COLORADO BIRDING TOUR: DETAILED ITINERARY
Colorado: Day 1 Our tour begins at Denver International Airport in the afternoon. From here we will drive west to Georgetown for a two nights stay.
Colorado: Day 2 This morning we will devote some time to searching for the sought-after White-tailed Ptarmigan in the high Rockies. There is a disjunct southern population of these high altitude denizens in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. Each winter these beautiful birds descend from the highest regions to the lower tundra to feed on exposed willow buds. Often they can be seen from the roadside. However, their presence near the road depends on the amount of snow that remains. Being pure white at this season, they need to stay hidden from marauding Golden Eagles and other predators.
If there is relatively little snow, finding them may necessitate a longer hike to search the snow patches at a higher elevation, although this is an exhilarating and unforgettable experience in itself due to the sheer splendour and majesty of the surrounding Rocky Mountain scenery, with peaks of over 14,000 ft (4,267m) dominating the vista. If there is still plenty of snow they should be easier to observe, with little or no walking involved. Once located the ptarmigan are extremely confiding and, with care, can be approached to within close range, providing some great photographic opportunities. There will be few other bird species at this altitude. Indeed, we may only encounter a few Horned Larks.
At lower altitudes, we will search areas of spruce and pine forest where we may well encounter the endearing Gray Jay, Steller’s Jay, the striking Clark’s Nutcracker, Black-billed Magpie (now split from its Eurasian cousin), American Crow, Common Raven, the perky Mountain Chickadee, the attractive Red-breasted Nuthatch, American Robin, the resident Gray-headed Junco (currently mostly treated as a race of Dark-eyed Junco and a good candidate for a split), the impressive Pine Grosbeak, the pretty Cassin’s Finch, Red (or Common) Crossbill and Pine Siskin. Where fires have created large ‘burns’, these are ideal for American Three-toed Woodpeckers. In recent years this localized and uncommon species has been found frequently in this area, so we will be hoping this situation continues.
The delightful Pygmy Nuthatch is a common bird here and we should also see Hairy Woodpecker of the interesting Great Basin race, White-breasted Nuthatch of the Rocky Mountains form nelsoni, the pretty little Red-breasted Nuthatch, the attractive Western Bluebird and the beautiful powder-blue Mountain Bluebird. If we are in luck we will also encounter a newly-arrived Red-naped Sapsucker or even the uncommon Williamson’s Sapsucker.
Georgetown itself is well-known for its Bighorn Sheep, which are often to be seen feeding close to the expressway. The males with their huge horns are particularly impressive.
Colorado: Day 3 During the winter months, numbers of all three North American species of rosy-finch gather at feeders in Colorado. The precise location of these gatherings varies from year to year, and even from week to week, so we will concentrate our efforts on finding these birds either today or later in the tour at one or more of several well-known sites, depending on current information. Rosy-finches provide a really attractive spectacle with their brown or black, grey and pink plumage. Typically, but not invariably, the most numerous species is the Brown-capped Rosy-Finch, which has a rather restricted breeding range in the central Rockies and which travels downslope after the first heavy snowfall. Also usually present in smaller numbers is the striking Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch which breeds in the mountains of western North America from Alaska to California, with northern populations dispersing south and east for the winter. With them, we may also encounter one or two birds of the coastal-breeding Gray-faced or Hepburn’s race (which may possibly represent a distinct species). The least numerous and least predictable of the three species is the striking Black Rosy-Finch, which breeds to the northwest in Utah, Idaho and Montana.
The feeders also attract Black-capped Chickadees and Dark-eyed Juncos, mostly the local Gray-headed but also Oregon and sometimes Cassiar and White-winged and Pink-sided (some of which may, once again, be treated as full species in the future).
From the Denver region, we will head for the northeastern corner of the state, where we will spend the night in the small town of Wray.
Leaving the majestic Rockies behind, we cross the extensive eastern plains, long since transformed from buffalo- and Indian-haunted prairies to pasture and cultivation. A few Trumpeter Swans winter at wetlands in northeastern Colorado, so if any are still lingering in the area we will definitely make an effort to find one. During the journey, we should see a number of common breeding species including Red-tailed Hawk, American Kestrel, the invading Eurasian Collared Dove, Mourning Dove, Red-winged Blackbird, Western Meadowlark and Common Grackle.
