The Unforgettable Colorado and Kansas Chicken Run via WY and NE!
|Male Greater Sage-Grouse - The reason I came to Colorado - Photo: Melissa Hafting|
I just returned from a week long trip to Colorado. I have always wanted to do this trip for the grouse and rosy finches. It was a bucket list trip for me. I wasn’t looking forward to all the early mornings and long drives but I knew the birds would be worth it. Colorado has so many different gorgeous landscapes and a good mix of Eastern ad Western Birds (ie. Eastern Screech-Owl and Northern Pygmy-Owl).
I flew in to Denver and went straight to Loveland Pass. The weather was beautiful. All roads were dry and the sun was shining, it was warm. I drove up to Loveland pass which is almost 12,000 feet. It was like Ecuador all over again! Haha. There I scoped one White-tailed Ptarmigan and flushed a Horned Lark. I found out I was lucky in regards to Ptarmigan; as many had searched the same week as I and only one other person got one. The week prior only two others got them including my friend Monica Nugent.
|Loveland Pass 12,000 feet up in the Rocky Mountains near Denver, CO - Photos: Melissa Hafting|
|Birders are not welcome on Elk Thistle Drive - Photo: Melissa Hafting|
I drove on towards Gunnison. I stopped at Buena Vista on Rio Vista Rd and found 15 Pinyon Jays calling up a storm. Other than seeing them in Oregon this was only my second time seeing them. They were pretty shy so I had to stay in the car and use it as a blind to get these shots. I saw lots of Elk and Pronghorn.
|Pinyon Jays in Buena Vista, CO - Photos: Melissa Hafting|
On the road to Gunnison (Hwy 50) I couldn’t believe the amount of Deer on the road. There was even what had to be a fatal accident for both parties in front of me that must have just happened. The deer was literally in a million pieces on the highway and the police moved us through quickly as the ambulance dealt with the people. It is very dangerous driving there at night. I really wouldn’t recommend it if you could avoid it.
The next day I was up at 4:30am and at the lek at 5:20am. Sunrise was at 6:30am and you must be there by 5:30am or an hour before sunrise. Due to human disturbance the Gunnison Sage-Grouse no longer come close to the road. You need to scope the distant hillside. I put my scope outside of my car and stuck my head out and was able to use the full range of my scope since I didn’t have a window mount.
At 6:17am I saw my first Gunnison Sage Grouse, a lifer and a big milestone for me. It was my 700th ABA bird!. A pretty special one for that milestone for many reasons since they are endemic and endangered. What was even more special was that I had expected distant crappy views but there was one single bird relatively close in the lower field. Therefore I saw all his field marks superbly: the long plumes and everything (even the pale bars on the tail feathers). Up on the distant hillside I saw 7 males and 4 females. You could see the plumes on the males and the yellow popping breasts but the views were so distant I was grateful for the good looks I had earlier.
As quickly as they came, they went. The last bird flew off the lek at 7:42am. Well with that beautiful morning behind me I was happy as I had just watched the sunrise and the birds fly from the lek. There was only one couple behind me plus the attendant, so it was really peaceful. I spoke to the couple behind me and they told me about a story I had only briefly heard about before: a Eastern Screech-Owl that raised a duckling. Surprisingly this isn’t the first time it’s happened. To read about it click HERE. I was now off to find a Black Rosy-Finch.
I went to a lady named Marjorie's house whom I had found on the Internet. She had dozens of Brown-capped and 2 Black-Rosy Finches and some Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches; not to mention Pine Grosbeaks, Cassin's Finches and other goodies.
