Phil Wheezes His Way Around the Colorado Mountains

I decided to tour Colorado in early spring 2004 to chase the traditional Colorado birds - Grouse, Prairie-Chickens, Rosy Finches and Ptarmigan together with a few sundry western species that had evaded me. The timing was somewhat of a compromise - on the tail end of "good" Rosy-Finch time (2004 did not seem to be a good year for them anyway), into Grouse and Prairie-Chicken lek season, and just late enough to have a chance at early migrants like Longspur and Mountain Plover.

This is the somewhat wordy trip report, and for those that are not fascinated by minutiae I've provided a summary of birds seen and where I saw them, and varations upon directions to the Lane Guide. The title from this page comes from the fact that I had some sort of chest cold throughout the trip and both live at sea level and am not spectacularly fit. It's not a great combination for birding at altitude.


The most useful guide in planning this trip was the Lane Guide to Colorado by Harold Holt, which you can find at ABA sales. Sometimes the directions were a little confusing, but overall it's an excellent trip planning guide. (Update 2012: the Lane Guide is now rather out of date and AFAIK has not been updated, therefore it may give you a good idea of the lay of the land but for specific directions you're going to have to do some data mining). For even more directions to even more sites, and a rather comprehensive summary of recent sightings, I strongly recommend the Colorado Birding Society site (CoBus). For three weeks prior to the trip I kept track of local sightings on the Colorado and Colorado Birders mailing lists (although these sightings do get incorporated into the CoBUS site).

The two biggest factors in this trip were the need to get up well before dawn for Grouse/Prairie-Chicken leks and the weather. The former meant that lek locations, and the need to be near one most nights, dominated the schedule. The weather on the first day was fine, but by the second day a low had set itself up south-west of Colorado pushing waves of rain into the state, followed by a front on the next weekend. This meant that for 10 of the 11 birding days I always had to work out how to avoid the worst of the weather. Ironically the single best birding day, with 3 life birds, was one of the worst days for weather (almost continual rain and/or snow), but then that same weather prevented the Sharp-tailed Grouse coming to the lek that same morning. The first week in April is notoriously troublesome for weather in Colorado, apparently.

General environmental decline and also birder pressure has undoubtedly changed the nature of easily-viewable grouse leks over the years since 2004. See, for example, the birder behavior at the remote Lesser Prairie-Chicken lek in south-eastern Colorado. I think that lek is either abandoned or closed (or perhaps both). As an offset, the amount of eco-tourism options have expanded, so it'll cost you more $$ but you'll still get to see the birds.

