Update on Swift Fox, Colorado

In June 2011 Jon Hall reported a site in Pawnee National Grasslands, Colorado, that at that time had badger and swift fox. An August 2013 update is as follows.

He suggested trying the abandoned town site of Keota, which is roughly equidistant from the cities / towns of Ft. Collins, Sterling, and Ft. Morgan. Highway 14 is a paved road running E / W through the scenic ranch and prairie land, and from it, CO dirt road 390 branches north, half way between the hamlets of Briggsdale and New Raymer. After about 3 miles (approx) a dirt road (CO 103) crosses this, and it was here in 2011 that the fox was present.

Alas, his luck is better than mine: other than one Burrowing Owl and one cottontail “sp,” in August 2013 I didn’t have zip here during the hour after sunset.

This could be due to four factors. (1) Fatigue. My wife and I had just driven a bit over 700 miles to try and hit this spot by dark, and I certainly was not at my twitchiest, keenest by this point in the day. Also, she was periodically saying things such as, “But I thought you had stopped caring about what number your mammal list was at?” (2) Rain. A super-cell type thunderstorm had just crashed through this part of the state, and so after waiting out the worst of the hail and the wind by an abandoned gas station, did we arrive on site too late (or too soon) after the rain stopped? Who knows. (3) Moonlight. After the storm moved through, half moon was out that night. Was that too much — or too little — light? But mostly I think the problem was (4), fracking. Energy extraction has come to this part of Colorado, and even at this obscure dirt crossroads, we were averaging tanker trucks (‘lorries,’ for our Commonwealth readers) every 7 and a half minutes. That tally includes a few ranch trucks and cattle haulers, but there was an astounding amount of backroad traffic highbeaming its way through this section of grassland.

After an hour, we gave up, and went to Ft. Morgan to sleep — prices were jacked up 25% compared to elsewhere in Colorado it seemed to me, and luckily we had a reservation, as even midweek, every hotel in town was booked up.

A better fox site to try I think would be the birder’s route, a bit west.

I have only been here in daylight (two visits) but it’s in a section of Pawnee Grassland not presently being used for wells, there is a good grid of roads (high clearance preferred but not essential), and habitat seems as healthy and “normal” as always. Birders come here for McCown’s Longspurs and Upland Sandpiper and Burrowing Owls and so on. In daylight, main mammals would be range cattle, prairie dogs, and pronghorn antelope, but I would have to think at night it would be as good as any other place for short grass prairie mammal species.

To reach this approx 10 mile loop, go to Briggsdale, E of Ft. Collins on paved road 14. CR 77 is a paved road going north (and has a nice and seemingly rarely used campground just outside of town); take this road north and watch after approx 3 miles for a birder’s route sign posted on the left, at CR 96. This dirt road route connects various other roads only to come back out eventually on to 14 again. (Note: at the exit road’s connection with the 14, there’s a fork; two paved roads go off to the right. The second or slightly more distant of these is 14, heading back to Ft. Collins.)

I did not note mileages on this grid but ten miles or so would be a reasonable guess, and if done as a full loop, there are signs at most turns indicating which dirt road the birder route follows next. Most crossroads are labeled; if you pay attention, you would not get lost doing any combination of road sections, including just coming back out the way you come in. Near as I can tell, there is no restriction being inside this unit of the grasslands after dark.

During the day, there’s construction on 14, so we had long delays. I assume all the tanker trucks (up to 40 in a row during daylight) tear up roads intended for lighter traffic, so repairs of course are necessary. Don’t bring your best car on this trip (or if you rent, take out insurance): the trucks have labels on them that say “Not Responsible for Cracked Windshields.” And this claim apparently does indeed need to be stated, since we now have three cracks in our windshield from passing trucks.

Unrelated to mammals, but in daylight, if you want to try for longspurs, it seems to me that a mountain bike would be an ideal way to traverse the grassland roads without flushing sparrows as readily as cars usually do. If you like “wide open spaces,” this is really beautiful terrain.

Charles Hood, Palmdale, California

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2 Comments on “Update on Swift Fox, Colorado”

  1. vdinets Says:

    I tried spotlighting along the birding route a few times in 2003, but never saw foxes there. Comanche National Grassland was much better at the time. Of course, things change a lot from year to year depending on grazing and other land use shifts.

  2. Jon Hall Says:

    Thanks for this Charles. Oh reason (1) brings back so many memories. I suspect my ex-wife would have a lot of sympathy for Mrs Hood 🙂


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