Birding Tour USA: Colorado – Lekking Grouse and Rocky Mountains
Colorado: Lekking Grouse, Rocky Mountains, and Open Plains
Colorado offers one of the most spectacular North American birding spectacles with the spring lekking season of several grouse species including the stunning Gunnison (Sage) and (Greater) Sage Grouse and the ever declining Greater and Lesser Prairie Chickens. Churring, gurgling, prancing males strut around their chosen lek, competing with other males to see who can get selected by a mate. While this trip is a more focus “chicken run” of sorts, there are plenty of other amazing bird species to be on the lookout for. These include a nice mix of both migrants and long staying species such as Black, Grey-crowned, and Brown-capped Rosy Finches, Barrow’s Goldeneye, American Dipper, Williamson’s Sapsucker, Pinyon Jay, Bald Eagle, and the list goes on and on! Both spring and fall migration in Colorado are amazing and we time this trip perfectly for the spring leks and arrival of spring migrants on their journey to breeding grounds. Along with the amazing bird and wildlife spectacles, are the wide assortment of fantastic habitats providing jaw-dropping scenery throughout the tour. From the stunning Rocky Mountains and rolling grass prairies to the cottonwood canyons and pine forests, the trip is never lacking a stunning view along the way. This great diversity of habitats provides us a refreshing new locale each day and with it a differing bird and wildlife community. The National Audubon Society and Colorado Birding Trail do a fantastic job here to help preserve the pristine habitats and help encourage folks to get out and experience nature with their birding festival in March and other community programs.
Greater Prairie Chicken is one of the many fantastic grouse species we should encounter on this tour.
This tour begins in the mile-high city of Denver, visiting its various pristine birding locations before heading west and up into the dizzying heights of the Rocky Mountains. Up here, the search is on for the tricky White-tailed Ptarmigan and rosy finches. We continue onwards for our first few leks of the trip and then head southwest to Grand Junction and Gunnison, birding along the way in hopes of seeing treats like Mountain Bluebird and Clark’s Nutcracker. From here we head east and into the lowlands and grasslands of southeast Colorado with a brief dip into Kansas for Lesser Prairie Chicken. We complete our large “chicken loop” of Colorado in the northeast corner at the Pawnee National Grasslands, a premier birding spot, with Thick-billed and Chestnut-collared Longspurs and Mountain Plover amongst the many targets.
Due to the extremely limited availability and access to some of the leks, this itinerary is subject to run in a slightly different order while still visiting all of the locations and destinations.
Itinerary (11 days/10 nights)
Day 1. Arrival in Denver
Arrival at the Denver airport will be followed by introductions and an orientation about our upcoming trip. We will do some local birding as time allows and prepare for what will surely be a fantastic tour full of beautiful birds and scenery.
Overnight: Denver, Colorado
Day 2. Genesee, Loveland Pass, Silverthorne
Today will be jammed packed as we work our way out of Denver towards Steamboat Springs in the northwest. The morning will kick off with some birding at Genesee Mountain Park on the edge of Denver. Some of the targets here include Cassin’s Finch, Pygmy Nuthatch, Steller’s Jay, Clark’s Nutcracker, and Williamson’s Sapsucker. As we cruise through the mountains towards Loveland Pass, we will be sure to watch out for species like Mountain Bluebird, Townsend’s Solitaire, Two-barred (White-winged) and Red Crossbills. We will also keep our eyes peeled on the fast-moving rivers and streams for American Dipper. Eventually, we will make it to the Guanella Pass, our first stop in search of White-tailed Ptarmigan, before retreating from this high elevation back to the small town of Georgetown. If we do not have any luck here, we’ll take Route 6 over the summit of Loveland Pass (weather permitting) to give us another chance for the elusive White-tailed Ptarmigan. We’ll descend down the mountains to the town of Silverthorne where we will drive the roads, searching for feeders and seeds in hopes of spotting great birds including all three species of rosy-finches, Black, Grey-crowned and Brown-capped Rosy-Finch. Along Highway 9, towards Kremmling, there are some good bodies of water for ducks and open areas to scan for Prairie Falcon. We’ll have a brief stop at some of the open water areas along the way, which could yield the stunning Barrow’s Goldeneye and other great waterfowl species. Finally, we will arrive in Steamboat Springs, our home for the next two nights.
Overnight: Steamboat Springs, Colorado
The charismatic American Dipper is always a fan favorite.
