Saturday, 9 February 2008

Colorado Chicken Tour March 31 - April 9, 2006

Colorado Trip
March 31 - April 9, 2006
David Gascoigne and Miriam Bauman














March 31, 2006
We flew out of Toronto late in the afternoon bound for Denver with a connecting flight to Grand Junction. We arrived at Grand Junction slightly before 22:00h, quickly secured our rental car (which was upgraded to a Chrysler Pacifica all-wheel drive at no extra cost) and drove a short distance down Horizon Boulevard to the Best Western Motel where we had a reservation. We were happy to get to bed fairly soon after checking in.
Motel rating: Very good. Price: Very reasonable.

April 1, 2006

This was the first real day of our trip. Neither of us had ever been to Utah, so we decided that since we were so close we would visit there, going as far as Arches National Monument. On the Colorado stretch of the drive to Utah, the first Black-billed Magpies were sighted. This bird was a lifer for Miriam but she was unfortunately checking the map when we passed them. It was of little concern, however, for we knew that we would see hundreds more before our journey was over.
We did not see a great deal of bird life in Utah, but we did see a couple of Golden Eagles in different locations. The second one was mantling prey, and from what we could see it appeared to be a Desert Cottontail. Three Common Ravens were making a concerted effort to steal all or part of the prey and they would quickly dart in under the eagle’s outspread wings to try to snatch scraps of meat. The eagle finally took off and flew a hundred metres or so with the ravens in hot pursuit. As soon as it landed they resumed their pestiferous behaviour and did their best to pilfer some of the eagle’s hard-won prey.
We had gotten a little later start than we had planned and we realized that to go to Arches National Monument, spend a couple of hours (at least) there, and still have time to drive to Gunnison where we wanted to scout the location for the Gunnison Sage Grouse lek in daylight before having to drive there in the dark the next day, would not be possible. We turned around and headed back to Colorado.
Almost immediately on crossing the state line we spotted more Black-billed Magpies and Miriam had her first lifer of the trip. When we arrived back in the Grand Junction area, we turned into a small area near a dump and were rewarded with a Say’s Phoebe.
We drove to Gunnison in a fairly leisurely manner, birding along the way, stopping whenever an area looked promising, including a riverside stop at the East Cimarron Picnic Area for an American Dipper, the first of two that day. We arrived at Gunnison in good time to drive to the Waunita Hot Springs lek, which was quite easy to find and were all set for the following morning.
We stayed at the Best Western Motel on the east side of town on Highway 50.
Motel rating: Excellent. Price: Very reasonable.



