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Bicycle Birdathon 2010

May 26, 2010

Bicycle Birdathon 2010:  23 May 2010

The weather looked good—patchy cloud and calm, the temperature a balmy 10°C.  But it was 2:30 a.m., and as George Carlin, the hippy-dippy weatherman used to say: “Forecast for tonight—dark”, so we turned on our headlamps and cycled away from home into the hills northwest of Penticton.  After warming up (literally) on a few steep hills, we reached our destination—the narrow Max Lake valley—just after 3 a.m.  There to greet us was a singing Gray Catbird, my first of the year and a great way to start the day.

The 2010 team:  Grant, Michelle, and Nancy

My Birdathon team this year consisted of Nancy Baron, a veteran of last year’s effort, and Michelle Hamilton and Grant Halm, who were new to the Big Day/Birdathon concept but were experienced cyclists, something that was bound to come in handy through the day.  We continued up the road, dodging large potholes and mudpuddles, then stopped at Max Lake itself, really a glorified pond filled with cattails and bulrushes.  After a few whistles on my part, a Sora whinnied loudly, followed immediately by the grunts of a Virginia Rail.  Things were going according to plan.

The plan was to get some of the owls Max Lake was famous for, so we rattled on for a couple more kilometres until the road ended in a steep valley.  Common Poorwills called from either side of us.  A family of Northern Saw-whet Owls hissed off to the left, the brood from a nest I’d found back in April.  This species is tough to get in late May, when the adults are largely silent.  We parked the bikes and I started to imitate the hoots of the Flammulated Owl.  Silence.  We clambered up the steep slope to the nest site traditionally used by one of the pairs here, but it was early in the season for nesting, and no owl peeked out of the hole.  We sat and waited, sat and hooted.  I decided to switch to whistling for pygmy-owls, and one quickly answered off to the east, then gradually flew in quite close, looking for the intruder.  I went back to hooting and finally a Flammulated gave a couple of calls near us, then Nancy saw the silhouette of a small bird swoop downhill in front of us, but we never did get a good look at it.

We stayed up on the slope for some time, enjoying the calm morning as the eastern sky lightened and the dawn chorus began—Townsend’s Solitaires warbling, Spotted Towhees trilling, Mourning Doves cooing.  The temperature had dropped a bit and we’d become rather cold nestled in the bunchgrass, so we got back on the bikes and returned to Max Lake, quickly adding more species as the birds woke up.  A Lincoln’s Sparrow and two White-crowned Sparrows, probably delayed in migration by the recent cool weather, were a real bonus as usually they would all be at higher elevations by now.  A Rock Wren in the gravel pit was a surprise.  By the time we got back to my house it was 6 a.m. and we’d tallied 59 species.

One of the juvenile Great Horned Owls in our yard

 After repacking food and clothes, and checking off the resident Great Horned Owls in the yard (they’d been worrisomely quiet when we left), we got on to the Kettle Valley Trail to the Okanagan River Channel.  Things got very busy quickly.  Lazuli Buntings were flitting all around us, and a Yellow-breasted Chat—a lifer for Michelle and Grant—sang from a rose bush in the meadow below.  We continued to add species along the river— Vaux’s Swift, Willow Flycatcher (just back—phew!), Spotted Sandpiper, and an array of swallows.  At the outlet dam on Okanagan Lake an Osprey sat on the wire right next to a Belted Kingfisher.  The lake was mirror calm and we could scope right over to the eastern shore, where a Common Loon and Red-necked Grebe added to our list.  Below the dam a strange gull puzzled us for some time, but we eventually decided it was an immature Glaucous-winged X Western hybrid.  I took photos for later perusal by gull experts, then was happy to see 6 Ring-billed and 1 Herring Gull fly directly overhead.  Gulls are hard to find around here in late May, so this was another bonus for the list.

We turned south at 7:45 for the long haul to Oliver, cycling along the river channel to Skaha Lake.  The oxbow that had been filled with ducks last week was only half-filled with ducks, but a flock of 16 vultures was nice to see.  Two Great Blue Herons flying by saved us the cycle up the road to their colony.  Skaha Lake was flat calm as well, but Lesser Scaups were the only things dotting the surface.  We collided with the Peach City Half-Marathon as we cycled down the east side of Skaha, dodging runners and being held up at the turn-around for a few minutes.  We were an hour behind schedule, so it was rather frustrating, but we did have a strong wind at our backs as the skies darkened and threatened us with a drenching rain.  The wind shaved 15 minutes off our time deficit by the time we got to Okanagan Falls, so we dashed over to the river to look for the Harlequin Duck that had been there all week.  Try as we might we couldn’t find it (we found out later that we’d missed it somehow—it was perched on a rock in the afternoon!), but a  few Wood Ducks on Shuttleworth Creek brought our list to the century mark at 10:30 a.m.

