Our Colorado adventure began in Denver and from there we headed southeast to Pueblo, leaving the Front Range in the rear-view mirror… at least for a couple days. On our way to Pueblo, we stopped to see Mountain Plovers in a desolate stretch of grassland. The birds put on quite a show for us—zipping back and forth across the road in a courtship chase. From Pueblo we continued east to the plains of Kansas, finding Snowy Plovers, Rough-legged Hawks and a migrating kaleidoscope of White Pelicans overhead. Then, early before dawn, we met Jim Millensifer who led us out to two blinds on the Nature Conservancy Smoky Valley Ranch property, one of the last holdouts of native Kansas grassland. As we peered onto the steely blue hills, dark shapes began to stir: Lesser Prairie-Chickens preparing to dance. They leaned forward erecting their rabbit-ear pinnae feathers while inflating their grapefruit-pink air sacks to produce electric popping sounds. With some fancy foot shuffles and tail pumps peppered in, it was quite the show!
Our experience with Greater Prairie-Chickens on the Bledsoe Ranch of Wray Colorado was equally impressive. We remained in the vans and watched the males give their deep meditative “hooo” calls while the full moon sank behind them. As the lek intensified, and especially when females walked by, males would square each other off and engage in a bout of kickboxing. After a satisfying morning at the lek we cut south all the way to Montrose with a stop at the Pawnee Grasslands on the way. Despite the 30-mph wind, we managed to find Thick-billed Longspurs in their crisp breeding plumage. Tom also spotted a Badger shuffling across the windswept grassland. We spent a brisk morning with Gray-crowned, Brown-capped and Black Rosy-finches at Silverthorne then drove up to Loveland Pass where Tom picked out a mile-away White-tailed Ptarmigan. Woohoo!
Black Canyon of the Gunnison is one of those underrated parks. I hadn’t even heard of it before I started studying for the tour and I was completely blown away when we got there. We spent a morning birding the edge of the canyon, then returned in the late afternoon to find a Dusky Grouse at the edge of the road. Unlike the other grouse of the tour, these are solitary performers. A male will find a clearing to inflate his throat sack and produce a deep booming sound that attracts the females. The other grouse we’d come to see was Gunnison Sage-Grouse. Only described back in 2016, these spectacular birds of picturesque sage-covered hills put on quite the show for us, albeit a distant one, but we could still see their long, floppy head plumes launch into the sky.
Then, it was north to Grand Junction where we saw Sagebrush Sparrows, Desert Bighorn and a recent-arrival Gray Vireo before we continued on toward Craig. We set up early at Ken Bekkedahl’s property and as it got light, we could make out fluffy white shapes shuffling through the grass. They were Sharp-tailed Grouse with their wings outstretched and tails high in the sky. These animated dancers put on quite the visual and auditory display. Along with their robotic foot shuffling and tail vibrating they produced loud clucking sounds, and while they weren’t dancing some males gave a deep hooting sound by inflating their lilac air sacks.
The grand finale of the Colorado tour is Greater Sage-Grouse outside of Walden. We pulled up to their lek in the predawn gloom. It was snowing. In fact, we were in the middle of a blizzard and high winds sent snow horizontally across the sage flats. But the grouse were unfazed, performing like they do every day. We watched the robust males thrust their enormous pectoral air sacks for the females until a Golden Eagle slipped over the horizon sending the entire flock whizzing right over us and across the valley. It was incredible to see such chunky birds move so briskly through the air. Unfortunately, that was it for the lek, but we managed to find a male moving about in the snow close to the road.
Numerous people took part in the success of the tour. We’d like to thank Sharon in our office for making all our reservations, Jim Millensifer at the Lesser Prairie-Chicken leks, Bob Bledsoe with Greater Prairie-Chickens in Wray, and Ken Bekkedahl at the Sharp-tailed Grouse lek. Tom and I would like to thank you all for joining us on this adventure—we look forward to birding with you again soon!
KEYS FOR THIS LIST
One of the following keys may be shown in brackets for individual species as appropriate: * = heard only, I = introduced, E = endemic, N = nesting, a = austral migrant, b = boreal migrant
SNOW GOOSE (Anser caerulescens caerulescens)
A few late migrants lingered at Riverside Park, Fort Morgan.
