We have enjoyed some marvelous scenery this past week in Colorado, but today really stood out as stunning. The Sharp-tailed Grouse display on a lek framed by snow capped mountains, rolling hills, shimmering fields, sage brush and picturesque western wooden fences. It was an amazing experience to see these birds in setting. Arriving at very first light, the temperatures were in the mid 20’s with no wind. At dawn the sun rose over Steamboat Springs and yet again we were extremely lucky with the weather.
About 25 Sharp-tailed Grouse (above) were present and loosely centered on a snow-covered gently sloping area.
The males were beautiful with their mottled, earth-toned plumage and white undertail feathers. In display they bowed exposing their white undertail, held out their bowed wings, inflated their lilac-mauve timpani (air sacs), rattled their stiff upright central tail feathers while rapidly stamped their feet to make a neat soft drumming sound on the crusty snow surface.
They moved with extraordinary speed, covering great distance to chase a rival male away. Two females were present but neither really expressed any interest.
The rising sun brought increased activity for the large flock of Sandhill Cranes that we saw the previous evening, many of them jumping and tossing bits of debris in courtship display. A Northern Harrier and Swainson’s Hawk were seen as we left the lek area.
After Starbucks and breakfast, we headed for Dry Lake Campground, on the outskirts of Steamboat Springs to look for Dusky Grouse. We climbed the winding dirt road to elevation 8,300 ft., marveling at the stunning views of the valley below, and the white-barked Aspens (above) and Lodgepole Pines around us. We noticed many of the pines had fallen victim to bark beetle disease, their needles brown and lifeless. The road closed at the campground due to snow, so we parked and walked. The sky was brilliant blue and the hot sun was blinding on the snow; soon we all shed a few layers.
The forest was fairly quiet, but we found a lovely Red-naped Sapsucker working the aspens around the car park. Stellar’s Jay, Tree Swallows, Northern Flicker, Mountain Chickadees (above) and Dark-eyed Juncos were present, and a few of the group saw a Yellow-rumped Warbler.
Back down in Steamboat Springs, at a local resident’s feeder, we enjoyed a variety of species at close range, including Pine and Evening Grosbeak, Pine Siskin, Cassin’s Finch and Red-breasted Nuthatch.
After the daily stop at Safeway for lunch, we followed the highway east, admiring more majestic views climbing through Rabbit Ears Pass, elevation 9,426 ft., and crossing the Continental Divide twice in the space of a mile. Soon we dropped down about 1,500 ft. into the “North Park” (above) area – a giant basin surrounded by mountains, in which the small town of Walden was established in 1889.
A sign claimed that Walden was the “Moose Viewing Capital of Colorado,” and we were thrilled to spot a Moose (below) shortly thereafter – a female standing amid gorgeous yellow willows and red dogwoods along a creek. Along this stretch we also found a Gray Jay perched atop a shrub.
The Moose Creek Visitors Center provided excellent opportunity to study many feeder birds, in particular Cassin’s Finches for the Easterners in the group.
Pine Grosbeaks (above), Mountain and Black-capped Chickadees landed within a few feet of us, intent on the seed buffet. Several Least Chipmunks scampered among the birds while Steller’s Jays kept to themselves in the pines.
The Walden Reservoir (above) attracted myriad species, keeping us occupied for over an hour. We enjoyed Cinnamon and Green-winged Teal, Gadwall, American Wigeon, many Redheads, Canvasback, Ruddy Duck, Lesser Scaup, Ring-necked Duck, and Common Goldeneye, as well as American Avocet, Sandhill Cranes and squadrons of American White Pelicans. A surprise Snowy Egret stood out in his ‘yellow slippers’ in a cow pasture, not far from a group of lively Wyoming Ground Squirrels.
The sun set in brilliant shades of pink and orange as we drove down Route 14, a.k.a. “Raptor Alley.” We counted 7 Swainson’s and 1 Red-tailed Hawk all perched on electric poles. Mountain Bluebirds, Red-winged and Yellow-headed Blackbirds were on the wires, while Kestrels and Magpies were all over the fields. Sagebrush spread out as far as the eye could see, hosting Horned Larks, Sage and Vesper Sparrows, herds of Pronghorn and a lone Coyote. Sage Thrashers focused on displaying – one of them preferring the additional height that the rooftop of Kevin’s vehicle (above) provided! We scouted the area, hoping to find a few Greater Sage Grouse. Two birds flew over as a preview for tomorrow morning’s exciting show – a glorious way to end another spectacular day in Colorado.