This time of year is one of my favorite times to visit Pawnee National Grassland for bird photography, one of reasons for this it’s where you can surely find Colorado’s state bird, the Lark Bunting, in summer time of course. So if you are interested in visiting place and wanting to get some kick ass bird photographs, here is a typical summer day from my experience, approximately 4 hour stop and go drive and early 5:15am arrival. For this post, all photos (unless noted) were taken on June 10th, 2017.
Pawnee National Grassland is huge, for this post though, all pictures were taken within the self guided tour, which is located on County Road 96. There’s no physical address for this place that I know of, so I just used Crow Valley Recreational Area, and plugged the address into my GPS 44741 County Road 77, Briggsdale, CO 80611, which is about 1 mileish south of County Road 96 where the self guided birding tour begins. The roads are gravel, my car handles it find though if you have a bigger vehicle the ride will be smoother.
If you have never been to Pawnee National Grassland for the birding tour then I have a few recommendations for you that I’ve had to find out the hard way…..
- Fill up the gas tank BEFORE you head out here. Nearest gas station is not near, at all, plus the tour is 21 miles long.
- Bring mosquito spray, especially if you are there early in the morning, which brings me to…
- Get there early for the most activity, a pretty general rule for all wildlife photography.
- Download and print this map, it helps you get around and what you can expect to see.
- Bring a cooler full of water and energy drinks (my preference of course) and snack.
- Bring the longest lens you have and something to stabilize it with when shooting from the car.
So i was running a little late today driving from Denver and didn’t arrive to the birding tour entrance until about 15 minutes before sunrise, still in time for a sunrise picture of some wildflower but had to rush a little to set up my bird photography camera gear. Wildflowers weren’t as wild as the last summer I was here two years ago.
So after this I was eager to get some awesome bird photographs but needed a bit more light to bump my ISO down on my D610. I don’t like to go below ISO 800 with the D610 and the D7100 I always try and keep it below ISO 400, as you can see there’s quite a bit of noise with the d7100 at ISO 800.
Soon as I drove past the 1st kiosk I seen a fluffy black and white tail off of the side of the road. Got some good opportunities to shoot this Striped Skunk even though he wasn’t moving away from the tall grass, so I just did the best I could and then let him be.
Western Meadowlarks filled the grass fields with there songs, and seen several perched up on the fence line. Didn’t get any good video footage though due to too much wind.
Throughout the entire 21 mile drive I saw about 10 Pronghorn. Fun fact, no mammal can run long distance as far as a Pronghorn can, and at 55mph these suckers can haul ass. Luckily they’re pretty easy to photograph when they are still.
I would give my estimate of Lark Bunting sightings at about 25, and definitely heard many more than that. If you are coming here to photograph Lark Buntings then I recommend right by Tour Stops 1,2,3 and look along the fences, although they can be seen the entire tour this is the best spot from my personal experience.
Around stops 5 and 6 I got to see a Burrowing Owl in some pretty awesome light, although he flew way before I could shut the car off and shoot a steady shot.
At about stop 7, Grasshopper Sparrows began to be a little bit more widespread. They can be heard singing everywhere for pretty much the rest of the birding tour.
Two White Pelicans made a quick flyover as well.
Some of the other birds I seen a lot of throughout the day were Horned Larks and Eastern Kingbirds.
Overall it was a decent day for bird photography. I missed a lot of shots seen a group of hawks hovering in the wind, but they were too far for a decent photo, not sure what kind they were but to me it really doesn’t matter if the photo sucks. Unless they were super rare, which they weren’t. Only mistake I made this time was I didn’t check the weather to see how much wind was expected. I really wanted to get some good video/audio footage of the Meadowlarks, Grasshopper Sparrows and Buntings singing. So if you’ve experienced bird photography at Pawnee National Grassland in Colorado, please leave a comment and share your experience!