Ouray County has been little birded until recently. In the past, Box Canyon, in the town of Ouray, was about the only stop that visiting birders made in the county (that, to see the nesting Black Swifts, in season) on their way north or south. Recent efforts, mostly in autumn, have shown that the county is a potential gold mine of interesting migrants, particularly of typically eastern species. The relatively recent construction of Ridgway Reservoir provided a large body of water that has produced a few locally rare species and will probably continue to surprise. The steep topography of the San Juan mountains in the southern third of the county, of which the town of Ouray is the gateway, prevent all but the most mountain goat of us from visiting large areas of the county. However for those interested in hiking, US 550 provides access to some incredible scenery of Spruce-Fir and Alpine Tundra. The northern two thirds of the county is of relatively low elevation covered in Pinyon-Juniper woodland, interspersed with pastures, homesteads, and riparian stringers. Areas in the Uncompahgre River valley are incredibly rich in fruiting shrubs and trees (native and exotic), thus support large numbers of frugivorous birds in the fall. Though it has not yet been found in the county, these areas would be an excellent place to search for Varied Thrush in late fall.
Description - This town, hard on the Montrose County border, provides some migrant-bird habitat, but the real attraction is its access to the Uncompahgre River. The river supports some lush riparian habitat that attracts a good variety of breeding and migrant bird species, such as + scan the water from US 550 (there are wide shoulders onto which one can pull off to effect this). There are two locations to scan, the first being the arm of the reservoir that our directions just left and the second is the marina. From the main part of the park, one can bird the lake at the marina and at the dam end of the water. There is also fine landbirding in the extensive Pinyon-Juniper, with the campground hosting a particularly diverse mix of breeding species, including Black-throated Gray Warbler. If arriving from the north, one will simply follow these directions in reverse.
2. Billy Creek State Wildlife Area
Description - North of Ridgway, this site offers access to big stretches of Gambel Oak shrubland and the birds dependent upon that habitat, such as Bushtit, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Virginia's Warbler, and Spotted Towhee. The upper reaches of the site are dominated by conifer habitats that offer a different mix of species. Some of the roads are questionable in wet weather.
Habitat - Scrub Oak Forest, Mixed Conifer Forest
Directions - From Ridgway, travel north on US 550 past Ridgway Reservoir to 4 Road and turn east. At an intersection with another road, turn north to stay with 4 Road; the road will immediately make a few hairpin turns and then straighten out somewhat. Continue uphill to intersection with 4B Road and turn west and follow all the way to 2 Road and turn west, again, which will take you back to US 550. These roads traverse both public and private lands, so please respect private property. From Colona, take US 550 south to 2 Road and follow the above directions in reverse.
3. Ridgway Reservoir
Description - North of Ridgway, this reservoir is the only significant body of water in Ouray County. As such, it is a magnet for migrating waterbirds and almost anything could be found here, given enough visits, particularly as the reservoir ages and develops a more diverse ecology. Examples of species that have been found on the reservoir that are rare in western Colorado include Pacific Loon and Glossy Ibis. The terrestrial habitats in Ridgway State Park are dominated by Pinyon-Juniper, thus species typical of those habitats (Pinyon Jay, Juniper Titmouse, and Black-throated Gray Warbler) abound. In the riparian gallery forest on the south side of the park, typical breeding species include Western Wood-Pewee, Warbling Vireo, White-breasted Nuthatch, and Western Tanager. However, migration in this area, particularly in fall, can bring any number of interesting species. Among those that have occurred here are Cassin's Vireo, Northern Waterthrush, and Magnolia and Hooded warblers. Note: A State Parks pass (daily or annual) is required for entrance.
