The day began with a huge sigh of relief. The weather forecast for the past few days had shown a solid day of rain for Sunday—the Sunday of the Victoria Day weekend, the traditional day for the Okanagan Big Day Challenge. And it’s one thing to do a Birdathon in the rain, but to do a bicycle Birdathon in the rain all day is something I’d rather not contemplate. Hence the relief when I stepped outside at 2:15 a.m. and saw starry skies and felt not a breath of wind. John Reynolds and George Clulow arrived at about 2:45 and we were off on our bikes in the darkness. We met our fourth team member, Eva Durance, at the start of the Max Lake Road at 3:15, just as a Common Poorwill called from the ponderosa pines ahead of us. Species number one—we’d need a few more to reach our goal of 130! Eva said it was species number two for her—she’d heard a Great Horned Owl calling as she left her house.
We clattered through the potholes to Max Lake, where a Sora called, then a Virginia Rail—things were going as planned. A couple of kilometres later we passed a parked car and a couple of small tents right where we usually try for Flammulated Owls, so I quietly led the group a few hundred metres on so as not to disturb their sleep. After a few imitated hoots, a Flam called in the distance, then another. We climbed the steep hill to check the nest-boxes, but no owls looked out—too early in the season, I imagine. It was 4 a.m., still dark, so we had nothing to do but lie back in the pinegrass and wait for the dawn and its chorus of songbirds. A few seconds later a robin called and the frantic early morning listing began.
We slowly worked our way back down to Max Lake itself, the pines and firs ringing with Townsend’s Solitaire, Western Tanager and Black-headed Grosbeak song. The temperature had dropped a few degrees, and we kept adding layers and gloves but still got good and chilled. By 5:20 we had 30 species, enough to feel good heading down the big hill to my house. A Great Blue Heron flying high overhead was a surprise—and a relief, since their small colony in Penticton had shifted and was hard to see from our route. A Eurasian Collared-Dove flew up from the roadside—this species had finally colonized my neighbourhood after several years of taking over surrounding towns. At home we refuelled with hot coffee and repacked our bags for the long ride to the south. Eva spotted a Black-chinned Hummingbird at the feeder, but a Rufous chased it off before the rest of us could get a look. Hopefully we’d be able to make that one up along the way.
At 6:30 we were off again, down the KVR trail to the Okanagan River. Several Lazuli Buntings sang from the bushes, and a single Yellow-breasted Chat—just arrived from Mexico last night—sang from the rose thickets below. Along the river we picked up most of the swallows, but the Bank Swallows weren’t at their usual bank—I only had a couple of sure spots for this species so hoped this wouldn’t be a bad miss. We looked out over Okanagan Lake, where a single Western Grebe and 3 Bufflehead were nice additions, as was a young Ring-billed Gull on the beach. Gulls are hard to find in May in these parts!
This was one of the earlier dates we can do a Birdathon, and several species hadn’t been reported yet as back from their wintering grounds. We listened hard for Willow Flycatchers, Gray Catbirds, Eastern Kingbirds and Veeries along the cottonwood groves by the river, but no luck. The muddy oxbow east of the Penticton airport had pairs of Northern Shovelers, Gadwalls and Yellow-headed Blackbirds, but most of the other ducks had flown north in the past week, and there were no interesting shorebirds at all. A quick stop at the Skaha Lake beach produced a single Common Loon and a dozen more Western Grebes.
It was time for the first big physical effort of the day—the 7-km climb along Hwy. 97 to Kaleden. In the past, we’ve gone down the east side of Skaha, which is less hilly, but for a change this year I decided to reverse the day—putting the big climb in the morning and leaving the level biking for the afternoon and evening. We’d also avoid the traffic congestion of the Peach City Half Marathon along that east side route. The others quickly pulled away on the big hill as my lack of conditioning became apparent. I listened for Lark Sparrows along the way, but the only new species I saw along that stretch was a raven. I caught up to the gang in Kaleden, where a Lewis’s Woodpecker soared out from a hilltop snag.
At 9:15 we turned off on the White Lake Road, quickly adding Western Wood-Pewee and Hammond’s Flycatcher before stopping in at Doreen Olson’s home at the top of the first big hill. Doreen was off leading a Meadowlark Festival field trip, but had kindly left a jug of cold water on her porch for us to refill our bottles. An adult Great Horned Owl looked down on us from the big fir where they’ve nested for over a decade, and a male Black-chinned Hummingbird came to the feeder, allowing the rest of us to catch up to Eva in one fell swoop. We hung around Doreen’s for 25 minutes or so, hoping to get the White-breasted Nuthatch that was there yesterday, but eventually gave up and tackled the next big hill on the route.
After adding American Kestrel and Say’s Phoebe in the first kilometre, a small black car pulled up—it was Catherine Jardine and friends, out doing some serious Okanagan target birding. Catherine pointed out that it was their camp along the Max Lake Road; had I known I wouldn’t have felt so bad about hooting for owls outside their tent! I gave them directions to a Black-throated Sparrow discovered the day before at Osoyoos, handed them the map and cycled off while they went back to Doreen’s for the Black-chinned Hummingbird. I caught up to the rest of the gang as they were pointing out a Pine Siskin at a feeder—this usually common species had been basically absent from southern BC for the past six months so we were relieved to get one. I reached for my notebook to write it down and discovered that I hadn’t just given Catherine the map to the sparrow, I’d handed over my notebook with the map in it. Arggh! Luckily, Eva had also been keeping a running tally of our birds.
