Greater sage grouse at Delaney Butte State Wildlife Area (photo by Al Sander)

Allan Sander and I have been friends for a long time, although now that he lives in AZ and CA I only see him when he comes to town to visit his mother. Al has been a flight attendant for a major airline for many years: he chose that profession so he could  fly around the world  looking at and photographing birds. The last time we traveled together was in May 1989 when we went toAustralia.

Over the years, Al had become friends with Mike Flieg, who offered low-cost bird tours just about everywhere. (They also collaborated on a number of bird books- Mike wrote the text and Al provided the photos.) One trip which Mike pioneered was the week long trip aimed at getting all the grouse in  Colorado (with a foray or two into western Kansas): both prairie chickens, both sage grouse, sharp-tailed grouse, white-tailed ptarmigan, and dusky grouse.

Most of these birds perform spectacular displays in spring, many of which gather in numbers where they strut their stuff for breeding purposes at leks (a human version might be a bar or night club). He had developed contacts with land-owners, scientists, and birders who knew the status and could give permission to access the sites. He also knew which restaurants and motels were worthy of supporting. Well Mike passed away last year and it was decided that Al would take over the trip. But this spring he wanted to take a dry one- renewing contacts and fine tuning logistics- so that next year he could offer the excursion to paying clients.

When Al told me what he had in mind, I could not resist and it was decided we would converge in Denver. I had not birded the west (except AZ and CA) in many decades. There were a number of species I had only seen once or twice and due to splits three would be new:Gunnison’s sage grouse, dusky grouse, and juniper titmouse. We wound up missing the ptarmigan (too much snow- but we did see a nice pika sunning on an exposed rock), and the two prairie chickens, as the lesser had already stopped displaying for the season and the greater would have required a long drive and a higher fee than we cared to pay.

Spring on the Colorado plains was new to me. Swainson’s hawks were the most abundant raptor, nesting in most any isolated tree. Lark buntings lined fence lines and flocked in fields. Chestnut collared longspurs and Brewer’s sparrows appeared in various places. We made a detour to seeRoyal Gorge, but the road was still closed for the winter before we could see it. But was a road it was, winding through hills of juniper and pine. We had nice views of titmouse, as well as pinyon jays, gray flycatchers, and eastern scrub jays. At dawn in marshes near the John Martin Reservoir (Hasty, CO), I stood and  watched a bobcat emerge from woods and leisurely cross the road as  it disappeared into a wet tangle. Later, at the Queens State Wildlife area on theArkansas River, Al spotted a prairie rattlesnake stretched out on the gravel road. It “stood” its ground as Al took gorgeous photos: as we pulled away it slowly sought the shelter of thick grass.

The first target species was northern sage grouse. Al had several possible lekking sites, but lacked the most up to date information. We stopped for information at the US Forest Service office in Walden and to our great fortune, one of the two staffers present has as one of her duties the monitoring of sage grouse leks.  She recommended Delaney Butte State Wildlife Area. We headed off on a reconnoiter and after some effort found the exact spot, marked by a sign proclaiming “wildlife lookout.”

By four the next morning we were at the site, listening and watching. The enfolding dawn alternated between fog (from the adjacent lake) and great clarity. Coyotes howled, snipe winnowed, and an annoyed prong-horn antelope regaled us with a combination snort and bray. Then we could  hear the grouse gearing up for the main event. Big white breasts moving back and forth amidst the sage became visible. With more light, we could see the birds sparring with their rivals like boxers. Though late in the season, we counted nine cocks and one hen. The birds were not super close but close enough to get wonderful  views and photos. By the time we left at 6:30, they were still going at it.

 

Proghorn antelope (photo Al Sander)

Greater sage grouse at Delany Butte State Wildlife Area (photo by Al Sander)

Al Sander and blogger at Delaney Butte. (photo by camera).

Prairie rattlesnake at Queens State Wildlife Area (Photo by Al Sander)

Swainson’s hawk at Arapaho National Wildlife Refuge (photo by Al Sander)

Lark bunting at Kinney Lake State Wildlife Area (photo by Al Sander)

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2 Comments to “Grousing in Colorado: Part One”

  1. steve siegel says:

    What week in May did you go?

  2. Joel says:

    Thanks for your query. We went in early May which is too late for the l-p chicken and prolonged views of Gunnison’s sage grouse. April is the ideal time. Al Sander is leading tours to those areas next year during April. Going on one of his trips would be an excellent option for seeing all of these amazing birds at a very reasonable cost. E-mail me at joelrgreenberg@gmail.com if you want more info.

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