Colorado Target Birding; April 6-14, 2017

Oddly, my most memorable bird in nine days was not one I had set out to find. The Gunnison and Greater Sage Grouse and the Greater and Lesser Prairie Chickens were birds I had seen on nature television shows doing their mating rituals and I really wanted to observe those male birds performing for a mate. So, I had saved up my dollars to eventually go to see these four birds on their leks.

The time had come!  Not only did I witness the rituals of these four species, but got superb views of the Dusky and Sharp-tailed Grouse, too. The “most memorable” bird was not at the forefront of my mind.

Guides for this High Lonesome BirdTour were Stephan Lorenz and Orion Weldon, two young and enthusiastic birders. Eleven participants from around the country were, like me, wanting to observe these birds before they are crowded off the plains.

Lead Guide, STEPHAN LORENZ (on right); Bird Guide, ORION WELDON (on left)

After meeting our birding group (11 birders) and two guides at Denver Airport at 4:00 p.m., we got into our birding groove with a 25-minute stop at Boyd Lake in Larimer (24 species) on the way to our hotel and dinner. After dinner, one in our group spotted three (3) HORNED OWLs in a tree outside the restaurant in Ft. Collins. Felt like a good start to me!



On our way to a ranch in the northeast corner of Colorado, our guides had stopped at Pawnee National Grassland where we saw the first of several GOLDEN EAGLEs. 
Special to me at that location were two longspurs: CHESTNUT-COLLARED LONGSPUR (3 in breeding plumage) and McKOWN’S LONGSPUR (1) also in full color, unlike the basic winter plumage in which I usually need to identify them.

At 6:00 p.m., we met with the ranch owner in his office, at his invitation. He was very congenial and wanted us to know that he managed a generational ranch with his son beginning to take over more and more of the duties. They and other ranchers respect the leks and keep those areas out of production during the birds’ breeding season. 

In his truck, he led our two vans to the lek site so Stephan and Orion would be familiar with the various turns and gates to open and close in the morning darkness so the cattle wouldn’t escape.

A word about the “lek” — the patch of ground used by these breeding birds as the setting for the males’ display and meeting with the females. Rules or birding protocol must be observed for our privilege to visit a lek whether it's located on private or public land. 

General rules are: 
1. Arrive at the lek in the dark (pre-dawn) so that arrival does not interrupt the performance. Think in terms of going to a theater performance and arriving late: it’s very disturbing to the audience but the actors continue performing. At a lek, if there is a disturbance, the “actors” leave the scene and don’t return.

2. Do not exit your vehicle (car, van, bus or truck). By arriving in the dark, we were able to open the side door of the van prior to any birds reaching the lek and were able to pick them out in the darkness as dawn approached. We were already in place.

3. Even though we arrive in darkness, vehicle lights are dimmed as low as possible as we approach to avoid disturbing birds on the move toward the lek.

4. STAY QUIET during the performance; and stay put until the show is over.

We departed our motel at 4:45 a.m. and arrived at the lek in dark coldness to await the arrival of the GREATER PRAIRIE CHICKENs. I happened to be sitting in the front passenger seat and was able to lower the window to take photos when the time arrived. The open door of the van and rear windows provided the others with space to use their cameras. (all opened prior to the Prairie Chickens arrival)

My sight-line was limited so I ended up photographing one male repeatedly, but he went through all the moves of a good male on the dance floor: getting down horizontally to inflate his yellow/orange air sacs; raising his white tail and black pinnae (feathers behind his head); stomping in place on the dusty ground; fighting with other males and jumping into the air from time to time.

Two males performing (inflated orange air sacs with pinnae and tails raised); one female showing little interest

These two GREATER PRAIRIE CHICKENS are in full performance mating ritual. The air sacs visibly filled in the photos (above & below) make a booming sound when the air is exhaled/expunged...filling the entire field with a constant cooing or light booming sound as the birds dance.