I got there and immediately saw one Black-Rosy Finch and 50 Brown-capped Rosy-Finches!. The Brown-capped were right at my feet so I got some close up shots of them. They were so pretty and much better views than I had in the unfriendly Elk Thistle Drive Area in the Wildernest Community in Silverthorne.
|Black Rosy-Finch in Eagle County, CO - Photos: Melissa Hafting|
|Brown-capped Rosy-Finches in Eagle County, CO - Photos: Melissa Hafting|
|Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch in Eagle County, CO - Photo: Melissa Hafting|
I ended up seeing the Rocky Mountains subspecies of Mountain Chickadee there and interior Steller’s Jays and both the Grey-headed and beautiful Pink-sided Dark-eyed Juncos. It was a real special place. It is so nice that she opens up her home to birders too.
|Pink-sided Dark-eyed Junco (my fave Junco!) in Eagle, CO - Photo: Melissa Hafting|
|Mountain Chickadee (Rocky Mtns Subspecies) in Eagle County, CO - Photo: Melissa Hafting|
|Grey-headed Dark-eyed Junco in Eagle County, CO - Photo: Melissa Hafting|
|Female Pine Grosbeak in Eagle County, CO - Photo: Melissa Hafting|
|Cassin's Finch in Eagle County, CO - Photo: Melissa Hafting|
After that I drove to Walden and saw some Swainson’s Hawks, a Rough-legged Hawk, a beautiful Golden Eagle and some Ospreys. I slept for a bit in my hotel room, as the days are long and you are up so early. When I freshened up I went out to the lek near Walden to see if I could catch any Greater Sage-Grouse displaying and I did but it got too dark for photos. It’s amazing how well these large birds blend in within the sagebrush.
|Adult Golden Eagle near Walden, CO - Photo: Melissa Hafting|
I was back up the next morning at 4:30 am and got to the lek by 5:15 am there was already another car there. I could see dozens and dozens of grouse when I pulled up. When I parked they were displaying loudly in the dark. I was so close to them just feet away it was crazy cool!.
Some were lekking right in front of my car others right by the window. The females bunched up in the middle of all these males. The ladies were as dazzled as I was by the show.
|Female Greater Sage-Grouse on the lek - what all the fuss is for! - Photo: Melissa Hafting|
|Greater Sage-Grouse bunching up together in the middle of the Lek with 2 males - Photo: Melissa Hafting|
The males would fight viciously at times too. I also got to see a male mate with one of the females.
|Male Greater Sage-Grouse getting ready to fight on the lek - Photo: Melissa Hafting|
It’s amazing how much energy this must take the males to perform day in and day out for months- twice a day!. It was here that I got the Greater Sage-Grouse pics I had always wanted. It was a nice compensation after visiting the defunct lek post-burn in Malheur, OR. This was a dream for me and just made my whole trip right there.
|The highlight of my trip! - Male Greater Sage-Grouse displaying near Walden, CO - Photos: Melissa Hafting|
My first Colorado snowfall occurred while watching the grouse. It was a pretty but cold setting with the falling snow. Seeing the Greater Sage-Grouse like this was a moving moment I’ll treasure forever. Even though they aren’t lifers it will remain the highlight of my trip. Some Pronghorn came in to the lek too which was cool. The last bird flew at 8:15 am and I was off towards Pawnee National Grasslands.
|Male Greater Sage-Grouse in the snow near Walden, CO - Photo: Melissa Hafting|
I made a movie of the Greater Sage-Grouse displaying you can watch it below or full size HERE:
En route the road sides were littered with Pronghorns and daredevil White-tailed Jackrabbits! I got to see a new state when I crossed into Wyoming. There I saw some pelicans and more Pronghorn in WY but not much else. It was amazing how quick the mountains dropped off and it looked like the prairies in AB. When I crossed back into CO near Cheyenne there was no snow and it was so warm, it reminded me of Grasslands National Park in SK. I sure lucked out on the weather. The different regions and birds and landscape of Colorado is worth the trip in itself.
|Pronghorn in Wyoming - Photos: Melissa Hafting|
|A beautiful Swift Fox at its den at Pawnee National Grasslands - Photos: Melissa Hafting|
I began searching for Mountain Plovers. With a six hour great effort in extremely gusty wind I found 2 plovers. They were so distant and back lit I couldn’t rule out Killdeer. This would have been only the second time seeing this species and the first time seeing an adult. In 2016 I had a juvenile in OR nearly running over my feet which is tough to beat! You can see those photos HERE. Luckily I ended up finding 2 Mountain Plovers later on during my trip with definitive close views and photos that I’ll speak about later.