Trip List

Trumpeter Swan Cattail Pond in Loveland
Canada Goose All lakes/rivers
Wood Duck Carrizo Cyn
Gadwall Various lakes
American Wigeon Various lakes
Mallard All lakes/rivers
Blue-winged Teal South-west and Utah lakes
Cinnamon Teal South-west and Utah lakes
Northern Shoveler Various lakes
Northern Pintail Various lakes
Green-winged Teal Various lakes
Redhead Various lakes
Ring-necked Duck Various lakes
Lesser Scaup Various lakes
Bufflehead Various lakes
Common Goldeneye Various lakes
Barrow's Goldeneye Lake near Granby on US-40
Common Merganser Various lakes (Hayden, Walden etc)
Ruddy Duck Pelican Lake in Utah
Chukar Coal Canyon at Cameo
Ring-necked Pheasant Pawnee Grasslands, Ouray NWR in Utah
Greater Sage-Grouse CR-3/Rt-13 north of Craig, 80 Route north of Hayden
Gunnison Sage-Grouse Waunita Hot Springs lek near Gunnison
Sharp-tailed Grouse 20 mile Route lek near Hayden
Greater Prairie-Chicken lek north of Wray
Lesser Prairie-Chicken Campo Lek in Comanche Natl Grasslands
Wild Turkey Cottonwood Cyn, Ouray NWR in Utah, south-west corner
Gambel's Quail Ullaweep Canyon ????
Pied-billed Grebe Cattail Pond at Loveland
Horned Grebe Pelican Lake in Utah
American White Pelican Cattail Pond at Loveland
Great Blue Heron Various riparian
Turkey Vulture Various, especially west
Osprey Blue Mesa Reservoir
Bald Eagle Blue Mesa Reservoir
Northern Harrier Pawnee Grasslands
Cooper's Hawk Sage scrub south of Gunnison
Red-tailed Hawk Grasslands to montane
Ferruginous Hawk Middle Park
Rough-legged Hawk North Park, etc
Golden Eagle North Park, San Luis Valley etc
American Kestrel Ubiquitous riparian to scrub
Prairie Falcon North Park near Walden
Sandhill Crane Yampa River etc near Hayden
Killdeer Various lowland incl Pawnee Grasslands
Mountain Plover Pawnee Grasslands
Long-billed Curlew Comanche Grasslands near Campo
Ring-billed Gull Prince Lake #2, road to Pawnee Grasslands (Rt-14)
California Gull Walden Reservoir
Rock Pigeon Towns, cities
Mourning Dove Grasslands and desert
Greater Roadrunner Cottonwood Cyn
White-throated Swift Colorado National Monument
Belted Kingfisher Pine Valley Ranch Park
Lewis's Woodpecker Cottonwood Cyn
Red-naped Sapsucker Montane (one location only)
Hairy Woodpecker Pine Valley Ranch Park
American Three-toed Woodpecker Pine Valley Ranch Park
Northern Flicker Montane to mid-elevation
Eastern Phoebe Cottonwood and Carrizon Cyns
Say's Phoebe Various cyns
Loggerhead Shrike Cactus Garden at Ullaweep Cyn
Steller's Jay Montane
Blue Jay Wray
Western Scrub-Jay Sage scrub in west
Pinyon Jay Ullaweep Cyn, Coal Cyn, Colorado Natl Monument
Clark's Nutcracker Montane (mostly)
Black-billed Magpie Riparian, farmland
American Crow Riparian, farmland
Chihuahuan Raven Carrizo Cyn
Common Raven Mountains to desert
Horned Lark All habitats except montane
Tree Swallow South-west corner Reservoirs
Barn Swallow South-west corner Reservoirs
Black-capped Chickadee Various montane
Mountain Chickadee Various montane
Bushtit South-west corner
Red-breasted Nuthatch Cameron Pass Visitor Center, Pike National Forest
White-breasted Nuthatch Pike National Forest
Rock Wren Coal Canyon at Cameo, Pawnee National Grasslands
Canyon Wren Heard only, multiple canyons and mesas
American Dipper Pine Valley Ranch (also probably nr Hayden)
Golden-crowned Kinglet Pine Valley Ranch
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher Carrizo Cyn
Western Bluebird mainly Western low- to mid-elevation
Mountain Bluebird Widespread but not numerous
Townsend's Solitaire Gateway in Ullaweep Cyn, Cottonwood Cyn
American Robin Ubiquitous: montane to habitation in deserts
Sage Thrasher near Colorado Natl Monument, Utah desert near Vernal
European Starling Not that numerous but widespread
Spotted Towhee Grasslands and scrub
Cassin's Sparrow Campo lek in Comanche Grasslands
Rufous-crowned Sparrow Cottonwood Canyon near picnic area
Chipping Sparrow 80 Route near Hayden
Vesper Sparrow Colorado National Monument area, 80 Route near Hayden
Black-throated Sparrow Coal Canyon at Cameo
Fox Sparrow Cameron Pass Visitor Center
Song Sparrow Lower montaine, riparian
White-crowned Sparrow Comanche Grasslands near Campo
Dark-eyed Junco Montane (Gray-headed), sage-brush (Oregon)
McCown's Longspur Pawnee National Grasslands
Chestnut-collared Longspur Pawnee National Grasslands
Red-winged Blackbird Riparian and wetter grassland areas
Western Meadowlark Everywhere except montane
Yellow-headed Blackbird Pelican Lake in Utah
Common Grackle Plains
Great-tailed Grackle west of Wray
Brown-headed Cowbird Comanche Grasslands near Campo
Gray-crowned Rosy Finch Loveland Ski Basin, Cameron Pass Visitor Center
Black Rosy Finch Cameron Pass Visitor Center
Pine Grosbeak Rabbit Ears Pass on US-40, Camero Pass Visitor Center
Cassin's Finch Cameron Pass Visitor Center
House Finch Coal Canyon near Cameo, Colorado Natl Monument
Red Crossbill Cameron Pass Visitor Center
Pine Siskin Guanella Pass, Loveland Ski Basin
House Sparrow Towns, cities, some grassland farms
116 species

The Long Version

Ubiquitous Birds

I hesitate to call anything like a Black-billed Magpie a dirt bird, but there are several birds I omit from most of the description because they were at times absurdly common. The most frequent bird on the trip was Horned Lark, seen in all habitats from desert to sage scrub. Western Meadowlark was similar. Ravens were in every conceivable habitat from desert to high mountains, except were relatively rare on the plains. Black-billed Magpies occured in every riparian valley, along with American Crows. Starlings were ubiquitous although not very numerous and House Sparrows were limited to towns and cities. American Robins, however, really impressed - they were singing at dawn at the treeless Sage Grouse leks, they were often the only visible bird on the snowy mountain passes, I even saw some near settlements in the arid regions. Mourning Doves were numerous on the plains and in the more arid country near Grand Junction but absent from the higher elevations. Mallard and Canada Goose were the ubiquitous riparian birds, even in pools still half iced-over. Red-tailed Hawk were uncommon but still the dominant hawk, but it was American Kestrel that seemed to populated wires everywhere, driving me nuts checking every one for Prairie Falcon.

