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Bicycle Birdathon 2013

May 22, 2013

I was a bit apprehensive about the Baillie Birdathon this year.  I’ve been doing it as part of the Okanagan Big Day Challenge for quite a few years (and have been doing the OKBDC for 28 years now!), and for the past 10 or so years we’ve done the Challenge as a green event—the birding is by bicycle or by foot.  Last year I’d been fairly fit in advance of the event, but I got involved in politics last summer, and the spring election campaign had severely limited my biking time.  My campaign manager had let me arrive late to the office on one or two mornings a week, but the longest distance I’d biked for the past 6 months was about 15 km.  After the election last Tuesday (I was unfortunately unsuccessful), I looked forward to the Birdathon, but the lack of time in the saddle was worrying.

The Saddle-Soras:  Seb Pardo, Dick Cannings, John Reynolds, Eva Durance, Christopher di Corrado

The Saddle-Soras: Seb Pardo, Dick Cannings, John Reynolds, Eva Durance, Christopher di Corrado

We were five again this year—Eva Durance and Sebastian Pardo from last year’s team, joined by John Reynolds and Christopher di Corrado.  The weather forecast was decent—relatively cool with no rain—but a north wind predicted for the afternoon might make the return trip a little more challenging.  The alarm went off at 2:30 a.m. on Sunday May 19th, and we were out the door just after 3.  The route begins with a good climb to ward off the early morning chill (7⁰C), and by 3:20 we were at Max Lake, a marsh nestled in a narrow valley northwest of Penticton.  The first surprise was having a taxi bounce by us on the rough road, fuelling speculation as to what it was doing there in the pre-dawn darkness (the track dead ends about 2 km past the lake).

But we were brought back to reality by the calls of Soras and Virginia Rails from the marsh—the listing had begun.  A Song Sparrow sang from the cattails and a Dusky Flycatcher chirped on the hillside.  We pedalled on up the valley, meeting the mysterious taxi coming back down the hill.  We stopped at the forks and soon heard one of our target nightbirds—a Common Poorwill.  As it slowly got lighter, more poorwills began singing from the open pine forest, then the low hoots of a Flammulated Owl.  We tried to call the owl in, as John had never seen one, but only Seb glimpsed it as it flew overhead.  At 4 a.m. the dawn chorus began with the usual early risers—American Robins and Townsend’s Solitaires, soon joined by Chipping Sparrows, Spotted Towhees and Nashville Warblers.

We biked to the very end of the road, where it ends in a narrow rocky canyon.  As we turned around to begin the trip back, Christopher pointed out the first surprise of the day—a Pacific Wren singing from the bushes—this species is usually at much higher elevations in the breeding season.  Bonus!  As we coasted down the bumpy gravel track we added more common species and a couple of species that can be difficult in May—a calling Cooper’s Hawk and then a Steller’s Jay imitating a Red-tailed Hawk.  A MacGillivray’s Warbler warbled from the willows, a male Calliope Hummingbird performed overhead and a Western Bluebird called softly from the pines.

By 5:30 we were out of the Max Lake valley and back in civilization, adding Say’s Phoebe, American Kestrel and Clark’s Nutcracker on the fly.  We got back to my house just before 6 a.m.—on time and, with 56 species in the bag, on target.  We were missing one common forest species though, having dipped on Red-breasted Nuthatch at Max Lake.  I grabbed the ladder to have a look in our nest box, which had held newly hatched nuthatches two weeks ago, but my heart sank when I found the box empty.  Hopefully they had fledged safely, but I knew it might be difficult finding this species farther down the road.  And the hummingbird feeders were quiet, too; I’d hoped to get a Black-chinned here.

After a half-hour break to refuel and adjust clothing layers, we were back on the bikes and heading down the hill to Penticton.  As we got onto the Kettle Valley Railroad trail I spotted a hummer on top of a Saskatoon bush—male Black-chinned!  A little farther on a Ring-necked Pheasant rocketed away down the hill, and a Yellow-breasted Chat called from the big rose thicket.  As we pedalled north up the Okanagan River channel dyke, we added Gray Catbird and Veery, two species just arrived from their wintering grounds.  Okanagan Lake was disturbingly empty except for a single coot at the dam and four Lesser Scaups flying by.  No loons, grebes, or gulls.  Sigh.

We turned around and headed downriver again, bumping into my son Russell’s large group of walking birders.  After the usual guarded pleasantries typical of Birdathon competitions, we continued on our way.  The airport oxbow was largely empty of ducks, perhaps because of the two Bald Eagles perched on its shoreline, but a late Bufflehead was welcome.  The north end of Skaha Lake produced Western Grebe and Ruddy Duck, two easy-to-miss species.  Another surprise was a Red Crossbill singing in the ponderosa pines of the small city park.  The trip down the east side of the lake added Eurasian Collared-Dove (surprisingly still absent from Penticton itself, but locally common everywhere else in the valley).

We reached Okanagan Falls at 9:45 a.m., about an hour behind schedule and slipping back on the species total.  An Eastern Kingbird—first of the year—flycatched by the dam, but we couldn’t find any dippers.  The Merlins were missing from downtown.  As we cycled past TIckleberry’s ice cream parlour I mused that it would be nice to see a Peregrine Falcon, and then noticed a bird above two soaring Red-tailed Hawks—a Peregrine!

The new species came thick and fast when we got to the marshes and birch woodlands of Vaseux Lake.  We cycled out to the dyke at the Vaseux Lake Bird Observatory, adding all three species of teal in the flooded pasture.  I hadn’t told the others about the real reason to go out to the river, so they were happily surprised to see the Long-eared Owl on its nest!  A side trip out on the boardwalk was less productive as the lake seemed to have nothing but Redheads on it.  Conscious of our schedule, we stopped only briefly at the big cliffs, but couldn’t whistle up any wrens, nor could we see any Lewis’s Woodpeckers.  Fortunately a gorgeous Lewis’s flew by farther south along the lakeshore, and as we stopped to admire it a Rock Wren sang from a nearby bluff.  As we passed by the huge wall of McIntyre Bluff a Canyon Wren sang from the boulders at its base.  Phew. We cycled through the pines at Gallagher Lake, hoping to find our missing Red-breasted and White-breasted Nuthatches, but only added a Vaux’s Swift that dashed overhead.

