Author(s): Andrew Spencer, Jim Beatty, Nathan Pieplow
County Seat: Cortez
County Size: 2,038 square miles
Low Elevation: 4,598 ft. - San Juan River on the UT border
High Elevation : 13,232 ft. - Hesperus Mountain
Best Birds : Hooded Oriole (2006), Common Moorhen (1992)
Checklist : Download pdf | View HTML
Introduction: The southwestern cornerstone of Colorado, Montezuma County is a land of contrasts. It contains such well-known landmarks as Mesa Verde National Park and the Four Corners, lesser-known National Monuments like Hovenweep and Canyons of the Ancients, reservoirs large and small, parched desert canyons, and lush coniferous mountain forests. It is also a land of bitter ironies, as evidenced by its namesake and that of its county seat. The southern half of the county is part of the Ute Mountain Indian Reservation, which is essentially off limits to birders. This underbirded county would be a great place to find Colorado's next first state record...Rufous-backed Robin, anyone?
Aliases - Ismay Trading Post
Description - The riparian habitat along this canyon is difficult to bird from the road, but can produce Black Phoebe, which have been found breeding at the Road J bridge in some recent summers. Cassin's Kingbird is possible. The rocks can have Rock and Canyon Wrens. This is the best area in the county for Black-throated Sparrow, Gambel's Quail and Ring-necked Pheasant - in the latter case, just drive the road and hope you see one walking or flying across the road. The quail and sparrows are best found at the Ismay Trading Post near the Utah state line.
Since the discovery of Lucy's Warbler in Yellow Jacket Canyon a few have been seen along McElmo Canyon as well. The best bet would be to drive to places where the riparian approached or crosses the road and listed from there. Also, a pair was heard and seen in 2007 along the tiny patch of public land on Yellow Jacket creek north of the Ismay Trading Post; to get to the site head north from the trading post on the dirt road, take a left at the first fork, and drive to the "private property" sign in 100 feet or so. Walk straight west from here to the riparian and listen from there. The birds were actually slightly upstream in the private land but easily audible from the public property. Please use caution here and everywhere else in McElmo Canyon to stay on public land.
Habitat - Rimrock/Mesa, Lowland Riparian, Stream
Directions - From Cortez, head west on US 160 to the intersection with CR G, which is half a mile south of the McElmo Creek crossing south and west of town. Turn right (west) on CR G. The CR J bridge is on the right, about seven miles west of the highway. The Ismay Trading post is about seventeen miles farther.
Delorme - 84 B1-B3
Roads of Colorado - 144 A1-C1
Yellow Jacket Canyon
Description - This ribbon of riparian habitat is the undisputed crown jewel of southwestern birding locations. Yellow Jacket Creek has water flowing through it all year, and an extensive riparian corridor lines it for at least two miles. Unfortunately, much of it, including the best stuff, is on private property.
The reason most birders come here is to look for Lucy's Warbler, first discovered breeding here in 2004 and seen in numbers every summer since then. A pair typically nests right on the public property boundary (see below), and up to three other pairs have been seen upstream from there on public land. They usually arrive in late April and are present through July, though they get increasingly harder to find after mid-June.
Lucy's Warblers are far from the only reason to come, though. Summer Tanagers have maintained territories here in 2006 and 2007 and likely breed; rarities such as Yellow-throated Vireo have been seen, and the potential here is phenomenal. Gray Vireo is common along the road in, along with other PJ species such as Pinyon Jay, Common Poorwill, Black-throated Gray Warbler, Black-throated Sparrow, and others. A few Scott's Orioles can typically be found in the sparser PJ closer to McElmo Canyon.
