Birding Colorado: Mornings Spent with Colorado Prairie-Chickens

Brett Ewald makes his home in western New York, where he manages his own tour company called Lakeshore Nature Tours. He leads tours to several U.S. destinations such as Amherst Island, Texas, Colorado, and more. You can check out an interview we did with Brett at the 2014 HMANA Conference here.

For those in search of a great birding experience, the displays and “dances” performed by some of the grouse and prairie-chickens in North America are a unique experience – and Colorado is the best place to see them. We traveled much of the state over nine days to witness these events, and enjoyed many other species of birds and animals along the way, as well as the incredible scenery the Rocky Mountains are famous for.

Leaving the bustle of Denver behind, our first few days were spent on the plains of eastern Colorado, visiting the grasslands and reservoirs that mark this flat expanse. We
jumped right into the birding, and Curve-billed Thrasher and Scaled Quail filled the bill to the west of Pueblo. The nearby reservoirs to the east provided a vast array of waterbirds, from the imposing beauty of American White Pelicans to the dainty and colorful Eared Grebes. A direct comparison of the similar Western and Clark’s Grebes was fortuitous, and the rosy blush of Franklin’s Gulls was hard to miss. Hundreds of ducks of the 19 species we saw were scattered throughout, with all three species of teal being very evident. We were elated to find two subtly plumaged Mountain Plovers running through the sage along a road, as well as the boldly marked Chestnut-collared Longspur.

The declining Lesser Prairie-Chicken was our first real “target” of the trip, on a farm near the borders with Kansas and Oklahoma. Using a school bus as a blind, we were greeted with their antics at dawn of the third day – hooting, cackling, and puffing out colored air
sacs, as twelve of them pranced and chased each other around the flatted area of the field, known as a lek. The display would last over an hour, giving us an opportunity to take in
the full extent of their beauty and behavior. Moving north later in the day, an adult Harlan’s Red-tailed Hawk was a nice find in what seemed to be the middle of nowhere, and American Kestrels were in abundance.

Greater Prairie Chicken on lek

Greater Prairie-Chicken by Paul Koker

The next morning found us once again greeting dawn at a lek, this time for the bigger and even wilder Greater Prairie-Chicken, near the town of Wray. It is hard to describe the almost comical gathering, as twelve males tried their best to impress four females. There was lots of puffing of air sacs and stamping of feet, accompanied by almost continuous hoots and cackles, and even some extended chases and physical contact. All this almost right next to our vehicle blinds – truly an impressive and memorable sight!!! A Burrowing Owl even stopped for a minute to see what all the commotion was about. Our travels westward through the Pawnee Grasslands filled out the day. One small area was exceptional, with an adult Ferruginous Hawk soaring over an attentive prairie dog colony, with two Burrowing Owls standing guard over the hole they had usurped. In the other
direction, an adult Golden Eagle leisurely passed by, showing us all the field marks. This was also the first of several areas we would encounter the exotic-looking Pronghorn Antelope. Drifting snow from previous storms made exploring some areas a challenge, but we still managed to get scope views of a beautiful McCown’s Longspur in its expected grassland habitat.

A new day and the trek across the Continental Divide were more than just a change in scenery and altitude, providing a different set if birds to search for. A stop at some lowland parks afforded the likes of Golden-crowned Sparrow, Cassin’s Finch, and the too-cute Pygmy Nuthatch. The sought-after Williamson’s Sapsucker didn’t disappoint, exposing its bright yellow belly and boldly contrasting black and red facial marks. Mating Peregrines were quite vocal in their activities, drawing our attention away from beautiful rock formations. How can you compare the blue shades of Western and Mountain Bluebirds?! Both species were a treat to see, and we would relish the opportunity to see them again at future sites. A try for White-tailed Ptarmigan at Loveland Pass (12,000’) was unsuccessful, but a chance to experience the wind-blown slopes above tree-line and unique habitat this species occupies. We warmed up in Silverthorne, being treated to all three species of rosy-finch, including many localized
Brown-capped Rosy-finches and one hard-to-find Black Rosy-finch. A quick stop in
Buena Vista was highlighted by a Lewis’s Woodpecker in all its finery. We finished the day with a relaxing Italian dinner, in preparation for our early start the next morning.