Admiring a Lewis's Woodpecker at Vaseux Lake

Admiring a Lewis’s Woodpecker at Vaseux Lake

At the Okanagan River bridge just before 1 p.m. and paused to consider our options. The normal route would take us north up the formidable Secrest hill and on to White Lake for its sagebrush species.   But Road 22 was only 20 easy kilometres to the south and had been a frenzy of rare waterbird activity in the past few days.  Although the southern route would be significantly longer, we decided to give it a try, as John said “in the spirit of a true Birdathon, let’s do something crazy”.  So we turned south and cycled down the beautiful riverside trail to Oliver.  We quickly added three species, giving us the feeling that we’d made the right decision—a Western Wood-Pewee called, a Pileated Woodpecker flew overhead, and Eva spotted a family of Great Horned Owls roosting in a big tree.

At Road 9 we turned east to join the highway to scan Deadman Lake, but were mildly disappointed to add only Common Goldeneye there.  We arrived at Road 22 and were happy to see white birds in the flooded field.  Dang—only Ring-billed Gulls.  No Franklin’s Gulls, avocets or Snow Geese.  But two Long-billed Curlews foraged nearby, a Bobolink sang, then the real surprise as three Forster’s Terns flew low overhead!  A Greater White-fronted Goose made up for the lack of Snows.  We finally found the Red-necked Phalarope amongst the Wilson’s, spotted a Lesser Yellowlegs, and then happily added a flock of Bonaparte’s Gulls that arrived just as we were leaving.  We’d added 11 species at that one spot.

Birding frenzy at Road 22

Birding frenzy at Road 22

We took Black Sage Road north, where Seb somehow picked out a Northern Harrier perched in the marsh grass.  A stroll through the antelope-brush filled Christopher’s shoes with cacti, but no Lark Sparrow.  John pointed out the flooded field across the river—we scanned it hopefully and found the missing Snow Geese!  Just down the road a Lark Sparrow sang from the vineyards—species number 125 for the day, only one behind last year’s total.

The highlight of John's day was finding this gopher snake along the Okanagan River

The highlight of John’s day was finding this gopher snake along the Okanagan River

We got back onto the river trail, hoping to add something on the long road home.  The north wind had appeared as forecast, but we put our heads down and kept going.  We paused at Vaseux Lake to look at the Lewis’s Woodpecker again and were surprised to find another family of Great Horned Owls, this time in a burned-out ponderosa pine.  Scolding crows in Okanagan Falls were unfortunately after a Cooper’s Hawk, not a Merlin.

Almost home--evening sun along Skaha Lake

Almost home–evening sun along Skaha Lake

We decided to take the west side trail along Skaha Lake simply because it offered a lack of hills.  The first part is delightful, the second half scenic but rough and loose for road bikes.  A Belted Kingfisher was added after a two-hour drought, but no loons.  We checked the airport oxbow again and were happy to see a little group of Northern Shovelers.  A final side trip to Okanagan Lake produced nothing new from the bird world, but we did meet up with Kirk Safford’s cycling team (who had started at Max Lake, too, but somehow we’d missed them all day).  The West Bench hill provided our last challenge, but we were happy to get home at 9:06 p.m. with 127 species, having cycled 138 km.

I do this Birdathon to raise money for the Vaseux Lake Bird Observatory, which relies on the funds to monitor migrant bird populations in the Okanagan Valley.  You can donate to the cause by visiting my Birdathon website and clicking on “Give Now”.  Thank you!

Winter birding wonderland

January 8, 2013

It has been some time since I wrote in this blog, so I’ll try to squeeze an entire season—or maybe two—into one entry.  We’re having the snowiest winter in 15 years here in the Okanagan Valley—there were 9 inches of the stuff on the front lawn yesterday, and we had one or two more inches overnight.  Along with the snow, we’ve also had some other northern visitors gracing the valley since Halloween.

The SS Sicamous along a wintry shore of Okanagan Lake (January 2012 was a cold one!)

The SS Sicamous along a wintry shore of Okanagan Lake (January 2012 was a cold one!)

The first one—really more of a late fall migrant than an early winter visitor—showed up at one of my favourite winter birding spots, the S.S. Sicamous on the beach of Okanagan Lake in Penticton.  This old sternwheeler evokes thoughts of early days of European settlement in the Okanagan Valley when the communities up and down the lake were linked by steamships instead of roads.  My grandparents first arrived in Penticton in 1910 on the S.S. Okanagan, the predecessor of the Sicamous, which brought passengers down the lake from the railway station at Vernon.

But I digress—the ship is not the real birding attraction here, but an obvious landmark at the spot where the Okanagan River is born, flowing out of the south end of Okanagan Lake, on its way to the Columbia.  In winter this spot is favoured by a diverse group of diving ducks, a few grebes, a big flock of coots, and one or two American Dippers.  In the late fall large numbers of Common Mergansers loaf in the calm water above the dam that controls flow into the river, relaxing after their daily feed on kokanee spawning a few hundred metres downstream.  On Halloween I stopped at the Sicamous as part of my usual daily bicycle route and scanned the coots and ducks.  I cut my scan short because in the middle of the coots was a small, grey shorebird.  Swimming.  A Red Phalarope!  This species breeds in the high Arctic and usually migrates well offshore down the Pacific coast of British Columbia.  I’d only ever seen them while on boats off the west coast of Vancouver Island.  I called Laure Neish and other local birders—Laure managed to get a decent shot of the bird despite the dim late afternoon light.

The next unexpected visitors showed up a week later.  I stepped outside the back door to feed the chickens and heard the twittering of redpolls—18 of them in the birch tree.  While Common Redpolls can be, well, common in the valley some winters, I hadn’t seen any in the yard since moving back to the homestead 3 years ago.  I jumped on the bike and cycled around the neighbourhood to see what else might have arrived.  Just a few hundred metres down the road I heard the jeet-jeet of a White-winged Crossbill!  I scanned the top of a nearby spruce (this species is a spruce seed specialist) and there was a brilliant pair of these northern finches.  We’d only had one record in the previous 50 years of one in this neighbourhood.  A couple of days later one bounced off the living room window and sat on the patio long enough for me to snap a picture.  This was shaping up to be an interesting winter for finches.