CACKLING GOOSE (Branta hutchinsii)
There was a small flock at Riverside Park.
CANADA GOOSE (Branta canadensis)
Encountered regularly throughout the tour.
WOOD DUCK (Aix sponsa)
We had nice scope views of a pair in the cottonwoods near Pueblo Reservoir.
BLUE-WINGED TEAL (Spatula discors)
Seen on most of the reservoirs we visited.
CINNAMON TEAL (Spatula cyanoptera)
It was cool to see a hybrid Blue-wingedxCinnamon Teal at Cheraw Lake.
NORTHERN SHOVELER (Spatula clypeata)
GADWALL (Mareca strepera)
AMERICAN WIGEON (Mareca americana)
MALLARD (Anas platyrhynchos)
NORTHERN PINTAIL (Anas acuta)
GREEN-WINGED TEAL (AMERICAN) (Anas crecca carolinensis)
CANVASBACK (Aythya valisineria)
REDHEAD (Aythya americana)
A small flock was out at Crystal Lake.
RING-NECKED DUCK (Aythya collaris)
LESSER SCAUP (Aythya affinis)
LONG-TAILED DUCK (Clangula hyemalis)
One was hanging out at Crystal Lake, a rare bird for Colorado.
BUFFLEHEAD (Bucephala albeola)
COMMON GOLDENEYE (Bucephala clangula)
HOODED MERGANSER (Lophodytes cucullatus)
We scoped some our final afternoon at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal.
COMMON MERGANSER (Mergus merganser)
What a crazy thing to watch one flying through Black Canyon of the Gunnison!
RED-BREASTED MERGANSER (Mergus serrator)
A few flew past us while we scoped Pueblo Reservoir.
RUDDY DUCK (Oxyura jamaicensis)
They were in crisp breeding plumage at Cheraw Lake!
GAMBEL'S QUAIL (Callipepla gambelii)
We saw several in the neighborhood below Colorado National Monument.
CHUKAR (Alectoris chukar) [I]
We made a stop at Coal Canyon near Grand Junction and sure enough the birds were there!
RING-NECKED PHEASANT (Phasianus colchicus) [I]
We saw several off the road while driving through Kansas.
GREATER SAGE-GROUSE (Centrocercus urophasianus)
We watched them lek in the middle of a snow storm near Walden before a Golden Eagle swooped in and flushed them. It was incredible to hear the sound from their wings as they flew right over us. Later on, we found a male picking at snow-covered sage right off the side of the road.
GUNNISON SAGE-GROUSE (Centrocercus minimus)
Only described to science back in 1996. We spent a morning watching a group of males toss their fancy head plumes in the air--certainly one of the highlights of the tour!
WHITE-TAILED PTARMIGAN (Lagopus leucura altipetens)
Tom spotted one in a snow bank about a mile away at Loveland Pass! These hardy birds persist on a diet of willow buds to get through the harsh winter.
DUSKY GROUSE (Dendragapus obscurus obscurus)
Our afternoon drive at Black Canyon of the Gunnison brought us to one right along the road! Unlike the other grouse we saw on the tour, these display solo.
SHARP-TAILED GROUSE (Tympanuchus phasianellus columbianus)
It was breathtaking to watch the males in a frenzy of foot-stomping, tail-shaking and wing-spreading at Ken Bekkedahl's ranch. I love the combination of lilac throat sack and orange eye comb.
GREATER PRAIRIE-CHICKEN (PINNATUS) (Tympanuchus cupido pinnatus)
We had a fantastic morning watching the lek on Bob Bledsoe's Ranch. Check out the video above.
LESSER PRAIRIE-CHICKEN (Tympanuchus pallidicinctus)
My personal favorite of the lekking grouse. We spent a morning watching them through blinds at the Nature Conservancy Smoky Valley Ranch Property. What a privilege to watch such a scarce bird in such beautiful habitat.
WILD TURKEY (Meleagris gallopavo)
Fairly regular along the roadsides.
