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Grouse and Rosy-finches

3–13 April 2019

The main target species will be Greater and Gunnison Sage-grouse, Sharp-tailed Grouse and Greater and Lesser Prairie-chickens, all at leks, White-tailed Ptarmigan, Dusky Grouse and all three rosy-finches. Others will include Pygmy Nuthatch, Mountain Bluebird and Pine and Evening Grosbeaks in the Rocky Mountains and Scaled Quail, Mountain Plover and Chestnut-collared and McCown’s Longspurs on the Great Plains.

Day 1 Flight from London to Denver followed by a drive to Evans for a one-night stay.

Day 2 After breakfast we will head to the Pawnee National Grasslands to search for early-returning Mountain Plovers and Chestnut-collared and McCown’s Longspurs. During the afternoon we will drive east, looking in the fields for parties of Snow and Ross’s Geese and Sandhill Cranes, as well as for Horned Larks and American Pipits; there is also a possibility of seeing Northern Bobwhite during the journey. We will spend the night in the town of Wray.

Day 3 We will have to be up at the crack of dawn to join an organised tour on a private ranch to watch the amazing displays of male Greater Prairie-chickens. Other species to be seen in the area include Ferruginous Hawk, Long-billed Curlew, Loggerhead Shrike and Chihuahuan Raven. We will return to Wray for breakfast and then head south to Lamar, breaking our journey for a picnic lunch at Bonny Reservoir, an excellent site for migrant ducks and waders and one of the westernmost outposts of Red-bellied Woodpecker. Many introduced Ring-necked Pheasants are likely to be seen as we continue south to Holly for an overnight stay.

Day 4 Our second early-morning start will find us at a lek of Lesser Prairie-chickens; their subtly different sack-colour and display will be another spectacle to enjoy. After a traditional home-cooked breakfast we will go to Lamar and visit a woodland reserve that can be excellent for migrants. Heading west, we will make impromptu stops whenever we see roadside birds, such as Burrowing Owls, until we reach West Pueblo. Here we will have a picnic lunch by a small park where Scaled Quail and Curve-billed Thrasher can be found. The drive up into the mountains though juniper country, where Juniper Titmouse and Bushtit occur, will finally deliver us to the Gunnison Basin and the Gunnison Sage-grouse viewing-area. We may be lucky enough to see the birds in the evening but, more likely, we will have to wait until the morning. Two nights will be spent in Gunnison.

Day 5 Another day, another grouse-lek, but today our target species is in a different genus: Centrocercus. The two sage-grouse species were split a number of years ago and this has left the range-restricted Gunnison Sage-grouse as an endangered species. So as not to disturb the birds we will attend a public viewing-site, following which, and after another late breakfast, we will head up into the mountains to Crested Butte, where we will visit feeders to look for rosy-finches. Returning to Gunnison, we will bird locally looking for Vesper Sparrow and other species before having an early night in readiness for another early start!

Day 6 If we missed Gunnison Sage-grouse yesterday there will be another chance to visit the lek this morning otherwise we will leave early for the long drive north to Steamboat Springs. Depending on the amount of snow remaining on the passes we may be able to shorten our journey by going over the Ohio Pass but, more likely, we will have to take the longer route via the Black Canyon of Gunnison. However, this will give us the opportunity to carry out our first search for Dusky Grouse along the South Rim Drive amid stunning scenery. Depending on time, and on whether we still need to see any of the rosy-finches, our next stop will be at the Snowmass Ski area, where we will visit feeders. Continuing north, we will eventually arrive at Steamboat Springs, our base for the next three nights.

Day 7 Today’s early-morning start will enable us to visit the lek of Sharp-tailed Grouse near Hayden. This is probably the most comical of the lekking grouse species with the males literally dancing around like clockwork mice! After breakfast in Hayden we will look north of town for Dusky Grouse, which is possibly the hardest grouse to find. Although it is confiding, it is largely solitary and unobtrusive so we will have to check out every Spotted Towhee scratching in the undergrowth just in case! Returning to Hayden, we will visit a resident’s feeders and look at the Sandhill Cranes in her back yard! After lunch in Steamboat Springs we will visit the feeders of residents in this town as well, with Red-naped Sapsucker, Black-capped and Mountain Chickadees, American Goldfinch, Pine Siskin, Evening Grosbeak and Cassin’s Finch all being possible.

Day 8 By now we will be accustomed to early mornings and this morning will be no different as we will have to be at Delaney Butte shortly before sunrise. This is one of the best public viewing-areas and we should be able to witness good numbers of the rapidly-declining Greater Sage-grouse on their lekking grounds. After a late breakfast in Walden we will visit the Moose Visitor Centre in Gould, where we may see Grey Jay, Clark’s Nutcracker, Pine Grosbeak, Cassin’s Finch and a variety of sub-species of Dark-eyed Junco on the feeders. Depending on weather conditions, we may also find one or more of the rosy-finches and, if the weather is poor, we can watch from inside the centre! We will keep our eyes open along the road back to Steamboat Springs for Rough-legged Hawk, Golden Eagle and Mountain Bluebird.

Day 9 Should we still need Dusky or Sharp-tailed Grouse or Greater Sage-grouse we will have time this morning to search again for one of them. If not, we will head over Rabbit Ears Pass (the continental divide) to the town of Kremmling, where we will have breakfast. On the cliffs behind the café both Golden Eagles and Prairie Falcons breed and we will spend some time looking for both species. Heading south, we will make a number of stops to search for American Dipper on the Blue River before finally arriving in Silverthorne, where we will have yet another opportunity to look for rosy-finches on residents’ feeders. We will then head east to the Loveland Pass; here we will search for the final possible “grouse” of the tour: White-tailed Ptarmigan. This very much depends on weather conditions, however, as there could be heavy snow with whiteout conditions. Whatever the weather, it is likely to be cold and finding a white bird in the snow will not be the easiest of tasks! In the pine forests lower down we will look for Hairy Woodpecker, Pygmy Nuthatch and Steller’s Jay. In the late afternoon we will head back down the mountains to Denver, where we will spend the last night.

Day 10 There may be some time for local birding before we head back to Denver airport for the overnight flight back to London, arriving on Day 11.

General Information The climate can vary from warm in the lowlands to very cold in the mountains. There will be a moderate amount of walking, mainly on good trails, but at altitude this can be quite tiring. There are no special medical requirements and insects are not a problem. Visas are required. Distances are quite long but the roads are good and driving is relaxed, with plenty of opportunities to stop for food and drink. Accommodation standards are good, with all motel rooms being spacious and having two beds and en-suite facilities. Food is excluded from the tour price but is relatively inexpensive; allow about £20 per day depending on your requirements.

Group size Minimum number for tour to go ahead: 8 with 1 leader; maximum group size: 9 with 1 leader, 16 with 2 leaders.

Greater Prairie-chicken

Greater Prairie-chicken

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