Male White-winged Crossbill

Male White-winged Crossbill

But the big surprise came about 10 days later.  Chris Charlesworth found a Snowy Owl in Kelowna—too far to chase on my bicycle—then the next day he found another only a few kilometres from my house!  In all my life I’d only ever seen one of these huge Arctic owls in the valley.  I pedalled off and found the bird perched right on the shoulder of busy Highway 97 as it travels up the Okanagan lakeshore north to Summerland.  I thanked Chris for calling as he snapped a few photos, then pedalled back home.  To my shock, when I arrived home I found the body of the same owl on our kitchen counter—it had been struck by a car only moments after I’d left and Laure Neish (who had taken some photos a few minutes before the accident happened) had dropped the specimen off at my house.  As is typical of many of the Snowy Owls we see, the bird was quite emaciated and had a healthy population of feather lice.  Another one showed up in downtown Penticton on December 1st—two days later a friend snapped a photo of it eating a Mallard on a small lawn in front of the city library!  Various others were reported in the valley, then a friend called one evening to say that another was perched on the side of the highway again.  I drove down with my daughter Julia to see if it was OK, but we found it so weak it couldn’t fly.  We wrapped it in a blanket and our friend drove it to the local owl rehab centre, but it died the next day.  But still the owls kept coming—on January 6th another was seen downtown, so I cycled down through the slush to have a look.  Four Snowy Owls seen in one winter—and there are a couple of months to go.

McIntyre Bluff on a snowy Vaseux Lake Christmas Bird Count--listening for Canyon Wrens!

McIntyre Bluff on a snowy Vaseux Lake Christmas Bird Count–listening for Canyon Wrens!

Of course the main birding excitement for the past three weeks has been the Christmas Bird Count season.  I did my usual six counts in the south Okanagan.  The highlight on the Penticton count was another rare northern visitor—or rather a rare visitor from northern Eurasia.  Tom Lowery and Robyn de Young found a lovely male Brambling at their feeder in Summerland.  I still haven’t seen this bird after 4 attempts (one of them by bicycle on New Year’s Day), but Laure Neish has a photo here.  Pine Grosbeaks are scattered throughout the valley bottom, to add to the northern finch flavour of the season.  Three of the counts were held on day of heavy, prolonged snow, which accented the winter feeling but kept bird numbers down.  The best day for weather was December 30th, the day of the Cawston count.  After a full day of snow the day before, the world was sunny bright and the trees covered in hoarfrost.  The highlight was a glorious Prairie Falcon—new for the count—perched on a tree amidst the orchards.

Prairie Falcon, Cawston, BC; 30 December 2012

Prairie Falcon, Cawston, BC; 30 December 2012 (taken with phone camera through telescope)

The count season finished with another full day of snow in the highlands east of Osoyoos where we hold the Bridesville count.  Marg and I scoured the forests for birds, but the snow on the trees was thick and the birds were thin on the ground.  Just after lunch I spotted a dark lump in a roadside tree—a Northern Pygmy Owl intently scanning the ground for mice.  We ended up seeing three of these tiny predators that day—well worth the effort of all that hiking in the snow.

Northern Pygmy-Owl, Anarchist Mtn., BC; 5 January 2013 (taken with phone camera through telescope)

Northern Pygmy-Owl, Anarchist Mtn., BC; 5 January 2013 (taken with phone camera through telescope)


The Chilcotin adventure–part 3

September 18, 2012

It rained hard on our last night in Stuie.  The forests, which had been languidly late-summer quiet all week, were suddenly alive with migrant birds.  Swainson’s Thrushes were giving their bic calls everywhere, a Hammond’s Flycatcher peeped from the firs and was answered by a short snatch of song from another.  Robins and waxwings chased each other through the treetops and a bright yellow Wilson’s Warbler moved through the shrubs.  We said goodbye to Katie and Dennis and were off up The Hill—a much easier direction for the nerves, since you’re not looking down.

Dick with Chris Czajkowksi at her cabin in Kleena Kleene.

We decided to stop in Kleena Kleene to visit Chris Czajkowski, a well-known naturalist and author.  Chris had recently sold her wilderness lodge at Nuk Tessli and was busy upgrading her new cabin at Ginty Creek to running water.  The well had just been drilled, but there were still issues about the water quality and quantity.  We walked around her property in the brilliant sunshine, then had lunch on her porch, overlooking the plateau and distant mountains.

Then it was off to Riske Creek, where we were hoping to stay the night at the historic Chilcotin Lodge.  I’d last stayed here a couple of times during the 1980s when we based the UBC field ecology course out of the lodge.  We got to Riske Creek about 4:30 in the afternoon, and not only was there room in the Lodge—but we would have the place to ourselves!  We’d timed our visit well between the busy summer period and the fall hunting season.  Our host, Ria van der Klis, showed us around the various rooms—it had certainly been upgraded since the 1980s but retained that Chilcotin charm through and through.  We told Ria we’d be back for supper at 7, then drove off for a quick visit to Becher’s Prairie.

Becher’s Prairie at Rock Lake

Taking the inconspicuous turnoff just west of the Loran station (the tower was long gone!), we were soon at Rock Lake.  This lake is one of many rich water bodies on the Prairie, covered in Ruddy Ducks, Redheads, American Wigeon, Buffleheads and other waterfowl.  There were still some Eared Grebes in evidence; in midsummer the big bulrush marsh at the west end of the lake is home to one of the largest grebe colonies in British Columbia.  We clambered over the natural rock pile that gives the lake its name, but couldn’t find any garter snakes—this is a significant hibernaculum for the snakes, and you can often find hundreds here in the spring and fall.  I imagine we were there a bit early for the fall gathering.  A couple of migrant harriers coursed by, and Vesper Sparrows flew ahead of the car as we bounced along the track.