Habitat - Pinyon/Juniper Forest, Lowland Riparian, Stream
Directions - From the intersection of McElmo Canyon Road (CR G) and US-160/491 just south of Cortez head west on CR G for 20.2 miles to an unmarked and gated road on the right. Open the gate and head north for 2.4 miles, heading straight over the cattle guard at a junction at 1.5 miles, past a National Monument sign for Cannonball Mesa, well off the road. Just before the junction at 2.4 miles you will cross a (usually) dry arroyo. Take a left at 2.4 miles onto an inconspicuous and rough track. Drive down it as far as you can and walk the rest of the way (about 1.5 miles total; bring water!). When you get towards the end of the road, you'll be getting close to the top of some short rimrock cliffs above the cottonwood gallery. If you're in the right place, the road should split shortly before the cliff. Take the right (lower) fork, but watch for a broken-down, unposted fenceline. Do not follow the road through the fenceline--it is the beginning of private property that birders are specifically forbidden from accessing. Instead follow the fenceline to the right, until you reach the top of the short cliff. Below you you'll see how the road does a hairpin turn and comes back out into public land through the continuation of the fenceline. Head right (northeast) along the cliff until you find a safe place to descend. Stay east of the fence. In 2006, at least one Lucy's territory seemed to stretch along about 100 meters of stream bottom, roughly centered on the fenceline. Everything down-canyon from here is private property; you can bird upstream from here to about the first side canyon on the right and stay on public land.
To navigate around this area you will probably want to use the Bowdish Canyon Quadrangle topographic map or the Cortez area BLM map.
Delorme - 84 B1
Roads of Colorado - 128 B4
Description - Can be good for migrating flocks of ducks and gulls in early spring and late fall. Swallows sometimes abound over the water and shorebirds are possible. To view the west end, take the first gravel road west of the reservoir where there are two stiles for crossing the fence.
Habitat - Pond/Lake/Reservoir
Directions - From the center of Cortez, head west on US 160 and then north on US 491 (formerly US 666) about nine miles, then take a right (east) onto CO 184. Narraguinnep Reservoir is on the left (north) side of the road in about 1.5 miles.
Delorme - 84 A3
Roads of Colorado - 129 D3
Description - The water level in this reservoir varies enormously, from completely dry to overfull. Waterbird potential varies accordingly. The forests on the east and north sides around the campground are all ponderosa, with good potential for Dusky Flycatchers (look also for Gray and Hammond's), Orange-crowned, MacGillivray's, Grace's and (in open areas with oak understory) Virginia's Warblers, Flammulated and Northern Saw-whet Owls, and (especially in aspen groves) Williamson's and Red-naped Sapsuckers. Dusky Grouse and accipiters are possible. CR 31 becomes FR 526 which continues into Dolores County.
Habitat - Pond/Lake/Reservoir, Ponderosa Forest, Aspen Grove, Scrub Oak Forest
Directions - From the center of Dolores take CR 31 (FR 526) due north to bird the ponderosa areas on this plateau. Take a left onto FR 528 about six miles north of Dolores to get to the McPhee Reservoir campground.
Delorme - 85 A4, 75 D4
Roads of Colorado - 129 D3
Aliases - Riverside Park
Description - The town of Dolores has some very good sewage ponds and some decent riparian areas along the Dolores River. The sewage ponds, on the west end of town near McPhee Reservoir, can be viewed by turning west at the church on the south side of Dolores and driving to the ponds on a dirt road (road 28) toward the cemetery. However, this road can be impassable in wet weather. They are one of the best places in the county for ducks in the colder months, especially diving ducks. Barrow's Goldeneye are fairly regular in Spring and Greater Scaup are possible. Swallows congregate here in huge numbers in spring and fall.
Farther east in town, the city storage pond can be found on the river side of the main drag right next to Riverside Park, where you can access a footpath through some very nice riparian habitat. You might find a dipper here, particularly in winter.
Northeast of Dolores along CO 145 there are quite a few large ponds, especially in an area between about 5 and 10 miles from town. All of these reservoirs are private, but several are scannable from the road. The lack of shoulder along this stretch makes the rest difficult or impossible to bird.
