Western Colorado June 17 High Country Birds

Before I head out on another short trip I thought I’d post about Western Colorado June 17 High Country Birds. This post should have been written two month ago but finding the time in the summer is tough. Between birding, learning butterflies, and work I never seem to wrap up Colorado. And I still have a story or two.

Before I discovered the problem with trying to run the Baxter Pass BBS and ended up doing the Uncompahgre BBS, I had already spent a day on the Uncompahgre Plateau. This in reflection turned out to be a good thing since, even though I didn’t mean it to be, it was a good scouting trip.

One of the main goals of the trip was to put to bed some of the local birds, both visually and photographically, I had missed on previous trips. And I luckily took care of several of them early on the first day.

I was hoping for a decent photo of a Black-headed Grosbeak on the trip. Mission accomplished at the second stop.
Same stop, other side of the road. A male Western Tanager singing and moving through the trees. I’m sure I’d heard one in Oregon years ago and previously in Colorado, but it didn’t go onto the life list until this guy.
And back across the road again. I really wanted a good view of a Scrub-Jay. This Roodhouse’s variety was quite obliging.
Down the road I noticed this sign. I had known the Telephone Trail was the spot for owls, and now I knew where to go. This is a few miles from the start of the BBS route. So next year up at 3AM for owls!

The rest of the day I had a few other stops that will get their own posts, but here are a few more photos to wrap this one up.

A Brewer’s Blackbird teed up nicely. Of course I thought it was a Common Grackle at first. And maybe second… It might have taken eBird to finally make me decide.
Yes, the branch is in the way, but I like how the Green-tailed Towhee’s colors shine in the morning light.
Western Colorado June 17 High Country Birds
And lastly a Dusky Flycatcher that was nesting nearby. I heard it calling, got a photo, and watched it take food back to the nest. I don’t usually get that lucky.

The Only Way to Describe It

Surreal.

From Dictionary.com – surreal – “having the disorienting, hallucinatory quality of dream; unreal; fantastic:”

And that is the only way I can describe the scene when 100,000+ SNOW GEESE are flying overhead honking. And that doesn’t do it justice. You must see it yourself to really comprehend the scene.

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No way to describe the scene that lasted off and on all morning. Thousands and thousands of Snow Geese. Gibson Lake – 1/2/16

And this was the way it went all morning when I accompanied Don Gorney last Saturday on my first trip to Gibson County. While looking for other various specialties there was always the awareness of the Snow Geese flying in the distance.

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That isn’t a cloud in the background but thousands of Snow Geese. Gibson County – 1/2/16

I hadn’t seen this many Snow Geese since I went on chase #3 for a Little Gull at Carlyle Lake in Southern Illinois. That day there was the same constant swirling of Snow Geese until they settled on the lake. It is too bad that there isn’t access to Gibson Lake so we could see the vast amount of waterfowl that must be present.

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I know I have used this photo before but it still just amazes me. Those are rafts of Snow Geese. The photo is taken from a mile away so how many geese are there? A million? Carlyle Lake IL 1/28/12

And Snow Geese weren’t the only birds in large flocks. Though I didn’t get a picture (how can you get one that does the scene justice?)  on the day we saw huge flocks of blackbirds – mainly COMMON GRACKLES. It would probably take someone with a video camera to record the long line of blackbirds and then try to get a count. I swear one of the flocks was a couple of miles long.

Early in the day we stopped by the town of Francisco to see if there were EURASIAN COLLARED-DOVES next to the grain elevator like every small town.  And of course there were.

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One of 15 Eurasian Collared-Doves that were present. Of course sometimes the sun isn’t cooperative when trying to take a photo. Francisco, IN 1/2/16

On the day we saw several impressive birds starting with the lingering GREEN-TAILED TOWHEE. Don had already spent time with it in December and I had spent considerable time with them last summer in Colorado, so we didn’t linger at the sight.

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Green-tailed Towhee on the ground. I didn’t grab my camera when getting out of the car.  So the photo credit is goes to Don Gorney. Gibson Lake Area 1/2/16
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Another photo showing the bright rufous cap in the morning sun. Don’s main goal is to get a good photo ID and not an award-winning photo. But  I think they are still good photos. Photo by Don Gorney. Gibson Lake Area 1/2/16

Hoping for waterfowl we moved on to Tern Bar Slough. There was little variety and numbers are still low. Hopefully the current cold snap will send some south. Moving on we encountered both endangered RUSTY BLACKBIRDS and RED-HEADED WOODPECKERS in the same woods. Which was good to see.

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Since it is close to the road a Bald Eagle’s nest that I have seen on several web sites. Gibson Lake area – 1/2/16

We then spent a considerable amount of time watching the Snow Geese while Don picked a few ROSS’S GEESE out of the swirling flock. A few groups of GREATER WHITE-FRONTED GEESE also flew by at a higher elevation.

In the afternoon we headed to Somerville Mine in the eastern part of the county to search for raptors.  They were numerous with many RED-TAILED HAWKS, NORTHERN HARRIERS, and more limited numbers of ROUGH-LEGGED HAWKS and AMERICAN KESTRELS.