Dusky Grouse behind a rise

Dusky Grouse by Brett Ewald

Day six of our trip found us eagerly anticipating the lightening of the meadow in front of our viewing trailer – the site of an endangered Gunnison Sage-grouse lek. There are only about 4,000 individuals left of this species, all located near its namesake town. Sixteen
entertained us from a distance, with twelve males fanning their tails, puffing out chest sacs, and extending the thick feathers on their heads. The persistence of one male was
exceptional, almost continuously displaying for a reticent female, long after many of the others had left the area. Venturing into the foothills of Crested Butte, we enjoyed
American Dippers dipping and the beauty of the snowcapped peaks. Journeying west, a stop at Black Canyon of the Gunnison was inspiring. Another hoped-for bird, the Dusky Grouse, was quickly located right along the road, allowing for great looks and some
photographic opportunities. A late afternoon stop found us being taunted by a Chukar in the rocks of a canyon, while a Rock Wren bobbed at our presence.

Colorado National Monument would be a highlight of any trip, and we spent a morning surrounded by its beauty and birds. This classic example of red rock formations provided excellent looks at Pinyon Jays and Juniper Titmouse. White-throated Swifts wheeled their way around us at several stops and a Canyon Wren called to us from below. Outside the park, we were surprised by a flock of very vocal and colorful Evening Grosbeaks, while a
family group of Lewis’s Woodpeckers interacted across the street. A search of sage-brush
habitat yielded several appropriately named Sage Thrashers. After a delicious Mexican lunch, we left the dry southwest behind and headed for Craig in the northern part of the state. Elk watched us passing by, and we observed both Bald and Golden Eagles on our drive, not to mention the numerous Black-billed Magpies.

Pine Grosbeak in tree

Pine Grosbeak by Paul Koker

Snow was falling as we made our way to see Sharp-tailed Grouse outside of Hayden, and even the grouse seemed to disapprove of its presence. We finally managed to locate seven of them, after hearing several calls – not on the lek, but hunkered down in some nearby brush. Under the conditions, we were thankful for our views and continued on. Two Sandhill Cranes further down the road caught us by surprise on our way to breakfast and warm coffee. The skies cleared somewhat for our passage over Rabbit Ears Pass, and our drive into Walden was filled with great views of Rough-legged Hawks and lots (and I mean lots!) of Horned Larks along the roads and in the town. The Moose Visitor Center’s
feeders hosted some active Dark-eyed Juncos, Mountain Chickadees, and the Rocky Mountain subspecies of Stellar’s Jay – showing off the white stripe on the forehead. More rosy-finches were dropping into a nearby residence, and further looking produced a number of Pine Grosbeaks, with brightly colored singing males and a russet female. With
an ominous forecast for the next morning, we conducted an afternoon search for the largest of our targets – Greater Sage-Grouse. These impressive birds can weigh as much as six pounds. We were not disappointed, as a walk up a plowed back road yielded a total of 17 birds, including two males right next to the van, contrasting wonderfully with the snow-covered sage around them. What a great bird!

Our return to Denver had a few surprises left for us. The feeders around Silverthorne were obliging with a Band-tailed Pigeon, showing all the features we wanted to see. Prairie Falcon, a bird we had missed so far, was very cooperative at Red Rocks Park, perching in the open for us to get scope views. Several lakes and ponds in Denver itself were a delight, adding several new species, including many Wilson’s Phalaropes in breeding plumage and a Greater Scaup. It was fantastic to compare the colors of Eared and Horned Grebes. As we neared the hotel and the end to the birding, a Snowy Egret and singing western Marsh Wren rounded out the bird species we would see. A recap of the tour sightings over a fine dinner was the perfect way to end a rewarding tour.

We ended the tour having recorded 152 bird species, including the target grouse and prairie-chickens, as well as many interesting mammals and incredible vistas. Of course,
the camaraderie of a birding group is always a highlight of any trip!!

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  • Carrie Laben May 1, 2014, 18:15

    I had the pleasure of doing the Lakeshore trip to Amherst Island several years back. It was an outstanding trip, with great guides, and we saw all but two of my wishlist species. I definitely recommend these guys.

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