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COLORADO

Grouse and Rosy-finches

21 April–4 May 2019

Greater and Gunnison Sage-grouse, Sharp-tailed Grouse and Greater and Lesser Prairie-chickens, all at leks, are the main targets for this trip, along with White-tailed Ptarmigan, Dusky Grouse and all three species of rosy-finch. Others include Lewis’s Woodpecker, Pinyon Jay and Pine and Evening Grosbeaks in the Rocky Mountains, and Mountain Plover and Chestnut-collared and McCown’s Longspurs on the Great Plains.

Day 1 Flight from London to Denver followed by a drive to Fort Collins for a one-night stay.

Day 2 After breakfast we will head to the Pawnee National Grasslands to search for early-returning Mountain Plovers and Chestnut-collared and McCown’s Longspurs. During the afternoon we will drive east, looking for parties of Snow and Ross’s Geese as well as Horned Lark, American Pipit, Yellow-headed Blackbird, Swainson’s, Ferruginous and Rough-legged Hawks, Burrowing Owl, Northern Bobwhite and flocks of migrating Franklin’s Gulls. We will spend the night in the town of Wray.

Day 3 We will have to be up at the crack of dawn for an organised tour on a private ranch to watch the unforgettable displays of Greater Prairie-chickens. Other species to be seen in the area could include Northern Harrier, Great Horned Owl, Say’s Phoebe and Loggerhead Shrike. We will return to Wray for breakfast, and we could encounter some good birds around the town including Wood Duck, Downy and Red-bellied Woodpeckers and Ruby-crowned Kinglet. We will then head south-east through Nebraska via the ‘Land and Sky’ highway towards Dodge City, Kansas, breaking our journey at sites for migrant ducks and waders and local passerines including Eastern Bluebird, Northern Cardinal and Rock Wren. Introduced Ring-necked Pheasants are likely to be seen as we continue south-east to Garden City, Kansas for a two-night stay.

Day 4 Our second early-morning start will find us at a lek of Lesser Prairie-chickens; their subtly different sack-colour and display will be another spectacle to enjoy. After breakfast in the local town we will concentrate on the birds to be found in the fields and rough pasture of western Kansas. Our day will be rich and varied and could include species such as Baird’s Sandpiper, Barn Owl, both Eastern and Western Meadowlarks, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher and a fantastic variety of sparrows including Grasshopper, Field and Harris’s Sparrows – sizeable flocks of the latter are possible!

Day 5 Heading west, we will make impromptu stops whenever we see roadside birds such as raptors, geese and cranes until we reach Pueblo, where Scaled Quail and Curve-billed Thrasher can be found. The nearby mountain foothills host Woodhouse’s Scrub-jay, Blue–grey Gnatcatcher, Juniper Titmouse and Bushtit, all birds of classic juniper habitat. Night in Canon City.

Day 6 Our journey west continues today as we climb the mountain foothills, transitioning through pine forests and gently gaining elevation throughout the morning. Mountain Bluebird, Pinyon Jay and Lewis’s Woodpecker are possible throughout the drive, along with mammals such as Black Bear and Bighorn Sheep. The higher elevations could well produce American Three-toed Woodpecker and Pine Grosbeak before we make our descent to the Gunnison Basin and the Gunnison Sage-grouse viewing area. We may be lucky enough to see a few sage-grouse this evening but it’s more likely that we will have to wait until the morning. Night in Gunnison.

Day 7 Today’s target species is in a different genus: Centrocercus. The two sage-grouse species were split a number of years ago and this has left the range-restricted Gunnison Sage-grouse as an endangered species. So as not to disturb the birds we will attend a public viewing site, following which we will head up into the mountains to search for Dusky Grouse; these birds don’t display communally so some patience is required to find them. The ensuing search should, however, produce good birds within the same habitat including Green-tailed and Spotted Towhees, Townsend’s Solitaire, Hermit Thrush, Dusky Flycatcher, Broad-tailed Hummingbird and (Sooty) Fox Sparrow. After a relaxed lunch, we’ll head north-west towards Grand Junction. The increasingly arid landscape could well give us Gambel’s Quail, White-throated Swift, Canyon Wren, Virginia’s Warbler and Black-throated Sparrow by the end of the day. Night in Grand Junction.

