In mid-March, Sam and I drove east past Pawnee National Grassland as part of an impromptu high plains day trip adventure. I vowed to come back during the May-June migration to binge on birdsong.
I’m happy to report: mission accomplished, with heavy emphasis on hearing birds rather than seeing birds during my late May outing. I’ll get back to that in a minute.
More than 300 species of birds have been spotted at Pawnee National Grassland, a 193,000-acre expanse of short-grass prairie located 35 miles east of Fort Collins and 25 miles northeast of Greeley. Pawnee is a world-class birding destination.
I’m fascinated by birds of all varieties. I completely geek out when I see, hear or flush cool birds on a hike. I own some field guides and a small pair of binoculars, but I am by no means a real birder. Yet.
To learn more about grassland birds, I decided to go on a solo self-guided driving tour of the Pawnee. Early morning is a good time to see and hear birds, so I left Fort Collins around 5:30am and arrived at the information kiosk at Highway 14 and County Road 61 around 6:15am. I spent four hours on the tour.
7 Lessons Learned from my May 23rd Self-Guided Bird Tour:
1. Tour Info Needs Updating
The U.S. Forest Service could do a much better job of providing current and consistent information for the tour.
I felt the Pawnee National Grassland online info was sparse and the outdated self-guided tour map brochure was buried in the website. The welcome sign on the tour (pictured above) is more accurate than the online brochure. The sign’s map is current and the route is described as a 3-4.5 hour, 26-mile tour.
The second information kiosk encouraged me to pick up a bird tour map at the Pawnee National Grassland office in Greeley. Hmmm, no thanks – that’s 25+ miles away AND I’m already in the middle of the tour. Instead, I pulled out my iPhone and used the photo I took of the sign’s map to guide my tour. Voila.
What the WHAT?! Newbies like me flock to this birder’s paradise to learn, so I looked forward to reading the interpretive signs at each stop. Womp, womp.
Granted, every other sign was iced in gooey bird sh*t, but that just means you’ve come to the right place. There were drawings to critique and interesting facts to discover in the eight interpretive signs I was actually able to view. Of the 13 birding stops, Stops 1-3 were closed due to flooding (I totally get that), but Stop 8 was mysteriously missing and Stop 9 (above) was blank. Poopy, yet plaqueless.
2. Prepare for Remoteness
Make sure your vehicle is full of fuel and you bring plenty of snacks and water. There were zero restroom facilities available – portable or otherwise – when I went on the bird tour, so be prepared to do your business in some creative locations.
3. Watch the Weather
I pulled a rookie move. I went on this tour after weeks of heavy rain and with the full knowledge that fog was in the forecast. As I mentioned earlier, Stops 1-3 at Crow Valley Recreation Area were flooded and closed. Also, fog pretty much stinks when you want to watch birds. The silver lining is that the crummy weather kept other birders home, so I had the whole place to myself! And because I couldn’t see a lot of birds, I closed my eyes and concentrated on listening to their song. What a wonderful experience. Compare the following:
Stop 4 birdsong (in grasslands)
Stop 6 birdsong (in tree canopy)
Stop 11 birdsong (in grasslands)
4. Take a REAL Camera
I don’t care how great smart phone cameras are, they simply can’t take action and zoom shots like an actual camera-camera. If you forget your real camera, put your phone away and embrace the experience unplugged.
5. Be a Dirty Birdie
It’s spring, so if you choose to explore the foot travel-only Forest Service roads, prepare to get your shoes more than a little dirty. Persistent rains turned several of the county roads into slippery, muddy rutted messes. Sunshine will eventually dry everything out. Just be aware that the bird tour is almost entirely on dirt roads.
6. Endure the Contradiction
Target shooting is allowed throughout Pawnee National Grassland. Unfortunately, some people think it’s funny to use “no shooting” signs at the birding stops for target practice. I saw conflicting images like these, and I heard incessant gunfire from the Baker Draw Shooting Area as I tried to listen to birds at Stop 12. It affected my experience.
The U.S. Forest Service encourages visitors to “Keep your distance. Respect nesting sites. Keep habitat disturbance to a minimum.” Yet loud target shooting is allowed on the Pawnee. I left scratching my head. If you want a volunteer opportunity, consider collecting spent shells full of brass and lead, and broken clays that litter several of the “no shooting” birding stops.
7. Bring a Buddy
I like doing things solo, but as a birding newbie I would have benefitted from having an experienced friend come along to show me the ropes. I know I missed a ton of birds simply because I didn’t know what to look for.
Despite the early morning fog, I saw so many beautiful things at Pawnee National Grassland. Prairie blossoms covered in dew, bold grasshoppers, mating dung beetles, leery pronghorns, frisky calves, and of course … BIRDS. I spotted swallows, two Killdeer, one McCown’s Longspur, one Horned Lark, a bunch of Red-winged Blackbirds, Mourning Doves, three Northern Harriers, and an army of Lark Buntings and Western Meadowlarks.
My favorite birding moments were the Lark Bunting’s aerial dance, following the Northern Harrier’s flight down the fence row, and the constant chorus of migratory birdsong. I heard many more species than I saw, so now the fun begins to decipher the owners of songs in my audio recordings.
More information about Pawnee National Grassland, birding and local trips:
Bird Identification at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Look for a Northern Colorado Birders Meetup group, too. Happy birding!