Sunday, July 6, 2014

July 3, 4 and 5 (Days 184, 185 and 186) - UBER blog w/ Pawnee recap!

As per usual, Sonia did a fantastic job on the blog in my absence. I particularly liked the pirate-laced commentary at the end. There was indeed lots of "booty" to be found on the grasslands of Pawnee these last few days. Without further ado, I will recap a busy 2 days out on the prairie!

On Thursday, July 3, I rode the ~42 miles from Ft. Collins to the Crow Valley Recreation Area and Campground. Here I met Chris Rurik of Brown-capped rosy-finch fame from last week. We were joined by Lori Potter and her husband Eric Perryman. All 3 of these folks had brought bikes with them, and the four of us soon set off for an afternoon of bike-birding. As we pulled out Chris commented that we looked like the peloton from the Tour de France! It was a lot of fun birding with a group of people on bikes. This was the first time this year I have been joined by multiple people on bikes at the same time. We also joined a bit later by David Wade in his car. This worked out really well as David was able to reach and scout a few spots that we would have had trouble reaching on bikes. The five of us spent the afternoon checking a couple of spots that were rumored to hold McCown's longspurs, Chestnut-collared longspurs, or Mountain plovers. On this particular day, we were able to find 2-3 female McCown's longspurs (#493); The other sought species remained notably elusive. We did see hundreds of Lark buntings and Horned larks, and we had a handful of grasshopper sparrows as well. It was a very nice day out. The five of us all camped at Crow Valley that night. We spent the evening swapping bird and life stories. I crashed very early as I was totally exhausted after a long day of riding. It is worth noting that all riding done in and around Pawnee is on dirt roads.

80 miles on 7/3

Lori, Eric, Chris the Giant

The Peloton in action!

July 4th turned out to be the tale of two days. The morning was again spent with David, Chris, Lori, and Eric. On this day we spent the entire morning on the Pawnee Grasslands Birding Loop. We leisurely cruised around the prairie diligently scanning for the two species we missed yesterday, Chestnut-collared longspur and Mountain plover. Bird activity came and went, and there were some stretches that were straight devoid of birdlife. It is really amazing that in a seemingly homogenous habitat that there can be such localized pockets of bird activity. We found one such pocket of Longspur activity on the backside of the auto loop. Here, numerous male McCown's were making display flights. I have seen this species on my 2 previous trips to Pawnee, but today's views were just outstanding. Here is a male taking off to start his flight!

Male McCown's longspur

A bit beyond this area, David spotted bird in the road that looked suspiciously like a female Chestnut-collared longspur. We all got a quick but inconclusive look at the bird before it flew off. We went over a swale, and I spotted a bird that looked like a(nother?) female Chestnut-collared. We all pursued this bird onto the prairie on foot where Chris spotted a male Chestnut-collared singing from a very low bush (#494). It was soon joined by the presumed female that David and I had suspected. We had decent looks at this beautiful little bird as he belted out song for us! It was a great find for the morning. It was also a great display of teamwork! 

Male Chestnut-collared longspur

Horned toad attack! 

We spent the rest of the morning looking for the plover without success. We did have very nice views of several Burrowing owls and only my second Prairie falcon of the year. We returned to camp and had a nice lunch. At this time, this first wave of assistance had to take off. I spent the next 2 hours catching up on sleep in the shade before the second help wave in the form of Bill Schmoker appeared.   Bill and I spent the afternoon birding separately but stayed in close contact in case either one of us stumbled onto a Mountain plover. Some gnarly weather moved in around 4pm, but I was determined to bird on. I knew I could probably find plover on the Santa Cruz flats in Arizona in November should I miss it here, but I really wanted to take care of plover business today.

Pawnee thunder - I actually really like this iPhone 
snap for some reason.....

As 6pm approached, I had not had a whiff of a plover. Mountain plovers like fields with a mix of very short grass and bare ground. The problem is that this winter was an incredibly wet one in these parts, and as a result the grasses are much fuller this year than others. This means there is less plover habitat this year than others at Pawnee. I started to head back to camp for dinner. I reached an intersection about 3 miles from the paved road. Instead of heading directly to the paved road, I decided to take a detour onto a less-than-outstanding dirt road and take my chances with it. Just as this road was about to rejoin another paved road where my revised birding loop would end, I spotted what I thought was the best plover field I had seen all day. BOOM!!! Not 20 seconds into scanning it I spotted a very distant Mountain plover, then another, and another (#495). By the time I had walked into and scanned the field further, I was able to find 4 of the well-camouflaged little shorebirds. I had worked all day to find this bird and right at the end my hard work and diligence had been rewarded. 

The perfect plover field!

One thing I have learned this year is that you have to be completely relentless when you are in suitable habitat for a particular sought species. Many birds like mountain plover, ptarmigan, and Gunnison sage-grouse have such specific habitat requirements that it is imperative to bird like there is no tomorrow once you reach the proper habitat. I have not been doing much "general birding" recently. Instead, I have been acutely focused on getting into the best habitat for specific species. Most of these species are impossible to see in anything other than perfect habitat, so when you reach this habitat you have to bird it sun up to sun down. 

Bill and I rendezvoused back at camp where I shared the news with him. He was stoked for me. He then single handedly cranked out a dinner that was worthy of the huge appetite that I had worked up on the big plover hunt. We spent a fair amount of time talking to 2 birders camping next to us, Bruce and Cathy Bosley. I again crashed fairly early. Needless to say I slept like a rock. 

Western loop (left) in morning,
eastern loop (right) in afternoon,
62 miles total - most on dirt roads

Bill, Bruce

After breakfast today I escorted Bill, Bruce, and Cathy back to the plover field where we immediately found the birds. It was great to share these bird with others since others have shared so many birds with me this year. Bill, who is a very accomplished photographer, was kind enough to take some shots of me as I pedaled about this morning. 

The rest of the day was relatively uneventful as I made my way east to Sterling CO. Wait, what the hell am I doing heading east? Well, I am not 100% sure. I have a bit of time in hand before my next scheduled visit from Sonia, so I am going to take a crack at Greater prairie-chicken near Wray, CO. The exact way this is all going to unfold I am not sure yet. Being that I have been without internet access for the last two days, I have not had a chance to fully think this plan through. I just decided to go for it this morning. I will sort out the logistics tonight and on the fly tomorrow. I figure that this detour will also give me a bit more time to look for Ferruginous hawk and Ring-necked pheasant. It may also give me a very outside chance at Sharp-tailed grouse. The point is that I am going to kind of play around for 4-5 days just to see what I can turn up while Queen Sonia makes her way west. Most of these potentially interesting birds will be seen on the move, so by covering a lot of ground, perhaps I can find a few of them. There is also something in me that wants to see at least a part of the plains on this trip. I will certainly be able to do this in the next few days in Eastern Colorado and Western Nebraska! Who knows how this will go from a bird standpoint, but I think I will enjoy it however it all shakes out.

The view for most of today

 65 more miles today

I had two fun run-ins with roadside Swainson's hawks today. The first was on a nest with young and the second was eating a prairie dog! Yum!


  1. Yessss. Glad you got that elusive plover, hanging out in the tackiest habitat. Way to go!

  2. Yes! Bring on the prairie-chicken hunt!

  3. As I was driving west on I-80 today, east of Cheyenne, I was thinking about you and your exploits. The grasslands are beautiful, but it sure was hot! Take care, stay hydrated, and good luck on the chickens.

  4. Those photos that Bill took... one of them should totally be your new blog cover photo. Great work on perspectives from him.

  5. i hoped enjoyed your trip.good photos.still searching for birds

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