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Old Tuesday 16th August 2011, 17:04   #1
Mysticete
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Mysticete's Mad dash Summer 2011: Gunnison

This weekend I engaged in yet another insane short birding trip. I always refer to these trips as mad dashes because the almost always involve insane amounts of driving and punctuated by long monontonous stake outs. The last couple have been short trips to Texas in Spring, tracking down resident birds and strays for Mexico. This trip was a bit different.

This trip originally came about because I had done relatively little birding stateside this summer, largely because of a work schedule that pretty much forbid any sort of trip of a day or more. Also, I hadn't managed any new ABA area birds since May, and I didn't even have the luxury of getting an armchair tick from this years AOU update.

Having a weekend free (unusual for this summer), I decided to hit up the road and correct the above problems. I decided on doing the Gunnison area of Colorado, for several reasons:

1. It was far enough off the beaten track that I felt I wouldn't be swamped with tourists (see Rocky Mountain National Park) on a weekend

2. The area seemed small enough that I could realistically cover it in a couple of days, unlike Yellowstone or the Black Hills. I had at most only 3 days I could afford to take off between work and a advisor meeting on Monday.

3. Despite living in SE Wyoming, one of my greatest weaknesses for the ABA are the grouses. Previously, I have only seen Ruffed, Sharp-tailed, Greater Sage, and Sooty, along with both arctic dwelling Ptarmigan. Colorado is the undisputed Grouse capital of the US, with 8 species total (plus several introduced species gamebirds present or in adjacent states). The Gunnison area seemed like a good option. It is home to one of the most endangered birds in North America, the range-restricted Gunnison Sage Grouse. Most birders see this bird in spring on the lek, but recently CR 38 S has become a reliable spot in late summer for this species. Additionally, Black Canyon of the Gunnison was nearby, which offers perhaps the best and most reliable spot in the states for Dusky Grouse (and remote odds for Chukar and Northern Pygmy Owl). Beyond these species, I would also have a chance at Gunnison Prairie dog, and perhaps a few other mammals. Gunnison thus seemed a good bet.

I'll continue in the next post on day 1 of the trip.


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Old Wednesday 17th August 2011, 08:37   #2
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Look forward to reading this. Interesting choice of destination - have Jos and Andrew (and their recent reports) started a whole new birding industry out west?!

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Old Wednesday 17th August 2011, 18:50   #3
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Well...I LIVE in the mountain west, so it's hardly starting a new birding industry :P

Anyway, on Friday the 12th I headed down to Gunnison. My game plan today was to mostly drive, stopping at Curecanti National Recreation Area for Gunnison Prairie Dog and perhaps some waterbirds, then heading to Black Canyon. This was a long long drive. Worse, Googlemaps had decided that taking 285 south would be the wisest course of action. This necessitated navigating 3 different mountain pass areas in a vehicle which really doesn't like mountains (The condition of the road was fine, it was the 7% or more grade and winding roads my car didn't like)

I eventually drove through Gunnison and was soon at Curecanti, which proved to be huge. You would probably need a whole day to bird this place accurately. The suggested spot good for shorebirds not only was lacking shorebirds, but the high waterlevel also mean it lacked shore!

Driving through the area, I started to worry. Where were all the roadside prairie dog towns. Gunnison P-dogs have smaller and less cohesive towns, but they should be still visible. The habitat was also not the greatest, being dominated by sage, while Gunnison P-dogs prefer more meadow like environments.

I left Curecanti with no Gunnison Prairie Dogs, and a real worry I would miss this species. Thankfully, after crossing into Montrose County, a look to the side while driving almost 60 reveals....GUNNISON PRAIRIE DOGS.

Thankfully a wide shoulder and little traffic enabled me to screech to a halt.

I was able to get a few looks, but the dogs were on a bank overlooking the road, and my stop soon sent all but one down there holes. and the one which didn't immediately bolt only had the top of it's head visible!

a 15 minute wait didn't convince the dogs to venture forth, and I finally headed on my way. I got into Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park at about 4 pm, and never did see any other prairie dogs on my trip.