April 2, 2006
Overnight the switch to Daylight Savings Time occurred so the two-hour time difference from eastern time became three hours! At least first light was pushed ahead a little so we left for the lek at approximately 06:00h. The temperature was 24 F and 5 or 6 cm of snow had fallen overnight. All of the mile markers on the highway were covered in snow and we drove past the entrance to the Waunita lek. We pulled over onto the shoulder and Miriam got out of the car to clean off a mile post and we had overshot the road by only one mile. We turned around and were quickly in position at the lek. Three other vehicles were already there.
As the early morning light began to penetrate the darkness we started to see the shapes of the grouse and before long we had about 40 grouse displaying in front of us. There were a few females, but they must have been really picky because none of us observed any mating!
The birds are not really close at this lek, but are certainly easily observed with binoculars and through the scope we had first class looks at them. It was a memorable experience by any standards and an impressive way to get the first joint lifer of the trip. A significant reason for our visit to Colorado was to see “chickens” and we were excited by this excellent start.
We left the lek at 09:20h shortly after the birds had ceased their display and had flown over our heads to the other side of the road, where they disappeared with amazing rapidity into the sage. It was now 32 F and the sun was up - a balmy morning!
We returned to the motel, removed a few layers of clothing and went to the restaurant for the hot breakfast which was included in the tariff. The hot coffee and scrambled eggs were welcome indeed.
After breakfast we started on our journey across the state to Boulder to visit our friends Jimmy and Ruth Marie Lyons with whom we would spend the next couple of nights. We had met Jimmy and Ruth Marie on a trip to the Asa Wright Nature Centre in Trinidad and were looking forward to renewing the acquaintance.
We drove through Sagauche County and started to see more conifers and aspens as we gained elevation. We also started to see Mountain Bluebirds. How can one ever see too many of these truly lovely birds? We crossed Monarch Pass (elev. 11,312 feet) and headed for Leadville and thence to Interstate 70.
As we approached the tunnel before the Loveland Ski area the traffic slowed to a crawl due to road work, but after about 45 minutes it picked up a little and we carried on towards Boulder.
We finally arrived at the Lyons house at around 16:00h and were treated to a glass of wine and warm friendship, better even than we had remembered from Trinidad. We were truly happy that we had made this connection.
Before dinner we visited nearby Walden Pond where Miriam saw her third lifer of the trip, a Pygmy Nuthatch. We also saw a pair of Cinnamon Teal, with the male in stunning, immaculate plumage. The pair flew to a more distant pond where we could not see them as well, but within a few minutes flew right back and landed on the water practically in front of us. Here we saw our only Song Sparrow and White-crowned Sparrow of the trip, as well as 2 Northern Flickers whose red underwings make them seem almost exotic compared with the Yellow-shafted Flickers we see at home.
A wonderful dinner was served by Ruth Marie and we were treated to the excellent video Jimmy had made of their recent trip to Ecuador. He has not yet completed the final product of our joint trip to Trinidad and Tobago, but we extracted a promise to send us a CD as soon as he completes it. Many, many hours of work are involved, but the result is quite stunning and very professional. Even the music Jimmy selects fits perfectly with each frame in the travelogue.
We had our own “suite” and the bed was firm and comfortable. We were well blessed to be chez Lyons for the night, and we were looking forward to not having to pack our suitcases again the following morning. It would be the only place we stayed more than one night.

April 3, 2006
After breakfast we all climbed into the Pacifica and headed for Allensport; specifically to the Fawnbrook Inn, which we had been told was a reliable spot to see all three rosy-finches.
We were not disappointed! Immediately upon parking the car in the small parking area at the inn all three species of rosy-finch descended to the feeders and we were within a couple of metres of some of them. Grey-crowned Rosy-Finch was most numerous, followed by Black Rosy-Finch, and Brown-capped Rosy-Finch. Three much-cherished lifers for each of us! Other birds at the feeders included Pink-sided, Oregon and Grey-headed Juncos, Pine Siskins, a lone Evening Grosbeak, House Finches, Mountain Chickadees, Pygmy Nuthatches, American Goldfinches, Red-winged Blackbirds, a Steller’s Jay and in and atop the surrounding trees were Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Common Ravens, Cedar Waxwings and American Crows. All in all it was a wonderful stop and the birding was easy!
Going on to Rocky Mountain National Park we saw Clark’s Nutcracker, a lifer for Miriam and several other species, as well as numerous Elk and Mule Deer.
It was a sunny day, with temperatures getting up into the high forties F and superb views of classic Rocky Mountain scenery. We were quite entranced.
We returned to Boulder by mid afternoon and snacked on wine and cheese, followed by a delicious meal at Jimmy and Ruth Marie’s favourite Mexican restaurant. When we returned home we saw Jimmy’s video of their trip to the Galapagos and were once again seriously impressed by the professionalism Jimmy attains after his many hours of editing, narration, special effects and musical accompaniment. It is an accomplishment of which he is very proud - and rightly so.

