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COLORADO 2004

This year's Colorado and Wyoming tour was a resounding success. Starting with a late flight, a mix up by the vehicle hire company and some bad weather, you could have been forgiven for thinking we were jinxed! However, the first few days in the Rocky Mountains provided, against the backdrop of magnificent scenery, wonderful views of the mountain specialities. These included Brown-capped Rosy-Finches, Pine Grosbeaks, American Dipper, Townsend's Solitaire, Steller's and Grey Jays, Clark's Nutcracker and, best of all, close views of a very difficult species to see – White-tailed Ptarmigan. It was also fascinating to see so many American Pipits foraging above the snow line and our first sighting of a male Mountain Bluebird against the snow was greeted with almost a sense of awe. We were to see this species on 11 days of the tour!

The altitude caused some of us to blow a little until we became acclimatised, but large numbers of (Audubon's) Yellow-rumped and Wilson's Warblers in the pines, along with Lincoln's, Song, White-crowned and Fox Sparrows, plus Grey-headed Juncos, Mountain and Black-capped Chickadees, meant that we were too busy to notice. Mammals were abundant and included Elk, Mule and Pronghorn Deer, Colorado Chipmunks, Golden-mantled Ground Squirrels, Snowshoe Hares and Yellow-bellied Marmots awakening from their winter hibernation.

A visit to the Pawnee National Grasslands resulted in us seeing over 100 McCown's and a few Chestnut-collared Longspurs displaying, a truly wonderful sight. Other prairie birds included Lark Buntings, Horned Larks and Western Meadowlarks by the 100s, Brewer's and Vesper Sparrows and, in the damper areas (it had rained a lot!), Yellow-headed and Red-winged Blackbirds. A roadside stop today produced two more specialities: Burrowing Owl and Mountain Plover, the latter with chicks.

We alternated between the high mountains and the plains with the magnificent Grand Teton Mountain range providing us with somewhat distant views of Black Rosy-finches. The lakes and rivers meanwhile contained Trumpeter Swans as well as Cinnamon, Blue-winged and Green-winged Teal, Hooded Mergansers, Lesser Scaup, Canvasback and Redhead. Canada Geese of the interior race were everywhere, as were American White Pelicans, our largest flock being over 700. Meanwhile, finding the small number of Clark's Grebes amongst the more abundant Western Grebes was an interesting ID exercise.

An early-morning start saw us heading for Yellowstone National Park. In this area we had extremely close encounters with Blue Grouse, American Three-toed and Black-backed Woodpeckers and two other specialities: Olive-sided and Hammond's Flycatchers, again amongst magnificent scenery. Within the park, we were also able to watch geysers, including Old Faithful, spouting, with Buffalo roaming amongst them! Two excellent sightings of the tourists' favourite mammal, the elusive Moose, enlivened our drive, as did excellent views of MacGillivray's Warbler, and slightly less-stunning views of Barrow's Goldeneye and Harlequin Duck. On the way back, one van was lucky enough to see a Wolf hunting a young Elk, only to be driven off by a very irate mother, the wolf escaping a severe kicking. All of this happened far too quickly for any photography unfortunately.

Heading south, a long hunt for the elusive Greater Sage-grouse turned up Sage Thrasher, Sage Sparrow and a quite bizarre sighting of a 'Sage Moose' (totally out of likely habitat), together with fantastic close views of a Common Poorwill roosting on the ground. We eventually tracked down the grouse at Seedskadee Refuge – seeing four in total.

Towards the end of the tour we arrived at the Colorado National Monument, a very dry and wonderfully scenic area. Here, we successfully found Grey Vireo, Grey Flycatcher, White-throated Swifts and had our only sighting of Pinyon Jay. We also learned how to distinguish Cassin's from the more frequent Western Kingbirds.

A very long day's drive south to Box Canyon found us watching Black Swifts on their nests deep inside the caves (the see-through metal gangway was a little bit of an ordeal for those with vertigo) and Cordilleran Flycatchers nesting above our heads at a picnic site.

Farther south again brought us to Gunnison County, home of Gunnison Sage-grouse. We were lucky and eventually saw more than 20 of this endangered species.

The tour ended up back at Denver for the flight home with a very satisfied group. We had been amongst some of the most spectacular scenery in North America. We had seen wonderful flowers, butterflies, 21 different mammals, 193 birds and the weather had been kind to us when we needed it. We had some interesting birds to sort out, not least five species of Empidonax flycatcher, and for the first time I really saw how different Black-billed Magpie appears.

McCown's Longspur

McCown's Longspur