I had never really been to the park before, and had only a vague idea of the habitat, which was mostly dominated by Gambel oak scrub that was about head height at most. I figured it would be hot, but wasn't expecting an almost complete absence of shade (anywhere).

First stop on visiting the park was the visitor center, to get the latest intell. I asked about Chukar and Dusky Grouse. I was told Dusky grouse were often seen on East portal road as well as the Oak Flats trail. I received blank looks and was asked what a Chukar was, not the best sign for this bird. In all honesty, according to the Colorado birdfinding guide, the best spot for Chukar were the campgrounds down by the river, the campgrounds that required a half day hike and special permit. Something I didn't have time for on brief visit.

Next stop was camp. Bird activity other than the ubiquitous Green-tailed Towhee was pretty slight. I was pleased to see Chipmunks were quite common however, and had good looks at both the widespread Least Chipmunk and the more restricted Colorado, the latter of which I had only seen once and poor views at that. I also had brief looks at a probable Juniper Titmouse.

I was tired and it was hot as hell. My main objective was to find a quiet place to laze the day away and wait for more comfortable birding temperatures. East Portal road, the only car navigable access to the River, seemed a good idea. I head down this very steep and winding road (arrgh...not again!).

Not many birds were moving however. The area by the river had my only Song Sparrows of the trip, as well as the first American Robin. I tried for dipper and largely failed...the water level along this stretch seemed a tad high for this species. I also added Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel and Rock Squirrel to the trip list. Mostly I ate dinner (PB&J...the dinner of kings) and read from the Zombie horror anthology I brought along (I am a man of many nerdy habits).

About 6 I decided I should return to camp. Nothing much new showed up on my long winding drive...but what should appear sitting in the road at the top...
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Old Thursday 18th August 2011, 22:55   #4
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. . . Carmen Electra with a non-stick sandwich toaster?

. . . Zombie Sage Grouse?

. . . Jos Stratford's mysteriously unindentified "friend"?

. . . tune in next post for another exciting episode of "Grouse-hunting zombie birder in Gunnison" (cue portentious music, thunder and lightning, manic laughter and decomposing fingers covering the camera lens) . . .

Cheers
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Old Friday 19th August 2011, 01:54   #5
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Day 1 continued...

Was hoping to upload some pictures...but they are too big...hhhmm

Anyway, to continue from the previous...

Towards the top of the East Portal road I was startled to find two Dusky Grouse sitting in the road, calm as could be.

Wow, this was way too easy.

They were near a convenient turnout (or should I say someone's private drive), so I quickly pulled over and was able to get amazing looks at the birds. The grouse obviously wanted to cross the road (I don't know the punchline to this joke...), but not enough to risk getting hit by the occasional car. The birds were utterly fearless of me however...I was slowly able to walk within 15 feet of the bird, only for one of them to decided to close the distant and at one point get within five feet of me before veering off into the vegetation.

Finally the grouse disappeared into the low brush near the road. Heading back to my car I noticed an odd shape resting in the shade of my car's tire. After some wrangling I fetched out a small snake. This caused some confusion; it looked rather like a Garter Snake but the dry upland habitats didn't seem right. I later did ID it as a Western Terrestrial Garter Snake, not a lifer unfortunately.

The rest of the drive back to the camp was fairly uneventful. With Dusky Grouse in the bag I decided to get up early and hit the trails, and didn't bother with the other possible stakeout spots. I hit the hay early, although sleep was rather poor as I soon discovered my campsite had a slight incline, causing me to slide into the wall of the tent.
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Old Friday 19th August 2011, 05:44   #6
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Hope you manage to find a way to shrink your pix - iPhoto and Preview have this function if you are a mac user, but no idea about PC.

Cheers
Mike
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Old Friday 19th August 2011, 14:11   #7
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Quote:
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Hope you manage to find a way to shrink your pix - iPhoto and Preview have this function if you are a mac user, but no idea about PC.

Cheers
Mike
Microsoft Picture Editor is one of the default photo editors in Windows, it's what I usually use to resize my photos to upload here.

