Top down, with the warm wind blowing where my hair used to be, I turned my old Miata onto another gravel, country road. The Eastern Plains were flat and fairly featureless, so I could see for miles in every direction. I was alone, like I had been for the majority of the trip, so it really didn’t matter that I clearly wasn’t obeying the speed limit. But unlike others, when given the chance on an open road in a sports car, I wasn’t trying to see how fast it would go. I was crawling along, doing maybe 20 mph. Instead of keeping my eyes out for the cops, I was scanning the countryside for critters.
Wildlife watching in Colorado is a very popular pursuit in normal years, but this is not a normal year (how many times have you read that in 2020?). Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, many people have traded stay-at-home guidelines for safer-in-the-mountains-looking-for-elk guidelines. With many people working from home, or simply not working, traffic in the metro areas has been much less than usual. But not in the mountains — traffic on the roads in and out looks like a five-day holiday weekend. Wildlife watchers looking for a social-distancing getaway should just get away and head east to the plains.
The Eastern Plains of Colorado is essentially all the area between the Front Range and Kansas. Basically, if you are east of Interstate 25, you’re on the Eastern Plains. Many travelers view this vast area as the price you have to pay to get to or from the mountains. But they should just slow their roll and appreciate the solemn beauty all around them.
This is the point in a blog post, where I would normally give directions to a specific area or two where the reader could go and see a variety of wildlife species, but this time it’s different. Just get in your vehicle and drive east beyond your city limits, and go awhile until you reach a gravel road and take a left or a right. After awhile, chances are that traffic and other vehicles won’t be an issue. Slow down and look – it’s that easy.
On one of my plains cruises in my Miata this summer, I had pulled off onto the shoulder to photograph a bull snake that I had almost run over. I scooted the snake off the road and into the ditch. While I was clicking away, an old SUV stopped, and the driver checked to see what I was doing. After a chat about snakes, I told him that I had been out photographing lark buntings, Colorado’s state birds. I had to describe them to him. He said he had never seen one. But the thing is, that day they were everywhere — in flocks of hundreds. By driving fast, not knowing what to look for, he saw birds but had not SEEN lark buntings.
Wildlife watchers cruising the Eastern Plains are likely to see mammals such as: pronghorn, mule and white-tailed deer, coyotes, prairie dogs, 13-lined groundsquirrels, jackrabbits and cottontails, red foxes, raccoons and skunks. They are less likely to see: badgers, kit and swift foxes, bobcats and bison (but the bison are most likely on a ranch or a refuge and are not considered truly wild). The Holy Grail of plains wildlife is the black-footed ferret.
Bird watchers better bring binoculars and a guide or two, because the varieties of hawks, falcons, owls (be on the lookout for burrowing owls in particular), finches, waterfowl, quail, upland gamebirds, shorebirds and sparrows (including lark buntings) are vast. Roadrunners are a distinct possibility in some areas of the state.
While driving along, also keep your eyes on the road ahead. Bullsnakes, rattlesnakes, painted and box turtles, amphibians, etc. are all likely to be encountered on the country roads, and are particularly vulnerable to automobiles. If conditions allow, let them pass.
When I go out, I try to lose myself in nature — without getting lost. I take my Miata for a number of reasons: It’s fun. With the top down, the field of view is unbeatable. In it, I sit about two feet lower than in my truck bringing me closer to the critters. And getting close to wildlife is what this is all about.
The article and photos are by Wayne D. Lewis. Wayne is the editor and art director of Colorado Outdoors. He is based in Denver.