Emerald Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. Photo: Bennett Barthelemy/Tandemstock.com

Birding the States

Birding in Colorado

National Wildlife Refuges National Parks Acreage of Important Bird Areas
8 13 1,368,197

Colorado ranks among the top ten states with the biggest bird lists, which is especially impressive given that it has no ocean coastline. Lots of land and varied habitats are what allows Colorado to make the cut.

Everyone associates the state with mountains, and it has those in abundance. Rocky Mountain National Park is a scenic showstopper with “northern” birds like the White-tailed Ptarmigan, American three-toed Woodpecker, Gray Jay, and Pine Grosbeak.

The eastern third of Colorado is more like Kansas than any Rocky Mountain landscape. Rolling grassland stretches for mile after mile here, with trees mostly confined to riparian areas. Pawnee National Grassland in the northeast is an ideal place to look for Ferruginous Hawk, Mountain Plover, longspurs, and other open-country birds. Western Colorado’s rugged country has its own specialties, including Gambel’s Quail and Gray Vireo.

Colorado Birding Hotspots

 


Rocky Mountain National Park

One of America’s most beautiful and popular national parks, Rocky Mountain encompasses habitats from marsh and meadow to ponderosa pine woodland, spruce-fir forest, and alpine tundra above treeline. It has superb scenic drives into the high country and hundreds of miles of hiking trails for exploring the backcountry.

Many birders are interested in the park’s high-elevation birds, and hikes around the Bear Lake or Wild Basin areas could bring sightings of Dusky Grouse, Williamson’s Sapsucker, American Three-toed Woodpecker, Hammond’s Flycatcher, Gray Jay, Clark’s Nutcracker, Mountain Chickadee, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Townsend’s Solitaire, Pine Grosbeak, Cassin’s Finch, Red Crossbill, or Pine Siskin.

Lower elevations in the park, such as Moraine Park, are home to Broad-tailed Hummingbird, Red-naped Sapsucker, Western Wood-Pewee, Dusky Flycatcher, Cordilleran Flycatcher, Steller’s Jay, Black-billed Magpie, Violet-green Swallow, Pygmy Nuthatch, American Dipper, Mountain Bluebird, MacGillivray's Warbler, Wilson’s Warbler, Lincoln’s Sparrow, Green-tailed Towhee, and Western Taanger. (Of course, there’s quite a bit of overlap between these lists.)

Visitors willing to walk across the wind-swept tundra above treeline might be lucky enough to encounter a White-tailed Ptarmigan. Brilliant white in winter, this bird turns brown (the color of tundra) in summer, making it easy to miss. Another special bird of the alpine areas in the park is Brown-capped Rosy-Finch, which can be quite elusive as well.

Snow lingers on roads and trails through spring in much of the park, so birding is best from June through September. Lower areas of the park can be visited in May.
 

Colorado National Monument

Designated an Audubon Important Bird Area, this park near Grand Junction is famed for spectacular scenery of eroded sandstone cliffs and spires. It’s also a good place to see southwestern bird species less common or not found in central and eastern Colorado.

The 23-mile Rim Rock Drive accesses much of the national monument, and there are hiking trails from easy quarter-mile strolls to long, strenuous hikes. Scattered among the rugged sagebrush terrain are patches of pinyon pine and juniper with cottonwoods along creeks.

Interesting birds here include Gambel’s Quail, Golden Eagle, White-throated Swift, Black-chinned Hummingbird, Broad-tailed Hummingbird, Prairie Falcon, Peregrine Falcon, Gray Flycatcher, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Gray Vireo, Plumbeous Vireo, Pinyon Jay, Western Scrub-Jay, Juniper Titmouse, Bushtit, Rock Wren, Mountain Bluebird, Sage Thrasher, Virginia’s Warbler, Black-throated Gray Warbler, Black-chinned Sparrow, Brewer’s Sparrow, Black-throated Sparrow, Spotted Towhee, and Lazuli Bunting.

In arid areas such as this (it usually gets less than 12 inches of precipitation annually), the best birding is often in riparian zones along creek beds, where the vegetation can be lusher.
 

Barr Lake State Park

Just northeast of Denver, this state park is highlighted by a 1,900-acre reservoir that's best known to birders as a place for migrant waterfowl and shorebirds, as well as nesting waterbirds and Bald Eagle. The cottonwood trees around the lake attract resident and migrant songbirds, helping boost the area's bird list to around 350.

The southern part of the lake is off-limits to boating and fishing, minimizing disturbance to birds. Sometimes mudflats are exposed, attracting large numbers of shorebirds in late summer and fall.

From fall to spring geese and ducks can be abundant, and in summer species present include four species of grebes, American White Pelican, herons, egrets, Black-crowned Night-Herson, White-faced Ibis, and American Avocet. Around twenty species of gulls and terns have been recorded.

In addition to the cottonwoods around the lake, the state park includes about 700 acres of grassland, providing habitat for prairie birds. Land birds nesting here or seen regularly include Burrowing Owl, Prairie Falcon, Say's Phoebe, Warbling Vireo, Blue Jay, Horned Lark, Lark Sparrow, Lark Bunting, Blue Grosbeak, Lazuli Bunting, Yellow-headed Blackbird, and Orchard Oriole.