A quick side trip to a small pond produced a family of Barrow’s Goldeneye ducklings and a Green-winged Teal, a Bald Eagle soared over the next lake and a Wilson’s Snipe called from the marsh. Then on to White Lake, where the grasslands held great promise for new species. A Western Bluebird at a nest box, Brewer’s Sparrows singing from the sagebrush, Savannah Sparrows still migrating through the basin. Catherine and gang drove by again and dutifully handed back my notebook. We stashed our bikes and hiked up the hills to the south of the lake in a traditional march to find Gray Partridge and Grasshopper Sparrow. These marches have usually been fruitless, but they provide some relief from the bicycle saddle and I simply love walking the grasslands in spring. It was hard to listen through the din of meadowlark and Vesper Sparrow song, but near the top of the rise I caught the insect-like trill of a Grasshopper Sparrow (species 100!), and soon we all had good looks as he sang from atop a sagebrush. No partridges, but we were happy with the results of the walk. After a long hard look we found four Wilson’s Phalaropes on the lakeshore as White-throated Swifts chattered overhead. It was noon.
We sailed down the big Park Rill hill south of White Lake, slamming on the brakes to see a lovely adult Golden Eagle over the cliffs to the west. We stopped at a nearby nest box that had had a Western Screech-Owl looking out of it yesterday—no sign of the owl, and a broken egg below the box didn’t bode well. I boosted Eva up on my shoulders to look into the box, but it was empty. I trilled my best screech-owl trill, but only managed to call up an astonishing variety of forest birds—no owl (and no White-breasted Nuthatch—yikes). We stopped at the Secrest Scout Camp to look for nuthatches, but by now it was 2 p.m., sunny, hot and windy. The forests were quiet as we checked a number of bluebird boxes, hoping to find one being used by the local White-breasted Nuthatches. We bumped into Michelle Hamilton and Grant Halm, members of our team in previous years, but they had no nuthatch information to pass on.
As we got to the big flats at Covert Farms, I saw Marianne Hutterli through the pines, planting in her vegetable garden. I mentioned to John that Marianne was a local birder, and he immediately said “We should ask her about White-breasted Nuthathes!” So we turned off the road, then up her driveway. To our surprise, she replied to our blurted question “Oh yes, we have a nuthatch nest in our house.” And there, under the eaves, was a little gap in the boards through which a pair of White-breasted Nuthatches were shuttling to feed their young. After some more water refills, we thanked the Hutterlis and were off to River Road, sailing down the extraordinary Secrest Hill, which I can attest is a big challenge to cycle up! At the bottom of the hill we ran into the convoy of the Western Teenagers, a group of young birders that were doing a car-powered Big Day in the area. We tore away from their excited stories to check off Bank Swallow around the next corner (phew!), and there unexpectedly met more birding friends, including Dan Kemble, the compiler of the Carcross, YT Christmas Bird Count, someone whom I’ve talked with many times on the phone but never met. Such is May birding in the Okanagan!
A male Cinnamon Teal was a bonus at Hack’s Pond, but we couldn’t find a Bewick’s Wren along River Road. A Vaux’s Swift twinkled overhead as we got back on the highway and headed north to Vaseux Lake. We were well down in our species total so were hoping Vaseux would come through in a big way to get us back into respectability. At the south end of the lake a few Redheads and a single Lesser Scaup were joined by a pair of Blue-winged Teal flying in. Then John spotted a pair of Red-necked Grebes dancing along the marshy shoreline. Things were looking up. At 4:00 pm we cycled up the McIntyre Creek road to the big cliffs—a kilometre of hill I wasn’t planning on—but were rewarded with Rock and Canyon Wrens singing. No Chukar cackled, though. A run out on the boardwalk produced Pied-billed Grebe, Cedar Waxwing, Marsh Wren and some distant Ring-necked Ducks. We stopped in at the Vaseux Lake Bird Observatory site and hiked over to the river channel, where we spotted a pair of Northern Harriers, but no kingfisher. It was 6 p.m. when we left, and our total was 118.
I really wanted to get to 120, but what could we add? A stop in Okanagan Falls failed to produce Merlin, and the dippers hadn’t been at the dam for a couple of years. We cycled along the west side of Skaha Lake along the old KVR trail, praising its condition on the southern end and cursing its deep sand, silt and gravel on the northern half. Finally, just as we reached the north end of the lake, a Belted Kingfisher called to us as it perched over the shore on a shrub. 119. No Lark Sparrow, though. We were hoping from some new shorebirds at the airport oxbow, but only saw the usual gang of ducks and killdeer. As we went by the cottonwoods farther north I slowed down, hoping to hear the nasal call of a Veery. Instead I heard a soft “whit!” that sounded a lot like a Willow Flycatcher. We stopped and spent a long time trying to get a good look at the bird, but it stayed frustratingly low in the shrubs. I finally got a short but good view of a brownish flycatcher, orange lower mandible, enough for me to call it a Willow. The 120th species. We finished the day at the south end of Okanagan Lake, 9 p.m. nothing new. One last hill up to home and we were done, in more ways than one. With 104 kilometres behind us, we had the pleasure of collapsing into bed and storing another year’s worth of memories in our Okanagan Big Day Challenge memory banks! Remember–this is all in aid of bird conservation and the Vaseux Lake Bird Observatory–if you’d like to make a Birdathon pledge to our team, click here. Thanks!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.