PIED-BILLED GREBE (Podilymbus podiceps)
HORNED GREBE (Podiceps auritus)
Nice side-by-side comparisons with Eared Grebes at Cheraw Lake.
EARED GREBE (Podiceps nigricollis)
It was nice to see them in their nifty breeding plumage, something I rarely get to appreciate.
WESTERN GREBE (Aechmophorus occidentalis)
We scoped this species at numerous reservoirs throughout the trip.
CLARK'S GREBE (Aechmophorus clarkii)
Far less common than Western Grebe. We picked a few out at Cheraw Lake.
ROCK PIGEON (Columba livia) [I]
EURASIAN COLLARED-DOVE (Streptopelia decaocto)
MOURNING DOVE (Zenaida macroura)
WHITE-THROATED SWIFT (Aeronautes saxatalis)
Colorado National Monument is a great place to see this species. We watched several zooming around acrobatically over the sandstone cliffs.
BLACK-CHINNED HUMMINGBIRD (Archilochus alexandri)
One made a brief appearance at the feeders near Colorado National Monument.
AMERICAN COOT (Fulica americana)
SANDHILL CRANE (Antigone canadensis)
We saw several while driving through the Yampa River Valley. We saw a very brown individual outside Montrose one afternoon.
BLACK-NECKED STILT (Himantopus mexicanus)
AMERICAN AVOCET (Recurvirostra americana)
SNOWY PLOVER (Charadrius nivosus)
An uncommon breeder in the plains of Colorado. We scoped some at Holbrook Reservoir and Cheraw Lake.
KILLDEER (Charadrius vociferus)
MOUNTAIN PLOVER (Charadrius montanus)
We pulled over on the Hanover Road and watched them chase display back and forth across the road. Fabulous!
BAIRD'S SANDPIPER (Calidris bairdii)
One flew in and landed near us at Stalker Lake near Wray, Colorado, probably just arriving from the high Andes.
LEAST SANDPIPER (Calidris minutilla)
LONG-BILLED DOWITCHER (Limnodromus scolopaceus)
Nine were on the mud flats at Meeker Pond.
WILSON'S PHALAROPE (Phalaropus tricolor)
A few were on the far shore of Goodland Wastewater Treatment Plant.
SPOTTED SANDPIPER (Actitis macularius)
GREATER YELLOWLEGS (Tringa melanoleuca)
WILLET (WESTERN) (Tringa semipalmata inornata)
Seen at Rocky Mountain Arsenal and Goodland Water Treatment Plant.
LESSER YELLOWLEGS (Tringa flavipes)
BONAPARTE'S GULL (Chroicocephalus philadelphia)
In beautiful breeding plumage at Holbrook Reservoir.
FRANKLIN'S GULL (Leucophaeus pipixcan)
April is a good time to see these migrants on the plains of Colorado. We had great views at Holbrook Reservoir.
RING-BILLED GULL (Larus delawarensis)
CALIFORNIA GULL (Larus californicus)
The common gull at Walden Reservoir.
COMMON LOON (Gavia immer)
Several were out at Pueblo Reservoir.
DOUBLE-CRESTED CORMORANT (Phalacrocorax auritus)
AMERICAN WHITE PELICAN (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos)
A migrant flock kaleidoscoped over us at Holbrook Reservoir.
GREAT BLUE HERON (Ardea herodias)
WHITE-FACED IBIS (Plegadis chihi)
Some migrants at Stalker Lake.
TURKEY VULTURE (Cathartes aura)
OSPREY (Pandion haliaetus)
Ubiquitous throughout the tour.
GOLDEN EAGLE (Aquila chrysaetos)
It was mind blowing how many there were on the drive up to Craig. We had several close encounters.
NORTHERN HARRIER (Circus hudsonius)
SHARP-SHINNED HAWK (Accipiter striatus)
COOPER'S HAWK (Accipiter cooperii)
NORTHERN GOSHAWK (Accipiter gentilis)
A juvenile blasted over the road right as we stopped to see the Dusky Grouse at Black Canyon of the Gunnison.
BALD EAGLE (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)
SWAINSON'S HAWK (Buteo swainsoni)
Migrants arrived fresh from the grasslands of South America.
