Social distancing: you do it it town,
why not do it while on the road?

In June I took a trip to Colorado. I packed my tent and went off to be even more alone in a place with different birds. I birded three distinct parts of the state: the northeastern grasslands, the central Front Ranges and foothills, and the western land of desert canyons. All had great things in store for me.

My first stop was the northeastern corner of the state, the main attraction being Pawnee National Grassland. It’s definitely a car birding destination. While I did take a hike at the Pawnee Buttes (reminiscent to the Badlands of South Dakota), most of my birding was done along gravel roads. Here I found Lark Buntings, a few Thick-billed Longspurs, two Burrowing Owls, and enough Horned Larks and Western Meadowlarks to last a lifetime. Pawnee felt like a dream. Endless shortgrass with the occasional plains bird.

Lark Buntings, male (left) and female
Burrowing Owl
Western Kingbird

Central Colorado is more in line with what most Americans picture when they think of the state. I birded the foothills cities (Fort Collins and western Boulder proved to be nice) as well as the Front Ranges. My first urban stop was at the wooded area of the Dixon Reservoir. I saw some fascinating western birds. In particular I had good looks at a Lesser Goldfinch and a Western Wood-Pewee, both lifers.

Western Wood-Pewee
Yellow-breasted Chat

Once I got up into the foothills, there was a slightly different set of birds. While hiking uphill of Boulder, I found some old friends like Western Tanager, Pygmy Nuthatch, and Plumbeous Vireo.

Spotted Towhee- this one was in the foothills, but they’re fairly common across the state.

The mountains were a challenge for me. I spent a lot of that time fighting elevation sickness, even below the tree line. I swear I increased my altitude just as gradually as on my previous trip to the state. Oh well. Through the headache and nausea I still saw some birds. The biggest shock to me was seeing Wilson’s Warblers in the upper montane. Apparently they breed there. Never knew that.

Getting to western Colorado was a huge relief to my ailing body. As I made my way to the red rocks and canyons, my stomach settled and my head breathed a sigh of relief. There were some new birds out there too: Black-throated Gray Warblers and Juniper Titmice up high, and Black-throated Sparrows, Ash-throated Flycatchers, and Rock Wrens on the canyon floor. The stars of the canyon rim were White-throated Swifts, which flew by at eye level- one second a few feet above the overlook, the next at a dizzying height above the desert hundreds of feet below me.

What I like about birding is that oftentimes I feel like I have insider knowledge to something outsiders would consider a mundane event. The best example of this from my trip would be what happened on a sunny afternoon in the pinyon scrublands. I was sitting at my site, probably reading or something dorky like that (probably nonfiction even, jeez), when I heard a noise I’d never heard before. In the birding world, especially in another part of the country, that can mean very good news. I headed toward the source of the noise, anxious to see what it was.

It was a flock of Pinyon Jays, illusive and declining corvids of the interior west. Seeing them was like a religious experience, minus the “like.” There were 5 or 6. It was hard to get an exact count because they were highly active, moving about the campground. While I was busy snapping pics and just being shocked at being able to have the experience, all the other campers were just sitting at their picnic tables and wondering what’s up with the binoculars guy. Hasn’t he seen birds before?

Pinyon Jay butt
Pinyon Jay feeding time

I went back through Colorado the way I came. I spent one more night in the front ranges in one more on the prairie. I didn’t find any more lifers (including the dreamy target species Mountain Plover) but at least I had time to see more of my western bird pals before I headed back home.

Colorado has some of the most fun birding ever, especially on trips where you hit different parts of the state. The varied landscapes lead to a different set of species at at region, but they’re beautiful in its own right. The grassland stretched before me for miles, as a sea of light green. The mountains are breathtaking. Colorado National Monument looks like southern Utah, which is a pretty good compliment. I’m grateful I was able to take this trip and for Colorado’s response to the pandemic. I felt safe there.

Brewer’s Blackbird

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