Habitat - Pond/Lake/Reservoir, Lowland Riparian, Stream
Directions - From US 160 just east of Cortez, head north on CO 145. When the highway starts to descend a large hill and the town of Dolores comes into view at the bottom, pull over and walk to the west side of the highway in order to look down over the river at the ponds. Alternatively, head into town and turn left (west) at the church.
Delorme - 85 A4
Roads of Colorado - 129 E4
Description - During winter and migration this is one of the best single stops in the county. Scan the water for rarities including Pacific Loon, Red-breasted Merganser, Wood Duck, Am. White Pelicans, gulls, terns, waders and shorebirds which have included Dunlin. When the water levels are low, shorebirds can be fairly common (in season), and other water birds are often on the lake itself. The northeast corner of the lake requires a long walk to scan well. During migration the PJ on the east side is worth walking and unusual sightings have included Magnolia Warbler and Grasshopper Sparrow.
Habitat - Pond/Lake/Reservoir, Pinyon/Juniper Forest
Directions - From Cortez, head east on US 160 past the junction with CO 145 to CR 29 and turn left (north). Totten is north of US 160 about a mile.
Delorme - 85 B4
Roads of Colorado - 129 D4
Description - This and the next location seem to be in ice for a larger portion of the year than other lakes in the county. However, they are still worth a check. This lake is fairly hard to scan from any one location. Grace's Warbler can be found in the ponderosa on the northeast side of the lake.
Habitat - Pond/Lake/Reservoir, Ponderosa Forest
Directions - From the town of Mancos along US 160 east of Cortez, head north on CO 184 approximately eight miles to the lake, which is on the left (south), nearly surrounded by subdivisions.
Delorme - 85 A5
Roads of Colorado - 129 E4
Description - Unlike the previous location, this reservoir can be quite easily scanned from one location. Also like the previous location, this is not a terribly productive lake. The vegetation around the edges may be worth a look for passerines.
Habitat - Pond/Lake/Reservoir, Pinyon-Juniper Forest, Sagebrush
Directions - Follow directions as to Summit Reservoir, but continue past it about three miles to CR 33. Head south on 33 for one mile, then turn left (east) onto the SWA access road, which sometimes requires 4WD. The reservoir is about a mile and a half down the access road.
Delorme - 85 A5
Roads of Colorado - 129 E4
Description - This is among the most productive bodies of water in the county, with large flocks of ducks present in the spring and fall. Scanning this lake can be hard due to some thick surrounding vegetation, but most of the lake can be scanned from the roads on either side. The road on the eastern side provides a bit better views, but some locations on the lake are not visible from here.
Habitat - Pond/Lake/Reservoir
Directions - From US 160 at Mancos, head north on CO 184 about two miles to CR 41 (to scan the east side) or three miles to CR 40 (to scan from the west). In either case head north from CO 184 about half a mile to the lake.
Delorme - 85 A6
Roads of Colorado - 129 F4
Aliases - Bear Creek Trailhead
Description - The road south of Rico has some of the most accessible high-elevation forests in the county. Look for dippers along the river, and typical mountain forest birds in the trees. One of the best spots is eight miles east of Stoner on the south side of the highway, at the Bear Creek Trailhead. Here you will find mid-elevation riparian cottonwoods, aspens and mixed conifers. You may be able to find breeders including Swainson's Thrush, American Dipper, Spotted Sandpiper, Western Tanager, Warbling Vireo, etcetera.
Habitat - Mixed Conifer Forest, Stream
Directions - From US 160 on the east side of Cortez, head north on CO 145. Continue through the town of Dolores up the Dolores River towards Rico.
Delorme - 75 D5-D7
Roads of Colorado - 129 E3-F3, 130 A3
Mesa Verde National Park
Description - This park has lots of PJ, ponderosa, and canyons, with associated birds. Spotted Owls breed in the park, but are almost impossible to find. Most of their habitat is off-limits, and driving the park roads at night is strongly discouraged by park staff. The use of tapes is prohibited.
URL - Mesa Verde National Park
Habitat - Rimrock/Mesa, Pinyon/Juniper Forest
Directions - The road into the national park heads south from US 160 about seven miles east of Cortez and seven miles west of Mancos.
