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April 2005

"A Tour for Grouse & More"


The Lesser Prairie Chicken,
the most endangered of the grouse in North America
(photographed during this FONT tour)  


Lists of Birds & Other Wildlife during our Colorado Tour - April 2005

Lists of Birds & Other Wildlife during previous Colorado Tours in April

Lists of Birds & Other Wildlife during previous Tours in Colorado & nearby states

A Photo Gallery of Birds & Other Wildlife during our Apr '05 Tour in Colorado & nearby States

A Feature - the Grouse of Colorado, Nebraska, & Kansas

Upcoming Tour Itineraries for Colorado & nearby States


The following account written by Armas Hill, leader of the tour:

Again, during the Spring of '05, we were in the West, when we did, April 17-24, '05, what's been our annual spring tour for grouse, and more, in Colorado and nearby states. 
The grouse that we saw were the 2 Prairie-Chickens (Lesser & Greater), the 2 Sage Grouse (Greater & Gunnison), Sharp-tailed Grouse, and Dusky (formerly Blue) Grouse. All of these were seen well. Only the endangered Gunnison Sage Grouse was a bit far away . We saw all of the Grouse (including the Dusky) displaying. 

The "more" of "Grouse & More" were numerous other birds, including specialties of the plains, and of the mountains

Although birding, of course, was our primary emphasis, during the tour, it was not the only aspect of it. There was also the spectacular scenery, especially in the various areas that we visited in the high country of Colorado.

And also in the category of "more" were mammals. During the tour, we saw 28 species. During one day in north-central Colorado, we saw as many as 15 species. 
Among the mammals we saw, there were: Beaver and Badger, Muskrat and Moose, Elk and Deer. Coyote, numerous Pronghorn, and an assortment of rabbits, squirrels, and prairie-dogs
Our best was the Badger, that stared rather sternly at us, late one afternoon, from the ridge of its hole. 
One of our moose sightings was also notable, of a mother and an adolescent together.

Butterflies were not common (still, overall, too early), but we did see some particularly in eastern Colorado and Kansas. Notable among them was the orange-colored Goatweed Leafwing.

But back to the birds:

During our first full-day in southeastern Colorado, we were getting an impact of the birding we would enjoy in the days that would follow. And that first impact came on strong, with our initial looks at birds such as Swainson's Hawks, Cinnamon Teal, and Yellow-headed Blackbirds.  
At one body of water, we encountered a large flock of migrating Bonaparte's Gulls, with some in breeding plumage, and some of them with a pink hue on their breasts. 
Western Meadowlark
sang. That song we would hear continuously throughout the tour. 
were in breeding plumage. 
Burrowing Owls
looked at us as we watched them. Their holes, in the ground, were near those of Black-tailed Prairie Dogs
Walking on the ground were Long-billed Curlews. We enjoyed good looks at them. Overhead, in the blue sky, large American White Pelicans flew. 
Those of us from other parts of the United States (from Florida, California, and the Northeast U.S.), were quickly adapting to Colorado birding.

But as good as all that's been described was, it was not the best that day. 
It was for us, a "plover day". Among the best spotting my participants on the tour, that first morning of the tour, was when a Mountain Plover was found on the ground in front of us. How fortuitous! And in the scope, it was tremendous. Within an hour of that bird (a threatened North American species, rather like a pale dotterel). 
2 other rather special plovers were seen. Among a few Snowy Plovers, on an alkaline shoreline of a lake, there was a single Piping Plover, (another threatened species, and very rare in Colorado). 
And so, we had, on our first day. a "5-plover day" with Mountain, Snowy, Piping, and Semipalmated Plovers, and Killdeer.

Mountain Plover

But, as noted, grouse were actually our primary objectives during the tour, and our schedule was set so as to see them, particularly early in the mornings when they were at their display grounds known as "leks".

