Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Insanity Begins

I think we left off with my retreat from the Grand Valley on Mar 29.  My plan for the day was simple - get to Wray for the mandatory 6pm Greater Prairie-Chicken orientation, and find Black and Brown-capped Rosy Finches along the way.  Simple?  Not so much.

Driving back through the mountains, I had to stop at Vail Summit, hoping for Grey Jay, and perhaps a Rosy-Finch or 200.  Nothing of the sort appeared, though I did find this, which seemed picture worthy:

A little Colorado humour maybe?

I decided Silverthorne would be my Rosy-finch attempt, as good numbers had been seen off and on in the vicinity of Lake View Dr.  It was around this time that my GPS decided to play an early April Fool's joke.  It seems there are two Lake View Dr's in the Silverthorne area... one right in town, and the other 30km north.  Can you guess which one my GPS decided to take me to?  After a recovery and an unsuccessful search of the correct area, I continued to Wray, and made it with enough time to check in and unpack the car before walking the two blocks down to the Wray Museum for the 40 minute presentation.

While I was unpacking, I met the couple in the room next to mine, Koos and Susan, who were also on the tour and happen to be from Comox!  Small world indeed, as it turned out the remainder of the tour group was from Colorado or Florida.  The presentation flew by, and it was early to bed for the 5:15am bus trip out to the lek.  After the trip out in a school bus and an orderly filing into the metal viewing trailer Josh, our pistol-packing guide, opened the flaps on the trailer and we waited.

Within 2 minutes of the trailer being opened we heard our first male Greater Prairie-Chicken, followed by a second, a third, a fourth.....  As the night turned to light, the dark blobs that were my lifer tick turned into actual birds, strutting, displaying, calling, and flapping.  I counted 15 males and 4 females, though there may have been more.  The displaying intensified when females ventured into the lek, and when the females left the males sat.  And sat. 

The Greater Prairie-Chicken lek, post-female

Sadly, I didn't get a clear picture of a full display (I did get a few very bad ones), so this will have to substitute.  As always, the Victoria Birder aims to bring you terrible pictures of great birds:

After the females departed we did likewise, boarding the bus for the ride to the Kitzmiller Grazing Association for a great breakfast of eggs, bacon, biscuits, juice, and much needed coffee.

Back at the hotel before 9am, I had plenty of time to load up the car, pass on the info about the next days Lesser tour to Koos and Susan, and head east, into Kansas.  My plan was to drive the 5 hours to Quivira Refuge in hopes of locating Whooping Crane, then driving the 4 hours to Lamar.  I was encouraged by a report of cranes two days previous, and a couple of other species that had been recently seen.  Just before passing into Kansas I found Eastern Bluebird, giving me the third and last species of bluebird, all in Colorado.

Hours and hours of this... it isn't for the faint of heart!
I wish I could say the drive passed quickly, but no..... the endless fields were causing my eyes to cross not long into Kansas, and this sign had me saying "there's no place like home", wishing for my damp coastal air and forests:

Quivira Refuge was an area I would consider visiting again, though I was rushed for time and failed to find cranes.  However, I still consider the long drive well worth it, as at Little Salt Marsh, on the south side of the refuge, one of the first birds I put the scope on was none other than Snowy Plover, my longest standing nemesis bird that I have chased all over the coast and Arizona!  Two had been reported a couple of days earlier, but now there were an incredible 34!  Other notable birds at Quivira included Baird's Sandpiper, Blue-winged Teal, Eastern Meadowlark, and my first Chipping Sparrows of the year.  Also of note, all of the Northern Flickers I saw at Quivira were of the "Yellow-shafted" variety, which I saw nowhere else on my trip.

The trip to Lamar passed no quicker, and my review of southwestern Kansas would not encourage any Chambers of Commerce or visitors, so I will skip them.  I got to the Arena Dust B&B just before 9pm and, finding no wifi, went straight to bed (with a whisky detour) for the 3:30am wakeup call.