RED-TAILED HAWK (Buteo jamaicensis)
ROUGH-LEGGED HAWK (Buteo lagopus)
We saw a few lingerers on the Kansas plains before they headed north to Alaska and Canada.
FERRUGINOUS HAWK (Buteo regalis)
We stopped for one off the side of the road near Walden.
GREAT HORNED OWL (Bubo virginianus)
BELTED KINGFISHER (Megaceryle alcyon)
WILLIAMSON'S SAPSUCKER (Sphyrapicus thyroideus)
Wow! Both male and female flew in and landed in an Aspen right in front of us. What a striking difference between them!
RED-NAPED SAPSUCKER (Sphyrapicus nuchalis)
We had glorious looks at a male at the Moose Visitor Center parking lot.
LEWIS'S WOODPECKER (Melanerpes lewis)
It took about 15 seconds to find them in the neighborhood of Buena Vista.
DOWNY WOODPECKER (Dryobates pubescens)
HAIRY WOODPECKER (ROCKY MTS.) (Dryobates villosus orius)
NORTHERN FLICKER (YELLOW-SHAFTED) (Colaptes auratus auratus)
We saw an intergrade with a black and yellow malar.
NORTHERN FLICKER (RED-SHAFTED) (Colaptes auratus cafer)
AMERICAN KESTREL (Falco sparverius)
PEREGRINE FALCON (Falco peregrinus)
One sped by at Riverside Park, Fort Morgan.
PRAIRIE FALCON (Falco mexicanus)
One flew by as we neared Walden.
GRAY FLYCATCHER (Empidonax wrightii)
We saw one along the road into Black Canyon of the Gunnison.
SAY'S PHOEBE (Sayornis saya)
GRAY VIREO (Vireo vicinior)
Recently arrived from the Sonoran Desert of Northern Mexico, we watched a Gray Vireo sing vigorously at Colorado National Monument.
LOGGERHEAD SHRIKE (Lanius ludovicianus)
CANADA JAY (ROCKY MTS.) (Perisoreus canadensis capitalis)
Nice! We watched a pair at Rabbit Ears Pass.
PINYON JAY (Gymnorhinus cyanocephalus)
We saw a lone bird near Grand Junction. Usually they're in big flocks.
STELLER'S JAY (INTERIOR) (Cyanocitta stelleri macrolopha)
We had great looks at a few birds at the Moose Visitor Center.
WOODHOUSE'S SCRUB-JAY (Aphelocoma woodhouseii)
Our best views were on the drive up to Black Canyon of the Gunnison.
BLACK-BILLED MAGPIE (Pica hudsonia)
CLARK'S NUTCRACKER (Nucifraga columbiana)
This species is easy to miss on a tour. We saw one coming in to the feeders at Silverthorne.
AMERICAN CROW (Corvus brachyrhynchos)
CHIHUAHUAN RAVEN (Corvus cryptoleucus)
Flyovers at Holbrook Reservoir.
COMMON RAVEN (Corvus corax)
BLACK-CAPPED CHICKADEE (Poecile atricapillus)
MOUNTAIN CHICKADEE (Poecile gambeli)
We had nice looks at the Silverthorne feeders.
JUNIPER TITMOUSE (Baeolophus ridgwayi)
We had one heck of a view outside Craig. One sat in front of us for several minutes on a Juniper covered hillside.
HORNED LARK (Eremophila alpestris)
NORTHERN ROUGH-WINGED SWALLOW (Stelgidopteryx serripennis)
PURPLE MARTIN (Progne subis)
A few early migrants were at Goodland Wastewater Treatment.
TREE SWALLOW (Tachycineta bicolor)
VIOLET-GREEN SWALLOW (Tachycineta thalassina)
BANK SWALLOW (Riparia riparia)
BARN SWALLOW (Hirundo rustica)
CLIFF SWALLOW (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota)
BUSHTIT (INTERIOR) (Psaltriparus minimus plumbeus)
RUBY-CROWNED KINGLET (Regulus calendula)
WHITE-BREASTED NUTHATCH (INTERIOR WEST) (Sitta carolinensis nelsoni)
Coming to the feeders at Silverthorne.
