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11 - 14 April 2001

by Martin Meyers

Grouse Trip

My friend Greg Scyphers and I took a quick drive to Colorado this past week in hopes of seeing a couple of chickens (mainly Gunnison Sage-Grouse.)

We were greatly assisted in our efforts by email messages from Tony Leukering, Jeff Price, and Thomas Heinrich.  Thanks!

On the evening of 4/11, I drove to Reno from my home in Truckee, CA.  It was snowing very heavily, and I was stuck in a road closure for an hour or so.  We had received two to three feet of snow in the previous week at higher elevations around Truckee/Lake Tahoe.  A somewhat ominous beginning to what turned out to be a great trip!

We were worried that all of the snow would hit the Gunnison area and stop the lekking display of the grouse, but in fact, there was almost no snow in the area when we arrived the next afternoon.  (Our drive took us across Utah to Salt Lake, then down through Provo and over to Grand Junction, and from there to Gunnison.  There were snow squalls the entire trip, but the driving was easy.) We did very little birding along the way, other than some high-speed duck identifications along the Great Salt Lake area.

Our plan was to arrive at the Wuanita lek in late afternoon in the hope that the grouse might display in the early evening.  (I have seen Greater Sage-grouse displaying in the late afternoon.  Likewise for both Greater and Lesser Prairie-chickens.) Just before reaching Gunnison, we stopped for a short time at a reservoir just west of Gunnison (Blue Mesa) where we had a very nice assortment of ducks, including a dozen Barrow's Goldeneyes, a couple Common Goldeneyes, Bufflehead, Mallard, American Wigeon (2), Lesser Scaup (a bunch), Ring-necked Ducks, Ruddy Ducks, and Northern Shovelers.  There was also a Western Grebe.

We arrived at the Wuanita lek around 6:00 p.m. and settled in.  It was cold and snow squalls were passing through.  When each squall came through, the wind would pick up considerably, but it would shortly die down.  The road to the lek was more heavily traveled than I had expected, with cars and pickups zooming by at regular intervals.  We sat in our vehicle and watched the meadow until dark.  No grouse.  (One Say's Phoebe.)

The next morning, we were at the lek at about 4:30.  This was a bit unfortunate, as first light was at about 5:50 (we didn't know....) It was cold, but we had very high hopes.  More cars pulled in between 5:00 and first light (with one arriving just a tad late, I thought.) All were on good behavior, remaining quiet and in their cars.  (It seemed to me that it would have made sense to turn out the headlights before turning in to face the lek, but apparently it did not matter.)

We listened in the morning stillness.  Greg, who has much better hearing than I have, was sure he was hearing the birds before light.  I am not convinced (I was hearing a bubbling, babbling brook, and a Common Snipe winnowed.) Finally, as the first faint light illuminated the meadow, we saw the birds.  What a sight!  There were about 15 males, perhaps as many females (although these were much harder to see, so I'm not sure on the numbers.) The display was fantastic.  We were able to get good views with scopes (the birds are quite a ways out from the parking area.) The thick filoplumes were quite evident.  The difference in tail pattern (as compared to Greater Sage-Grouse) was not so evident, although on one view, I thought I could make it out.  Unfortunately, the distance was such that we couldn't hear much (if anything.)

The birds displayed for about 35 minutes.  We watched a few females fly off by about 6:10, and a couple of males and females flew right past us at about 6:15.  At 6:20, there were still some birds displaying as one car decided they'd seen enough and drove away.  The birds stopped displaying, but started up again a minute or two later.  Then at 6:25, we watched a number of birds fly past us and land up on the hill behind us (private property, as, I believe, is the meadow).  We all watched the meadow carefully for another five minutes, but could find no more birds.  At 6:30, people began to emerge from their cars and introductions went around.  About ten minutes later, we were all surprised when another five birds flew past us.  They came from the southeast.  None of us had seen them, but perhaps they were using an area out of sight in the southeast corner of the meadow.

 Having succeeded on the main quest of the trip, Greg and I headed north to see what other wonders we could find.  For me, this is always my favorite part of chasing birds.  Once I've seen the "target" bird (a life bird for both of us, of course), I can really relax and just enjoy whatever comes along.  Greg still had some life birds he hoped to find, and I'm always looking for a chance to get some photos, so we headed north on Highway 24 through the middle of the state.  This is a great drive, past many 14K peaks, through the old mining town of Leadville, and up to Interstate 70.  Along the way, we encountered some Pinion Jays and a number of very pale Red-tailed Hawks.