The first of these we saw was the Lesser Prairie Chicken. We did so in southwestern Kansas. Of all of the North American grouse, this is the species in the most trouble, in that it has, during the last couple decades, suffered the biggest decline. From an estimated 50,000 birds in about 1980, there are an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 today. Since the 19th Century, the species is said to have declined about 90 per cent. During our early-morning visit to the lek, we saw over a dozen of them well. There are photos, in a special feature about the grouse elsewhere in this web-site, of this species and the Greater Prairie Chicken (that we saw in northeast Colorado, later the same day, and the next morning).

The experience we had with the Greater Prairie Chickens that next morning was, it could be said, a bit magical, a bit mystical. We saw and heard the birds, as they were displaying, in an early-morning ground-fog. Another unusual aspect of the occurrence was the rather odd setting. The displaying birds were on an alfalfa field. There were a few dozen of them at a place that seemed out-of-place. But it had been a traditional site for the birds for years (long before alfalfa was ever planted there). In that early-morning fog, the birds came closer and closer to us as we sat in our vehicle. As they approached, their eerie hollow moaning got louder and louder. Just yards away from us, as we were still and quiet, the birds became more preoccupied with their own business of displaying, and less concerned about us. Of course, quiet as we were, we too were preoccupied watching and listening them. That morning, it was as good an experience as we could have had with the Greater Prairie Chicken.

Greater Prairie Chicken

It's good to know that the subspecies of the Greater Prairie Chicken in eastern Colorado, Tympanuchus cupido pinnatus, is doing rather well at least in the area where we were. Each year, we've had a kind host of large ranch who cordially allows us onto his property to observe the birds at their leks. He fills us in, when we meet with him prior to our first viewing of the birds, the afternoon of our arrival, as to how the birds are doing. In that immediate area, we're told they're doing well. The biggest threat they'd face there would be bad weather, for example, a strong storm with hail, especially at the time of nesting. 
Two other subspecies of the Greater Prairie Chicken have not done well. The eastern subspecies, T. c. cupido, known as the "Heath Hen" became extinct in the first half of the 20th Century. Another subspecies, in Texas, T. c. attwateri, the "Attwater's Prairie Chicken" sadly seems now to be on its way to extinction.             

After the two species of Prairie-Chickens, that we observed in the open, vast country of the prairies, we had yet another objective in that habitat, another twosome. We saw them well - two species of Longspurs, the Chestnut-collared and the McCown's. It was fun to watch them display, flying high into the sky, and to listen to them sing. We were pleased in that all our prairie-objectives were met. 
During our first day, we had already seen, as noted above, the Mountain Plover, normally a challenge to find. 
And there was another fine bird of that open country, not mentioned yet, that we enjoyed seeing, the Ferruginous Hawk. The adult is one of the most attractive of the raptors. We saw a few of them well, during the first couple days of our tour. The Ferruginous Hawk, by the way, is one of the birds of the plains now classified by Birdlife International as "near-threatened". The Long-billed Curlew is another. The Mountain Plover is beyond that; it's considered as "threatened". 

I should mention that we made a visit, when we were in eastern Colorado, near the Nebraska line, at a farm where during previous tours, we've seen some "eastern" birds. The year before, we encountered there (apparently due to weather, notably strong winds) such unusual easterners as Worm-eating Warbler, Northern Parula, and Brown Thrasher. We did see some "birds of the east" there in 2005 also, but not any as rare. We saw Cardinal, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Eastern Phoebe, the "Myrtle" race of the Yellow-rumped Warbler, and Blue Jay. Finding that jay there, this time, by the way, enabled us, during the tour, to encounter every corvid possible in Colorado.     

At the farm, along a row of flowering bushes, there were a number of butterflies. Most of them were Painted Ladies (incidentally, the most widespread and most common butterfly in the world, but still nice to see as we did that spring day). Some were Red Admirals. Elsewhere, we saw other butterflies on the prairies. Some of them (such as some skippers) were question marks to us, and there was one species we observed that was actually named that, the Question Mark.     

