Over 40 years ago 0n March 16, 1975, I saw my first Greater Sage Grouse as a few displayed on a lek at the Yakima Firing Range. In those simpler early days before national security concerns had made access much harder, it was possible to get decent fairly close views and it was a very memorable experience. In intervening years it has become harder and harder to find displaying birds here and recently my only views have been distant ones at or near the Leahy lek in the Okanogan. I remembered too seeing a program on displaying grouse – either on Animal Kingdom, or Nature or Walt Disney and the images of strutting and “fighting” birds resonated strongly. As I looked for a good birding trip for 2016, those images flashed in my head and I decided I wanted the “Disney Experience”. I wanted to see displaying grouse up close and personal and also wanted to see some species I had not seen before.
Some research found a seemingly perfect trip – a Grouse Tour offered by High Lonesome Tours to see many of the grouse species (and other gallinaceous birds) in Colorado in April 2016. Checking the potential species list, there were some other possibilities for new ABA Life Birds and many opportunities for new pictures. I was ready to go. Frank Caruso has many terrific qualities – one being that he is almost always game for new birds and when I told him of the tour and he checked his life list – he too was ready to go. We decided to arrive a day early to look for some birds on our own, so we signed up for the tour, booked flights, got a motel and rented a car and were off on April 6th.
Although they were listed as possibilities for the trip, we focused our time on finding large flocks of McCown’s and Chestnut Collared Longspurs and some Mountain Plovers. I had spotty observations of the Longspurs before but had never seen a Mountain Plover. I think all three were lifers for Frank. The birds had been reported on Ebird about 100 miles east of Denver near Arriba off Interstate 70. We had some nice birds along the way and almost immediately after the turn off from the Highway I was able to see and get a photo (distant and poor) of a Mountain Plover in a distant field. Lifer number 1 for me – so far so good. We found the road where the longspurs had been reported and sure enough – there they were – sort of. We would see nothing and then a small to medium flock would fly out of the stubble and then land maybe 50 or 100 yards away and then disappear again. It did not help that there were also many Horned Larks sharing the same fields and also flying all over. Try as we might, we could not sneak up on the birds and could never get good views except in flight. A group landed on the road and we use our best stealth birding techniques to approach but we had never seen such skittish birds and off they would go again. They seemed to all be McCown’s Longspurs and at least Frank had a lifer.
McCown’s Longspur in Flight
We continued our search and found more and more skittish McCown’s Longspurs. I finally got an okay photo of one on the road and then we discovered a group of Chestnut Collared Longspurs – closer to the road, separate from the McCown’s and a little more cooperative. All told we figured there were at least 500 McCown’s and maybe 20 Chestnut Collared Longspurs. The trip was off to a great start – now we needed some GROUSE!!
Chestnut Collared Longspur
It was then back to Denver where we met up with the group the next day. Altogether there would be ten participants plus our two guides – Forrest Davis, the owner of High Lonesome, and Stephan Lorenz who Frank and I agreed after the tour as being the best guide we have ever been with – super person and even more super birder. Other birders included one from Alberta, Canada, three from the SF Bay Area, two sisters from Texas and a couple from Maine plus Frank and me. Most were good (or better) birders and good company. Not to take much away from a great tour, let me get a couple of negatives out of the way: (1) maybe it was unavoidable given the miles we had to cover (2600) to see all the grouse, but we stayed in a different motel every night (only one was “barely acceptable”) and that made it pretty hectic; and (2) the vehicle situation was NOT acceptable. They used a van and a Chevy Suburban. Forrest and three birders were in the Suburban and Stephan and 7 birders were in the van which meant one in the front and then two each in three more rows behind. The windows did not open, visibility was almost nil and getting in and out (one side only) was a challenge. Not the end of the world, but there were times when it kind of felt close to it. Two minor glitches were way too many stops at Subway for sandwiches and either a defective GPS system or frequent user error by Forrest that resulted in several wrong turns or misses (one adding almost 60 miles to the journey).