3:30 came much too early, and shaking off the whisky and little sleep called for extreme measures - a cup off coffee before boarding a bus with no washroom.  The two of us staying at the bed and breakfast boarded the bus, and we picked up the remainder of the tour at a motel in town just after 4am.  Koos and Susan had made it down for the trip, and familiar faces were nice to see.  Fred Dorenkamp, our guide, drove us almost and hour out into the middle of nowhere to the lek, and the drill was similar to the previous day, except this time we stayed in the bus and viewed with windows down.  From our arrival at 5:30, it didn't take long for the birds to show.  Much the same as the previous day, the calls came first, then shadowy movement out on the lek, gradually turning into real birds as light filled the sky.

We had great opportunity to watch the Lesser Prairie-Chickens displaying, and Koos and I commented more than once on the differences in calls, displays, and frequency of different aspects of the display.  Having seen the Greaters the day before, it was a great opportunity to compare and contrast.

Yet more terrible photos.....

Taken with my phone through a scope on a school bus
At exactly 6:50am, the birds suddenly flew off en masse.  I counted 12 males, and no females chose to make an appearance that day.  We made the trip back to Casa Dorenkamp for breakfast, dropping the motel folks off in Holly to grab their cars.  During this brief interlude we added Blue Jay, American Kestrel, Common and Great-tailed Grackle, and others.

The breakfast prepared by Fred's wife, Norma, was easily the best breakfast I had over my entire trip, consisting of egg casserole, sausage, fresh biscuits and gravy, and coffee.  The conversation was lively, and a couple across the table from me, hearing of my finch plight, mentioned that they knew of a spot near Gunnison for Rosy-Finch.  Excellent, assuming they were still around.

With chicken two in the bag and breakfast done I headed west.  I did little birding between Lamar and Pueblo, but did stop to scan the occassional field, finding my first Loggerhead Shrike of the trip, followed closely by my only Lewis's Woodpecker.  I kept focussed on my mid-day destination, Pueblo Reservoir.  A location I have seen many times in rare bird alerts, I figured it was worth a look-see.

Though Pueblo Reservoir failed to deliver any earth shattering rarities, I did have a great walk around the park, and turned up Rock Wren, Eared Grebe, Say's Phoebe, Loggerhead Shrike, Turkey Vulture, and my lifer Canyon Towhee, among others. 

From there it was straight to Gunnison with the occassional stop for a quick, uneventful scan.  I made it to Gunnison with plenty of light left so I checked into my room and headed off to the Wuanita Lek to see if I might be able to catch the grouse displaying in the fading light.  With no such luck I returned to town and picked up my Easter Sunday dinner at Taco Bell.  I must not have paid much attention to my room when I checked in, when I got back with dinner I noticed that there was a mirror above the bed and a jacuzzi tub in the bathroom.... I'm not sure what kind of birding trip they thought I was on, but.....

The rules of  the Wuanita Lek are simple.  Be there an hour before sunrise, stay in your car, and don't make noise.  Sunrise that day was 6:52am, so I showed up at the lek at 5:25, just in case of competition for the few parking spots along the viewing area.  Cassie, a Department of Wildlife volunteer, was there to provide directions and protocol, and I had just enough time to move over to the passenger seat and figure out how to position my scope for viewing the lek.  With a while to wait until light, I sat back with my coffee and a breakfast consisting of Shockers, Pepperoni, and a Tijuana Mama Pickled Sausage.

To give you an idea of viewing distance, the birds were near the arrow
At 6:20am I could finally make out dark shapes moving far out in the distance, and eventually they turned into my lifer Gunnison Sage-Grouse.  The birds, 9 males and 3 females that I counted, stayed on the lek displaying and posturing for almost an hour.  I happened to look down at 7:17, and when I looked up they had all disappeared.  As with the two Prairie-Chickens, the grouse put on a fantastic show, though the only all out wing fight I saw was in the half dark.

More crappy photos shot through a scope with a phone, this time from the passenger seat of a rental car:

Apparently I was so focussed on the birds that I missed a herd of Elk and a couple of Coyotes passing through the far end of the lek.  As I got back into my car to leave the lek, a pair of Rosy-Finches flew over calling, but no identification.  Go figure.

Again, my GPS tried playing another April Fool's joke, suggesting a three hour route to my next destination, which I knew was only 10 minutes north of my hotel.  I found the suggested location without trouble.  Just south of the town of Almont and 10 minutes north of Gunnison, Evelyn Lane was the location of large Rosy-Finch flocks over the winter, and I hoped that a few had stuck around. 