The prairies behind us, we found ourselves, on our way to Gunnison, spending a night in a nice setting of coniferous forest in the Rocky Mountains. A treat, there, at the end of the afternoon, was a pair of Dippers, or "Water Ouzels", by a mountain stream in front of our hotel. I've never met anyone who didn't like watching antics of Dippers.

Our travel to Gunnison continued with something so-named along the way: the Gunnison's Prairie Dog.

A slight diversion enroute gave us our first encounters with high-elevation birds: the Brown-capped Rosy Finch (a flock visiting a feeder), Cassin's Finch, Pine Grosbeak, Mountain Bluebird, and  Gray Jay. We would see all of these again, but it was good to so the first time.

Gunnison, a college town in southern Colorado, seems removed from anywhere else. It seems so because it is. It's isolated, more than an hour by car in either direction from wherever (there's really one highway into & out of Gunnison.) And so it is, there's also a bird there that's isolated. It was formerly considered to be a subspecies of the Sage Grouse. It's now a full species, the Gunnison Sage-Grouse. On the southern outskirt of town (and that's even an area yet more "removed"), we met a man who said that sometimes he sees the grouse when he mows his lawn. We saw the grouse, early the following morning, the more traditional way, from an enclosed hide set up for that purpose. We saw them fine, at one of their lekking sites, but at a distance. 

It was cold that morning, even though we were in southern Colorado. Actually, it was the coldest we were during the tour, with the temperature dipping at daybreak down into the teens. Gunnison is at a somewhat high elevation. During the night, it had snowed in the surrounding elevations slightly higher yet. As we drove, during the morning, with the rather spectacular Canyon of the Gunnison (River) to our left, the terrain was made all the more beautiful with a light covering of snow on the ground. And that provided a wonderful backdrop for an adult Golden Eagle, nicely perched, to our left, on a dead tree, not far away, at about our eye-level. We were to see a number of Golden Eagles during the next few days, but what a nice sight that first one was.

Later during the day, in another high area, with more snow on the ground, our path crossed for the first time with that of a crossbill. We saw some Red Crossbills on the side of the lightly-traveled road. Further along the way, still in an area of snow, we stopped and fed (with seeds we purchased for the purpose) 3 species of corvids that came for the food nearly into our vehicle: the Clark's Nutcracker, Gray Jay, and Steller's Jay. A 4th corvid, the Raven, also came, but kept at a distance.

Another sidebar, before we get back to grouse (you may remember the primary objective of the tour!). We went through an area in the western shadow of the mountains, drier than elsewhere. In that area with junipers, during our '04 tour, we saw (sensibly) Juniper Titmouse
Not so sensibly in 2005 we didn't see that species, but we did see a number of others, such as: Virginia's Warbler, Black-throated Gray Warbler, Gray Flycatcher, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, our first Brewer's Sparrow, Rock Wren, and both Pinyon and Western Scrub-Jays (and that completed our collection of corvids).

Dusky Grouse

The next morning there was, for us, a "Grouse Triple-header", as we saw, literally within moments: the Dusky (formerly the Blue) Grouse, the Sharp-tailed Grouse, and the Greater Sage Grouse. The 3 species were nearly within sight of each other. And our sightings of all of them were great. 
The Dusky Grouse does not display at a communal lek as the other two species do. It simply walked close to us in its full breeding attire. 
The Sharp-tailed Grouse, in a group atop a mound of a hill, were displaying as they're programmed to do - like "wind-up dolls" stamping in circles, stopping and starting in unison. 
The Greater Sage Grouse, on their lekking site, were doing their displays with expanded chests and spread tails. What a morning! 
Other birds that morning included both Green-tailed and Spotted Towhees, Sandhill Cranes, and a Bald Eagle sitting on its big nest. 
The Greater Sage that morning, as good as they were, were not as close as could have been. But later, at the other end of the day, in the evening, in another area, they certainly were - as close to us, that is, as they could have been. It was the "Grouse Highlight" of the tour, when about a hundred of the large birds (the Greater Sage-Grouse) were along an out-of-the-way dirt road, just outside our van, displaying against the background of a red sky after sunset, and snow-capped mountains in the distance. What was in the distance, however, may not have been noticed by all of us, as we were so enthralled by the sights and sounds of so many grouse, so close.

