Colorado is one of the most diverse states in the Union. It holds deserts, high and cool—or low and warm—prairies, deciduous, pine and stunted tree-line forests, 14,000 foot peaks with alpine tundra and every habitat in between. With such marvelous variety of habitats, Colorado has something to capture everyone’s attention. April-May is an exceptional time to visit Colorado as winter and spring co-mingle with breathtaking results. Winter still reigns atop striking snow-capped mountains providing a magnificent backdrop to spring’s first blossoms appearing along river banks and prairies. Like the landscape, avifaunas are also mingled as winter residents linger across the brightening landscape and thawing lakes harbour new spring migrants and more summer residents arrive each passing day. This is also the best month to view grouse gathering at their communal leks. Five species are to be found on these leks (traditional display or ‘dancing’ arenas) in full display. An extraordinary set of histrionics—tail-raising, wing-fanning, foot-stomping, air-sac inflating, moaning, groaning, cackling, hooting, pacing, spinning and jumping—that has to be seen to be believed. Greater and Gunnison Sage-Grouse, Lesser and Greater Prairie-Chicken and Sharp-tailed Grouse are the lek performing headliners, but we’ll also search for Dusky Grouse and the charming White-tailed Ptarmigan (still garbed in elegant white) as we crisscross the state. Our Colorado ‘Chicken Run’ offers participants the opportunity to see these highly sought, charismatic and often hard-to-find grouse and prairie-chickens while enjoying our journey across the state. Our tour has been specially designed by Kim Risen who has led numerous tours to Colorado over the years and knows how to find the special birds of Colorado. Please note our tour is a day longer than most other tours to this fabulous state, giving us better opportunities to find more birds!
In addition to those wonderful ‘chickens,’ we’ll search for many of Colorado’s special birds: Clark’s Nutcracker, Brown-capped, Grey-crowned and Black Rosy-Finches and Boreal Owl (after dark) in the mountains; Swainson’s and Ferruginous Hawks, Mountain Plover, Long-billed Curlew and Chestnut-collared and McCown’s Longspurs on the prairies; Lewis’s Woodpecker, Williamson’s Sapsucker and Mountain and Western Bluebirds in the foothills and Chukar, Scaled Quail, Greater Roadrunner, Curve-billed Thrasher, Canyon Towhee and Sage, Rufous-crowned and Black-throated Sparrows in the desert. Many other western species and early spring birds will be found along the way and early migration is a good time to turn up something unusual or out of place. Interesting mammals are also plentiful: prairie landscapes bustle with captivating Black-tailed Prairie Dogs and scurrying ground-squirrels. Elsewhere we should encounter a nice assortment of larger mammals with Pronghorn, Bighorn Sheep, Elk, Mule and White-tailed Deer, Moose, Coyote, Red and Swift Fox being found on Kim's previous tours. With a bit of good fortune something rare, like Bobcat or even a Mountain Lion, may be spotted.
Lesser Prairie Chicken
American Three-toed Woodpecker
DAY 1 UK - Denver- 17th April Following our afternoon arrival at Denver International Airport we will drive southward once everyone has arrived. As we draw near to Pueblo, the landscape changes and we’ll savor an afternoon of birding amid the Arkansas River Valley’s arid landscape. During dinner, our first as a group, we’ll make introductions, discuss tour details so participants know what to expect during the tour (pace, conditions, daily routine, etc.),and illustrate our planned route. Night in Pueblo.
Day 2 Pueblo Area We will depart early to the nearby foothills and up onto one of the high passes in search of the elusive White-tailed Ptarmigan. The surrounding forest can be quite productive with Williamson's Sapsucker, Western and Mountain Bluebirds, and Pygmy Nuthatch amongst others. It will also be our first attempt at seeing all three species of rosy-finches, as well as visiting a bunch of locations for spring migrants. Night in Denver.