Day 3. Coalmont for Sage Grouse lek, Hayden
This morning we will get up early, grab a quick breakfast and head east to look for (Greater) Sage Grouse on their lek in the Coalmont area. Leaving early is critical to ensure we are set up before sunrise, when the birds come onto the lek. From our vehicles we’ll be able to watch the spectacle of these amazing birds strutting around, inflating air sacs, and fanning tails to attract a female. From here we’ll continue north to Walden, visiting the Delaney Butte Lakes and the Walden Reservoir in search of some wintering water birds. In the afternoon, we’ll retrace our steps west, birding to Hayden for our first chance to spot Sharp-tailed and Dusky Grouse. After dinner, it is back to the hotel for the evening in Steamboat Springs.
Overnight: Steamboat Springs, Colorado
Day 4. Hayden, Black Mountain, Grand Junction
We’ll start the day with a check of the Sharp-tailed Grouse lek. We should be able to park off the road and get a good look at these birds lekking away in the morning. From here, we’ll head north of Craig to Black Mountain in the Routt National Forest, checking for American Three-toed Woodpecker and Dusky Grouse lekking in the road. We’ll continue south from Craig onto Route 13, looking for waterfowl along the way, especially Cinnamon Teal. At Meeker, we’ll head west towards Rio Blanco Lake to check for loons and other waterfowl, and then drive south along Route 5 through this wonderful wilderness area, checking for birds along the way. Just north of Rifle, we’ll rejoin Route 13 and make a quick stop at the Fravert Reservoir to look for Pinyon Jay, Juniper Titmouse and Bewick’s Wren. There is a good pond here that hosts a variety of waterfowl and both Red-winged and Yellow-headed Blackbirds. We might see White-throated Swift flying about as well. At Coal Creek Canyon, we’ll pass the Cameo power plant and head into open juniper country, where we get a chance to look for Chukar Partridge, Say’s Phoebe, Rock Wren, and Black-throated Sparrow. We’ll make it to Grand Junction for dinner and our hotel for the evening.
Overnight: Grand Junction, Colorado
Day 5. Grand Junction, Blue Mesa Reservoir, Crested Butte
We start the day with the breath-taking views from Colorado National Monument. Just a few of the target birds here include Gambel’s Quail, Juniper Titmouse, Western and Mountain Bluebirds, and a possibility for American Grey Flycatcher. We’ll check a few of the local reservoirs near Delta for Western and Clark’s Grebes along with a bevy of ducks, and we’ll also scout the cattails for rails and Marsh Wren. Then we proceed to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park’s Rim Drive road. Here, we have another chance to find Dusky Grouse, sometimes seen displaying atop picnic tables! This road offers outstanding views of the canyon. We’ll make our way on the South Rim Drive to the visitor center for some great looks at the canyon. While we may have already seen these species elsewhere, other possibilities here include Golden Eagle, Woodhouse’s Scrub Jay, Violet-green Swallow, Clark’s Nutcracker and Green-tailed Towhee. We’ll also need to keep our eyes open for some amazing mammals such as Mule Deer, Bobcat, Grey Fox and Yellow-bellied Marmot. Our final main destination for the day is the Blue Mesa Reservoir. This area may hold lots of waterfowl, some gulls (American Herring and possibly California Gulls), shorebirds, Barrow’s Goldeneye, Sage Thrasher, and Vesper Sparrow. Get to bed early tonight in preparation for our early start to Day 6!
Overnight: Gunnison, Colorado
Woodhouse’s Scrub Jay can be seen in Gunnison National Park.
Day 6. Gunnison
Today we will head for the Endangered (IUCN) Gunnison (Sage) Grouse lek. Things you need to know: we will be departing the hotel around 4:45 a.m. as we must be parked and set an hour before sunrise, as the birds get there quite early. Once at the viewing area, there is no leaving the cars (no bathroom breaks!) until the birds are finished with their displays, perhaps three hours after sunrise. No morning coffee! There is a simple bathroom at the site, and we should be able to use it upon initial arrival and at the end. Also expect cold temperatures. Over the past years, low temps have ranged from 22 to 33 degrees Fahrenheit (-5 to 0 Celsius). We’ll be going back to the hotel after we leave here – you may want to sneak out a blanket or two. Hand and foot warmer packets are always a good idea as well. No flash photography is allowed here either. Other species we may see while enjoying the grouse are Swainson’s Hawk, Horned Lark, Western Meadowlark, Brewer’s Blackbird and maybe a Gunnison’s Prairie Dog. After a late breakfast, we’ll drive to Crested Butte to check for rosy finches. These rosy finches are all based on snow. If it is snowing in the mountains, it will bring the finches down to the feeders. Otherwise, there is only a low chance of seeing them, so, we will keep an eye on the weather forecast. We’ll spend a couple of hours up here checking local feeders and have some lunch before driving back to Gunnison. In Gunnison there are a few areas to check for Great Horned Owl, Black-billed Magpie, Lewis’s Woodpecker, Townsend’s Solitaire and others, before retiring back to our accommodation for the night.
