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April 2010

"A Tour for Grouse & More"



The Lesser Prairie Chicken 
was seen during this tour in eastern Colorado.


Birds & Other Wildlife during our Colorado Tour in April 2010

Birds & Other Wildlife during previous FONT Colorado Tours in April

Birds during FONT Tours in Colorado & nearby states  (with some photos) 

Birds during FONT Tours in Nebraska

A Feature - the Grouse of Colorado, Kansas & Nebraska 

Mammals during FONT tours in Colorado & nearby states  (with photos) 

Upcoming FONT Birding & Nature Tours in Colorado & nearby States 


The following narrative of the FONT April 2010 tour in Colorado, Nebraska, & Wyoming was written by Armas Hill, the tour leader:

In our journey throughout parts of Colorado, Nebraska, and Wyoming, during the April 2010 FONT Tour for Grouse and More in those states, we headed first, from Colorado Springs, to Gunnison, Colorado.

In that part of Colorado somewhat isolated by mountains ranges from other parts of the state. There's a bird, also somewhat isolated by those same ranges, that was our target: named for Gunnison, the Gunnison Sage Grouse.

We arrived in Gunnison in time to attend a lecture about that bird at the college in town. A most informative lecture it was, by a professor at the college, Patrick Magee, who knows probably  more than anyone about the bird. He explained to us, so that we would know, about its isolation, its genetics, its biology, and its rarity.

The following morning we observed the Gunnison Sage Grouse at its lek, where males perform their ritualistic displays for females. We've seen the bird previously during other FONT tours, but this time, we saw them better and longer than we have in the past.

The Gunnison Sage Grouse is a rare bird. Its total population, during recent years, has only been about 3,000 birds. Most of them are in the area of Gunnison, Colorado. There are also a few now-fragmented populations elsewhere in southwestern Colorado, and adjacent Utah. But those groupings are now very small.
So, maybe surprisingly to some, the Gunnison Sage Grouse is among the rarest of all North American birds. With lower populations are the Whooping Crane and California Condor (now re-introduced into the wild).         
The endangered Piping Plover has dipped to a population of about 5,000 birds, almost as low as the Gunnison Sage Grouse.
As a comparison, a recently-split species, the Island Scrub Jay, restricted to one island off the California coast, has a population of about 12,000 birds.

Another interesting thing about the Gunnison Sage Grouse is that it is one of only a very few birds world-wide that has been described in the 21st Century. It was described to science in 2001. Of course, prior to that, it was known, but was considered a subspecies of the Sage Grouse
Most of the birds that have been described to science in the 21st Century, either as true discoveries or as "splits", have been in remote places in the world, especially in South America.
And, so, we started our "Grouse & More" well, with the rarest and most-local of the birds in that group that we would seek.

After viewing the Gunnison Sage Grouse, we went to a nearby place in the highlands, Crested Butte, with hopes of viewing Rosy Finches. And that we did, as probably a couple flocks of Brown-capped Rosy Finches were found, flying about the town. That was the only species of Rosy Finch we saw. 2 others, the Black and the Gray-crowned, occur in Colorado in the winter. But, by noon, that day, we had seen the 2 species of birds nearly restricted geographically to Colorado, the Gunnison Sage Grouse and the Brown-capped Rosy Finch.

From Gunnison, that afternoon, we descended east into the prairies of eastern Colorado, where our quest, early the next morning, was to be the Lesser Prairie Chicken.
That species has declined tremendously in recent decades, by about as much as 80 per cent. It now exists in less 10 per cent of its former range. Its population is said to have dropped from about 60,000 birds in the 1970s to maybe 10,000 today.

That next morning we did have good looks at displaying Lesser Prairie Chickens. With the males displaying, of course, and the females either simply "taking it in" or ignoring the efforts.
It was the first time, for us, during a FONT tour, to see the Lesser Prairie Chicken in Colorado. During previous tours, we've observed them in far-western Kansas. 