Foxtail barley, a good indicator plant for alkali soils, at Separating Lake, Riske Creek

We turned south at Racetrack Lake and returned to Riske Creek from the north, stopping for a walk at Separating Lake (there are many Separating Lakes and Separation Lakes in the BC Interior–named for their use by ranchers who separated cattle from mixed herds along their shores after a summer on common range) before getting back to the lodge.  Ria had prepared a fabulous dinner for us—probably the best steak I’ve ever had, and the setting further enhanced the flavour.  As we ate, I noticed a black bear wandering across the grasslands to the south in the setting sun, heading for the aspen thickets along Riske Creek itself.

The road down into Farwell Canyon

The following morning we had a huge Chilcotin breakfast, then drove south along the Farwell Canyon Road. Big logging trucks carrying lodgepole pine roared by in clouds of dust, but the morning haul was pretty much over as we reached the canyon.  At the bridge over the Chilcotin River, Tsilhqot’in fishers were netting sockeye salmon on their way upstream to Chilko Lake, as they had been doing for millennia.  We continued up the other side of the valley, then turned east onto towards the Gang Ranch.  We came out onto a wide vista of grassland and the mighty Fraser far below us, driving for miles through sunny grass and scattering sparrows and larks before reaching the ranch headquarters.

The Chilcotin River at Farwell Canyon

Tsilhqot’in netting sockeye in Farwell Canyon

The Fraser River at Gang Ranch

Before crossing the Fraser, we turned south to the Empire Valley and the Churn Creek Protected Area.  I’d visited this spot over 30 years ago with Parks Canada officials who were interested in creating a national park in the area—in the meantime it had been protected by the provincial government, which then enhanced the protected area with the purchase of the Empire Valley Ranch.  This is without a doubt one of the most spectacularly scenic parts of British Columbia (which is a pretty spectacular province) and well worth a visit.  Then we crossed the Fraser and returned to Highway 97 via the beautiful drive up Canoe Creek and along the Meadowlake Road.  The holiday was over too quickly, but it had been a wonderful journey through some of the finest landscapes in North America, and we vowed we would be back sooner next time.

The Chilcotin, part 2: Bella Coola

September 11, 2012

We stopped in at the general store in Tatla Lake before continuing on to Kleena Kleene and Anahim Lake.  We gassed up at Anahim, then struck out on the gravel portion of Highway 20—kept unpaved so that its famous hill is easier to maintain in winter.  As you go west from Anahim Lake the road climbs very gently to Heckman Pass, and enters Tweedsmuir Provincial Park in landscape of small lakes, cottongrass bogs, and forests blackened by recent fires.  Then the road literally drops off the plateau and plunges down the Young Creek Valley to the Atnarko River above Bella Coola.  The Hill, as it’s simply called, has attained almost mythical stature over the past 60 years.  Local residents asked the provincial government in the early 1950s to connect Bella Coola and Anahim Lake with a road, but government engineers said it couldn’t be done.  So the locals built it themselves, with Alf Bracewell driving his bulldozer from the Chilcotin side and another team working up from the bottom. The road is still impressively steep (18 percent grade in places) and lacking in guardrails, but has been widened somewhat in the past few years, so there are only a few truly white-knuckle, single lane corners where you look down into the chasm and wonder what would happen if you met a large truck at that moment.

A wide section of The Hill

All too soon you are down, and realize that because you’ve been concentrating on staying on the road you’ve missed the dramatic change from the spruce-pine forests of the plateau to the Douglas-fir and redcedar rainforests of the valley bottom.  After a few kilometres we turned off at the village (well, it’s really not a village, just a collection of a half-dozen small houses and cabins and a lodge) of Stuie.  Here we hoped to visit our friends Joan Sawicki and Gary Runka before finding a campsite for the night.  No reply came from a knock on the door, so I walked around the deck and saw a woman sitting at a patio table.  Although I didn’t recognize her, she immediately said “Hi Dick!” and added “I know your twin brother Syd from the Yukon and you know my husband Dennis”, and at that moment Dennis Kuch walked around the corner.  I’d met Dennis at various bird meetings and corresponded with him over the years about conservation issues.  His wife was Katie Hayhurst, another keen environmentalist; both of them had recently retired and moved to their Stuie home full time.  They were actually over at Joan and Gary’s just to use their wi-fi while their internet was under repair.

Atnarko River valley

To make a long story short, we spent a wonderful three days in the Bella Coola valley, sharing stories and meals with Dennis and Katie (it turned out that Joan and Gary were away, but in the true spirit of wilderness BC, Katie and Dennis let us into Joan and Gary’s “cabin” so we could spend our nights there) and exploring the rivers, trails and communities.  The Atnarko River, which flows past Stuie, is one of the two main tributaries of the Bella Coola, and is famous for its salmon runs and attendant grizzly bears.  Unfortunately a major flood event two autumns ago had seriously damaged the pink salmon spawning population, so fish were few this year, and grizzlies fewer.

Drifting down the Atnarko

On a morning walk upriver, we did see one small grizzly which was very agitated, and the noises coming from the bush along the trail made us suspect that its mother was nearby, so we quietly retreated.  That afternoon we rafted the Atnarko with a local guiding company, Kynoch Adventures.  We slowly drifted downstream, stopping regularly to wait and watch for bears, but saw only one—a teenager who dramatically darted out onto a riverside log, huffing and puffing, then just as quickly vanished into the forest.  The drift was a wonderful new look at a river—floating silently over rocks, around giant tree trunks, past magnificent stands of cottonwoods. And always the tremendous mountains towering above the valley.

Marg at the mouth of Clayton Falls Creek, looking out at North Bentinck Arm

We spent another day in the lower valley, exploring the towns of Bella Coola and Hagensborg.  The forest changes dramatically along this section of the road as well, the old growth Douglas-firs of Stuie being replaced by western hemlocks draped in luxuriant old man’s beard lichen on the outskirts of Bella Coola.   We marvelled at the beautiful Nuxalk artwork evident in poles, memorials and even school buildings.  Near the mouth of the Bella Coola River, we walked down to the sea shore—this is where Alexander Mackenzie reached the Pacific in 1793, the first European to cross North America by land, 12 years ahead of Lewis and Clark.

