Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Driving in Circles

Since Sunday evening it feels a bit like I have been driving in circles--something that happens on occasion when hunting birds. For starters, I headed out of Ft. Collins about 8 PM Sunday nite in hopes of finding both northern pygmy and boreal owls. I drove up the Cache le Poudre canyon listening at first for the pygmy owl but heard none. Then as I got higher up, the wind picked up to the point that even though I had driven 50 miles and was 15 miles from the boreal owl zone, I turned around and went home. High winds are no good for night owling.

Monday I was up early so that I could drive to Denver before rush hour set in. I headed west from Denver stopping first at Genesee Mountain Park to see if I might find a williamson's sapsucker that had been seen there recently. It was a windy and chilly, but sunny morning when I arrived at the park at 7:30 AM I encountered no sapsuckers but did get a year bird when I found a few red crossbills.

From there I drove up to Loveland Pass again in hopes of locating the elusive white-tailed ptarmigan. After 2 hours of scouring the most promising areas to the point I could probably draw a picture of each tree and shrub, I threw in the towel and decided to drive west on I-70 out to the Grand Junction area. On the way I found a small group of pinyon jays feeding along I-70 near Eagle. This is another new year bird.

About 3 PM I arrived at Cameo--the exit for an energy company plant and the access to a wild mustang area. It is also a place that supposedly you can find chukars--a game bird that has been brought to America from Europe. I met a man there who said he had seen some earlier that afternoon up a road that was closed to cars. So I decided to check his info out.

A few years ago I was able to drive up this road in July, which I did once late in the day and twice early in the AM since mid day the temps at that time were over 100. None of my searches back then found this bird. Yesterday it was a very nice 60's kind of day, so I began walking up the road. After about 2 miles I reached the location the man had described but once again no chukars were to be found. So I power walked back to my truck, and drove to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP to see if either northern pygmy owls or dusky grouse were going to make an appearance at dusk.

Half the roads in the park were closed because of snow, but that still left some to check out. I met 3 other birders just before dusk who were also seeking the same 2 birds. One guy was from Colorado and created the Colorado Birding Society website. The other 2 were from Pennsylvania and were being guided by the local guy. It was a beautiful windless evening with a full moon to light our walk. After a 2-3 mile stroll, listening for the booming of the grouse or the hoot of the owl, we saw no birds, and only heard 1 grouse far off. Getting back in the Tacoma just before 9 PM, I still had an hour drive to Gunnison where I was staying for the night.

This morning I was up before 5 AM in order to be at the gunnison sage grouse lek by 5:45. You may remember that my sis and I were at the lek last Friday morning, but the snow apparently kept the grouse from doing their dance. The viewing location last week had stanchions for signs about the lek, but they had been removed. This morning when I arrived the signs had been returned, and a trailer was positioned to be used as a blind. There were what I assume to be a couple of Colorado Dept of Wildlife staffers in the blind, plus the guys from last nite were like me sitting in their car waiting for enough daylight to see the grouse.

Even with the full moon setting behind us, it was still pretty dark out in the huge meadow that serves as the lek. As I peered out thru my binoculars, I began to see small dark blobs moving about. As it gradually got lighter, you could see 25-30 grouse, mostly males doing their strut. Unlike the greater sage grouse that my sis and I saw last week, the visually similar but much smaller gunnison sage grouse was much more active. The males not only puffed out their chests, but also chased the females and their competitor males. It felt more like what we saw with the sharp-tailed grouse and the greater prairie chickens.

About 7 AM I decided that there were more birds to find today, so I headed back to Loveland Pass, a 3 hour drive, to look one more time for the ptarmigans. The local Colorado birder and his clients had seen the ptarmigan on Sunday where I had looked yesterday, so I figured I might be luckier today. I arrived at the pass about 10 AM and spent 2 more hours there but once again came up short. So I returned to Genesee to look again for sapsuckers but at 1 pm things were very quiet. So I back tracked some as part of my route to get to Alamosa for the nite. If you look at a map of Colorado, you will see why I say it felt like I was driving in circles the past 2 days. I did see some wonderfully beautiful scenery including lots of colorful willow-like bushes.

On my way down here to Alamosa I saw another new year bird--the clark's nutcracker. So over the past 2 days only 6 new birds were added to the week list, but 4 of them were new year birds bringing the YTD total to 420, and the gunnison sage grouse is also a life bird. Tomorrow I am making a stop to check out some bird feeders in a woman's yard in La Veta, CO to see rosy finches that have been there for a few weeks. Then I am heading back to Texas. Stay tuned!

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