Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Loveland Pass, Friday, May 17

Correction to May 15 Blog Entry:  Two interested readers, birding friend Dan Sanders from Columbus, OH and Mark Korducki of New Berlin, WI, sent me notes about the Gray Vireo photographed and reported in my blog entry for May 15.  The reported Gray Vireo at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is really a Plumbeous Vireo and not a Gray Vireo.  Plumbeous Vireo has a white eye-ring and spectacles as well as bold white wing bars which are easily seen in the photo included in my blog as well as in additional photos taken.  Gray Vireo does not have the white spectacles or bold white wing bars.    Something bothered me about my Gray Vireo identification, but at the time, I got preoccupied and did not double check as I had done with the gnatcatchers.  Dan and Mark are correct.  The reported Gray Vireo is really a Plumbeous Vireo as documented in my photos.  This blog entry corrects that mistaken identification.  I'll be more careful in the future before reporting. 

Loveland Pass:  On Friday, May 16, I arrived at Loveland Pass shortly after 6:00 am.  I was the first person to the parking lot.  It was beautiful in the crisp almost cold mountain air.  I had dressed with layers including long-johns just for this occasion.  I started scanning the eastern slope but without success, so then I scanned the western slopes, which were in better light in the morning.  Then I heard a cackling call from the eastern slope, surely a White-tailed Ptarmigan, but still could not find the bird or birds.  At the base of the eastern slope near the eastern continental divide sign frame, there is a now open gravel path uphill to the north and this trail is partially open part-way as it turns right up the mountain.  I decided to hike up as high as I could go on the gravel trail to get a better perspective to view all parts of the eastern slope.  From down near the eastern sign frame, some of the low points are not visible.  I made sure my car was locked but unfortunately forgot to take my camera with me not expecting what followed.  I got no more than 100 feet up the slope, when I heard a hoot or screech-like sound followed by clucking, and saw a white grouse-like bird flying downslope toward me.  The bird landed on the snow not more than 50 feet from me and continued making the same sounds.  It was a White-tailed Ptarmigan, all white including the all white tail except for some developing dark or brownish marks on the neck and a few on the head and a dark beady eye.  I was stunned that the bird came so close.  It behaved as if it were defending territory, and it probably was.   To the right, south and slightly downslope I heard another White-tailed Ptarmigan making the same sound.  And here I was again without my camera!  I quietly returned to my rental car for my camera and returned to the same spot.  However, the White-tailed Ptarmigan display was over for the morning.   Apparently, because I left, the bird responded as if its challenge was a success.  Intruder chased off!

I waited a while and heard another White-tailed Ptarmigan calling from the south slope and saw the bird fly in at distance and land on the snow, but this time much further away, at least  several hundred yards away.

The ptarmigan and I waited each other out.  The ptarmigan won the waiting challenge, but I got some distant photos, which are identifiable (See photo). 
I got to see the bird!  At about 7:00 am, a car drove up and parked.  A hiker started up the trail.  We chatted briefly.  He was going to try for the crest of Mt. Sniktau to see if he could make it still at his age!  I told him about why I was there and what had just occurred.  He told me that he had nearly stepped on three of them some time ago.  However, with the hikers arrival, I knew that my show was over and left Loveland Pass before other hikers appeared.  It is good that I was the first person up the pass to the parking lot.

I drove to southeastern Colorado to County Road M in Baca County to look for area specialty birds and to be in position for Lesser Prairie Chickens at Cimarron NWR near Elkhart, Kansas. There were reported to be a few chickens displaying at the two leks in Cimarron.  In 2009, I had seen 12-16 Lesser Prairie Chickens at Cimarron after seeing my lifer Dusky Grouse.  However, I looked for my records and information before this Colorado trip and could not find them.  I put them in a safe place, too safe to find easily!  I wasn't sure which lek I visited with success in 2009, but would probably visit the western one.  The western lek is slightly closer to Elkhart, Kansas, where I planned to spend the night.

