Colorado Grouse Grand Slam with Bill Drummond, April 12-22, 2007
Thursday, April 12th
Today was pretty much a travel day to get to Colorado Springs. We flew into a snowstorm that would grow to a full-fledged blizzard before coming to an end.
Friday, April 13th
The group met dark and early in the lobby of the hotel for some breakfast, introductions and to decide whether we could travel in the current weather conditions. The snow had continued through the night, and it seemed as if some highways were closed. The decision was made to make the drive to Elkhart slowly in order to get there and scout the Lesser Prairie Chicken lek for the next morning. It was slow going in the snow. But we did manage to pick up some birds along the way. An Osprey was the first cool bird that was seen, and WESTERN MEADOWLARKS, Horned Larks, Kestrel & Killdeer seemed to be constantly with us. Stops were made along the highway for a group of blackbirds in a tree that contained YELLOW-HEADED, BREWER’S and Red-winged Blackbirds. Looking back over my shoulder at this stop I noticed a group of gulls in a field that turned out to be FRANKLIN’S GULLS.
At Cheraw Lake, north of La Junta, we found SNOWY PLOVER and some distant avocets. Also along the way, we saw several Ring-necked Pheasants. We checked into our rooms at the El Rancho Motel in Elkhart, KS then headed out to the lek to formulate the ‘military operation’ of arriving in the morning in the dark, parking our cars just so, and for those going to the blind, exiting the vehicles in unison and quietly. Some of the group saw a few of the target bird that evening. On the way back out from the lek I noticed two BURROWING OWLS in the Prairie Dog town that was beside the road.
Saturday, April 14th
Out again dark and early to head to the lek. Paul and I were fortunate enough to be able to go in. (It was quite cold, and I don’t think many wanted to brave sitting in a metal shed for a few hours) The moment we closed the door on the blind, I realized that I left the camera in the car – oh well, no pictures of these birds. Paul was the first to spot the LESSER PRAIRIE CHICKENS flying to the lek in just barely any light. Luckily, they stuck around for plenty of time to watch them in good morning light. We left the blind before they left the lek, and were even able to get some of the folks from the cars good scope views. We then returned to the motel to have breakfast at the adjoining restaurant. Next we checked out another lek for the next morning and Bill let us know that he felt it was not worth driving to the Comanche National Grasslands that day. It was likely that the roads to get there would be closed and if so we would have wasted a day just driving back and forth. I was pretty disappointed as several of my personal target birds for the trip would be missed. (He did offer us the ABA Colorado guide if we wanted to go on our own, but I didn’t want to leave the group and didn’t think it was best in our sedan) Oh well, instead we would do general birding around Elkhart. We heard Cassin’s Sparrows skylarking, saw Clay-colored, Vesper, White-crowned, and Lincoln’s Sparrows. We had the first of many Red-shafted Flickers and one possible Intergrade flicker. I couldn’t relocate the bird to get a better look at the spread wing. We also had a perched Swainsons Hawk. The area was pretty muddy and locations to explore were limited. We had dinner at the same restaurant and went to bed early. Many in the group would go again in the morning for the LPCh, especially after hearing about the great looks we had from the blind, but Pam and I would sleep in.
Sunday, April 15th
Pamela and I caught up with the group for breakfast, then the group explored some of the side roads in/near Elkhart, getting nice looks at LONG-BILLED CURLEW, before heading out of town towards Wray, CO. Harris’ Sparrow was a target for today, but would not be found – today or anyplace else on the trip. Along the highway, we did spot more Ring-necked Pheasants, BOBWHITE and CHUKAR. Unfortunately, the chukars are not ABA countable in Colorado as they are all raised and released for hunting. We had a brief look at a flying Ferruginous Hawk. We arrived in Wray and checked into the Sandhiller Motel where we saw a Great Blue Heron fly over, and Paul spotted the only Blue Jay and Cedar Waxwings of the trip (which Pamela saw but I did not). We then went to visit with Bob Bledsoe, the owner of a cattle ranch that Bill has known for two decades and who has several Greater Prairie Chicken leks on his property. He was a very pleasant man who loved sharing the birds with us. Bob drove us out to an alfalfa field and showed us to where the lek was so that we could find our way in the dark the next morning. We they went into town, where Bob and his wife joined us for dinner.
