I left my motel room shortly after 5:00 am and met the school teacher birder from last night in the parking lot. He was apparently also headed out for early morning birding. I got some helpful updates about the directions I was using from the Cimarron NWR website. I drove to the west lek expecting it to be the lek that I visited in 2009. All seemed to be correct until I got close to the blind beyond a windmill and water tank for cattle. This was apparently not the lek that I visited in 2009. However, I was here and decided to stay a short while. I looked and listened from outside the blind for a while and then entered the blind. Inside the blind I found a note from refuge personnel apologizing that there were so few Lesser Prairie Chickens at this lek, but that there were a few visiting the eastern lek. There were many displaying and singing Cassin's Sparrows, and Yellow-headed and Brewer's Blackbirds at the water tank as well as Brown-headed Cowbirds. Of course there were many Western Meadowlarks singing. I left the western lek as quickly as possible and drove as quickly as possible to the eastern lek and blind. As I approached the blind, I realized that this was the blind that I visited in 2009. I arrived shortly after 7:00 am, hoping for luck. In 2009, I arrived later than this when a birding tour group exited the blind and some Lesser Prairie Chickens remained until about 7:30 am or after that time. This time I stayed in my rental car and scanned the lek several times but did not see any Lesser Prairie Chickens. I assumed that they were all gone already, so I got out of my car with camera and telescope and took a few steps toward the blind. Two Lesser Prairie Chickens flew cackling out of the lek--one went west and then north and the second flew west. I followed the bird to the west with binoculars until it disappeared below the vegetation and into a swale. Whew! That was close to a miss! These two Lesser Prairie Chickens seemed smaller and less bulky and lighter in color, particularly on the under-parts, than the Greater Prairie Chickens that I saw in January in Illinois. That's consistent with the field marks. Greater Prairie Chickens are more heavily barred on the under-parts than Lesser Prairie Chickens, which are more finely barred. I enjoyed the prairie morning as I ate my cereal and drank my orange juice outside the rental car. It was a primal moment and felt like this is how things should be--only man and nature, except for my modern conveniences that got me there. I left the area with an appreciation of how difficult it is to maintain a viable population of these birds, apparently related to the prolonged drought in this area. Perhaps, there are other reasons such as disturbance or predators. Anyway, I felt very fortunate to see these two birds. I should have deduced from the comments of the school teacher birder that I should have gone directly to the eastern blind and lek.
I returned to Elkhart to fill my tank with gas and maybe get something in addition for breakfast at the quick stop near the motel where I stayed. After buying some coffee and a breakfast sandwich, I asked the attendant for help on directions to roads that go directly east to southeastern Colorado. She pointed me in the direction of a local man at one of the tables who was having his morning coffee. He offered to help, but then I saw the school teacher birder outside getting out of his truck, so I excused myself and went outside to talk to the birder. I shared my success and asked for directions. He pulled out his Kansas Delorme and showed me how to get directly to Campo by going north on SR 27 and then west on Road 51. Road 51 turns into CR M at the intersection of US 287. Last night I could have continued straight across US 287 to get to Elkhart, but I did not know that then. CR M goes to Cottonwood Canyon where I was headed for at least the morning. The second birder, the graduate student, appeared. They shared their recent birds, but I had seen the ones they mentioned. We said our good byes, and I headed to Carrizo Picnic Area and Cottonwood Canyon. Road 51 is black-topped for a while and then turns into a dirt road that is well maintained. As I drove along, there were Western Meadowlarks, a few Lark Buntings but not as many as in Baca County, CO. I saw three different Swainson's Hawks along the road. As I was getting close to Campo, an intermediate sized plover flew up off of the side of the road. With my eastern mind-set, I immediately thought Killdeer. But wait a minute! This bird was different with very little wing strip and a tawny or tan color on the back and wings and with white at the base of the tail and a dark band at the end of the tail. I could see a white eyebrow line and a dark line through the eye as it turned and flew away low. The top of the head seemed darker and the under-parts were completely white or whitish. This was not killdeer, but a Mountain Plover, which flew quickly into a long ago harvested cornfield and disappeared. I had read that they run once they are on the ground, so this bird could be far from where I originally saw it. The ground color was a light tan color so the bird was well camouflaged. I quickly stopped and scanned this field several times, but was not able to find the plover. I tried for 10-15 minutes without success. Finally, I moved on but was satisfied that I had seen a Mountain Plover.
