Birding trip report Colorado state USA 1-7 September 2002
in www.jvanderw.nl 
John  van der Woude, The Netherlands

See also:
- Photos of sites: directly or via thumbnails
- Species list


Introduction
Colorado has a wide range of habitats, from steep Rockies to flat prairies, and most of this was new for us. Our previous visits to the USA had all been to the southern states, so we had some nice lifers here in Colorado. We did this trip as a sort of side trip in conjunction with a long awaited September visit to the migration hotspot Cape May (New Jersey, South of New York). We were tempted to this construction because of the existence of a return ticket Amsterdam - Denver (Colorado) with a stopover in Philadelphia (for Cape May). So we spent one week in Colorado and then one week in Cape May. Although the preferred month to visit Colorado would be June, we had lots of good birds now in September as well. In fact, as it turned out, the Colorado trip left a slightly deeper impression than the Cape May week.
We had pre-booked our Avis rental car for a reasonable rate (240 euro) as a holiday package deal for one whole week including all insurances. The fuel is still cheap in the USA (one third of the price in Europe), but the motel and restaurant prices have gone up a bit again. Still, we mostly had a reasonable room for around $40-50 (2 persons), sometimes less. We are fans of Motel 6, so if there was one nearby we used that. For motels in the more rural areas I had brought the very detailed list of "pop&mom motels" from the web site www.acesmotel.com/motelguide/co.html. We did bring the Lonely Planet guide for the Rockies, but did not often use it. We intensively used the ABA Birder's Guide to Colorado (1997), and brought our three field guides (NGS, Sibley, Kaufman; for an evaluation of these three, see my message to BirdChat). We used our scope a lot.
The weather was pleasant and dry all the time, a sort of Indian summer. It had been too dry for a long period but we still got most of the lifers we wanted. We only met friendly people, and had a great time apart from the birding, also due to the impressive scenery. The prairies are vast and, esp. in the National Grasslands, have few habitation, where you can easily be five miles away from the next house. So when we thought we had lost our car key after strolling around in such an empty prairie site, we were rather panicked. Until, after a search of 1.5 hours on the ground, we found the key high in the air - in the lock of the open trunk lid... 

 

Itinerary
Aug. 31: arrived at Denver airport in evening and drove to Motel 6 Denver East
Sep. 1: Pawnee National Grassland. First road CR 96 ("Murphy's Pasture") which leaves the 77 to the left c. 6 mi. N of Briggsdale (NW of Greeley and Denver). McCown's Longspur & our first impressions of the prairies (first Sage Thrasher too). Turned back after c. 8 miles, and tried road CR 124 in the North-central part of Pawnee NG (also leaves the 77 to the left). Several sparrow species. Checked in at Motel 6 of Greeley and visited nearby Lower Latham reservoir (Clark's and Western Grebe) and Bebee Draw wetlands South of it.
Sep. 2: a.m. Pawnee National Grassland again, but now the Western part, around Central Plains Experimental Range. Chestnut-collared Longspur (and McCown's again), Prairie Falcon, Grasshopper Sparrow.
Afternoon arrival at Estes Park (motel Saddle & Surrey) and on to eastern part of Rocky Mountain National Park, esp. Bear Lake valley and surroundings. Surprising Blue Grouse at our feet (see photo), and first Grey Jay.

Sep. 3: Rocky Mountain National Park: Endovalley (woodpeckers; nuthatches) and Trail Ridge road (Townsend Solitaire at tree line, visible from parking place). Beautiful drive in afternoon to Walden NW of RMNP. Westside Motel, off main street, OK, but quiet location.
Sep. 4: Arapaho wildlife refuge a few miles South of Walden, sage brush upland plain with small but attractive wetlands. Two beautiful juvenile Ferruginous Hawks, flashing white on the dark soil. Sage Thrasher and Wilson's Phalarope are the other two extremes. Afternoon Cameron Pass road: Three-toed Woodpecker and White-winged Crossbill families. Arrival at dusk at Motel 6 North of Colorado Springs.

Sep. 5: Foothill park Garden of the Gods in early a.m., very scenic, White-throated Swift. Then Fountain Creek reservoir in late a.m., for a walk around the pond lined with woods. Afternoon on to SE Colorado: Lamar (our first Mississippi Kite) and Two Buttes canyon (reservoir) with good woodland species (first Lewis Woodpecker). Night in Springfield, Crawford Motel just off main street.
Sep. 6: Comanche National Grassland. First East of Campo (Cassin's Sparrow, Scaled Quail, Say's Phoebe), then Carrizo & Cottonwood Canyons far West of Campo (see map in ABA guide; several Mississippi Kite, Lewis Woodpecker, Rock Wren, kingbirds). Left the region via Kim to Trinidad (scenic road, and another Prairie Falcon, not far West of Kim). Night in Motel 6 of Pueblo.
Sep. 7: early arrival at Denver, in time for visit to Barr Lake before flight back to Philadelphia.

