Author(s): Nathan Pieplow
County Seat: Alamosa
County Size: 719 square miles
Low Elevation: 7,499 ft. - Rio Grande River on the Conejos border
High Elevation : 14,345 ft. - Blanca Peak
Best Birds : White Ibis (1998), Magnificent Hummingbird (1992)
Checklist : Download pdf | View HTML
Introduction: At the heart of the San Luis Valley, Alamosa County has a little bit of everything, but not all of it is easy to access. The jewels of the county are several excellent state parks and wildlife refuges, including a Nature Conservancy preserve, that provide access to fantastic wetland habitats in addition to extensive semidesert flats. The city of Alamosa, meanwhile, offers some very decent birding. Nice PJ can be found on public land in the northeast, as can higher montane habitats all the way to tundra, but to reach most of them you'll have to do some very strenuous hiking. The Nature Conservancy attaches a very high value to the county and the region for its natural wonders--and rightly so.
San Luis Lakes
Description - San Luis Lake State Park, home to the largest body of water in the county, is probably the single best place to find shorebirds and diving ducks in migration, although the Alamosa NWR and the Blanca Wetlands would certainly give it a run for its money (and would beat it handily during the breeding season). A state parks fee is required to view the lake. On the way in, stop to check out the canal, as it can provide close views of diving ducks and/or swallows depending on time of year. The road to the campground provides access to most of the west shore of the lake, but if you want closer views of things to the east, you may have to do some hiking.
Through the state park, past the campground, is the gate to San Luis Lakes State Wildlife Area, where the rest of the San Luis Lakes are. These smaller ponds can be great for waterbirds of all kinds, but they are closed to the public during spring and summer to protect nests.
The entire area of the state park and the state wildlife area is covered with saltbush/sage habitats. Sage Thrasher and Brewer's Sparrow breed throughout.
URL - San Luis Lakes
Habitat - Pond/Lake/Reservoir, Sagebrush
Directions - From US 160 fourteen miles east of Alamosa and five miles west of Blanca, turn north on CO 150 and proceed 13.5 miles to the intersection with Six Mile Lane (CR 6N). Turn left on Six Mile Lane and head west eight miles to the park entrance on the right. Alternatively, from CO 17 just north of the tiny town of Mosca, head east on Six Mile Lane about eight miles to the park entrance on the left.
Delorme - 81 C5
Roads of Colorado - 135 E2
Colorado Roads & Recreation - 114 G1-F2
Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
Aliases - Mosca Pass Trail
Description - Although the majority of the park and preserve lies in Saguache County, the part accessible by passenger vehicle is almost entirely in Alamosa County. (The county line runs due east-west just north of the campground loop.) The sand dunes themselves, though magnificently scenic, support no vegetation and thus essentially no birdlife. The rest of the park is another matter. The hillsides along the main park road access excellent pinyon-juniper forest, as does the campground loop. Any of the PJ in the park could produce Pinyon Jay, Bushtit, Mountain Bluebird and many other species. A couple of streams escape the Sangres along the entrance road, and stringers of riparian habitat follow them some distance out onto the plains. In the riparian areas look for Red-naped Sapsucker, Downy Woodpecker, Dusky and Cordilleran Flycatchers, Spotted Towhee, and Lewis' Woodpecker (populations variable). A semi-recent burn across the road from the Visitor Center may be worth special attention if you are looking for woodpeckers. If you have time to hike, the Mosca Pass trail is highly recommended. In addition to the habitats already mentioned it also samples good mixed-conifer forest and various montane shrubland and willow habitats. Those with sturdy legs should be able to get up into areas with Hammond's Flycatcher, Wilson's Warbler, Lincoln's Sparrow and the like. A Winter Wren was found singing two miles up this trail in June 2005.
URL - Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
Habitat - Pinyon-Juniper Forest, Lowland Riparian, Burn Area, Foothill Shrub, Sagebrush, Mixed Conifer Forest, Streamside Willow
Directions - From US 160 fourteen miles east of Alamosa and five miles west of Blanca, turn north on CO 150 and proceed about sixteen miles north to the park entrance. Alternatively, from CO 17 just north of the tiny town of Mosca, head east on Six Mile Lane (CR 6N) sixteen miles to a T intersection, then turn left onto CO 150 towards the park entrance.