Colorado: Day 4 A very early start will be necessary in order for us to arrive at a Greater Prairie Chicken lek near Wray before the birds. As the first glimmer of light illuminates the prairie we will be treated to one of the great spectacles of nature from the relative comfort of a partly-enclosed viewing trailer as the males bow, call and display to one another with their large orange air sacs inflated and their pinnae (long feathers on the side of the neck) raised like strange ‘ears’ or antennae. All this happens just a very short distance away and the birds appear totally oblivious to the presence of the humans in the trailer. It is a truly amazing and unforgettable experience. At one time the local population of these remarkable birds was gravely threatened but, thanks to conservation measures, they now number in the thousands in this corner of Colorado and their future seems secure. As the light intensity rises a number of females will likely be attracted to the lek. When the females appear the cacophony of sound and the level of activity among the males rises dramatically, as the dominant males get the majority of the matings. As the light increases still further there will be ample opportunities to photograph these fabulous birds from the trailer.
Once the females have departed, which is usually not long after sunrise, we will also be able to leave the area, thus avoiding any disruption to the lek. A welcome ‘country style’ breakfast will follow at a nearby ranch.
From Wray, we head through eastern Colorado and then cross into westernmost Kansas for an overnight stay at Oakley.
On the way, we will drive across impressive expanses of prairie which convey a ‘Wild West’ sense of almost limitless wide open spaces and endless skies. This landscape is in stark contrast to the rugged grandeur of the Rockies but it definitely has a beauty all of its own. Horned Larks abound in these grasslands and other species we can expect to find in this habitat include the endearing Burrowing Owl, Loggerhead Shrike, Vesper Sparrow, and American Goldfinch.
A visit to some wetlands should produce a good variety of waterbirds including Western Grebe, American White Pelican, Double-crested Cormorant, Great Blue Heron, Snow and Greater Canada Geese, Mallard, Green-winged Teal, Gadwall, American Wigeon, Northern Pintail, Northern Shoveler, Bufflehead, Ruddy Duck, American Coot and Belted Kingfisher. There should also be a few shorebirds present, including Killdeer, the lovely American Avocet, Greater Yellowlegs and Baird’s Sandpiper, as well as some pink-flushed migrant Franklin’s Gulls among the Ring-billed Gulls. We are also likely to encounter some American Herring Gulls (split from European Herring). In addition, we have a good chance of finding some migrating Ross’s Geese.
In areas of fields, hedgerows and woodlands we should find Turkey Vulture, Northern Harrier, Ring-necked (or Common) Pheasant, Wild Turkey, Great Horned Owl (their nests are easy to spot in the still-leafless trees), Downy Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, the beautiful White-breasted Nuthatch, Eastern Bluebird and White-crowned Sparrow.
We will also break our journey at an area of prairie where Mountain Plovers can often be found in a large Black-tailed Prairie Dog town. We could well come across our first Great-tailed Grackles in one of the small prairie towns.
Colorado: Day 5 Another early morning start will be needed to enable us to visit a Lesser Prairie-Chicken lek in the dry grasslands of western Kansas. Lesser Prairie-Chickens at the lek are just as amazing as their larger cousins, especially at this prime lek where views are usually excellent, so we will all feel excited as we witness this extraordinary sight. Like their larger cousins, these amazing birds engage in an intriguing repertoire of displays, chasing each other around with purple air sacs inflated and pinnae raised, while all the time making weird popping and hooting sounds. The vegetation here is a little thicker than up at Wray, causing the birds to move constantly in and out of view, but this is no less of a spectacle.
Other species we should see in the dry grasslands include the impressive but rather scarce Ferruginous Hawk, the powerful Prairie Falcon, the impressive Long-billed Curlew, Chihuahuan Raven, Brown-headed Cowbird, Cassin’s Sparrow and perhaps an early migrant Lark Bunting.
Afterwards, we will head southwestwards to La Junta for an overnight stay.
On the way, we will break our journey at reservoirs and lakes where we should be able to find Pied-billed. Horned (or Slavonian), Eared (or Black-necked) and Clark’s Grebes, Blue-winged and Cinnamon Teals, Lesser Yellowlegs, Least Sandpiper, Wilson’s Snipe (split from Common), Bonaparte’s Gull and Tree Swallow, and quite likely large numbers of migrant Snow Geese and some Ross’s Geese. If we have time, we will also stop along the way to look for White-winged and Inca Doves, Blue Jay and American Goldfinch.
