Birding Carrizo & Cottonwood Canyons

(Last week I promised a post on my final CFO fieldtrip. Here you go…)


After several days of desiccating wind and heat, Sunday dawned with welcome relief in the form of much cooler temperatures and a light breeze. My trip was to the Comanche National Grasslands. I’d driven through the area years before and hadn’t been impressed. Apparently, that was because I didn’t know where to go. Oh my. I can’t wait to get back!

Even the hour drive south from Lamar was productive. Burrowing Owls sat on fence posts along the highway, while a Golden Eagle barely fit on top of a telephone pole. Scaled Quale scurried through the grass along with a pair of migrating Long-billed Curlews. We got terrific looks at a Grasshopper Sparrow; unfortunately my camera was still in the car, and I was sure any attempt to retrieve it would banish the bird.

CottonwoodCyn-ComancheNatlGrasslands-CO_LAH_6001When we finally reached Carrizo Canyon, we headed for the picnic area, and piled out of our cars. We were immediately greeted by Bewick’s Wrens calling from the roof of the nearby bathroom. Sparrows and Ash-throated Flycatchers (right) perched nearby. This was looking very promising.

Carrizo Canyon is a complete surprise. Situated in the middle of the flattest grasslands imaginable, it’s a deep gash in the prairie. Lines of strata clearly reveal the long-ago inland sea that once filled the center of the continent. Huge chunks have fallen down into the canyon—dramatic scenery in the most unexpected place.


CarrizoCyn-ComancheNatlGrasslands-CO_LAH_5909It’s an easy scramble down a short-but-steep path to the canyon floor. Just be sure to watch out for the poison ivy! The spring-fed stream and pools at the bottom create a riparian habitat in a very dry area, and the birds take full advantage. In short order we’d spotted a pair of Blue Grosbeaks, several Eastern Phoebes, and an iridescent male Lazuli Bunting. The haunting song of a Canyon Wren echoed against the cliffs. My first hummingbird of the season darted by, most likely a Black-chinned by the lack of sound accompanying it.

Above a green pool, huge numbers of Cliff Swallows were busy building their mud nests. When we inadvertently disturbed them, they wheeled overhead in great flocks.

Cliff Swallows_CarrizoCyn-ComancheNatlGrasslands-CO_LAH_5941

We hated to leave, but there were more places to explore. Climbing back into the cars, we headed down the road to nearby Cottonwood Canyon.

This is more of a broad valley, although the steep cliffs on the sides make it a proper canyon. Again, the presence of water draws birds from all over. Besides the expected species such as Lark Sparrows, Cassin’s Kingbirds, and Canyon Towhees, we also spotted a Ladderback Woodpecker, Rock Wren, and three Greater Roadrunners! Mississippi Kites soared above, then landed in a handy cottonwood to go about the business of making more Mississippi Kites.


Perhaps my favorite sighting of the day wasn’t a bird at all. A brilliant coral-pink Coachwhip was sunning itself in the middle of the road. Seemingly unbothered by our presence (and eager clicking of shutters), an actual poke with a long stick was needed before it slithered to safety in the underbrush.

Early May is by far the best time to visit this part of Colorado. You definitely want to go before summer’s scorching temperatures arrive. Besides, spring is when migrants stop in the cool shade of the trees for a snack and a drink. I’m already planning to return next spring.

One thought on “Birding Carrizo & Cottonwood Canyons

  1. Fantastic. Thanks so much for sharing these trios with us! I love reading them and getting to “experience” them (with no early mornings required).

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