On the Road

Life birds are in bold. Year birds are underlined. Both are only highlighted the first time they are seen, even within the same day. Links under place names send you to the directions pages of the CoBUS website. Notation like [Lane: p.72] means a reference to the location is on page 72 of edition (which one?) of the Lane Guide.

April 1st 2004 - Denver to Gunnison

April fool ! Alamo car rental didn't endear themselves to me by not having any mid-size cars and sticking me with an SUV instead. The SUV came in handy for the off-road sections but it struggled in the hills and was a big gas guzzler. I rewarded this company by not being at all careful with the vehicle. Anyway, exit Denver, off to do some birding.

First I tried Prince Lake #2, north of Denver, where immature Thayer's Gull had been reported recently, and found nothing except a few Ring-billed Gulls, Western Meadowlark and an adult Red-tailed Hawk. Stymied, I headed to the mountains, where I struck out royally at Guanella Pass (many Pine Siskin, Mallard, American Robin) - no White-tailed Ptarmigan, no Three-toed Woodpecker. Guanella Pass was an education in altitude sickness - I could barely function at 10,000+ feet, especially since I had a cold. Back down the pass (no Rosy-Finches at the feeders in Georgetown) to I-70 westbound and the Loveland Ski Basin to find that there were no Rosy Finches at the feeders (they had been getting very scarce, due to warm weather the previous week). Further west on I-70, an inopportune choice of route to Buena Vista meant it was too dark to search for Pinyon Jay by the time I go there, so simply proceeded to Gunnison. Near dark, the first Black-billed Magpie of many popped up from the roadside. Overnight: Super8 (recommended) at Gunnison. Total 350 miles.

April 2nd 2004

Gunnison to Cortez via San Luis Valley. I arrived before dawn at the Gunnison Sage-Grouse lek at Waunita Hot Springs. Soon I had 8 male Gunnison Sage-Grouse displaying and ~3 female, before lek activity ceased around dawn. The last male flew off shortly after 6am. Western Meadowlark, Horned Lark and Song Sparrow were singing. The lek was too far away from the viewing area to hear the grouse, however. Rules appear to have changed at Wuanita and these days you are supposed to stay in your car rather than exit it. When I did it you *had* to exit your car. The "stay in the vehicle" rules seem to have been consistent for quite a few years now.

Returning via Gunnison, west of town at Blue Mesa Reservoir - lots of waterfowl (Canada Goose, Mallard, Gadwall, Northern Pintail, Scaup sp. and doubtless many other species). I also noticed Bald Eagle and Osprey perched further west along the reservoir. I returned to Gunnison and south on CR-38 into sagebrush country. Apparently American Robins try to breed everywhere, even up in the treeless sagebrush. The small trail at the cattle grid yielded nothing but elsewhere I found Mountain Bluebird, Northern (Red-shafted) Flicker, and a fly-by immature Cooper's Hawk with prey in talons. By the time I returned to the Gunnison River valley the wind had really picked up (as per forecast), and was buffeting the car.

Heading east out of Gunnison, I took Rt-114 across the Continental Divide south-east toward Saguache, finding a Rough-legged Hawk sheltering on the ground behind a bush on the open grassy valley. Further down, a pair of Red-naped Sapsuckers were clinging to the aspens in the strengthening wind. These turned out to be the only Red-naped of the trip so it was just as well I turned around and checked out the woodpeckers that I sped by.

Traveling down the west side of the San Luis Valley (Saguache to Del Norte), I found Golden Eagle, Red-tailed Hawk and Turkey Vulture. While failing to see any Bendire's Thrasher around noon in very windy conditions (surprise!) I did find a Say's Phoebe and more Mountain Bluebirds in a sheltered riparian area.

I went over Wolf Creek Pass without seeing any montane birds, but found a Western Scrub Jay in Pagosa Springs. The high country diminished as I approached Durango, spotting Wild Turkey, American Kestrel and Killdeer along the way. A detour to Pastorius Reservoir turned up Barn Swallow, Cinnamon Teal, Blue-winged Teal, Green-winged Teal, 12 Common Merganser, Ring-necked Duck and a Great Blue Heron but wind and rain kept passerines to a single Western Meadowlark.

In heavy rain I skipped other routes near Durango to head for Cortez, but the rain was there already, turning to snow on one of the passes. Mesa Verde National Park was completely shrouded in cloud so I reluctantly skipped that too - it was almost certainly snowing on the top of the mesa.

Overnight Cortez, CO (Super8, adequate). 440 miles.