April 4, 2006
Alas, poor Ruth Marie had to go back to work, so she left early and we breakfasted with Jimmy, before leaving the “Lyons Den.” The good thing is that the Lyons are moving back to their native South Carolina after Ruth Marie retires at the end of the year, so it will be much easier for us to visit each other, and we are looking forward to it!
Our ultimate destination this day would be the Pawnee National Grasslands and we headed off towards Fort Collins under cloudy skies with a little sun poking through and a temperature of 43 F. When we were driving through the north end of Fort Collins we noticed a visitor/environmental centre and decided to check for brochures and general information. The staff was very helpful and it was suggested to us that we visit the Pawnee Buttes while in the area of the National Grasslands. There were a few birds outside the centre, including a Belted Kingfisher.
Right around noon we arrived at the Pawnee National Grasslands and started to bird along the roads that were open to vehicular traffic. Early on we had great looks at a Prairie Falcon, but the most ubiquitous species by far was Horned Lark. It was quite literally hard to look in any direction without seeing several of them. We counted 11 in two minutes, which extrapolates to 330/hour! Miriam is convinced that we counted in an area of low abundance! There were also large numbers of Western Meadowlarks and their cheery song entertained us all day. After a while we located several McCown’s Longspurs, one of our target birds at this location and a lifer for both of us. All were in full alternate plumage and we were successful in finding many others before the day was out, but try as we might we simply could not find a Chestnut-collared Longspur nor a Mountain Plover. It may be that we were just a little early for these two species.
This is an area where you need to ensure that you have a full tank of gas and food with you. There are very few facilities. In the small town of Briggsdale we visited the general store where the selection of merchandise was very limited indeed. For lunch we had beef jerky, cheese and graham crackers! We were happy to get some cold water too. By 15:45h the temperature had soared to 77 F.
Not being far from Wyoming we decided to spend the night there to give Miriam an opportunity to visit another new state. We stayed at a Day’s Inn at the north end of Cheyenne and had dinner at a truck stop across the road. Forget that mythology about truck stops and good food! Whatever truckers find attractive about them, it sure isn’t the food!
Motel rating: Fairly good. Price: Reasonable.

April 5, 2006
We left our motel at about 08:00h under sunny skies with a temperature of 50 F, our first destination being the Pawneee Buttes in Weld County, CO.
It was a long and winding drive into the area but it is scenically magnificent and the buttes are rugged and spectacular. Both the literature and the signs at the location cautioned about the need not to disturb nesting Golden Eagles and Prairies Falcons, and a barrier fence had been erected to keep people away from the immediate area of the cliff faces. It was a fairly arduous walk in, but we were glad of the opportunity to walk for a couple of hours, since the trip so far had been pretty sedentary. Despite scoping the cliff faces very thoroughly several times, we saw no evidence at all of nesting raptors, save for one male American Kestrel perched on a low, scrubby bush who may have been “on guard.” He certainly routed a Black-billed Magpie that strayed too near. There were no other falcons, however, and no eagles either, not on the buttes nor in the air. Even the Horned Larks and Western Meadowlarks were sparse.
We left the buttes at around 11:00h, by which time the temperature had climbed to around 77 F.
Our final destination was Wray, Co where we hoped to see a Greater Prairie Chicken Lek. We had been given the name of Bob Bledsoe, a local cattleman with land holdings of 40,000 acres and around 100 chicken leks on his property, as a contact to gain admission to a lekking site. When we had called earlier in the morning to seek permission, we were advised that Bob was out of town, but we spoke to his son, Grant who told us to drop by the office seven miles north of town on Highway 385 when we arrived in the afternoon and he would escort us to a lek site so that we could return the following morning before sunrise.
The quickest route to Wray seemed to be to head back up into Wyoming and get the interstate through Wyoming and Nebraska and ultimately south into Colorado, and that is what we did. We arrived at the Bledsoe office at 16:00h and to our dismay the office was closed. I left a message for Grant saying that we would go into town to get a motel and wait for his call if he got the voice mail. We checked into the Sandhiller Motel, and as time went by were beginning to think that we would not be hearing from Grant. At 17:50h, however, we received a call saying that he had been unexpectedly called away on cattle business and had just returned to his office. He was going home for a quick bite of dinner and would meet us outside his office at 19:00h to take us to a lek. We could not believe how gracious and kind this man was.
We made sure that we were outside in good time and right on schedule he showed up with his little son, Jackson and two dogs. He took us out to a lek and we were all set for the following morning.
Motel rating: Excellent. Price: Very reasonable.

