Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Birding at 70 Miles an Hour

Bill and I took an impromptu 24-hour trip to the NE corner of the state. I read about the birding mecca that is Pawnee National Grasslands and specifically the Pawnee Pioneer Trail, a 128-mile scenic highway through the area. We left Colorado Springs mid-afternoon and headed to Sterling Colorado in Logan County to spend the night. The trail heads west out of Sterling, a small agriculture-rich town of about 14,000 people. We stayed at the new Best Western and ate at the town's gathering place - the J & L Cafe. The people were friendly and the service was great - but they needed Bill to help them back in the kitchen.

The Barn Swallows were plentiful - especially at the intersections looking for the Miller Moths which are just beginning their annual invasion.

There was a large open area behind the hotel that we explored at dusk (hence the terrible pictures). This Brown Thrasher was singing his heart out.

It was quite dark when I took this shot of a Lark Sparrow. I knew there was a bird on the fence post but it wasn't until I lightened the picture that I could identify the sparrow.

Early the next morning we headed west on Scenic Route 14. We were expecting a picturesque, meandering country road through public lands where you drive slowly and frequently pull off to enjoy the plentiful birds. In reality, the road is a major truck route with 70 miles-per-hour speed limits and very few places to even slow down, never mind pull over! Barbed wire fences protect the private properties on both sides of the road. Birding at 70 miles-per-hour takes talent and really hones your skills!

We turned off onto a dirt road and slowly drove through some of the farmland. We had no idea there was so much agriculture in the state north of Interstate 70. We actually saw more birds where there were fences than where there were not. Pictures are two Kingbirds; the black and white one is an unusual (around here) Eastern Kingbird and the gray and yellow one is an extremely common Western Kingbird.

Since I was taking pictures, we drove very slowly and stopped frequently along this dirt side road - passing farms along the way. Before long a farmer pulled up along side of us in his pick-up truck and wanted to know what we were doing. Why did we stop in front of his house? Apparently, they don't take kindly to strangers!

This is a Horned Lark. You can see the "horns" that give him his name.

The State Bird is the Lark Bunting - and they were EVERYWHERE! It's hard to get a decent picture as they do not sit still very long!

Another bird that was WELL represented was the Western Meadowlark. Their song filled the air everywhere we went.

After our "friendly" farmer begrudgingly left us to our bird watching, a Killdeer walked along the side of the car...

...and Bill spotted this wonderful Swainson's Hawk sitting on a phone pole.

What a fabulous bird!!

Heading back to Route 14, we drove with the trucks for a while before turning north at the small town of New Raymer and headed towards the Pawnee Buttes. Driving along, I was thrilled to see this adorable Burrowing Owl perched alongside the road.

We passed a lot of farms - we were really remote (or so we thought). This isn't really a good picture of a Lark Bunting - but I thought his back was really pretty.

This is a typical view in the area. We couldn't figure out why so many of the trucks followed us on this back road. They passed us in both directions.

Then we started seeing HUGE industrial structures. They looked way out of place and they were everywhere.

Energy is apparently a huge business in the Grasslands with enormous wind farms that stretch for miles, and ugly natural gas and oil drilling operations. We were on a dirt road with trucks, cranes and industrial machinery. Lots of the operations looked new. We could see the Pawnee Buttes in the distance but the view was obstructed with the oil and gas rigs. It was sad but understandable.

Since it looked like rain, we decided to try and find a paved road. We did not make it to the Buttes, large geological formations rising out of the grassland with promises of many different species of birds. The trails are closed from March 1 to June 30 to protect the many nesting species of hawks and falcons.

Once we found our way back to Route 14, we set our GPS towards home.

We saw lots of Antelope - but not nearly as many as we saw in Wyoming.

Prairie Dogs were also out in numbers. I had to keep checking the burrows in case there were more Burrowing Owls. (There were not)

Typical scenery...

We really enjoyed hearing the songs of the various larks that populate eastern Colorado...

...especially the Meadowlarks.

It was an interesting trip - but not what we expected.

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