A re-cap of the Christmas Bird Count season
Well, it’s over for another year. The Christmas Bird Count season that is. I did eight counts again this year, and although it was getting a little harder to drag myself out of bed for the last two, I thoroughly enjoyed them all. I met new friends, saw some great new country, and of course watched a lot of birds. Here are short summaries of my adventures on those counts, as well as the total number of species (seen by all, not just my group) on each count.
It started with the Apex-Hedley count on December 15. This is one of the smaller counts in the Okanagan-Similkameen in terms of participants, primarily because there aren’t a lot of driveable roads in the circle and the rest is more or less vertical. As usual I did the Apex-Nickel Plate Road that bisects the circle, returning along the Similkameen River on Highway 3. The ski village at Apex was good to us this year with fabulous views of Pine Grosbeaks. We were a bit concerned about Boreal Chickadee but had a few very cooperative individuals at the Apex trailhead. Also there were a couple of American Three-toed Woodpeckers (we were proud of that total until compiler Eva Durance told us she’d seen 15 on her snowshoe route nearby!). I took a 5-minute break to get a nice subalpine fir Christmas tree from the roadside, then we dropped down the switchbacks to the valley below. Total species on the count: 49.
Laurie Rockwell scans the Similkameen Valley along the Nickel Plate Road
Next on my list was Kelowna on December 18. I met Wilf Akerlund and Tom Kemp at dawn. Tom was newly-arrived from Dallas, but had been doing Christmas Bird Counts all his life. We drove out to Chichester Marsh to start the day. Our orders were to find Marsh Wren and Virginia Rail there; the rail eventually scuttled down a ditch but we couldn’t raise the wren. The highlight there (and of the day for me) was watching an adult Peregrine Falcon chasing pigeons overhead! A stop at the Rutland mall for Mew Gull—no luck, but we did get a good cup of coffee and a California Gull. Then a walk along Mission Creek up the Scenic Canyon; beautiful scenery but almost no birds except for a distant flock of Bohemian Waxwings. We spent the afternoon cruising the roads through the orchards of east Kelowna—a flurry of raptors towards the end of the day raised our spirits—Bald Eagle, Rough-legged Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk and 4 kestrels in quick succession. Then at our last stop at Belgo Pond, a Northern Pygmy-Owl watched silently from a roadside tree—a lifer for Tom. Total species on the count: 98.
The following day was the Penticton count, my home count. And the area I cover in that circle is the West Bench—my boyhood stomping grounds and present neighbourhood. It was calm, so I got up at 0630 and drove up to Max Lake to look for owls. On my second stop a Northern Saw-whet Owl answered my whistles with its meowing contact call and on the way home I spotted a Great Horned Owl perched on the powerline in front of the elementary school. A good start! After breakfast I covered the shoreline below the Bench and for once it was very productive—lots of ducks (including a lone Ruddy Duck in with a big flock of Redheads and a young male Barrow’s Goldeneye—rare on the lake), loons and grebes. Marg and I then drove back to Max Lake to get the forest birds. A Northern Goshawk flew over just as we started our walk, and a Northern Pygmy-Owl called as we came back. We got the nuthatch hattrick (Pygmy, Red-breasted, White-breasted) and it was time to cover the residential areas. I set off on my bicycle, although it was now snowing steadily. I found two Northern Shrikes, but only managed to hear one Western Bluebird flying over instead of seeing the usual little flock at Sage Mesa. Cycling down one of the icy hills my tires went right and I went left, but luckily only bruised my hip and elbow. I’ll have to get fatter tires for next year. Total species on the count: 102.
After the first three, there was a long, welcome break for Christmas itself, the turkey and all the friends and relatives. The next count was Vaseux Lake on December 28. I covered the lake area itself with Jennifer Smith, Greg Byron, Jack Somers, Jim Shaver and Jean Brosseuk. The lake was largely ice-free (a nice bonus, since Vaseux is very shallow and always the first big lake in the valley to freeze) and covered with waterfowl. We spent some time counting the swans (our area had 64 Trumpeters and 7 Tundra), geese, mergansers (165 Common!) and more. Try as we might, though, we couldn’t find a grebe or a loon—I guess they had left when the lake had frozen for a couple of weeks in mid-November. Up at the cliffs we tallied 4 Canyon Wrens, one singing its heart out in the winter sun. The TV crew arrived, so Jim and I did a couple of Global interviews about the count—apparently aired as far away as Vancouver! We spent the afternoon on the undeveloped west side of the lake—beautiful light on the eastern bluffs, and Jennifer found a Marsh Wren—phew! Total species on the count: 91.
