23 March - 1 April 1996
by Lise Bixler
This is a report of an early spring trip to Colorado (and a bit of Kansas) I made with my husband, Cliff. We began our trip on March 23rd and ended it on April 1st. These were not ideal dates for the trip (a bit too early), but that's when my spring break fell, so we decided to try out parts of the Colorado trip recommend in the new ABA book by Jerry Cooper, Birdfinders: A Birder's Guide to Planning North American Trips. Because this trip was sandwiched into our heavy work schedules, we didn't research it as thoroughly as we might have beforehand, and were a bit low-energy when we arrived (after all, it was a VACATION, too). This felt like mostly a scouting trip for another time - we were frequently not as diligent (as obsessive?) as we normally are in finding a bird, either because we thought the likelihood of finding it was not great, or because we were simply more laid back than usual.
In any event, as I write this a couple of weeks later I find myself wishing we had pushed just a little bit harder for some species. Our chief excuse: "It gives us something to come back for." Although our trip wasn't a great list-building success, it was bookended by life views of LESSER and GREATER PRAIRIE CHICKENS, and the distraction of the grandeur surrounding us as we traveled was success enough. We were amazed that during our 10-day trip, we only came across other birders on two occasions, both on organized trips.
We flew into Colorado Springs late in the day and decided to start in a northern direction toward Denver to begin our trip - our first mistake, given the snow storm that began before we reached our motel room.
Our first trip bird was a was a BLACK-BILLED MAGPIE in the snow-covered parking lot of Motel 6 as we decided to reverse our direction and flee southeast. We planned to head for LESSER PRAIRIE CHICKENS at the Cimarron Grasslands in the southwest corner of Kansas, using ABA's _Birdfinding in Forty National Forests and Grasslands_ . Unfortunately, after about an hour of driving we had to turn back; Highway 70 was closed due to the snow. We reversed our tracks and took Highway 25 south, not seeing much besides REDTAIL HAWKS and HARRIERS. We arrived at Elkhart, Kansas as the sun was setting, and planned to visit the most accessible blinds at the lek described in the ABA book the next morning. The most exciting part of the day was trying to figure out how the Kosher Ham and Swiss Sandwich listed on the menu at the El Rancho restaurant could be Kosher (was it the dill pickle served on the side?)
Oh, dear. Sunrise in this corner of Kansas was earlier than we had calculated, so we got a late start in the morning. We followed the instructions in the ABA book, driving east on U.S. 56 for 7 miles to Wilburton and turning north onto CR16, driving 3.5 miles to a dirt road that goes 1.25 to a parking area, but couldn't find the blinds. Giving up on seeing our birds that morning, we drove around trying to get our bearings. This is really a beautiful area; another "we have to come back here another time" place. We drove to the Cottonwood Picnic Ground and Point of Rocks, but didn't really bird - it was extremely cold and there wasn't much activity. We eventually found the second set of blinds on the map in the ABA book and, thinking that it was way too late in the day for any of the chickens to still be around, inadvertently flushed a few males. At least we knew we were in the right place. We drove back to Elkhart and spoke to a helpful ranger in the Grassland office, who explained that the reason we couldn't find the blind we were looking for was because they had removed it and were in the process of reestablishing blinds at another lek.
Pete Janzen of Topeka had sent us some very helpful birding tips for the Kansas area and a copy of a trip report. We didn't feel we had time to head further into Kansas, but his description of the three corners area (Kansas, the Oklahoma Panhandle, and Colorado) piqued our interest so we set forth for a drive in that direction, planning to return to Elkhart that evening to position ourselves for another try for early-morning Lesser Prairie Chickens. We took Hwy. 56 west to Boise City, Oklahoma, and on to Kenton and the extraordinarily beautiful Black Mesa area. On the way we began to see many exquisite MOUNTAIN BLUEBIRDS, a few WESTERN BLUEBIRDS, and flocks of SCALED QUAIL. Near Kenton we marveled at dinosaur footprints, and the man at the Kenton mercantile store was a treasure trove of stories and information (birds, archeology, geology, history, travel). Back to Elkhart.