The state park includes a nature center providing advice to visiting birders.
 

Cherry Creek State Park

This park in southeastern suburban Denver has long been a favorite of local birders, who search it year-round for rare waterbirds, gulls, and land birds. The centerpiece of the state park is an 880-acre reservoir, but the area also has excellent riparian woodland, marsh, and grassland. With more than 300 species recorded, Cherry Creek has one of the largest lists of any site in Colorado.

Most of the birding here takes place from fall through spring, since that’s when the birds are best and the crowds are least. Park roads nearly encircle the reservoir, providing access to scan the water for waterfowl, loons, grebes, Double-crested Cormorant, American White Pelican, gulls (many rarities have appeared over the years), and terns (ditto). In low water conditions, wetlands attract shorebirds, with more than 30 species recorded.

Osprey appears in spring and fall, and Bald Eagle is seen year-round. Rough-legged Hawk and Ferruginous Hawk sometimes appear in winter. Ring-necked Pheasant nests in park grasslands, and Northern Shrike is occasionally found in winter. Burrowing Owl nests in prairie-dog colonies.

Walking trails wind through the riparian woodland on the lakeshore, along Cottonwood and Cherry creeks, and through marshy habitat. Ask any Denver birder and you’ll learn that the avian possibilities at Cherry Creek are practically endless.
 

Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge

This refuge in southern Colorado's San Luis Valley is best known for large flocks of Sandhill Cranes that stop here in spring and fall migration. So celebrated are these long-legged birds that the refuge and the nearby town of the same name hold a popular festival in March with special programs and field trips to view up to 20,000 cranes.

There's more to Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge than Sandhill Cranes, though. Huge flocks of geese and ducks also pause here to rest and feed in migration, and many notable species breed on the refuge.

A four-mile auto tour route begins on Highway 15 about 6.5 miles south of the town of Monte Vista. There are also many viewing areas along Highway 15 and county roads on the refuge perimeter.

Nesting waterbirds include Cinnamon Teal and several other duck species, Pied-billed Grebe, Eared Grebe, American Bittern, Great Blue Heron, Snowy Egret, Black-crowned Night-Heron, White-faced Ibis, Virginia Rail, Sora, American Avocet, and Wilson's Phalarope. Marsh Wrens sing from marshy areas.

On dry land, look for Northern Harrier, Prairie Falcon, Sage Thrasher, Yellow Warbler, Brewer’s Sparrow, Vesper Sparrow, and Yellow-headed Blackbird. Golden Eagle and Bald Eagle can appear in spring and fall.

Just 20 miles east, Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge offers an auto tour route with views of marsh and riparian habitat along the Rio Grande, and a nature trail.
 

Chico Basin Ranch

Located about 25 miles southeast of Colorado Springs, Chico Basin Ranch is a private enterprise that charges birders a moderate fee ($15, or $10 each for groups) to enter. Many are happy to open their wallets, because this area of grassland with scattered woodland and ponds has a bird list of roughly 330 species, making it one of the state's true hotspots.

A significant percentage of the bird list comprises migrant songbirds, some rare, that stop in the groves of trees to rest and feed. The Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory operates a banding station on the ranch in spring and fall—another indication of the birding potential here.

Birders arriving must first follow signs to the ranch headquarters, where there's a kiosk with information. Chico Basin Ranch has developed birding trail to help visitors find the best locations.

In spring and fall, much birding is concentrated on groves of trees where rare passerines may show up. As an example, eastern warblers such as Worm-eating, Golden-winged, Mourning, and Cape May have been recorded here.

On the arid shrubby grassland find Scaled Quail, Mountain Plover, Greater Roadrunner, Burrowing Owl, Loggerhead Shrike, Horned Lark, Curve-billed Thrasher, Cassin's Sparrow, Brewer's Sparrow, Lark Sparrow, and Lark Bunting. Golden Eagle has nested on the ranch. In winter, three species of longspurs may flock in the open country.
 

John Martin Reservoir State Park

This impoundment on the Arkansas River west of Lamar has a very high bird species list for a couple of reasons. The reservoir in the middle of arid plains attracts great numbers of waterfowl, grebes, American White Pelican, shorebirds, gulls, and terns. Also, the spare trees and other vegetation on the otherwise open grassland attract migrant (sometimes vagrant) songbirds.

Flocks of waterfowl on the reservoir can be scanned from various viewpoints around the dam and on the north and south shores. Be aware, though, that certain areas are closed seasonally to prevent disturbance to birds, including nesting Piping Plover and Least Tern. The best bet is to call ahead or stop for advice at the park visitor center.

You’ll find various small ponds in the state park area, including one (Lake Hasty) just below the dam. Look for ducks and other waterbirds here.

Some of the land birds residing in and around the park are Scaled Quail, Ring-necked Pheasant, Greater Roadrunner, Burrowing Owl, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Loggerhead Shrike, Horned Lark, Rock Wren, and Eastern Bluebird. Golden Eagle and Bald Eagle are regular winter visitors. Birders who visit in migration season have found a number of rare strays such as Tennessee Warbler and Common Redpoll.