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One of several Northern Harriers we saw on the day. None of the raptors really came close to our area. Somerville Mine – 1/2/16

We also went into Warrick County in search of Northern Shrikes and MERLINS.  We missed on the Shrikes but found a few Merlins.

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I always expect Merlins to be larger. They aren’t hard to spot but they just aren’t a big bird. Warrick County – 1/2/16

We extended the day a little and went back to Somerville Mine area to catch the initial flights of SHORT-EARED OWLS at dusk.

From my first trip to the area I can see why Gibson County always does well on counts. The varied habitat is great for a wide variety of species.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Riding the High Country – Uncompahgre Plateau

As with many things in life the best things turn out much better than you think they will. After reading about the Uncompahgre (Un-com-pah-gray) Plateau in the Colorado County Birding Guide, I was a little apprehensive about going up on the plateau by myself. Especially in a car. Reading the guide made it sound like unless you were well prepared, you might not come back down off the plateau.  But far and away this turned out to be the best day of the trip.

In my case, and with apologies to Sam Peckinpah, Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea, I spent the day Driving the High Country.

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The view from just outside Grand Junction. Up there, somewhere, is the plateau.

But the guide wasn’t entirely incorrect.  You can get by easily on a nice, dry day.  But you had better come prepared because there are no stores or facilities.  The drive is 50 miles of gravel road on government owned land.  On the day I saw zero other cars. None.  My rental was the only car on the plateau. Everyone else was in pickup trucks or SUV’s. And I bet I could count on three hands (less than 15) the total number of other vehicles I saw on the whole day.  So the plateau was mine to bird.

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This is a typical scene on top of the plateau. Just the gravel road and nature.

The plateau is situated SW of Grand Junction.  To get to the top you have to make several switchbacks up a gravel road going from 5000 to around 9500 feet.  Learning from my stop at Loveland Pass I stopped 3 times and birded each stop for 10-15 minutes on the way up. Each time I was a little dizzy but it soon faded.  I would walk slowly and bird and it seemed to work out.

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Looking back on the switchbacks from a higher point.
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The view back to the road I took to get plateau. And I’m not even half way up yet.

At one of the stops I saw a Black-throated Gray Warbler along the side of the road. My only other previous encounter was a fleeting glance several years ago in Oregon. So this was treat.

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A Black-throated Gray Warbler in the pines at the first stop up.
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There were numerous Chipping Sparrows at the mid-altitudes.

I also had my only encounter with Mountain Chickadees on the way up. I could immediately tell they weren’t Black-capped from their raspier call.  I also had a bird that I thought was a Western Tanager calling but never got a look.  So it will stay off the personal list.

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The Mountain Chickadees never were visible from the non-sun side of the road, hence the lousy photo.

And just like that I was at the top of the plateau and I could tell I was somewhere different. It was like going from Indiana to Northern Michigan or Minnesota.  The sun just didn’t seem right and the air felt different. The temperature was at least 20 degrees F less than the Grand Valley below (which still meant it was 80F in the afternoon). And it felt great.

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The entrance to the Uncompahgre Plateau had the usual warnings and maps.
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The view of the grasslands at the lower level of the plateau. I would continue to climb the rest of the day reaching 9500′.
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It must have been Mountain Bluebirds day to greet visitors at the entrance.

The Divide Road runs the center of the plateau and goes 40 miles before you can take a side road and descend back to the valley.  Here is a link to a short video on YouTube that a motorcycle rider made “A ride atop the Uncompahgre Plateau“.  So the plan was to bird the road for the day and get home late afternoon. With the great habitats I only made it 13 miles. I then had to turn around and come back the way I came.  But it was a great 13 miles of varied habitat.  From Alpine Meadows to Ponderosa Pines to Aspen Forests and everything in between.

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Another typical scene looking at the Divide Road.

So I spent the day traveling a little bit at a time, parking along side the road, and birding an area for a while. All the while trying to make sure I stopped at the different habitats.

Once I stopped to view the only map posted along the road.  While viewing the map my phone chimed I had a message.  That startled me in the quiet of the plateau. I had checked earlier and didn’t have service in this remote spot. But I had it there and 4 bars to boot! I never did figure out how I had service out there. I guess you can never get truly away.

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At a certain altitude Green-tailed Towhees were the most numerous bird. They could be heard calling all along the road.
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An American Kestrel hunting a mountain meadow.
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The snow capped mountains were always preset to the west.

Probably the best part of the day was the last stop. I parked the car by an Aspen Grove and hard a distant “caw caw”.  I knew I had heard it on the tapes I had listened too so I went into the grove to check it out. I saw a distant gray bird that kept moving. I figured it was the bird that was calling.  As I got further and further into the glade I saw a flycatcher  who actually stopped long enough for photos.

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A blurry photo of a Dusky Flycatcher sitting in an Aspen Glade.

And the other bird kept calling.  And then something rose up out of the tall grass and scarred the ##?? !! out of me. As I was walking quickly the other way it dawned on me that it was a fawn.  And then I about stepped on its sibling. I should have got a photo but I figured Mom was around and I didn’t want to meet her. And of course then the Caw Caw bird came out in the open. A Clark’s Nutcracker!  And the battery in the camera then went dead and the backup battery was in the car a few hundred feet away.  Oh well.

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The view of a distant Grand Junction on the way back down at the end of the day.