Arrived at the blind about 1/2 hour before sunrise and watched 11 male LESSER PRAIRIE CHICKENS. We had wonderfully satisfying looks as they burbled and displayed. It was time to head back toward Colorado, but we decided to skip Campo and instead repeat our route of the preceding day, going a bit further into New Mexico to explore the area, and then looping back north. Heading into Boise City, Oklahoma, Cliff got a little tired and asked if I'd take over driving duties. I did, to be rewarded immediately with a $130 speeding ticket as we entered the town. This was not made better by the discovery of a prayer card enclosed in the return envelope provided me to mail them my check.
At Capulin Volcano National Monument in New Mexico we found our first TOWNSEND SOLITAIRE and 2 KRIDER'S REDTAIL HAWKS. Leaving the area, we were treated to views of pronghorn antelope, a RING-NECKED PHEASANT, and flocks of WILD TURKEYS. On our way north we came across a GREAT HORNED OWL peering out of the window frame of an old grey barn. We ended up in Denver and spent the night.
Off to Guanella Pass to try for the White-tailed Ptarmigan. We stopped at feeders in Georgetown and saw PINE SISKIN, MOUNTAIN and BLACK-CAPPED CHICKADEES, and RED-BREASTED and WHITE-BREASTED NUTHATCHES. On the way up to the pass we saw a small flock of RED CROSSBILLS. We spent a few late morning hours traipsing through the snow but struck out on the Ptarmigan. We stopped off at a Colorado Division of Wildlife office to see if we could get current information about the Sharp-tailed Grouse lek near Hayden, as described in Cooper's book, which was our next destination. A ranger called the office in Craig for us, but the phone number was busy for an extended period, so we took the number with us and drove on, taking Highway 40 - our first views of the magnificent Rockies and, soon after, our first GOLDEN EAGLE of the trip. We took Hwy. 14 past Kremmling, over Rabbit Ears Pass, and through Steamboat Springs. We ended up in Hayden, where we were able to find a room (those who like fancier accommodations might want to spend the night 12 miles further in Craig). We arrived after dark and noticed that none of the road signs corresponded to the directions in the book, which referred to country road numbers. None of the local residents knew which road was Country Road 80. A helpful clerk in one of the convenience stores suggested we look at a map in the back of the telephone book, which did show the network of country roads. A county sheriff warned us that the roads were pretty mushy and that we should avoid driving in the dark.
Early morning we set out on frozen, mushy country roads to look for the Sharp-tailed Grouse, following the directions to the lek described in Cooper's book. We had to stop about a 1/2 mile before our final destination because the road was piled with snow. We got out of the car and walked. We never found the Sharp-tailed lek, but came upon one magnificent male SAGE GROUSE. He didn't seem to be at all bothered by our presence and put on a terrific show (and wouldn't you know it, I had left my camera behind in the car). We could hear a cacophony of SANDHILL CRANES not too far off in the distance, and as we drove off one flew by overhead. The phone number we had for the Craig Colorado Wildlife Division guy was STILL busy, so we decided to drive to Craig to try get some better information about active Sharp-tailed Grouse leks. This took some detective work once we got there, since nothing was listed in the phone book. A librarian at the public library referred us to the Chamber of Commerce for more information, and, as luck would have it, the Wildlife office was in the same building. We were told where we could find a local biologist who was studying grouse leks (he didn't have a phone, but was close by at a warehouse/maintenance yard.)
We took a short birding break to tour the Cowboy Museum, and then found the biologist, who gave us yet another phone number, that of a field biologist who was specializing in Sharp-tailed Grouse. We called him, and he said we were a little too early - the leks (in the Sand Wash area northwest of Craig) wouldn't be active for a couple more weeks. He encouraged us to come back another time and he'd help us find them. We headed in an eastern direction, driving out to the Morgan Bottoms, seeing about a dozen more GOLDEN EAGLES, admiring a perched BALD EAGLE and flushing 4 more SANDHILL CRANES at about 3:00 in the afternoon. On our way to Walden we stopped at the Sage Grouse lek described in Cooper's book. The signs identifying the lek were not up, although the sign poles were still there, so we scoped from the road. It was pretty early, a little before 5:00 p.m. We saw 3 male SAGE GROUSE hunkered down in the grass. One put on a brief display. That was good enough for us; we were too cold to wait for more action, and headed to a motel in Walden.