The following day we would have yet another similar objective (the Greater Prairie Chicken) but it was to be in nearby Nebraska, where we went into what's called the "Sandhill Country". We went to a pleasant, remote lodge in that area where the performing grounds of the Greater Prairie Chicken were just 5 minutes from where we slept. We viewed the birds, nicely, from an old school bus at the lek that had been converted to an observation blind. The Greater Prairie Chickens were not only fun to watch as they danced, but they were great to hear as they made their deep, hollow sounds.

Our nearly 2 days in western Nebraska were very enjoyable. In the region of the "Sandhills", there are not many people, but there are many birds. 
Covering nearly 20,000 square miles, the "Sandhills" in mostly western Nebraska is the largest area of stabilized sand dunes in the Western Hemisphere. As a "sea of grass", the area has hills up to 400 feet high and 20 miles wide that appear as giant waves frozen in that sea.
Nestled among the hills are many ponds, with numerous waterbirds as we traveled through the region. Among those birds, there were American White Pelicans, Clark's Grebes, and a fine assortment of ducks: Mallard, Gadwall, Pintail, Wigeon, Shoveler, Teals, Redhead, Canvasback, Ring-necked Duck, Scaup, Bufflehead, and Ruddy Duck. In the spring, of course, the males of all of these were in fine attire.
At one pond, we found nesting Trumpeter Swan and Forster's Tern. Near a pond, we saw Bald Eagles at their nest. On the plains, we saw Burrowing Owl in among a colony of Black-tailed Prairie Dogs. At the edge of ponds, there were Yellow-headed Blackbirds that were nice to both see and hear. In the hilly country of western Nebraska, also during our journey, we found Long-billed Curlews and twice, on hills, groups of Sharp-tailed Grouse. The last of the these was the fourth of our grouse species during our tour.     

We traveled west from Nebraska, on nearly the routes that others did historically on the Oregon Trail and during the time of Pony Express, when mail was delivered from the Mississippi River to the California Coast in at least 10 days. We traveled into Wyoming, where we took some time to bird at some places where we have in the past. We saw a Golden Eagle, that was so close in front of us, as it ate some carrion on a dirt road. We saw a line-up of about 20 male Yellow-headed Blackbirds by us on a fence wire, in a marshy area filled with birds, including Cinnamon Teal, White-faced Ibis, and Eared Grebes. At another site, on drier land, we watched McCown's Longspurs that seemed quite at home. At a few places, we saw Mountain Bluebirds that were nice to see each time.   

That afternoon we were back in Colorado, where we were to stay for the rest of our tour. That evening, we saw the performance of the Greater Sage Grouse at their lek. Close to us those birds were, as they did their remarkable antics. The males elevated and spread their tails into spiked fans. Then their heads got drawn back and their chests inflated, with the black filoplumes (how's that for a word?) erect and their bare chest patches (like 2 big yellow eggs on a breakfast plate) pumping, with double-hooting and popping sounds. The male birds moved forward, brushing their drooped wings against their stiffened breast feathers, making swishing sounds as they went. Yes, the performance was quite a show.

The next day, we explored a bit in that part of north-central Colorado, where we saw various birds and animals. Notable among the birds for us were Pine Grosbeaks. We nicely saw both males and females. We saw many Cassin's Finches, dozens and dozens of them. And we saw, again, the Brown-capped Rosy Finch.

Again, as at other places during our tour, we saw Pronghorn Antelopes. Beautiful animals indeed. During our April 2010 tour in Colorado, Nebraska, and Wyoming, we saw more Pronghorns than ever. We saw them every day.         

Other years, when we've been in that part of north-central Colorado, we've seen many small mammals, particularly ground squirrels. In 2010, we saw some, but not as many. And so, and apparently as a cause and effect, we did not see in 2010 as many raptors in that region as we have in the past. We saw some, of course, including both Swainson's and Red-tailed Hawks in various plumages, including the all-dark "Harlan's" form of the Red-tailed, and a few Golden Eagles, but there were not as many raptors as in other years.