Now for the good stuff in overview: all told we did go 2600 miles criss-crossing the entire state and saw 143 species including an astounding 13 species of gallinaceous birds, all target seen – even if a few just barely or not very well, wonderful weather (except for the snowstorm that hit Denver on the night before we were all scheduled to depart – and more on that later), lots of great photo ops, many great stories shared, incredible scenery despite Spring definitely not having arrived in Colorado yet, some very interesting people along the way, many wonderful mammals, and 6 new ABA Life Birds for me and around the same number for Frank. I would highly recommend the trip to anyone (with a request in advance for better transportation) and would recommend ANY trip with Stephan as a guide.
Stephan Lorenz – Super Guide
Day 1 – Denver to Fort Collins
With a brief stop at Boyd Lake, our first official leg of the tour took us from Denver to Fort Collins. Nothing special at the Lake but we did pick up a Franklin’s Gull and both Eared and Horned Grebes (with some confusion on ID). We had an excellent dinner in Fort Collins (dinners were excellent on the trip) and enjoyed some good social time.
|Boyd Lake, Larimer County, Colorado, US|
|Thu Apr 07, 2016 5:00 PM|
|25 species total|
|Great Blue Heron|
|Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon)|
Day 2 – Fort Collins to Silverthorne
This was our first real full day of birding and had some hits and misses. We first went to the Pawnee National Grasslands to find longspurs and Mountain Plover. Sure glad Frank and I had found these on our own since there were only a few longspurs – all McCown’s, all distant and all very unsatisfying looks. And no Mountain Plover. We did pick up our first Burrowing Owls of the trip – always a treat.
|Pawnee National Grassland–Weld Co. Rd. 45 from Rd. 114 to 122, Weld County, Colorado|
|Fri Apr 08, 2016 7:30 AM|
|4 hour(s)||50.0 kilometer(s)|
|20 species total|
|American White Pelican|
|Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon)|
Not an auspicious start but things improved dramatically at our next stop which was at Genessee Mountain Park. Good birds and good views and photos. These included all three nuthatch species, Williamson’s Sapsuckers, many Western Bluebirds, many Cassin’s Finches and Mountain Chickadees. I thought I was in the Teanaway or Wenas area in Washington.
White Breasted Nuthatch
|Genesee Mountain Park–south of I-70, Jefferson County, Colorado, US ( Map )|
|Fri Apr 08, 2016 2:45 PM|
|19 species total|
|Red Crossbill like Koo|
We spent the night in Silverthorne and got off to an early start the next day.
Day 3 – Silverthorne to Gunnison
This was going to be a good day and our first stop was at Loveland Pass, Elevation just under 12,000 feet. Plenty of snow which made finding our chief target a challenge – a fully white White Tailed Ptarmigan. Exceptional spotting turned up first one and then a second bird. You could only see the black spots of their eyes against the total white back drop. These were the first winter plumaged birds I had seen and the adrenalin was definitely flowing – a real high. On one bird in certain views you could just barely make out the red “eyebrow”.
White Tailed Ptarmigan
|Loveland Pass (Clear Creek Co.), Clear Creek County, Colorado, US ( Map )|
|Sat Apr 09, 2016 7:15 AM|
|2 species total|
But our day was just starting and our next stop was the Wildernest Community (homes in the Mountains). Here are quest was to find Rosy Finches. Forrest did know his birds and some “secret” spots to find them. There were feeders at some of the homes here and with some diligence we first found some flying flocks and then the feeders and had super looks at all Rosy Finch species including both Interior and Hepburns’s races of the Gray Crowned Rosy Finches, Black Rosy Finch and Brown Capped Rosy Finch. The latter two were ABA Life Birds for me.
