On April 13 I flew to Denver to join up with a group of nine other Virginia birders for a one-week birding extravaganza covering the whole state of Colorado. Our leader carefully planned our daily itineraries which centered around seeing as many bird species as possible, with a big emphasis on seeing rare birds and western “specialties” that we do not see on the Atlantic coast. Most of us had targeted several “life birds,” which are species that one has never seen before. Life birds are the Holy Grail of birdwatching, and obviously the longer you have birded and the more species you have seen, the more difficult it is to find and see a new life bird. That’s the advantage of joining up with a group led by an experienced leader who does all the work, figuring out where and when to go to have the best chance of seeing the rare or hard-to-find species.
We certainly experienced ups and downs during the week; the “ups” included all the great birds and scenery that we did see, the fellowship with the other birders and making new friends, and for me, just being back “out west” where I was raised and where my heart is. The “down” was a big one, though; the weather had a huge impact on the trip and made it impossible to go to many of the places we had planned to bird.
We started in the far southeastern corner of Colorado in prairie and grassland habitat, where temperatures were cool but at least there was no snow, and roads were passable. Our first early morning stop at a Lesser Prairie Chicken lek produced one lone bird that was quite far away from our blind and did not remain long, but it was the first life bird of the trip for most of us. Other birds typical of this habitat included the bird pictured above, the Long-billed Curlew, and below, the Greater Roadrunner.
We drove then to the western part of the state where we started to see the first signs of snow in the higher elevations; it was just beautiful and all the roads were still passable. We visited Gunnison National Park and Colorado National Monument, which are both near Grand Junction, close to the Utah border. Both places were stunning; here is a photo of the Black Canyon at Gunnison N.P.:
We hoped to see a Dusky Grouse at Gunnison, and we drove slowly along the roads in the morning hoping to find one along the shoulder of the road. All grouse species are notoriously difficult to find away from their leks, like trying to find a needle in a haystack, but our leader was successful in finding a Dusky for us – here it is:
Colorado National Monument is a gem of a place that few people know about; it’s like a mini Grand Canyon with gorgeous red rock formations and canyons. The weather had turned darker and drizzly by the time we got there, but we walked around and found some of the common bird species like Spotted Towhee, Juniper Titmouse and Say’s Phoebe. Here are a couple of snapshots of the views there:
Our next destinations were in northern Colorado, where we ran into some major weather. Everything was blanketed in snow, so our best chance of finding any birds for the next few days was to visit bird feeders where we had great success. Here are some of my favorites:
I’ve only seen Common Redpolls (above and below) once in all my years of birding, so seeing them in good numbers at the feeders was a real treat. Redpolls are northern finches that move south into the lower 48 in the winter, but they are usually restricted to the northern tier of states and are somewhat unpredictable in their occurrence. They usually wander around in groups eating from the seed heads of thistles and other seed-bearing plants, but since all of those plants were covered by the snow, they took advantage of the niger seed that people put in their feeders. Just look at this group!–
Another of my favorites is a bird of high elevations and northern states, the Pine Grosbeak. We do not see them in Virginia; they occur far to the north of us. Pine Grosbeaks are actually a large species of finch; here is a beautiful male:
Below is a Mountain Chickadee, a bird of the western mountains. It is a “cousin” to southeast Virginia’s Carolina Chickadee. My roommate liked this photo and thought we should caption it “Take that, Bluebird!”
In the eastern states we get Red-winged Blackbirds, but not Yellow-headed Blackbirds. Here is a photo of one of each (males), looking annoyed with with weather — (or maybe they’re annoyed with me?)
And one last feeder bird that I must share with you, because it was a life bird for me. The Brown-capped Rosy Finch occurs almost exclusively in Colorado, and loves high altitudes, snow and freezing temperatures. We certainly had all of the above that week, and we saw hundreds of these little guys at various feeders.
This has been just a thumbnail sketch of our trip, but I hope it gives you a little taste of Colorado birding and nature. I would love to go there again in less extreme weather — as I indicated, there were many places we could not go, and birds we could not see. We were there during the worst snowstorm Colorado has had in three years, and no one could have predicted that. We actually did drive up to Loveland Pass hoping we could search for Ptarmigan, but it was minus 12 degrees there plus 60 mph winds with stronger gusts. It was almost a complete whiteout; in fact, five snowboarders tragically died there in an avalanche the next day.
But focusing on the positive side, we saw a lot of gorgeous places and beautiful birds, and I will end with a photo of one of the most beautiful, a male Mountain Bluebird. What more is there to say?