Saturday, July 22, 2017

Colorado 2017: Pawnee National Grasslands

Purple, orange and yellow wildflowers decorated the Pawnee National Grasslands

For over a decade I have wanted to take a birding trip to Colorado.  I finally got that chance in June.  It was a bit surreal to climb out of my bed in Gainesville at 2:00 AM and get a lifer in Colorado that afternoon, but that's exactly what happened!

The arrival in Denver was on time, the rental car was ready, and I immediately headed out towards Greeley.  I was fortunate in that Carl Bendorf of Colorado Birding Adventures had already given me the location of my first target bird, the Mountain Plover.  It was located in the eastern - and less frequently birded - portion of the Pawnee National Grasslands (PNG).  I hadn't even planned on entering that side of the park, but Carl's tip pointed me in the right direction.

The PNG covers nearly 200,000 acres in north in northeast Colorado.  It's divided into two portions, east and west, with a non-park corridor running up the middle centered on County Road 89.  Furthermore, much of the "park" is actually private lands, so most of the birding has to be done from a car.  Also, you might think of a park that's called a "grasslands" as being a vast expanse of just that - grass.  As I discovered, you would be wrong.  Instead, it's a sea of short and tall grass, cattle pastures, wildflowers, rocky fields and a dizzying array of plants - over 400 varieties!

A Pronghorn grazing on the Pawnee National Grasslands
As soon as I arrived it was evident that I wasn't on a Florida prairie any more.  Practically the first bird I saw made that very clear.
Lark Bunting

The Lark Bunting had been a lifer only a year earlier when I saw a small flock in Amidon, North Dakota.  Now they were in the road, on fence posts, and perched atop small bushes throughout the grasslands.  A gregarious little bird, they were rarely alone, often flitting about in groups of ten, twenty, or more.

Back home in Gainesville, my birding colleagues held a special field trip while I was flying towards Colorado.  Over 50 of them gathered to take a small hike to a protected area where Alachua County's only Burrowing Owls resided.  I regretted missing that trip, but I had some luck of my own.  While searching for the target bird, I found several Burrowing Owls like this one who seems to be munching on a grasshopper.

It was already getting late, and my body was still on Eastern Time, but I had one more bird to find.  Fortunately, I found it just past the owls.  The photograph below is not great, but it is a life bird!

Mountain Plover, my first lifer of the trip.

That first day certainly ended on a high note!  The second day started with almost as much excitement.  Before entering the PNG, I made a stop at the Crow Valley Recreation Area.  The birding here was fantastic despite a very stiff wind.  In fact the wind was strong enough to provide some entertaining moments.  Several Western Kingbirds were battling the winds while trying to feed on flying insects.  One Kingbird took off diving into the wind, but was immediately blown backwards.  It spun once, turning its tail into the wind, and sped away about as fast as a Kingbird has ever flown.  Here is that talented flyer:

The real thrill of my time at Crow Valley was that this was the first - and only - three oriole day I've ever been around.  In a small area near the creek, a Baltimore Oriole stopped in a tree a few feet above me, an Orchard Oriole flew around the trees across the creek, and this Bullock's Oriole darted about the treetops near the road.

Once in the PNG, the birding got even busier.  First there were Barn Swallows on the wires of the fences:

Then there was a Cassin's Sparrow perching up, giving me the opportunity for the best look at that species that I've ever had.

And everywhere I looked there were Western Meadowlarks singing their lovely melody for all to hear.

Now let me digress from the bird life of the grasslands for a moment.  If you ever decide to visit PNG, try to do so when the wildflowers are in bloom.  While I was there, the park was awash in color.  Look at the images at the top of this blog and those of the Burrowing Owls and Mountain Plover.  I can see why the Native Americans loved this land.  It sustained their lifestyle while surrounding them with its majesty and beauty.

Butterflies love it too and add their own splash of color:

Okay, back to the birding.  I had one primary target for the day.  I wanted to find a McCown's Longspur.  That proved to be harder than I expected.  I drove mile after mile without seeing one.  Certainly there were great birds everywhere like this Grasshopper Sparrow:

And I was thrilled to see this Horned Lark in the grass!

And then things got better when another one popped up on a fence post showing the world its "horns".

But finally, late in the afternoon, in what was practically my last hour in the grasslands, there it was.  A McCown's Longspur landed just a few feet in front of the car.  And then a second one joined it.  Then another ... and another!  It was lifer #2 for the trip, and a perfect ending for my day and a half in the Pawnee National Grasslands.

1 comment:

  1. Bob, this is great. You had good looks at those Pawnee birds and your words and photos capture the place perfectly. Can't wait for the next installments!! Carl


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