At Pawnee National Grasslands I also found a flock of at least 200 Longspurs which were mostly McCown’s. There was one Chestnut-collared Longspur as well. I also found one unhappy looking Burrowing Owl staring back at me from its burrow. I ended up seeing no less than ten of these owls during my trip. Horned Larks also littered the roadways, not just here but across the state. I was glad that I didn’t come to Pawnee on a day that people were actively Target Shooting. I was surprised to learn it was so prevalent here.
|Burrowing Owl at Pawnee National Grasslands - Photo: Melissa Hafting|
After leaving Pawnee I was off to see a Greater Prairie-Chicken lek near Brush, CO. Sunrise was at 6:11am so I had to get up extra early to arrive at 5:10 am. When I got there I heard nothing. It was a bit windy and rainy but at 5:30am I heard the poppings and sounds of the Greater Prairie-Chicken. They sound very different from Sage-Grouse or Sharp-tailed Grouse. I was familiar with the sound after hearing the endemic and endangered Attwater’s Greater Prairie-Chicken in Texas. To get up close photos of these guys you need to go to the lek in Wray where you are charged 100$ US and have to go to a presentation the night before. I didn't even have that option this trip, as the last trip the Wray Chamber of Commerce runs goes out April 14th.
|Greater Prairie-Chickens on the lek near Brush, CO - Photos: Melissa Hafting|
It was fun to watch them here as they jumped and did short flights and inflated their orange air sacs, as they danced around in a beautiful circle. As with the Sage-Grouse the female Prairie-Chickens gathered in the middle of the lek to admire their male counterparts. Watching two males fight was really something as they got really bloody. Hope both birds survived. I don’t know about you but Prairie Chickens look like they have bunny ears to me!. 11 birds were on this lek. It was bitterly cold due to the wind there and a bit wet but when I turned around there was a big beautiful rainbow behind me reminding me how lucky I was. I realized I had no right to complain.
After this I went to a nearby Sharp-tailed Grouse Lek and found 12 displaying. The looks weren’t as good as what I’ve had in Canada (see HERE). Only myself and a coyote were enjoying the views. There was a Chestnut-Collared Longspur there too calling. Next I drove to Arriba hoping for more Mountain Plovers and longspurs because my friend Monica Nugent had them there a few days before. While doing so I went through Nebraska another new state for me!. Unfortunately in NE I didn’t gain any new species, as I did in WY.
At Arriba I experienced the worst wind of my life according to the radio it was 50mph. It was insane I was getting blown over. However I figured the birds probably didn’t want to fly in this either and would be hunkered down. It took me 3.5 hours but eventually I got 2 adult Mountain Plovers close calling and running in the wheat field right in front of me.
|Do you see how these guys bloody well blend in?!. Adult Mountain Plover in Arriba, CO - Photo: Melissa Hafting|
Almost immediately a single male McCown’s Longspur dropped down to feed in the same field, affording me a photo of this species. Man they are pretty but they aren’t as snazzy to me as the Chestnut-Collared Longspurs. He took the longest as I chased around a flock of at least 200 McCown’s. Suddenly I heard the call of a single Chestnut-Collared. Mind you the winds had not died down and right then a policeman came to see what I was up to and remind me not to trespass (not that I was) but you know he felt he had to remind me for some reason.
|A pretty awful shot in the wind of a male McCown's Longspur - Photo: Melissa Hafting|
The next morning I got up and looked in the mirror. My cheeks were so wind burnt and rosy! People must have thought I had a fever as I’m not pigmentally challenged! I was really red! Lol. Anyways as I said I got up at dawn (so late for this trip!), and went to Pueblo Lake State Park for the Warbler. Before I could even get there I ran into at least 20 Wild Turkeys displaying to females. I pulled over to get some shots but as soon as I got out they instantly stopped displaying so I jumped back into the car so I wouldn’t harass them and snapped this mediocre shot. I was surprised how skittish these turkeys were while displaying they usually are tamer.
