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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!

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Fred Cooke permalink
    May 23, 2012 4:25 am

    Well done, Dick and team. Reminds me of the time I joined in, even if it was more comfortably in a car in those days. Fred Cooke

  2. June 29, 2012 7:58 am

    What a great account.

    Also, we enjoyed your interview on CBC-Thunder Bay this morning – must have been early, even for you ;-)

    • June 29, 2012 10:07 am

      It was very very early (440 am)–luckily I was doing bird point counts so would have been up anyways.

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