Throughout Colorado, many of the areas we visited were enjoyable to be in. But a region that has a lot of appeal, in terms of the nature to be experienced, is the northwestern part of the state, near the border with Wyoming. 
In that state, of Wyoming, as well, again in 2005, we had some of our best experiences. Birds that we saw there will be mentioned shortly.

What draws us to northwestern Colorado, specifically, is the wonderful encounter to be had with the Greater Sage-Grouse, already referred to. However, in terms of birds & animals, the grouse are just one piece of the pie.

Mammals begin to be seen when we enter that region of northwest Colorado known locally as "North Park Country". 
To start it off, there was, along the road, our first of 7 Moose sightings. One sighting that was particularly good was of an adult female with an adolescent. 
During one day, in northwest Colorado, we saw 15 species of mammals. Here they are, not in any particular order: 
Mule Deer, Pronghorn, Coyote, Elk, Mountain Cottontail, Least Chipmunk, Golden-mantled Ground-Squirrel, Yellow-bellied Marmot, Wyoming Ground-Squirrel, Moose, Muskrat, Striped Skunk, Shoeshoe Hare
(in the high coniferous forest), White-tailed Jackrabbit (in the open sage country), American Badger, and White-tailed Prairie Dog
And mostly we were looking for birds, rather than mammals!

We saw our last mammal of the tour, Bighorn Sheep, when we were crossing the Rockies for the last time. When we watched the group of them on the slope, we observed something interesting. Magpies would land on the backs of the animals, picking out what appeared to be course fibers from their hides. The Magpies, we assumed, were putting these materials into their nests.         
Our best mammal sighting of the tour, however, was of one of those in the "North Park Country" of northwest Colorado. 
It was our sighting of a Badger, as it sat still low to the ground outside its large hole, peering at us, as we looked at it. 
In the wildlife refuge, where we saw the Badger, there were so many mammals (maybe the most that most of us had seen anywhere). Most of them were Wyoming Ground-Squirrels and White-tailed Prairie Dogs. While driving along the dirt road within the refuge, the "wildlife drive", we were constantly driving over the wildlife. No, we weren't hitting any animals. But there were so many holes in the ground, with heads of the rodents either popping up and down in the holes, or critters either running into them or away from them.

So many rodents in the area means that prey abounds there for raptors. As noted earlier, we saw a good number of Golden Eagles during the tour. Many of them were in the this area filled with running rodents. 
Also there were numerous Red-tailed Hawks, Swainson's Hawks, and Northern Harriers
We had hoped for Rough-legged Hawk. It can be common in that area during the winter, but we didn't see any when we were there in April. 
We did see a "raptor of interest" that turned out to be a juvenile Ferruginous Hawk
One of our best raptor sightings was of a Prairie Falcon perched atop a fence pole. Not far away, and lower than on a telephone pole, it was a nice sight. Actually, any Prairie Falcon on a pole is good, as most that were seen throughout the tour were either in a speedy flight, or perched at a distance.

Also in the sage country of raptors and rodents were other birds, and with the habitat, the Sage Thrasher was one of them.

In a nearby area of aspen trees, we had a wonderful encounter with a group of Red-naped Sapsuckers. 4 of them were watched well at once.

Red-naped Sapsucker

Earlier it was noted that we saw a nice number of birds in Wyoming, just of the Colorado state line. That we did in '05, as have other years previously. 