Pinnae (upright feathers at shoulders)  looking like rabbit ears

Jump in the dance performed by the male (air sacs hidden by the pinnae feathers at this point)
The “cooing” sounds on the lek come from the release of air through the puffed up colorful air sacs. The birds jump; the males attack one another; and they drum their feet in place. Of interest, this action reminded me of Indian PowWow dancing - when, in fact, the Native Americans are imitating the prairie chickens!  

Here, above photo, two males vie for the attention of a single female.
She makes her choice
They move "off stage" to the edges of the field to mate
We stayed until 8:00 a.m. while the birds were active. When they left, so did we. Was I happy?  You betcha!  Approximately 25 GREATER PRAIRIE CHICKENS performing for the females was exactly what I had hoped to see!

Due to loss of habitat, grouse and prairie chickens are not now as abundant as in past years. Their coming to their lek seems pre-ordained in some unknown way, similar to their knowing their migration routes. When not on the lek, these birds are distributed throughout the prairie making them harder and harder to find. 

Leaving the lek, we spotted some other very good birds just outside of Wray including two NORTHERN BOBWHITE. One ran across the road in front of us while we were out of the van looking into the grasslands; the other was on a rooftop.

NORTHERN BOBWHITE (two above photos)
Did I mention there was a lot of driving on this trip?!  From Wray in the NE corner of Colorado, we headed directly south on SR 385 toward the lek for the Lesser Prairie Chicken. Stephan had discovered that the Colorado lek was no longer available to the public so our drive would take us well into Kansas on SR 400 to Garden City for that bird.

Being avid birders, we stopped along the way several times for sightings in the air as well as planned trips along the way.  Bonny Reservoir State Park & State Wildlife Area was a major stop around 10:30 a.m. in Yuma, CO.


Distant RING-NECKED PHEASANT standing at lake's edge

AMERICAN GOLDFINCH (not often seen by me in Arizona)

Continuing south on SR 385, the long drive became HAWK HIGHWAY with several stops for special raptors spotted in the air or on utility crossbars. Photos were taken from within the van so I didn’t snag too many.  But one stood out for me: I’ve always liked the ROUGH-LEGGED HAWK. Managed a brief photo of it, too.


Hawks along SR 385:  SWAINSON’S (24), RED-TAILED (5), FERRUGINOUS (1) plus the ROUGH-LEGGED. Simon, in our group, had wanted to see a Swainson’s Hawk from the get-go, so he was delighted to see his second (and more) of the trip. He decided that he needed to see one-a-day, so we were always on the lookout to help him get his fix of seeing them in various plumages and behaviors.
Later that afternoon, we stopped at Verhoeff Reservoir area, still in Colorado.



Having already observed over two dozen GREATER PRAIRIE CHICKENS performing on their lek, I wondered if the LESSER would behave the same way.

It was a totally different experience. This is an endemic bird, found only in the USA. As usual we had arrived at the lek pre-dawn with a word to the wise from Stephan that we should not expect great numbers of the LPCH; I think one group had seen only one bird there.

As the sun brought light onto the grasses at this Prairie Dog Town, I found the BURROWING OWLS (8) behavior fascinating. They would fly around, find food and one, hovered or kited in the air looking for something good to pounce on. 

Then, a LESSER PRAIRIE CHICKEN arrived…and another. We ended up with four (4) of them, but at 250 yards out from us in the van, my photos through the van window were lousy. I share them only so you can see their habitat and its smaller size than the Greater Prairie Chicken.

A similarity in the habitat of both the Greater & Lesser Prairie Chickens was the background song from HORNED LARKS and WESTERN MEADOWLARKS.

Lesser Prairie Chicken in its mid-grass prairie habitat

LESSER PRAIRIE CHICKEN had bright orange eyebrows and reddish (raspberry) air sacs. 

After the birds left the lek, we drove farm roads before returning to our motel in Garden City to get breakfast and load our suitcases in the van again.

