Midsummer bird atlassing
We are in the middle of a classic mid-summer heat wave here in southern British Columbia—our cool, wet spring turned sunny and hot in the first week of July and the long-term forecast is sun, sun, sun. As usual, the dawn songbird chorus came to a crashing halt around July 7th and since then the only bird song around my yard has been coming from a Lazuli Bunting and a House Wren. I’m not sure what the bunting’s nesting status is, although a female comes by our bird pool for a bath and a drink every day, so they might still have an active nest. The wren’s first brood of eight young fledged on the last day of June—he’s still singing because he and his mate have started a second brood, with 5 eggs now in the same nest box. Our Great Horned Owl family left the yard in late May, but at least one has returned to roost here in the last couple of days. But in general it’s too hot for birding by noon, and the main household task is keeping the inside temperature under 28C when the outside temperature is pushing 38C (100F).
Temperature aside, this is a great time to do breeding bird atlassing, where the aim is to confirm breeding for as many species as possible in a given place. The signs of bird breeding are easy to see now–newly-fledged young are cheeping loudly and adult birds are carrying worms and bugs to feed them. With this in mind, I took a three day jaunt to the Kettle River valley just over the mountains to the east. The Okanagan has been covered fairly well in the British Columbia Breeding Bird Atlas project, but the Kettle is a little more out of the way and relatively few birders explore it. They’re really missing something.
I left late one day after work, drove south through the Okanagan to Osoyoos, over Anarchist Mountain and down into the Kettle Valley at Rock Creek. I got to Midway in the evening and checked into the Mile Zero Motel. The motel’s name refers to Midway’s place as the eastern terminus of the Kettle Valley Railway, which connected the Kootenays with the coast. I always thought that Midway was, well, midway along the railway, but it was actually named by one of its founders who had been impressed with the midway fairground at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. It was initially called Boundary City, and this part of British Columbia is still called the Boundary region.
Anyways, back to birds. I wanted to explore the south side of the Kettle River west of Midway, along the Myers Creek Road. I was looking for Western Screech-Owls, a riparian woodland specialist in this part of the world, and there were some impressive stands of cottonwoods along the river. As the light faded, I played owl calls along the road at various spots, but no owls answered. At two points, young Great Horned Owls screeched (an aside here—screech owls don’t screech, but young Great Horneds certainly do!) and I heard a couple of poorwills calling from the grassy hills north of the river, so I did get some data for the atlas.
The next morning I drove up to Jewel Lake, north of Greenwood. I’d been there in spring a couple of years ago and thought I could add a few species with a quick visit. I checked under a bridge over Boundary Creek, hoping to find an American Dipper nest, but the bridge was solid concrete with no ledges for birds. I guess the bridge engineers weren’t birders. A MacGillivray’s Warbler chipped loudly in the bushes along the creek, and a moment later I spotted a newly-fledged warbler, still carrying a lot of downy feathers—nice to confirm breeding for this skulking species. I scanned Jewel Lake for loons, hoping to see a family, but all I saw was a tight group of three adults fishing and bathing happily together.
I got back on the highway and continued east to Grand Forks. On a whim, I turned north to bird the Granby River valley. Known locally as the North Fork, this valley has tremendous natural diversity, from dry, rocky cliffs to rich hay meadows (it has one of the largest populations of Bobolink in British Columbia). I added an American Kestrel nest to my tally when I saw a male feeding a loudly screaming young sticking its head out of a nest box on a power pole. At the 10-mile bridge I saw a pair of anxious California Quail, a juvenile redstart and a pair of yellowthroats carrying small caterpillars. A Lewis’s Woodpecker gorged on Saskatoon berries by the road, then flew off across the valley, presumable to feed some young birds in stand of big cottonwoods.
Once back in Grand Forks, I crossed the Kettle River and drove out to Gilpin to check the oxbows there. A Hooded Merganser fed in the duckweed-covered water, a pair of Northern Waterthrush called loudly, and a Great Blue Heron stood motionless on the shore. After dark I returned here to look for screech-owls, but once again heard only a young Great Horned begging for food and poorwills on the slopes.
Juvenile Bewick’s Wren
The next morning I had a nice visit at Christina Lake with Ron Walker, the naturalist guru of the Kettle Valley. We went over the checklist and he gave me tips on the breeding status of all the species. One surprise was his comment that Yellow-breasted Chats nested at Boothman’s Oxbow east of Grand Forks. On my way home I stopped in there, and though it was high noon and in the mid-30s at least, I made a few half-hearted whistles for chats. To my surprise a bird popped out of the shrubbery—not a chat but a juvenile Bewick’s Wren, still sporting small tufts of down. This species was unknown in the Interior of BC until about 3 years ago; it has since been found breeding on a couple of occasions in the south Okanagan. My friend Doug Brown had found one around Midway about 10 days ago, and here was another—and a good confirmation of breeding at that—in the east end of the Kettle Valley. Atlassing is always full of surprises!