Post-Colorado Update

Its been quite a while since my last update (California). Certainly not a reflection of not having much to report on. In fact its hard for me to remember all of the places I’ve been and all the birds I’ve seen. There was a productive week in Arizona, a highly successful migration week in Texas, and a ten-day Colorado sojourn which I’ll talk about now. If I don’t skip to Colorado, I’ll never catch up.

But I’ll give a snapshot about today – 17 April (though I’m writing this ‘tomorrow’ [18th] from the boat at Dry Tortugas, Florida Keys). After getting back from Walden area in the mountains, unsuccessfully owling along the way to Denver airport – arriving 1:30AM, I managed to get to Delta check-in plenty early for my 9AM flight to Key West. But guess what? There’s a limit of one suitcase per traveller to Key West.

The good news was that occasional workmate and continuous pal Murray Scott joined me in Houston on 1 April for the above-mentioned big week on coastal Texas, whereafter we flew to Denver to commence our ambitious high-country mission. I’d been communicating Texas-based US birder and ABA board member Bill Sain since last year about meeting up during a so-called Colorado chicken-run. He and his cousin Sue drove up from Texas and got to the designated motel in Holly – a remarkable little town in the SE Colorado prairielands in time for a good night’s sleep before our pre-dawn rendezvous. Murray and I weren’t so lucky, getting in much later after our late arrival in Denver and the four hour drive to Holly. But we boarded the refitted yellow school bus at 4:30, and in a group of 13 or so birders, were driven by a veteran farmer and Lesser Prairie-chicken guide. As is would be the way two days later, a few hundred miles north, for Greater-prairie Chicken, we would sit quietly in a bus adjacent to known ‘lek’ (any area where game-birds congregate for springtime mating rituals) and await daybreak, and arrival of the pretentious males and seemingly disinterested females. At the Lesser Prairie-chicken lek, things were looking grim until well after sunrise, when finally, at quite a distance, we could see several males doing their odd dancing – tails up, chest balloons puffed to bursting, and little feet tap-tap-tapping. The experience with the much more abundant Greater Prairie chicken two mornings later was much more satisfying, in that there were at least forty birds, mostly males, that carried on with great pomp and dignity from pre-dawn until we’d had enough, two hours or so later. At this site we actually left the bus before first light and assembled in a converted trailer with an open front from ceiling halfway down to the floor. 24 of us sat on wooden benches and watched the show. At both leks Murray and I received a few ‘shooshes’ and sideways looks for wisecracking in whisper form that was supposedly putting the behaviour of the chooks at risk.

For the Greater Prairie-chicken mission out of Wray (another fantastic town, this one in the upper right corner of the State) we first had to attend a briefing by our guide – Wendy, from Colorado State Wildlife. Wendy is a conservation biologist who has worked with the Prairie Chickens and Sage Grouses for quite some time. That’s nice, but the more interesting fact is that Wendy is a dead ringer for Sandra Bullock. Murray talked her into posing for a photo-op behind steering wheel of the school bus, commemorating ‘her’ role in the breakout film in which she (Sandra) has to drive a booby-trapped bus through a major city, with the challenge that if the bus slows to below 50mph an enormous bomb will explode.

While out on the prairies Murray and I chased up a few leads and added some good birds to my year-list, the most important being Mountain Plover (remember my story about chasing Mountain Plovers (I mistakenly said Mountain Quail) way out in the boonies, based on an eBird report that was wrong – those birds, all 23 of them, were American Golden Plovers. Anway, Murray and I got up close and personal with several of the ‘real deal’ nomadic rarities. I’d left my camera at the motel, but Murray kindly made his camera available so I could ‘click’ a few rounds for my purposes.

After Holly in the SE corner of the state, then Wray in the NE, we headed west to the Pawnee Grasslands, where Robyn, Arnie and I had done some birding last September. We bumped into Bill and Sue, just as they got onto a small group of McCown’s Longspurs – a great bird, but not new to my year-list. I was after Chestnut-collared Longspurs, which sometimes mix in with the McCown’s. We also kept an eye out for Prairie Falcons and Ferruginous Hawks – these three being realistically the only species that would help my list. Although we managed to find upwards of a hundred McCown’s Longspurs in the critically important semi-natural grassland plains, we couldn’t manage to string any of these into Chestnut-collareds. But then we considered that there had been reports of Sharp-tailed Grouse in the northern part of the reserve, and since it was late afternoon and approaching twilight – a good time for grouse spotting, we let the GPS guide us to an area where most of the sightings had taken place. Bang! Two Sharpies out on a farm paddock (yeah, nature reserve is a loose term here). We only had brief views before they flew off, but long enough for a few photographs and high-fives. With encroaching nightfall we drove south to Denver, then west to a motel at the base of the Rockies in preparation for a big day of un-guided game-bird searches.