There's an area of lakes near Laramie, an open where numerous birds can readily be seen. Birds that we saw there included: Common Loon, 3 species of grebes (Western, Eared, and Pied-billed), American White Pelican (in breeding plumage, with a big knob on a big bill), Double-crested Cormorant (in breeding plumage, that is with the double-crest - now who pays attention to that?), Great Blue Heron, Black-crowned Hight-Heron, White-faced Ibis, 14 species of waterfowl, among them: Cinnamon Teal, Redhead, Canvasback, Bufflehead, Common Merganser, and Ruddy Duck. Also, Coot
Overhead, there were Bald Eagle, Golden Eagle, and an assortment of hawks
were Avocets (in nice breeding plumage), Killdeer, and Snipe. Boanparte's Gulls were common. The Herring Gull we saw there is not. 
Along the shorelines of the lakes, there were not just Red-winged Blackbirds, but groupings of Yellow-headed Blackbirds that were fun to see and hear. 
On the bare ground, near a lake, we had our closest encounter with McCown's Longspurs. 2 were virtually at our feet.  

There was another place in Wyoming that we simply had to visit as we had during tours in the past. It's a rather unassuming spot, near some homes, off the highway and in the high country. With lots of conifers, and a bird feeder or two by the homes, the spot has been productive for us. Other years, when there was more snow, birding was good at those feeders. 
In 2005, even with less snow, it was still good, very good. Birds that we saw included: 
the 2 Chickadees (both Mountain & Black-capped), Pine Grosbeaks (both male & female seen nicely), Evening Grosbeak (at the only place we saw it during the tour), Red Crossbill, and Cassin's Finch. On the top of a conifer, nearby, there was a Townsend's Solitaire. A Gray Jay or two was about. 
It should be mentioned that the feeders were basic with such things as a bucket and a tray on top of a stump. But there was a vast supply of sunflower seeds, and an enthusiastic young boy who came out to keep us company as we watched the avian visitors come and go between the  feeders by the front door of the house and the tall coniferous trees nearby. And yes, I should mention the dog that loved to fetch whatever there was to fetch. All of that was during our morning visit. In the afternoon (when we saw the Evening Grosbeak), as we re-visited the site not just active for birds but also for people and activity of various kinds, the father (of the young boy) was out and about. He's a volunteer fireman, and that afternoon he and others were fixing one of their  vehicles that needed fixing, and happened to be right by the bird feeders. Included in the activity was the testing of the siren. Even so, the birds continued to come. 

Some nice photos, taken during our tour at this Wyoming location, of, for example, a Crossbill feeding from a bucket, and an Evening Grosbeak in a conifer. These can now be found in the bird-list, elsewhere in this web-site, of 
the Birds of Colorado

In all, we tallied 162 species of birds during our April 2005 Tour in Colorado, and adjacent states, including Wyoming, Kansas, (along with also Nebraska, and Oklahoma).  

The following is the list of our "top birds" during the April 2005 FONT birding tour in Colorado (& adjacent states), as voted by the participants, at the end of the tour:

 1 - Greater Sage Grouse
2 - Greater Prairie-Chicken
 3- Lesser Prairie-Chicken
 4- Mountain Plover
 5- Sharp-tailed Grouse
 6- Red-naped Sapsucker
 7- Green-tailed Towhee
 8- Evening Grosbeak
 9- Golden Eagle
10- Pine Grosbeak
11- Brown-capped Rosy-Finch
12- Blue Grouse
13- Belted Kingfisher
14- Ferruginous Hawk
15- Gray Flycatcher
16- Mountain Chickadee
17- Red Crossbill
18- Cinnamon Teal
19- Eastern Bluebird
20- Piping Plover
21- Snowy Plover
22- Gunnison Sage-Grouse
23- Sage Thrasher
24- Mountain Bluebird
25- Swainson's Hawk
26- Red-breasted Nuthatch
27- Brewer's Sparrow
28- McCown's Longspur
29- Chestnut-collared Longspur
30- Yellow-headed Blackbird

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