PYGMY NUTHATCH (Sitta pygmaea)
Also at the Silverthorne feeders.
BLUE-GRAY GNATCATCHER (Polioptila caerulea)
ROCK WREN (Salpinctes obsoletus)
Seen at Pueblo Reservoir and Colorado National Monument.
CANYON WREN (Catherpes mexicanus) [*]
BEWICK'S WREN (MEXICANUS GROUP) (Thryomanes bewickii eremophilus)
AMERICAN DIPPER (Cinclus mexicanus)
An 11th hour save as we cruised back into Denver on our final day!
EUROPEAN STARLING (Sturnus vulgaris) [I]
CURVE-BILLED THRASHER (CURVIROSTRE GROUP) (Toxostoma curvirostre oberholseri)
These were near the restrooms at Pueblo Reservoir.
SAGE THRASHER (Oreoscoptes montanus)
There were a few migrants in the Pawnee Grasslands.
NORTHERN MOCKINGBIRD (Mimus polyglottos)
WESTERN BLUEBIRD (Sialia mexicana)
MOUNTAIN BLUEBIRD (Sialia currucoides)
We had numerous good looks throughout the trip.
TOWNSEND'S SOLITAIRE (Myadestes townsendi)
It was kind of unusual to find one at Wray Fish Hatchery.
AMERICAN ROBIN (Turdus migratorius)
HOUSE SPARROW (Passer domesticus) [I]
AMERICAN PIPIT (Anthus rubescens)
EVENING GROSBEAK (Coccothraustes vespertinus brooksi)
Wow! A male and female came in to the feeders at Silverthorne.
PINE GROSBEAK (ROCKY MTS.) (Pinicola enucleator montana)
One of my personal favorites! A pair came down to the feeders at the Moose Vistor Center.
GRAY-CROWNED ROSY-FINCH (HEPBURN'S) (Leucosticte tephrocotis littoralis)
Two of these gray-cheeked forms were at the Silverthorne feeders.
GRAY-CROWNED ROSY-FINCH (GRAY-CROWNED) (Leucosticte tephrocotis tephrocotis)
BLACK ROSY-FINCH (Leucosticte atrata)
Only a couple were mixed in with the other Rosy Finches at Silverthorne.
BROWN-CAPPED ROSY-FINCH (Leucosticte australis)
The most abundant of the Rosy Finches at the Silverthorne feeders.
HOUSE FINCH (Haemorhous mexicanus)
CASSIN'S FINCH (Haemorhous cassinii)
We had great looks at the Moose Vistor Center.
RED CROSSBILL (Loxia curvirostra)
Watching them in the scope at the Silverthorne Feeders was outstanding.
PINE SISKIN (Spinus pinus)
LESSER GOLDFINCH (Spinus psaltria)
MCCOWN'S LONGSPUR (Rhynchophanes mccownii)
We managed to see some in the Pawnee Grasslands despite the 30 mph wind. They were in crisp breeding plumage.
CHIPPING SPARROW (Spizella passerina)
BREWER'S SPARROW (Spizella breweri)
We saw one along the Utah border near Grand Junction.
BLACK-THROATED SPARROW (Amphispiza bilineata)
At Colorado National Monument.
LARK SPARROW (Chondestes grammacus)
We saw one right at the Utah border.
FOX SPARROW (SLATE-COLORED) (Passerella iliaca schistacea) [*]
DARK-EYED JUNCO (PINK-SIDED) (Junco hyemalis mearnsi)
One was coming to the feeders at the Moose Visitor Center.
DARK-EYED JUNCO (GRAY-HEADED) (Junco hyemalis caniceps)
The common junco of the Rocky Mountains.
WHITE-CROWNED SPARROW (GAMBEL'S) (Zonotrichia leucophrys gambelii)
The common form of White-crowned Sparrow in Colorado.
SAGEBRUSH SPARROW (Artemisiospiza nevadensis)
We stepped across into Utah to see this species in a beautiful swath of sagebrush.