Delorme - 81 C6
Roads of Colorado - 135 F2
Colorado Roads & Recreation - 114 G2-C3
Description - (Contributed by Ted Floyd): This private preserve encompasses more than 100,000 acres of playas, greasewood/rabbitbrush desert, and mixed broadleaf/coniferous woodlands. For permission to visit this site, please contact The Nature Conservancy (TNC) of Colorado. Note that birding trips and workshops are offered throughout the year; some are free, others have a registration fee, but all require that you sign up in advance.
A good starting point is the headquarters complex, surrounded by mixed woodlands and overgrown fields. A March 2005 TNC workshop produced five species of owls (Western Screech-Owl, Great Horned Owl, Northern Pygmy-Owl, and Long-eared and Northern Saw-whet Owls) right on the grounds of the headquarters complex. A June 2006 workshop produced Gray Flycatcher, Gray Vireo, and Juniper Titmouse (all uncommon at best in the eastern San Luis Valley), plus a rich variety of owls, nightjars, and riparian-associated passerines. Peregrine Falcon and Black Swift (probably sentries from breeding sites in the nearby Sangre de Cristo Mountains) are possible.
The vast tract of desert north and west of the headquarters is good for breeding Sage Thrasher, Sage Sparrow, and Brewer's Sparrow. During March, the passage of Mountain Bluebirds through the desert habitats is quite heavy. Plantings around outbuildings and abandoned homesteads attract breeding Say's Phoebe and Loggerhead Shrike, among others. In winter and during migration, many of the species that occur at Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge can be found in the desert portions of the Medano-Zapata Ranch: diverse waterfowl and raptors, plus Sandhill Cranes (migration only). Several wet meadows and ponds (notably Dollar Lake) are good for aquatic species from early spring through late fall.
Given its vastness and the full protection that it currently receives, the Medano-Zapata Ranch has considerable potential for the discovery of biologically significant concentrations of uncommon breeders and migrants. Please file trip reports with TNC staff, who will incorporate data on bird sightings into management and conservation plans for the ranch.
URL - Medano-Zapata Ranch
Habitat - Lowland Riparian, Foothill Shrub, Greasewood/Rabbitbrush,, Marsh
Directions - From US 160 fourteen miles east of Alamosa and five miles west of Blanca, turn north on CO 150 and proceed about ten miles north to the ranch entrance on the left (west).
Delorme - 81 C6
Roads of Colorado - 135 F3
Colorado Roads & Recreation - 114 G3
Description - Perched at the top of the highest public road in the county, Zapata Falls is a wonderfully cool spot both literally and figuratively. After driving up the road through several miles of excellent PJ and hiking the hot, dusty half mile up to the falls, the perpetual cool breeze in the canyon will feel terrific. Below the falls, a few mid-elevation riparian cottonwoods and spruces support the likes of Hermit Thrush and Yellow-rumped Warbler, but the real prizes are the American Dippers and Black Swifts that nest at the falls themselves. Although the swifts outnumber the dippers manyfold, they are much harder to see unless you are here near dawn or dusk. If you want to bird the only true high-mountain part of Alamosa County, outfit yourself for a major hike and continue past the falls up the steep, challenging South Zapata Lake Trail.
Habitat - Pinyon-Juniper Forest, Lowland Riparian, Stream
Directions - From US 160 fourteen miles east of Alamosa and five miles west of Blanca, turn north on CO 150 and proceed about eleven miles to the turnoff, signed for Zapata Falls, on the right (east). The steeply winding gravel road rises about 3.5 miles to the parking lot for the falls.
Delorme - 81 C6
Roads of Colorado - 135 F3
Colorado Roads & Recreation - 114 G3
Description - Unfortunately, this area is closed to the public from February 15 to July 15, but when it is open, it can be one of the best birding spots in the county. Numerous ponds and marshes support essentially all the breeding and migratory waterbirds of the area. The real ornithological jewel here is a breeding population of Snowy Plover, but you will be lucky to find one. Before birding here, you might want to stop at the BLM office in Monte Vista or the one in Del Norte to pick up a map, since the geography of the place has no rhyme or reason, and it's very easy to get lost.
Habitat - Sagebrush, Marsh, Pond/Lake/Reservoir
Directions - From the intersection of US 160 and CO 17 in Alamosa, head five miles north and turn right (east) on CR 2S. Proceed seven miles east to the entrance gate.