April 3rd (Sat) - Cortez to Grand Junction

(Sleet/snow early, rain late, cloudy inbetween). I awoke to find snow on the car, but found Western Meadowlark, heard Spotted Towhee, saw Gadwall, American Wigeon, Common Goldeneye, Bufflehead, Barn Swallow and Tree Swallow at Totten Reservoir. Mesa Verde NP was snowbound, although they had plowed the main road the road to the Park Point overlook was closed. This was of course the main reason I was there. Snow showers persisted while I was there. The only bird I saw was a Western Scrub-Jay on the approach road. It was still raining when I left Cortez, but starting to clear.

Took the old (renamed) Rt-666 north-west out of Cortez, seeing a small group of Turkey Vulture but little else. North and east on Rt-141 I came across Western Bluebird, Red-tailed Hawk, and then where Rt-141 dropped down into a red rocks valley to cross the Dolores River at Slick Rock - Say's Phoebe, American Kestrel, Bushtit and Western Scrub-Jay.

Further on Rt-141, 2 Golden Eagles (1 immature, 1 adult) were flushed from roadkill by a passing truck. Nothing much else before dropping down into the San Miguel river valley - downstream I stopped at the Nature Conservancy's San Miguel River Preserve: Spotted Towhee and heard Canyon Wren. I never actually saw a Canyon Wren on this trip but I heard many of them. Two Great Blue Herons were flying upstream. Downstream on the San Miguel and then Dolores Rivers not much else - another Golden Eagle, another Bushtit, one or two more singing Canyon Wrens. A flock of (~50) swifts overhead were almost certainly White-throated but where only silhouettes against the sky.

In Gateway, what appeared to be a Townsend's Solitaire popped off the wire before I could get a good enough look at it. Upstream in the Ullaweep Canyon at Ullaweep Seep the only thing to be found was a Black-capped Chickadee singing somewhere across the canyon. Passerine migration really wasn't happening yet in early April and it was showing by my results that day.

Eventually further up Ullaweep Cyn I started to come across flocks of American Robin and then I suddenly encountered a huge flock of Pinyon Jay, at least 70 birds paraded across the road to the west of me. No other flocks of Pinyon Jay were found on this trip, though I did see more single birds. Ullaweep Canyon is quite spectacular but it is out in the back of beyond - in fact the entire day's route coming north of Cortez takes you through mostly unpopulated areas.

Past the divide, going down the canyon toward Grand Junction, a Gambel's Quail popped across the road in front of me and disappeared. Further on, taking the road to Cactus Garden out in the sage-brush flats, there were no Sage Sparrows but I did find Say's Phebe, Mountain Bluebird and Loggerhead Shrike. This particular road is tough even in an SUV and probably hellish in a passenger car. I managed a quick rummage around Devil's Kitchen at the Colorado National Monument before rain hit at 4:45pm, although Mourning Dove, Western Scrub-Jay and the ubiquitous Ravens were all that I found - on a weekend afternoon most other birds had probably been scared off.

After the rain passed I went to Cameo to try for Chukar as the sun set. Black-throated Sparrow sang at the entrance gate, Canyon Wrens sang from the tops of the mesas, but no Chukar. As darkness fell a Golden Eagle flew along the canyon, and finally I figured out what bird was scolding me in the near-darkness - Rock Wren identified by a combination of call and behavior (it was too dark to be certain of the ID from coloration alone - well past sunset).

Overnight: Grand Junction, Motel 6 (OK). 310 miles.

April 4th - Grand Junction to Craig

I went back to Coal Cyn at Cameo before dawn and saw many Rock Wren, heard several Canyon Wren, saw Mountain Bluebird, Say's Phoebe, Black-throated Sparrow, House Finch, and after a great deal of searching for a calling bird found a Chukar half-way up the wall of the canyon. A Pinyon Jay crossed over the valley, calling as it went. Ironically, having puffed my way a long way up-canyon, I found three more Chukar a mere half-mile from the power station along the entrance road. Walking down the canyon toward the car, I encountered a couple out riding in the early morning chill. The gentleman appeared to be channelling a grumpy version of Sam Shepard as he fought to get on his horse (the canyon contains "wild" horses, fairly tame, which apparently had distracted his horse).

At Colorado National Monument the Devil's Kitchen lots were already swarming with people so I drove up to the mesa, finding White-throated Swift in abundance, Western Scrub-Jay, another Pinyon Jay and Turkey Vulture. Leaving the mesa to explore the sage scrub along South CR-B I found Vesper Sparrow, and finally a Sage Thrasher that would perch up long enough for me to ID it, Mountain and Western Bluebirds. At the Black Ridge Hunter Access there was singing Bewick's Wren, Western Scrub-Jay, Spotted Towhee, Dark-eyed Junco. CR-B has proven semi-reliable for Sage Thrasher in subsequent years.

A foray into the desert near the Utah line along 1.8 Road yielded no Sage Sparrows but two more Sage Thrashers as well as the ubiquitous Horned Lark and Western Meadowlark. In retrospect I was probably 1 week too early for Sage Sparrow, although my timing on looking for these birds sucked (always in the middle of the day).

