Years ago while on a bird walk in New Jersey, I had asked world class birder Pete Dunne, what some of his favorite birding places were in this country. Without hesitation he replied the Pawnee Grasslands in Colorado. I had never heard of it before. But I made a note and when my niece announced her wedding in Ft. Collins, Colorado many years later, we headed to the Pawnee Grasslands prior to the wedding.
The Grasslands are nearly 200,000 acres of public and private land in northeastern Colorado. It is flat prairie with occasional rocky buttes. The countryside is grass and more grass, and there are very few community establishments. You see ranch properties or houses, with a few trees growing around them, and an occasional open flamed natural gas outlet.
I love prairies. The spaciousness, the open sky, the gentle rustling grass, burbling meadow bird songs…it all relaxes me. In North America there are grasslands in the center corridor of the United States and Canada. It began with an upwelling (later called the Rocky Mountains) that created a shadow killing the trees. Glaciers moved through, then retreated about 10,000 years ago depositing an accumulation of silt that created grasslands. Grasslands are identified by the type of grass they bear, the Pawnee Grasslands are short grass.
We were there in June, took a self-guided Auto Tour one day, then proceeded to West Pawnee Ranch, our accommodation for the next few days. While staying there we went with ranch owner Paul Timm on bird trips all over his property as well as public roads in the area. Meals were skillfully prepared by his wife Louanne, accompanied by pleasant and entertaining conversation. One night after dinner we watched a thunderstorm roll in that was more awesome than fireworks.
We enjoyed many prairie birds like the Lark Bunting, Chestnut-collared and McCown’s Longspurs, as well as numerous other birds including blackbirds, meadowlarks, sparrows, and hawks. Western kingbirds were nesting outside our room.
My favorite part of the trip was the day Paul had to go to some distant part of the ranch to check on a calf that had recently been born. It was our “off” time; the other B&B guests were out exploring the nearby Pawnee Buttes, my partner and I were outside our room birding. He asked, in a beautiful slow drawl, if we wanted to come with him to check on the calf.
In his Ford pick-up truck, we drove slowly over the prairie dog holes, around the cottonwood-flanked streams, and further and further back toward the buttes. His cattle were grazing beside the windmill, so he got out and inspected the windmill to make sure it was working, and described the mechanics of it. We saw numerous pronghorns running and grazing, watched a coyote checking out a pronghorn, and dozens of birds flew overhead and perched on fenceposts. As he drove past the different cattle, he gave us a brief history of who had been born recently.
We told him we had been on the auto tour all day yesterday and never did find a longspur, so he drove us to the place where he liked to watch longspurs. On 9,000 acres of vast directionless pasture, he somehow took us to his favorite spot. It was all slow driving because there were deep ruts and it was very bumpy. I said, “A flat tire would be a pretty big headache, wouldn’t it?”
He replied, “Yep.”
We got to this patch of grass, dotted with wildflowers, and he turned off the engine. A longspur magically appeared before us. They have an undulating flight and aerial display that is mesmerizing to watch. So there we three contentedly sat in that roomy old Ford pick-up, each with a set of binoculars admiring the grace and wonder of this prairie passerine fluttering before us.
Quiet acres of grasslands under eternal skies, wild roaming antelope, cattle and ranchers, with a backdrop to the west of the Rocky Mountains…heaven on earth.
Photo credit: Athena Alexander