Colorado: Chasing Chickens

This is a Birding Tour. It is designed to see as many birds as possible, while spending extra time on certain target species, especially the grouse and prairie-chickens. Photography is welcome as long as it doesn’t interfere with the birding, and this tour is quite good for casual photography, especially at some of the leks and feeders that we visit. In some areas, there will be little or no time to photograph since there are other birds around to see. We will also look at other wildlife if anything is around. Click here to see a comparison between our different types of tours. If you are looking for a tour that is more photography-oriented, you should check out our Colorado Photo Tour.

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. There are many other birds on offer too, with an abundance of ducks on the many lakes and ponds that litter the state, while pinyon-juniper country offers Pinyon Jays, Juniper Titmouse, and stands of boreal spruces are home to three-toed woodepeckers, while feeders attract rosy-finches, and sometimes Evening and Pine Grosbeaks too.

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


Please note – the order of this itinerary may be modified for logistical reasons, such as the schedules of some of the viewing blinds.

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.

The ski site of Loveland Pass is home to White-tailed Ptarmigan
The ski site of Loveland Pass is home to White-tailed Ptarmigan (Sam Woods)

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 will look for Williamson’s Sapsucker, Pygmy Nuthatch, 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 snowbanks 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 we will check out the local feeders for rosy-finches (sometimes all three species are present), Clark’s Nutcracker and Steller’s Jay. 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, and once we reach Walden we can search the edge of town for raptors, like Rough-legged or Ferruginous Hawks, check a local reservoir for masses of waterbirds, in years when it is not still iced over, or check some nearby feeders to see if Pine Grosbeaks are in attendance. The Walden area is also the best chance for Moose on the trip.

Williamson's Sapsucker is found within Ponderosa Pines west of Denver
Williamson's Sapsucker is found within Ponderosa Pines west of Denver (Sam Woods)

Feeders near Silverthorne can attract all three species of rosy-finches
Feeders near Silverthorne can attract all three species of rosy-finches (Dorian Anderson)

Day 3: Greater Sage-Grouse to Craig. Our first lekking species of the tour will be the 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. On the journey there, we might be able to locate an Evening Grosbeak near Steamboat Springs, or a Pinyon Jay closer to Craig. The night will be spent in Craig.

Rival male Greater Sage-Grouse vie for the attentions of the females
Rival male Greater Sage-Grouse vie for the attentions of the females (Sam Woods)

Greater Sage-Grouse displays are endlessly entertaining
Greater Sage-Grouse displays are endlessly entertaining (Sam Woods)

Day 4: Sharp-tailed Grouse to Grand Junction. 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 Sharp-tailed Grouse displays are some of the most entertaining
The Sharp-tailed Grouse displays are some of the most entertaining (Sam Woods)

The afternoon will see us drive south to Grand Junction for the night. Around Grand Junction we shall check near town for Western Screech-Owl at a local nest box, at a site that also holds Wood Ducks and sometimes Gambel’s Quail too. We will also head to the Utah Borderlands to the west of Grand Junction, where we will hope to find Sage Trasher and Sage Sparrow among the sagebrush there, or a Burrowing Owl in the vicinity too. 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: Coal Canyon and Colorado National Monument to Black Canyon of the Gunnison, and Gunnison. In the early morning we will check Coal Canyon just east of Grand Junction for Chukar, Rock Wren and Black-throated Sparrow. After a brief time there, we will visit the gorgeous sculpted red-rock scenery of the Colorado National Monument, where we will scour the pinyon-juniper woodland looking for species such Canyon and Bewick’s Wrens, Juniper Titmouse, Bushtit, and Pinyon Jay. 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.

West Pueblo is home to Scaled Quail
West Pueblo is home to Scaled Quail (Sam Woods)

Day 6: Gunnison to La Junta. The rarest grouse species in the United States, and nearly endemic to Colorado, the Gunnison Sage-Grouse, will be our target for the first part of this day. The rest of the day we will take a long route east, making some specific stops along the way, around Buena Vista to check for Lewis’s Woodpecker clasped to the top of the tall cottonwoods in town, and American Dippers along the waterways nearby. South of Colorado Springs we shall check our first site of the tour for the scarce Mountain Plover. After that we will make a final birding stop near Pueblo West, where Scaled Quail, Curve-billed Thrasher, and Canyon Towhee will be on our target list. We will overnight further east in La Junta, near the border with Kansas.

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

Day 7: Southeast Colorado to Kansas. In the morning we will check sites in southeast Colorado for Great Roadrunner, Curve-billed Thrasher, Canyon Towhee, Brewer’s Sparrow and the local Rufous-crowned Sparrow. John Martin Reservoir can be great for waterbirds, with Eared and Horned Grebes both possible and sometimes holds Snowy Plovers too. Some cattle ranches in the east of the state can also be great for finding large flocks of Yellow-headed Blackbirds in some years too. In the afternoon, we shall have made our way into western Kansas, where our best chances at seeing Lesser Prairie-Chickens the next morning lie ahead. The night will be spent in Scott City/Oakley in Kansas (exact place decided when ranch is finalised nearer the time of the tour).

Kansas has some of the best numbers of the rare Lesser Prairie-Chicken
Kansas has some of the best numbers of the rare Lesser Prairie-Chicken (Sam Woods)

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 in past years this tour has stayed within Colorado, this species is no longer reliable at the traditional sites within that state, as their numbers have decreased alarmingly there. It is no wonder that the species is listed as vulnerable by Birdlife International. However, recent surveys in Kansas have recorded larger numbers than expected, and the outlook seems better there. We will be visiting one of the private ranches with the largest numbers of Lesser Prairie-chickens in the state. 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”. In the afternoon, we will make our way to Wray, where the local rancher will give us an entertaining induction to his Greater Prarie-Chicken site that we will visit the next morning. We may also run into one of the local Great Horned Owls, or if we are really fortunate one of the local Northern Bobwhites that afternoon, before we have a fantastic steak at a local, very well concealed steakhouse that draws people from all around. The night will be spent in Wray.

The Greater Prairie-Chicken lek is incredible
The Greater Prairie-Chicken lek is incredible (Sam Woods)

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. This will also provide a further chance to find a Mountain Plover there too. In the late afternoon we will make our way back to Denver.

Colorado is a great state to find your first American Dipper
Colorado is a great state to find your first American Dipper (Sam Woods)

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.

Some reservoirs usually hold small groups of Barrow's Goldeneye in April
Some reservoirs usually hold small groups of Barrow's Goldeneye in April (Sam Woods)

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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 6:00 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. All dinners are at one of the best local restaurants near the hotel. On most days we’ll be out all day, as there is traveling time between sites, and we cannot return to the hotel as a result. Most days will involve a significant amount 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!). The longest drive is between Gunnison to La Junta, although there are multiple birding stops on this journey of around 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. Therefore the most walking is likely to be on day 2 and then again on day 10 if the ptarmigan site needs to be revisited. 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 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, no special requirements are necessary to visit Alaska. 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 should be applied for online IN ADVANCE OF THE TOUR. 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.