Day 3Arkansas River Valley - Commanche National Grasslands Sunrise will find us searching for arid country birds approaching the northernmost extent of their range—Scaled Quail, Greater Roadrunner, Curve-billed Thrasher, Rufous-crowned Sparrow and Canyon Towhee—we’re likely to find more widespread species like Burrowing Owl and Say’s Phoebe as well. The Arkansas River Valley’s scenic cliffs harbor thick areas of Junipers that often produce wintering Townsend’s Solitaires, Juniper Titmouse, Bushtit, Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay and Spotted Towhee. After returning to our hotel for breakfast and luggage, our compass heading changes to southeast toward the short grass prairies of the Comanche & Cimarron National Grasslands. As we travel parts of the Historic Santa Fe Trail, Prairie Falcon, Swainson’s and Ferruginous Hawks may be found.
We’ll visit a couple of Colorado’s premier birding areas throughout the day. While Cottonwood Canyon may be a bit remote, it’s a beautiful walk and offers great birding. Perhaps an early Mississippi Kite may be found while we search for Lewis’s and Ladder-backed Woodpeckers, Canyon Towhee and Rufous-crowned Sparrow. We’ll keep our eyes open as the area is one of Colorado’s best migrant traps and the unexpected is to be expected. Kim's 2011 tour found a Cactus Wren…the first confirmed for Colorado! We’ll enjoy a picnic lunch at the nearby Carrizo Canyon Picnic Area, and like Cottonwood Canyon, this is a migrant trap of the first order. Hiking between the springs may turn up Eastern Phoebe, a variety of migrants or we may encounter Lewis’s and Ladder-backed Woodpeckers once more. As we travel this extreme southeastern corner of Colorado, we might encounter Long-billed Curlew, Chihuahuan Raven, migrant flocks of Lark Buntings, sparrows and longspurs. We’ll cross into Kansas in the late afternoon, hopefully with time for a brief rest before visiting a nearby Lesser Prairie Chicken lek. Night Elkhart.
Day 4 Lesser Prairie Chicken Lek - Nebraska Sandhills
The first of our pre-dawn starts in order to arrive at a chicken lek in the darkness. Sitting on the pre-sunrise prairie listening to Lesser Prairie Chickens is an experience like no other. Waiting for enough light so you might put pictures with the decidedly odd sounds emanating from the lek can be difficult for the impatient. Luckily it’s worth waiting for…and the sun rises quickly on the prairie. We’ll enjoy the chickens performing their Spring rituals, departing only after we’ve had our fill. After breakfast, we’ll travel back roads looking for migrant sparrows along brushy field margins, with Vesper, Lark, Cassin’s, Grasshopper and Brewer’s Sparrows along with Lark Bunting being the usual suspects. Searching the grasslands may also turn up nesting birds such as Ferruginous Hawk, Burrowing Owl, Long-billed Curlew, Loggerhead Shrike or Chihuahuan Raven. Once finished here, we must turn northwards as we begin our long trek to Colorado’s portion of the Nebraska Sandhills and the little town of Wray. Our trip is broken by plenty of stops to look for birds and there are several migrant traps and reservoirs that demand checking during migration. These will be our best chance to add birds with a decidedly eastern flavor to our list, such as Red-bellied Woodpecker, Blue Jay, the eastern form of White-breasted Nuthatch, Eastern Bluebird and Northern Cardinal being likely additions. Before supper we’ll visit a private ranch to view one of many leks located on the property. We’ll be able to view several Greater Prairie-Chickens in a more subdued evening performance. Night Wray.
Day 5 Greater Prairie Chicken Lek - Walden
Following our now well established pattern of rising before sunrise, we’ll return to our Greater Prairie-Chicken lek to enjoy the manic sunrise activities of these prairie grouse. One final intimate experience with these vanishing symbols of America’s Great Plains. After breakfast, our travels take us north and west crossing the Pawnee National Grasslands. Habitats change a bit each mile and we’ll be in search of Mountain Plover, Golden Eagle, Prairie Falcon, Burrowing Owl, McCown’s and Chestnut-collared Longspurs and a host of possible migrants. Late afternoon finds us climbing through foothills to reach the charming North Park village of Walden. As we ascend, our surroundings quickly change as do our birds. After a quick stop to view American Dipper we’ll continue upward into the mountains. These transitional foothills en-route to montane forest hold Red-naped and Williamson’s Sapsuckers, three species of nuthatches and Mountain and Western Bluebirds, among others. Hopefully we’ll arrive in at our hotel in time for a short drive to view a collection of bird feeders that have been good for rosy-finches in past years. An after dark search for Boreal Owl and Northern Pygmy-Owl is possible. Night Walden.