Monday, April 16th
Out again before dawn (pattern developing here) to head to the lek. Our sedan struggled a bit but we made it, hopefully without doing any permanent damage to the car. The cars served as the blinds this time, which were more than sufficient as we were along the edge of the lek and had fantastic, close-up looks at the GREATER PRAIRIE CHICKENS, as they boomed and blustered. On the way back we noticed a Great Horned Owl that we had seen the evening before, (which Diana got an amazing photo of in flight!) sitting out in the open so we decided to see how close we could get for some more pictures. Paul and I both got great pictures, and we were informed by the guy who owned the property that she had raised several broods there and they had put up an owl box for here to keep her from nesting in the grain silo. He even drove Paul around to where it was to show him and welcomed us to bring the group back. After breakfast in town, we packed up and headed towards the Pawnee National Grasslands. After some initial bad luck with a lot of wind which kept many birds down, in the late afternoon/early evening we managed to pick up several target birds. I spotted a pair of distant MOUNTAIN PLOVER which everybody got to see in the scope. We also had very nice looks at McCOWN’S LONGSPUR, and crippling looks at CHESTNUT-COLLARED LONGSPUR in breeding plumage. Unfortunately, I again left my camera in the car and didn’t get any pictures. (I was suffering from severe stomach cramps & pain – which didn’t stop me from looking at the birds, just from thinking straight!) Also seen this evening was GOLDEN EAGLE (both an adult and a molting juv), Bald Eagle, Loggerhead Shrike, Ferruginous Hawk, and BLACK-BILLED MAGPIES. Spent the night at the Motel 6 in Evans. Did not join the group for dinner but Pamela brought me back some soup and mashed potatoes that did sit well in my stomach.
Tuesday, April 17th
We had a bit more time this morning as we did not have a lek to visit at dawn. We ate breakfast at a local pancake house, then headed into the Rockies. Overcast and damp, it was still beautiful. We made several stops looking for dippers. At the first stop we saw our first STELLAR’S JAY. At one curve I heard something sing and Paul pulled over immediately, we backed up and Paul spotted the AMERICAN DIPPER on a rock right in front of us. (I was looking on the other side of the stream!) Unfortunately the other cars were out of range, so Paul went on to look for them, while Diana, Pamela, and I had great looks as it moved along and plunged into the water. As the other cars came back, it flew upriver and was not relocated. Other stops added TUNDRA SWANS (flying over), RED-NAPED SAPSUCKER, MOUNTAIN CHICKADEE, MOUNTAIN BLUEBIRD, Red-breasted Nuthatch, and a BEWICK’S WREN that Paul spotted on a rock in a stream on the side of the road. A few members chatted with a woman who told us she had finches and hummingbirds at her feeders and it was just up the road from where we were. We followed her directions and saw CASSIN’S FINCH and BROAD-TAILED HUMMINGBIRD there as well as Goldfinches and Pine Siskin. We then continued on to Walden and checked into the Chedsey hotel. From the parking lot, we could look down the street to a farm field and a small lake that had an American Bald Eagle on nest, WHITE PELICANS on the lake, and CALIFORNIA GULLS flying overhead. More birds were obviously there. Before dinner we walked down the street a bit, and saw a Wilson’s Snipe and more Yellow-headed blackbirds, as well as a Mountain Bluebird, which posed on a wire for us. Before dinner, Paul, Diana, Pamela and I drove down to the lakes and spotted a ROSS’GOOSE along with many of the Canada’s, CINNAMON TEAL, CANVASBACKS, NOTHERN SHOVELERS, Lesser Scaup, Wigeon, Gadwall and Coot. After dinner we tried in vain to find the Ross’s Goose for the rest of the group. Then we headed to another lek, where in the evening we had several GREATER SAGE GROUSE displaying within 20 feet of the car. Truly an amazing sight, and one that I looked forward to repeat in the morning.
Wednesday, April 18th
Back to being up before dawn to be at the lek. Again, we had superb looks that the Greater Sage Grouse displaying, booming, and generally strutting their stuff. Before leaving Walden and after breakfast, we checked the lakes again and added WESTERN GREBE and EARED GREBE to the trip list, then heard over the radio that Bill had a SAGE THRASHER, which was out of site when we arrive but that Paul re-found. We then headed toward Steamboat Springs, and had stunning looks at a Prairie Falcon in flight along the way. We stopped in Steamboat Springs and the group broke up for shopping and lunch. We then continued on to Hayden, where part of the group would be spending the evening, and saw a single SANDHILL CRANE along the way. We birded around Hayden looking for Sooty Grouse but were unsuccessful. We did see many Mountain Bluebirds, Kestrel, W Meadowlarks, Magpies, and a SPOTTED TOWHEE. We then headed off to Craig where we would be spending the night and had dinner at a local Pizza Hut.