Our next stop was at the Loveland Basin ski area, where there is a feeder that has been attracting Rosy-finches.  There I burned off two rolls of slides on three species of Rosy-finches (with both of the expected subspecies of Gray-crowned, as well.) These birds are not exactly shy (one almost hit Greg as it flew by), and I was able to get what I hope will be some pretty spectacular photos.  A pair of Pine Grosbeaks showed up, providing yet more photo ops.  Then there were the two subspecies (perhaps two species some day?) of Juncos, Gray-headed and Pink-sided.  Nice opportunities for comparisons (and fair photo opportunities, although it was interesting to note that the Juncos were much more shy than the Rosy-finches or Grosbeaks.) I was quite surprised to see two American Crows up there, too.

Next stop was the top of Guanella Pass in the hopes of White-tailed Ptarmigan.  This is fast-becoming Greg's nemesis bird, and the trip to Guanella did nothing to change that assessment.  It was bitter cold with a driving gale that dropped the wind-chill to well below zero.  We looked from the car for awhile, but eventually, it was time to put on all of the clothing possible and start hiking around.  Well, it was time for Greg to do that.  I have very nice photos of White-tails from Rocky Mountain N.P., and under the circumstances, I thought it was appropriate to take a nap!  (Or, as some of you might recall from an old TV show, while Jim (er, Greg) postholes up the mountain in sub-zero temperatures, Marlin (er, make that Martin) will return to camp to warm up the tea!)

After about an hour and a half, as I was starting to think about how I would explain Greg's mysterious disappearance to his family, he appeared over the top of the hill.  But as he slowly descended, I could see that he was still looking (dare I say frantically) through his binocs at every clump of snow, willow, etc., so I knew he had (again) been unsuccessful.  Oh well.....The only new bird for the trip was a lone Gray Jay.

Our plan at the time was to head out to the Steamboat Springs area to look for Sharp-tailed Grouse, again hoping to find some in the late afternoon, and then to beat a hasty path up to the top of Cameron Pass with visions of Boreal Owl dancing in our heads.  I was really anxious to hear the owls (maybe even see them.) My only Boreal Owl sighting is the one I expect most non-Colorado birders have -- a bird in a nestbox outside Anchorage.  However, by the time we reached the Steamboat Springs area, I knew we had pushed ourselves to our limits.  The journey to Cameron Pass will have to wait for another trip.

We did head out to the Sharp-tail leks on 20-mile road, described in the Lane guide.  Thomas Heinrich had reported grouse at the furthest listed lek a week or so earlier.  We were able to find the area without problem, but, as with the Gunnison grouse, we did not find any displaying birds in the evening.  We headed back to town for dinner and a motel.

Now that we knew when first light really occurred, we got an extra hour of sleep Saturday morning and were at the leks just before daylight.  As the light filtered in, we were disappointed -- no grouse on the round hill.  We quickly headed to the next lek north (at about 6 miles from the highway.  As we stopped the car, we heard the dove-like cooing, and soon found some displaying Sharp-tails very close to the road.  They were on a hill and spent much of the time on the far side, that is, over the hill and out of sight.  But we still got a chance to watch (and hear) about six birds very well.  Great show!

After these birds quieted down, we headed back to the first area (which is at about 8 miles from the highway), and did see a number of birds displaying on top of the round hill.  But that was quite a long ways off, and the view was only fair.  (We'd have been more than happy if that had been our only view, but after having seen the others at about 30 yards, this lek was not quite as satisfactory.) So we headed back to the other one, and the birds were actively displaying again.  There were clouds blocking the sun, so the light was only fair, but we were able to sit and watch these birds for another hour or so, much to our delight.  (Incidentally, 20-mile Road is fairly heavily traveled, with a number of big trucks coming by while we watched the grouse.  Be careful parking.)

We finally departed about 8:00 a.m.  And headed home.  We stopped for an hour or so at Dinosaur National Monument, where a Wild(?) Turkey was wandering along the road.  I have no idea if it was from an established population.  There were also some Sandhill Cranes.  And we also visited a lovely sewer pond at Duchesne City, Utah.  (What's a birding trip without a sewer pond?!) Nice assortment of ducks there, and lots of Bonaparte's Gulls, plus two Franklin's Gulls.) I was back in Truckee by 10:30 that night.



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