Day 6 Greater Sage Grouse Lek
Only the pre-dawn darkness greets us as we arrive atop a sage covered hilltop that Greater Sage-Grouse have declared perfect for their lek. Weather co-operating, we should be treated to an amazing show by these large, somewhat odd looking birds. While their displays aren’t as manic as the closely related Gunnison Sage-Grouse, they remain a riveting spectacle. After breakfast we’ll tour North Park visiting several lakes & water impoundments that my be bustling with a surge of newly arrived spring migrants, wet grasslands and sage covered hillsides that may hold their own migrants. The journey around North Park is quite scenic. Along the way, we should be able to locate Sage Thrasher, Townsend’s Solitaire and Mountain Bluebird with other possibilities including Dusky Grouse, Clark’s Nutcracker, Evening Grosbeak, Red Crossbill and Pine Grosbeak. This part of North Park is also the best area in Colorado to view Moose and with luck we may see several of these decidedly odd creatures before our day ends. We can also visit Loveland Pass in pursuit of White-tailed Ptarmigan, still attired in angelic white even this late in the spring. After lunch, we’ll search for any Barrow’s Goldeneye that may have delayed their departure from the area and an assortment of newly arriving waterfowl and we coild see Cinnamon Teal performing their first courtships of the spring. There is great potential for migrants and mountain birds in this area before returning to North Park. Another after dark search for Boreal Owl and Northern Pygmy-Owl is possible if necessary. Night Walden.
Day 7 Walden - Craig
As the sun brightens the forest around Walden, we’ll visit nearby feeders hoping for Brown-capped, Grey-crowned and Black Rosy Finches. Many resident birds will be in full song with Pine Grosbeak, Mountain Chickadee, Pygmy Nuthatch and Cassin’s Finch leading the way. The balance of our day has several options, depending upon what birds we’ve seen and what kind of weather the region has enjoyed recently. Lunch may be a picnic atop a windswept pass or at the head of a sage brush covered valley. What’s promised is fun birding and a good time! Night Craig.
Day 8 Hayden - Sharp-tailed Grouse Lek
Pre-dawn departure toward Hayden whose hills and valleys harbor Dusky Grouse, Greater Sage-Grouse and Sharp-tailed Grouse. We’ll begin by searching traditional areas for Dusky Grouse before visiting a nearby lek of Sharp-tailed Grouse. Much like Greater Sage-Grouse, Sharp-tailed Grouse are frantic, energetic and vocal during their displays—even more so! Everyone witnessing their antics enjoys the show. While it may be hard to leave these charismatic birds, we must soon begin our drive west and south. Thankfully, changing scenery and birding stops make the drive an enjoyable one and we’ll search wetlands and water areas for Cinnamon Teal and Barrow’s Goldeneye en-route to lunch near Rifle. We’ll enter the White River National Forest seeking Pinyon Jay, Bushtit and Juniper Titmouse after we enjoy our lunch. Our final birding break is a beautiful desert canyon near Cameo where we can search for the elusive Chukar. A short hike through scenic Coal Canyon may produce Black-throated Sparrow, Rock and Canyon Wrens, Grey Flycatcher, Lazuli Bunting or Wild Horses! Night in Grand Junction.
Day 9 Cameo
Our return to the desert canyons near Cameo won’t begin until the eastern skies have begun to brighten. Recent years have shown that a sunrise visit to these beautiful, rocky canyons produce good experiences with oft-difficult-to-find Chukars. (Last year’s tour found nine, several that were able to be photographed!) We’ll travel over the scenic Blue Mesa with a chance to find several montane species of interest—Clark’s Nutcracker, Williamson’s Sapsucker, Pygmy Nuthatch among others. As we travel off of the mesa, we’ll be greeted by fabulous views of the Gunnison Basin and one of Colorado’s most reliable locations for Lewis’s Woodpecker. We then continue to Montrose, Colorado, gateway to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park where we’ll have a late afternoon visit to search for Dusky Grouse. Night Montrose.
