Imagine a football sized bird, strutting across the prairie with bright orange air sacs inflated, modified neck feathers sticking up like rabbit ears, tail cocked and fanned, while emitting an otherworldly booming noise. Now imagine that same bird only thirty feet in front of your camera lens, lit by the soft glow of the sunrise. If it sounds like bird photography nirvana, that’s because it is! Colorado is THE place to experience these “chickens” in the midst of their surreal displays, and this tour visits leks of four different species. There’s more to photography in Colorado than chickens, though, and everything from sweeping mountain vistas to bighorn sheep and pronghorn to colorful finches in the snow make this one of the meccas for photography in the United States.
This photography tour is open to photographers of all levels. The excellent photographic opportunities do not exclude those without large, expensive lenses. Indeed this tour can be taken with people who own a point-and-shoot type camera with a large optical zoom (i.e. 10x and above), such as a Sony Cybershot, Canon Powershots, and large zoom Panasonic Lumix cameras. However, for those photographers with an extensive photographic arsenal, looking for advice on the appropriate gear to bring along, the following lenses can be used on this tour: 200mm, 300mm, 400mm, 500mm, 600mm, with 300-400mm lenses to be used most often.
Day 1: Denver. You arrive in the Mile High City, where we spend the night in a hotel in the airport. The hotel provides a complimentary airport shuttle bus.
Day 2: Denver to Craig. Heading out of Denver, we will make stops at Loveland Pass and Silverthorne. The snow-draped Loveland Pass is popular among skiers for the great downhill opportunities, but for nature photographers and birders for the chance of the ghostly white White-tailed Ptarmigan, which, if found, can often walk right up to our cameras. Nearby Silverthorne will provide a great finale and photo shoot for the tour, as hundreds of tame birds assault the local feeders, which can include all three species of rosy-finch, Evening and Pine Grosbeaks, Pygmy Nuthatch, Mountain Chickadee, and Clark’s Nutcracker. Later we carry on to Craig, where we spend one night.
Day 3: Sharp-tailed Grouse to Walden. The displays of the different chickens/grouse are varied and distinct, making them all fascinating, and worthy of individual photo shoots, and perhaps none illustrate this so well as the lek of the Sharp-tailed Grouse. When displaying these acrobatic birds puff out their violet display patches, and the fiery-yellow comb above the eyes of the male is at its most vibrant. However, it is the movements of the birds which will most impress and encourage us to reel of masses of photos. We will be shooting from a specially-erected personal blind for the use of our group alone, and literally be surrounded, on all sides, by excited males partaking in the “ballet” of spring, where in unison many of them pirhouette while cocking their namesake tail high in the air, and bowing to an appreciative crowd of gathered photographers. It literally has to be seen to be believed; we wil not only see it, but use our close-range lenses to capture each and every absorbing moment. At times the birds may be testing our minimum focusing distance as they dance right up to the edge of the blind. So be prepared, and bring some close-range gear with you too, to avoid disappointment, at this, one of the best leks in the state; bar none. After these final displays, we will drive to Walden for a two-night stay.
Day 4: Greater Sage-Grouse and Walden. Nothing cam prepare you for the truly unique, frankly obscene, and undoubtedly comical display of the Greater Sage-Grouse. In addition to the bizarre nature of these which will be our focus for the morning, there is added photogenic value provided by the dramatic landscape in which they do this in: an open, frost-dusted valley, surrounded by the jagged, snow-capped peaks of the Rockies. After using our 400mm/500mm/600mm lenses on the sage-grouse at length, we will move on to some mountain feeders, which will offer excellent opportunities to photograph mountain birds at close range, like deep-pink Pine Grosbeaks, spritely juncos, and achingly blue Steller’s Jays.
Day 5: Walden to Wray. While it’s a long drive east to Wray, we’ll have time to visit some wetlands to photograph breeding plumage ducks at close quarters, and there is a decent chance to find Moose.
Day 6: Greater Prairie-Chickens. Another chilly, pre-dawn, arrival will see us position ourselves on the open prairie waiting for the coming of dawn, and the procession of male prairie-chickens that comes with it. Once the Greater Prairie-Chickens arrive en-masse we expect to be literally surrounded by tens of displaying males. The nature of the prairie, and the displays of the Greaters, are remarkably different from the Lesser Prairie-Chicken site and displays witnessed the day before. The prairie in this area is much shorter, giving unhindered views of their spectacular displays, the numbers of birds at the lek are significantly larger too, making for a truly excellent photo session. Two lenses can be useful here: a 500mm for close-ups of displaying individuals, while a 200-300mm can be useful too for the aerial duels between rival males. This latter aspect of their displays-battles between fighting males-makes this species particularly appealing to nature photographers, as they offer superb and absorbing behavioural studies.
Day 7: Wray to Denver. The plan for this final full day is somewhat flexible. If we are still after better shots of the Greater Prairie-Chickens then we could return to the lek, or we could make other stops on the way back to Denver as suggested by the guide. A final night will be spent in Denver.
Day 8: Departure from Denver. The tour ends this morning. The hotel offers a continental breakfast and a complimentary airport shuttle bus.
