Colorado: Chasing Chickens

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 much 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.

We have added an exciting Lesser Prairie-Chicken lek in Kansas, which, with the decline of some other traditional sites in Colorado and neighboring states, is now arguably the the best site to see this threatened bird in the country. This chicken tour is now unlike any other, and is likely the best chicken tour available, in terms of lek quality and bird viewing.

Our tour is limited to eight people plus our guide, and will run with as few as two people – many other Colorado tours take as many as 14 people and two guides.

Day 1: Arrival in Denver (Colorado). You arrive in the Mile High City, where we spend the night in a hotel near the airport. The hotel provides a complimentary airport shuttle bus.

It is always a special moment when a ptarmigan is spotted
It is always a special moment when a ptarmigan is spotted (Andrew Spencer)

Day 2: Genessee Mountain Park, Loveland Pass and Silverthorne to Walden. A brief stop will be made to the west of Denver, for our only trip into Ponderosa woodland of the trip, at Genessee Mountain Park, where we could find birds not possible elsewhere on the tour, like Williamson’s Sapsucker, Pygmy Nuthatch, Cassin’s Finch, and Western Bluebird. The latter part of the 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. After this, 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. After lunch nearby, we will spend the afternoon traveling towards the town of Walden for the night. A reservoir along the way often holds a lingering flock of the beautiful Barrow’s Goldeneye. 

A male Greater Prairie-Chicken in battle mode
A male Greater Prairie-Chicken in battle mode (Andrew Spencer)

Day 3: Greater Sage-Grouse to Craig. Our second lekking species of the tour, will be Greater Sage-Grouse that call North Park, near Walden, 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. After both a dramatic setting, and dramatic display, we will hit the road again, with another lek site beckoning to the west, near Craig, home of the Sharp-tailed Grouse. In the afternoon we will bird around Hayden for Mountain Bluebird and Sandhill Crane, before settling down in Craig for the night.

Two male Sharp-tailed Grouse square up to one another
Two male Sharp-tailed Grouse square up to one another (Andrew Spencer)

Day 4: Sharp-tailed Grouse to Grand Junction, via Cameo and Coal Canyon. 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 also for raptors.

The afternoon will see us drive south to Grand Junction for the night. Along the way we will stop off at Cameo and Coal Canyon; which offer up Chukar, Black-throated Sparrow, and Rock Wren, among others. A single night will be spent in Grand Junction, in readiness for our next chicken adventure…

Dusky Grouse is transformed when seen displaying
Dusky Grouse is transformed when seen displaying (Andrew Spencer)

Day 5: Colorado National Monument to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison.
In the morning we will find ourselves within 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, Gambel’s Quail, and Juniper Titmouse. Other possibilities include Bushtit, Black-throated Gray Warbler, and Bewick’s Wren. In the afternoon we will journey east to Gunnison, home of the rarest grouse of the tour. The afternoon’s birding will include a visit to the Black Canyon of Gunnison, the deepest canyon in the state, and also a great spot for Dusky Grouse, which can sometimes be found displaying right beside the road. A single night will be spent in Gunnison.

Day 6: Gunnison to La Junta. 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 after our daily dose of chicken watching, where up to three species of Rosy-Finches can be seen, as well as over-wintering Barrow’s Goldeneyes in some years, and perhaps some lingering winter visitors or early spring migrants. Heading east, we’ll make a birding stop at Pueblo West, where Scaled Quail, Curve-billed Thrasher, and Canyon Towhee will be on our target list.

With the exciting new Lesser Prairie-Chicken site being visited this year (due to their increasingly low numbers and rarity now in Colorado); the afternoon will be spent heading east into far eastern Colorado, where we will overnight in La Junta, near the border with Kansas.

Canyon Wren in Colorado National Monument
Canyon Wren in Colorado National Monument (Ken Behrens)

Day 7: Cottonwood Canyon to Dodge City (Kansas). We’ll start the day in remote Cottonwood Canyon, which feels more like a part of Arizona than southeastern Colorado, and has the roadrunners to prove it. Other specialties here include Ladder-backed and Lewis’s Woodpeckers, Rufous-crowned Sparrow, and Canyon Wren. We’ll also spend a bit of time in the sandy Comanche Grasslands, where we’ll search out the impressive Long-billed Curlew, skylarking Cassin’s Sparrows, and perhaps even the rare Mountain Plover. After some time on this little covered corner of the state, we’ll head east into Kansas. We’ll spend the night in Dodge City, Kansas.