Jennifer Smith on the west side of Vaseux Lake–Marsh Wren!
Two days later, we were back at it again. Marg and I drove down to Osoyoos, then up the Anarchist Mountain for the Bridesville count. This is the real plateau count of the mix I do—no low elevation habitats at all. An ideal place to luck into a White-headed Woodpecker (which we’ve never done in the short history of the count). It was sunny, with glorious views of Mount Chopaka and the North Cascades, but windy and bitterly cold. We drove up to the Anarchist Summit, hoping for some raptors in the grasslands, but the only ones we saw were a Northern Pygmy-Owl and a Northern Shrike. A flock of Snow Buntings flew by near the summit and when we turned around for a better look a little covey of Gray Partridge rocketed across the road—first record of this scarce species on the count! We met Chris Bibby at 0920 and spent the rest of the day covering the myriad of roads in the area, walking through the pine forests. The afternoon was uneventful except for a pair of Bald Eagles together in the ranchland, perhaps prospecting for a new nest site, and a Northern Harrier that looked like it was trying to leave Canada as fast as it could (our part of the circle was bounded on the south by the US border). Total species for the count: 41.
The Oliver-Osoyoos count was held on New Year’s Day. The weather was great—clear and calm, but -11C so the lake was freezing over rapidly. Marg and I hiked the oxbows at the north end of the lake, with clear instructions from count compiler Doug Brown to find a Bewick’s Wren or two. The other target in that area is to find roosting owls, so we bushwhacked through a lot of rose thickets (my down jacket was bleeding feathers all over the car by the end of the day). I also carried my ladder with me to check nest-boxes for roosting screech owls. We did find three Great Horned Owls, but didn’t find anything in the boxes this year, and dipped on the Bewick’s Wren as well. A Golden-crowned Sparrow and three Spotted Towhees popped up where the wren was supposed to be—nice birds for an Okanagan count—and an adult Harlan’s Hawk was good to see as well. Total species for the count: 103 (dang, beat Penticton by one species for the second year in a row!).
The next day it was back in the car at 0620 and off in the dark up the Similkameen River to Princeton. Russell and I met the rest of the gang in Billy’s Restaurant, got our instructions from compiler Madelon Schouten and met newcomers Jason and Amanda Lahaie. Clear, calm and cold again; we spent the day walking two logging roads through pine-fir forests. The woodpecker numbers were down by about half in the pine-beetle groves—2 Pileated, 17 Hairy, 6 Downy and no 3-toeds at all. We did get lots of forest birds though—168 Mountain Chickadees, 70 Red-breasted Nuthatches, 20 White-breasted Nuthatches and 50 Pygmy Nuthatches. Russ kicked up a snipe in the usual spring by the airport, but the highlight of the day for me was watching a Bald Eagle eat a raven, closely watched by a Golden Eagle. I imagined the capture—the raven diving on the eagle, the eagle timing the barrel-roll perfectly so that the raven met talons instead of back feathers. We spent the last hour of the day poaching in the townsite itself, surprised to tally 18 Eurasian Collared-Doves, a species unknown in Princeton before this summer. And just as we pulled into Santos’ Pizza place for the count-up, a pygmy-owl flew down the street and right over the car. Total species: 52.
And the last count: Cawston on January 4. This count is downstream along the Similkameen, the circle touching the US border. I met up with old friends Marilyn and Bob Bergen who had just moved to Cawston from the Cariboo and were keen on coming out on the count to explore their new neighbourhood and meet some new friends. We were given the west Cawston area, so spent the morning walking along the river bank and up Keremeos Creek. A steady stream of Steller’s Jays flying into the village from across the river surprised us—the finally tally was 40! Cawston is the epicentre of the collared-dove invasion in BC, so it wasn’t surprising at all to count 28 of them. We saw 2 dippers on the icy riverbank and a goshawk eyeing all those doves. In the afternoon we crossed the bridge at Keremeos and poked around the ranches on the south side of the river—new territory for me, even though I’ve travelled through Keremeos all my life! Total species on the count: 65.