18 - 26 April 1998
By Alan & Barbara Delorey
Sat April 18
We flew direct non-stop from Boston to Denver on United. We rented a Ford Explorer from Resort Car Rental at the Denver Airport and headed to Red Rocks Park on the western outskirts of Denver. We had heard that Black Rosy-Finches roost in the rock formations in winter and Brown-capped is there in summer. We didn't get any rosy-finches but there were Western Bluebirds and juncos. The rock formations are very interesting and worth a stop. There is a feeding station behind the trading post with juncos, towhees, etc.
We drove on to Georgetown, where we checked in at the Super 8 motel and headed straight up to Guanella Pass (a 45 minute drive from Georgetown). This is a mountain pass at about 11,000 feet elevation. The 4-wheel drive was useful since the road was very soft and muddy. We tried for White-tailed Ptarmigan without success. This is a hit-or-miss bird.
Back in Georgetown we ate dinner at the Swiss Inn Restaurant near the motel.
Logistics: Georgetown Super 8, 1600 Argentine St. 303-569-3211. Swiss Inn Restaurant, short walk from Super 8. The elevation is almost 7,000 feet so be careful not to over-exert.
Sun April 19
Next morning we got up at 6am and drove to the opposite end of town from the motel, to watch the feeders at the white house at 601 2nd Street (corner of Rose & 2nd). The rosy-finches come to feeders here. We saw about 2 dozen Brown-capped, a few Gray-crowned, and one Black Rosy-Finch. The woman who lives there is birder friendly and enjoys sharing the finches.
At about noon we headed out for Craig (a 4 hr drive). We took I-70W to Exit 205. Rte 9 N 38m, US 40 NW ~90m to Craig. On the way through Hayden we stopped and scouted out the 2 Sharp-tailed Grouse Leks described in the Holt/ABA Guide on 20 Mile Rd on the south side of Hayden. We found an error the guide book: the 2nd lek on this road has its mileage clocked from the power lines, NOT from the first lek.
Logistics: Craig Holiday Inn, 970/824-4000, has an ok Restaurant. The elevation is still almost 7,000 feet so be careful of the thin air.
Mon April 20
We got up at 5am and headed straight out to the Sharp-tailed Grouse Leks in Hayden (Holt/ABA guide). This is about a 20 mile drive from the Holiday Inn in Craig. We got there before 6am while it was still dark. We found 2 Sharp-tailed Grouse at the 2nd Lek (farther down the road), then we went back to the first Lek and found several birds there. These were more actively displaying.
We then drove back to Craig, did some general scouting and birding. We tried to find the Sage Grouse leks , north of Craig, listed in the Holt book, without much success.
In the late morning we checked out and headed for Walden. From Hayden go E ~24m to Steamboat Springs. In another 25m turn L onto Hwy 14, in 18.5m turn L onto County Rd 26, go 1.5m bear R at fork, go another 0.1m & turn R & go 0.3m (follow signs to Sage Grouse viewing area). CR 26 is 14.2m S of jct 14 & 125. We found the Sage Grouse lek in mid-afternoon and made plans to be there the following morning before daylight. This lek is actually in Coalmont, near Walden.
It is important to scout out the lek sights during the daylight, so that you can find them in the dark in the early morning hours.
On our way from the Sage Grouse Lek to Walden we noticed an excellent waterfowl pond just N of CR 26 along Rte 14 on the right hand side of the road. We found Shoveler, Am Wigeon, Redhead, Lesser Scaup, Ring-necked Duck, Am Coot, teal, and several other species.
We tried to bird Arapaho NWR in the afternoon, which is just 2.6m S on Hwy 125 from the jct of Hwy 125 & 14. There is a 6m tour loop. However a private little snow storm irrupted which totally eliminated visibility. So we bagged that and headed to the motel in Walden to check in.
Logistics: Chedsey Motel, 537 Main St Walden (970-723-8201). Moose Creek Restaurant is 1/2 block up the street on opp side. The elevation is just over 8,000 feet. We felt a little winded just from walking up a flight of stairs!
