Pawnee Grasslands

Hoping to get some photos of prairie birds, I drove the two-and-a-half hours up to Pawnee Grasslands. I almost didn’t go—I hadn’t slept at all well for two nights. But the weather was supposed to be almost perfect, 70° and clear with calm winds.

The previous time I was here, back in May 2018, I had the entire grasslands to myself. Today there were a lot of people around, including a bunch of motorcyclists who weren’t there to see nature. There were Lark Buntings, Horned Larks, and Western Meadowlarks every few feet, but not much else.

Male and female Lark Buntings

Cassin’s Sparrow.

Grasshopper Sparrow

I met a couple who were walking back from a small grove of cottonwoods. They said they’d seen a lot of birds in the grove, so I decided to park and walk the mile-and-a-half round trip. I found two Western Kingbirds, two Eastern Kingbirds, a Brown-headed Cowbird, a Chipping Sparrow, a Lark Sparrow, an Audubon’s Warbler, a Green-tailed Towhee, and a Hermit Thrush hanging out by the seven trees.

I did manage to find a lone Cassin’s Sparrow and three Grasshopper Sparrows along the drive, two of my target species, but I completed the entire auto tour route without seeing any of the others.

It was already past 2:00, and I was tired. I contemplated heading home, but decided to drive 20 miles west to another part of the park where Chestnut-collared Longspurs had been seen recently. I was looking for Road 47, but missed it the first time by. I turned around and looked more carefully. This time I found it.

I did see three Chestnut-collared Longspurs, but they were too far off in the grass for good photos. I had to drive carefully to avoid bottoming out my car, and for that reason, I spotted a horned lizard (next post). I drove back to the start of the auto tour route to take another stab at McCown’s Longspurs without success.

By this time it was 4:00. I still had a two-and-a-half hour drive home. But I’d made the effort to get all the way up there and I knew I wouldn’t return this year. I decided to drive to the eastern portion of the grasslands to look for Mountain Plover. When I got to the spot, my search seemed hopeless. There was a lot of flat land covered with cactus, which made it unlikely that a plover would be easy to spot.

I was about to give up when I saw a McCown’s Longspur on the roadside fence. Before I could get a photo, it flew 50 yards off into the field. I managed to track it and even take some lousy video. At one point, it was feeding two (that I could see) young on a nest. As I was watching it through my scope, I saw another bird nearby. I moved my scope to look at it—it was a Horned Lark—and right behind it was—a Mountain Plover!

So even though the day was long and the birds were few and scattered, I managed to see all that I was looking for except a Long-billed Curlew. I stopped at McDonald’s for my first meal of the day and got home around 8:00 pm.

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