VESPER SPARROW (Pooecetes gramineus)
SONG SPARROW (Melospiza melodia)
CANYON TOWHEE (Melozone fusca)
In the rocks at Pueblo Reservoir.
GREEN-TAILED TOWHEE (Pipilo chlorurus)
Right at the edge of Black Canyon of the Gunnison. We also saw some at Colorado National Monument.
SPOTTED TOWHEE (Pipilo maculatus)
Near the Bledsoe Ranch outside Wray Colorado.
YELLOW-HEADED BLACKBIRD (Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus)
WESTERN MEADOWLARK (Sturnella neglecta)
RED-WINGED BLACKBIRD (Agelaius phoeniceus)
BROWN-HEADED COWBIRD (Molothrus ater)
BREWER'S BLACKBIRD (Euphagus cyanocephalus)
A few of these pale-eyed blackbirds were on the road to Black Canyon of the Gunnison.
COMMON GRACKLE (BRONZED) (Quiscalus quiscula versicolor)
GREAT-TAILED GRACKLE (Quiscalus mexicanus)
YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLER (AUDUBON'S) (Setophaga coronata auduboni)
One was seen near Wray Colorado.
BLACK-THROATED GRAY WARBLER (Setophaga nigrescens)
The juniper forest on the way to Black Canyon of the Gunnison is where we saw our first singing males.
NUTTALL'S (MOUNTAIN) COTTONTAIL (Sylvilagus nuttalli)
The cottontail seen around Black Canyon of the Gunnison.
DESERT COTTONTAIL (Sylvilagus audubonii)
The cottontail around Denver.
WHITE-TAILED JACKRABBIT (Lepus townsendi)
One blasted across the road as we approached the Greater Sage-Grouse lek.
BLACK-TAILED JACKRABBIT (Lepus californicus)
The jackrabbit at the Utah border.
LEAST CHIPMUNK (Tamias minimus)
Regularly seen along the road.
YELLOW-BELLIED MARMOT (Marmota flaviventris)
The Yampa River Valley proved to be a good place for these richly colored rodents.
WYOMING GROUND SQUIRREL (Urocitellus elegans)
These look more like small prairie dogs. We saw some near Craig.
THIRTEEN-LINED GROUND SQUIRREL (Spermophilus tridecemlineatus)
One was along the fence at the Pawnee Grasslands.
GOLDEN-MANTLED GROUND SQUIRREL (Spermophilus lateralis)
Common at the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. One sat out on a shrub right along the road.
BLACK-TAILED PRAIRIE DOG (Cynomys ludovicianus)
The prairie dogs around Denver. They were especially abundant at Rocky Mountain Arsenal.
GUNNISON PRAIRIE DOG (Cynomys gunnisoni)
The prairie dogs in the fields around Montrose.
FOX SQUIRREL (Sciurus niger)
They were all over Riverside Park.
BEAVER (Castor canadensis)
We scoped one on a lake near Montrose and saw several of their lodges throughout the tour.
RED FOX (Vulpes vulpes)
We saw a couple along our drives.
COYOTE (Canis latrans)
AMERICAN BADGER (Taxidea taxus)
Not one but two Badgers were seen on this tour, one at the Pawnee Grasslands and one near Craig. The one near Craig was watching a colony of Wyoming Ground Squirrels.
NORTH AMERICAN RIVER OTTER (Lontra canadensis)
We saw one in the river as we drove back from Ken Bekkedahl's ranch.
ELK (Cervus canadensis)
Some roadside Elk were near Crystal Lake.
MULE DEER (Odocoileus hemionus)
WHITE-TAILED DEER (Odocoileus virginianus)
The only place we saw them was the Rocky Mountain Arsenal.
MOOSE (Alces alces)
Walden is the best place to see Moose in Colorado. We saw several while we were there. One was even at the Moose Visitor Center.
PRONGHORN (Antilocapra americana)
We drove past several of these glorious ungulates throughout the tour.
BIGHORN SHEEP (Ovis canadensis)
We actually saw both subspecies--the Rocky Mountain Bighorns near Idaho Springs and the Desert Bighorn at Colorado National Monument!
Totals for the tour: 170 bird taxa and 23 mammal taxa