We stopped at a gas station and were told to look for moose in the area on our way to Cameron Pass. No luck in the moose department. It was cold, cold, cold - we didn't make many stops on this leg of the journey because that frigid wind blowing down from Wyoming was just too much for this California girl. We didn't even stop to play Boreal Owl tapes, which was unfortunate, since a Boreal was reported on the RBA at Mile 16 later. The snow and mountains were magnificent; MOUNTAIN BLUEBIRDS and HORNED LARKS everywhere in the snow. We headed for the Pawnee Grasslands, arriving late afternoon. We spent a bit of time at the Crow Valley Campground, seeing not much more than AMERICAN ROBINS, NORTHERN FLICKERS, and a DOWNY WOODPECKER.
We drove about 8 miles through the grasslands seeing countless EASTERN and WESTERN MEADOWLARKS, AMERICAN KESTREL, and HORNED LARKS. Cliff was convinced that we were here at the wrong time of year and didn't want to put a lot of energy into scouting the area, so we vowed to come back another time in later spring. To our chagrin, we found out that 3 days later a couple of birders who we had befriended saw a group of MCGOWN'S LONGSPURS in the same area, definitely one of our target birds. Was that the luck of the draw, greater persistence, or was their timing better than ours (does a few days make a significant difference in the arrival time of McGowns?) Anyway, we decided to forego one more full day of birding at the Pawnee Grasslands for a trip back south to the town of Ward. The Colorado RBA had been citing Brown-capped Rosy Finches at the feeders to the left of the Depot in Ward, Colorado for weeks, so we decided to try our luck the next morning.
Snow was falling as we ascended to Ward, an interesting community. We drove into the small town but couldn't find the Depot, and, due to the earliness of the morning (the one restaurant we could find had a sign saying it opened at "eightish") we also couldn't find anyone to ask for directions. We went back to the main highway to a restaurant that was closed; the kind gentleman who was cleaning the restaurant not only gave us directions to the Depot (take a left on the road PAST the main road into Ward) but also let us use the facilities. We found the Depot and got out of the car to watch the numerous PINE GROSBEAKS in front of the house to the right of the Depot, as well as numerous DARK-EYED JUNCOS and a HAIRY WOODPECKER. A woman came out hurriedly from that house to tell us we were welcome to bird there, but that she felt she should warn us that many people in Ward were upset about the influx of birders and pointed to houses and neighbors we should avoid.
We thanked her for her advice, and walked cautiously down the street, where we were able, at the feeders to the left of the Depot, to watch the BROWN-CAPPED ROSY FINCHES, more PINE GROSBEAKS, and chickadees and nuthatches in multiple flavors. No one harassed us, and we worked our way back to our car. Another car pulled up and two women emerged, asking, "Are you here to join the Audubon trip?" Wow - other birders! These were the first birders we'd run into during our entire trip. The Denver Audubon Society was planning a field trip to see not only the finches but to search for White-tailed Ptarmigan at Bremmer Lake. We decided to tag along. While we were waiting for the leader to arrive, the woman in the house to the right of the Depot emerged with a small paper bag containing a Pine Grosbeak that had flown into her window and was stunned. Cliff took it out of the bag and we examined it in hand as it slowly recovered. He opened his hands to release it, and the bird fluttered up and perched on his shoulder. I ran for my camera; what an Audubon moment! Soon after, it flew to a nearby tree.
When the other field trip participants arrived, we headed back to the house to the left of the Depot. This time, the man who lived there emerged to tell us all that "we have to have a talk." He heatedly described the infringements on his property that had occurred over the last several weeks and described how angry his wife and other residents were, that the sheriff had been called, that if things didn't get better he'd take the feeders down, etc. He asked us to split up the group and only spend a few minutes there, which we did.