Brown Capped and Gray Crowned Rosy Finches in One Tree
Brown Capped Rosy Finch
Black Rosy Finch
|Wildernest (community), Summit County, Colorado, US ( Map )|
|Sat Apr 09, 2016 8:30 AM|
|16 species total|
Forrest had a pocket spot for Lewis’s Woodpecker and that was our next stop, the Buena Vista Community in Chaffee County. In addition to some “regular birds” and indeed finding a Lewis’s Woodpecker, we also had a Red Naped Sapsucker. We then had another special woodpecker spot at Monarch Pass where we fairly quickly located an American Three Toed Woodpecker. (Checklists omitted.)
Red Naped Sapsucker
American Three Toed Woodpecker
At another stop we had our first Pinyon Jays of the trip – a bird I have seen only once before so close-ups were a treat.
It was then on to Gunnison and another excellent dinner. The next morning was to be up very early to hopefully see the Gunnison Sage Grouse.
Day 4 – Gunnison to Grand Junction
The Gunnison Sage Grouse was a top targeted bird and Lifer for all of us. The Waunita Hot Springs lek is on government owned property and there is a special trailer where the birders sit with louvered windows open and hopefully get views of the birds. You have to be there early (5:30 a.m.) and remain quiet throughout. Trying to figure out how to dress appropriately was one of the pre-trip challenges as temperatures could be in the low 20’s or below and you were sitting still for hours. Turned out that the temperature was not so bad (around freezing but no wind). There was much anticipation when the louvers were opened and we could scan the field and hills.
This was definitely NOT the “Disney Experience”. We had very distant (1/2 mile plus) views of the grouse. Scopes were provided by the local “guide” and our guides and were imperative. You could just make out the males with their long dark filoplumes on the neck when they displayed. Only recognized as a separate species in 2000, the birds are restricted to a very small geographic area, so although not much to see and definitely not much of a photo op, it was great to add this new species to all of our Life Lists.
Gunnison Sage Grouse – far far away
Altogether there were appearances by maybe 14 grouse and we also heard a hooting Great Horned Owl. We left after a couple of hours and then made a stop at the Almont Bridge to pick up an American Dipper before heading off through the spectacular Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park and a stop at the Upland Trail. Here we had two Golden Eagles, Clark’s Nutcrackers and the Woodhouse form of Western Scrub Jay which may be split into its own species. We also had a crazy Mountain Bluebird that was picking insects out of bullet holes on a Cattle in Area sign.
Western Scrub Jay – Woodhouse Form
|Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP–Upland Trail, Montrose County, Colorado|
|Sun Apr 10, 2016 11:00 AM|
|16 species total|
|Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon)|
It was then on to Grand Junction.
Day 5 – Grand Junction to Craig
We started the day travelling to Colorado National Monument which was where I hoped to add another Lifer – the Juniper Titmouse. The bird came right in in response to a brief playback and posed in the open for great photos. We also had Gambel’s Quail on this leg of the trip, a species I have not seen for many years.
|Colorado National Monument, Mesa County, Colorado|
|Mon Apr 11, 2016 7:00 AM|
|1 hour(s), 30 minute(s)|
|Black Throated Sparrow|
|Cameo & Coal Canyon, Mesa County, Colorado|
|Mon Apr 11, 2016 9:00 AM 1 hour(s), 30 minute(s)|
|16 species total|
|American Crow, American White Pelican|
|Black Billed Magpie, Black Throated Sparrow, Chukar|
|Canada Goose, Common Raven, House Finch|
|Mallard, Northern Mockingbird, Osprey|
|Red Tailed Hawk, Say’s Phoebe, Spotted Towhee|
|Turkey Vulture, Western Meadowlark|
We then travelled to 20 Mile Road south of Hayden in Routt County where we added a number of ducks and a couple of Sandhill Cranes. We then pulled in to Grand Junction for the night.
Day 6 – Craig to Walden
Our first stop was County Road 80 – First Hill where we were looking for Dusky Grouse. This is a species which is readily seen in Washington and particularly at Sun Mountain Lodge in Winthrop the birds can be seen very close and often displaying right at the Lodge and in the parking area. So it was very disappointing to have what I considered very poor looks at one or two birds down in a ravine. No real photo opportunities. Especially since we had gotten up early again to see the birds I was beginning to wonder if the trip had been exaggerated in the advertisement and our grouse experiences were gong to be a far cry from my Disney hopes.