Returning to I-70 I took Rt-139 north out of the desert country toward Rangely. En route I found Golden Eagle and yet another Pinyon Jay. From Rangely I made the loop along Rt-64 towards Meeker, encountering a Clark's Nutcracker at an unusually low elevation and not in montane habitat (more Pinyon-Juniper). Bizarre, but since it perched up nicely for me as I drove by, there was no question as to ID.

I made my way to Hayden, via Rt-40, noting Sandhill Crane along the Yampa River, and staked out the southernmost Sharp-tailed Grouse lek on 20 mile Route, east of town. There were more Sandhill Crane, Northern Pintail, Gadwall, Northern Harrier but no Grouse (that particular lek was not active in 2004, in retrospect). Small herds of Elk and Antelope were seen along the hills - novel at that time but I was to come across them several more times (Antelope in more widespread habitats, Elk in the grassy mountain foothills).

Overnight: Super8 (OK) at Craig. 380 miles.

April 5th - Craig area

North of Craig on Rt-13, I found a small Greater Sage-Grouse lek ~0.5 mi west of Rt-13 on CR-3, on the north side of CR-3 but right next to the road (therefore easily spooked if you come in too late). There was also a flyover grouse further up CR-3 but I could find no further leks. Lek activity ceased by 7am, but it was only 40 degrees (no snow on ground) and overcast. Western Meadowlark, Horned Lark and sparrows (Vesper?) sang from within the sage but none perched up. Golden Eagle and Sandhill Crane were found on Rt-13 as I returned to Craig.

After the lek I went west to Vernal in Utah via US-40 and on to Ouray NWR. This turned out to be quite a long way, although I had conceptually compressed the distance. On Pelican Lake there were Marsh Wren, many American Coot, Redhead, Northern Shoveler, Gadwall, Mallard, Lesser Scaup, Yellow-headed Blackbird, Northern Pintail, Ruddy Duck, Horned Grebe (no Eared). Further down the road at Ouray NWR several of the empoundments were dry but on the ones that were wet there were many waterfowl. Incredibly skittish waterfowl, making me think that some hunting goes on there - they didn't like me when I drove by, but they cleared the area if I actually stopped to look at them. In addition to the birds found at Pelican Lake there were also Green-winged Teal and Cinnamon Teal.

Further around the trail in the cottonwoods, there were several Ring-necked Pheasant and a few Wild Turkey, Northern Flicker and Black-capped Chickadee. Not a lot else was seen on the reserve, with the desert sage scrub and overlook being particularly quiet. (No Sage Sparrow here either). Ouray NWR was rather of a diversion but it was partially to scavenge for Sage Sparrow and partially to kill time while waiting for another morning lek opportunity.

The return trip to Craig was as uneventful as the outbound trip, with the exception of a single Sage Thrasher near the intersection of US-40 and Rt-88 in Utah. I went into downtown Steamboat Springs to check email and sightings, checked into the Craig Motel in downtown Craig (switching from the unimpressive Super8 the previous night) and went out to the first Sharp-tailed Grouse lek for sunset (got there 6:30pm, sunset 7:20pm or later). May have seen one Sharp-tailed Grouse on the far horizon, otherwise the same species as the previous night. No lekking activity before sundown (sun below hills at 7:22pm).

Overnight: Craig Motel in Craig. 520 miles, apparently.

April 6th - Craig to Springfield

Prairie Falcon
Prairie Falcon

A lack of sleep and 5 consecutive early mornings caught up with me and I missed getting up early for the Sharp-tailed Grouse, although I did get a few more zzzz's. Tellingly this was the last "good weather" morning in that area for a while, as per the forecast, so I'd really screwed that one up. Disgruntled, I left Craig and headed out through Steamboat Springs to the Continental Divide. Over Rabbit Ears Pass I stopped off at a parking lot and found Mountain Chickadee and Dark-eyed Junco (Gray-headed race). Didn't see much until I turned onto Rt-14 toward Walden, whence I started seeing what was to be many Golden Eagles, and a total of 3 Rough-legged Hawks. I checked out the Coalmont Lek (just to verify directions) and had a Greater Sage-Grouse fly over the road near there at 11am but I didn't check for lek activity (I didn't pull into the lek parking lot). Turning south onto CO-125 I found that the auto-loop at Arapaho NWR was closed, but further down the road I did find the third Rough-legged Hawk and a Prairie Falcon (#8) giving excellent views as it circled low over the road.

Rough-legged Hawk
Rough-legged Hawk south of Walden

Crossing the Continental Divide yet again on CO-125 I stopped at a campsite and found Steller's Jay and more Juncos. Further down the pass there was another Clark's Nutcracker. Where CO-125 met Rt-40 at a lake just above Granby there were both Common Goldeneye and Barrow's Goldeneye.