No luck finding the Ptarmigan, although we didn't stay very long. We headed south, briefly stopping at the gorgeous new visitor center at Golden Gate Canyon State Park, but we had run out of time; we needed to head east for Wray. Approaching Wray, we had our first ROUGHLEGGED HAWK perched and then flying over us.
We had read about Greater Prairie Chicken tours in Cooper's book, and had called the Wray Museum in advance to arrange a tour (970-332-5063). The Colorado Wildlife Division offers these tours in partnership with the East Yuma County Historical Society as an ecotourism approach to sustaining support for Greater Prairie Chicken habitat maintenance efforts. They were sold out of the short tours (a bargain at $30) so we splurged and went for the extended tour, ($120-130 per person) which included a hotel stay, brief forays to tour the local fish hatchery, a pancake breakfast, a visit to Beecher Island, etc. We arrived in Wray, Colorado, at 4:00 p.m. precisely, the time our "extended" tour was to begin, and without another souvenir speeding ticket. Most of the others who constituted our group were not avid birders, but were people who either had a slight interest in birds or a connection to Wray itself (a woman in her 60's who had spent part of her childhood in Wray, and a man (with his wife) whose father and four sisters had been born in Wray. There was only one other pair of serious birders, a woman from Pennsylvania and her 82-year old mother, who had birded all over the world together and were going to bird the rest of Colorado after the Prairie Chicken tour. We exchanged birding advice, and they promised to let us know how the rest of their trip went.
We were absolutely delighted by the Wray event, although it may not be to everyone's taste (those who might question the somewhat Eurocentric interpretation of the Beech Island battle, for instance.) We really enjoyed the opportunity to spend time with so many local residents, many whose grandparents had homesteaded the area. It was quite a taste of history and ranching life. After a tour of the small Wray museum and a brief explanation of local archeological discoveries and historical events, we were treated to a steak fry put on by local residents ( a bonus was a great recipe for pecan cream pie shared by one of the cooks). The Colorado Wildlife people showed us a video on Greater Prairie Chickens and explained what was in store for us the next day. The big shocker was being discouraged against having our morning coffee due to the fact that once we entered the trailer blind at 5 a.m. the next morning, we wouldn't have an opportunity to leave to use any facilities until the last female Prairie Chicken had left, no matter how late that was. All of our many questions were answered, and then the evening concluded with entertainment by cowboy poet John Schaffner. Lights out at the Sandhiller Hotel.
The next morning was a great success. We got great extended views of 22 male Greater Prairie Chickens booming, strutting, flying, and in general trying to impress about 19 largely indifferent females. I now have a huge number of photographs to add to my Bad Bird Picture collection, although a few did turn out to be keepers. What an astounding spectacle!
Driving away from the lek with one of the wildlife biologists, we saw a stunning dark phase FERRUGINOUS HAWK and Cliff got his life AMERICAN TREE SPARROW. Cliff had interesting conversations with the biologist, who, as a young boy, had been lucky enough to meet Roger Tory Peterson. He reminisced on how birding had increased in public acceptance over the years. He carries in his wallet a newspaper clipping his wife sent him years ago, a humorous saying that went something like this: Birdwatching is the only eccentricity that causes people to laugh not behind your back, but in your face We stopped at a prairie dog town to see if we could spot any BURROWING OWLS. Although he had heard reports, it was too early for us to find any. This did lead us into an interesting conversation about conservation issues. The landowners had flagged some burrows, and the biologist wondered whether the ranchers were going to exterminate. Although the ranchers are extremely enthusiastic about conservation efforts toward Prairie Chickens, prairie dogs are another matter due to impact they have on cattle ranching. Due to the fact that the Montana Freeman were headline news that week, we segued to a discussion of property rights and government infringements, which had been the topic of conversation in almost every diner we stopped at on the trip.
A few of the other participants of the Greater Prairie Chicken tour had recently witnessed the Sandhill Cranes at the Platte River and urged us to go. I was unable to talk Cliff into extending our trip into Nebraska, so we added this to our "another time" list. Heading southwest to Colorado Springs, we saw another ROUGHLEGGED HAWK.
Santa Cruz, California