Tue April 21
We were up at 5am and headed straight out to the Sage Grouse Lek in Coalmont without breakfast. We arrived there at about 5:40. It was just light enough to see the silhouettes of the birds. As it grew lighter and the sun rose at about 6:20 we counted 56 Sage Grouse. They were displaying magnificently. Even from the distance of 200-300 feet the view was fantastic. The protocol is to stay in your car and use it as a blind to observe from, so as not to disturb the birds.
The males filled their air sacs to make "popping" sounds and fanned their tails as they strutted around.
We left a little after 7am when the birds had started to leave the lek. We went back to Walden for breakfast, then headed out.
We drove east for about 3 hours to the Pawnee National Grassland. As we drove up over the mountain passes between Walden and Fort Collins on Rte 14 the road was very snowy. We came to a place where a large truck coming down had just slid across the road on a corner and gone down over an embankment. No one seemed to be hurt and another trucker had already stopped to help. We were just glad that the timing worked out that we were not going around that corner when the truck slid across and off the road or it would have hit us.
Pawnee National Grassland. From Fort Collins we continued east on Hwy 14 for about 41 miles to Briggsdale, then N on CR-77, left(W) on CR-96 (dirt), in the 1st few miles on this road we saw several McCown's Longspurs, our target bird here.
We then continued on the long drive to Wray, Colorado in the northeastern corner of the state.
We checked in at the Sandhiller Motel and then went out on a scouting mission to see if we could find any of the leks described in the Holt/ABA guide. As we were driving along CR-45 (as per the Holt book) looking for landmarks to determine if we could see any of the leks from the road, a man in a pickup stopped and asked if he could help us. I told him that we were birdwatchers and were hoping to see a Greater Prairie-Chicken from the road. He told us that he was the landowner and that the leks were not very visible from the road, but that he would be happy to take us to a lek on his property to allow us to see the birds.
As the Holt book warns, this area is all private property and you should not leave the public road to trespass on private property. The landowner was friendly to us and willing to help us because we were obeying the rules and had not left the road to trespass on his property.
He took us to a lek where about 26 Greater Prairie-Chicken were displaying that evening. He also gave us permission to go back at dawn the next day to see the morning display.
Logistics: Sandhiller Motel & Restaurant, 411 Railway Ave, 970-332-4134
Wed April 22
We got up at 4:45am and headed straight out to the lek. We arrived there at about 5:20. There was just enough light to see the silhouettes of the birds, which were already on the lek. As it grew lighter they became more active and displayed more, reaching a peak performance just as the sun came up at about 6:15.
Most bird books refer to the Greater Prairie-Chickens as "booming". However the sounds that they make are closer to dove-like cooings. The males inflate their orange neck sacks, and erect their "ear" tufts and tails while they strut around.
After 7am the birds started to leave the lek, so we did too. Back to town for breakfast and checkout.
We drove about 218 miles south on US 385 to Springfield (4 hrs). Along the way we stopped at the Bonny State Rec area (22m N of Burlington) to do some general birding. The south side of the rec area is the most productive for birds. We found 2 Great-horned Owls perched in trees, plus flickers, thrushes, etc. On the lake there were a number of White Pelicans.
In Springfield we checked into the Starlight Motel, then went out on a scouting expedition to find the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Lek at the Comanche Nat'l Grassland near Campo.
From the motel go S on US 287/385 21.4m to Campo. Midway through the tiny town, turn L (E) on J Road just before the bill-board sized Pepsi sign on side of bldg, go 7.9m, turn R onto CR-36, go 2.0m, turn L onto CR-G (@ sm. Prairie-Chicken sign), & go 4.0m to a stone bridge/culvert. Just BEFORE the culvert turn R through a wire-gate onto a sandy track that leads 1.2m to the lek on the R side. Park at the stone blocks.
Note: that the Holt book says to turn left in Campo just after the pawn shop, but we couldn't find any sign of it. There was a vacant lot where it probably used to stand.
We arrived at the lek at about 4pm then several other cars arrived also. Some of the people were not well-behaved. They kept getting in and out of their cars and making lots of noise. Hence no birds ever showed up in the evening.