Nuxalk pole, Bella Coola

The Chilcotin–there and back again, part 1

September 10, 2012

On August 22nd, Marg and I headed out on a much-needed summer holiday.  I’d just got back from 10 days of meetings in Vancouver with a birding tour tacked on to the end of that, so we were ready for a break.  Our destination was the Chilcotin Plateau, a vast area of central British Columbia lying between the Fraser River and the Coast Mountains.  The Chilcotin has a good highway running through it so is relatively accessible, but for whatever reason lies off the main tourist routes in the province, and I think the locals prefer it that way.

I spent a wonderful 6 months living on the eastern edge of the plateau back in 1978.  My brothers and I had great job sampling aquatic insects over a 10-day cycle; since it only took us two and a half days to do all the sampling each cycle, it gave us a lot of time to explore the Chilcotin in the other seven and  half days.  Don’t worry—we weren’t paid much for this, in fact we were each paid one-third the normal salary for a research assistant.  But the office conditions and perks were well worth the meagre pay, and I’ve had a soft spot in my heart for the region ever since.  I had only visited the Chilcotin on a few occasions since, and Margaret had never been, so we were looking forward to the adventure.

View from Bracewell’s Wilderness lodge

Our first day was one long drive—we had to be in Tatlayoko Lake in time for dinner, since I was going to a board meeting of the Nature Conservancy of Canada there.  We motored from Penticton over the Coquihalla Connector to Merritt, then across the plateau to Logan Lake and the huge Highland Valley copper mine, down the big hill into Ashcroft, across the Thompson River and north past Clinton onto the heights of the Cariboo Plateau.  We stopped for lunch at Williams Lake, enjoying the trails at the Scout Island Nature Centre, before gassing up and turning west on to Highway 20, the main artery of the Chilcotin.  The highway descends into the steep-walled Fraser Valley and crosses it on the Engineers Bridge.  The valley walls are covered with grass and sagebrush at low elevations and big Douglas-firs toward the top.  Huge limestone outcrops along the river look very un-British Columbian—they are in fact part of the Cache Creek terrane, bits of tropical sea floor squashed between the old coast of North American and the incoming Quesnellia terrane about 180 million years ago.  Above the limestone is a thick cap of basalt, laid down much more recently when the Chilcotin was awash in lava a few million years ago.

The road winds up and up to the top of the plateau, then turns west across a remarkably flat landscape—Becher’s Prairie.  This was our old stomping grounds in 1978—a bit of the Great Plains transported into the British Columbia mountains; golden grasslands dotted with ponds and small lakes.  Beyond Riske Creek the highway makes another long descent, this time into the Chilcotin Valley. We followed the Chilcotin upstream for miles, past the tiny communities of Hanceville, Alexis Creek and Redstone.  In its lower reaches the Chilcotin is a big, milky blue river, fed by the glacial waters of Chilko Lake and the Chilko River.  But above Bull Canyon and the confluence with the Chilko, the Chilcotin is a more sedate stream, flowing clear and dark through spruce-willow swamps.

Beach time at Tatlayoko

Throughout the afternoon the Coast Mountains were getting closer, starting as a few peaks poking above the horizon, then by Tatla Lake a real range of rock and ice to the southwest.  We turned south at Tatla for the short side trip into Tatlayoko Lake.  The road goes over a small pass and enters the Homathko River drainage—at Tatlayoko you are only 65 km from saltwater at the head of Bute Inlet.

Tatlayoko Lake Bird Observatory

The scenery of the Tatlayoko valley is simply stunning—the big blue lake, towering mountains iced with small glaciers and snowfields, the hayfields golden green along the river.  We stopped in at the Lincoln Creek Ranch, one of several properties owned in the valley by the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC).  NCC has been actively purchasing ranches and buying conservation covenants here (while allowing local ranchers to continue working on the properties) because of the valley’s importance as a corridor for migrating birds and big mammals.  Grizzly bears are common here, feeding on the lush vegetation in early summer before many of them move over the Potato Mountains to Chilko Lake to gorge on sockeye salmon in early fall.

Skinner Meadow and the Niut Range

At Lincoln Creek we met some of the other board members and staff, then carpooled down the east side of the lake to Bracewell’s Wilderness lodge, our home for the next few days.  After supper we were regaled with stories from Gerry Bracewell, the matriarch of the family, whose tales of life on the Chilcotin were spell-binding—particularly the story of how her husband Alf built the highway down the hill to Bella Coola (more on that later).  Between meetings we visited the Tatlayoko Lake Bird Observatory, a migration monitoring station operated by NCC, and other key properties.  On the last day we had lunch up at Skinner Meadows before parting ways.  Marg and I were headed north and west to the Bella Coola Valley, a bit of Shangri La on the central coast.

Bicycle Birdathon: the 2012 edition

May 21, 2012

I had great hopes for a good Birdathon this year.  The forecast for the day was ideal for cycling—overcast with a high about 22⁰C (72⁰F), south wind picking up in the afternoon.  On top of that, I’d been on my bike a lot more this spring, so my legs (and rear end) were in better shape for a long day in the saddle than in previous years.  The only downside was that a recent warm spell had seen a lot of high-elevation and northern birds clear out of the bottom of the Okanagan Valley where we would be cycling, unlike last year when we put up with cold, wet weather but got 131 species, a very nice total for a totally non-motorized day (biking to and from home).

Our team, the V-Vaseux Vireos, gathered at my place on the West Bench of Penticton at 2:30 a.m. and we were off at 2:45.  Our team name came from the fact that there were five (V) of us and we were doing the Birdathon to raise funds for the Vaseux Lake Bird Observatory.  The Vireo part was just bird alliteration, as well as perhaps a nod to the best bird ever found at the Observatory, a Black-capped Vireo.  With me were Sebastián Pardo, Tanya Seebacher and Josie Symonds; we would meet the fifth team member, Eva Durance, about 2 kilometres up the road since she was cycling from her home as well.  On top of raising funds for VLBO, we would be one of seven teams competing in the Okanagan Big Day Challenge, a fun event held annually since 1986.