We moved on to another grouse lek – for Sharp Tailed Grouse on 20 Mile Road – also in Routt County. We indeed had a good number of Sharp Tailed Grouse but fairly spread out and not as close nor as active as I had expected. I admit to being somewhat jaded by the photos I had received from a friend in British Columbia who had truly awesome pictures of very colorful Sharp Tails displaying at a lek there. Maybe if I had not seen them, this would have been more satisfying – but I wanted my Disney moments.
Sharp Tailed Grouse
Sharp Tailed Grouse Flight
We then continued to Rabbit Ears Pass where we added some Gray Jays and more Dark Eyed Juncoes and then drove to Walden Reservoir for more ducks, pelicans etc.
Day 7 – Walden to Wray
This was another early morning and this one was well worth it. Disney at last as we visited the Greater Sage Grouse Lek and were treated to a spectacular encounter with 110 Greater Sage Grouse booming and strutting and dancing and then doing it more and more and again and again. This was what I had dreamed of and this was perfect in great soft morning light. I took countless photos.
Greater Sage Grouse at Lek
We also had a couple of Sage Thrashers and a beautiful Rough Legged Hawk but that hardly mattered. The grouse were magnificent and any disappointment of the other “chicken” observations were quickly forgotten.
It was still early morning when we left the Sage Grouse spectacle and pulled in to the Moose Visitor Center at the Colorado State Forest where we had more Cassin’s Finches some gorgeous Evening Grosbeaks and another Red Naped Sapsucker among other birds.
That afternoon Forrest took us to a favorite spot where he had good luck with Chestnut Collared Longspurs – and they were there – only a handful but the first for the group and a life bird for many. One on the road provided a decent photo as well with the chestnut collar very apparent.
Chestnut Collared Longspur
And there would be more as our guides finally found a great Mountain Plover and some Chihuahuan Ravens in the Adobe Creek area.
The day had started off on a high and had more highs as we continued and then it ended on one as well as we arrived at the Bledsoe Ranch in Wray. It was here the next morning that we were going to see our Greater Prairie Chickens at a lek on the vast (65,000 acre) Bledsoe Ranch. First we met with the head of the Bledsoe family on the ranch for some history and an orientation. Fascinating stuff including that the matriarch, now 94, is still an avid pilot and until just recently had been an instructor. We then went out to the lek for a preview. We readily found a dozen Greater Prairie Chickens and also had a Wild Turkey and Ring Necked Pheasant to add to our “Colorado Chickens” list. Another highlight were at least three Burrowing Owls. If it was this good in the evening, the promise for the next morning was exciting indeed.
Our First Greater Prairie Chicken
Day 8 – Wray to Lamar
It was going to be hard to beat the previous day – but this day came pretty close. We arrived at the Bledsoe Ranch lek early and positioned ourselves in some pickup trucks that the Bledsoes left at the lek for viewing. These were not some beaten up old ranch pickups – nice comfortable vehicles with perfect sight lines for the show that was to unfold in front of us. And what a show it was – definitely Disney again as 32 Greater Prairie Chickens hooted and danced and jumped and strutted and called nonstop for two hours as we watched. Thank god for digital photography as the old film days would just not have allowed all the photos. Again perfect diffused morning light and the birds were definitely up close and personal and oblivious to our presence. Here are just a few of my hundreds of photos:
Greater Prairie Chickens
The Viewing Stations (Nice Pickups)
And again the Burrowing Owls were scattered around the lek paying little attention to action around them. A surprise was just how loud it was – booming and squawking continuously. Just a fantastic experience. On the way out we saw Wild Turkeys again and a Great Horned Owl just where Mr. Bledsoe had suggested it would be the night before – so two owl species in addition to the two gallinaceous birds. Wow!! And then wow again as we first heard and then saw four Northern Bobwhite on the Bledsoe Cattle Company property. Not a life bird but our 10th Gallinaceous bird for the trip and only the second time I have ever seen this species and my first photo.