Colorado: Day 6 This morning we will explore a scenic, juniper-clad valley. Small numbers of Eastern Phoebes, here at the western extremity of their range, breed alongside the larger Say’s Phoebe. Bewick’s Wrens, Song Sparrows and Canyon Towhees are fairly common, and we should also find small numbers of gorgeous Wood Ducks. We should encounter our first inquisitive Rock Wrens and, with luck, we will find a Western Screech-Owl at its nest hole. Other likely species here include Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks (either of these Accipiter species could turn up anywhere during the tour), the pretty Scaled Quail, Bushtit, Townsend’s Solitaire, Curve-billed Thrasher, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, the localized Rufous-crowned Sparrow and House Finch. If we are fortunate we will find the spectacular Greater Roadrunner and Ladder-backed Woodpecker as well.
From La Junta, we will head further west to Gunnison for an overnight stay.
En route, we pass through some broad high-altitude valleys lined with a fantastic vista of snow-capped peaks – the epitome of ‘High Plains’ country! Here we may well come across our first roving flock of Pinyon Jays in the pinyon-juniper forests, and we have another opportunity to look for American Three-toed Woodpecker, Gray Jay, Clark’s Nutcracker and Pine Grosbeak.
Subsequently, we will cross the Continental Divide at Monarch Pass (at an altitude of over 11,000ft, or over 3,400m), where yet again we will enjoy some truly spectacular mountain and coniferous forest scenery.
Colorado: Day 7 It was only recently recognized that the geographically isolated form of sage-grouse which inhabits the Gunnison Basin is actually a distinct species. The Gunnison Sage-Grouse is slightly smaller than its more widespread cousin, the Greater Sage-Grouse, with a different tail pattern and much longer, bushier filoplumes on the male’s head. It also has a different display. This morning we will set off before dawn to visit a lek of this superb bird. As dawn breaks the magnificent males become evident, dotting the flattened lek area. They strut around with their tails spread vertically, filoplumes raised and huge yellow air sacs inflated and surrounded by a broad ruff of snow-white feathers. This amazing display is somewhat reminiscent of that of some of the Old World bustards.
After breakfast, we will have another chance to visit some feeders to look for lingering rosy-finches if need be: that beautiful Black Rosy-Finch, in particular, can be a tough critter to find! Alternatively, we can check out the high altitude spruce forests if we are still needing Gray Jay, Clark’s Nutcracker or Pine Grosbeak.
Eventually, we will head for Montrose, to the west of Gunnison, where we will overnight.
Colorado: Day 8 Continuing our quest for North American grouse, we will leave Montrose early and head for the spectacular Black Canyon of the Gunnison. Here, in the seemingly atypical oak scrub habitat along the rim of the canyon, we will hope to find the incomparable Dusky (or Blue) Grouse. We have an excellent chance of locating this confiding species feeding along the roadside early in the morning. With care, they are extremely tame and approachable. If we are really fortunate we will even enjoy the fantastic sight of a displaying male with his deep red air sacs inflated and his tail spread, making a barely audible, deep, booming sound like someone blowing across the top of a bottle. Blue Grouse has recently been split, with the Sooty Grouse of the Pacific coastal region now treated as distinct from the form found in Colorado, which is now mostly referred to as Dusky Grouse.
From various roadside pull-offs, the views of the canyon and its sheer cliffs are hugely spectacular, for here the Gunnison River winds its way along the valley floor thousands of feet below. One of these precipitous cliffs, the magnificent Painted Wall, is higher than the Empire State Building!
The inquisitive Western Scrub-Jay and the handsome Spotted Towhee are common in the scrub along the canyon rim, while the first and Brewer’s Blackbirds may be arriving in the ranch country not far away.
Later we will travel west to Grand Junction for an overnight stay, stopping along the way to look for the skulking Marsh Wren and in particular the colourful but uncommon Lewis’s Woodpecker.
During the afternoon we will visit an equally spectacular but quite different piece of Colorado compared with the Black Canyon, with extraordinarily impressive red sandstone rock formations and sculptured canyons. Yet again the views are truly breathtaking. Noisy groups of dashing White-throated Swifts dart around overhead, while other species we may encounter here include Gambel’s Quail, Juniper Titmouse and the attractive Canyon Wren with its beautiful piping song.