On the way back, we noticed a Prairie Dog colony on J Road just a mile from the town of Campo. There were also several Burrowing Owls living with the Prairie Dogs. We also saw Lark Buntings and a Long-billed Curlew in this area.
Logistics: Starlight Motel, 681 Main St (719-523-6236) in Springfield. We couldn't find a good restaurant in Springfield, so we just ate snack food for supper.
Thur April 23
We got up at 4am, left the motel at 4:20 and arrived at the lek at about 5:05am. There was a camper that had (illegally) spent the night there. As it grew light we could see Lesser Prairie-Chickens on the lek. We counted about 8 males and 2 or 3 females. The males displayed very much the same as the Greater Prairie-Chickens had, but with less enthusiasm, perhaps due to the smaller number of birds.
As with all of the leks for grouse and prairie-chickens, the protocol is to stay in your car and be quiet so as not to disturb the birds.
After 7am the birds began to dispurse so we went back to the motel, ate breakfast and checked out.
We then made the loooong drive to Gunnison. We took US 287/385 north 71m to Lamar, then US 50 W ~168m to Gunnison (that was about 6.5 hrs of driving since the road goes through some windy mountain passes and through many small towns).
We again scouted out leks, this time for the Gunnison Sage Grouse. This sub-species may be a candidate for a future species split. After some detective work and talking with some locals we located the following 2 leks several miles east of Gunnison.
1. Houston Gulch/Parlin Flats lek is best. 15 mins from Best Western in Gunnison. US 50 E 9.9m, R on Rd 43, bear L at 0.25, go another 1.5m, turn L, go 0.2m & turn L into viewing area with sign (lek to left).
2. Wuanita Hot Springs Lek. From jct of US 50 & Rd 43 (prev lek) cont. E on US 50 6.8m, L on Rd 887 at sign for Wuanita Hot Springs, go 0.4m & park near 40mph sign. Scope to R in the distant meadow. This is private property so don't leave the road!
Logistics: Best Western on east side of Gunnison, 970/641-1131. They have a Restaurant (open seasonally, closed in April) We ate dinner at a restaurant in town.
Fri April 24
We got up at 5am and arrived at the Houston Gulch/Parlin Flats lek at about 5:30am. It was just getting light. We soon spotted a bird off to the left from the parking/viewing area. There were only about 8 displaying males and it was a less enthusiastic display than we had seen in Coalmont. I don't know if this was due to it being late in the season or if that is typical of this sub-species.
After breakfast in Gunnison we headed back to Denver. We took US 50 east ~130m, Rte 115 north 36m, I-25 north ~70m, I-470 west ~32m, then I-70 east a few miles to the Days Inn in Golden (on the western outskirts of Denver). This drive took 4.5 hrs.
We checked out Golden Gate Canyon State Park on Friday afternoon. This place was disappointing. Very few birds.
On Saturday we drove up to Rocky Mtn National Park, which took about 1.5 hrs. We went in the Beaver Meadows entrance. We were hoping for Red-naped Sapsucker and/or Williamson's Sapsucker. We checked the Ponderosas & Aspens near Moraine Park Camground, the Rd down to Fern Lake Trailhead, Little Horseshoe Park, Roaring River woods, and Sprague Lake area. No Sapsuckers, but lots of other birds and mammals too. We saw Mtn Chickadees, Pygmy Nuthatch, Western Bluebirds, Magpies, Stellers Jays, juncos, Canada Jay, and more. There were also Elk, Mule Deer, Big Horn Sheep, and Tassel-eared Squirrel.
We drove a total of 2,250 miles in 8 days. The rental car had unlimited mileage so that was a good deal. The car developed a cracked windshield somewhere along the way and I had not taken their damage insurance, so that cost us $215. When we got home I checked with my credit card company to see if my gold card rental insurance coverage would pay for the windshield, but was told that sport utility vehicles are not covered. Having the 4wd sport utility was great for the mountain driving, but in the future, I'd purchase the damage coverage (CDW) on a sport utility.