I am writing to you from my home in Fort Collins, Colorado which is a little over an hour north of Denver. I moved here from New River, AZ in early March and have been enjoying the cool weather, clean air and beautiful scenery whilst also acclimating to higher elevations and much more unpredictable weather patterns than what I've experienced before. The charismatic Black-billed Magpie is common here and always a pleasure to see and I've also enjoyed finding 3 lifers (all of which were first seen in my yard) soon after moving: Black-capped Chickadee, Blue Jay and Common Grackle. Overall, this move has been smooth and I am very excited to share the story of my first birding trip in the state of Colorado.
The plan: head to the Pawnee National Grassland in Weld County, Colorado in hopes of finding the Sharp-tailed Grouse which have been lekking there over the course of the past month. I also decided to search for Mountain Plovers further south and then end the day at the well-known Crow Valley Campground looking for early migrants. At 4 am, my Dad and I left home and set off for the town of Hereford which we accessed by driving north into Wyoming, cutting across east and, then, heading south back into Colorado. While driving through Wyoming I picked up my first 9 birds for the state. I hope to spend a good deal of time birding Wyoming in the future considering my home's relatively close proximity to the state line.
We arrived at Hereford around 6:30 and soon found Weld County Road 136 which we followed east for 2 miles before entering suitable habitat for grouse. Our chances for finding this elusive gamebird were not too good. It was May 5th (approaching the very end of their lekking season) and we were about 45 minutes late to witness the actual lekking activity. We drove east along WCR 136 stopping to glass every suspicious form in the grassland around us. Around 7:15, we were approaching the base of Pine Butte when I caught a glimpse of a lone Sharp-tailed Grouse!
After watching this unique gamebird for several seconds, it burst up from the ground in sputtery flight and vanished out of sight.
|The Sharp-tailed Grouse's namesake - its sharp tail - is evident in this shot.|
After searching the immediate area for any other grouse, we decided to move on to the next spot that has proven reliable for the species. We encountered a number of other grassland birds on the way.
|Grasshopper Sparrows were common throughout this habitat and I heard at least 9 singing while following WCR 136.|
|A few Lark Buntings foraging in a stubbly corn field were enjoyable!|
|A recently-arrived migrant Western Kingbird|
|A Lark Sparrow. This bird incorporates low grating notes into its song which is quite un sparrow-like in my opinion.|
|A fierce predatory songbird, the Loggerhead Shrike.|
|A few of the Pronghorn Antelope that were common throughout the Pawnee National Grassland.|
Upon reaching the easternmost extent of WCR 136, we traveled along WCR 111 and found 3 Burrowing Owls which flushed up from the grass and then dove back down into cover. Having succeeded in finding our target, the Sharp-tailed Grouse, my Dad and I drove back to Hereford and took WCR 390 southeast towards Keota. Just before Keota, we turned west onto WCR 100 and traveled not more than a half mile before we noticed another birder who was scanning the grassland with his binoculars. We stopped and introduced ourselves. Turns out, he was there looking for a recently reported Cassin's Sparrow but missed it. He also mentioned that he had just seen two Mountain Plovers a little further up the road! As the man suggested, we traveled up the road just before where its intersection with WCR 99 and found one of the Mountain Plovers in an abandoned prairie dog town!
|Since the plover was too far away to be photographed by my 300 mm lens, I took these shots through a spotting scope using my iPhone.|
|The plover spent a significant amount of time sitting. Perhaps it was incubating eggs?|
Although I searched diligently for the Upland Sandpiper, I did not find it. More than likely, it had migrated on from this location. Apart from the very awesome Mountain Plover, Burrowing Owls were another interesting species and seemed to be inhabiting the abandoned prairie dog burrows. Moving on from this spot, we took WCR 390 south and then traveled west on State Highway 14 to Briggsdale. On the north side of the highway is Crow Valley Campground which is also a part of the Pawnee National Grassland. Crow Valley is a very well-known birding destination in Colorado and has a history of fantastic eastern vagrants. I was very excited by the possibilities here.
|Riparian areas like this are among my favorite birding habitats.|
Not long after exiting our vehicle, my Dad and I noticed a few birders who were craning their necks to look up into a tree. Of course, I headed over to find out what they had.
|These fledgling Great-horned Owls were just finishing their molt into adult plumage!|
Although every species of warbler evaded me during my time here, I did find some other good migrants. Chief among these were 4 Swainson's Thrushes in the riparian area. Swainson's may be differentiated from Hermit by their buffy faces and olive brown (as opposed to reddish) tails. A couple Eastern Downy Woodpeckers and Spotted Towhees were also foraging nearby. While traveling along the Birdwalk Trail, I heard a Melanerpes-esque "Churrr" call and was surprised to find a Red-bellied Woodpecker perched on a tree trunk!
