Birds make their migration trek through Colorado every spring and fall, and bird watchers make their own trek to see them. While Colorado offers many western mountain views, for bird lovers and binocular-toters, the Eastern Plains is the place to be.
The Colorado Division of Wildlife, Colorado State Parks and several other nature organizations teamed up to create the Colorado Birding Trail, a network of outdoor nature sites where visitors can view birds as well as other Colorado wildlife.
The Plover Trail is one such network in southeastern Colorado. Stretching along U.S. Highway 50, the 14 locations include free open spaces and privately owned ranches and camps. The range of birding and wildlife experiences, terrain and activities has earned its title, “the Trail That Has It All.”
It begins in La Junta, which offers sightings of Wood Duck on the town park pond, while Mississippi Kites are known to nest in the many trees. This offers a moderately urban wildlife habitat for those who don’t want to venture too far.
The next stop north of La Junta is the private Terry Ranch, which offers a more rugged experience. In the area’s prairie, canyons and bluffs, birders can sight Cassin’s Sparrow, Lark Bunting, Red-tailed Hawk, Great Horned Owl and American Kestrel.
Birders can lodge at the local La Junta Inn and take advantage of horseback riding on the ranch.
Bent’s Old Fort, also known as Oxbow State Wildlife Area, along the old Sante Fe Trail, offers a piece of history with its wildlife. Actors dressed in period costumes give guided tours of the 1800s frontier trading post, along with other “live history” activities.
The wildlife area combines grasslands, marshes and a cottonwood forest that’s home to the Black Rail and other birds.
Lake Cheraw, Horse Creek Reservoir State Wildlife Area (also known as Timber Lake) and Las Animas State Fishing Unit give bird watchers the opportunity to see water fowl and shore birds, including ducks, geese, plovers, American Bittern, grebes and egrets.
The shoreline of Lake Cheraw is privately owned, but wildlife can be seen from the road. Horse Creek is also visited by Pronghorn sheep from the surrounding plains, and the Fishing Unit offers muskrat sightings.
Adobe Creek Reservoir (Blue Lake) is another water and shore bird viewing site, and is home to birds such as Least Terns and Piping Plovers, as well as other wildlife, including rattlesnakes and other reptiles.
Shane’s Place is a privately owned addition to the John Martin Reservoir area. Its marshlands, grasslands and prairies along the Arkansas River make it a serious birding spot, attracting migrating flocks in spring, fall and winter, as well as year-round residents.
Las Animas is the halfway point and a good base for a Plover Trail trip. It offers three close locations: Bent’s Fort Inn Bird Sanctuary, Camp Walk-About Wildlife Area and Campgrounds, and Bent’s Fort Inn (Best Western).
The area around the town offers big trees, Purgatoire River and a nature boardwalk by the Arkansas River. Behind the inn, a walking trail will bring birders to feeder stations and a marsh dock that extends into the cattail habitat of many kinds of waterfowl.
Waterfowl, Burrowing Owls, prairie birds (including turkey) and other species can be spotted on the privately-owned campgrounds. Visitors can also take float and paddle boat trips on the river, as well as hike, bike, fish, dine and camp (with reservations).
At the Fort Lyon Wildlife Area and Fort Lyon Wildlife Easement (also known as Van’s Grove or Wood Thrush Grove), birders can spot Black Rail, sparrows, Screech Owls and Marsh Wren, among others.
The marsh and cattail habitat also offers an opportunity to hear Rail calls in the cool of a May evening, and the nearby thickets along the road offer opossum sightings.
The last stop on the Plover Trail is the John Martin Reservoir State Park (also known as Lake Hasty or Caddoa), which includes a campground. From the dam itself or the Visitor’s Center, birders can watch for waterbirds, shorebirds, Piping Plovers and Least Terns.
The surrounding yucca grasslands yield sightings of Cassin’s Sparrows and Ferruginous Hawks, as well as deer and rabbits.
If You Go
For more information about the Plover Trail or other Eastern Plains trails and stops, visit coloradobirdingtrail.com. The Web site also has information on Colorado Birding Trails elsewhere in Colorado.