Delorme - 81 D5
Roads of Colorado - 135 E3
Colorado Roads & Recreation - 114 H1
Aliases - Cattails Golf Course
Description - This is the largest town and the informal capital of the San Luis Valley. The highlight for birders is the riverwalk along the Rio Grande through much of town. Barn, Cliff, Tree and Bank Swallows can be seen over the river in summer--this is one of the only reliable locations in the SLV for Bank Swallow. In areas where the river supports cattails, especially just south of the US 160 bridge, look for breeding Pied-billed Grebe, Sora, Spotted Sandpiper, Yellow-headed Blackbird, Great-tailed Grackle, etcetera. The riverwalk is accessible from several areas throughout town, but perhaps the easiest access is through the park just north of the library. To get there, take two quick right turns after you cross the Rio Grande on US 160 heading west. The tall trees here may attract migrant warblers and the like, but the better riparian stuff is west of State Avenue, farther north and west along the riverwalk. If you head south across US 160 in search of marsh birds, be very careful--traffic moves very fast and is hard to see coming.
Another place worth visiting in town is the Alamosa Ranch Grazing Area and Open Space, on the north end of town along State Avenue. Several manmade ponds here may attract shorebirds, ducks, or other waterbirds depending on season. The marshes at the aptly-named Cattails Golf Course across the street to the west have breeding Great-tailed Grackle and Yellow-headed Blackbird, and probably rails to boot. The trees at the Golf Course have attracted some excellent eastern vagrant passerines in the past.
Habitat - Urban/Suburban, Lowland Riparian, Marsh
Directions - Alamosa is located at the junctions of US 160, US 285 and CO 17, seventy miles west of Walsenburg. To get to the Alamosa Ranch or the Cattails Golf Course, from US 160 in downtown, head north on State Avenue across the river. The golf course is on the left (west), the ranch and open space on the right (east).
Delorme - 90 A3-A4
Roads of Colorado - 135 D4
Colorado Roads & Recreation - 125 B11
South River Road (CR S-112)
Description - This road south of Alamosa offers some good birding opportunities, especially in spring when many of the fields flood. The resulting wet meadows and ponds can produce everything from coots and ducks to Wilson's Snipe, White-faced Ibis (possibly breeding), and American Bittern if you are lucky. The good habitat extends south almost to the Conejos County line.
Habitat - Wet Meadow
Directions - From the intersection of US 160 and State Avenue in downtown Alamosa, head south on State Avenue five blocks and turn left (east) on 10th Street. Follow 10th five blocks east to a T intersection with Old Airport Road and turn right (south). In two blocks, keep left to follow South River Road out of town.
Delorme - 90 A4
Roads of Colorado - 135 D4, 151 D1
Colorado Roads & Recreation - 125 B12-C12
Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge
Description - The marshes along the refuge auto tour loop may well be the best in the state, and are reliable for almost every marsh bird including Sora, Virginia Rail, American Bittern and Great-tailed Grackle. Marsh Wrens are frighteningly common. There is not a whole lot of open water along the tour route, but you should find a few ducks and coots, and maybe an avocet or even a stilt. Keep an eye out overhead for raptors and for Sandhill Cranes in migration.
Road S-116, which runs south along the east side of the refuge, provides some good scanning opportunities for ponds to the west, which, though distant, are better than other parts of the refuge for ducks, grebes and shorebirds. One good pond is two miles south of the start of the road, and another is just west of the hunter's access parking lot at 2.9 miles south. You cannot leave the road in this direction, so it's best to bring a scope and get here early, before heat shimmer messes up the view. The southern pond in particular is good for breeding Eared Grebe, White-faced Ibis, American Avocet and Black-necked Stilt. South of there, the two-mile Bluff Overlook loop might net you a distant duck or heron--Eurasian Wigeon has been seen from here. The saltbush flats to the east of the road, especially in the area across from the hunter's access parking lot, can be full of Sage Sparrows in spring and summer, not to mention Vesper and Brewer's Sparrows and Sage Thrasher.
URL - Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge
Habitat - Sagebrush, Marsh, Pond/Lake/Reservoir
Directions - From the intersection of CO 17 and US 160 in Alamosa, head east on US 160 2.9 miles to El Rancho Lane (CR S-113) and turn right (south). The NWR visitor center is 2.3 miles south on El Rancho Lane. To get to road S-116, from El Rancho Lane two miles south of US 160, head east on a nameless and unsigned dirt road for three miles, then turn right (south) onto S-116. Contra most maps, there is no access to this portion of S-116 from US 160.
Delorme - 90 A4, 91 A5
Roads of Colorado - 135 D4-E4, 151 E1
Colorado Roads & Recreation - 125 B12-C12, 126 B1-C1