If the trip ended right then I would have been a happy guy, but we still had our most challenging bird, the Lesser Prairie Chicken ahead of us and there were to be some more good birds as well. But the remainder of this day was spent on the long ride to Lamar where we hoped the lek would still be active for the Lesser Prairie Chicken. This is a very threatened bird and groups were now going to Kansas to find a productive lek. Forrest had a decent report from an earlier group so we continued on.
Day 9 – Lamar to Denver
Our motel in Lamar was not the greatest and it was going to be another early morning so sleep was somewhat fitful, but as with each other morning, everyone was ready to go pre-dawn and we headed to the Arena Dust Tours Lek. We saw but a single bird and it was quite distant but still good enough for a solid ID and a Life Bird for everyone. There had been as many as 5 birds earlier (still distant) a far cry from earlier days and it well may be that this site will no longer be visited by touring birders. After viewing the Lesser Prairie Chicken, we had a great farm breakfast with Fred and Emma operators of the Tour Lek as they had for many years. Fun to visit with them and see some of their rodeo memorabilia (Fred had been a big time rodeo guy.) The stuffed Lesser Prairie Chicken (natural death) was sure a better look than we had in the field.
Lesser Prairie Chicken in the Field
Blair with Lesser Prairie Chicken at Fred and Emma’s Breakfast Barn
Before hitting the road back to Denver we picked up some more nice birds including a Blue Jay (no photo) and a Mockingbird (poor photo) as well as some others we had seen previously but which I include now s they are rarities in my home state of Washington, Great Tailed and Common Grackle.
Great Tailed Grackle
Our first stop on the way back to Denver was at Holbrook Reservoir in Otero County where we added Black Necked Stilt and Snow Goose in addition to some Clark’s Grebes that were mixed in with the 100+ Western Grebes and we also had both Franklin’s and Bonaparte’s Gulls.
Black Necked Stilt
|Holbrook Reservoir, Otero County, Colorado|
|Fri Apr 15, 2016 11:00 AM|
|21 species total|
We then made a quick stop at nearby Cheraw Lake adding more waterfowl including all three species of teal.
|Cheraw Lake, Otero County, Colorado|
|Fri Apr 15, 2016 12:00 PM|
|14 species total|
We next visited the Pueblo Reservoir Area (Swallows) and found one of my hoped-for birds – Scaled Quail. We also found some Canyon Towhees and a Curve Billed Thrasher. None of these were life birds but all were my first ever pictures.
Curve Billed Thrasher
Canyon Towhees (Terrible photo)
The Scaled Quail was our 13th “Chicken” on the trip – an extraordinary list which I recap here: Gambel’s Quail, Ring Necked Pheasant, Chukar, Dusky Grouse, Sharp Tailed Grouse, White Tailed Ptarmigan, Greater Sage Grouse, Gunnison Sage Grouse, Wild Turkey, Greater Prairie Chicken, Lesser Prairie Chicken, Northern Bobwhite and Scaled Quail. And as an aside, within the month of the Colorado trip I also had the following additional gallinaceous birds in my home state of Washington: California Quail, Sooty Grouse, Gray Partridge and Ruffed Grouse. I gave some thought to trying to chase down the only other “chickens” possible for Washington – Mountain Quail and Spruce Grouse but I ran out of time and neither are sure things in any event.
I have not done a good job of including mammals that were seen along the way so add some photos here of Prairie Dog (we saw several species) and Bighorn Sheep and there were many more including Ground Squirrels, various Rabbits, Mule Deer, a Coyote and marmots.
And while I took thousands of photos of birds, I did not do so well with the splendid scenery and the wonderful people in the group. Here are a couple of scenery shots just for the record.
I am particularly sorry not to have gotten any good shots of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park so include one taken by someone else.