Overnight: Gunnison, Colorado
The Black Rosy Finch is arguably one of the prettiest North American birds.
Day 7. Gunnison to Pueblo
If we had no luck with the Gunnison (Sage) Grouse the day before, we can rise early and try again, but if we did have luck we will head east towards Pueblo. On the road to Pueblo, we will stop for birding at Monarch Pass to look for more mountain bird species. There is a parking lot from which you will see some unbelievable scenery. As we descend the east side, we will keep an eye out for Clark’s Nutcracker and Band-tailed Pigeon. Other stops along the route will be where there are open rivers – to look for American Dipper. Bighorn Sheep are a possibility as well. Next, we will make a couple of nice stops on Cañon City Tunnel Drive for a chance at Rufous-crowned Sparrow, Rock Wren, Canyon Wren, and Black Phoebe. Cañon City River Walk has some nice riparian habitat for a large variety of birds like Western Bluebird, Lesser Goldfinch and the red-shafted morph of Northern Flicker. This is a great place to eat if the weather is good. After lunch, we’ll continue east to a dry scrub area and the Pueblo Reservoir. Some of our target birds include Scaled Quail, Burrowing Owl, Loggerhead Shrike, Juniper Titmouse, American Bushtit, Curve-billed Thrasher, and Canyon Towhee. We could also see some species of gulls and water birds at the reservoir before settling into Pueblo for the night.
Overnight: Pueblo, Colorado
Bighorn Sheep are a possibility on this tour too.
Day 8. Pueblo to Oakley
Now we leave behind the Front Range and enter the Eastern Plains, going all the way into Kansas with Oakley, Kansas being our final destination. First, we will drive through stellar grasslands with Prairie Falcon, Swainson’s and Ferruginous Hawks and Long-billed Curlew. A few planned stops near the town of Lamar will hopefully net us a few nice species such as Lark Sparrow, American Avocet, Snow Goose and American White Pelican. Finally, we will cross the state border and start ticking birds for our Kansas state list (if you’re into that sort of thing) before we settle in for the night in Oakley.
Overnight: Oakley, Kansas
Day 9. Lesser Prairie Chicken lek, Wray
This morning we will be up and at it early again, this time to get on site for the incredibly special Lesser Prairie Chicken leks. This species has been decreasing at an alarming rate but luckily a few populations are still maintaining in this area, and, with support from the local folks, hopefully they can begin increasing again. We may encounter other nice species while enjoying the leks including Horned Lark and Burrowing Owl. From here we will head north, back into Colorado. We may arrive in the Wray area with enough daylight to search the Wray State Fishing Unit for a variety of migrants and we may potentially hit the lekking area for a shot at Greater Prairie Chicken to hopefully enjoy their evening performance.
Overnight: Wray, Colorado
We will also visit a Lesser Prairie Chicken lek.
Day 10. Greater Prairie Chicken lek and Pawnee National Grasslands
This morning we will visit the Greater Prairie Chicken lek for another chance to see these amazing birds do their display. From here, we will head to the amazing habitat of Pawnee National Grasslands. This area of grassland is mixed with short buffalo grass, which is good for Thick-billed Longspur and Mountain Plover, and the taller grass for Chestnut-collared Longspur. There is also a possibility for Long-billed Curlew, a late Lapland Longspur or a flock of Sandhill Cranes. Ferruginous Hawk, Prairie Falcon, Say’s Phoebe, Burrowing Owl and Golden Eagle are often found here, and while traversing the rolling hills and prairie dog towns we’ll keep an eye out for Pronghorn (Antelope) too. Eventually we will call it quits and head back towards Denver and the airport.
Overnight: Denver, CO
There will be many chances to see the curious Burrowing Owl.
Day 11. Departure
Today marks the end of our journey. We will head to the airport for our departure and the conclusion of an amazing tour. To continue the fun, be sure to check out our Florida Peninsula and Specialties Tour which follows this one or perhaps you will enjoy our Texas Spring and Whooping Cranes Tour immediately preceding Colorado.