Delorme - 85 B5-C4
Roads of Colorado - 145 E1-E2
Hovenweep National Monument
Description - Most of this small, disjunct, remote and rarely-visited National Monument is in Utah, but the Hackberry Unit, a beauty of a spot, resides in Montezuma County. The PJ forests around the parking area are pristine, and harbor Gray Flycatcher, Gray Vireo, Juniper Titmouse, and Black-throated Sparrow, in addition to the more common PJ species and Rock and Canyon Wrens. Sage Sparrows can be found in some of the more open areas. Scott's Oriole should be looked for, but not expected. When birding here, keep in mind that the cryptobiotic soil in the area is very fragile and can be completely destroyed by your footprints. Please stay on the trails or on the road.
The hike to the Hackberry Ruins takes you to a permanent water seep, a rare thing in this parched desert. Cooper's Hawks often nest in the small stand of hackberry around the seep, and the trees can also function as a migrant trap in spring and fall. However, please refrain from trespassing in restricted areas, including the seep itself, which is fragile.
URL - Hovenweep National Monument
Habitat - Pinyon/Juniper Forest, Rimrock/Mesa, Sagebrush, Lowland Riparian
Directions - From Cortez: head west on US 160 to the intersection with CR G, which is half a mile south of the McElmo Creek crossing south and west of town. Turn right (west) on CR G and take it all the way into Utah. Four miles into Utah, take a right (sign for Hovenweep). Take this road 4 miles to another right turn. In another five miles at a T intersection, turn right again. This road will take you past the entrance to the Square Towers Unit of the National Monument, where the Visitor's Center is located; all this is still in Utah. Continue past the Square Towers Unit 3.9 miles to a rough road heading south from what is now Montezuma CR 10. The first parking lot along this track (about 1.5 miles) is the parking lot for the Hackberry Ruins. This area can also be accessed from the north: from US 491 (nee 666) some eighteen miles northwest of Cortez, take CR CC west 5.5 miles to CR 10, which will take you to the Hackberry entrance road. Note that the Hackberry road may not be signed, and it is easy to miss--if you hit Utah, you've gone too far!
Delorme - 84 A1
Roads of Colorado - 128 A4
Aliases - Cottonwood Park, Jackson Gulch Reservoir, Jersey Jim Flats, Shark's Tooth Trail, Weber Reservoir
Description - Walking around the town of Mancos could produce birds at feeders, including hummingbirds, and there is potential for migrant passerines especially along the Mancos River. The Mancos Riverwalk provides some access to this riparian corridor from a parking lot right behind the high school. A better place to bird is probably Cottonwood Park, just west of Spruce Street on the north side of the river. This spot is good for Lewis's and Downy Woodpeckers, Bullock's Oriole, Black-headed Grosbeak, Yellow Warbler, Lesser Goldfinch, etcetera. The Mancos Cemetery south of town may also be worth a look, though it is high and dry--Ladder-backed Woodpecker has been reported from here.
Purple Martins and high elevation birds can be found north of Mancos toward the west side of the LaPlata Mountains. On CO 184 just north of Mancos turn east on 42 Rd which becomes FR 561. Mancos Reservoir (a.k.a Jackson Gulch Reservoir), the focus of Mancos State Park, is on this route, but usually doesn't have much in the way of waterbirds, although the park has some good Ponderosa and oak habitats. Continue about 7 miles to a small sign to Box Canyon on the right. Turn right and park at the end of this short deadend. The Box Canyon trail descends into the west branch of the Mancos River, crosses the river a short distance downstream and continues up the east side of the valley. Purple Martins nest in the aspens in the clearings at the top and on toward Green Beal Spring. This is at least an hour's hike one-way.
An easier spot to find Purple Martins is farther up FR 561 in the Jersey Jim Flats area where FR 350 turns east. The martins have been seen at the junction of FR 350 and FR 561.
