Trip report: Colorado: Chasing Chickens (April 2021) by Tropical Birding

Guided by Sam Woods and Ben Knoot. This was a set-departure tour

Many “normal” tourists would be surprised to find out birders visit Colorado during the springtime, when ski slopes are still active, many of the summer hiking trails are yet to open, and the weather is nothing if not predictably changeable. However, we came to see the “chickens” first and foremost and this is the heady time of year when not only are these most conspicuous, during their spring displays at traditional lek sites, but also coincides with a season of transition when breeding birds and wintering species are all also in the mix. It was a very successful tour, during this 2300mile (3600km)-long road trip that spanned much of the “Centennial State”, we got to see every possible chicken, all 13 species of them. This included the dramatic displays of Greater and Lesser Prairie-Chickens, Sharp-tailed Grouse, and Greater and Gunnison Sage-Grouse. Decent numbers of individuals (e.g., 61 Greater Sage-Grouse, 35 Lesser Prairie-Chickens) coupled with these dramatic displays from most of these were the very essence of this trip and so most were featured among the highlights of the tour. The chickens were not all easy though, as Dusky Grouse and the ptarmigan in particular shredded some nerves, by making us wait until the very final moments to appear. At the end of the tour, when the traditional bird-of-the-tour vote was taken, two non-chickens also crept into the top five birds. Boreal Owl (photo next page, John Kern) was only narrowly beaten to the top spot by a late, late White-tailed Ptarmigan found on our final, nervy afternoon at lofty Loveland Pass. Spellbinding flocks of thousands of Yellow-headed Blackbirds in southeast Colorado also left an indelible mark with the group, making that final selection too.

Some of the differences this year were the insertion of a superb private ranch for Lesser Prairie-Chickens (LPC), where we were able to visit several different leks of this endangered species on the land, and new Sharp-tailed Grouse lek visited due to the closure of a previous site. A diverse range of “LPC” displays were seen and perhaps led the species to ousting the not uneventful displays of Greater Prairie-Chicken from the top five highlights of the tour, and the Sharp-tailed Grouse displays were even more popular, making these new sites instantly popular choices! Away from the chickens and lek sites, we visited private mountain feeders amongst snow-dusted pines, where Gray-crowned, Black and Brown-capped Rosy-finches were all seen on our final morning, a drop dead gorgeous male Evening Grosbeak landed on another feeder one afternoon earlier on the tour, a male Red Crossbill stood out against the clear blue skies and recently fallen snow, and some Steller’s Jays provided plentiful antics all of their own. Along a waterway, we stopped in on a pair of American Dippers that were observed showing a range of their odd behaviors, including periodically foraging underwater. Alongside all of this, it would be a travesty not to mention how great this tour was for waterbird aficionados; more than 20 species of waterfowl were recorded, as we dropped in on many lakes, ponds and waterways, many of which were loaded with ducks, geese, and grebes, including Barrow’s Goldeneyes, Buffleheads, Redheads, Canvasbacks, Wood Ducks, Red-breasted and Hooded Mergansers, and Western, Clark’s, Horned and Eared Grebes. Shorebird numbers were lower than we’d hoped during this early spring tour, but we were still left with highlights like the much-wanted Mountain Plover at Chico Basin, a passing flock of Long-billed Curlews at Pawnee, a gorgeous foraging female Wilson’s Phalarope, and a Wilson’s Snipe that seemed to be oblivious to the fact that it was feeding in the open! This tour virtually opened with a woodpecker, with the sharp-dressed Williamson’s Sapsucker amongst some Ponderosa pines just outside of Denver. A couple of Lewis’s Woodpeckers were also readily found, and stayed for lengthy views, and a pair of Red-naped Sapsuckers memorably shared an Aspen stand with a male American Three-toed Woodpecker. Colorado was though, so much more than a collection of much wanted birds, as the striking scenery of this outdoor state loomed large in the background, notably among the red rock canyon at the Colorado National Monument, and mammals were conspicuous too, including regular Pronghorns, a few herds of Elk, two porcupines, and a pair of Moose, on a list of 20 mammals recorded.

1. White-tailed Ptarmigan, Loveland Pass
2. Boreal Owl, near Walden
3. Sharp-tailed Grouse, near Craig
4. Greater Sage-Grouse, near Walden
5.= Lesser Prairie-Chicken, near Scott City (Kansas) & Yellow-headed Blackbird “mega flock” in southeast Colorado

Click the link below to read the full report

Full Tropical Birding Colorado Chasing Chickens trip report (12.2 MB, PDF)