Birding is best here from fall through spring, to avoid the crowds of summer vacationers.
 

Pawnee National Grassland

Spreading across a 30- to 60-mile area of northeastern Colorado, Pawnee National Grassland is home to an appealing list of prairie birds. Visitors should understand that only sections of this area are publicly owned, mixed among private ranches and farmland. Birding requires driving long distances on mostly unpaved roads, making a detailed map vital.

Even so, birding here can be a wonderful experience, exploring lightly traveled areas while keeping eyes and ears open for birds. Pronghorn antelope, mule deer, and prairie dogs might be spotted, too.

Just a few of the species that you might see are Golden Eagle, Swainson’s Hawk, Ferruginous Hawk, Mountain Plover (can be hard to find), Burrowing Owl, Prairie Falcon, Say’s Phoebe, Horned Lark, Chestnut-collared Longspure, McCown’s Longspur, Cassin’s Sparrow, Grasshopper Sparrow, Brewer’s Sparrow, Lark Sparrow, Lark Bunting, Vesper Sparrow, and Bullock’s Oriole.

Just northwest of Briggsdale, the Crow Valley Recreation Area has an open woodland that acts as a migrant trap in spring and fall. Colorado birders visit at those times to find rarities such as Varied Thrush, Bohemian Waxwing, Blackburnian Warbler, and Red Crossill. Crow Valley has a bird list of more than 260 species.
 

Fountain Creek Regional Park

This park just north of the town of Fountain (south of Colorado Springs) stretches for more than two miles along Fountain Creek. With riparian habitat and large cottonwood trees, it’s primarily known as a place to find migrant songbirds in spring and fall. Its productivity is shown by a bird list of more than 260 species. Just minutes from Interstate 25, it’s convenient for travelers who want to get a taste of Colorado foothills birdlife.

There’s a nature center in the northern part of the park, off Highway 87, where local information is available. From there, trails wind through woodland and past ponds and the creek.

Ducks, grebes, wading birds (including Black-crowned Night-Heron), Virginia Rail, and Sora are sometimes found on the park’s ponds. Summer residents include Black-chinned Hummingbird, Broad-tailed Hummingbird, Belted Kingfisher, Western Wood-Pewee, Say’s Phoebe, Western Kingbird, Eastern Kingbird, Warbling Vireo, Black-billed Magpie, House Wren, Common Yellowthroat, Yellow Warbler, Lark Sparrow, Lazuli Bunting, Bullock’s Oriole, and Lesser Goldfinch.

More than 30 species of warbler have been recorded in the park, including such local oddities as Swainson’s Warbler, Cape May Warbler, and Blackburnian Warbler. Among other rare birds that have appeared here are Northern Saw-whet Owl, Yellow-throated Vireo, Varied Thrush, Bohemian Waxwing, and Indigo Bunting.
 

Cottonwood Canyon

This remote area near the southeastern corner of Colorado is of great interest to birders for two reasons: species at the edge of their range, therefore regionally unusual, and rare vagrants.

The region is nearly 30 miles west from Highway 385 near Campo into the Comanche National Grassland, but many birders who make the trip have fun seeing what odd species might show up. The rugged landscape of pinyon pine, juniper, scrub oak, and cottonwoods makes it a scenic destination.

Some of the birds that have been seen here are Scaled Quail, Wild Turkey, Mississippi Kite, Greater Roadrunner, Western Screech-Owl, Black-chinned Hummingbird, Lewis’s Woodpecker, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Eastern Phoebe, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Cassin’s Kingbird, Chihuahuan Raven, Juniper Titmouse, Rock Wren, Canyon Wren, Townsend’s Solitaire (winter), Cassin’s Sparrow, Rufous-crowned Sparrow, Indigo Bunting, and Painted Bunting (occasional).

Visitors should be careful not to trespass on private property in the canyon. Roughly six miles east of Cottonwood Canyon, the national forest’s Carrizo Canyon Picnic Area offers many of the same birds.

Birding Trail

Colorado Birding Trail

You may be lured to Colorado by the high peaks of the Rockies, which dominate the state, dividing the mesas of the west from the short-grass prairies to the east. But you won’t be able to avoid falling in love with other landscapes along the Colorado Birding Trail. In the treeless terrain of the prairies, many songbirds take to the sky to sing, and the air is often filled with the flightsongs of lark buntings and chestnut-collared and McCown’s longspurs. These short-grass plains are also the haunt of the rare mountain plover, a poorly named bird that sees mountains only from a distance. When you wind into the mountains you can discover red-naped sapsuckers and sky-blue mountain bluebirds in the aspen groves, and pine grosbeaks and red crossbills chattering in the conifer forests. At the high summits, where the open tundra comes alive with wildflowers in summer, you may be lucky enough to find the white-tailed ptarmigan, a master of camouflage, which is near its southernmost limits here. Everywhere in Colorado, from mountains to plains, you’ll find peak experiences.

—Kenn Kaufman

Audubon State Office and Centers