The pass on Rt-40 was beset by a blizzard that persisted all the way down to I-70, and it was still raining when I passed Georgetown, so I nixed going up Guanella Pass. Instead I went to Loveland Ski Basin, where after a little patience I found 27 Rosy Finches. The light was very high contrast and poor, so I was only sure of the male Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch (#9) although it was possible that one or two of the drabber birds were Brown-capped (however they might also have just been females). The closest report to my sighting listed 30+ Gray-crowned Rosy- Finches so that's a good confirmation. In fact I suspect that most of the Rosy-Finches around where Gray-crowned. 50+ Brown-capped were reported a day or two later (by Eastern birders) but I'm not sure what to make of that report.

I then burnt rubber out of the mountains, down I-25 to Pueblo, US-50 to La Junta and Rt-109 and Rt-106 to Springfield. Persistent heavy drizzle kept me from trying my luck at Western Screech-Owl in Cottonwood Canyon after dark. I stayed in Springfield, a town with few attractions and a lot of trucker traffic... Total 590 miles at the end of an absurd day that saw me cut the diagonal from north-west to south-east Colorado.

April 7th - Springfield to Julesburg

Cassin's Sparrow
Cassin's Sparrow

Low visibility due to fog and rain the previous day made driving to the Campo lek on Comanche National Grasslands an "interesting" experience that had me downright scared at times even with 4WD, but nevertheless the directions were good enough to get there. The pawn shop on the NE corner of the turn for Rd J in Campo no longer exists and the empty lot seems to be used by truckers at night. Got to the lek at 5:20am while it was still very dark, but apparently they start lekking even at that hour - I could hear them but not see them. It was some time later that I was actually able to see two male Lesser Prairie-Chickens, although they didn't seem all that fired up. Two people in cars came in after me and left before me. The first (birder) departure may have flushed 1 Prairie-Chicken about 6:30am (dawn was probably 6:40am), the remaining 6 birds apparently left on their own accord a little while later - that was the first indication there were 7 birds there. CDOW turned up a little later to scan the lek but left within 10 minutes (there were no birds). I never saw more than 2 birds at one time, so it's very possible some of the fly-aways were females lurking on the edge of the lek. 20 minutes after fly-out, with no birds seen during that time, I left the lek (7am).

Lewis's Woodpecker
Lewis's Woodpecker

Cassin's Sparrow were singing at several locations around the lek (as were Western Meadowlark and Horned Lark). Back-tracking to Campo in the morning light I also found: Vesper Sparrow, Killdeer, Long-billed Curlew, White-crowned Sparrow, Rough-legged Hawk. Further west at the picturesque Cottonwood Canyon I found Rufous Crowned Sparrow (singing, difficult to find him), many vocal Lewis's Woodpeckers, several Townsend's Solitaire, Turkey Vulture, Red-tailed Hawk, American Kestrel, two singing Bewick's Wren, heard yet more Canyon Wren, saw two or three flocks of Wild Turkey, Greater Roadrunner, Rock Wren, Eastern Phoebe, Great Blue Heron. A very brief peek into Corrizo Canyon yielded Chihuahuan Raven, Wood Duck, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Say's and Eastern Phoebes.

During the interminable drive along Rt-160 to I-25 I also found Swainson's Hawk and Loggerhead Shrike but little else to amuse me. I was taking the long way around to possibly visit Front Range sites on my way up to Pawnee National Grassland. This turned out to be a tactical error, since it took so long to get to I-25, and a more direct route would have been a far smarter idea, perhaps via Bonny State Park.

Two hundred miles (yup, that far) later I pulled into Pawnee National Grasslands amidst low gray clouds and drizzle and proceeded to rummage for Mountain Plover and Longspurs based on various previous directions. I found a few McCown's Longspur along Murphy's Pasture, but nothing much else as dusk approached. No Mountain Plover anywhere despite checking various favorable locations.

My original plan was to drive to Grand Island, Nebraska to a known Greater Prairie-Chicken location, however one look at the map at the Nebraska welcome station had me turn around and stay in Julesburg overnight, just over the border into Colorado and about 70 miles north of Wray, feeling rather defeated. Remarkably there was a WiFi internet connection in the inexpensive motel (via the neighboring Flying J gas station). $3 for 1 hour was a good deal. A sign on the motel wall warned me not to pluck any fowl in the room. This might be construed as a good sign for the availability of Prairie-Chickens, although I wanted to see some live ones. I didn't find any feathers under the bed.

April 8th - Julesburg to Steamboat Springs

I was at a reported site of Greater Prairie Chicken lek at first light off a local road near Wray, and sure enough I could hear many of them (at least two distinct leks) but it took me a while to find the one I could see, on a more distant sandy ridge. At least 15 and probably more like 20 Greater Prairie-Chickens took to displaying with far more enthusiasm than the Lessers of the previous day, and I watched them for an hour until a passing raptor flushed them off the lek.