April 6, 2006
We were up, dark and early, and left for the lek at 04:30h. The temperature was 49 F. When we arrived there was one other car present. We switched off our engine, killed the lights, and waited. As first light slowly enabled us to have some vision, we began to see the shape of Greater Prairie Chickens, and we started to hear the first booming of the males. Soon we were treated to the most incredible display of lekking chickens dancing and displaying, with females flying in to provoke even greater levels of excitement from the males. It was truly a magnificent spectacle that we will never forget and some of the birds were quite close to our vehicle. As far as we could tell there were 59 males and 16 females.
Returning to the motel, we had breakfast and checked out at 09:00h.
We had originally planned to go from Wray to Guanella Pass for the White-tailed Ptarmigan, but the occupant of the other vehicle, who lived in Fort Collins, advised us that the pass was truly hazardous, so we decided against it, opting instead to proceed directly to Walden where we hoped to see Greater Sage Grouse.
Wray is just a few miles from the Kansas state line, so, since Miriam had never visited Kansas, we drove into Kansas a short way, then back into Colorado, and started the long trek across to Walden. We had been given a location in Ault County on the Pawneee National Grasslands where Mountain Plover nest each year, and where there is a colony of Burrowing Owls, so we went to check it out, but could not find either bird, despite a careful search of the area. Perhaps a week later we would have had more luck.
When we made it to Fort Collins it was 55 F and sunny at 15:00h , and we embarked on CO 14 west towards Walden. The road is narrow and winding and within an hour it was 32 F and snowing.
We arrived in Walden at 16:45h and got a room at Walden North Park Inn and Suites - a grand title indeed! Walden appears to be a town that has seen better times and about half of the businesses along the main drag were boarded. There was not a huge choice of accommodations and the North Park Inn was adequate for a night, but barely so!
Knowing that the Greater Sage Grouse leks in the evening as well as at dawn, we drove out to a potential lek site (Coalmont Lek) to which we had been given directions, arriving at 18:15h with light snow falling and a temperature of 32F. The first bird we saw on driving into the area was a magnificent Golden Eagle perched on top of a utility pole. We also saw several rabbits; no doubt an abundant lagomorph population provides good hunting for this eagle.
Almost immediately we were able to locate several Greater Sage Grouse, mostly females with only one, or possibly two, males. No lekking behaviour was evident. We moved onto another dirt road (JC26B off JC 26) and were delighted to find about twenty males, all apparently on territory, but still without any sign of lek activity.
The number swelled to about 35 as more males started to arrive and, at last, started to inflate and “pop” their air sacs and display in grand fashion. Not once did we see a female approach, however, These birds seem to be very “tame” and had no hesitation in approaching very close to the vehicle. Some were actually displaying on the road. We left when it was getting too dark to see, and actually got out of the car to change positions, and a couple of birds calmly walked past us. Not a single bird spooked and some were still displaying as we drove away.
This had been a two-lek day and we felt well satisfied!
Motel rating: Poor. Price: Low.

April 7, 2006
We left the inn at 07:50h and had breakfast at the River Rock Café, a charmingly restored period hostelry. We drove away an hour later in heavy, wet snow towards LakeJohn just outside Walden and located several species of waterfowl, including Green-winged Teal. Returning to the area of the Great Sage Grouse lek, we added Sage Thrasher and yet another Golden Eagle.
Our destination was Hayden, where we hoped to find Blue Grouse and Sharp-tailed Grouse. We had been provided with the telephone number of Jim Haskins, an employee of CDOW, for up-to-the-minute information on these two species. We called him at about 09:00h but could only get his answering machine. We left a message and a cell phone number, but he never returned our call. Perhaps he was out of town.
After we drove through the tourist resort of Steamboat Springs we pulled over to the side of Highway 40 west of town to scope two Sandhill Cranes we could see feeding in a small wetland area.
Upon arriving in Hayden, at 13:50h we proceeded immediately to the area where Sharp-tailed Grouse are known to occur, albeit at a distance. We scanned the area with a telescope for almost two hours, but there was nary a sign of the grouse. However, we did see two more Sandhill Cranes and this pair treated us to a display of their dance, which was quite enchanting.
We thought that we would go to the Hayden Red Stone Motel, get checked in, and return for another try for the Sharp-tailed Grouse and also be at the area known for Blue Grouse at about 18:00h. If we had no success, then we would try again at first light in the morning.
Imagine our surprise when the motel had no vacancies! In Hayden?
So we abandoned our quest for these two species and drove to the next town of Craig. We first tried the Best Western but it was full! We did get a room at the Super 8 Motel, but the place was quite dirty and run down. The room, however, was not terrible and it served us okay for a night. The continental breakfast the next morning was the worst we have ever had.
Motel rating: Acceptable. Price: Reasonable.