By 11:00 a.m., we stopped at a Rest Area in Colorado, stretched our legs and collectively spotted 20 species including another SWAINSON'S HAWK (plus SHARP-SHINNED, COOPER'S and RED-TAILED). We also got on a DOWNY WOODPECKER, a nice find!

An hour later, we stopped at Cheraw Lake in Otero, CO, for 30 minutes during which time I saw many familiar waterfowl including EARED GREBE (10) most of which were in breeding plumage, and WESTERN AND CLARK'S GREBES (20 total). Best sighting at that location were PEREGRINE FALCON and CHIHUAHUAN RAVEN. 

A quick stop at Holbrook Reservoir provided good sightings of WOOD DUCK (3), LESSER SCAUP (10), COMMON MERGANSER (4), CLARK'S GREBE (4) and AMERICAN WHITE PELICAN (6).

After more driving and yet another stop at Subway for a grab and go lunch, we arrived in mid-afternoon at Swallows Road in Pueblo, where we spotted 12 SCALED QUAIL!  Not an easy bird to find in Arizona unless you live in their habitat. A MOUNTAIN BLUEBIRD was another nifty bird spotted at that location.

A stop in Idaho Springs for Colorado-style pizza was a winner for dinner. Driving farther north, then, toward Silverthorne, we ran into the tail end of a big blizzard that had hit other birding groups fairly hard. Orion drove well looking through what appeared to me to be a fully-iced windshield, but light snowfall. I was in the second row back so I relaxed and hoped we’d make it to our next stop through the mountains.

Monday, April 10th
Departing the Quality Inn in Silverthorne at 5:30 a.m., we headed up into the Rocky Mountains to Loveland Pass (11,900’) still snow-covered except for the roads.

Even though I had seen White-tailed Ptarmigan listed as a potential bird for our trip, I had not given it much thought, remembering that I had seen a Willow Ptarmigan in Alaska in its summer plumage. 

With snow still thick, we trudged up to the look-out in search of what would be a white-feathered bird this time of year (non-breeding). White bird against white mountains. The bird does have a marble-like black eye and tiny black bill on its very white face but who will see that across the canyons?  Yet, I was quite excited about seeing this bird in its winter camouflage of white feathers!

We stood; we scanned, we stomped our feet and hugged onto our hand warmers. My take-away was: “Dang! It’s cold!”  Temperature may have been just slightly below freezing but at that elevation, the wind made it feel a lot colder - even though I was dressed quite warmly. We took turns getting into and out of the van to restore feeling to numbing fingers or toes. 

We were a bit shocked - as he was - when Orion got back in the van due to altitude adjustment. He was shaking and sweating and his fingers were feeling frostbit.  He made a relatively quick recovery and got back out there after suggesting that all the rest of us stay in the van until he and Stephan found the bird. We had a walkie-talkie in the van.

Some fifteen minutes later, the call came: come on up! I wasn’t sure where UP was, but followed the birders ahead of me. Stephan had spotted the bird flying so he waited for us to reach him. Then using playback, the WHITE-TAILED PTARMIGAN came into our area, perched on a rock about 15’ in front of me and posed.


This plump small grouse (larger than California Quail; smaller than Chukar) is the smallest of the ptarmigans in North America. Black bill and eye are the only non-white parts of this bird in full winter plumage. Note that its summer plumage is beginning to come through the white on its face and neck.

Needless to say, this was my fondest and most unexpected sighting of the trip.

Note the summer feathers poking through its winter plumage
From a distance, the WHITE-TAILED PTARMIGAN could look like a rock

Eventually, the WHITE-TAILED PTARMIGAN lifted off and flew over our heads, across the road and landed on the other side where some of the birders pursued up another snowy trail where they had some close views of it again. My roomie was overjoyed at her experience of having the bird land directly in front of her! (below

White-tailed Ptarmigan in winter plumage  [close up by roommate, Jean Siesener]

Departing Loveland Pass around 9:00 a.m., I have no idea where or how we ended up in a residential community called Wildernest. The stop was specifically to find Rosy Finches. A few years ago, I missed seeing the Gray-crowned at Sandia Crest in New Mexico, so I had studied all three of the Rosy Finches to help me find it on this trip.

