Located at the eastern edge of the imposing Rocky Mountains and spanning to the western edge of the Great Plains, Colorado is an underrated birding paradise. Positioned on the central migration flyway and with a wide variety of habitats to explore, there are many more Colorado birds to discover than many birders realize, from at-risk prairie birds to stunning alpine species, any of which would be an amazing addition to a birder’s life list.
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Many birders first plan to visit Colorado in the hopes of finding the different elusive species of sage-grouse and prairie-chickens. The greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) is one of the easiest to see, with strong populations on the sage flats in the northwestern corner of the state. The Gunnison sage-grouse is much rarer and only located in a small area of southwestern Colorado, while the greater and lesser prairie-chickens are in the northeastern and southeastern corners of the state, respectively.
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Rosy-finches are popular Colorado birds to seek out in winter, and the brown-capped rosy-finch (Leucosticte australis) is found in the central Colorado mountains year-round, with a more widespread range in winter. Check barren rocky areas and the edges of snow fields for this bird, as well as its cousins, the black rosy-finch and the gray-crowned rosy-finch. While still found in Colorado, those two birds are less numerous and more difficult to find.
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A summer visit to Colorado wouldn’t be complete without looking for western hummingbirds, and the broad-tailed hummingbird (Selasphorus platycercus) is widespread in the western half of the state in flowering meadows, botanical gardens, and even yards with suitable hummingbird feeders. Also keep an eye open for the black-chinned hummingbird with its purple throat, another western hummingbird that spends the summer in Colorado.
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What’s a visit to the mountains without looking for a bird with mountain in its name? The mountain plover (Charadrius montanus) is a fine bird to watch for in Colorado, and while it may be named after mountains, it’s more likely to be found in dry plains with shorter types of grass. In Colorado, look for this shorebird in the eastern part of the state in either the northern or southern corner. The plains in the east-central portion of the state is not the mountain plover’s favored habitat.Continue to 5 of 15 below.
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A fun and unusual bird to watch for in Colorado is the American dipper (Cinclus mexicanus), the only aquatic songbird in North America. These gray, unassuming birds can be found along active mountain streams and shallow rivers with rocky bottoms. Widespread throughout all the western mountain regions, this bird is always worth watching as it bobs and dips in and out of the chilly water, flying underwater as it seeks out insects and other food.
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The Lewis’s woodpecker (Melanerpes lewis) is an unusually-colored woodpecker with its reddish-pink face and abdomen, silvery-gray collar, and the greenish sheen to its darker plumage. Named for North American explorer Meriwether Lewis, this bird is found year-round in central and western Colorado. Check open habitats with isolated groves of tall trees to see this bird seeking out insects, which it often does by flying to and from a single perch and catching prey in the air.
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Birders who love owls won’t want to miss the chance to see the boreal owl (Aegolius funereus) while owling in Colorado. Found in the central and western mountains of the state year-round, this is the southernmost extent of the boreal owl’s range, most of which is much further north in the forests of Canada. High alpine areas are the best habitat for this elusive bird, so be prepared for challenging hikes to seek out this amazing owl.
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Another alpine bird, the gray jay (Perisoreus canadensis) is also widespread in Canada’s forests, but its year-round range spreads into the mountains of Colorado. This jay is curious and intelligent, and often hangs around mountain campgrounds looking for treats and handouts. Where there is one, there is often a small family flock, giving birders excellent opportunities for observation. Dense pine forests are the preferred habitat for the gray jay, which is also the unofficial national bird of Canada.Continue to 9 of 15 below.
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Colorado is well known for its majestic mountains, and you can’t find a more majestic bird in those mountains than the golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos). Found throughout the state year-round, these huge raptors are regal and elegant with the golden sheen on their nape, and their sheer size helps make identification easier. Birders in Colorado will have a good chance at noticing juvenile golden eagles with the distinctive white patches on their broad, powerful wings.
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An unexpected mountain bird, the band-tailed pigeon (Patagioenas fasciata) is a large dove that frequents oak woods. It is found in southwestern and south-central Colorado during the summer breeding season, with sparser populations slightly further north. If the namesake dark tail band isn’t visible, look for the black-tipped yellow bill, yellow legs, green iridescent patch on the back of the neck, and partial white collar to help identify this bird.
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Colorado isn’t necessarily known for water birds, but the Clark’s grebe (Aechmophorus clarkii) should be an exception. These grebes are widespread but somewhat scarce throughout the west during the summer months, but populations in southern Colorado are more extensive. Colorado is also a good place to see both the Clark’s and western grebes together in order to learn how to tell the difference between these two closely related birds.
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A wide variety of duck species can be seen in Colorado, but the barrow’s goldeneye (Bucephala islandica) is one of the most sought-after. These birds are normally confined to more northern regions, but in winter they venture as far south as north-central Colorado, giving birders a fine opportunity to see the white crescent-shaped facial patch and bright yellow eye that make this duck so attractive. Take care, however, not to confuse this bird with the similar and more widespread common goldeneye.Continue to 13 of 15 below.
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While the lesser goldfinch (Carduelis psaltria) is widespread throughout the southwest year-round, these small wild canaries only venture into Colorado during the summer months, where they feast on wildflower, grass, and weed seeds. Summers in Colorado are a great chance to see both the lesser goldfinch and the American goldfinch together in their bright yellow and black breeding plumage, giving birders the chance to really study the differences between these two species.
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Audubon's Yellow-Rumped Warbler
While the yellow-rumped warbler (Dendroica coronata) is one of the most widespread warblers in North America, the Audubon’s subspecies is a western bird that is well worth looking for when birders visit Colorado. Because the two subspecies, Audubon’s and myrtle, look distinctly different, it is possible this bird species may be split into two species in the future, and birders who have already seen this western resident can gain an automatic lifer if that happens.
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One of the best birds to watch for in Colorado is the state bird, the lark bunting (Calamospiza melanocorys). While only found in the state during the summer months, and then only in the central and eastern regions of the state, the male lark bunting is nonetheless distinctive with its dark plumage and bright white wing patch. The female is much more camouflaged, however, and her streaky plumage could be easily confused with other grassland birds, including finches and sparrows.