But we did see, as we were on a drive in a national wildlife refuge, a vehicle obviously marked as part of the "Prairie Dog Squad". It was by a colony of White-tailed Prairie Dogs. The students with the university professor who were part of the squad were busy studying the animals at that colony and others nearby. They were doing so for a couple months. We spoke with the professor, who was certainly ardent in his enthusiasm about the prairie dogs. As did the professor in Gunnison, he gave us a substantial amount of good information. 
The 5 species of prairie dogs, all endangered or threatened, are all important in the ecosystems of prairies and plains in western North America and Mexico. But they have been terribly persecuted, with colonies often eradicated. 
Hopefully, the "Prairie Dog Squad" will help in turning things around for those creatures that should continue to be allowed to exist, and to fulfill their important role in nature.

The next morning we saw our last grouse of the tour, our final quest. It was snowing just a bit on the hilltop, and thus there was a white backdrop for the male Dusky Grouse that we saw close to us, on the ground by the side of the dirt road. It stood there for a while, and then puffed itself up as it does, and emitted its deep sound. It was, for us, another wonderful experience.
The Dusky Grouse was called the Blue Grouse when we did our early Colorado grouse tours. Now, it's the Dusky Grouse in Colorado, while the more-westerly population is called the Sooty Grouse.

Other birds seen that day, as our tour was nearing its end, included: Sandhill Crane, Western Grebe, Red-naped Sapsucker, Clark's Nutcracker, and Western Scrub Jay.

The following day we encountered snow again, not so much as one would expect in the mountains. but more as we descended back into the plains, especially between Denver and Colorado Springs. On the interstate highway, it was a mess as trucks could not go up grades without chains, and as some cars slid off the road. 
We were headed east into the plains for the avian curtain call of the tour, the cast of plovers that can occur in eastern Colorado. In addition to the not so aptly named Mountain Plover, we've also seen in the past, along with Killdeer: Semipalmated, Piping, and Snowy Plovers.
The Snowy Plover was a "requested bird" on the tour, and I had visions of there being more than usual to the name "Snowy"  when we would see the bird, as the snow fell and accumulated around us on the interstate highway. 

But that was not to be the case. When we saw the Snowy Plover, later that day, by a pond in the plains, there was no snow, and the sun had broken through the clouds.
There, at that spot with the Snowy Plover, there were not flurries of snow, but a flurry of other birds, notably shorebirds. There were Avocets, in strong breeding plumage, Black-necked Stilts, Western Sandpipers, a Dunlin or two (a first for our tours in Colorado), Long-billed Dowitchers, and a fine flock of Wilson's Phalaropes, with bright, boldly-patterned females and pale males, doing what phalaropes often do when they feed, that is spin about on the water.

We were not far from a small place called Karval. You may not have heard of that place in eastern Colorado, but it's a place where, for 4 consecutive years, there has been the "Mountain Plover Festival", held during the last weekend in April. 
We learned of it in another small Colorado town, where a waitress in a restaurant on the main street, pulled up info for us on the computer.   
When we visited Karval, the last place we went during the tour, we found that it was really not much a town. It had a main street of sorts, but with no restaurant, shops, or other such establishments. Rather it was more like a center, with in fact a Community Center, for various large expansive ranches in the area. On those private lands, during one weekend of the year, visitors can overnight at such a ranch, eat meals there, and with others see the now-endangered Mountain Plover and other birds of the prairie. Karval was certainly a "one-of-a-kind place".

I just mentioned the "cast of plovers in eastern Colorado". Noting the Mountain, Snowy, Piping, Semipalmated, and Killdeer. Additionally, Black-bellied and American Golden Plovers can appear in the region in migration. Thus, making it a place where just about all of the regularly-occurring plovers of North America have been found. (The Pacific Golden Plover is the exception.)

During our April 2010 tour, we found, along the way, in addition to wonderful places in Colorado, Nebraska, and Wyoming,  such things unexpected as the "Prairie Dog Squad" and a place that hosts an annual "Mountain Plover Festival".    

And we found, and saw nicely, all of the Grouse that we sought.  

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