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24 - 26 July 2004

by Magill Weber

Rocky Mountain National Park, the Pawnee National Grasslands, and areas in Summit County

Arapahoe National Forest, near Breckenridge, Colorado, Baker’s Tank Trail:

When I started looking around for birding sites, there wasn’t much info on Summit County (which includes most of the more popular ski areas like Copper Mt., Breckenridge, etc…), but this is a great area for birding the “Canadian Alpine” zone, with abundant corvids, parids and finches.  Highlight was a male Three-toed Woodpecker.  I have seen this species at various times of the year, typically near the trailhead of Baker’s Tank, though it is not reliable.   Dark-eyed Junco, Audubon’s Yellow-rump and Pine Siskin are abundant at this time of year and large flocks of Stellers and Gray Jays and Clark’s Nutcracker echo through the forest.  Up Boreas Pass from Breckenridge, around Baker’s Tank is a great area for grouse.

The dog scared up a fly-by Grouse, which was about 100% likely to be a Blue, but I couldn’t rule out White-tailed Ptarmagin which is also found up there.  At about 10,500 feet, it was slightly too low for Ptarmagin and perfect for Blue Grouse, but couldn’t be certain.  I birded the road near Baker’s Tank and the Baker’s Tank trails off Boreas Pass Road. Great habitat and great views of the reservoir below. This area is also good during the winter, lots of feeders along the road leading up Boreas Pass, and a really good spot for winter finches if you hit a good year.  There were huge flocks of Juncos, and surprisingly no Pygmy Nuthatches, but lots of Red-breasted Nuthatches.

Downy Woodpecker, Picoides pubescens
THREE-TOED WOODPECKER, Picoides tridactylus
Common Raven, Corvus corax
Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Regulus calendula
Mountain Bluebird, Sialia currucoides
American Robin, Turdus migratorius
Yellow-rumped Warbler (Audubon’s), Dendroica coronata
Dusky Flycatcher, Expidonax oberholseri
Mountain Chickadee, Poecile gambeli
Red-breasted Nuthatch, Sitta canadensis
Gray Jay, Perisoreus canadensis
Clark’s Nutcracker, Nucifraga columbiana
Pine Siskin, Carduelis pinus
Dark-eyed Junco, Junco hyemalis
Steller’s Jay, Cyanocitta stelleri
Black-billed Magpie, Pica pica
Townsend’s Solitaire, Myadestes townsendi

Pawnee National Grasslands, Weld County, Colorado

This was one of the cooler places I’ve birded, just because you can drive everywhere, right across the grass on dirt tracks (maybe not such a good thing). You HAVE to have a 4WD car in order to go most off-track places, particularly since it was raining a lot the day before I went out there and the roads are all dirt and were solid mud in some spots.  It’s really in the middle of nowhere, but lots of car traffic, and locals sitting in their cars up on any hilltop or high area trying to get cell phone service. 
I birded along Hwy 14 (the only actual paved road through the Grasslands, which goes along the southern perimeter. I first stopped at the intersection of Hwy 14 and CR 51 @ Hwy 14. 

This is supposed to be THE spot for Mountain Plovers, but there were none to be had.  There is large active prairie dog colony on the south side of Hwy 14. Lots of Horned Larks and Western Meadowlarks.  The Lark Buntings were abundant in this area, both foraging in large flocks on the ground, and taking flight in clouds of 20-100+.  Lots of the male Lark Buntings were still doing the ‘skylarking’ behavior.  I also had a whole family of about 10 Western Kingbirds sitting on a fence line, and the only Say’s Phoebe of the trip.  I then worked my way over to Central Plains Research station, where I picked up Sage Thrasher.  (I had another out at Murphy’s Pasture along the only man-made structure left on the road). 

Killdeer, Charadrius dubis
Western Kingbird, Tyrannus verticalis
Northern Mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos
Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias
Grasshopper Sparrow, Ammodramus savannarum
Western Meadowlark, Sturnella neglecta
American Kestrel, Falco sparverius
Say’s Phoebe, Sayornis saya
Horned Lark, Eremophila alpenstris
Lark Bunting (abundant), Calamospiza melanocorys
Mourning Dove, Zenaida macroura
Loggerhead Shrike, Lanius ludovicianus
Sage Thrasher, Oreoscoptes montanus

Still looking for longspurs, I then drove Murphy’s Pasture, stopping every 100 yards or so.  A fantastic place, just rolling hills of grasslands and cactus.  Its fenced on both sides of the road and you’re not supposed to get out of your car, or at least not off the road. Stray cattle roamed around right up to the car.  I also saw a few Pronghorns, which bolted as soon as they realized humans were around. Approaching from Route 77 (another paved road) I first entered McCown’s Longspur territory. I could hear them off in the distance everywhere, and for a while I tried picking some out from the abundant female Lark Buntings foraging in the grass. 

I then flushed a male McCown’s, still mostly in alternate plumage.  This would be the only one of the day that was anywhere near alternate plumage, most were mottled in a weird intermediate plumage, which I didn’t really expect, and mostly females. The white retrices made them noticeable in flight, but otherwise they were well camoflauged.  Either many of the males had left breeding territories already, or were staying low, but there was still lots of singing going on. The females were vocalizing readily in chips, but I assume males were what I was hearing.

As I was parked and watching some McCown’s, I hear the ‘what-what-what’ of Mountain Plover flying overhead.  Almost as if on cue, three birds circled directly behind the car, and landed immediately on the passenger side. I got bins on them for about 30 seconds and then they were gone.  Awesome, and the only ones I saw all day!  I had given up on them after looking for most of the day, and getting excited about every Killdeer that landed, so I felt like I was pretty lucky to see them.  Definitely the highlight of the day.  That and a Prairie Falcon going after a prairie dog colony.

Further down the road, I moved into taller grass and Chestnut-collared Longspur territory.  The CCs seemed much bolder than the McCown’s, coming right out in the road as I stood there watching them. Again, lots of basic or intermediate plumage.  There were a few males that still were pretty black on the front, but I didn’t see any with rusty fronts.

Lark Bunting, Calamospiza melanocorys
Horned Lark, Eremophila alpenstris
Ferrugenous Hawk, Buteo regalis
Swainson’s Hawk, Buteo swainsoni
Red-tailed Hawk, Buteo jamaicensis
Eastern Kingbird, Tyrannus tyrannus
Northern Mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos
Cliff Swallow, Petrochelidon pyrrhonota
Western Meadowlark, Sturnella neglecta
Sage Thrasher, Oreoscoptes montanus
Cassin’s Sparrow, Aimophila cassinii
Grasshopper Sparrow, Ammodramus savannarum
McCown’s Longspur, Calcarius mccownii
Chestnut-collared Longspur, Calcarius ornatus
Mountain Plover, Charadrius montanus
Prairie Falcon, Falco mexicanus
Barn Swallow, Hirundo rustica

Rocky Mountain NP & Mount Evans, Summit County

A bit higher up in areas like Mt. Evans and the areas above treeline in Rocky Mountain National Park we found lots of Horned Larks and American Pipits, and a few Common Ravens and California Gulls where there was water.  At both Rocky Mountain National Park and Mount Evans I looked for Brown-capped Rosy Finches with no success.  We saw lots of Elk, Marmots, and Pika at Rocky Mountain NP above tree line.

Broad-tailed Hummingbird, Selasphorus platycercus (Mt. Evans visitor center)
California Gull, Larus californicus
Common Raven, Corvus corax
Horned Lark, Eremophila alpenstris
American Pipit, Anthus rubescens

Magill Weber, Phoenix, AZ

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