Also a program called Gimp is available for free (I believe) download and works with Windows or Linux. It's my husband's preferred photo editing software.
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Old Friday 19th August 2011, 14:15   #8
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Mysticete View Post
Towards the top of the East Portal road I was startled to find two Dusky Grouse sitting in the road, calm as could be.

Wow, this was way too easy.
Yes, way too easy! I spent many hours searching for this darn grouse in Colorado this summer... unsuccessfully. I might have included the Gunnison area in my itinerary if I had thought the sage-grouse was reasonably possible in mid-summer. But then again my luck with grouse is generally poor (although I've redeemed myself a bit with 4 new species this year).

Congrats on the Dusky!
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Old Friday 19th August 2011, 15:49   #9
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My understanding is that Black Canyon of the Gunnison is the easiest place anywhere for the grouse, and actually they should be more difficult at the time of year I saw them. The campground hosts mentioned swarms of birders visiting in May when the male grouse are doing their displays on PICNIC TABLES.
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Old Friday 19th August 2011, 17:56   #10
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I spent many hours searching for this darn grouse in Colorado this summer... unsuccessfully.
This darn grouse strutted his stuff a month back, he might have grown up a bit since if you want to go look for him
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Old Friday 19th August 2011, 21:04   #11
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This darn grouse strutted his stuff a month back, he might have grown up a bit since if you want to go look for him
Arrgh!! I'll just content myself with memories of Cape Porcupine...
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Old Friday 19th August 2011, 21:04   #12
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The campground hosts mentioned swarms of birders visiting in May when the male grouse are doing their displays on PICNIC TABLES.
Note to self... return to Colorado next May...
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Old Sunday 21st August 2011, 16:58   #13
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back to the report

My plan for day 2, with the Grouse of the way, was fairly straightforward; Take the South Rim trail (Gambel Oak scrub habitat) to the Oak Flats trail (which turned out to have a mix of habitats...see below) and take the upland trail back to camp.

I woke up at first light to start my walk. The South Rim trail gets it's name from skirting the canyon, and offers excellent views Birding was rather thin on the ground, but did include some choice species. Common birds seen here included Bushtit (interior form), Black-throated Gray Warbler, Warbling vireo, Vesper Sparrow, and Green-tailed Towhee. However, quite a few times I was greeted with silence and no movement. As the day warmed up, White-throated Swifts became common hawking over the canyon, however despite my efforts I was unable to pull out a Black Swift, a rare but possible bird here. Woodhouse's Scrub Jay was also present, although not as common as I would have expected.

Birding was much more enjoyable on the Oak Flats trail. Despite the name, this trail actually goes down into the canyon via a series of switchbacks. The habitat is much more varied here, with stands of Aspen and stands of coniferous trees hugging the canyon wall. My first new bird of the trail was Lazuli Bunting, a brilliant male near the start of the trail. Ascending into the canyon proper, a grove of aspen provided a cornucopia of birds. Standing in this area for maybe 20 minutes added Western Tanager, Chipping Sparrow, Spotted Towhee, Williamson's Sapsucker, Brown Creeper, Western Wood-Pewee, and the best birds of the morning, a pair of early migrant Townsend's Warbler. Continuing on, birding became more hit and miss as the morning heated up. A patch of Coniferous trees added Mountain Chickadee and Red-breasted Nuthatch. Some shady shrubbery added House Wren and excellent looks at the shy MacGillivray's Warbler. Shortly before arriving back at the top, the last new bird of the trail appeared, a showy Olive-sided Flycatcher.

I then took the upland trail. By this time the canyon was hot and birds had largely dried up. I decided heading back to the campsite via the South Rim trail would be a smarter idea. No new birds on the way back, but it was now warm enough for herps to be active, with Sagebrush Lizards and what I later identified as a probable Smooth Green Snake, which I thought would not be expected in this habitat but apparently is often encountered.

