – Fairly common
California Gull – Several around Walden
American Herring Gull – One at Prewitt Reservoir
Forster’s Tern – Small numbers seen at large bodies of water in the East.
Mourning Dove – Common
Collared Dove – More common than suggested in a “Birder’s Guide to Colorado” and probably spreading
Great Horned Owl – One at Two Buttes Reservoir and seven at Barr Lake
Burrowing Owl – Individuals at Walden, Cottonwood Canyon and Jumbo Reservoir
Short-eared Owl – Several at Lesser Prairie-Chicken lek and another near Wray
White-throated Swift – Common in highlands near cliffs
Broad-tailed Hummingbird – A couple at Colorado National Monument and another at Temple Park
Belted Kingfisher – Several seen normally by roadside pools
Lewis’s Woodpecker – Common at Cottonwood Canyon and a possible at Canon City River Walk
Red-naped Sapsucker – One at Pine Valley Ranch Park and another at Colorado National Monument
Ladder-backed Woodpecker – One at Cottonwood Canyon
Downy Woodpecker – Seen at Red Lion SWA and Barr Lake
Hairy Woodpecker – Seen at Sweitzer and Barr Lakes
American Three-toed Woodpecker – One at Pine Valley Ranch Park
Northern Flicker – Common
Western Woodpewee – One at Canon City River Walk and another at Cottonwood Canyon
Grey Flycatcher – One at Colorado National Monument, several on the Uncompahgre Plateau and another at Temple Park
Eastern Phoebe – Several at Cottonwood Canyon and Jumbo Reservoir
Say’s Phoebe – Fairly common
Ash-throated Flycatcher – Several at Cottonwood Canyon
Cassin’s Kingbird – Several at Cottonwood Canyon
Western Kingbird – Common
Eastern Kingbird – One at Jumbo Reservoir
Shorelark – Common
Tree Swallow – Fairly common
Violet-green Swallow – Fairly common
Northern Rough-winged Swallow – Common
Sand Martin – Several at Prewitt Reservoir
Cliff Swallow – Common in east
Barn Swallow – Fairly common
Steller’s Jay –Fairly common at higher altitudes
Blue Jay – Several at Prewitt Reservoir and Barr Lake
Western Scrub-Jay – Seen at several locations
Black-billed Magpie – Common
American Crow – Fairly common
Common Raven – Common in west
Chihuahuan Raven – Several at Cottonwood Canyon
Black-capped Chickadee – Common
Mountain Chickadee – Common at higher altitudes
Juniper Titmouse – A couple at Colorado National Monument
Bushtit – A small party at Cottonwood Canyon
White-breasted Nuthatch – Seen at several locations, including Pine Valley Ranch Park, Canon City River Walk and Barr Lake
Rock Wren – Common at Cottonwood Canyon
Canyon Wren – One seen at Red Rocks, also heard at Colorado National Monument and Cottonwood canyon
Bewick’s Wren – Common at Cottonwood Canyon, but not noted elsewhere
House Wren – Only seen at Tamarack Ranch and Barr Lake, possibly overlooked elsewhere
Marsh Wren – One near Hayden and several at Sweitzer Lake
American Dipper – One along the Blue River
Ruby-crowned Kinglet – Fairly common
Blue-grey Gnatcatcher – Several seen at Canon City River Walk, Cottonwood Canyon and Two Buttes Reservoir
Western Bluebird – Fairly common
Mountain Bluebird – Common
Townsend’s Solitaire – Individuals at Rabbit Ears pass, Black Canyon of Gunnison, Monarch Pass and Cottonwood Canyon
Hermit Thrush – One at Two Buttes Reservoir
American Robin – Common
Northern Mockingbird – Surprisingly only two seen one at Two Buttes Reservoir and another near Granada
Sage Thrasher – Common in Arapaho and Walden area
Brown Thrasher – A couple at Two Buttes Reservoir and several more around Red Lion SWA, Jumbo Reservoir and Tamarack Ranch
Curve-billed Thrasher – Two near Cottonwood Canyon
American Pipit – One at Prewitt Reservoir
Loggerhead Shrike – Several seen, most common in the Pawnee Grasslands
European Starling – Common
Plumbeous Vireo – Common at Colorado National Monument and Uncompahgre Plateau
Orange-crowned Warbler – Common
Virginia’s Warbler – One at the Black Canyon of Gunnison and another at Cottonwood Canyon
Yellow Warbler – One at Canon City River Walk and another at Jumbo Reservoir. Also heard at Cottonwood Canyon.
Yellow-rumped Warbler – Very common
Black-throated Grey Warbler – Several at Colorado National Monument and Uncompahgre Plateau
Kentucky Warbler – One at Two Buttes Reservoir
Wilson’s Warbler – One at Cottonwood Canyon
Western Tanager – One male at Canon City River Walk
Lazuli Bunting – At least one at Canon City River Walk and another at Two Buttes Reservoir
Green-tailed Towhee – Seen at Hayden and Cottonwood Canyon.
Spotted Towhee – Fairly common. A hybrid with Eastern Towhee was seen at Tamarack Ranch
Canyon Towhee – One at Pueblo Reservoir and another at Cottonwood Canyon
Cassin’s Sparrow – Several along road to Two Buttes Reservoir.
Chipping Sparrow – Common
Clay-coloured Sparrow – One at Jumbo Reservoir
Brewer’s Sparrow – Fairly common
Vesper Sparrow – Common
Lark Sparrow – Regular in small numbers particularly in east
Black-throated Sparrow – One at Colorado National Monument
Lark Bunting – First seen near Lake Henry, several others seen in east and at Pawnee Grasslands
Savannah Sparrow – Only seen at Jumbo Reservoir, but probably overlooked elsewhere
Grasshopper Sparrow – Several at Lesser Prairie-Chicken lek.
Song Sparrow – Fairly common
Lincoln’s Sparrow – One at Red Lion SWA
White-crowned Sparrow – Common
Harris’s Sparrow – One at Two Buttes Reservoir
Dark-eyed Junco – Grey-headed race were fairly common, also saw several of the Pink-sided race.
McCown’s Longspur – Common at Pawnee Grasslands
Chestnut-collared Longspur – Several at Pawnee Grasslands
Red-winged Blackbird – Common
Western Meadowlark – Common
Yellow-headed Blackbird – Fairly common
Brewer’s Blackbird – Several seen but probably overlooked.
Great-tailed Grackle – Common in eastern half of state
Common Grackle – Common
Brown-headed Cowbird – Common in the east
Bullock’s Oriole – One seen at Sweitzer lake, several at Cottonwood Canyon and Barr Lake
Baltimore Oriole – One at Tamarack Ranch
Grey-crowned Rosy-Finch – Around 10 at Loveland Pass, including at least one Hepburn’s subspecie
Brown-capped Rosy-Finch – Around 80 at Loveland Pass
Black Rosy-Finch – Several at Loveland Pass
Cassin’s Finch – One at Pine Valley Ranch Park and another at Black Canyon of Gunnison
House Finch – Common
Pine Siskin – Several at Pine Valley Ranch Park and lots at Canon City River Walk
American Goldfinch – Flocks seen at Canon City River Walk and Barr Lake
House Sparrow – Common in towns