To those of you who don't know me, I am a big fan of woodpeckers. Their unique physiology, habits and life history intrigue me and I really enjoy every new species I see. This Red-bellied Woodpecker was the first of its species reported this year at Crow Valley Campground. As is typical of many woodpeckers I've dealt with, this one decided to be a scumbag and hide from me on the opposite side of the tree trunk. Also, there was a stream running between me and the bird, so I couldn't easily sneak around it for a better view. Because my Dad went back to the parking lot to let the other birders know what I found, I was able to show a few people the woodpecker before it flew into a thicket and vanished for the remainder of my time there.
|One of the Swainson's Thrushes I saw.|
|An American Kestrel soaring up high.|
Crow Valley Campground is a good location for Brown Thrashers (the only thrasher species native to the Eastern U.S.). Having already seen this bird as a vagrant in Yavapai County, Arizona last year, I was interested in seeing the species in its native range. When I returned to the parking lot area from the Birdwalk Trail, I heard a mimid's song and followed the sound to its source:
|The Brown Thrasher I was hoping for!|
By this time, bird activity had died down significantly and I decided to move on. One bird that had eluded me throughout the day was the McCown's Longspur. This bird and its close relative, the Chestnut-collared Longspur, dwell in the arid grasslands of north-central Colorado where they are typically uncommon - fairly common. I was honestly quite surprised not to have seen any that morning. Because I didn't want to waste my efforts and head home without any longspurs, I decided to ask an elderly birder who was sitting at a picnic table for his advice. Fortunately, he knew of a spot nearby. In fact, this location was only 2 miles north of Crow Valley! Driving north from Crow Valley, we turned left onto WCR 96 and began our search.
After traveling west along WCR 96 for about a mile, we came upon an interpretive kiosk with information about the area and its wildlife and decided to stop for a while. Soon after exiting the vehicle, I heard a two-note buzzing song that struck me as being something different. After hearing it again, I was convinced that it had to be a Brewer's/Clay-colored Sparrow (I was hoping for it to be the latter considering that I haven't seen that species). As I was walking over to where I heard the song, a small sparrow flew up from the grass and perched on the fence. I quickly lifted my binoculars to my eyes to see a Brewer's Sparrow; not the one I was hoping for, but a fun bird nonetheless. But then, I noticed another sparrow perched next to it on barbwire.
|This Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrel was fun to see. They are small and very fast rodents.|
|A striking Clay-colored Sparrow!|
I was very excited to have found a Clay-colored Sparrow and was surprised by its well defined markings. It can be difficult to separate drab individuals from boldly-marked Brewer's Sparrows. The gray back of the neck and contrasting white facial stripes were two of the primary field marks that helped identify my bird as a Clay-colored.
From this spot, we continued a little further along the road. My Dad pointed out what seemed to be a stock tank on the north side of the road and we decided to investigate the area in hopes of finding longspurs attracted to the water. Sure enough, it was a stock tank. However, it was dry. Luckily, there was a pool of water in a shallow depression just to the side of the tank which held a group of 5 Mallards. I also found a Killdeer nearby. It's interesting to find waterbirds in a completely desolate grassland habitat. The presence of water is what makes that possible. As I walked back to the car, I noticed a group of small songbirds flying down to the pool. Their rattling calls gave away their identity before I could even see them.
Within seconds, the little songbirds flew away and out of sight. A short, but sweet first experience with the species. From here, we drove back home to Fort Collins. As this was my first actual birding trip in Colorado, I am very satisfied with the birds I found and am pleased that my identification skills haven't deteriorated too terribly since moving from Arizona. I am also very thankful that my Dad was able to do this with me. We had a great time together. I am extremely excited for my future here in Colorado and look forward to future birding experiences. Who knows where I'll go and what I'll find?
1. Sharp-tailed Grouse
2. Mountain Plover
3. Swainson's Thrush
4. Red-bellied Woodpecker
5. Clay-colored Sparrow
6. McCown's Longspur
Godspeed and good birding to all of you,