Habitat - Pond/Lake/Reservoir, Pinyon-Juniper Forest, Lowland Riparian
Directions - From Ridgway, travel north on US 550 to the Dallas Meadows entrance to Ridgway State Park. To look at the lake, turn north past the entrance kiosk and then quickly left. One can drive out onto the shore here, with the usual caveats about care when driving on lake shores that might be wet. If the shore is too wet or one cares not to drive there, one can continue north on the Park road to its terminus to get reasonable views of the lake and shore. To visit the nice gallery forest at the south end, turn south past the entrance kiosk and travel to the end of the road and park; then take the trail that departs from near the bathrooms west toward the Uncompahgre River. To continue the tour of the reservoir and Park, return to US 550 and travel north to the main entrance to the Park. However, on your way (particularly, if one is not planning on entering the Park), don't forget to scan the water from US 550 (there are wide shoulders onto which one can pull off to effect this). There are two locations to scan, the first being the arm of the reservoir that our directions just left and the second is the marina. From the main part of the park, one can bird the lake at the marina and at the dam end of the water. There is also fine landbirding in the extensive Pinyon-Juniper, with the campground hosting a particularly diverse mix of breeding species, including Black-throated Gray Warbler. If arriving from the north, one will simply follow these directions in reverse.
Description - This town offers the typical oasis of native and exotic vegetation plantings so beloved by migrant birds. A slow drive or, better, walk through town might produce a reasonable variety of migrant species in season. The pond north of town in the Golden Eagle development has, for its size, produced an amazing variety of birds (such as Sora, Pectoral Sandpiper, and Willow Flycatcher). The town also offers a choice in restaurants and relatively inexpensive gasoline. Those looking at the map south of Ridgway might notice Lake Otonowanda. Sorry, the lake is not visible from any public road, but I would bet that it's interesting!
Habitat - Urban/Suburban, Pond/Lake/Reservoir
Directions - Ridgway straddles CO 62 just west of US 550. To reach the pond at the Golden Eagle development, turn north onto 5 Road at the west edge of town – this road travels along the east side of the school. After 5 Road bends to the east, watch for the entrance to the development on the south. Drive through the entrance arch and pull off to the side of the road to view the pond. Please respect th private property rights here. So far, residents have not minded birders viewing the pond and we want to keep it that way. This route also offers a nice back-door access to Ridgway State Park. To do so, simply continue north past the development to 24 Road and turn east. Cross the Uncompahgre River and immediately turn north into a dirt road/parking area. One can access the southern part of Ridgway State Park on foot from here. The shrubs on either side of the river offer migrant birds a plethora of fruits in the fall and the birding here can be excellent, particularly right at the 24 Road bridge, where Eastern Kingbird has been seen.
5. CR 10/CR 12 loop
Description - This loop east off US 550 near Ridgway can be good in late fall and winter for raptors, particularly Rough-legged Hawk. The pastures along this loop can have Horned Lark. Be sure to check for Lapland Longspur and Snow Bunting, in season. Though neither of these species has yet been found in the county, with more birding effort, they, particularly the longspur, will probably be added to the county list.
Habitat - Pinyon/Juniper Forest, Grassland/Prairie
Directions - From Ridgway, drive south on US 550 for about 0.5 mile and turn left onto 12 Road. Follow 12 Road as it jogs north then east to its intersection with 10A Road and turn left and follow that to 10 Road, which will take you west to US 550. Obviously, one can follow the loop in the opposite direction, too. Note: At the intersection of 10 and 10A roads, one can head north-northeast on 10 Road to 8 Road. A right turn onto 8 Road will lead one through some lovely forest to Owl Creek Pass (a site not yet described here) and Gunnison County.
6. CR 3A/CR 3/CR 17 area
Description - This well-maintained dirt road system on the west side of the Uncompahgre River provides a less-hectic way to travel between Ridgway and Ouray and also provides some pleasant birding. While all the land on either side of the road is private (please respect private property!), the roadside birding is more than adequate. In early fall, typical migrant species (e.g., kingbirds, bluebirds, and Vesper Sparrow) can be found in substantial numbers; the road also has hosted some rarer migrants, e.g., two Nashville Warblers in early September 2003. Other interesting species seen along this road include Willow Flycatcher and Cassin's Vireo. Watch on the west side of the road for a small stand of Ponderosa Pines up a side road. Pygmy Nuthatch has been seen here.