The V-Vaseux Vireos: Sebastián Pardo, Eva Durance, Josie Symonds, Tanya Seebacher and Dick Cannings

As we met Eva, a Killdeer called—species number one at 3:02 a.m.  A Song Sparrow sang briefly as we entered the narrow Max Lake valley, and when we stopped at the first marsh a Virginia Rail called on cue.  We woke some California Quail from their slumbers as we clattered by some shrubs, then heard the loud whinnying calls of Soras coming from the main marsh.  The eyes of a Common Poorwill gleamed in the light from our headlamps as it sat on the road, looking for moths.  We pedalled further up the rough dirt road to get into Flammulated Owl territory, the primary goal of this nocturnal foray.  At the end of the road we heard a soft hoot coming from the mountain to the north and could check the owl off on the list—species number seven at 3:48 a.m.  It was a relatively mild night, so we lay down in the bunchgrass and waited for dawn to wake up the songbirds.  The night was filled with poorwill song as the sky lightened, and the owl kept calling.  Just after 4 a.m. a Townsend’s Solitaire and an American Robin piped up, and within minutes the valley was filled with the songs of these thrushes, soon joined by Spotted Towhees, Chipping Sparrows and Nashville Warblers.  The owl and poorwills were still in full song at 4:20, leading us to think that we didn’t have to get up so early to find these night birds.

We got back on the bikes at about 4:35 and began the ride downhill through the early dawn.  Western Tanagers and Black-headed Grosbeaks had joined the chorus, and things were looking on track until I heard Eva call out in surprise behind me on one of the hills.  Her front tire had hit some sand on the track and she had fallen badly.  Fortunately she wasn’t injured beyond badly scraped fingers, a nasty bruise on her face and sore ribs, but her rear gear-changer was broken, a serious problem for a long day of cycling.  After going over the options, she decided that she would make a quick detour to her home after we left Max Lake, since she had an old bike that was serviceable for the day.

We continued down the road, checking off species after species in that exciting part of a Birdathon where every second bird is new.  A Rock Wren sang at the gravel pit—something that would save us a half-hour of cycling at Vaseux Lake—and an American Kestrel watched from the power line.  We’d missed kestrel entirely last year, so that was a huge relief.  Back at the house, we did some quick rearranging of packs, watching all the while for Black-chinned Hummingbird at the feeders.  The black-chin never showed, though, so when Eva appeared on her replacement bike we headed down the hill to Penticton, hoping that we could find that hummer later in the day.  From the KVR trail we listened in vain for Yellow-breasted Chat—presumably the males at this site hadn’t arrived back from their winter haunts yet.  A Ring-necked Pheasant called from the fields, and a Veery called from the woods below.

Once at the Okanagan River channel, we cycled north on the dyke to Okanagan Lake.  I check this site almost daily and had been worried about how empty of birds it had been in the last week.  But directly off the SS Sicamous jetty was a little flock of Bufflehead and tucked in with them was an Eared Grebe—my first of the year and a rare migrant here.  Then seven Northern Shovelers landed with a splash in front of us!  The only thing missing was a loon, so we decided to make the extra trip along the beach to the yacht club in hopes of finding one.  The mixed scaup flock was still at the yacht club, where an immature Ring-billed Gull, but Sebastian pointed out the biggest surprise—an adult Herring Gull perched on a pole, something I hadn’t seen for weeks.  But no loon.

Adult Great Horned Owl clutching a pigeon in downtown Penticton

We cycled back via Westminster Avenue, hoping to see one of the Great Horned Owls that had nested there this spring.  The three young had fledged in the first week of April, but I hoped that the family would still be in the area.  We scanned the trees as we cycled along, and finally, near the end of the avenue, we found one of the adults, clutching a freshly-killed pigeon in its talons.  Back on the river channel, we turned south for Skaha Lake.  I was happy to see a pair of Wood Ducks flying overhead, as I see this inconspicuous species only occasionally, even though they nest along the channel.  The airport oxbow really came through—single male Blue-winged and Cinnamon Teals and a Pectoral Sandpiper.

At Skaha Lake Park I stopped to listen for Pygmy Nuthatches despite the hubbub from the finish line of the Peach City Half-Marathon, and within a minute we heard the shrill piping calls of this ponderosa pine specialist.  As usual, we found ourselves weaving through runners on our route along the east side of Skaha Lake, but did find two late Horned Grebes.  We were in Okanagan Falls by 10 a.m., about a half-hour behind schedule despite the north wind that had been at our backs.  We checked our species total—95—a little off our planned 100-by-10 pace.  We decided to not bother looking for dippers at the dam—I hadn’t seen them there the day before—but did check the local Merlin nest and weren’t disappointed as the male flew in screaming within a minute or two.

Walking over to the river at the Vaseux Lake Bird Observatory site, we added a number of marsh species—Redhead, Marsh Wren, Common Yellowthroat, Yellow-headed Blackbird, and a handsome male Northern Harrier.  A Belted Kingfisher—a good find this time of year—perched next to the channel, and an American Coot hugged the shoreline.  At the north end of the lake we found three target species quickly—White-throated Swift, Lewis’s Woodpecker and Canyon Wren—but the lake itself held nothing new.  We kept scanning the water as we cycled south, and finally found a Common Loon at the very end of the lake.

Scanning the Okanagan River channel north of Oliver

I stopped the gang at McIntyre Bluff to scan the huge rock face for Peregrine Falcons—this is one of the local nest sites and I’d seen a bird there a few days ago.  But the sky was empty save for wheeling, chattering White-throated Swifts, and the only new bird was a brilliant male Western Bluebird carrying a big bug to a nest box.  We reached River Road at about 12:30, almost an hour behind schedule, but luckily I’d built a spare hour into the plans for this eventuality.  I decided to go south down Island Road to search its deciduous woods for Downy Woodpecker and Bewick’s Wren, but the big surprise there was a singing Yellow-breasted Chat.  Back on River Road, we looked at the north end for Black-chinned Hummingbirds, but found no hummers at all.