Before closing with the rather remarkable story of the flight home from Denver, I want to add some words on the participants on the trip:
Ed and Debbie Hawkes from Maine were great company – Ed is a nationally acclaimed wood carver (birds mostly) and Debbie may have had the best eyes on the trip including finding the White Tailed Ptarmigan in the White snow. It was particularly fun to share stories with them of my trip to Maine last summer.
Ray Wood was our Canadian guest – another great birder and it was particularly fun to hear his stories on his most impressive Big Canada Year last year. Lots of wonderful birds.
Julio Mulero and Renee Poliozotto were a biotech/biochemist couple from California who added much to the group with keen eyes and fun stories. Julio is doing a unique kind of “Bird Quest” as he is trying to get a photo of EVERY bird that breeds in North America. He is well on his way including photos of such rarities as Black Rail, Himalayan Snowcock and Gray Headed Chickadee. Julio is also a super photographer and I had a definite case of lens (and talent) envy.
Gretchen and Charlotte Armstrong more than represented their beloved Texas well. Probably the least experienced birders on the trip, they were super troopers and did not miss a bird (or a chance to talk about their dogs and quilts and football teams).
Danny Swicegood was another Californian and avid birder with great eyes and bird finding skills. Always in good spirits, he often was the first to get on a bird with his scope and share the view with others.
Last is my travel companion from Edmonds, Frank Caruso. Frank not only has the best ears of anyone I know (especially over 60) but also has the a superb processor to know what he hears and to get on the birds. That was less important on this trip but still was a great help at times. More importantly he is a great easy going guy and that is super on any trip. (Despite being a Patriots fan – GO HAWKS!!)
On our last day we had a lot of ground to cover to get to Denver so everyone could fly out the next day – theoretically. We had FANTASTIC weather the entire trip with temperatures ranging from the 20’s (but did not feel that cold with little wind) to the 80’s but now that it was over, things changed and one of those Rocky Mountain storms was predicted for Denver that night and into the next day. Some areas were predicted to receive more than TWO FEET of snow. As we neared Denver we were getting word already of cancelled flights. United essentially gave up and cancelled all of their next day flights before a single flake of snow appeared. American and Southwest were almost as bad. Frank and I were scheduled to fly out in the morning on Alaska Airlines and their website had the flight scheduled to go when we went to sleep after our farewell dinner.
Sure enough when we awoke the next morning there was several of inches of snow on the ground and more coming down. Alaska still had the flight as a “go” but our concern was that we would check out of the hotel, lose our room, get to the airport and THEN have it cancelled. But Alaska was terrific. Our flight left the gate only a few minutes late and then was gladly delayed while it went through a very thorough de-icing. We arrived in Seattle maybe 30 minutes after it was scheduled to arrive. Out of our entire group, we were the only ones to get out that day. All other flights were cancelled.
And the icing on top of the cake was that when we arrived in Seattle, despite being in the midsection of the plane, we were the first to arrive at the baggage carousel. My bag was the first out of the chute and I literally did nod not have to wait a second as I walked up and retrieved it in stride. Frank’s was bag number 4 and he too got it in stride. I had driven to the airport and parked offsite at a place which had valet parking. I called and they asked how long it would take for me to get to Area 1 for their shuttle. I thought maybe 5 minutes and they said a shuttle was on its way and if we missed it another would arrive in 15 minutes. The shuttle pulled up just as we arrived at the platform and again we did not even slow down and literally walked right on when the doors opened. When we arrived a few minutes later at the lot, my car was there at the off loading spot – with the engine running. Again without missing a second we climbed aboard and headed north. It is about 25 miles from the airport to Edmonds. With no traffic that means 25 minutes, With traffic it can take an hour and 25 minutes or more. There was NO traffic and we were home 25 minutes after leaving the lot. My best guess is that it took no more than 40 minutes from the time we got off the plane until we were back home – definitely a world record of sorts.
That’s my story and I am sticking to it. Truly a great trip – not entirely Disneyesque but many moments sure were and I have both mental and actual pictures to prove it!!!