Colorado: Grouse Leks, the Rockies & Great Plains
In terms of habitat Colorado is one of the most diverse states of the USA, comprising a mosaic of desert, prairie grassland, high elevation forest and alpine tundra at high mountain passes. This diversity is mirrored by the species available in this fascinating region, making Colorado one of the most enjoyable and productive birding areas anywhere in North America. Among these are regional specialities, culminating in a selection of grouse, all highly sought-after and hard to find.
Our April tour of Colorado, which also touches on neighbouring Kansas, presents an exceptional opportunity to find this region’s most sought-after species, together with more widespread residents and an interesting host of migrants at the peak of spring migration. This is also the prime time to witness the extraordinary performances of five species of grouse as they gather at communal leks. We begin to the west of Denver at Loveland Pass, ascending to the highest elevation of the tour to look in particular for the elusive White-tailed Ptarmigan, perfectly camouflaged against the snow which still caps the surrounding peaks. At our next site Walden we will visit our first lek, for Greater Sage-grouse, and explore the high altitude grasslands of North Park for mountain birds and migrants before back-tracking to Rabbit Ears Pass looking for Williamson’s Sapsucker en-route to the Yampa River Valley. Around Craig, we will visit a special viewing area for lekking Sharp-tailed Grouse, before setting out on the long drive south to Montrose, birding along the way in the desert canyons around Grand Junction and in the Dominguez-Escalante Conservation Area where we have the chance of the elusive Chukar and Lewis’s Woodpecker. In a dawn visit to the Black Canyon of Gunnison National Park we will view displaying Dusky Grouse, together with Woodhouse’s Scrub-jay and Pygmy Nuthatch. Moving on, the short drive east to Gunnison takes us to the only accessible Gunnison Sage-grouse lek. From here we drive further east across Monarch Pass where we will find our final montane species, such as American Three-toed Woodpecker and Clark’s Nutcracker, and into the desert ecosystem of the Arkansas River Valley and Pueblo area, where a new selection of birds, such as Scaled Quail, Curve-billed Thrasher and Greater Roadrunner, will be present. Continuing our journey east we drive into Kansas to a private ranch hosting lekking Lesser and Greater Prairie-chickens. Back in the Fort Collins area of Colorado, we will add more grassland species in the short grass prairie, key among which are McCown’s and Chestnut-collared Longspurs and Mountain Plover. Finally, a flexible final day may take us to Pawnee National Grasslands, in search of any grassland species we may have missed.
This tour offers an exceptionally bird-rich overview of Colorado’s grasslands, canyons and mountain passes, including the spectacle of active spring grouse leks, as we pass through some magnificent wild landscapes. Spring migration will be in full swing, and the diverse birdlife will be accompanied by a host of plentiful mammals throughout, including Moose, Elk, Pronghorn, Bighorn Sheep and Coyote, with Black-tailed Prairie Dogs and various ground-squirrels in prairie landscapes.
26 April - 3 May 2020
(also available as a custom tour)
Ground price: £ 2230
Single room supplement: £ 440
Deposit: £ 500
The price includes: Accommodation, breakfasts, bottled drinking water (refills), all ground transport, all birding/wildlife activities as described, entry fees, guiding, pre-tour information, species checklists.
The price excludes: Flights, lunches & dinners, US visa fees, travel insurance, drinks other than water, tips and any expenses of a personal nature.
Maximum group size: 8
Accommodation: Comfortable hotels/motels throughout, all rooms with private facilities.
Tour grading: Easy. Most birding will be on foot along quiet, paved roads or park trails; the tour is intensive in terms of time spent in the field with some pre-dawn starts. Note we bird to 3655m where altitude makes walking more strenuous.
Key species: Greater and Lesser Prairie-chickens, Greater and Gunnison Sage-grouse, Sharp-tailed Grouse, Dusky Grouse, White-tailed Ptarmigan, Brown-capped, Grey-crowned and Black Rosy-finches, Clark's Nutcracker, Woodhouse's Scrub-jay, Williamson's Sapsucker, Lewis's and American three-toed Woodpeckers, Pygmy Nuthatch, McCown's and Chestnut-collared Longspurs, Mountain Plover, Sage Thrasher, Scaled Quail, Greater Road-runner, Boreal and Burrowing Owls, Northern Pygmy-owl.
Day 1: Denver to Walden via Loveland Pass
Arrivals this morning into Denver international airport. Drive west to spend most of the day birding the high altitudes around Loveland Pass (3655m) in search of White-tailed Ptarmigan and a selection of mountain finches, including Cassin’s Finch, Pine and Evening Grosbeaks, Red Crossbill and the chance of all three species of rosy-finch at feeder stations. Later drive north to Walden for the night, with time for some late afternoon birding around our hotel and the possibility of Boreal Owl and Northern Pygmy-owl after dark.