A Cooper’s Hawk provided a bit of a boost for our spirits as we approached the steepest hill on our route—Secrest Road.  I let the others forge on ahead as I struggled up the slope, and although I did stop once to cool down in the wind (now miraculously from the south as we turned north), I managed to pedal most of the way up, a major improvement over past performances.  At the top I found the team watching a Hairy Woodpecker, a species we’d missed last year, but the Lark Sparrow I’d found a few days before refused to show in the now-strong wind.  A Cassin’s Finch called, ending my worries about missing this common species, but the the Park Rill woodlands failed to produce that other Cassin’s—the Vireo.  Considering our name, it wouldn’t do to go home without at least two species, and so far we’d only tallied Warbling Vireo.

At 2 p.m. we turned north onto the White Lake Road and began the long trip home—65 kilometres on the odometer and about 55 left to go.  Our species list was still pretty scanty—only 116, about 10 less than the plan suggested, so we had no choice but to do the Mahoney Lake side trip to try add a few more.  We quickly bumped into Tanya Luszcz, one of the Chafing for Chickadees team, and gradually found the rest of their large team (7 in all) scattered along the road).  After exchanging a few pleasantries, we pedalled on ahead to avoid awkward situations of pointing out new birds—this was a competition after all.

I’d checked out Mahoney Lake the day before on my Meadowlark Festival tour, and thankfully the Barrow’s Goldeneyes were still there along with the single immature female Common Goldeneye.  But the Ring-necked Ducks that had been on Green Lake were nowhere to be seen, so we turned around and made the return 7.5-kilometre trip to the White Lake Road, battling the south wind all the way.  From here the road climbs steadily for about 5 kilometres to White Lake.  Half way up I suggested we stop for a short hike into a Western Screech-Owl nest box even though I knew it was very unlikely to see either of the owls.  The Northern Pygmy-Owl that had been so cooperative here in April also failed to respond to my whistles, but we did hear a brief song from a Cassin’s Vireo.

Sebastián counting Wilson’s Phalaropes on White Lake

The south wind was really howling at White Lake, but a Brewer’s Sparrow gave its canary-like trill and some distant shorebirds on the lake itself suggested that a hike down to the shoreline would be worthwhile.  Fanning out, we hiked through the sagebrush in hopes of flushing the pair of Gray Partridge I’d seen a couple of times in the last week, but we dipped on that possibility.  At the fenceline I scoped the shore again and saw that the shorebirds were Wilson’s Phalaropes, without the Greater Yellowlegs that had been there last weekend.  By now the skies looked seriously threatening, and the darkness was probably deepened by the partial solar eclipse that was going on behind the clouds.  We stopped at the St. Andrew’s marsh and did hear and glimpse the Wilson’s Snipe I’d seen there regularly in the past week.

Storm clouds over the White Lake basin

At 6:30 p.m. we pulled into Three Gates Farm, home of my friend Doreen Olson.  We were greeted by a pair of White-breasted Nuthatches, a species we’d been searching for all day.  Doreen offered to refill our empty water bottles and invited us in to watch the hummingbird feeders from the warmth of her kitchen.  There, the Black-chinned Hummingbird male appeared within seconds, so after a short rest we got back on the bikes for the final leg of the trip.  A light drizzle had begun to fall, but home was only 20 kilometres away.  Sailing down the highway hill north of Kaleden we could see the Chafing for Chickadees team on the railway trail far below us (we later found they’d seen a Lark Sparrow at the north end of the trail—only a few metres from our route, and had also seen the dipper at Okanagan Falls—arrgh!).  We turned back up the Okanagan River channel and made a quick check of the airport oxbow—an American Wigeon was there, something we’d missed in the morning (but again, we missed the Ring-necked Duck the C for C team found there a few minutes later).

Although the comforts of home were calling loudly, I convinced the others that a check of Okanagan Lake would be worthwhile.  The rain continued to fall, the beach was busier with people than it had been at 7 a.m., and we couldn’t find anything new along its length, so we turned around and headed back for the river.  As we struggled past the sternwheeler S.S. Sicamous I saw something white on the dark water, so stopped for a look—a Western Grebe!  It was 8:27 p.m. and time to go home.  We only had one more hill to climb—the West Bench hill, and it seemed to be the easiest hill of the day.  The house was filled with birders and chatter about the day; I enjoyed a beer and a plate of curry, then climbed into bed.

I woke at 6:30 a.m., fed the chickens, made myself a cup of coffee, then sat down to figure out how many species we’d seen.  Our three lists had gotten out of whack through the day so we didn’t have an exact total at the end.  After adding three species to my list, then deleting one of the double-counted Western Kingbirds, I came up with a figure of 126 species for the day.  A very respectable total, and coincidentally close to our distance travelled—just shy of 123 kilometres.

By 9:30 the house was full of birders again as the 28 participants in the Okanagan Big Day Challenge gathered to tell stories of their adventures.  Doug Brown and Doug Ghrist–who had driven around the Oliver-Osoyoos Christmas Bird Count circle–came out on top with 133 species.  The Green Team award for best non-motorized transport day was a very close affair–but after several judicial recounts the Vireos were declared winners over the Chafing for Chickadees–126 to 125.  The Wilson’s Warblers of Kelowna came up with the bird of the day–a White-faced Ibis at the mouth of Mission Creek–and the Shuttleworth Shufflers got the Sour Grapes Award for missing Rock Pigeon.  A great day, great fun, and thousands of dollars raised for the Vaseux Lake Bird Observatory–you can follow our fund-raising totals (and donate yourself if you like) by clicking here, then clicking on one of names of the team members.

The V-Vaseux Vireos with their Okanagan Big Day Challenge hardware!

Bad Bikes and Good Birds

May 15, 2012

With my bicycle Birdathon only a week away, I decided to give the route and equipment a bit of a dry run on Sunday.  Marg and I had a coupon for Something Special B&B near Twin Lakes we needed to use up before the middle of the month, so I thought that would be a good destination.  I could cycle via White Lake to check out the various specialties there before meeting Marg at the B&B for a relaxing Mother’s Day dinner, then cycle back Monday morning.  I spent some time on Saturday getting the bike ready, installing a new odometer and adjusting the brakes.  Now, the combination of bike maintenance and me are a fine example of why a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, but after messing around with various screws, I thought I had everything set.