Please note that the itinerary cannot be guaranteed as it is only a rough guide and can be changed (usually slightly) due to factors such as availability of accommodation, updated information on the state of accommodation, roads, or birding sites, the discretion of the guides and other factors. In addition, we sometimes have to use a different international guide from the one advertised due to tour scheduling.Download Itinerary
USA: Colorado – Lekking Grouse and Rocky Mountains
PASSPORT AND VISA
For US citizens, no visas or passports are required. You will need to bring along a government-issued ID as they are sometimes required for hotels.
Non-United States citizens will require a valid passport to enter the country, and some may require a tourist visa. Please consult with your local US Embassy for more details and information. You may need to show your ID/passport at various hotels or for the boat departures on this tour.
We strongly encourage you to purchase trip cancellation or interruption insurance in case you have to cancel due to illness or for any other reason, as tour payments are non-refundable as per our terms and conditions. We advise you to get a plan which covers all your medical care and evacuation back to your country of residence, repatriation, and trip cancellation due to illness just prior, or any other reason.
Colorado does not pose any major health risks, aside from high altitudes on a few days. On one day of the tour we will be at approximately 12,000 ft (3,650 m), which we will be reaching by vehicle. Typically, this involves scanning from fixed positions with minimal walking in the snow. Ample water and layers will help combat this elevation and we will be sure to increase our altitude at a slow pace. Water will be available throughout the tour and please feel free to bring your own reusable bottle to refill throughout the tour as the tap water here is safe.
Please make sure that you are covered by medical insurance in case of an emergency while on this trip. Without insurance the cost of medical care can be extremely high. Please notify us, at the time of registering for this tour, of any medical conditions you think we should know about (including allergies, heart conditions, epilepsy, etc.). This will greatly help us to cater to your needs and update emergency services if required.
The weather in Colorado in April can vary drastically from 70 °F (21 °C) down to 20 °F (-7 °C). Conditions can vary from heavy snow to beautiful sunny weather and sometimes these changes can occur in only a few hours, especially as we change in elevation. Layers and warm clothing options are a must to help with the wide range of conditions. Early mornings at lekking sites can be especially cold as we wait patiently without much movement and before the sun rises. Waterproof and rain gear are essential to ensure comfort while on the tour as it can rain or snow at any time.
We will be staying at comfortable hotels throughout the tour.
Our hotels should have decent access to Wi-Fi throughout the trip and phone service is typically fine near these areas and in the larger more populated cities. There are times throughout the trip where we will be out in the wilderness and higher altitudes so do expect to lose coverage at some points.
PHYSICAL REQUIREMENTS AND PACE OF TOUR
There are several very early starts on this tour (4:30 am) in order to get to lekking areas before sunrise. We will have something light to eat and head out to the lek where we will be viewing either from the van or a blind. Once we begin, we will not be able to leave or get out of these areas and we must remain as still and quiet as possible.
After the lek is complete, we will have a fuller breakfast and gather our luggage/gear and proceed with the day. There is also a lot of driving involved with this tour as we are covering a huge amount of ground, but of course there will be birding stops along the way, to help break up the drives. Hiking/walking requirements are relatively easy and done either along the road or well-maintained trails and typically less than a mile (1.6 kilometers) at a time. Keep in mind that while the distance and pace of walking is mild, we will be at higher altitudes at times.
WHAT TO BRING
Please kindly read the general list of what to bring on a birding tour, here.
Layers and waterproof gear are always a good idea when preparing for a wide variety of possible weather conditions, and we consider them essential on this tour. We also do recommend bringing Dramamine or other motion sickness medications if you need them, as there are long drives in the vehicle. Also, please bring along a face mask (or a few) to ensure we are able to follow local guidelines during the Covid-19 pandemic, as they will be required in certain areas.
Do not forget – Binoculars, prescription drugs (also bring the generic names for these drugs), toiletries, prescription glasses (and a spare pair), sunglasses, camera, batteries (for electronic equipment and chargers for re-chargeable batteries if required), alarm clock, money pouch, field guide(s), daypack.
Key documents and cash – Passports, your travel or health insurance cards, photocopies of which can be carried by the tour leader in case of emergency, Covid-19 vaccine card (or photo/copy), credit cards. US dollars for drinks, gifts, tips, items of a personal nature, etc., which are not included in the tour cost.
There should be enough space for each participant to bring one medium-sized suitcase as well as a personal bag to keep at their seat with them. Please do be mindful with large cameras or tripods if you choose to bring these along.
‘If you want to see great views of Chickens and Grouse at their leks, then this is the tour for you. Early mornings are no problem when you experience up-close views of these magnificent birds.
Don’t forget the other birds found in Colorado, this tour goes out of its way to find them all – and it doesn’t disappoint.’