Habitat - Scrub Oak Forest, Lowland Riparian, Foothill Shrub, Grassland/Prairie, Ponderosa Forest
Directions - From the intersection of CO 62 and US 550 on the east side of Ridgway, go west on Hwy 62 to the second left and turn south onto 3A Road. Follow 3A Road until it intersects 3 Road and turn south. The road will wind around and change its name to 17 Road at the intersection with 5 Road, but continue south all the way to Ouray – you will come into town at the northwest corner. From the very west edge of Ouray, follow 17 Road north to its intersection with 5 Road and 3 Road, and continue north on 3 Road. Follow 3 Road to 3A Road and turn west and follow into Ridgway.
7. Lake Lenore area
Description - Lake Lenore, which is surrounded by conifer forest, can host reasonably large numbers of ducks in season, with the best of the lot so far being Surf Scoter. The marsh along US 550 at the turnoff for Lake Lenore has hosted Sora and Common Yellowthroat.
Habitat - Pond/Lake/Reservoir, Mixed Conifer Forest, Lowland Riparian, Marsh
Directions - From Ridgway, drive south on US 550 to the only real option to the east, 14A Road. West across US 550 is a water-treatment plant with a marsh that is worth at least a quick check. To reach Lake Lenore, go north then east on 14A Road. Pull over when reaching the lake and check the water (beware of decoys present). The forests here can provide some typical birds, such as Steller's Jay, Townsend's Solitaire, and Western Tanager, and some more-sought-after species such as Olive-sided Flycatcher. Continuing on to FR 871 or FR872 provides access to the Uncompahgre National Forest and the Big Blue Wilderness Area.
Description - This touristy town is the gateway to the rugged and beautiful San Juan Mountains. But, for birders, it is the piece de resistance of the county. Not only does it host the most accessible Black Swift colony in the state (possibly on the planet), but the extensive plantings of fruit-bearing shrubs and trees offer a haven for mis-placed and/or laggard fall migrants. The list of out-of-range species seen in town includes Tennessee Warbler, Red Fox Sparrow, Swamp Sparrow, "White-winged" Dark-eyed Junco, and Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Species seen here in November, later in fall than is typical for the state, include Hermit Thrush, Northern Mockingbird, Gray Catbird, Lincoln's Sparrow, and Black-headed Grosbeak. Feeders in town can support a good number and variety of finches in season, including all three rosy-finch species and Pine Grosbeak; Evening Grosbeak is particularly reliable in town.
However, the primary attraction must be Box Canyon Park, the site of a relatively large Black Swift colony and a good diversity of breeding birds. The Park is accessed from 3rd St on the south side of town, west of US 550. The swifts nest in the box canyon and their nests are found by scanning the walls. There is an entrance fee to the Park. One can also stand anywhere in the open in town in the evening and look up and sort through the hordes of White-throated Swifts and Violet-green Swallows looking for the larger, longer-winged, and shorter-tailed shape of Black Swifts. Be prepared for "Warbler Neck."
From the south side of town, continue south on US 550 around one hairpin turn to another at which there is a road accessing the Uncompahgre National Forest. Species seen in the area include Dusky Grouse, Red-naped and Williamson's sapsuckers, and MacGillivray's Warbler. Note that this road is quite rough in places and 4WD may be a necessity.
Habitat - Urban/Suburban, Cliff Face, Mixed Conifer Forest, Stream
Directions - The town straddles US 550 about 13 road miles SSE of Ridgway. The whole town is worth birding, particularly on foot, but there are some places that seem to hold birds better than others. Third Street (on the south side of town) can be good along its entire length, with feeders east of US 550 attracting rosy-finches in winter. The area around the Wiesbaden Inn (at 4th St and 5th Ave) hosted the Red Fox Sparrow and Black-headed Grosbeak in November 2000. The drainage on the west side of US 550 and north of 9th St has twice hosted Swamp Sparrow in fall; the best viewing spot can be reached the dead-end road going north from 9th just west of US 550 or from the west end of 9th. Walking the entire length of Oak (on the west side of the Uncompahgre River) from 3rd to 7th can be fruitful (in more ways than one); Oak becomes 17 Road on the north side of Ouray (see the CR 3A/CR 3/CR 17 site account).
