Bad Bikes and Good Birds
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.
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.
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!