The weather on Sunday was predicted to be fine—so fine that I thought the afternoon temperatures would be a little warm for serious hill-climbing (30C/86F).  So I decided to leave at a reasonable hour in the morning and get the big climb to Kaleden and on to White Lake out of the way before things got toasty.  I started up the hill at 9:30 a.m. and was soon rewarded by my first Lark Sparrow of the year, singing its glorious song from a sage next to the highway.  At the top of the long hill came another bonus—a pair of Lewis’s Woodpeckers just back from their winter home in California.  Things were looking good.  I turned off on the White Lake Road and began the steep hill out of the Marron Valley.  A Cassin’s Vireo sang from the Douglas-firs and a Western Wood-Pewee called from the ponderosas—two more new arrivals.

As a pedalled through the open woodlands to White Lake, my front brakes began giving me grief, rubbing so that I had to pedal harder than necessary.  I fiddled with the adjustments again, but nothing seemed to solve the problem completely.  When I got to White Lake I put that out of my mind and got back into serious birding.  This was sparrow country and I had a couple of targets.  The first was easy, as I heard my first Brewer’s Sparrow singing from the big sagebrush basin.  I ditched my bike at the big corner and walked up the hill to the south to search the grasslands for Grasshopper Sparrows.  A warm south wind had kicked up, making it difficult to listen for this species insect-like song, and it was obvious that most of the grassland birds had quit singing in late morning sun.  I wandered over to a vernal pond in the basin, hoping to find Wilson’s Phalaropes, but all that emerged from the grasses was a beautiful silvery-grey male Northern Harrier.  I’d seen him there a month ago, so assume his mate was sitting on a nest somewhere in the grasses nearby.  I took a long loop walk through the sagebrush, hoping to kick up a Gray Partridge, but all I saw were singing Vesper Sparrows, migrant Savannah Sparrows and the ever-present Western Meadowlarks.

Spring gold in the White Lake Basin; Apex Mountain in the distance

Back at the road, I got on the bike and cycled to the south end of the basin.  I saw two spots on the road far ahead, and as I got closer I realized they were birds—that flushed off at my approach, showing their chestnut tail corners.  Partridge!  All that walking for nothing, except for the joy of meadowlark song in a sea of spring gold blooms.  Western and Mountain Bluebirds perched above their nest-boxes; I peaked in one unattended box and saw five sky-blue eggs of uncertain bluebird parentage.  At the cliffs a pair of White-throated Swifts wheeled chattering overhead while Brewer’s Blackbirds clucked in annoyance at my presence near their nests, hidden somewhere in the sage.  I found a lone juniper and decided it would be a good place for a short siesta.  I stretched out in its shade, checking its inner branches for a roosting owl—junipers in grassland here are magnets for Long-eared and other species.  There was indeed whitewash on some of the branches and a single downy feather, but no owl today.

Marg drove by at about 3 p.m., producing a fresh bottle of water before she continued on to the B&B.  I said I’d be there shortly—it was only 8 km away—and began pedaling up the long hill to Twin Lakes.  As I neared the White Lake Ranch my rear tire began to wobble, so I dismounted and checked it—flat!  A tire change is never a fun experience, especially late in the day on a hot, shadeless road.  I got out my small pump, hoping that a quick boost of air would get me to the B&B, but to my horror found that an important part of the pump was missing and it was essentially non-functional.  Since traffic along this stretch was very sparse, I gave in and phoned Marg at the B&B and asked for a rescue.  Soon I was feeling much better, drinking a cold beer in the bird-filled gardens of Something Special B&B, chatting with its owner, Sam Verigin.

The next morning, feeling refreshed and ready to tackle the bicycle situation again, I fixed the tire and the front brakes (the brake solution was embarrassingly simple).  At 7:30 I said goodbye to Sam and Marg and cycled back into Penticton—all gloriously downhill.  I found that Russell had arrived home in our absence and was off birding with Jess Findlay, a keen young birder and wonderful photographer.  I took my bike into the local shop for a professional tune-up, and when I got back Russell phoned from the Penticton Yacht Club, breathlessly saying that he was sure that he and Jess had found a Sedge Wren.  Now, Sedge Wrens are essentially unknown in British Columbia—there are only a couple of previous records.  I jumped back in the car and raced down to the spot and over the next hour or so we saw the bird a few times at very close range (but very briefly each time) and heard it call several times.  Not exactly crippling views, but enough to say with confidence that this was a Sedge Wren.

This morning I woke up at 5 a.m. and jumped on Russ’s bike to return to the Yacht Club, with hopes of seeing the wren well (and being able to count it on my non-motorized birding list!).  Russ’s bike had been sitting out unused for the past couple of months, and when I got down to the bottom of the big hill below our place I realized it was almost non-functional—the chain was so rusty it barely worked at all.  After a couple of kilometres at walking speed it eventually loosened to the point where it could propel the bike fairly well, but it was very embarrassing to squeak by the early morning joggers.  I arrived at the Yacht Club before anyone else, so walked along the trail towards the beach, then got out my coffee thermos and breakfast bagel.  Just as I poured the coffee, I heard loud shorebird calls from the beach.  I ran down and there were three American Avocets swimming away from a crow on the beach!  As a bonus, a pair of Blue-winged Teal swam next to them—both species new for the year and the avocets a very special treat here.

Dawn on a Penticton beach: American Avocets and Blue-winged Teal

Doug Brown and Russell arrived later, but we couldn’t relocate the wren, despite tracking down a number of intriguing calls coming from the dense grass and shrubs.  At 7:30 I cycled back, creaking up the big West Bench hill and reaching the top with great relief.  Just then my cellphone rang—it was Russell, this time calling from the river channel where he’d found a Black-throated Blue Warbler at Christmas.  “You’ll never guess what I have here” he said.  “The Black-throated Blue?” I suggested.  “No—a Black-throated Gray.”  This was crazy—two new species for the Okanagan list in two days.  Excited, but annoyed that I was at the top of a long hill, I turned the bike around and sailed down to the river in record time.  I quickly found Russell, and after a few anxious minutes of searching, I found the bird, a nice female Black-throated Gray Warbler.  This time, the pedal up the hill didn’t seem quite so tedious, but I made sure that the first thing I did when I got home was to oil up the chain thoroughly in case Russ found another great bird!


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