An excellent spot for high elevation birds like nutcrackers, Gray Jays, and Three-toed Woodpeckers is farther up FR 350 to the trailhead for the Shark's Tooth Trail. The route number changes, so always follows the signs to the Shark's Tooth Trail. This is only accessible in summer and early fall.
Weber Reservoir may be worth a visit when you are in the Mancos area. Although private, it is scannable from FR 566 after it turns east. Mornings would be best.
Habitat - Urban/Suburban, Lowland Riparian, Stream, Pond/Lake/Reservoir, Ponderosa Forest, Scrub Oak Forest, Aspen Grove, Spruce-Fir Forest
Directions - Mancos is along US 160 about fifteen miles east of Cortez. To get to the Riverwalk, turn south from US 160 onto Beech and follow it to the parking lot behind the high school. To get to Cottonwood Park, turn south from US 160 onto Spruce at the west end of town and follow it to the river. To get to the cemetery, from the intersection of US 160 and CO 184 in the center of town, head straight south on CR 41 through town and about a mile south of it to the cemetery on the left (east). To get to Weber Reservoir, head east from town on US 160 about two miles to a left (north) turn onto CR 44. FOllow this north two-and-a-half miles. When the pavement ends, continue straight on FR 566. The reservoir will be on the left just after the road turns right in half a mile.
Delorme - 85 A6-A7
Roads of Colorado - 129 F4
Lone Dome State Wildlife Area (Montezuma section)
Description - This is a good spot to visit in summer and during migration. Enter the river valley by driving into Dolores County, crossing the bridge at Lone Dome SWA and turning southeast to follow the river and FR 504 upstream. About 3 miles south of the bridge is the county line and then a small campground, the Cabin Canyon Recreation Site, which can be good. There is a fee for camping or picnicking here, but birders can get in free. The riparian stuff here has Lazuli Bunting, Blue Grosbeak, Yellow Warbler, etcetera. Peregrine Falcons have nested on the cliffs across the river and a Hooded Warbler was found here a few years ago.
Just over a mile south of the rec site you will see some marshes and willows on the right side of the road. Sora and Virginia Rail breed here, and the habitat looks like it might even attract a "Southwestern" Willow Flycatcher, though the habitat is limited. Starting about two miles south of the rec site you will find perhaps the finest riparian habitat on the Western Slope. The best stretch extends well over a half mile south, and good patches continue well beyond this one, although they peter out well before the McPhee Reservoir dam. Riparian is not the only attraction: you will also find scrub oak, ponderosa and PJ mixed all together up the slopes. The bridge over the river just below the McPhee Dam (just before the end of the road) should have potential for nesting Black Phoebe.
Habitat - Lowland Riparian, Stream, Cliff Face, Pinyon-Juniper Forest
Directions - From Dove Creek: drive south along US 491 to the little hamlet of Cahone (10 miles). Turn left (east) on CR R.00, then right on CR 16.00 (3 miles). Turn left on CR S.00 (1.3 miles). After you cross the river in about a mile, look for FR 504 on your right. From Cortez: drive north on US 491 about 17 miles to its intersection with CR 16 (about 3 miles past Yellow Jacket and 1 mile short of Pleasant View). Turn right (north) on CR 16 and right again on CR S.00 (4.7 miles). After you cross the river in about a mile, look for FR 504 on your right.
Delorme - 74 D3
Roads of Colorado - 128 C2
Cortez Airport and adjoining farmland
Description - The roads around and south of the Cortez airport can be good for hawks and sparrows in winter and migration. A good spot for sparrows is the road into Yucca House, a unit of Mesa Verde NP. This can be reached by taking B Road west from US 160 and turning north on 20.5 Rd. At the end of the road enter through the unsigned gate to the left. Northern Shrike may be found here in winter and Loggerhead in summer.
Habitat - Grassland/Prairie
Directions - The Airport and the road to Yucca House are off US 160/US 491 a few miles southwest of Cortez.
Delorme - 84 B3
Roads of Colorado - 144 C1, 145 D1