9. Camp Bird
Description - The road to Camp Bird traverses a variety of forest types and can provide good general forest birding, particularly in the breeding season. Species such as Dusky Flycatcher, Plumbeous Vireo, Yellow-rumped Warbler, and Western Tanager are quite common. The road also offers views of an incredible cliff and associated air space in which Black Swift can be seen. This road also provides access to Yankee Boy Basin, a place of White-tailed Ptarmigan and incredible wildflower displays. However, the road up there can be incredibly rough, and a long hike and/or a good 4WD vehicle are required. But it is worth the effort.
Habitat - Mixed Conifer Forest, Aspen Grove
Directions - From the south side of Ouray, continue south on US 550 to the first hairpin turn and Forest Roat 853. Turn right and follow the road as long as you wish. After getting beyond the first stretch in which most of the surrounding land is privately owned, feel free to wander around in the National Forest Service lands. One side road (on the left side of FR 853) offers a short diversion for those interested. Somewhat beyond Camp Bird, the road deteriorates, but offers the tantalizing access to Yankee Boy Basin (which is not here described, as yet).
10. US 550 between Ouray and San Juan County
Description - South of Ouray, US 550 travels along the edge of the steep canyon created by the Umcompahgre River. Flatlanders might have heart palpitations caused by the sheer drops from the road surface, but numerous pullouts and trailheads offer the chance to ogle the scenery and search for Black Swifts. As one approaches San Juan County, climbing to Red Mountain Pass, the land levels a bit and offers a wider variety of habitats. Crystal Lake, on the west side of US 550 about halfway between Ouray and the San Juan County line, has hosted waterfowl, but much of the water surface can be difficult to see without looking for the best vantage points. The Rest Area across from the now-being-reclaimed Idarado Mine is worth a quick stop to watch for migrating raptors and other birds in fall.
Habitat - Mixed Conifer Forest, Spruce-Fir Forest, Streamside Willow, Cliff Face
Directions - Travel US 550 south from Ouray or north from San Juan County. Take advantage of pullouts, trailheads, and the Rest Area.
11. Pleasant Valley
Description - If traveling west from Ridgway to San Miguel County, one might seriously consider taking a back-door route through the aptly-named Pleasant Valley for part of the trip. One can hook up with this side trip from Ridgway, either in town, from the Golden Eagle development, or from 24 Road at the south end of Ridgway State Park (see the Ridgway account). The route travels through a variety of open and wooded habitats that support a goodly diversity of bird species, particularly in migration periods. In fact, about the largest mixed-species flocks of birds I've ever seen in Colorado was along this road. One house on the north side of 24 Road, at least as of this writing, has a very large number of large hummingbird feeders (as many as 12 in my experience) that can host an incredible number of hummers. Though I have seen nothing out of the ordinary (the typical four species in fall, Rufous, Calliope, Broad-tailed, and Black-chinned, are all quite regular and common), I have no doubt that the feeders have attracted or will attract rare species. Please watch the feeders from the road, unless given permission by the landowners to do otherwise.
Habitat - Grassland/Prairie, Pinyon-Juniper Forest, Foothill Shrub, Lowland Riparian
Directions - From the west side of Ridgway, take CO 62 west to 24A Road and turn north and go north to 24 Road and turn west. Follow 24 Road to an intersection where you will turn south to stay with 24 Road and then to another intersection where you will turn west to stay with 24 Road. This road will eventually take one back to Hwy 62. Alternatively, one can get on 24 Road north of Ridgway off US 550 south of Ridgway Reservoir.
Information Courtesy of www.ColoradoCountyBirding.com. Author(s): Tony Leukering
Other links of interest:
Colorado Birding Trail