Along Rt-34 west out of Wray on the road to Yuma, I saw a Blue Jay just west of town and a Great-tailed Grackle at the next town on. Returning to Pawnee National Grasslands - I saw Northern Harrier, Swainson's Hawk many McCown's Longspur (in many locations), 3 adult male Chestnut-collared Longspur, but turned up no Mountain Plover despite checking various locations. I also had a Ring-necked Pheasant on Rt-71 just south of grasslands (my only one in Colorado this trip).

Reports of "hundreds" of Rosy Finches up in Estes Park in the Front Range foothills had me heading up there to check them out, but after checking many houses for feeders I found nothing. It was rather amusing that people had herds of Elk feeding on their lawns and around town.

I drove south along the Front Range and on to Steamboat Springs in more or less continual rain. I was planning on rolling the dice at the Sharp-tailed Grouse lek again to see if the rain would abate and if the Grouse would play nice but gave up on that idea since the rain was continual. I stayed at the Rabbit Ears motel in Steamboat Springs (recommended), total 520 miles.

April 9th - Steamboat Springs to Fort Collins

I arrived at the Sharp-tailed Grouse lek before first light but it was raining (ironically switching from drizzle to rain precisely at the moment I got to the lek) but there were no grouse. And who can blame them ? Atrocious weather. I went back to the motel and slept some more, checked the internet and had brunch. Traveling up Rabbit Ears pass in snowy conditions I noticed something red at the side of the road and had a brief view of a male Pine Grosbeak. Taking Rt-14 into Walden there was one Rough-legged hawk. Walden Reservoir held a lot of waterfowl - Northern Shoveler, Gadwall, American Wigeon, Lesser Scaup, Ring-necked Duck, Redhead and California Gulls nesting on the island.

Pine Grosbeak

Based on a previous trip report, I took Rt-14 out of Walden to Cameron Pass and stopped at the Forest Service Visitor's Center on the pass's west side and checked out the feeders - more Pine Grosbeak (~8), a lone Red Crossbill, Cassin's Finch, many Dark-eyed Junco (Gray-headed race), Fox Sparrow (Slate-colored race), Red-breasted Nuthatch, but most startlingly of all two Black Rosy-Finch and a probable Brown-capped Rosy Finch (very difficult to tell, not counted) amidst several Gray-crowned Rosy Finch. The ongoing snow-storm on the pass probably helped bring them into the feeders. After finally leaving the Visitor's Center a snowy and difficult drive over Cameron Pass added nothing new except gray hairs.

Based on an online report, I checked Cattail Pond in Loveland, which held two somewhat wary Trumpeter Swans which made it worth getting wet to 'scope them, with Pied-billed Grebe, Ring-necked Duck, Redhead, Lesser Scaup, and two White Pelican.

Stayed at Motel6 (OK) near Fort Collins at intersection of CO-14/I-25. Total 270 miles. Bad weather all day (either snowing or raining) but still 3 life birds !

April 10th - Fort Collins to Steamboat Springs

It snowed ovenight and it was also snowing in the morning as I headed back out to Pawnee National Grasslands for the third time, hoping that the snow on the ground would make the Mountain Plover easier to find. As it transpired, there wasn't much ground snow at Pawnee but I finally did find 2 Mountain Plover at CR-51/CO-14 at the south-east corner. There were so unobtrusive I could only re-find one after I dug the scope out of the car and set it up. Nevertheless, this saved me a snowy ride to Laramie, WY. I went to a lake near Boulder to look for an immature Trumpeter Swan but it wasn't there, however heading south out of Boulder on Rt-93 I came across two Prairie Falcons. Dropping onto I-70 and heading west again, it was still snowing in the mountains. A small herd of Mountain Goats was foraging right next to I-70, perhaps driven down into the valley by snow. Sub-freezing temperatures and snow showers made me disinclined to brave Guanella Pass, even in a 4-WD, assuming it was even open (doubtful). Even Loveland Pass on Rt-6 was closed.

I drove up CO-9 through Middle Park, and on Rt-9 south of Kremmeling came across a Ferruginous Hawk flushed from the middle of the road, looking for an instant like a Caracara but giving excellent views as it worked it's way over a neighboring hillside. There was a neighboring Red-tailed Hawk for direct comparison.

I dropped down into North Park via Rt-14 at Muddy Pass on US-40 and again saw Rough-legged Hawk. At the Forest Service Visitor Center on the west side of Cameron Pass there were Gray-crowned Rosy Finch (3), Pine Grosbeak (5+), many "Gray-headed" Dark-eyed Junco, a single "Oregon" Dark-eyed Junco, Black-capped and Mountain Chickadees, Song Sparrow and Red-breasted Nuthatch. I wasn't able to re-find candidate Brown-capped or the two Black Rosy-Finches of the previous afternoon.

