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Square bashing–bird atlas style

June 25, 2010

Last Saturday I loaded up the binoculars and the GPS and drove east to the Kootenays to help local birders “bash a square”.  The target was the romantically named 11MQ45, a 10 X 10-km square in the mountains west of Castlegar.  The British Columbia Breeding Bird Atlas is in its third year (of five) and atlassing efforts are getting more focussed.  I’d been invited by Gary Davidson, atlas coordinator for the West Kootenay region, to join him and a few other keen birders to thoroughly cover a priority square in a single day.  One of the joys of atlassing is that it gets you into places you’ve never explored before, so I checked my calendar and agreed to meet him on Saturday evening.  Sunday was the day.

The BC Breeding Bird Atlas project is similar to the many other natural history atlas projects that have taken place across North America and around the world.  The simple idea is to divide a geographical region—in this case, BC—into a grid of squares, then to sample the birds (or flowers, or butterflies, or whatever) in as many squares as possible to get a snapshot of each species’ distribution.  Most atlases use a 5-year window to get that snapshot.  You can then go back after a period of years, usually 10 or 20, and do the exercise all over again to see what changes have taken place.  The results are often surprising.  One of the best examples of this atlas technique is the Ontario Breeding Bird Atlas, which was done first in 1981-1985, then again in 2001-2005.  I use data from that atlas regularly when assessing the status of Canadian birds.  The challenge of doing an atlas in British Columbia had delayed the project for many years—there are over 10,000 squares to cover in a very rugged landscape—but a few years ago a partnership of birding groups, naturalist clubs, governments and private companies formed to take on the task.

I drove south through the Okanagan Valley to Osoyoos, then turned left just north of the border to follow Highway 3.  As I climbed over Anarchist Mountain, I was happy to see several soaring Swainson’s Hawks, a prairie species that has a very local distribution in British Columbia.  One of the things the atlas will accomplish is to really provide a clear picture of the present range of some of these uncommon species.  I stopped for coffee at the Rock Creek Trading Post (never miss that opportunity) then continued on through the beautiful Kettle Valley to Greenwood and Grand Forks.  When I went through Grand Forks I turned on the GPS—I had some time to do a bit of solo atlassing in a square I’ve been working on just west of Christina Lake.


White-throated Swift

11MQ03 has some spectacular scenery and habitats.  I pulled off the highway on to the Gilpin Forest Service Road, then stopped to have a listen.  A dozen or so White-throated Swifts chattered overhead, some courting in dizzying cartwheels.  A Rock Wren trilled, then the cascading song of the Canyon Wren.  To think that I once thought of all these birds as Okanagan specialties!  I stopped at a cattleguard to check a line of nest boxes on the fence.  The first had a clutch of House Wren eggs in it (NE: confirmed!), the fourth contained 4 newly-hatched Tree Swallows (NY: confirmed!) and the eighth had 4 Violet-green Swallow eggs (NE!).  The road wound up the steep hillside into the ponderosa pine and Douglas-fir forests.  I added singing Western Tanagers, Black-headed Grosbeaks, Cassin’s Finches, and lots of Spotted Towhees to the list.  Higher up there were Swainson’s and Hermit Thrushes.  Not bad for a late afternoon stop.

I continued east around Christina Lake and up over Paulson Pass.  I noticed the Shields Creek forest road going off to the north and figured it would be fun to explore that for a half-hour or so (11MQ35 here I come!).  The songbirds were pretty quiet this late in the afternoon, but at one spot I had a Red-naped Sapsucker and a pair of Mountain Chickadees.  I then saw two more chickadees and wondered if I was looking at a family (FY: fledged young).  But no, it was a pair of Boreal Chickadees!  Nice addition.  Then an American Three-toed Woodpecker drummed in the distance.  A nice start for this square.

In Castlegar I went to Ed and Hazel Beynon’s house to meet with Gary and the others for a planning session.  We formed four teams to cover the square; I was teamed up with Linda Szymkoviak, a birder from Rossland who I’d corresponded with but never met.  We were to cover the little village of Genelle on the Columbia River, then go up Sullivan Creek to cover some high elevation forest.  After the meeting I drove down to Genelle to make sure I could find the roads, but discovered that the Buckley Road up Sullivan Creek was gated and locked.  While atlassing gets you into new country all the time, it often throws curveballs at you simply because you don’t know the roads!  Time for plan B.

I stayed at Ed and Hazel’s with a few others—we were up at 4:15 a.m. for a quick breakfast of oatmeal, then parted to cover the square as best we could.  I met Linda at Genelle and we immediately began finding point count locations.  These counts are used to develop relative abundance data and maps for the atlas; we try to get at least 15 done in each square, and have to cover the habitats of the square in representative fashion.  Genelle turned out to be a gem of diversity, with three species of hummingbirds, three species of vireos and a host of other valley bottoms species.  We quickly confirmed the breeding of a number of species—an American Robin and Brewer’s Blackbird carrying food (CF), Violet-green Swallows building a nest (NB), a European Starling feeding young in a hole in an old cherry tree (NY); Tree Swallows entering a cavity (AE), a Yellow Warbler with 2 eggs in her nest (NE).


Brown-eyed Susans, aka blanketflower, Gaillardia aristata, Gilpin, BC

At 0730 we headed up the highway to the 9-mile forest road, our plan B to get to subalpine forest.  It was a brand-new road, so we drove slowly through the cedar-hemlock forests, gradually climbing higher and higher.  We did three more point counts here to balance out the valley bottom ones, adding species such as Hermit and Varied Thrushes, Townsend’s and Wilson’s Warblers.  A Ruffed Grouse drummed from a thicket.  After reaching the end of the road, we went back down, then up an old branch of the College Creek road.  Going even slower up this goat track we did find a Northern Pygmy-Owl calling and a pair of Chestnut-backed Chickadees carrying food.  At noon we retreated to Genelle to see if we could add anything else, then called it a day at 2 p.m.  We all entered our data separately, so by the following day we could see the success of our efforts—24 point counts done and a total of 84 species on the square list.  Now only 9999 squares left to go!

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