When I turned onto Evelyn Lane there was a large flock of finches in the first tree I came to.  Predictably, they all took off before I could get a look.  A small portion returned, and I was able to get my bins on a Black Rosy-Finch before the skittish birds took off again.  I spent some time walking up and down the road, only getting distant looks at the occassional finch, until I arrived back down at my car, where two larger birds were sitting in the top of a tree.

This Brown-capped Rosy-Finch was my final lifer of the trip, and I got fantastic looks at it and its companion.  I never did get a clean look at a Gray-crowned, but c'est la vie.  A local resident, Jim, invited me in to watch his feeder from inside, and we had a great talk for an hour about all things birds.  Birding, travelling, species splits, etc.

Since this post is getting a little long, I will wrap it up with a quick summary of the following two days.  From the Rosy-Finches I travelled to Colorado Springs, picking up Red Crossbill at Monarch Summit, and Gray Jay, my fifth and final Colorado jay, at the Monarch Ski Area.  Despite a thorough search of Pathfinder Park in Florence, I dipped on the long-staying Red-headed and Ladder-backed Woodpeckers, though I did get my only White-breasted Nuthatch and Belted Kingfisher of the trip.  North of Florence I also found one of the FOY records of Swainson's Hawk for the state.

The next day, my final day of birding, found me birding the countryside south of Colorado Springs, looking for Mountain Plover.  Finding none, I headed north to Denver to Cherry Creek State Park, again searching for a couple of long-staying rarities.

Cherry Creek State Park was not only my last stop for Colorado birding, but also the birdiest.  In my two hours there I picked up 34 species, including first (and last) of trip American White Pelican, Peregrine Falcon, Snow Goose, American Avocet, California Gull, Thayer's Gull, and Franklin's Gull.  I dipped again on long-staying Lesser Black-backed Gull and Glaucous Gull, but it was hard to feel disappointed, even despite the extra two dollar surcharge above and beyond the usual seven dollar State Park Day Use Fee.

It was all downhill after that as I checked into my hotel, returned my rental, and spent an uneventful evening packing for the return trip.  Luckily, I didn't miss anything in Victoria during my absence.  I am looking forward to a return to Colorado during fall migration one of these years, to track down the remainder of the state's specialties - Mountain Plover, Chestnut-collared Longspur, and McCown's Longspur.

All said, after 4 flights and 4000km on the rental car, this trip turned up 110 species, including 8 lifers.  I figure I probably could have added another dozen species with more effort, but oh well, a great trip!

As for where to next, I am thinking maybe Texas in early January?

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Playing Chicken

"The Great Colorado Chicken Hunt" got off to a less than auspicious start when, following a couple of weeks of nice weather, a snowstorm chose the day of my arrival to visit Denver, cancelling flights, closing highways, and generally causing trouble.  Luckily for me, my flight wasn't among the dozens cancelled, and was only delayed twice, for a total of an hour and a half.  Upon arrival in Denver, I spent another hour trying to contact my hotel for pickup, eventually managing to drop my bags off in my room and find dinner much later than I had anticipated.  So much for joining an owling walk!

The next morning my good fortune continued when I went to pick up my rental.  After 20 minutes of high pressure upsell attempts on everything from a 4X4 (warning I wouldn't make my destination in the Dodge Avenger I had selected) to extra insurance, I found my car easily enough, snowed into a parking spot.  After 15 minutes I was able to free the car and was on my way, learning through On the Job Training the fine art of driving on ice, the days subsitute for the I-70 in Denver.  Impressive for a Victoria driver, I managed to avoid being a casualty of one of the half dozen accidents I passed, and once out of Denver City Limits, the roads became, for the most part, pavement.

My first planned stop driving west was Silverthorne, home to not only outlet malls (and I did sneak in an hour of very disappointing shopping), but good numbers of Rosy-Finches of all three varieties as well.  My plans to track them down were cut short by threatening weather that had picked up, as well as planned construction delays along the highway.  I decided that it would be best to keep moving through the mountains, and also skipped one of my backup Rosy-Finch spots at Snowmass.