April 8, 2006
We left Craig to drive to Cameo where we would search for Chukar.
Upon arriving at the entrance to the canyon (called the Little Bookcliff Horse Area) we must admit to a little uneasiness about leaving the car with all our luggage clearly visible in the back; certainly this is one of the disadvantages of an SUV or minivan which has no trunk in which to conceal anything. All of the signs in the area had bullet holes in them, and some were shot up so much as to be completely disfigured and illegible. We wondered how many yahoos with guns might be in the vicinity.
We started our walk, however, at 09:35h. The temperature was 44 F but it felt warmer. This was one of the few days when there was no wind. We walked a considerable distance into the canyon, scanning the hills at all times for Chukar. We saw Mountain Bluebirds and Common Ravens, watched two Golden Eagles soaring overhead and marvelled as one glided down to a high mountain ledge; heard the song of Canyon Wrens bouncing down the canyon walls - but no Chukar. We did hear them, at times frustratingly close, but seeing them was a different matter. We walked for one hour into the canyon and then turned around to head back to the car, still searching all the way, but with no luck.
It was a relief to see that the vehicle had not been tampered with and all our possessions were safe. We got in to drive away and had only gone a short distance when we spotted two Chukars at the side of the road. There was a wet area on the road, perhaps an area where snow had accumulated and had recently melted. We concluded that the Chukars may have come there to drink. In any event we were elated as the birds crossed the road in front of us and went over the side into a depression where we could still watch them, and we continued to do so up until the time they disappeared into the vegetation on the hillsides. What a gorgeous bird with such defined markings. We think we should start a campaign to have it renamed Resplendent Partridge or something equally grand!
We left Cameo and drove to Grand Junction, but we still had a few hours before we needed to turn the car in and go to the airport. We had a wonderful lunch on the patio at a Mexican Restaurant called Dos Hombres, and then found our way to the Colorado River State Park. This is a great area to bird and among other species we added Bushtit and Wood Duck.
We flew out of Grand Junction to Denver and took the shuttle to the Embassy Suites Hotel near to the airport. This is a very luxurious hotel and we had a room the size of an apartment!
Hotel rating: Superior. Price: Reasonable given the nature of the accomodation.
April 9, 2006
After a terrific breakfast at the Embassy Suites we caught the 08:30h shuttle to the airport and flew home.

Acknowledgements: Georgann Schmalz provided us with a copy of her trip report from April 2005 and this was invaluable in providing direction to the various leks.
Jennifer Rycenga went out of her way to unearth details of the best location for the rosy-finches and the three species turned out to be among the easiest birds of the trip.


All species for Colorado April 1 - 9, 2006
Great Blue Heron
Turkey Vulture
Canada Goose
Wood Duck
Green-winged Teal
Mallard
Blue-winged Teal
Cinnamon Teal
Gadwall
American Wigeon
Common Merganser
Northern Harrier
Swainson’s Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
Ferruginous Hawk
Rough-legged Hawk
Golden Eagle
American Kestrel
Prairie Falcon
Wild Turkey
Greater Sage Grouse
Gunnison Sage Grouse
Greater Prairie-Chicken
Chukar
American Coot
Sandhill Crane
Killdeer
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Belted Kingfisher
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Say’s Phoebe
Horned Lark
Steller’s Jay
Clark’s Nutcracker
Black-billed Magpie
American Crow
Common Raven
Mountain Chickadee
Bushtit
Pygmy Nuthatch
Canyon Wren (Heard)
American Dipper
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Mountain Bluebird
American Robin
Northern Mockingbird
Sage Thrasher
Cedar Waxwing
European Starling
Spotted Towhee
Vesper Sparrow
Song Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
McCown’s Longspur
Red-winged Blackbird
Western Meadowlark
Great-tailed Grackle
Common Grackle
Grey-crowned Rosy-Finch
Black Rosy-Finch
Brown-capped Rosy-Finch
House Finch
Pine Siskin
American Goldfinch
Evening Grosbeak
House Sparrow

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