I crossed US 287 and headed west on CR M to Carrizo Picnic Ground and Cottonwood Canyon. On the way, I encountered a large long-winged hawk with rather pointed wings that was the size of a Red-tailed Hawk or slightly larger. This was a white-headed hawk with very apparent white crescents in the primaries visible on the upper side of the wing. The under-parts were very white, and the base of the tail was white with a darker band at the tip. As it turned and soared with a slight dihedral, I noticed the very white under-wings without barring in the flight feathers and dark tips to the primaries and secondaries viewed from below. There was no rufous on the upper wing and I did not see any rufous on the leg feathers. On the side of the face, I noticed a gape that extended back under the eye. This was a Ferruginous Hawk, a young bird not in full breeding plumage, a new bird for the year. I checked Brian Wheeler's raptors of eastern North America, since I am at home. Ferruginous Hawk does not have a sub-adult plumage and juvenile plumage is held for most of the first year. I continued to see many Lark Buntings on my way to Carrizo Picnic Area.
At the picnic area there was a college group from Missouri camped. I parked and walked the short trail in to the canyon and around the water. There I found Cliff Swallows, a small flock of Cedar Waxwings, Western Kingbird and a calling and visible Eastern Phoebe. I continued on to Cottonwood Canyon and encountered an American Kestrel on the way. As I entered Cottonwood Canyon I found another Cassin's Kingbird and stopped shortly into the first part of the canyon to walk and bird. Here I found a pair of nesting Ash-throated Flycatchers, an intermediate sized myiarchus flycatcher with grayish brown upper-parts, pale gray throat and breast and a new bird for the year. At first I found this bird by hearing the "prrrrt" call. I observed the two birds entering a nest site in a cottonwood and checked the tail carefully. On the rufous colored tail, the dark edges of the outer tail feathers wrapped around the base of the tail, a distinguishing field mark for Ash-throated Flycatcher. Nearby, I heard a towhee singing up the hill toward the canyon walls. It sounded like a Canyon Towhee which can be found here, but I could not find the singing bird after a thorough search from the roadside. I am not sure enough about the song of Canyon Towhee, so I did not count it. They are more common to the west and can be seen in Arizona quite easily. I checked carefully for Lewis's Woodpecker but did not find any, stopping frequently to look in the cottonwoods. I did find Ladder-backed Woodpecker as in Picture Canyon yesterday and the red-shafted subspecies of Northern Flicker here but not new birds for the year. As I was searching for Lewis's Woodpecker I found a silent, dark vested flycatcher perched on the top snap of a cottonwood. I studied this bird for a while and concluded that it was probably a Western Wood Pewee and not a migrant Olive-sided Flycatcher. The head and bill were too small for an Olive-sided Flycatcher. Eventually, I noticed a second flycatcher fly in with the first with the same field marks and then heard the distinctive descending "peeer" call of Western Wood Pewee, another new bird for the year. I continued driving slowly through the canyon after entering the private area and scanned the dead snags at the tops of the cottonwoods for Lewis's Woodpecker. No luck. It was not to be for this visit. I found this mammal which looks like a female or immature Big Horn Sheep feeding on the canyon walls. It is a Desert Big Horn Sheep, a subspecies of Big Horn Sheep.
I continued east on CR M to leave the area and head northwest back to the Denver area. I wanted to try for Greater Sage Grouse and Sharp-tailed Grouse north of Denver near Hayden. I stopped in Lamar to buy gas and get food and drink. It was about a 6.5 hour drive to Hayden and with an estimated arrival of about 9:30 pm. The roads are good and highway speeds are 65 on state roads and 75 on I-70. I drove to I-70 on US 287. I was on time for the scheduled arrival time when mother nature took over at about to 7:00 pm west of Denver on I-70 . There was a heavy thunder shower that turned to heavy snow as I headed up to higher elevations. The snow was starting to lay on the road. The weather channel had predicted a cold front moving through the area. I had needed to take the shorter route through the mountains, because it is more miles to drive around the mountains north to Fort Collins and then west to get to the Hayden area.. I did not believe that I had the time to take the longer route. I was quite tired and had started to have cold symptoms due to the lack of sleep during this trip, so I decided to cancel my plans to try for Greater Sage Grouse and Sharp-tailed Grouse on Sunday morning. I had left these two grouse for the end because in my previous experience, these grouse can be seen early in the morning near their breeding areas without visiting the lek in the spring. I was too tired and feeling under the weather too much to also fight a snow storm through the mountains at night. I turned around at the Loveland Pass exit and got a motel room in Georgetown. There are other birds to look for in the Denver area, which I had planned to do Sunday afternoon and evening after looking for grouse at sunrise. I also needed a good night of rest and sleep.
Lesser Prairie Chicken, Mountain Plover, Ferruginous Hawk, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Western Wood Pewee, and Mississippi Kite raise the total to 447.