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A non-motorized year

March 14, 2010

This morning I bicycled to Trout Creek Point on Okanagan Lake about 14 kilometres north of my home. Trout Creek is well-known in local birding circles for being the only place in Canada where you can regularly find Lewis’s Woodpeckers in winter.  When I was young you could find Lewis’s Woodpeckers in a number of places in the south Okanagan Valley in winter, and we tallied over 20 on some Christmas Bird Counts.  But the wintering population has dwindled to a single pair in this idyllic rural suburb of Summerland, BC.  They are still widespread in summer, so I could have waited until the migrants returned from California in May, but I was anxious to add a species to my non-motorized year list for 2010.

Below:  Trout Creek Point on Okanagan Lake, with Okanagan Mountain in the background

A year ago I hadn’t heard of the term non-motorized list, or NMT as it was cryptically called in the local birding email lists.  I had to ask naively what NMT was, and as soon as I found out that a number of birders in western Canada were actively tracking birds seen while walking or on a bicycle, I knew I’d have to give it a try this year.  The concept wasn’t brand new; Richard Gregson of Baie d’Urfé, Québec has been popularizing the “BiGBY” (Big Green Big Year) for some time throughhis website.  There is also aFacebook group that provides a forum for BiBGY/NMT enthusiasts.  Perhaps the biggest NMT birding effort yet was my friend Malklom Boothroyd’s massive trip in 2007 and 2008 to raise money for conservation and to raise awareness of the need to cut back on our consumption of fossil fuels.  You can read more about his quest on his blog, but the hard facts are that he cycled 21,144 km from June 2007 to June 2008 (starting in Whitehorse, Yukon!), saw 548 bird species and raised more than $25,000 for bird conservation.  I had done bicycling big days on 5 different occasions, but they weren’t true NMT trips, since I’d driven to a starting point then was picked up at the end.  While I cut my big day driving distance in half, it still violated the central rule of NMT listing–you can’t use any motorized transport and you must start and finish your walk or your cycle at your home.  And while many birders do it for the environmental benefits, I must admit that the big attraction for me was the possibility that it might actually get me physically fit for the long term.

So when I looked out the window this morning and saw a perfect spring day for a bike ride, I quickly saddled up and was soon cycling Highway 97 along the shores of a glass-smooth Okanagan Lake.  The water was dotted with Horned and Red-necked Grebes, some of them well advanced in molting into their colourful breeding plumage.  I spotted a pair of Canada Geese nesting atop a silt bluff above the highway, and a few Clark’s Nutcrackers called loudly as they sailed out of the pine forests, presumably coming down to the lakeshore for a morning drink.  When I got to Trout Creek I turned off the highway to explore the Lewis’s Woodpecker territory, a remnant stand of ancient cottonwoods the birds used for nesting, roosting, and storing their winter supply of nuts.  I could hear tapping and drumming all around me–unfortunately it seemed that every flicker in the world was in full courtship and nest excavation mode, so I knew I’d have to find my Lewis’s by sight rather than tracking down woodpecker-like noises.  I worked my way down to the mouth of the creek, where a big flock of Greater Scaup rested on the lake.  Bonus! There were 4 Western Grebes with them, a new year bird for me.  I cycled slowly back through the cottonwoods, quietly despairing that I might miss the birds again as I had last month.  But at the last second I saw one flying low overhead, its steady flight so different that the typical woodpecker bounce.  And then none of our other local woodpeckers have a bright pink belly, either.

Relieved, I spent the next while cycling north along the point, scanning the water for some other lucky find like a Yellow-billed Loon, but the most interesting bird I could find was a single mallard-sized Cackling Goose in a flock of its big cousins, the Canadas.  Satisfied, I hit the highway again and turned south to home.  My NMT year list is now 89 species (gunning for 200!) and, more importantly, I’ve biked, walked and run 501 kilometres in 2010.


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