Friday, June 20, 2014

June 19 (Day 170) - The great grouse hunt continues.....

After the hard day I had yesterday, I decided to get right back after the Gunnison sage-grouse today. I may need to vent about tough days once in a while, but I can promise that I'll always be ready to get back after it the next day. In this vein, I decided to return to the exact spot where I missed the grouse yesterday. The habitat looked so good that I thought it was worth another shot. It would be ~33 miles of backtracking, but being that I did not have a ton of information on anything further along my route, it made the most sense to make to a morning out of the endeavor. The ride back to the spot was not a big deal since I knew what to expect this time around. I also left half of my stuff at the Gunnison Lakeside Resort. They were very friendly, and they were nice enough to keep an eye on my unneeded panniers. Here is a shot of the lake where the resort is located and along which I biked both yesterday and today.

Another 69 miles for the count!

The birding this morning was markedly better than yesterday afternoon. I found numerous Brewer's and Vesper sparrows, and I probably observed 5-6 Sage thrashers. The constant chatter of meadowlarks and magpies kept the air alive with sound, and the warm sun today was a welcomed contrast to the ominous clouds that hung over the same space just 14 hours prior. I did not have even a whiff of a Sage-grouse, but it was a beautiful morning to be out birding!

View from the plateau/mesa top this morning

A shot of yesterday's scary clouds. I did all my 
grouse hunting in that thin green strip at the 
bottom of the gulley. 

The view from inside the green strip today. 
Grouse and their newly hatched chicks come 
to these more lush areas to feed on insects.

 A young magpie from this morning - 
his tail isn't fully grown in yet!

Close-up of same very approachable bird from above

It was 2pm by the time I picked up the rest of my stuff and headed into Gunnison proper. I had actually been put in touch with some fold at the the Gunnison Division of Wildlife (GDW). I had set up a meeting with them at 4:30 to discuss possible grouse finding strategies. While waiting for this meeding, I stopped at the Neversink rest area along highway 50. Here I had a possible Willow flycatcher. I needed a second look at it, but I was not able to get one before I had to leave for my meeting. I am hoping to return to this spot just 4 miles from town sometime tomorrow to refine this bird. Willow flycatchers have been eBirded regularly from this spot, so if the bird I saw was a Willow, I am sure it will be around tomorrow. I plan to check it out in between bouts of grouse hunting.

I met with Nathan Seward of the GDW and of the Colorado Parks and Wildlife. He had invited a reporter friend, Will, to join us. We chatted about my trip, the conservation status of the Gunnison sage-grouse, and about where I might go to find the birds. The Gunnison sage-grouse was formerly considered a subspecies of the Greater sage-grouse, a physically larger (40%) and more widespread western species. While both of these species have seen steep declines in recent years, the Gunnison decline is the more alarming since the population is so much smaller in relative numbers. Their decline in the the last 40 years has been due mainly to development and habitat fragmentation (aka "progress"). Briefly, and I hope I have these numbers approximately correct, there are thought to be around 5,000 of the birds total. 80-85% of them are apparently in the greater Gunnison area. These birds are split between public and private lands, and from what Nathan and Will conveyed to me, it sounds as though local ranchers have been fairly willing to help in the conservation of these now very rare birds. Actually, someone posted this article on my Facebook page today! A victory for the grouse!

Unfortunately, not everyone is as cooperative as the Gunnison locals. In some places, private landowners take it upon themselves just to shoot any potentially threatened animals on their properties. They do this to avoid dealing with any consequences stemming from conservation of these species in the future. The Gunnison ranchers realize that if the Sage-grouse declines to a point where it becomes listed as an endangered species, it will mean a royal headache for them since they won't be able to gaze their cattle on the public lands that they now share with the grouse. They have a vested interest in keeping the population healthy. 

Nathan gave me some really good leads on the birds. One lead that he gave me was CR38 south of town. Several other birders had also recommended this area, so when we finished talking at 5:30, I grabbed some food and immediately began the ~12 miles ride to the spot. My host for the night actually lived right of of CR38, so I was able to drop most of my stuff at her house en route. The habitat into which I ventured tonight was exactly the same at that which I had birded this morning. However, the lush strip ran parallel to the very quiet dirt road. This meant I could bird it from the bike. The strip that I birded this morning was perpendicular to the road; This meant I had to ditch the bike in a bush and walk up and down the strip to search for birds. I slowly worked my way up the road, looking and listening for grouse activity. I traversed the stretch that Nathan said would be the most productive. Nothing. The road was in great shape, and it actually got quieter as I climbed. BY this I mean the road composition changed and I noticed that my tires were making less and less noise as they rolled along. I decided to keep going since I felt like the quiet ride would let me hear birds more easily. I also figured it would let me sneak up on birds before they heard me and ran away.

Before I realized it, BANG!!! Several grouse flushed out of a roadside ditch just 25 feet in front of me. For those who have not heard a grouse flush before it is hella (very) loud and normally scares the pants off of anyone not ready for it. These birds surprised the hell of out me. I almost fell off the bike. I think I counted 4 birds, and I think there were some chicks as well, but to be honest it all happened so fast that I am not 100% sure of the numbers. I did see the black bellies that are indicative of this species. All the birds disappeared over a rise in 2 seconds except for a lone female who started running up the road. I jumped off the bike, fished out the camera, and successfully documented species #482 for the year. This was certainly one of the most exciting and challenging finds of the year. I found these birds at 8pm or so after essentially looking for the previous 36 hours (well, not while I was sleeping). It was an incredible satisfying find, and I really enjoyed the slow coast down the slope as the sun slowly and finally disappeared over the sage covered hills to my west. On the ride back down I also observed 3 Pronghorn (antelope) and 2 Great horned owls.

Gunnison sage-grouse!!!

What it felt like to find this bird!

It was an amazing ending to two days of non-stop grouse hunting. The next 4-5 days of the trip will be focused on getting up above tree line to find Brown-capped rosy-finch and White-tailed ptarmigan. I will almost certainly find Clark's nutcracker as I climb up to get these species. So, those are the next 3 species I will hopefully track down. I will also return to the Willow flycatcher spot tomorrow morning, but it won't be between bouts of grouse hunting! I had to lie to you to keep you guessing a bit!

Up, up, up, up, to 13,000 feet!


  1. Great find. I have found Greater Sage Grouse this way in the Grand Tetons including a hen w chicks mid July this year. Antelope Flats early in the AM is good. Hope you make it up that way.

  2. Edit. That was last July. Not birding in the future yet.

  3. Isn't it amazing how the challenges and "downs" of life make the successes and "ups" all that much richer, sweeter, and higher? 18 more to 500! Lots of people are rooting for you from our respective perches throughout the country.

  4. Love the blog. Great description of the noise flushing grouse make. The Carlton dance video is too perfect! Be safe.

  5. I'm almost tempted to ask you for a video of you doing the Carlton in exchange for a donation....
    Congrats on that grouse.