After dinner, weather permitting, there will be an optional owling excursion to higher altitudes in search of Boreal (or Tengmalm’s) Owl, Northern Saw-whet Owl and Mountain Pygmy-Owl (sometimes split from Northern). We have a fair chance of hearing one or more of these elusive birds, but the chances of seeing any of them are low.
Colorado: Day 9 This morning we will visit an area of sagebrush which holds Black-throated Sparrow and newly-arrived Sage Thrashers and Sagebrush Sparrows. Golden Eagles are often common in this area.
Later, we will head for Craig in northwestern Colorado for an overnight stay, enjoying some spectacular Rocky Mountain scenery en route.
Colorado: Day 10 The northwestern part of Colorado is the only area of the state where Sharp-tailed Grouse are commonly found. This close relative of the prairie-chickens forms leks in short grass prairie and even on arable land. With an early start, we will arrive at one of these roadside leks just before dawn to witness yet another remarkable spectacle. A dry chattering sound pervades the air as the males engage in extremely rapid foot-stamping, drooping their wings and inflating their brilliant purple air sacs as they chase each other frantically across the display ground. This amazing display is accompanied by a deep hooting sound somewhat reminiscent of the call of a Great Gray Owl. If anything the whole performance is even more incredible than that of the prairie chickens, and indeed the rapid foot-stamping and circling of these three species of grouse are thought to have inspired some of the traditional dances of the North American Indians.
Herds of impressive Elk, the North American cousin of the Eurasian Red Deer, can often be seen grazing on the bleak hillsides and both Mule Deer and Pronghorn are regularly encountered. A small disjunct breeding population of Sandhill Cranes also inhabits this part of Colorado, while another species that can be found here is Dusky (or Blue) Grouse.
Later, en route to the small town of Walden where we will spend two nights, we will visit some reservoirs in search of waterbirds. Here we should find numbers of stunning Barrow’s Goldeneye among the Common Goldeneyes and see the males of both species displaying side by side. There should also be lots of other waterfowl, including Redhead, Canvasback, Ring-necked Duck, Lesser Scaup and Common Merganser (or Goosander). There should also be some California Gulls and a Bald Eagle or two present.
Colorado: Day 11 The grand finale of our quest for North American grouse will be a visit to a Greater Sage Grouse lek. Large numbers of magnificent males gather here very close to the viewing site, but we can avoid disturbing them and enjoy amazing views by staying in our vehicle. This is arguably the most spectacular of the grouse leks visited during the tour with rewarding opportunities for photography. As the males strut around with yellow air sacs inflated and tails and filoplumes raised, we will almost be able to feel the reverberation of their booming calls through the ground. A good number of females should be in attendance at the lek with the males all vying for their attention and competing for the lion’s share of the matings. The whole spectacle is spellbinding and simply marvellous to watch. We may also see one or two wintering Rough-legged Hawks (or Rough-legged Buzzards).
Later in the day, we can check out some other areas of birding interest in the Walden region.
Colorado: Day 12 Moving east again, we will cross the Rockies once more, en route to Fort Collins for an overnight stay, and descend a very scenic river valley where we will find the engaging American Dipper.
Much of the day will be spent exploring the grasslands along the Wyoming border, which are home to a number of prairie species that are localized or hard to find in other areas of the state.
We will be searching for two species of longspurs in particular. Attractive McCown’s (or Thick-billed) Longspurs are quite widely distributed across the grasslands and it should not be long before we find some males engaging in aerial song flights. Getting close to them on the ground requires a little more patience, but we should be able to get some very good views. Chestnut-collared Longspurs are decidedly less numerous, preferring areas with slightly longer grass. They are rather patchily distributed in this area, but careful attention to some key areas should produce results.
The attractive but threatened Mountain Plover prefers short grass areas and we will have another opportunity to observe this attractive but endangered species today. This is another good area for raptors and we may well find both Swainson’s and Ferruginous Hawks. There should also be some small herds of the strange-looking Pronghorn Antelope.
Colorado: Day 13 This morning we will visit a reservoir where should be some colourful Yellow-headed Blackbirds roosting in the surrounding marshes. With a bit of luck, we will also see an American Bittern. Afterwards, we will return to Denver airport, where the tour ends this afternoon.