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Big Day (Bird Race)

2 March 1994

by Marvin Davis

Big Day Statistics:



"Stars were still twinkling in the moon-less night sky when I arose from a comfortable bed at the Sandhills Motel in Wray, Colorado.  As a slight promise of dawn began to show on the eastern horizon, I turned from highway 385 and drove slowly down an unpaved, ungravelled road traversing the Bledsoe Ranch, through the sand-hills of Yuma County in eastern Colorado.  After the first mile, as the light in the east gathered strength for the surge towards sunrise, I began to pause at the top of each successive rise in the track to listen.  At 5:00 A.M., across the sagebrush-clad hills, came a harsh double-noted call kek--kek, the second note higher and slightly more emphatic.  Although I'd not heard the sound in many years, it was instantly recognizable.  The crowing of a cock Ring-necked Pheasant placed that species on my day's list a number one.  While it was expected, and not unwelcome, the subsequent sounds of five or six pheasants crowing in the pre-dawn air weren't the calls I came hoping to hear.

At 5:10, as the light intensity approached a mere hint of day-break, the songs of Horned Larks and Western Meadowlarks soon became mingled with another sound.  A hollow hooting floated to my ears on the cold southwest wind, quite unlike the pheasant calls.   It was the spring pronouncement of a male Greater Prairie-Chicken, my first of two target species for the day.

Having failed to make advance arrangements for permission to enter the ranch property for a possible close approach to a lek, I was forced to proceed with hopes of spotting the prairie-chickens from a public-access road through the rangeland.  As soon as there was enough light to hope to see the chickens, and not just hear them, I strained repeatedly to see any movement in the distance.

In the 28 F air there were plenty of prairie-chickens plopping their air-sacs, and hooting, but I still could not discern their leks.  Having travelled six miles from the highway without a glimpse of chicken, I turned back, despairing of making a sighting.  But I decided to linger, and, at 6:15, was rewarded when I spotted two on the wing, and shortly thereafter, three more.  Although this was not as desirable as watching the birds parade on the lek, it was better than simply hearing them.

A moment later, I was pleased to add a mammal sighting, that of a tawny coyote trotting unconcerned across my path, 200 yards away.

As my route required heading south, I returned to Wray, pausing at a nearby cattle-yard to add Red-winged Blackbird, European Starling, and American Robin.  More exiting was the first Ferruginous Hawk for the day.  A stop at a small city park beside a bubbling streamlet (ambitiously called the North Fork Republican River) yielded a Killdeer, six Blue Jays, a Northern Flicker, and three American Goldfinches, besides more robins, starlings, and House Sparrows.

After 16 bird-less miles of flat, open country, the highway dropped into the valley of the Arikaree River -- again, a misnomer for such an unimposing, minute trickle.  However, the water course supported a scattered array of mature cottonwoods and a few shrubs.  To my great surprise, a few moments of playing an Eastern Screech-Owl tape yielded an answering tremolo call, while also attracting six Black-capped Chickadees and two White-breasted Nuthatches.  The day's first Red-tailed Hawk flew past, a Rock Dove flushed from beneath the bridge, and downstream were a pair of Mallards.  Near the ducks were the first evidence of early spring migration, three Greater Yellowlegs feeding in the shallow water.

Further on a dozen miles was a man-made oasis of trees on the plains, where a church house and its adjacent parsonage had been supplied a windbreak and some shade.  However, only House Sparrows and robins evident after a brief exploration.  The highway soon reached an important stop, the crossing of the more imposing South Fork Republican River.  Several miles downstream, near the Kansas state line, is the dam that impounds Bonny Res., the prime spot on Colorado's plains where birders from the Front Range cities come to seek birds of eastern habitats, especially spring migrants.

Unfortunately, March 21 was too early for most land-bird migration.  I had to be satisfied to add an American Kestrel, four species of duck, an immature Bald Eagle, Ring-billed and Herring Gulls, and a flock of about 1000 Snow Geese.  The woods edging most of the lake were good for two Fox Squirrels, a pair of Downy Woodpeckers, and a fairly rare Red-bellied Woodpecker.  Two male Mountain Bluebirds added much brightness and color to the day's list.

Lunch was at 11:00 at a drive-in at Burlington, which also supplied a singing House Finch.  Twelve miles further south was the day's only Rough-legged Hawk, a nice "field-guide typical" immature bird.  By 12:30 I reached the town of Sheridan Lake.  The town's namesake was, as expected, 99% dry.  However, it had attracted a trio of small, whiter-than-white geese that flushed, circled 'round, and then landed in high weedy growth that hid all but their heads.  There was enough of a view to confirm their being Ross' Geese, a satisfying addition, since I had been unable to pick any out in the large flock of Snow Geese at Bonny Res..  Another surprise, flushed from the edge of the white salt-an of the lake bed, was a flock of 25 Chestnut-collared Longspurs, identified by their distinctive call and tail pattern.

After another sterile, arrow-straight 25-mile stretch south, I entered the valley of the Arkansas River, the major river system east of the Continental Divide in the southern half of Colorado.  A half-hour here yielded three more duck species, and singles of American Crow, Black-billed Magpie, and Eastern Bluebird, the latter a beautiful, brightly-colored male.

Hurrying through Lamar and south another 30 miles, I side-tracked to a northern Baca County "hot-spot", Two Buttes Res..  The reservoir is a wonder to me each time I visit -- I wonder whether it will hold any water!  This time there was a good supply, and to my list I added American Coot, and one pair each of Blue-winged and Cinnamon Teal.  The red, rock-lined canyon below the dam contains not only a cattail marsh, but prime land-bird habitat that serves as a migrant trap.  This day it was good for White-crowned and Harris' Sparrows, Canyon and Marsh Wrens, a pair of kestrels, a Northern (Red-shafted) Flicker, and one unexpected Porcupine up a tree.  Near a prosperous prairie-dog town south of the lake was the sole Black-tailed Jackrabbit for the day, and several Brewer's Blackbirds that became the 51st species.  Shortly thereafter, at 16:30, four Chihuahuan Ravens flew into view.

It was then full speed another 40 miles south to a portion of the Comanche National Grasslands southeast of Campo.  Here there is a marked route to an observation point for the Lesser Prairie-Chicken, at a lek in sand-sage habitat reminiscent of the Yuma County Sandhills.  En route a straggly tree in the yard of a deserted house held a Great Horned Owl nest, and 100 yards off were the pair.  Arriving at the lek at 17:40, later than scheduled, I had only a ten-minute wait before a cock prairie-chicken came flying to a landing about 30 yards away.  He was soon followed by two more hens and two more cocks.  The birds seemed alert to and wary of my car, "talking" to themselves in low cluckings.  I decided to allay their concern by backing slowly down the track, leaving them in their solitude.  Before departing, however, I enjoyed hearing the quiet of the lek interrupted by a wild chorus from several nearby coyotes saluting the sunset, just as I'd enjoyed their relatives welcoming the dawn nearly 13 hours earlier.  I left this perfect prairie scene, my Colorado Chicken Chase a total success."

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