Thursday, April 19th
Another morning when we are out before dawn in our warmest clothes. We met a local guide who is the Colorado Division of Wildlife’s District Wildlife Manager, and he brought us to a DUSKY GROUSE at its favorite spot to get very good looks in the pre-dawn light. Then we follow him to a SHARP-TAILED GROUSE lek, where activity is low due to the cold, wind, and our presence. A few of us got brief looks of the birds displaying when we first showed up, but they quickly hunkered down. Our next destination was Loveland Pass for ptarmigan, but we didn’t locate the bird. Pine Grosbeak was there though and provided brief looks to whoever happened to be in the vicinity when I called it out. We then went to Georgetown, checked into the hotel, and headed up to Guanella Pass where a British group had seen the ptarmigan the day before. Unfortunately, overnight snow closed the road a few miles before the summit. Some in the group saw and heard crossbills and another dipper. We headed into town to do a little souvenir shopping. Dinner was at a Chinese food restaurant across the street from the hotel.
Friday, April 20th
This morning we headed back to Loveland pass for another try at the ptarmigan. After two hours, Paul and Doug radioed in that they had the WHITE-TAILED PTARMIGAN several hundred feet up the mountain. This may not sound like much, but starting at 12000’ elevation, that extra elevation in heavy clothes, cold and wind was exhausting. Luckily, several of us made it up to get excellent looks in the scope as well as a few pictures. We then headed toward Buena Vista, and along the way stopped and had a White-winged Crossbill, which seems pretty rare in CO. Stops in the afternoon added PINYON JAYS and WESTERN SCRUB JAYS. Then we headed to Gunnison to check out the lek that we would be visiting the next morning, and had dinner at the Mexican restaurant across the street.
Saturday, April 21st
Out at 5:25 sharp to go to the only GUNNISON SAGE GROUSE lek that is not on private property, and is publicly accessible. Bill still had to make reservations to go there well in advance so that the group could be in the blind. We had distant but satisfying looks at this skittish, smaller & darker cousin of the Greater Sage Grouse that it was split from some years back. According to a few docents from the local college who accompanied us to the blind and helped us set up, we had the warmest morning this season (which was still very cold) and the birds stayed for a while. After breakfast we headed up to Crested Butte to look for the three species of rosy finches, but unfortunately they seemed to have left town a few days earlier. We went back to the hotel in Gunnison, packed up and headed back in the direction of Colorado Springs. Paul and Diana spotted a Clark’s Nutcracker in Monarch Pass, but there was no place to pull off for anybody else to get a look. A productive spot in Wilkerson Pass added PYGMY NUTHATCH, and RED CROSSBILLS to the trip list but no Williamson’s Sapsuckers that we were hoping for, although there was evidence that they had been there. Also seen at this stop were Mountain Chickadees, many Red-shafted Flickers, Pine Siskin, and Pinyon Jay. Our last official stop on the trip was a side road where Bill had previously seen Townsend’s Solitaire, where we did get excellent looks at a pair of WESTERN BLUEBIRDS but no solitaire. The group split here as some had to get to the airport and return cars, etc. We rolled in to the hotel a little later and had a species wrap-up and vote for the best 5 birds of the trip, as well as some final comments before going to dinner.
Sunday, April 22nd
A small number of the remaining group headed to Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs, to see the nesting Prairie Falcon and to see what other birds could be found. In addition to the falcon, there were WHITE-THROATED SWIFTS flying around the rock face, Magpies, a pair of Cassin’s Finch, and a very cooperative Western Scrub Jay, all right from the parking lot. Some additional walking added Spotted Towhee, Bushtit, and a Blue-grey Gnatcatcher (which I didn’t see) to the trip list. Pamela slept in, but before we left I wanted to take her back to this beautiful place. We packed the car, then headed out, and stopped at a small local park & lake near to where we stayed that had Western Grebes, Eared Grebes (which popped up about 30ft from us!) Franklin’s & California Gulls, Coot, Wigeon, Gadwall, and a number of domestic geese. We then drove around the Garden of the Gods, taking in the beautiful scenery of this place before heading to the airport for the long trip home after an exhausting, but productive 10 days.