Finally, coming down from Vail, I encountered one last heavy snow around Eagle that slowed traffic, and then the white stuff was gone.  Easy sailing to my destination, Grand Junction, with a few fairly unproductive birding stops along the way, adding birds only to my Colorado list.

The pre-dawn crispness greeted me on my first day of real birding, and I headed further west, into Utah, stopping at a viewpoint for my first Utah bird, Mountain Bluebird.  This was followed closely by a few more, as well as a sign warning to watch for eagles on the highway.

Things picked up nicely when I turned off the I-70 onto Highway 128, a back route to Moab that a friend had suggested.  Immediately after turning off, Horned Larks appeared in droves along with Common Ravens, and finally, two of the promised Golden Eagles not far off the road.  The secenery also became spectacular at this point as Highway 128 wound through a river canyon, and I got my first looks at Utah's rock columns.

A few more birds appeared on the way, including Say's Phoebes and Red-tailed Hawks, plus a few "lifer" mammals, White-tailed Prairie Dog, White-tailed Antelope Squirrel, and Rock Squirrel.
Arches National Park near Moab lived up to it's reputation, and even though I had come as much for one of my long-standing nemesis birds as I had for the scenery, I spent much more time admiring the rock formations than I did searching for birds.

I will leave further pictures of the park to your searching, needless to say I took lots!  Arches was fairly quiet on the bird front, but did give up a pair of Cassin's Finches, a small flock of Black-throated Sparrows, easily my favourite sparrow, and more ravens.  Finally, after pishing throughout every bit of juniper in the park, near the end of the road, my pishing stirred up a very upset Juniper Titmouse, my first target of the trip, and a nemesis bird.  The remainder of the day was anti-climactic, with little else showing in Utah, or my return to Colorado.

The following two days were spent exploring Mesa County from my base in Grand Junction.  A trip up the scenic byway over Grand Mesa was disappointing in that every sideroad was closed by 4 to 6 feet of snow, and I didn't find my hoped for birds near the top, but the trip up did turn up several birds near the town of Mesa, including my first Western Scrub-Jay.  The backside of the mesa also produced some interesting birds, including Colorado's first two Red-naped Sapsuckers of the season, also the first March record for this species in Delta County, where I found them.  A flock of Sandhill Cranes near the town of Delta was a nice add, though I missed the numbers that had been seen in the Grand Valley.

A walk around a nature trail in Grand Juntion turned up two early Lincoln's Sparrows and most of the expected waterfowl, and I joined the local Audubon bird walk on the Colorado River trail on the Wednesday.  I always like to connect with local birders where I can, to get a little local knowledge and insight.

One such bit of local knowledge was an explanation of all of the laundry baskets I had seen in trees.  Apparently, after West Nile decimated the local magpie population and the nests had fallen apart or been destroyed by the young Great Horned Owls that were raised in them, a lack of suitable owl nests prompted the locals to put up laundry baskets as substitutes.  The walk along the river also turned up my only Wood Ducks of the trip, a couple of Gambel's Quail, and a small flock of Cedar Waxwings, a nice surprise for all.  I was welcomed at the walk with open arms, and had great chances to chat with the other folks.  A quick spin through Connected Lakes State Park yielded little, aside from my my only Bushtits of the trip.

Wednesday afternoon was my final birding in Mesa County, as Thursday was to be a tourist day.  After a fantastic lunch at 626 on Rood in Grand Junction, I headed up to Colorado National Monument, supposedly a very birdy area.  My first stop, the Devil's Kitchen trailhead, most certainly was.  No sooner had I left the car then Canyon and Rock Wren were both heard, and the bird I had travelled to Utah for, Juniper Titmouse, was present in multiples.  The remainder of the Monument turned up little of interest, besides more spectacular scenery.

After touring the National Monument I spent an enjoyable hour and a half watching feeders and talking birds at the home of a local birder, hoping for titmice and Rosy-finches.  Though neither showed (the Rosy-finches had last been seen a couple days prior), we enjoyed great looks at Lesser Goldfinch, Gambel's Quail, and Pinyon Jay.
Finally, while in Grand Junction that evening, a group of 8 Turkey Vultures put in an appearance, one of the first sightings for the county, and my first of the trip.
The next day I played tourist and enjoyed a little rest and relaxation, my last for the trip.  I will wrap up my adventure in another post in a couple of days.