The Dodge City area of Kansas offers the threatened Lesser Prairie-Chicken
The Dodge City area of Kansas offers the threatened Lesser Prairie-Chicken (Nick Athanas)

Day 8: Lesser Prairie-Chicken (Kansas) to Wray (Colorado).Our reason for sneaking into western Kansas on this tour, is for one very special bird: Lesser Prairie-Chicken. While this tour has traditionally targeted to species within Colorado, recent years have proven that it the species is no longer reliable there, with birds being inconsistent in their visits at traditional sites, and numbers being alarmingly low. It is no wonder that the species is listed as vulnerable by Birdlife International, and threatened under the United States Endangered Species Act. We have added this exciting new site, where good numbers and viewing of this species are still commonplace, and this should ensure we end the tour on a high. While somewhat similar looking to their Greater cousins, the displays of the Lesser Prairie-Chicken 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. After a late breakfast, we’ll head back to Colorado, to the northeast corner of the state, in preparation for our final chicken experience of the tour.

Day 9: Greater Prairie-Chickens and Pawnee National Grasslands. 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 finale to this chicken circuit. After leaving the lek we will visit the sprawling Pawnee National Grasslands, a vast area of prairie that is home to McCown’s and Chestnut-collared Longspurs. In the late afternoon we will make our way back to Denver.

The frankly oscene display of the Greater Sage-Grouse; a surefire tour highlight
The frankly oscene display of the Greater Sage-Grouse; a surefire tour highlight (Nick Athanas)

Day 10: Flexible day in Denver area. Denver is a good place to be based for this final “clean up” day, where we will look for whatever we might have missed earlier in the tour. This might include White-tailed Ptarmigan, rosy-finches, or some of the prairie specialties of Pawnee National Grasslands. If time allows, we may also visit some of the excellent migrant traps and waterbird hotspots along the front range, to look for waterfowl and early-arriving spring migrants. 

Day 11: Departure from Denver (Colorado). The tour ends this morning. The hotel offers a continental breakfast and a complimentary airport shuttle bus.

Chestnut-collared Longspurs will be a major target on the pristine prairie of Pawnee
Chestnut-collared Longspurs will be a major target on the pristine prairie of Pawnee (Nick Athanas)

Lewis's Woodpecker is always a hit
Lewis's Woodpecker is always a hit (Ken Behrens)

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Moderate to intense. This tour covers a lot of ground in a short amount of time, as each of the different leks is located in a different part of the state. By moving to the next lek the day before we guarantee that we’re in place for the best performance early in the morning. 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 looking at the “chickens”. On other days we typically have breakfast at the hotel before we depart. Lunches are often eaten en-route between birding spots, and we typically pick something that will be reasonably quick, like Subway or Chipotle. All dinners are at one of the best local restaurants near the hotel. On a few of the days there may be an opportunity to relax a bit at the hotel in the later afternoon, but on most days we’ll be out all day. Most days will involve several hours of driving, but there are usually some birding stops along the way to break them up (and to see some of the great scenery on tap in Colorado!). Most days include a couple of hours of driving; the longest drive days will be on days 6, 7, and 8, when there are drives of approximately 4.5 hours.

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 viewing is either from a car, or from a blind, and all other birding is from along mostly flat roads or trails. The most walking is on days 2 and 5, when we may walk up to 2 miles. The entire Colorado portion of the tour is spent above 3300 ft (1000 m), with several days spent above 7500 ft (2300 m).

CLIMATE: Potentially extremely variable. A wide range of temperatures are possible this time of year in Colorado (and Texas). 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.

PHOTOGRAPHY: This is a birding tour, but the photography opportunities are excellent. Most of the leks allow for superb close views of the grouse. Many of the other birds we are going after occur in open country, so there are ample opportunities for photography throughout. We’ll also experience much of the great scenery in Colorado, and have occasional stops for anyone who would like to take pictures.

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 car or a blind 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.

OTHER INFO:

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 of day 9; meals from dinner on day 1 (unless you arrive too late for dinner service) to breakfast on day 10; 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); Tropical Birding tour leader with scope and audio gear from the evening of day 1 to the evening of day 9; ground transport for the group in a suitable vehicle driven by the guide from the morning of day 2 to the evening of day 9; airport shuttle bus on day 1 and day 10; tips for included meals; entrance fees to the sites mentioned in the itinerary; 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.