Back down the hill near Walden, the Greater Sage Grouse lek at Coalmont was quite snowy but nevertheless I gave it a try at dusk. No grouse but one Prairie Falcon hunting low over the sage.

Overnight: Rabbit Ears Motel (recommended) in Steamboat Springs.

April 11th - Steamboat Springs to Denver

The last birding day - I got up extra early to be at the Sharp-tailed Lek site at 5am. It wasn't raining or snowing but it was all of 22 deg F. Nevertheless in the pre-dawn in saw two male Sharp-tailed Grouse chasing each other on the hillside next to my car, not more than 25 yards away. As it got light enough to see more, I could see the major lek was the next hill down with more than 15 birds, although sometimes they popped up in the grasses closer to me (those two over-exuberant males?). Display persisted after sunrise and was every bit as frenetic as the Greater Prairie-Chicken lek. (Lek at next "depression" downhill from gate, not level with gate - secondary lek one hill south from that by 100 yds). I left after the lek dispresed, and headed out to check 80 Route on the north side of Hayden.

I didn't find any Blue Grouse or Sharp-tailed Grouse leks but there was still some activity at the somewhat distant Greater Sage-Grouse lek with 5 males fitfully displaying. Four of them left the lek after 20 minutes, leaving one male pointlessly displaying into the mid-morning. I edged away from that site with the bird still there.

I backtracked to Steamboat Springs, had breakfast, then left the mountains for the last time. The Loveland Basin ski site was swarming with people (the last skiing day of the season?) but didn't have any feeder birds during my brief visit. I proceeded down I-70 and I-470 and went to Pine Valley Ranch to look for Three-toed Woodpecker. Based on recent sightings of 2 or 3 birds I devised a circular route down three trails (Park View Trail up the hillside, Strawberry Jack and Buck Gulch trail back down it). Despite feeling like I was about to fall over while climbing the Park View trail (still sick, still unfit), I was rewarded by good views at a female American Three-toed Woodpecker chipping bark off a burnt tree about 20 yards west of the trail approximately 20 yards north of the park boundary. 100 yards further on I found Hairy Woodpecker, White-breasted and Red-breasted Nuthatch and Mountain Chickadee. The remainder of the trail did not yield any more Three-toed but was gratifyingly downhill. There were two noisy Northern Flickers and a Belted Kingfisher at the lake. The last "good" bird of the trip was an American Dipper feeding and singing on the fast flowing stream near the parking lot. Since it was getting late and some menacing clouds were on the horizon I simply packed up and headed for Denver rather than pushing my luck looking for Owls after dark.

American Dipper
American Dipper at Pine Valley Ranch Park

Overnight: Motel6 east side of Denver (Peroria Dr), OK. Had to chip snow and ice off the car the following morning. 400 miles.

Do As I Say, Not As I Do

If you were fool enough to follow that itinerary given above with a map, you'll notice that I did a mammoth amount of backtracking (especially to the Craig/Hayden/Steamboat Springs area) and excessive driving on this trip. Much of it could have been reduced if the weather had played ball or if I had not gone out of my way to avoid going to leks on weekends. A more sensible itinerary of Pawnee-Wray-Campo-Gunnison-Grand Junction- Craig/Hayden-Walden could be executed with far less driving and still hit all the leks. However in each case you need to be at a lek site one hour before dawn, and this tends to put quite a lot of strain on one's plans.

Part of the logistical mess on this trip was a mixture of inexperience with the sheer size of Colorado, slowness of the mountain roads, and my traditional screw-up of assuming I can bird five+ sites in one day. I would recommend coming in the second or third week in April rather than the first (I had other constraints) which would give you far better shots at migrant sparrows and warblers while still giving you access to active leks. Stress on the leks is becoming an important issue and all species of Grouse/Prairie-Chickens are on the decline, partially as a result of that. Prospects for both Prairie-Chickens and in particular the Gunnison's Sage Grouse are not good. Currently (2004) there is only one advertized Gunnison lek, the Campo lek for Lesser Prairie-Chicken (now closed?) and the leks around Wray for Greater Prairie-Chicken. There is increased eco-tourism commercialization around Walden (for Greater Sage-Grouse) and Wray (for Gtr Prairie-Chicken) which tend to be a little expensive but at least establish good reasons for preserving at least part of the population. The formerly regular Coalmont Lek near Walden is now no longer publically accessible - as clear an indication as you can imagine as to the population stresses on that environment.

Online Resources

These have not been updated since 2004. Links will be broken, more recent trip reports will be available.

Adjacent States - Online Resources

A lot of states border CO, but in most cases the distances are huge so only complete desperation will lead you to bird Kansas on a Colorado birding trip.