As we passed Idaho Springs on the way to Loveland Pass, the weather began to turn ugly, with winds and snow. Although Bill and Sue had initially planned to meet us up on the pass, the took the wise decision to go elsewhere for the day. But the two Aussies had a mission – find a White-tailed Ptarmigan without succumbing to frostbite, avalanches or pulmonary oedema. The pass is at 12ft elevation. By comparison, the Australian ski area of Thredbo is at 4478 ft and the highest peak on the continent – Mt Kosciusko is 7039ft. It was very cold, very windy, and very hard to not sink waist-deep in snow. But we persevered, and after an hour or so, after a couple of false-starts, I truly heard one, and the two of us ended up having killer views of this, my favourite bird for the year so far. Whew!

So with the Ptarmigan under our belts we coasted down through the ski-belt to Silverthorne, a ‘neighbourhood’ comprised mainly of spacious rental houses that are full throughout the ski-season – and one of the places where the Aussie Weigels reunite for a week or so every couple of years with the Yankee Weigels. Why Silverthorne for Murray and I? Because some of those mult-million dollar spreads maintain bird feeders year-round, providing the best and easiest way for birders to see all three Rosy Finch species: Grey-crowned, Brown-capped, and Black. Plus a few additional relative rarities such as Cassin’s Finch. So on Bill and Sue’s advice, following their visit to Silverthorne several hours earlier, we parked the car at the bottom of millionaires row, and walked up and down the streets, finding several areas where mixed flocks of birds were gobbling up birdseed. One of the best of these however was near the top of the hill, where a series of bird-feeders were well stocked on the side of the house, near the road at the end of a cul-de-sac. Two signs made it clear that though the feeders were strategically located in clear view, that birders were ‘not welcome’. Sure enough, no sooner had we read the signs than a gentleman, maybe best described as a walking grievance - just looking for a cause. A few choice words both ways and were continued our neighbourhood safari. But since all three Rosy-finch species were present in multiple flocks (though admittedly, Black Rosy-finches were a little bit tricky to find, we headed off to Gunnison, in preparation for the next morning’s search for Gunnison Sage Grouse. The location of the best-known lek is just a half hour out of Gunnison, but we still managed to get their a little late. This is a setup similar to the Greater Sage-grouse viewing structure, but owing to the popularity of this site, once the trailer is full (and it was), you are allowed to park your car in a designated position along the roadside adjacent to the trailer-ful of early-risers. It was dark when we arrived, and while figuring out how and where to position our car we nearly ran over a young female National Parks conservation biologist who was trying to quietly direct us. Oops. Double oops over the next half hour or so as the darkness slowly disappated, because one of us, I won’t say which one, kept brushing against various controls around the dashboard, with the result each time being that the exterior lights of the car went on. I’m sure the ‘shooshers’ in the other cars and in the trailer were having a field day. Thank Christ the horn didn’t go off, as it seemed to do so often in that vehicle if we made the slightest variance from the required routine for turning off/on the car and exiting/entering, or if keys aren’t where they are supposed to be.

This stakeout proved to be reminiscent of our first chook hunt – Lesser Prairie Chicken, where it was looking bad for the good guys, until eventually, at great distance, one or two birds could be seen. Using the scope, as with the LPC, I could see that the birds were males, and that they were doing their jigs – seemingly in solitary bliss. Nice birds all the same, and another great chicken adventure for Murray and I.

From the GSG lek we headed west of Gunnison to the Black Canyon North Rim of Gunnison National Park for an off-chance to see a real toughie of the Colorado chicken suite – Dusky Grouse.

Crikey! Time has gotten away from me. At this juncture, a week or so past the time I was writing above stuff about Colorado, Robyn and I have just got off our San Diego to Vancouver four day pelagic trip – and weathered my second shit-storm of US Customs challenge to my year-long visa. Poor Robyn had to sweat it out with me in the interrogation room. Good news is that I get to stay, bad news is I just about cried – again – and didn’t need the kick in the guts. Look, I’m going to write a rough and ready paragraph below to sort of bring you to speed – I just do hope that I get back to having time to write proper reports.

Since Colorado – which was a terrific time, with mostly ten out of ten results, its been a wild ride. But it wasn’t all wine and roses for Murray and I. We headed into a wild and crazy snow storm in the Rockies to tidy up a few final birds. The good news is we swerved and missed a Grizzley (I bet you don’t believe it was a Grizzley – but it was!) in nowheresville east of Steamboat Springs, but later that night, didn’t swerve quite so timely, and smashed into a Mule Deer. Lots of dramas ever since re insurance, but the car was driveable, and life goes on. Well, for us. Not the deer. We hit its hind quarters, which swung it around, so as to head-shmashed my door, and fling into oncoming traffic, a pickup truck, which ran over its head and neck. That was a good thing, as I don’t know how I was going to otherwise dispatch it. Busted up bits of plastic from my car, all around the scene of the crime, but most of the damage was confined to the front panel of the car – the bonnet didn’t have any obvious bending. That other car was one of the only cars dumb enough to be out on the roads that night – the timing was spooky. The deer appeared from nowhere, running up a steep mountainside to my right, and entering potential view really too late to miss. If I’d swerved, it would have been a head-on collision, so lets call it a better than worst-case outcome.

