It’s been 18 years since I have been to Colorado, and over 10 years as part of Jeannette’s family. Yet I had not made the pilgrimage to her aunt and uncle’s ranch in Ridgway. In other words, I was overdue for a trip to this wonderful, and bird-wise, exceptionally diverse state.
We arrived in Denver late on the 8th of July, and somewhat early the next morning began our birding at Genessee Mountain Park. It was a very birdy location, and I enjoyed a host of birds that I have not seen in a good while, including Cordilleran Flycatcher, Plumbeous Vireo, Green-tailed Towhee, Lesser Goldfinch, and so much more. Like just about everywhere we went in the state, Broad-tailed Hummingbirds were talkative: their chirpy-buzzes created by their namesake tail feathers whipping through the air. Animated Black-billed Magpies worked the picnic areas, and Western Wood-Pewees called here and there.
(Don’t forget to click on the images for a full-sized photo).
Reynold’s Park was next on the agenda, rapidly growing our trip list with the likes of MacGillivray’s Warblers and Townsend’s Solitaire. But as we departed for our drive out of town, I was left still not believing that Williamson’s Sapsuckers actually exist.
This was primarily a friends and family trip, but of course there would be plenty of birding involved. While there were plenty of birds we hoped to see, the primary target species was the Gunnison Sage-Grouse. An overdue candidate for the Endangered Species List, this range-restricted and declining bird was a priority for us. But we were here in mid-summer, not when the males are “booming” conspicuously on the lek in the early spring. We knew we had our work cut out for us, and didn’t truly expect to find this needle in the sagebrush haystack.
After over two hours of walking up and down roads along and off Gold Basin Road (just south of Gunnison) first thing in the morning, we resigned ourselves to the expected failure, but enjoyed the multitudes of Brewer’s Sparrows and Sage Thrashers. Then, about 100 yards from the car, a big, brown chicken erupts from the side of the road. Gunnison Sage-Grouse! A female, and only about 15 feet away!
We watched her mosey up a small hillside (did she have chicks hiding nearby?), and so we retreated to some rocks and waited. She didn’t return to the grassy road edge, so we walked around a small rocky mound to get a better look. And that’s when we flushed another one!
We really couldn’t believe our luck as we returned to the car, our mission complete and our spirits high. We also both were happy that we wouldn’t be tempted to try again on the way back to Denver at the end of the trip.
At a more relaxed state now, we birded around the Curecanti National Recreation Area, adding a nice array of waterbirds to our trip list, including a single California Gull, and unexpected over-summering hen Common Goldeneye, and about 25 Western Grebes. One pair of grebes was displaying, head bobbing and posturing to each other. Eventually, they rose to their feet and ran across the water, wings tucked in, necks bent, crests raised, and in perfect unison. I have always wanted to see Western Grebes display.
Even though it was after noon, and the temperatures had risen well into the 80’s, we decided to give Grace’s Warbler – another potential lifer for me – a shot. Jeannette and had done some excellent research for the trip, and as soon as we stepped out of the car at an unassuming road junction, we heard the male singing! We walked into the open woods here and after a little pishing, the female popped out a mere 15-20 feet away! Then, the male resumed singing and continued to do so until we had fully soaked in his beauty and committed the song to memory (or, at least, attempted to).
The cooperative female.
Pronghorn Antelope as we drove back to the highway!
It was hot, but Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park was not to be missed. I for one had not known much about the place, and I was stunned by how impressive it was. Black-throated Gray Warblers worked the brush, White-throated Swifts chattered overhead, and the glorious song of the Canyon Wren echoed from the cliffs below. But it was the scenery more than stole the show here.
We arrived at Deedee and Peter’s Ridgway Ranch in time for dinner, and in need of a good night’s sleep. Come morning, we were greeted by Broad-tailed, Rufous, and Black-chinned Hummingbirds at the feeder, Western Meadowlarks in the fields, and Western Kingbirds around the house.
We visited Ouray for lunch, and then hit Box Canyon Falls. How have I not heard of this place? Although I had seen Black Swifts before, I had never imagined there was a place to see them like this – there was one nest about 15 feet off of the staircase! At least three nests (out of about 12 known here) were very easily visible, and looking into these nests was a remarkable experience.
On the 12th, we got an earlier start and ventured north into Colorado National Monument. While the park itself was the primary motivation for this outing, the chance at my lifer Gray Vireo only added to the anticipation. And with two birds well seen at our first stop (the Devil’s Kitchen picnic area), we were free to take in the scenery, and enjoy the likes of Ash-throated Flycatchers, Black-throated Sparrows (a favorite of both of us), cute Juniper Titmice, and comical Gambell’s Quail. Oh, and the scenery was simply breathtaking.
Making a big loop, we climbed into Grand Mesa National Forest where Jeannette caught the birding bug while working on a field biology project with Boreal Owls. Wilson’s Warblers, Lincoln Sparrows, and an Olive-sided Flycatcher were added to the triplist, but I was more interested in hearing Jeannette reminisce. No Boreal Owls, however.
Half-way through our trip on Sunday the 13th, we were content with our birding successes (well, expect Williamson’s Sapsucker, but that doesn’t exist) so we planned a relaxing day in Telluride. Or so we thought.
We went out for a big breakfast before heading southwest, steadily climbing into the mountains. A hike to work off breakfast was in order, so we headed up the Bear Creek Trail from downtown Telluride. Cordilleran Flycatchers were impressively vocal and conspicuous in town and the trail, which also held lots of Warbling Vireos, Pine Siskins, and “Gray-headed” Juncos.