I drove west on County Road M south of Springfield, CO, and eventually encountered a flock of  Lark Buntings, a new bird for the year in a mixed flock of males and females.  I continued west looking for other specialty birds including Long-billed Curlew, but without success.  There were more flocks of Lark Buntings as advertised and Horned Larks were abundant.  I decided to go to Picture Canyon by turning right on CR 18 instead of continuing straight on CR M to Cottonwood Canyon.  Picture Canyon has Native American rock art but fewer birds.  Cottonwood Canyon has more birds but is a longer drive, and there was not enough time to do the longer trip.  Picture Canyon is a reported good place to see Rufous-crowned Sparrow.  As I approached the last stretch of road to the Picnic Area for Picture Canyon, I saw Lark Sparrows and a small, light colored sparrow with possibly a streaked crown.  It may have been a Brewer's Sparrow, but I could not get that definitive look at it.  I parked at the Picnic Area and took my water bottle with me.  It was hot.  I had long before discarded my long-johns and layers needed before sunrise at cold Loveland Pass.   I took the short 4 mile trail along the east side of the canyon, because Birding Colorado, by Hugh Kingery, states that this is a good area to see Rufous-crowned Sparrows.   As advertised, there were Rock Wrens in the rocky walls of the canyon.   I continued along the east walls of the canyon to a spot with trees and some water filled marshy areas.  I found a Cassin's Kingbird here.  Cassin's Kingbird is similar to Western Kingbirds, of which I saw many on CR M on my way in to Picture Canyon.  Cassin's Kingbird has a sharply demarcated white throat bordered by gray that is darker than the gray breast and throat of a Western Kingbird.  This darker shade of gray is on the head, including face, crown and nape of the Cassin's Kingbird.  Cassin's kingbird does not have the white borders to the tail that are present on Western Kingbird.  Cassin's Kingbird is a new bird for the year.  I continued into the canyon, encountering mostly Lark Sparrows, several Red-winged Blackbirds at the wet area nearby to the Cassin's Kingbird and a Ladder-backed Woodpecker and finally a Bewick's Wren.  I continued for about a mile into the canyon, hearing a few interesting chip notes but finding nothing new.   I turned back and returned to the picnic area, and drove slowly out the entry road.  Along this entry or exit road, I found more Lark Sparrows and a beautiful Blue Grosbeak.   As I approached the start of the entry road to the picnic area I again encountered the light colored sparrow, which again appeared to be a Brewer's Sparrow, but again I could not get a definitive look.  I got out of the car and pursued this bird but could not get a good enough look to be sure of Brewer's Sparrow.  I continued back on CR 18 to CR M to go to Elkhart, KS for the night.  On my way back to CR M, I found Loggerhead Shrike and Swainson's Hawk, neither are new for the year.  I looked for Long-billed Curlew but did not find any.

When I reached highway 287 on CR M, I decided to stay on the main roads to get to Elkhart, KS.  It seemed to me that there should be a direct route across eastern Colorado from CR M to Elkhart, but I didn't know it then, but found out about it on Saturday.   I drove south to Boise City and then northeast to Elkhart, Kansas.  It was main paved road, not dirt, and I was sure that I would not get lost on a back country dirt road.  However, it was abut 64 miles to Elkhart this way.  There is a more direct way, I found out later.  Google maps does not always work for me in out of the way places.

I found a room at El Rancho Motel in Elkhart, KS and ate a late dinner at the restaurant next door, Jim-N-I's.  As I was finishing my dinner, two younger guys came in and sat at a nearby table.  I overheard their conversation and it was about birds they had seen and were looking for.  As I passed to pay my bill, I stopped to ask if they were birders.  They both answered "yes".  They were working on up-dating their year lists.  I told them about doing a Big Year, and we talked about Lesser Prairie Chickens.  One of them was a high school teacher, and the other is competing Masters Degree and had just finished exams.  The high school teacher advised that further east was better for Lesser Prairie Chickens, and he could send me to some spots.  I said that I had some information about limited reports at the western lek at Cimarron.  We parted ways.  I went to a nearby quick stop to pick up some breakfast things for very early morning.  Nothing would be open when I needed to leave for the lek.

White-tailed Ptarmigan, Lark Bunting and Cassin's Kingbird with the corrected identification to Plumbeous Vireo raises the total to 441.


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  2. Jay,

    If you swing back through Colorado on your big year, check out this site for the most extensive list of CO birding sites: http://coloradocountybirding.com/. The authors (Nathan Pieplow and Andrew Spencer) put a ton of time into the research and it is incredibly exhaustive. Includes directions and likely species for each site.

    Andy Boyce
    Missoula, MT