|Wild Turkeys displaying in Pueblo, CO - Photos: Melissa Hafting|
Well, I got to the park and saw only 2 other birders searching. An hour later there was 5 of us but that number never increased. We searched for hours. Others gave up but I stayed five hours for this rare lifer but sadly came up empty. I did add some new birds to my list though like Blue Jay, Wood Duck, Cliff, Barn and Bank Swallow, Franklin’s Gulls (had a migrating flock of 40). The park was alive with Audubon’s and Myrtle Warblers, both Common and Great-tailed Grackles and Osprey but not the rarity. Oh well that was my one dip so far and not even an expected bird but sure would have been nice.
I decided to head over to Swallows Rd to search for Scaled Quail. The time wasn’t ideal midday, but I searched anyways . I saw more Pronghorn, an American White Pelican, more Franklin’s Gulls and picked up some new birds like Curve-billed Thrasher, Lesser Goldfinch and Canyon Towhee. A White-throated Swift wizzed low right in front of my head!.
|Canyon Towhee in Pueblo, CO - Photos: Melissa Hafting|
|Pronghorn in Pueblo, CO- Photo: Melissa Hafting|
|Curve-billed Thrasher in Pueblo, CO - Photo: Melissa Hafting|
|An American White Pelican in breeding plumage in Pueblo Reservoir - Photo: Melissa Hafting|
|Scaled Quail in Pueblo, CO - Photos: Melissa Hafting|
I was off now to look at Lesser Prairie-Chickens on the lek in Kansas. I had to drive to KS because these grouse are basically now sadly extirpated from Colorado. I couldn’t believe how flat Kansas was. I thought Saskatchewan was flat but Kansas seemed flatter! Haha. It was hot there about 29 C!. When I got here I was refused service at a hotel. I had made reservations many months prior but the lady at the desk magically could not find my reservation. She was extremely unfriendly and claimed they were all “full.” I found that strange because the parking lot had 2 cars (one was mine). Also, many of the curtains were drawn allowing me to see all the dark empty rooms. There was also a “Vacancy” sign. She was obviously racist and was refusing service, so I left without argument after she agreed I wouldn’t be charged since I booked through a third party. I wouldn’t let this one bigot mar my trip. For after all I was going to see Lesser Prairie Chickens tomorrow. I had also met so many friendly people during this trip and focused on that. I settled into a nicer hotel that night and went to sleep. Kansas was 2 hours ahead of Vancouver and one hour ahead of CO so I needed sleep before the early start.
I had driven 4 hours to Oakley to a lek that is 70$ per person. I didn’t pay for any of the other leks on my trip. I knew of a free Lesser Prairie-Chicken lek in Kansas but it was 6.5 hours away and didn’t feel like driving and extra 2.5 hours. Plus I wanted some nice photos of them from a blind.
It was extra hard getting up an hour earlier than normal for grouse but I did it. I got some Common Poorwills while driving to the lek. At the lek there was 20 birds (18 males and 2 hens). They were popping and clicking and doing these little flight hops like the Greater Prairie-Chickens did. However, the Greater Prairie-Chickens sounded more like doves to me. The Lessers could easily be told apart when the males were displaying and showed off their red throat pouches/sacs. This of course contrasts with the yellow throat sacs/pouches of the Greater. The light in some of the photos is very different as it was a bright sunny day and they were taken at different times in the morning (before sunrise, during sunrise and after sunrise).
