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A new year in the Okanagan

March 7, 2011
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If we could have regional New Years Days, I would vote for March 1st here in the Okanagan Valley.  January 1stis definitely too much of a midwinter day to even think of new beginnings, and Chinese New Year is usually a little early for that true feeling of rebirth around here.  But by the end of February, the snow that fell in January is usually gone for good, the sun is warm on your back, the first wildflowers are blooming and most importantly, the birds are celebrating a new year in all sorts of ways.

Sagebrush buttercups announce springtime in the Okanagan

The first migrants usually show up in late February.  Small flocks of pintail rest on meltwater pools in pastures, Western Meadowlarks sing once again from the sagebrush and Say’s Phoebes sally for midges along the banks of the Okanagan River.  The phoebes are joined by the first of the swallows—usually Violet-green but sometimes Tree Swallows as well. The resident birds that have toughed it out over winter begin to sing again—a few robins tuning up in the morning, a Song Sparrow singing from a rose thicket.

I realized yesterday that I’d been writing this blog for almost exactly a year now, so I checked back to see what I’d said in my first post.  I talked about hearing the first meadowlark on the last day of February and seeing an early Turkey Vulture on March 7.  This year things are a bit later, it being a La Niña year.  [As I typed the last sentence, Russell tapped on the window to tell me he’d just heard the first meadowlark of the year—I ran out but the late afternoon soundscape was drowned out by a flock of singing robins, a horde of trilling Bohemian Waxwings and a cacophony of excited quail.  Tomorrow morning I’ll listen again.]

Early March is also owl time.  The Great Horned Owls, admittedly, started hooting full tilt back in January (they’d probably vote for a January 1st New Years, come to think of it) and are all on eggs by now.  The commonest owl here, the Northern Saw-whet Owl, is in full voice these long spring nights, the males’ monotonous whistles echoing through the trees.  This is also when the local Western Screech-Owl pairs start chatting to each other again.

With this in mind, I led an owling event a couple of nights ago to Gillies Creek, part of the Skaha Bluffs property bought by the Nature Conservancy of Canada, The Land Conservancy of BC and the province of British Columbia.  I was worried that we’d be overwhelmed by participants, but a wave of spring flu and a forecast for cold rain or snow showers kept a few folks at home and we had a manageable crowd of about 50 enthusiastic and warmly dressed souls show up at the gate.  As darkness fell, a pair of Great Horned Owls started calling back and forth from the south side of the creek, the sexes easily identified by the pitch and length of the calls.  Females have higher pitched calls and tend to go on a bit, with 5 to 7 hoots in their calls, while males are lower-pitched and keep the call shorter—usually 4 hoots.

Western Screech-Owl

We hiked up the road a ways before I started to whistle like a screech-owl to see if we could get a response from the local pair.  The Great Horneds were still loudly calling though, and perhaps the screech-owls were a little worried about responding.  I tried again farther up with no luck, so switched to the monotonous whistle of the saw-whet.  A male quickly answered, then flew into the ponderosa right above our heads to call back, then moved off into the birches, meowing in curious defiance.  We started back down the hill and I tried one last time for the screech-owls and got a quick response—a short bark followed by the hollow whistles in an accelerating cadence—the “bouncing ball” call.  It was the male (again, identified by the low pitch of his calls); he came in for a close look, then flew back to the centre of his territory and was quiet again.  We left him in peace and resumed crunching down the icy road to the cars.

Yesterday was such glorious day—sunny, warm and calm—that I couldn’t resist going for a bicycle ride to Vaseux Lake.  I felt I’d surely see something new for the year—a killdeer, a phoebe, or maybe a swallow or two.  For once, Skaha Lake was like glass as I headed south, the highlight being a pair of Trumpeter Swans feeding close to shore in the morning sun.  A little further on, I spotted a pair of Killdeer huddled silently in a field of corn stubble, looking tired after their flight from the south.  At Okanagan Falls I was sidelined for a short while with a flat tire, but I fortified myself with coffee, put a new tube in the tire and continued south down the Okanagan River.  The dippers were chattering and chasing at the dam, but I couldn’t see any signs of new nest building on the structure, though one of the dippers sat on one of the sluice gates.

There were no goldeneyes at all below the dam, surprising since the flock of Barrow’s Goldeneyes that winter there is one of the most reliable features of birding in the south Okanagan.  As I continued south, I quickly found them along with hordes of Mallards and Bufflehead on the smooth water below the next drop structure.  All the ducks were feeding in the same way, scooping some obviously abundant but tiny food items from the water surface.  It was a big hatch of midges, the adults emerging from their pupae and popping to the surface of the river, where the lucky ones flew off to join throngs of their friends in an early spring mating dance and the unlucky ones became duck food.  I reasoned that surely there must be a phoebe around here, or a flock of swallows, to take advantage of this abundance.  Even I, though not exactly well adapted to flycatching, was having no trouble scooping up quantities of flies in my teeth.  But no phoebes or swallows were to be seen.

In the evening, Russell and I covered my route for the BC-Yukon Nocturnal Owl Survey, listening at 20 points along the White Lake Road.  We heard two saw-whets and three Great Horned Owls, as well as a lot of Canada Geese honking overhead.  I’m not sure what the geese were doing or where they were going, but they were excited about something.  It’s a new year, after all.

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