November–an exciting month in Canada?
When I was coming home from Ecuador last week I was worrying about the abrupt change from tropical temperatures and diversity to the reality of November in Canada—sleet, grey skies and short days. I certainly don’t equate November in British Columbia with nice weather and good birding, but that’s what has happened in the last few days. Temperatures around 13°C (55°F) have made cycling a pleasure, so I’ve been down to the lakeshore and back several times. The big raft of a thousand coots on Okanagan Lake has been augmented by a pile of Redheads and Greater Scaup, hinting at the two or three thousand Redheads that are usually here by Christmas. Hundreds of California Gulls have gathered along the beach, attracted by the kokanee spawning run in the Okanagan River. A Peregrine Falcon has set up shop on the condo high-rise along the lakeshore, rocketing out for dinner whenever it’s hungry.
Lured by reports of Pacific Loons and a Clark’s Grebe, I scanned the shoreline for a few days, finally finding one of the loons to add to my non-motorized (NMT) year list (now standing at 187, in case you’re wondering). A few Ruddy Ducks mixed with the coots and the flock of Common Mergansers was building at the head of the river above the outlet dam. Yesterday I stopped by after grocery shopping to see if the grebe was around and instead saw an odd-looking duck fly in and land amongst the coots. A Long-tailed Duck! Now that would be good to add to the NMT list. It was obviously being bullied by the coots and spent most of its time underwater. As I walked back to the car I scanned the area above the dam again and there was a female Red-breasted Merganser, another local rarity. It was obvious that a quick bike trip was on order. I drove home, put the helmet on, and was back down the hill within 20 minutes. No Red-breasted Merganser, no Long-tailed Duck. The viewing conditions were perfect—late afternoon sun behind me, calm water. I picked out two Bonaparte’s Gulls in with the Californias—that’s getting rather late. A flock of ducks half way to Summerland had moved in closer—50 American Wigeon on their way south. I methodically searched the big coot flock five or six times, but could only conclude the Long-tailed Duck had tired of being bullied and had taken off. And who knew where the merganser was—it was swimming north so fast when I had seen it, it could be in Summerland by now.
News from the south end of the valley was interesting too. Bob McKay had a very late Rufous Hummingbird at his feeder in Oliver, and when Don Cecile came to check out the hummingbird he found a bird previously unknown for the valley–a Northern Parula. Today was cooler and showery for a change, so I thought I had better try for the Northern Parula before it figured out that it wasn’t in eastern Mexico. I got down to the site just before noon to find fellow birders Laure Neish, Eva Durance and Lesley Robertson there. Laure had just seen the bird, so we walked into the park and found the flock of Black-capped Chickadees it had been hanging out with. I gave a few pish calls and a screech-owl trill and the whole gang came flitting toward us, about 10 chickadees, a couple of Ruby-crowned Kinglets, and there—the parula. A nice looking bird with orange-yellow breast, blue-grey head and rump and a greenish back. Rare anywhere west of Manitoba, I’d only seen one in British Columbia before. It seemed happy and healthy despite being in totally the wrong part of the world.
Northern Parula, Oliver, BC, 9 November 2010. Photo Eva Durance
When I got home, Laure phoned as I walked in the door. “I think I have a Purple Finch at my feeder—I’m sending you the photo right now”, she said. Purple Finches may be common over most of North America, but they are almost unknown from this corner of the continent. I’d never seen one in a lifetime of birding in the Okanagan, though they are easily found on the coast at Vancouver and anywhere in central British Columbia in summer. But here they are replaced by the very similar Cassin’s Finch. The females—and Laure’s bird was in female plumage—differ mainly in the clean white undertail coverts of the Purple. “Eastern” Purple Finches also have wide, white facial stripes and somewhat blurrier streaks on the breast and belly. There was no doubt that Laure was correct in her identification. I jumped back in the car and drove across town, finding her yard full of finches. About 50 House Finches were hopping all over the feeders, and there on the driveway was a … a Cassin’s Finch. Definitely not the bird in the photo though. I sat and waited for quite a while, watching Mountain Chickadees, Red-breasted Nuthatches, Pine Siskins, Steller’s Jays, and other feeder birds come and go. But no Purple Finch for me today. Maybe tomorrow—November’s turning out to be an exciting month!