Day 8 The early part of the day will see us in sagebrush/juniper habitat where we should find Grey Flycatcher, Sagebrush Sparrow and perhaps an early Grey Vireo. The deeper canyons host small numbers of non-native Chukar, an Old World species that’s fully established as a resident breeder and is certainly ABA countable. Continuing east, with stops along the way for Sandhill Crane and Barrow’s Goldeneye, we will eventually arrive at a comfortable lodge in Steamboat Springs, our base for the next three nights.

Day 9 Today’s early-morning start will enable us to visit lekking Sharp-tailed Grouse near Hayden. This is probably the most comical of the lekking grouse species, with the males literally dancing around like clockwork mice! The surrounding hillsides are good for raptors including Golden and Bald Eagles, Cooper’s Hawk and Prairie Falcon. After returning to Steamboat Springs for breakfast, we will visit some feeders in Silverthorne where Black-capped and Mountain Chickadees, American Goldfinch, Pine Siskin and Evening Grosbeak are all possible. However, the main attraction will be the hundreds of rosy-finches that visit the feeders, with all three species being possible, although Brown-capped is by far the most frequent. The late afternoon will be spent at Loveland Pass – a high-elevation site offering majestic views over the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forest – where we hope to find the rather rare White-tailed Ptarmigan in pristine white winter plumage; no easy task as there will be plenty of snow cover!

Day 10 By now we will be accustomed to early-morning starts, and this morning we will visit a lek near Walden before sunrise for Greater Sage-grouse; we expect to find them displaying in good numbers. The surrounding sagebrush should support Sage Thrasher and Brewer’s Sparrow, albeit in small numbers. After a late but hearty breakfast in Walden we will visit the nearby Moose Visitor Center, where we may see Grey Jay, Cassin’s Finch and a variety of sub-species of Dark-eyed Junco on the feeders. The visitor centre is well named, as the chances of seeing Moose in the area are pretty good. Depending on weather conditions, we may also find one or more of the rosy-finches and, if the weather is poor, we can watch from inside the centre! The Walden area also features many wetlands where we should find a good variety of waterbirds including Canvasback, Redhead, Cinnamon Teal, American White Pelican, American Avocet, Long-billed Curlew, Wilson’s Snipe, Caspian Tern and many others. An evening’s owling could give us a reasonable chance of Boreal and Northern Pygmy-owls, both low-density breeding species in the area.

Day 11 Should we still need Dusky Grouse, Sharp-tailed Grouse or Greater Sage-grouse we will have time this morning to search again for one of them. If not, we will head over Rabbit Ears Pass (the continental divide), stopping to check for Clark’s Nutcracker along the way. Heading north, we will make a number of stops to search for Broad-winged Hawk, Northern Goshawk, Red-naped and Williamson’s Sapsuckers, American Dipper and Red Crossbill before finally arriving in the Laramie area of Wyoming. The fields here give us another chance for Mountain Plover as well as White-tailed Jackrabbit and White-tailed Prairie-dog. Two nights in Cheyenne, Wyoming.

Day 12 We have the luxury of a full day to explore the expansive area of the Pawnee National Grasslands, allowing us to catch up with any species missed on the first, all-too-brief, visit at the beginning of the tour. Both Chestnut-collared and McCown’s Longspurs should be present in good numbers and in full display, and the first Lark Buntings of the season should also have arrived. Careful scrutiny of the sparrows could well produce Lark, Clay-coloured and Cassin’s Sparrows amid the hordes of Vesper, Chipping and Savannah Sparrows. We will also take time to visit Crow Valley Campground in Briggsdale, a known migrant hotspot, where we could find Yellow-rumped (Myrtle and Audubon’s) and Palm Warblers, House Wren, Brown Thrasher, Eastern Phoebe and even Blue Jay!

Day 13 There might be time for more birding this morning before we head south for Denver International Airport and our return flight to London, arriving on Day 14.

General Information The climate can vary from warm in the lowlands to very cold in the mountains. There will be a moderate amount of walking, mainly on good trails, but at altitude this can be quite tiring. There are no special medical requirements and insects are not a problem. Visas are required. Distances are quite long but the roads are good and driving is relaxed, with plenty of opportunities to stop for food and drink. Accommodation standards are good, with all motel rooms being spacious and having two beds and en-suite facilities. Food is excluded from the tour price but is relatively inexpensive; allow about £20 per day depending on your requirements.

Group size Minimum number for tour to go ahead: 8 with 1 leader; maximum group size: 16 with 2 leaders.

Greater Prairie-chicken

Greater Prairie-chicken

Recommended books available from NHBS