PACE: Moderate. This tour covers a lot of ground in a short amount of time, but with two days at most of the leks we have a bit of time to relax between moves. Start times vary, but on a couple of mornings can be as early as 4:30 AM, while on others may be as late as 6:30 AM. For those days where we visit a lek, breakfasts are taken AFTER we spend a few hours photographing the “chickens”. On other days we typically have breakfast at the hotel before we depart. Lunches are either eaten en-route between photography spots (we typically pick something that will be reasonably quick), or at a good restaurant near our hotel. All dinners are at good restaurants near the hotel. On those days where we are not moving between lek sites we’ll have some downtime in the middle of the day, when the light for photography is poor. The other days will involve several hours of driving, but there are usually some stops along the way to break them up (and to see some of the great scenery on tap in Colorado!).
PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Mostly easy, but depending on where the White-tailed Ptarmigans are there may be some more difficult walking around Loveland Pass. Here we may walk up to a half-mile on hard snowpack at 12,000 ft (3650 m), and anyone who does not want to walk at this altitude can remain with the car. All of the lek photography is from blinds set up near the car, with at most a short walk involved. All other photography is from flat roads or near feeders. The entire tour is spent above 3300 ft (1000 m), with much of it spent above 7500 ft (2300 m).
CLIMATE: Potentially extremely variable. A wide range of temperatures are possible this time of year in Colorado. Some years the overnight lows (and thus the temperature when we arrive at the leks early in the morning) can be at 0°F (-18°C) or even lower. Daytime highs on such days often don’t exceed 15°F (-9°C). However, other years the daytime lows don’t dip below 32°F (0°C), and daytime highs can reach into the 70s°F (above 21°C). Occasionally you can get both scenarios on the same trip, so it is important to be prepared for a wide variety of conditions. Rain is very rare on this tour, but snowfall (sometimes heavy) is possible.
ACCOMMODATION: Good to excellent. All of the hotels and motels have typical amenities, including Wi-Fi.
PHOTO PHILOSOPHY: This tour is centered around photographing displaying grouse and prairie chickens from blinds. This means that we will spend up to several hours every morning stationary, very close to the birds and typically also close to the car. Most days will also involve some other photography along roads, typically near the vehicle, though on day 2 we may also have some walking at high elevation. Colorado is full of other good shooting options, and can include anything from the abundant scenery to various mammal species that we should encounter.
GEAR: Photography from the grouse blinds typically has us quite close to the birds, so a long telephoto lens (500 or 600mm) can be a bit overkill, especially on a crop-frame camera, and a 300 or 400mm lens is recommended. At times the Greater Sage-Grouse can be a bit further away from the blinds, and an extender gives you some flexibility if you find you want more reach. For other birds on the tour a longer telephoto is more useful, whereas for scenery a wide-angle lens is recommended. Tripods are highly recommended for use in the blinds, as the light starts out quite low. At other times the light conditions tend to be quite good, and you may not need a tripod, though it can be helpful to hold your heavy gear so you don’t have to.
LEK ETIQUETTE: The grouse species we will be targeting on this tour perform some of the most amazing displays in the avian world. We have the privilege of front row seats to the spectacle, but that also imparts a responsibility on our part to minimize our impact to the birds we are observing. This means that in most cases we will be arriving before sunrise so as not to flush the birds, and will not be able to leave until the birds are finished with their morning displays. Depending on the circumstances, this could mean that we will be in our blinds and unable to leave under any circumstances for up to three hours. Please be prepared with sufficient warm clothing if the morning is especially cold, and be careful not to drink too many liquids beforehand – bathrooms will not be available until we leave the leks. We appreciate your cooperation since we would like to ensure that others will be able to enjoy the same shows for years to come.
TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: For US citizens, there are no special travel requirements. Citizens of Canada may enter the US with a valid passport, and do not need to obtain a visa. For citizens of the 38 countries on the visa waiver list (including the UK, Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, and Japan – click here for the full list), you can enter the US with a valid passport and a completed Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), which can be applied for online. For all passports, the passport must be valid for at least six months past your intended stay. Citizens of all other countries will need to apply for a US visa. Travel requirements are subject to change; please double check with the nearest embassy or consulate, or ask our office staff if you are unsure.
WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Accommodation from the night of day 1 to the night day 7; meals from dinner on day 1 (unless you arrive too late for dinner service) to breakfast on day 8; reasonable non-alcoholic beverages with meals; safe drinking water only between meals (tap water is safe to drink in the US, and you are encouraged to fill your water bottles when able); photo tour leader with camera and audio playback gear from the evening of day 1 to the evening of day 7; ground transport for the group in a suitable vehicle driven by the guide from the morning of day 2 to the afternoon of day 7; airport shuttle bus on day 1 and day 8; tips for included meals; entrance fees to the sites mentioned in the itinerary; the use of photo blinds during the tour; a printed and bound checklist to keep track of your sightings (given to you at the start of the tour – only electronic copies can be provided in advance).
WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Optional tips to the tour leader; tips to baggage carriers if you require their services; flights; snacks; additional drinks apart from those included; alcoholic beverages; travel insurance; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; extras in hotels such as laundry service, minibar, room service, telephone calls, and personal items; medical fees; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.