Bicycle Birdathon 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.
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!