|Male Lesser Prairie-Chickens on the Lek in Oakley, KS - Photos: Melissa Hafting|
The Lessers would go frantic when one of the two hens passed by. Some males would begin fighting. Near to the lek I also saw 6 Burrowing Owls. There was only myself and 3 other gentleman at this lek. One from Kansas, one from NY and one from KY. One of them would not stop talking about all the grouse and animals he killed. At one point after the birds had flushed and we were leaving a Pronghorn buck walked up towards the car. He was not scared of us at all it was incredible. The hunter wanted to kill and eat it and was talking about how great it’s girth looked and how good they taste. I was happy to be leaving him but not this beautiful lek on the nature conservancy land. I was more than happy to pay 70$ to help ensure this land with 8 threatened Lesser Prairie-Chicken leks stays protected. I found out here that many farmers who have them on their property don’t want to say anything because they are listed in KS and it could prevent them doing what they want on their land if the govt found out. This is the same with the endangered Black-footed Ferret in the area. There is no legal hunting of Lesser Prairie-Chickens in KS. In KS including in Oakley where I was there are several leks where Greaters and Lessers interbreed.
|Female Lesser Prairie-Chicken in Oakley, KS - Photo: Melissa Hafting|
|Male Lesser Prairie-Chickens fighting over the above hen - Photo: Melissa Hafting|
I made a video of a Lesser Prairie-Chicken displaying you can watch below or in full size HERE.
You can watch a movie below or in full size HERE of 2 male Lesser Prairie-Chickens fighting!
I slowly made my way back to Denver. This Chicken Run trip I didn’t go looking for Dusky Grouse or go to the Sharp-tailed Grouse leks near Hayden where I would have got some pictures of both because I see them enough in Canada. It was a long drive but most grouse runs go to these areas. I just drove around the Grasslands and ended up finding a gorgeous Dark-morph Swainson’s Hawk that was coughing up a pellet!. He let me take a few shots of him before flying off! What a beauty!.
|Dark-morph Swainson's Hawk in Colorado - Photos: Melissa Hafting|
I saw 3 more Sharp-tailed Grouse displaying and they would be the last birds of my trip!. I drove back up Loveland Pass to admire the majestic view and on the way up saw 2 Bighorn Sheep! A new mammal for my trip!.
Despite one minor snow fall with the Greater Sage-Grouse and a tiny bit of rain with the Greater Prairie-Chickens and some terrible wind with the Mountain Plovers and Longspurs; the weather during my trip was really great. It was mostly sunny and warm and the roads clear. I sure lucked out because the weather can change there so quickly and you can be in a foot of snow, blinding blizzards and freezing cold. The radio said that thunderstorms, rain and snow were due the day after I was to leave and were to last a straight week so God was good to me. In fact as I boarded the plane the pilot said "intense thunderstorms are now over the DEN airport and we are grounded for 15 mins until it passes." Well it turned into a 4 hour delay on the tarmac of heavy rain, thunder and hail battering the plane and airport. Then my flight got cancelled and one more night in Denver on Air Canada's dime. The next day my flight got cancelled too but luckily I got rebooked on United,a full 7 hours later and got home via Seattle. I felt like Tom Hanks in the movie "The Terminal." I wasted two days in airports when I could have been birding or better yet with my family during Easter. I still was on a high from my trip and met some interesting people, so it didn't bother me as much as it should have.
I highly recommend any birder to do this same trip. It’s truly unforgettable. Don't be afraid to do a solo trip, it opens your life to nature in a way you never knew possible. You don’t need to pay thousands of dollars for a group tour, if you don’t want to. I’m not knocking those who do but not everyone can afford that. You can easily do this self guided and save a lot of cash. Hotels I stayed in were between 58-73$ US and gas well gas is expensive but necessary. I was virtually alone during this trip I saw very few birders. I saw the most at Loveland Pass (6) looking for Ptarmigan and two others at the Greater Sage-Grouse Lek. One car with 2 people at the Gunnison Sage-Grouse Lek and 0 at the Greater Prairie-Chicken Lek. Zero at the Sharp-tailed Grouse Lek. Zero in Pawnee, Zero at the Rosy-Finches and Pinyon Jays and 3 at the Lesser Prairie-Chickens. So if you want some peace, solitude and self reflection, good photo ops, lots of good mammals, gorgeous scenery and most importantly fantastic birds then you need to come to Colorado.
List of animals I saw:
Rocky Mountain Elk
Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel
American Red Squirrel
Prairie Dogs (unsure which species)
List of birds (too many to mention) but highlights were: