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Heli-birding

July 5, 2011

Breeding Bird Atlas projects have many benefits, but one that I consistently enjoy is that they get you into places you normally wouldn’t go.  Last week I found myself driving the Crowsnest Highway east across southern British Columbia, heading for the Rocky Mountain Trench.  My destination was Bobbie Burns Lodge, a spot I hadn’t even heard of a month ago, let alone been to.  Bobbie Burns is owned by Canadian Mountain Holidays (CMH), and some discussions about atlassing with their biologist Dave Butler had resulted in an invitation to come and speak to their guide training sessions about alpine ecology and birds.  CMH is primarily a heli-skiing company, operating several lodges in southeastern British Columbia, but they also operate heli-hiking adventures in the summer out of two of their lodges in the Purcell Mountains, just west of the Rockies.  One of the main challenges we face in the British Columbia Breeding Bird Atlas is getting into alpine areas to survey birds, especially in cool, wet springs such as this one, when the deep snowpack makes access by road or trail difficult.  Heli-birding in the Purcells sounded like too good an opportunity to turn down.

It’s a long way from my home to the Rockies, so I stopped off in Creston overnight.  I’d arranged with Patricia Huet, the regional coordinator for the atlas there, to do some point counts in a square east of Creston the next morning.  My plan was to drive the Carroll Creek Forest Service Road, one that I’d covered for general atlassing a couple of years ago.  I got to the first stop and pulled off as far as I could on the narrow road and began counting—Olive-sided Flycatcher, Steller’s Jay, Lazuli Bunting, Rufous Hummingbird, couple of Gray Jays, 1-2-3-4-5 Swainson’s Thrushes.  Then a huge logging truck rounded the corner and roared by.  I quickly realized that this was not a healthy situation—I was on a narrow road without the usual radio needed to notify the big trucks of my position.  I decided to try another square for safety sake, and quickly drove back to the highway, dodging another truck on the way.  I spent the rest of the morning birding the back roads around Yahk.  After counting a lot of Hammond’s Flycatchers, MacGillivray’s Warblers, Cassin’s Vireos and even more Swainson’s Thrushes I was back on the highway, turning north into the Rocky Mountain Trench at Cranbrook.

The Rocky Mountain Trench is a valley that seems unnaturally straight.  The section in southern British Columbia dropped down about 1000 metres around 50 million years ago as tectonic pressures on the Pacific coast eased, creating a massive valley with fabulous scenery and an abundance of flat, marshy habitats that are rare elsewhere in British Columbia.  I drove north past the grasslands of Skookumchuck and the wetlands of Bummer’s Flats to Columbia Lake, headwaters of the mighty Columbia River.  Farther north I stopped at a few ponds to check out Bald Eagle and Osprey nests—easy pickings for atlassers.  I finally got to Parson, a little logging town just south of Golden.  There I met the guides going in to Bobbie Burns for the training sessions, and we car-pooled for the 60-kilometre drive west along logging roads into the heart of the Purcell range.  At one point a big black bear romped along the road, but the mammalian highlight came just as we reached the lodge, where a dark wolf loped ahead of us before turning into the forest.

Bobbie Burns Lodge

Bobbie Burns Lodge is not a rustic cabin in the woods—it’s a 5-star facility with great rooms, fine food and wonderful staff.  There were no phones in the rooms, but high speed wi-fi was magically available.  Lasers in the jungle.  After dinner and some introductory talks, I went to sleep with the steady drumming of rain on the window—not a good sign for tommorow’s helicopter adventure.  It was still raining at 5 a.m., so I rolled over and slept in until 6:30.  We weren’t going to fly until 10, but I wanted to get some point counts done in the valley.  Between drizzly showers I managed to put in a dozen counts, tallying the usual subalpine species—Pine Grosbeak, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Hermit Thrush, Varied Thrush, Townsend’s Warbler, MacGillivray’s Warbler, Wilson’s Warbler, and more.  The weather didn’t look much better as we gathered for the helicopter safety talk—watch out for the rear rotor, hold on to your hats (they clog the engine), crouch beside the machine.

We rose out of the Vowell Creek valley and were soon cruising over snowy meadows and ridges.  The helicopter circled and landed on a high pass between two minor peaks.  Most of the ridges and lesser peaks in this range don’t have official names, but the guides called this Zebra Ridge.  It was certainly white with black stripes—completely snow-covered except for windswept slopes and the ridgeline itself.  We stepped out of the helicopter and crouched on the slaty scree next to it as it lifted off and disappeared into the distance.  The wind was howling on the ridge, and I quickly realized this would be a day with few birds seen.

A windy day on Zebra Ridge

The guides decided to traverse across the scree slope to get off the ridge and its strong winds.  At 2550 metres (8360 feet) elevation, we were well above the local treeline, and the only signs of life were tiny alpine plants such as Draba and Sibbaldia tucked into the dark rocks.  At one point I heard a Horned Lark sing, but its tinkling song was blown away on the wind.  I picked up a lot of mountain-guide lore on the hike, such as how to kick steps in scree (push down from above) and how to walk safely on snow (make your own steps with a small stride).  I’ve been doing these things for years, but never really thought about how to do them well.

After a long traverse we turned downhill and descended swiftly to the snow-filled cirque.  We stopped for lunch at the edge of the snow, beside a huge mat of fir krummholz.  As I munched on my sandwich I heard some high-pitched calls, like those given by Chipping Sparrows.  I looked upslope and saw a small sparrow perched on one of the shrubby firs, and before I could raise my binoculars it burst into song and I heard the amazing, canary-like trills of a Brewer’s Sparrow.  I know this species well from the sagebrush grasslands where I live in the Okanagan Valley, a radically different habitat in many ways from this frigid mountainside.  In fact, the subspecies living in these alpine habitats from the Canadian Rockies north to Alaska is often considered a separate species, the Timberline Sparrow, since it has a different song (“…like a Brewer’s Sparrow on helium”, says Bruce MacGillivray, an Alberta ornithologist), slightly different plumage, and obviously occupies a different part of the world.  I’d only seen this subspecies once before—a bird singing in Mount Robson Park, just over the divide from Jasper.

Timberline Sparrow habitat

Grylloblattid

Happy with that sighting, I followed the others as we hiked up the cirque, now on deep snow most of the time.  One of the guides pointed out a grylloblattid dead on the snow.  Grylloblattids are unusual insects that live in rocky scree, usually near snowfields, and represent the only insect Order first discovered in Canada.  I’d heard about these from my entomologist brothers, but had never seen one.

Most of the guides decided to climb the cirque wall to a distant ridge, but I decided to stay in the bowl and search for the small ridges of rock and shrubs that were snow-free.  By now it was raining pretty seriously, so bird life continued to be pretty quiet.  A couple of times I heard Gray-Crowned Rosy Finches calling overhead, and after the rain let up someone pointed out an American Pipit by a small tarn.  We followed ptarmigan tracks across the snow but couldn’t find any of those little grouse.  A pika watched us from a rock outpost and then the rain came back in earnest.  I must admit I was happy to hear the dull roar of the helicopter as it returned around 3 p.m.—we picked out a safe landing site and crouched as it approached.  Even though I was kneeling in a good football stance, the rotor wash bowled me over and I rolled away on the snow—I’m sure the pilot had a good chuckle over that.

helicopter pick-up in the Purcells

Within minutes we were back at the lodge, with showers, dry clothes, and another great supper awaiting us.  It rained all that night, though by 6:30 a.m. it had cleared and I managed to do a few more point counts.  The forecast was not good though—severe thunderstorms by noon.  Thinking of the deep snow pack and, let’s face it, worried about the prospect of getting zapped off a ridge by lightning, I decided to forego the alpine and said my farewells and thank-yous to the CMH gang.  It had been a great trip despite the weather, and even though I’ve been hiking in the mountains all my life I learned a few things from the guides.  They seemed keen on bird atlassing as well, so I’m hoping to get some interesting emails over the next couple of summers reporting on ptarmigan broods and lark nests tucked into the alpine grass.

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