We spent a day too long in the mountains because of the deer episode, which had some unfortunate domino effects in the days to follow.

I get to the Denver Airport at 5AM, smashed-tired, after four hours’ sleep, and try to book into Delta for my flight to Key West, which was scheduled to arrive at 5PM – plenty early for the 7AM boarding of the MVV Spree – and my four day Dry Tortugas trip. But guess what? Key West has a short runway, and for some associated reason travellers are limited to one suitcase each. I was stunned. The Delta check-in people were adamant, and not very helpful. I suggested that they sell me a second seat – but that was too lateral. So they said there was a service in the airport to hold suitcases for a few days. That was wrong, and cost me nearly a half hour. Then they said I could post the suitcase somewhere via the post office. I got to the in-house post office, which was closed. Once again to the back of the line – no exceptions. I got to the same gal again, and she said, no worries, she’ll get me on my existing leg to Atlanta, and divert me then to Miami, so I could drive (four hours) to Key West. I’d still have gotten there at a reasonable time. I told her please hurry – as it was now just 45 minutes before scheduled departure. She said no problem, she’s already printed the bag tags, so the 45 minute rule wouldn’t be an issue. But she then said “oops!” We just missed the 45 minute cutoff and the computer won’t let me load your bags.” No apology, no heightened sense of urgency. Just “Ooops”. She explained that she had no additional suggestions, and that I could get on line and make alternate arrangements. I did! On another airline. I flew American Airlines (always the best) to Miami, with the view that I could get to the boat by 8PM. But that was just the start of the fun. I left Miami about an hour later than I’d hoped, and since I’d lost my sunglasses in the Colorado short-night debacle (leaving car with Murray, who could sleep in) and had a hell of a time driving into the settling sun. Google Maps reckoned the 4 hour drive from Miami International to Key West would take closer to six. I sweated the drive wondering why it was stop and go for what seemed like hours (because it was !^&%ing hours). Until I got to the southern tip of the state, just before the long string of Keys leading out from Key Largo to the final driveable island – Key West and could see massive smoke plumes ahead, with fire-fighting helicopters dropping water on a widespread blaze. I was getting pretty uptight by the time I got to the bypass and went the long way through Key Largo, and got a call from the guys on the boat wondering what the #$%^. I said I’d be there by 10, and they said they had to hold up the safety briefing til I arrived. Of course that made it five times worst, and when I finally found the boat docked at 10:30 I was at cracking point. Yeah, as often is the case, I started out as persona non-gratis, but sort of won a few over by the end of the trip. Especially after my photos converted a flyover Royal Tern into a hum-dinger of a young Red-billed Tropic-bird.

The legendary Fort Jefferson migrant trap was amazing – what an experience – lots and lots of Warblers, including tough-guy skulker Swainson’s. Saw most of what I needed at sea, including all-important Black Noddy (there are only two hanging out with hundreds of Browns – the same two presumably as were there last year. A bunch of Masked Boobies, but the Red-footed Booby that roosed there last year was a no-show.

Then another stuffup that cost me blood and birds: on returning to Key west, we got in a bit late at 6:15PM. The Key West airport, and my rental car, shut down at 6. I didn’ know that would happen. So whilst I went and got the first for US Cuban Vireo on Key West, I couldn’t drive to Miami, via the Antillean Nightjar spot, nor get the Thick-billed Vireo next morning that was well seen in Broward County. I would have then made it to California in time to see the Marsh Sandpiper and Little Stint, mega rarities, before getting to San Diego for the cruise with Robyn. Whilst I got the Thick-billed the next avo, I missed all chance for the two California rarities, which is a major setback.  I would have bumped into my California birding mates - Roger, Michael, Johnny and Matt - which makes me feel even sicker.  Briefly though, the cruise was great – saw the three rare petrels (Hawaiian, Murphy’s, Cooks), and the four Storm-petrels, and good list of Alcids, Phalaropes, terns and gulls (e.g. Sabine’s = last of the black-head types for my list).

I’m through speed-typing and will leave it at that. I know a lot of you are wondering if I’ve died or something, so better a half-baked report than nothing. Cheers all.

Couple of images - Greater Prairie Chicken, Ptarmigan (best bird of the year, I reckon!), Dusky Grouse (saw all possible 7 chook species in Colorado - kaching!). I’ll try to put some images off my iPhone below those shots - from travels. OK, I did it. You have Sandra Bullock in her career starting role as the school bus driver (in this case to a chook lek), and Civil War era Fort Jefferson, way out on the tip of the Keys - migrant trap most famous. Cheers all.