Colorado: Chasing Chickens from Prairie to Mountaintop
Displaying chickens and grouse: America's very own "birds-of-paradise"
Birding is more than about just seeing birds. What makes for a unforgettable experience often has just as much to do with what the bird is doing as it does about what it looks like. The neotropics have manakins, the old world, bustards, and New Guinea has Birds-of-Paradise. But North America isn’t without its own spectacular avian displays – North America has grouse. And nowhere on the continent offers the variety and opportunities to see them better than Colorado. This short tour covers just about every corner of the state in search of “chickens”, and also offers a good dose of the magnificent scenery and east/west ornithological melting pot that makes this state famous.
Day 1: Denver. After you arrival in the Mile High City we will transfer to a Denver hotel for the night.
Day 2: Loveland Pass and the Pawnee National Grasslands. Your first morning in the Centennial State will be spent at the snowy, windswept heights of Loveland Pass (12,000ft), where we will scan through the snow banks for the exceedingly well-camouflaged White-tailed Ptarmigan, the whitest bird in the world. The staggering mountain scenery that makes Colorado famous will also be on tap, and the two combined make for a true Rocky Mountain experience. Later on we will drop down into the valley town of Silverthorne, where, depending on the year, we could find massive flocks of Rosy-Finches, mixed in with handsome Evening and Pine Grosbeaks, charismatic Clark’s Nutcrackers, and stunning Steller’s Jays. For the afternoon we will work our way out to the vast expanses of the Pawnee National Grasslands, where our two targets, McCown’s and the spectacularly beautiful Chestnut-collared Longspur should be found in short order. We will then head to the prairie town of Wray for the night.
Day 3: Greater Prairie-Chickens to Lamar. An early morning departure from our hotel will bring us to a nearby lek of Greater Prairie-Chicken, the first of our many grouse leks we will visit this trip. The rolling, booming sounds and hilarious antics of the male chickens cackling, stomping, and bubbling their way into the hearts of the females will provide you with an unforgettable start to this chicken circuit. After leaving the lek we will travel south to the Arkansas River Valley and the town of Lamar, with some prairie birding along the way that could, with luck, include migrant longspurs and the subtly beautiful Mountain Plover. We will overnight in Lamar.
Day 4: Lesser Prairie-Chickens to Gunnison. The chicken of the morning this day will be the diminutive Lesser Prairie-Chicken. While somewhat similar looking to their Greater cousins, their displays differ dramatically, and it will be immediately clear that they’re a different species. We will spend the morning picking out these differences while enjoying the show of one of America’s very own Birds-of-Paradise. Later on we will drive through some grasslands searching for Mountain Plover if needed; other species we could see include the skylarking Cassin’s Sparrow, impressive Long-billed Curlew, and the regal Ferruginous Hawk. Depending on conditions on the local reservoirs we may stop to check for shorebirds, such as Baird’s Sandpiper and Snowy Plover, as well. The afternoon will be spent driving to the mountain town of Gunnison, where we will spend the night.
Day 5: Gunnison Sage-Grouse to Grand Junction. The rarest grouse species in the United States, and nearly endemic to Colorado, the newly described Gunnison Sage-Grouse will be our target for the first part of this day. The Gunnison Valley also provides some good birding for after our daily dose of chicken watching, and up to three species of Rosy-Finches could be seen, as well as over-wintering Barrow’s Goldeneye, and perhaps some lingering winter visitors or early spring migrants. A late morning stop by the Black Canyon of the Gunnison (one of the deepest canyons in North America) may turn up a Dusky Grouse or a tiny Northern Pygmy-Owl. In the afternoon we will drive to the “lowland” city of Grand Junction for the night, via Delta and the gorgeous Escalante Canyon.
Day 6: Cameo and Colorado NM to Craig. Heading east from Grand Junction first thing in the morning, we will head up the dry and desolate looking Coal Canyon, home to Colorado’s most reliable Chukars. With luck we could see some of the wild horses that roam the backcountry, and the dapper Black-throated Sparrow should be easily found. After wrapping up in Cameo we’ll work our way back to Grand Junction, and on to the gorgeous sculpted red-rock scenery of the Colorado National Monument. Here we will scour the pinyon-juniper woodland looking for species such as Gray Flycatcher, Canyon Wren, Pinyon Jay, Gamble’s Quail, and Juniper Titmouse. In the late afternoon we’ll head north to Craig for the night, via some extensive sage flats where we hope to hear the beautiful, melodic voice of the Sage Sparrow.
Day 7: Sharp-tailed Grouse to Walden. In the rolling sage flats around the town of Craig we’ll look for our next species of chicken, Sharp-tailed Grouse, whose dancing displays are perhaps the most stunning of all the grouse. Their almost choreographed stomping and prancing is strongly reminiscent of a ballet, both elegant and comical at the same time. The sagebrush habitat here will also give you more than just grouse; we will also look for Brewer’s Sparrow and Sage Thrasher, and also for raptors. After leaving the lek we will search for Dusky Grouse near Hayden – while this species doesn’t lek like most of the other species we will have seen, their displays are no less stunning. Our afternoon drive to the high mountain town of Walden for the night will take us over some mountain passes where we will search for American Three-toed Woodpecker and Gray Jay. Weather permitting we will make an attempt at owling on Cameron Pass in the evening, the haunting tremolo of Boreal Owl being our main quarry.
Day 8: Greater Sage-Grouse to Denver. The last of the lekking species we will search for are the Greater Sage-Grouse that call North Park their home. Probably the most bizarre of all the chicken dances, these giant grouse run around, swishing their wings and heaving their chests in what can only be called a vaguely obscene, but strikingly fascinating, display. In the afternoon we will scan through the large rafts of water birds at a local reservoir that could include Barrow’s and Common Goldeneyes and Bufflehead, and check out some mountain feeders , west of town for Rosy-Finches again as well as Pine Grosbeak, before working our way back towards Denver. If we missed White-tailed Ptarmigan on our first morning we will also swing by Loveland Pass; these immaculate white grouse deserve more than one attempt! The last night of the tour will be spent in Denver.
Day 9: Denver. On this day we will depart from Denver.
CLIMATE: Varied, but typically cold to very cold in the morning to moderate during the day. Be prepared for potential extreme cold and snow even at this time of year.
DIFFICULTY: Easy for the most part, but moderate up at Loveland Pass, where we will reach 12,000 feet in elevation. Distances involved are quite large and most afternoons will be spent driving.
ACCOMMODATION: Good throughout, but no more than one night at each hotel.