Feeders were full of BROWN-CAPPED ROSY FINCHES, but only two GRAY-CROWNED ROSY FINCHES were among them. Thanks to other birders’ good spotting skills and acquaintance with this species, I got some good looks of the one that had been a no-show at Sandia Crest. 


This was my fourth LIFE BIRD so far on this trip, with the Greater & Lesser Prairie Chickens plus the White-tailed Ptarmigan as the other three. Very exciting.

Lots of other birds were available in the neighborhoods at feeders and trees, including another DOWNY and, this time, a HAIRY WOODPECKER.

In a place called Chaffee, we enjoyed five species including LEWIS’S WOODPECKER, CLARK’S NUTCRACKER and another SWAINSON’S HAWK.

All the birders had joined this trip with a WISH LIST.  Thanks to the knowledge and expertise of our guides, we were able to find an AMERICAN THREE-TOED WOODPECKER (male) in the vicinity of Monarch Pass.  Details of the bird could be seen with the spotting scope.

TUESDAY, April 11th
A special day! We departed from the Comfort Inn at 4:30 a.m. with a young intern from Western State Colorado University guiding us from there to the Gunnison Sage Grouse lek where he is conducting a study of those localized endemic birds.

A trailer with wooden benches awaited us at the Waunita Hot Springs Lek. As usual, we arrived in the cold darkness. Soon after we all got seated, C.J., the intern showed our guides how to open out the wooden windows to provide a view for all of us. I was dressed warmly and sufficiently but it reminded me of my 6-week intensive Yoga Advanced Teacher Training Course in Val Morin, Canada, northwest of Montreal (1976). For an hour at the cold lek, I was able to sit erectly on the bench where I silently chanted away the minutes.

Before I knew it, birds were barely visible on a ridge in front of the horizon about a kilometer away. Among us (the only group in the trailer besides a few other college students), we had four spotting scopes. The distance of our sightings made it totally wrong for my camera, so I satisfied myself with scope views of the bird. The spread tail and the “fur piece” around its neck were the most distinctive markings (for me) on the GUNNISON SAGE GROUSE.  As the sun rose and shined through the spread tail, it lit up the darker bands in the white feathers. My roommate, Jean Siesener, likened its neck piece to an ermine fur worn by women.

From within our viewing trailer looking out to the Lek and the ridge where many of them were most visible

Photos below are from the internet so that you can view the GUNNISON SAGE GROUSE breeding bird in its dazzling dance beauty.

Essentially, this is what I saw at a great distance from the trailer viewing spot (internet photo)
Close-up of male ritual dancer (internet photo)

Olive-colored air sacs (internet photo)

As we entered the Crested Butte area to look for Rosy Finches and other birds, our van (2nd) stopped for a good view of a Red Fox sunning on the bank of a ravine.

Red Fox
Some photos of the Rosy Finches:

These appear to be all BROWN-CAPPED ROSY-FINCHES

Another photo of the GRAY-CROWNED ROSY-FINCH (On right) 

After a few more stops at residential feeders for a few more good sightings, we moved on to Blue Mesa Reservoir where we found both BARROW'S and COMMON GOLDENEYE, among other waterfowl.

By 3:00 p.m., we had reached Black Canyon on the South Rim of the Gunnison National Park where we hoped to find a breeding Dusky Grouse.  Considering it too early to see any mating rituals, we exited the vans to look for Fox Sparrows and immediately came upon a DUSKY GROUSE at a concrete picnic table.

My other sighting there occurred when a WINGS group of birders arrived with Duane Morse in the passenger seat of one of the vans. We're both members of Desert Rivers Audubon
 in the East Valley of Phoenix. They, too, joined us in viewing the DUSKY GROUSE (above). But did they wait around to see the birds display?

What a difference between the DUSKY GROUSE on the picnic table and the one above displaying!! 