But our less-bird-centric day would take a turn just over a half-mile up the trail. Jeannette and I stopped dead in our tracks as we heard the enchanting song of a “Winter Wren” emanating from the gully. But Winter Wrens aren’t supposed to be here. Plus, it doesn’t sound right – the song is a higher-pitched, buzzier, and more mechanical than what we are used to. Pacific Wren!? Well, that’s not supposed to be here either. We listened longer, and I made a recording of this complex song using my iPhone. We briefly sighted the bird on the top of a spruce on the other side of the stream. It looked dark, and lacking the pale-throated contrast of a Winter Wren, but the lighting was poor, and the look was distant and short.
We checked the range map on the Sibley app. Hmm…neither Pacific nor Winter Wrens are supposed to be here. And it sure has heck sounded to us like a Pacific Wren. I had limited cell signal, so I shot a text to our friend David LaPuma, who was currently in the state as an instructor at the American Birding Association’s Camp Colorado. I asked him about the status of Pacific Wren in Colorado in the summer, and he simply replied “Unheard of.”
But by the time we received that exhilarating and intriguing response, the bird had ceased singing, and we had continued along on our hike. The scenery was beautiful, the songs of Swainson’s and Hermit Thrushes were emanating from the woods, and a close encounter with a foraging pair of Evening Grosbeaks was enjoyable. But we were distracted.
We were going to email some birders in Colorado to determine just how “good” this “good bird” was once we got back into town, but just to be sure, we decided to try for better documentation and very specific directions so that others could re-find it should they so desire. The bird was once again belting out its vocals at the same spot, so we took careful field notes, made some more recordings, and this time I was able to take this “documentation” shot by holding my phone up to my binoculars.
After listening to the bird for over 20 minutes, observing it as long as we could, and discussing the song as compared to our knowledge of the variation in Winter Wren (a species we are very familiar with from a wide part of its range) – unlike Pacific Wren, which neither of us have heard in some time. In fact, the last time either of us heard one, it didn’t have the name of Pacific Wren (it was a group of subspecies under the moniker “Winter Wren’)! But we were convinced.
When Tony Leukering replied with “…no summer records and less than five overall…” for Pacific Wren, we realized the magnitude of this “Mega.” We sent him, and others, including Ted Floyd, our notes, the voice recordings, and the lousy photo for what it was worth.
The next morning, two local birders re-found the bird, and managed to get “crippling” photos of it. Not only that, but they watched it building a nest! The close-up photos showed the rich buff color of the throat and upper chest that we expect on a Pacific Wren, although these two species are notoriously challenging to separate. Preliminary analysis of the song – including by those very familiar with the two species – seemed to confirm our identification (but since we’re still learning how to separate these two “new” species, we know there is always the chance our judgment could be overturned; the song was going to be analyzed with a spectrograph for example).
We were elated! Finding a mega-rarity on vacation is outstanding, especially on a day when birding wasn’t a priority. But isn’t that always the case? The unexpected love to show up when they are least expected, aka when you don’t have your real camera.
But we still had 2 1/2 days of vacation remaining. Could we top the wren? Probably not, but we did enjoy more good birding. Presumably set off by the onset of the monsoon season, most places we visited were full of birds – and unlike July in the Northeast – full of birdsong. This included the family ranch, where a morning stroll added Virginia’s Warbler to the triplist and a Calliope Hummingbird arrived at the feeder (yay, 4-hummingbird species at a feeder!). Two flycatching Lewis’s Woodpeckers were a pleasant surprise over the downtown Ridgway as we began our journey back to Denver.
We had one last target bird, and as soon as we got out of the car just outside of Montrose, we heard Jeannette’s lifer Sagebrush Sparrow singing. And then saw four. Score!
Arriving at my friends’ place in Denver – a dear friend since college – we settled down into a couple of relaxing days of catching up, being tourists, and enjoying way too much food, and a little beer.
Of course, Jeannette and I would go through withdrawal if we didn’t pick up our binoculars once a day, so while Jess pushed the stroller (for her son, not us, for the record) and guided us through Washington Park, Jeannette and I padded our trip – and my state – list with Black-crowned Night-Heron, Snowy Egret, Blue Jay, and Chimney Swifts (yup, back in the “East” now!). An afternoon in downtown Denver included a walk around Confluence Park – hmm, I think this would be my “patch” if I lived locally; it looked very intriguing for migration I thought
We had the morning of the 16th to bird before departing for home, so we headed over to another urban park, Belmar Park in Lakewood. Cooper’s Hawk was new for our trip list, but a low-soaring Swainson’s Hawk was the highlight. A brief stop at nearby Sanctuary Park – it looked like it had some birds from the road – trumped Belmar Park. “The pond of fuzziness” including chicks and young juveniles of a surprising array of birds: Mallards, American Coots, Pied-billed Grebes, and Redheads. The latter three, along with a single hen Northern Pintail, were all state birds for me.
Pied-billed Grebe with chicks.
But alas, eventually it was time to go home. We said goodbye to Jess, and little Stone, but had some more time with Adam as we carpooled to the airport. We encountered an impressive 120 species on this rather-casual trip, and my state list grew by leaps and bounds. On our way to the airport, Western Kingbirds lined the roadways, and we said goodbye to the birds of the Mountain West as we took off and returned to our favorite state of them all.