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16 - 21 April 2001

by Steve Sosensky

Grouse Trip

Last week, Jim Abernathy, Joan Franco, and I made a road trip to Colorado for winter specialties.  Rather than being a "build a CO list" trip, it was a "get those lifers" trip.  I ended up with 7, including #600 for ABA / Lower 48.

We started from Jim's house in Sherman Oaks, CA at 6:15 AM on Monday, 4/16, and drove straight through to Craig, CO, about 15 hours on the road.  Unfortunately, this put us at 10:15 PM MDT.  Not a lot of time until our 4:30 wake-up to head out to the SHARP-TAILED GROUSE (my #595) leks on 20 Mile Road, east of Hayden.  This turned out to be the most difficult bird of the trip to locate, as the directions in the CO ABA book did not contain accurate mileage numbers.  Only the description of the abandoned parallel road brought us to the proper place, though well after first light.  This lek is on a hilltop a long distance from the road, so scopes were necessary to see the orange combs and purple air sacs.

Our next stop was at Loveland Pass Ski Area for Rosy Finches.  There is a feeder near the ski lifts at one end of the parking lot, where all three species of ROSY FINCH come periodically, along with PINE GROSBEAKS and GRAY-HEADED JUNCOS.  BROWN-CAPPED ROSY FINCH was #596, and, just in case, HEPBURN'S race of GRAY-CROWNED ROSY FINCH was there to put into escrow for a possible future split.

On our way up Guanella Pass, after a close and friendly encounter with a pair of Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep, we passed the Guanella Pass Campground, and came upon 4 SUVs in a pullout.  Suspecting birders, we stopped, only to find that three of the cars belonged to friends from home.  The other car transported a group from Ohio, who had used a tape to attract a pair of THREE-TOED WOODPECKERS (#597).  Also at this stop were many active GRAY JAYS and a DOWNEY WOODPECKER.

After swapping stories and plans, we headed up to the top to search for WHITE-TAILED PTARMIGAN (#598).  Our directions took us up a trail at the south end of the parking lot at the pass to a box with a registration book.  We looked around at the specified distance, and saw nothing.  Then, as I was lowering my binoculars, a much smaller chunk of snow moved uphill.  BINGO!  We returned to the car, and met a group from NC, who told us about some Bohemian Waxwings back at the campground.  Jim found the flock after we spread out, and even FRS radios could not help me get to the spot before they flew off in the wrong direction for me to get that lifer.

On our way down, an SUV screeched to a halt just as they passed us, so we both backed up to talk.  They recognized us as birders from my license plate MPDONAX (CA - Silver 4Runner, in case you come to SoCal).  We told them what was around, and they told us about a birder named Kevin O'Brien in Yuma, CO, who takes people out for Greater Prairie-chicken.  However, they had no further contact info.  We spent Tuesday night in Denver.

Wednesday, we headed north to Ft.  Collins and then east to the Pawnee Grasslands, and took the tour in the ABA book.  Perfect mileage numbers here, BTW.  The Grasslands yielded lots of HORNED LARKS and McCOWN'S LONGSPURS, which were molting into alternate plumage, not our usual California looks.  We checked for the prairie dog town and Burrowing Owls mentioned in the book, but the only animal life we found there were prong-horned antelope.

In Yuma, we stopped for gas and a phone book to find Kevin O'Brien.  Thanks to Jim's great detective work, we didn't even need the phone book.  Kevin teaches at the high school, and a short trip there got us a guide for later that evening.  It turned out that Kevin worked for a nearby ranch where a GREATER PRAIRIE-CHICKEN (#599) lek was found.  Knowing Kevin is a birder, the rancher told him about it, and he has permission to bring in visitors.  Kevin loves showing off the birds and would not accept payment.  If you are going and want to contact him, Kevin can be reached at 970-848-2680 <>.

One of the things we learned from Kevin is that Greater Prairie-chickens display both in the morning and evening.  They usually start booming about 7 PM this time of year.  They, and / or their leks are much easier to find in the evening when it is light than in the predawn.

Armed with this knowledge, we made sure that we would try the same thing in Campo on Thursday evening.  We only made a couple of stops on the way down rte.  385 for a few eastern year birds.  Directions to the Campo lek for LESSER PRAIRIE-CHICKEN (#600) in the ABA guide are exact.  The ride from Springfield to the lek is about 45 minutes.  There were two other cars there when we arrived at 6:30 PM and there were 3 males displaying.

Friday morning, we drove through Carrizo Canyon (see ABA guide).  Not a lot of birds there then, other than quite a few WILD TURKEYS, CANYON TOWHEES, and a mating pair of EASTERN PHOEBES.  The canyon is supposed to have Mississippi Kites a bit later in the season and looks like it would be good birding in the right season.

It was another long drive to Gunnison, and wind was blowing snow off the ground in Monarch Pass.  We checked the lek to be sure of directions and went into Gunnison to find a motel.  the Super 8 is on the east end of town, so it was most convenient to the lek.  We drove out to the lek again to try for three in a row in the evening, but two hours of waiting were fruitless.  It doesn't appear to be worth trying for GUNNISON SAGE GROUSE (#601) in the evening.

In the morning, there were six cars at the lek, well before first light.  As the sky grew light, the grouse started their popping calls.  There were about 25 males and a few hens.  One pair put on quite a show.

I want to thank Norm Erthal, Martin Meyers, Mark Stackhouse, and Phil Davis for their reports and pre-trip help. 

Good birding,

Steve Sosensky, photographer


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