Later, at the Visitor's Center in the Park, we spotted a GOLDEN EAGLE flying circles above us.

Wednesday, April 12th
By the time we reached Colorado National Monument, we were extremely happy with the grouse and chickens we had been able to observe - thanks to our two hustling guides who do not like to leave any bird unseen!

Jackie Paul, @ 93, the oldest member of our group

For me, the best sighting at this location was a CANYON WREN that came close enough to us on the rocks (up from below in the canyon) that we could take pictures.

Angela, Jackie and Simon at Cold Shivers Point
Our birding group trying to get photos of various birds, esp. the Canyon Wren
Sounded strange to hear Annie (left) call Jackie, "Mom" 
Our next stop at Cameo and Coal Canyon delivered yet another valued bird in the chicken/grouse family: CHUKAR.  Very distant and hard for me to photograph, I got identifiable shots posted below.  But also, enjoyed very good looks through spotting scopes.

Found from below sea level to 10,000 feet, the CHUKAR loves rocky overgrazed land. Note the head pattern with a black border around its cream-colored throat and its bright red bill. Also located here in mostly desert habitat, I saw one of my favorite desert birds, BLACK-THROATED SPARROW.

Carol & Andy 

Also here in Coal Canyon, we spotted a Badger digging into a Prairie Dog burrow.

Badger at Prairie Dog burrow

A stop at Good Spring Creek Lake in Moffat, surprised me with SANDHILL CRANEs (2), GOLDEN EAGLEs (2), WOODHOUSE SCRUB-JAY, and BLACK-BILLED MAGPIE among others.  I had been seeing many Black-billed Magpies as we drove the highways, but had yet to be close enough for a photo.

Sandhill Crane

Thursday, April 13th

Another pre-dawn day at the Sharp-tailed Grouse lek had us up early and on the road. The original lek was no longer viable but Stephan had located another that we had scouted the previous evening. While doing so, I called, “Stop!” for a creature on the hill. Its face was all I saw; the animal itself seemed to be hidden in a bush. As Stephan backed up, the “bush” started lumbering up the hill, roly-poly, side to side. Porcupine! 

Back now, awaiting the Grouse, we eventually had six (6) SHARP-TAILED GROUSE show up. These birds like the transitional zone with not only the low sagebrush but bigger bushes, too. They popped up intermittently in the bigger bushes revealing their mating season bright orange comb.  Other than that, they were a brown and white very chicken-like bird. Not a Life Bird (saw in Duluth in January), but more colorful here on the lek. Too distant and compromised for photos in the bushes, I post below one from the internet.

When the birds flew off, we discovered a porcupine walking up the road toward us. I followed it with my camera as it walked over into the grassy field beside us.

Porcupine: two above photos (Had never seen one out in the wild, walking; usually curled up in a tree.)

Next stop: Yampa River Preserve. For my Phoenix birder friends, you know I had to tell the story of our river preserve, Hassayampa!

Enroute, we stopped for a BALD EAGLE on its nest.

BALD EAGLE on nest

At Rabbit Ears Pass the RED-BREASTED NUTHATCH was my favorite sighting, while CASSIN’S FINCH (2) and RED CROSSBILL (15) were also good birds to see.

Although our group had mounted a mini-protest against stopping at Subway every day for lunch, Stephan supported his decision for its varied menu, familiarity, and efficiency. Many times we needed to eat in the van to arrive at our appointed places. On this day, he was celebrating the fact that we had only one of our target birds, Greater Sage Grouse, left to see. It’s “easy”.

Our birding group getting yet another lunch at Subway, while Stephan celebrates
An afternoon visit to Walden Reservoir in Jackson provided another big score of waterfowl. Of most interest to me were the CALIFORNIA GULL (250) and AMERICAN WHITE PELICAN (150).

California Gull, Walden Reservoir, CO

AMERICAN WHITE PELICAN (above and below) 

We tucked into bed that night knowing that our final "target" bird, Greater Sage Grouse, would be on its lek in the morning.