 

Notes on the sites
These are meant as supplementary to the indispensable ABA Birder's Guide to Colorado (1997).
* Pawnee National Grassland. 
We found the western part, accessible from the 85 (then onto CR 114) the best and finest. Do the whole circuit in this part, as described in the ABA guide, so CR114 - CR37 - CR122 - CR45 - CR114. We had Chestnut-collared Longspur at the start of the CR114, and McCown's at the CR45. Nevertheless, the roads North of  Briggsdale were also good. Greeley/Evans is a pleasant basis, and we had our best family restaurant of the whole trip here in Evans (Western Sizzlin). Briggsdale is not really an option for a stay I think, and I wondered if the 'motel' still existed.
* Rocky Mountain National Park.
Estes Park is a touristy town, but the best basis for the eastern approach of RMNP. We were glad we visited the Bear Lake/ Moraine Park section in the East, it provides good habitats in the valleys. Otherwise you will be automatically attracted to the Trail Ridge road which traverses the park's highest altitude zone. Here, at a spot where a valley runs up from the North, we had a surprising flock of warblers (mostly Wilson's) crossing the mountain crest.
* Arapaho national wildlife refuge.
We were here before sunrise already, and saw the nocturnal Whitetail Jackrabbit (sort of hare). We drove extremely slowly all the time and were rewarded with several goodies on this circular self-drive nature tour. The scenery is wonderful.
* Cameron Pass road
The Three-toed Woodpecker family was feeding in a central tree in the parking place just West of the pass. The White-winged Crossbill family (and a 3-toed pecker again) was feeding near the sign 'Joe Wright reservation and creek' much further East (see GPS below). The river with the dipper was much further East again (see also GPS).
* Garden of the Gods
A fabulous scenery, with easy sightings of some foothills species. Be here as early as possible, also to have enough time left to visit another area. We did a walk around at the backside, but this did not produce anything more than what we already saw near the famous rocks. 
* Fountain Creek reservoir
A pleasant info center with helpful people. This is at the southern entrance. Was probably too dry now for good birds, but this can be different any day.
* Lamar town
The park with Mississippi Kite is at the South side of town, on your way to Baca county. We had to wait about 20 minutes before a kite appeared, high in the air. If you are going to Cottonwood Canyon (further South) then don't stay too long here in Lamar because the kites were far easier in the canyon.
* Two Buttes reservoir
There are three Two Buttes: the two buttes (small conical hills seen from far away), the village (did not see it), and the reservoir. But the actual place to bird is the wooded canyon just upstream (East) of the reservoir. Drive on East until just before the two buttes, then go South until just before the dam of the reservoir, and turn left. We found this one of the best and pleasant places we have birded in Colorado.
* Campo (Baca county)
We did go to the prairie area East of Campo (along road J), just to be in a good prairie habitat (whereas in spring you would go here for the Lesser Prairie Chicken). It was good indeed, but the road West of Campo, towards Carrizo & Cottonwood Canyon, would have been sufficient I think (providing more time for those canyons).
* Carrizo and Cottonwood Canyon
We were glad we visited both (although it requires some driving up and down). Carrizo is a small site with a nice trail, bringing you close to the birds. Cottonwood canyon is a lovely area with good birds, and indeed it was hard to leave the area, just as predicted in the ABA guide.
Some GPS locations
As the region is so well described in the ABA guide, we only took a few GPS markings (in WGS84):
005 N4041'01,18" W10420'05,58" - start of Murphy's Pasture road in Pawnee Nat.Grassland
002 N4040'59,48" W10422'01,17" - McCown's Longspur in Pawnee NG, at Murphy's Pasture road
004 N4040'59,69" W10423'11,48" - Sage Thrasher on fence, Pawnee NG Murphy's Pasture road
006 N4021'00,68" W10442'13,16"- at this point in La Salle village South of Greeley, go East for Latham reservoir
007 N4023'13,44" W10441'26,18" - Motel 6 in Greeley/Evans
008 N4021'30,24" W10530'15,46" - Motel Saddle & Surrey in Estes Park
009 N4024'52,36" W10543'25,89"- start of "tundra trail" near Rock Cut, Trail Ridge road, RMNP
010 N4043'49,76" W10616'58,43" - Westside motel in Walden, near obvious courthouse, at 2500 m altitude
011 N4030'55,77" W10552'01,84"- at the Joe Wright sign along Cameron Pass road (see above)
012 N4042'39,01" W10544'46,52"- Cache la Poudre river, site of photo, with American Dipper at the rapid
013 N3706'19,00" W10234'44,55"- start of road J in Campo
014 N3704'34,62" W10224'14,67" - isolated small tree with group of Scaled Quail along road G East of Campo, 1.6 miles from road 36.


Mammals
Least Weasel - 2 in Rocky Mountain NP at lowest part of Bear Creek ("smallest carnivore in the world")
Coyote - RMNP and Arapaho NWR
Musk Rat - Arapaho NWR
Beaver dams - S and E of Walden
Blacktail Prairiedog - East of Rocky Mountains, in "towns" (colonies), rather common
Whitetail Prairiedog - Arapaho NWR, a big town
squirrels & chipmunks - several species
Whitetail Jackrabbit - Arapaho NWR before sunrise, 2 or 3
Pika - RMNP high altitude, between the rocks, many
Elk (Wapiti) - several groups low in RMNP
Whitetail Deer - Garden of the Gods
Mule Deer - e.g. RMNP Endovalley
Pronghorn - several groups in the prairies
(Bison - one group, fenced)