Days 2: Greater Sage-grouse lek and North Park, Rabbit Ears Pass to Craig
The first of many early starts will take us to an active Greater Sage-grouse lek at first light. Later, we’ll explore North Park, where high-altitude grasslands and sage-brush hold Long-billed Curlew, Black-billed Magpie, Sage Thrasher, Brewer’s Sparrow and Townsend’s Solitaire, and the Walden reservoir for an introductory selection of waterbirds, including Bufflehead, Canvasback, Redhead, Cinnamon Teal, and the possibility of a late Barrow’s Goldeneye. Leaving Walden, we stop briefly atop Rabbit Ears Pass looking for Williamson’s Sapsucker, and will encounter a good selection of species such as Sandhill Crane, Vesper and Fox Sparrows, and Violet-green Swallow as we drive on through the Yampa River Valley making our way to Craig for the night.
Day 3: Sharp-tailed Grouse lek, birding Grand Junction en-route to Montrose
Another pre-dawn start will take us to a special viewing area to see the energetic and vocal displays of lekking Sharp-tailed Grouse. By late morning we will begin the long drive south to Montrose for the night, birding along the journey in the Grand Junction area and in the Dominguez-Escalante Conservation Area, where scenic desert canyons, sage-brush and juniper habitats host Prairie Falcon, Cooper’s Hawk, Rock and Canyon Wrens, Grey Flycatcher, Virginia’s Warbler, Sagebrush Sparrow, Lewis’s Woodpecker, Gambel’s Quail and small numbers of the elusive resident breeder but non-native Chukar.
Day 4: Black Canyon, Gunnison National Park to Gunnison
Spend the early morning amidst the spectacular canyon scenery of the impressive Black Canyon of Gunnison National Park. Here, we’ll look for individual displaying Dusky Grouse and Wild Turkey, as well as Woodhouse’s Scrub-jay, Green-tailed and Spotted Towhees, Hermit Thrush, Broad-tailed Hummingbird, Juniper Titmouse and Pygmy Nuthatch. Drive on to Gunnison for the night.
Day 5: Gunnison Sage-grouse lek, montane birding at Monarch Pass, the Arkansas River Valley and Pueblo to Bent’s Fort
Another pre-dawn start, this time to view the range-restricted and endangered Gunnison Sage-grouse at an active lek. Once the birds depart the area we’ll be free to continue our journey east towards Bent’s Fort for the night. Along the journey we will cross Monarch Pass (3448m), one of the most scenic mountain passes in Colorado with a panoramic view over the southern end of the Sawatch range and a good site for American Three-toed Woodpecker and Clark’s Nutcracker, as well as Bighorn Sheep. Descending through the foothills we’ll drive along the scenic cliffs and junipers of the Arkansas River Valley, home to Pinyon Jay, Gray Flycatcher, Bushtit, and American Dipper at Royal Gorge. Finally, we’ll reach the plains around Pueblo, where we will encounter a new selection of desert species in the arid landscape, some at the northernmost extent of their range, including Scaled Quail, Canyon Towhee, Rufous-crowned Sparrow, Curve-billed Thrasher and Greater Roadrunner.
Day 6: SE Colorado to W Kansas
The south eastern corner of Colorado hosts various productive habitats that we will explore on our drive eastwards into neighbouring Kansas today. We will start the morning looking for marsh species including Black and Virginia Rails and Marsh Wren along the shores of John Martin reservoir, following up with the potential to add shorebirds, migrant songbirds and nesting grassland species throughout the day. Following part of the historic Santa Fe trail we head east to Scott City for the night.
Day 7: Prairie-chickens and the high plains of NE Colorado
We start the morning pre-dawn at a private ranch, visiting our final lek to enjoy both Greater and Lesser Prairie-chickens displaying. After breakfast, we head back west into the short grass prairie of Colorado, with time to add species such as Mountain Plover, McCown’s and Chestnut-collared Longspurs, various sparrows including Grasshopper, Field, Harris’s and Brewer’s, Loggerhead Shrike, Swainson’s and Ferruginous Hawks and Burrowing Owl. Drive north to Fort Collins for the night.
Day 8: Pawnee National Grasslands & depart Denver
Today will be flexible, allowing us the chance to return to Loveland Pass for White-tailed Ptarmigan, but we are more likely to spend the day in the Great Plains at Pawnee National Grasslands looking for grassland species we may so far have missed. These may include Lark Bunting, Chipping and Savannah Sparrows as well as smaller numbers of Lark, Clay-coloured and Cassin’s Sparrows, Palm and Yellow-rumped Warblers and Eastern Phoebe. We will leave Pawnee National Grasslands by mid-morning to drive back to Denver. Departures from Denver international airport this evening.