Day 10 Gunnison NP - Black Canyon - Crested Butte
After breakfast, we’ll travel a short distance to the impressive Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. The canyon scenery, particularly from overlooks suspended above the canyon, is spectacular beyond belief and there are few places where it’s easier to find Dusky Grouse, the Rocky Mountain split from Blue Grouse, as well as Pinyon Jay and Juniper Titmouse from established paths and roadways. Weather allowing, we’ll enjoy a picnic lunch in the park. After lunch, we’ll travel through the heart of the Curecanti National Recreation Area, which is home to Blue Mesa Reservoir (Colorado’s largest body of water) and Morrow Point Reservoir (origin of the Black Canyon), and the area usually holds a variety of waterbirds and shorebirds. In the afternoon, we’ll visit snowy Crested Butte in search of lingering winter finches like Evening Grosbeak and rosy-finches and if we’re lucky, we may find all three species! From here the East River joins with the Taylor River near Almont forming the scenic Gunnison River. On our return, we’ll bird riparian woodlands along these river courses for migrants and Williamson’s Sapsuckers. Night Gunnison.
Day 11 Gunnison Sage-Grouse Lek
One last pre-dawn departure, this time to enter blinds for viewing the last of our lekking chickens - Gunnison Sage-Grouse. Our blind is operated by Sisk-a-Dee, a conservation group dedicated to the conservation of the Gunnison Sage-Grouse. While the birds are a bit distant, spotting scopes allow us to witness their action packed displays without affecting the birds. Once the birds have left their lek, we’ll depart for breakfast and begin our return toward Denver. Along the way we’ll stop at Monarch Pass for one last look for montane birds like American Three-toed Woodpecker, Clark ’s Nutcracker, Pine Grosbeak and Red Crossbill. Our journey to Dillon will be broken by birding, a lunch break and to stretch our legs. Night Dillon.
Day 12 Loveland Basin - Denver - 28th April
After breakfast, we’ll have several options depending upon which birds we may still need to see. We’ll have time to search for White-tailed Ptarmigan at Loveland Basin if previous visits resulted in no sightings, a final search for Dusky Grouse should we need one or for a leisurely walk in search of Spring migrants in one of Denver’s many foothill parks. The tour concludes at Denver’s airport at 12:00 noon with plenty of time before your departing flights.
Group size:Minimum for tour to go ahead 6 and maximum 12 with 2 leaders.
Included in cost: Accommodation in twin rooms en-suite, ground transport throughout, all entrance fees, all group taxes, local fees, group admissions, toll fees, park entry and permit fees, and services of leaders.
Not included: International airfare, insurance, meals (see below), drinks, tips, laundry, room service charges, and items of a personal nature.
Meal Costs: Only meals indicated in the itinerary are included in the cost of this tour (included hotel breakfasts.) Because a person can eat quite well for as little as $35 per day or they can choose to spend three or four times that amount for a single day, depending upon your choices - we do not include meals where we cannot control the costs. Zoothera Birding has a policy of NOT overcharging one person to cover another’s POTENTIAL meal choices -which we would have to do if all meals were budgeted into the cost of this tour.
Accommodation: Our lodging, for the most part, consists of standard hotel rooms close to our birding destinations. These hotels are uniformly clean and comfortable with the standard hotel amenities (two-bedded rooms, private bathroom facilities, hot water, phone, etc..).
Tour Code: This is a standard birding tour, where early starts are necessary to reach lekking areas beore dawn and we also have some late finishes to look for owls. The weather at this time of year is extremely variable, so you will need to be prepared for all eventualities. But we do expect some snow at the higher passes and in the wide-open prairies it may feel rather cold for most of the day.