A short trip out of the park for some caffeine commenced (the park didn't really have any sort of concessions at all in the park, rather annoying). It was blazing hot by the time I returned, so I hung out at the visitor's center for awhile and watched the canyon for birds of prey. This resulted in adding Clark's Nutcracker, Tree Swallow, Common Raven, Turkey Vulture, Cooper's Hawk, and Red-tailed Hawk to the day list. Eventually I continued on, this time trying the Rim drive. not many birds encountered. Eventually I reached the end of the drive and the Warner Point picnic area. This shady area was a good place to wait for cooler temperature, and added several new birds in the process, including Northern Flicker and tame Steller's Jay. A flock of Woodhouse's Scrub-Jay also frequently appeared. It was interesting watching the dynamics between the two species. Despite being smaller, the Scrub-Jays dominated the Steller's whenever they appeared. Something I didn't expect, and in fact this was probably the first time I ever observed two different jay species interacting with one another.

As afternoon ended I took the hike out to Warner Point. Activity was low, but I did observe nutcrackers, more rock Squirrels...and not much else. Part of the issue was the mother and son who decided RUNNING was the most appropriate way of experiencing the Warner Point Nature Trail. Because nothing helps out with wildlife observation than loud people running around.

The end of the trail gave good views of the canyon, and I used the opportunity to get the required sunset Canyon shots. I then headed back.

What should I find, not far from the parking lot? Yes, another pair of Dusky Grouse, which again allowed close approach. I was able to point them out to several tourists who appreciated the gesture. The last bird was a fledgling Hermit Thrush, scampering in the parking lot as dusk fell.

The game plan was now to drive back, with the hope of picking up some mammals or herps on the road at night. Traffic was fairly slow, facilitating stop and go animal observation. The most common mammal seen was Deer Mouse, of the Rocky Mountain/Prairie form. Identification of any of the small rodents was difficult, as they were generally seen in the headlights as they darted across the road. another Western Terrestrial Garter Snake was the only herp.

Best observation of the night was a Northern Grasshopper Mouse, easily identifiable by it's short tail, running across the road. This was a lifer I had always wanted to see, an unusual little hypercarnivorous mouse (whose diet includes spiders, scorpions, and even other mice) which is know to howl at the moon!

I then got to camp and headed for bed, getting a pretty good rest. Tomorrow would be my attempt at the sage grouse...
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Old Monday 22nd August 2011, 08:54   #14
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Woodhouse's Scrub Jay was also present, although not as common as I would have expected...
...
Ta, saw this last month, so an armchair tick. How long has this been separated from the California?
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Old Monday 22nd August 2011, 14:35   #15
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IOC split this species last year. A proposal sent to the AOU at around the same time didn't pass, although it was close. So it is currently not recognized by either Clements or ABA/AOU
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Old Tuesday 6th September 2011, 00:21   #16
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Time to wrap this up!

My last morning saw me waking up before dawn to pack up my camp and head the hour or so to Gunnison. At the western edge of town, is County road 38, which in recent years has become a popular destination to try for Gunnison Sage Grouse in Summer. Most birders go after this bird at the Waunita Springs Lek in Spring, but there are benefits to pursuing the bird in summer, including better weather and not having to worry about stressing out breeding birds. At first light, in late summer, the grouse descend from the surrounding sagebrush to roadside ditches for water.

I drove for several miles, as the pavement gave way to a good gravel road. Bird diversity was rather low, but included Brewer's Sparrow, Sage Thrasher, and many Mountain Bluebirds. After traveling quite a distance, I finally stumbled upon a small group crossing the road, giving very brief looks. Gunnison Sage Grouse look very similar to the more widespread Greater, however the size difference is quite apparent, with the Gunnison being smaller. Having already spent about an hour driving, I decided to back track and hope I would run into another group on the way out. I almost failed, but shortly after reaching the pavement, what did I find. A group of Gunnison Sage Grouse hanging out in a person's driveway! This group proved quite cooperative and I had excellent looks for over 15 minutes.

That pretty much wraps up my Gunnison trip. Overall a great success. Now I just need to repeat this luck with the Prairie Chickens in spring!
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