Friday, April 14th
I was excited to see this final and exciting bird - one from a Nature show on TV that had enticed me to go on this trip.  We would experience two separate dramas at today's Lek: one human; one natural.

As usual to see the speciality grouse, we arrived at the lek before dawn. A car was already there with its high beams lighting up the place. Orion stopped his van and told the one man to douse his lights, then pulled in and parked in front of him. The man in the car got out and walked up to Orion.  Two violations of Lek Protocol already--lights on and getting out of the car. He returned to his vehicle and stayed there. (Photographer)

GREATER SAGE GROUSE--I was checking to see if it was light enough to start taking photos. No.
I post this poor photo because seconds after I snapped it and before anyone else in the van started taking photos, all 52 of the GREATER SAGE GROUSE lifted into the air followed by a JUVENILE GOLDEN EAGLE flying low like a harrier over the lek. The Eagle did not seem intent on catching anything; it seemed to be checking out the area (or scaring up birds for fun?). 

Then, the sun rose.

We had already observed our critical "target" bird (52 of them) for over half an hour so we had the joy and memory of their sounds and sights. Of course, we all like to document this experience and that part was cut short by nature-in-the-raw -- not exactly a bad memory. Stephan said he had never had that happen but other guides had reported it. He had just turned on his camera and was about to start taking some of his excellent photos.

Stephan sent me a photo he had taken last year of one of the Greater Sage Grouse on this same lek.

Greater Sage Grouse (Photo by Stephan Lorenz in 2016 on same lek)

Since the young Golden Eagle had cut short our visit to the lek, we enjoyed Wendy's for lunch! No pressure to reach Denver in time for our dinner reservation at Ted's Montana Grill.

Overall, our group saw 144 species (36 checklists - thank you, Stephan!).


Front: Jackie, Jean, Babs, Carol, Angela, Linda
Back: Annie, Stephan, Simon, Gary, Andy, Arlan, Orion

Left to Right

Among the 23 mammals that we saw, the Badger, the Red Fox and the Porcupine stood out for me.

In addition to excellent and 100% sightings of all the birds I wanted to see, it was an excellent road trip looping through and around Colorado, covering over 2400 miles in nine days!

Posted below is Stephan Lorenz's List of Mammals seen on the trip from his Final Report for High Lonesome BirdTours:

Mammal List: 
1. Ord's Kangaroo Rat - seen by some dashing across the dirt road on the Bledsoe Cattle Company property 
2. Gunnison's Prairie Dog - several seen in the Gunnison Basin, identified mainly by range 
3. White-tailed Prairie Dog - seen en route in western Colorado 
4. Black-tailed Prairie Dog - the common prairie dog in eastern Colorado, many colonies seen 
5. Yellow-bellied Marmot - best seen on the train tracks
6. Eastern Fox Squirrel - in the east 
7. Wyoming Ground Squirrel - seen in the Craig and Walden area 
8. Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel - we had good views of this colorful squirrel at Black Canyon and State Forest 
9. Rock Squirrel - first noted at the Black Canyon of the Gunnison 
10. Least Chipmunk - seen in several locations, a small chipmunk 
11. Colorado Chipmunk - one a Moose Visitor Center
12. Desert Cottontail - a few seen in eastern Colorado
13. Mountain Cottontail - one or two at higher elevations
14. Black-tailed Jackrabbit - many near Garden City Kansas 

15. Red Fox - seen by some en route to Crested Butte 
16. Coyote - only one or two seen en route
17. Pronghorn - first seen on the Pawnee Grasslands, North America's fastest land animal 

18. Elk - seen near the Sharp-tailed Grouse lek
19. Mule Deer - commonly seen en route
20. Moose - two seen while driving back to Walden and two very close at State Forest
21. Badger - a mammal highlight, seen very well near Craig
22. Porcupine - up to two seen near Hayden
23. Muskrat - seen by some at Verhoeff Reservoir

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