We continued south to Vaseux Lake as the sun came out—we’d managed to miss the rain somehow.  We walked out on the boardwalk—soon to star as High Island, TX in an upcoming Hollywood movie, The Big Year—and tallied the usual wetland species—Marsh Wren, Veery, Redhead, Pied-billed Grebe, and Eastern Kingbird.  I’d hoped we could get by with a quick dash into the big rock cliffs at the north end of the lake, but no birds showed by the highway so we grunted up the gravel hill for a kilometre or so to get Canyon Wren, Chukar, White-throated Swifts, and stupendous looks at a Lewis’s Woodpecker.  The hill offered a good view of the lake, but we couldn’t find the resident Canvasback pair, though a small flock of five Eared Grebes were a nice substitute.  Continuing south along the highway, we had great looks at a Lark Sparrow and distant views of a pair of Greater Scaup.  We tried to turn its companions into Harlequin Ducks but eventually realized we were dreaming in Technicolor.  A rest at the base of the massive face of McIntyre Bluff was welcome, but didn’t produce a sighting of the Peregrine Falcon pair that were (I’m sure) looking at us from above.

At River Road we turned north again, checking off the cooperative male Black-chinned Hummingbird that likes to perch on the powerline there, then slogged up Secrest hill.  Well, I walked up most of it.  We looked at the checklist and realized we were missing some pretty common birds.  Nancy spotted a Cooper’s Hawk going overhead, so we finally had something down in the hawk department.  I wandered off behind some bushes for a bathroom break and heard a Dusky Flycatcher calling from the next Saskatoon, and a Cassin’s Vireo sang in the afternoon sun.  We all breathed a sigh of relief when we finally got our Vesper Sparrow at Willowbrook.

Since we were two hours behind schedule by now, I decided to axe plans to cycle out to Green Lake and back, a 15-km jaunt that would probably only net us Ruddy Duck and take about 2 hours to do.  Continuing north, the next big hill slowed us down quite a bit, so I managed to hear, then see, a Pacific-slope Flycatcher in the narrow draw.  Michelle spotted  a Hammond’s Flycatcher around the next corner, so suddenly our list of big misses was getting a lot shorter.

Nancy looking for partridges at White Lake

 A Merlin entertained us up the really long hill into the White Lake Basin by chasing—unsuccessfully—every bird in sight.  We got to White Lake a half-hour early, thanks to our revised itinerary and another fortuitous tail wind.  We ditched the bikes and went on a stroll through the sage, hoping to kick up Gray Partridge, see a harrier or maybe hear a Grasshopper Sparrow.  But we returned empty-handed, so cycled on to get the expected Brewer’s Sparrows.  At 5:30 we finally added American Kestrel to our list, then pulled into Doreen Olson’s Three Gates Farm, where we hoped to find a White-breasted Nuthatch.  Doreen informed us that she thought the nuthatch nest had been predated by a bear, and although our pishing brought in a surprising diversity of birds there was no White-breasted Nuthatch to be seen.  We had one card up our sleeve at Three Gates, though—we hiked down the hill toward the Marron River and peeked into a nest box to see 4 big Western Screech-Owl young.

After a relaxing pot of coffee and plate of cookies in Doreen’s kitchen, we thanked her and  cycled off into the increasingly chilly evening air.  At Kaleden we screamed down the steep, winding Lakehill Road to reach the Kettle Valley Trail again, this time along the west side of Skaha Lake.  The wind had dropped and the lake was calm again, but no new species were to be seen.  We went north to Penticton and back along the river channel, checking the oxbow and outlet dam again for anything new.  Nothing.  By now it was 8:45 p.m. and we (or at least I) were tired and sore, so we cycled back up one more long hill to my home.  We got there at 9:06 p.m. with 106 kilometres on the odometer, a list of 124 species, and a bike-load of good memories.

You can still make a donation to my Birdathon by clicking this link.  The money raised goes to the operation of the Vaseux Lake Bird Observatory.  Thanks!

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