A wild hawk chase to White Lake
After posting my bicycle birding update last week, Thor Manson mentioned to me that one of my wanted birds—a Rough-legged Hawk—was hanging out around White Lake. This species is regular out there in winter, so word of an early arrival that showed signs of sticking around meant that the long cycle might well be worth it. I looked at the weather forecast and Saturday seemed like a good day for this venture—the south wind we’ve been blasted by for the past while was supposed to be calm in the morning before kicking up in the afternoon. Hey, if I timed it right, I might get a calm ride out and a nice tailwind home.
The day dawned perfectly—clear and calm. The cupboards were bare at home, so Marg and I had breakfast at a local coffee establishment at the bottom of the hill. I cycled away from there at 08:30, deciding to check out the Okanagan Lake shoreline while I was close by, before turning south. I thought that yesterday’s strong south wind might have tired some migrants overnight and there might be something of interest on the beach. And for once, my hunch payed off—there on the log boom across the river mouth (right next to the Lesser Black-backed Gull Laure Neish found last week, I might add) was a magnificent American White Pelican. I’d almost given up on pelicans for this year’s list; they migrate in small numbers through the Okanagan each fall and spring. Last year I’d seen a flock go by, but I hadn’t been in the right place at the right time this year, despite several close misses. I called Laure Neish to let her know, partly to pay back for the information of the gull!
I then started down the river channel, watching the gulls dive for bright red kokanee salmon—it’s quite something to see these birds gulp down a whole fish! A late Osprey (most are gone by early October around here) sat on a cottonwood, watching the spectacle and likely digesting its breakfast. A big flock of Canada Geese filled the river, new arrivals since my last jaunt down the channel. A couple of tiny geese caught my eye in the middle of the flock, so I paused for a closer look—Cackling Geese! Some yelping calls elsewhere in the flock drew my attention to three more. These geese were Mallard-sized and much darker than the bigger geese around them. Probably another gang that bailed after bucking that south wind yesterday. The airport oxbow had another surprise—my first Tundra Swan of the season.
While all this waterbird action was exciting, I couldn’t help but notice that the afternoon’s south wind had arrived early. By the time I got to Skaha Lake the surf was up and the lake was covered with whitecaps driven by 30-kph winds. I wasn’t looking forward to the next part of the bike ride—a 10-km climb to Kaleden, all uphill and into the wind. I settled into low gear and daydreamed of good birding for the next half-hour as I slogged along. Just past Kaleden I took the White Lake road to the southwest. This road climbs steeply into the ancient volcanic hills framing the White Lake basin itself, but at least they blocked the wind.
Now, bicycle birding has many advantages over vehicle-based birding. The fitness angle is obvious, as is the fact that you can see and hear a lot of things you’d miss from a car while travelling between two sites. But you also find a lot of neat stuff along the roadside—watches, toilet seats, hookless bungee cords, cordless bungee hooks, far too many flattened rattlesnakes and only occasional live rattlesnakes. Today my big find was on the steep switchbacks along the White Lake Road coming out of the Marron River Valley (the Marron River is only a metre wide and I’ve always wondered why it deserves such a presumptuous title, but it does flow through a nice little valley). As I struggled up the hill I spotted a lovely fresh onion on the roadside. This onion was in perfect condition, obviously dropped there only this morning. Not needing too much of an excuse for a rest on the hill, I stopped and popped it into my pocket. And around the corner was the real bonus—ten more pristine onions. Someone probably bought them this morning in the Penticton Farmers Market, put the bag on top of the car and drove away, the onions staying there until the car reached the tight corners of this hill. A pelican and 11 onions—already a successful day!
I reached White Lake at about 10:30 and began my Rough-legged Hawk search. Conditions were perfect—nice lighting and almost no wind. White Lake is one of my favourite local haunts–the basin is featured in the banner photo for this blog. The wide open spaces, the fragrant smell of sage, the quiet. The Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory, a series of dishes and antenna arrays, adds a bit of mystery to the landscape. The basin is alive with activity in spring and summer and attracts a lot of Canadian birders as one of the best places to find Sage Thrashers in the country. Today the sagebrush flats were silent; a Clark’s Nutcracker called from a lone pine while a Red-tailed Hawk soared in the sunlight. I cycled up to the junction, then south for a kilometre or so to the centre of the basin. I was beginning to despair about the Rough-leg—Thor had said it was always there in plain view, hovering in the sky over the sage. The other species I was hoping to get here, though it was getting a bit late in the season, was Lapland Longspur. So I stopped for a coffee break to scan the horizon and listen for longspurs. And then, right on cue, a flock of eight Lapland Longspurs flew overhead, giving their rattling dt-dt-dt-dt and sweet dew calls. A juvenile harrier coursed over the grass, diving periodically for montane voles. I cycled back up the hill to the Twin Lakes Road and turned west, hoping to find the hawk in the higher part of the basin. Magpies called from the high ridges, a couple more Red-tails watched me from hillside trees and a Northern Shrike, the first of the season for me, sat on an overhead powerline. But no Rough-legged Hawk.
After an hour and a half of fruitless searching, I turned north and began the cycle home. This time it was fun—almost all downhill and with the wind. I poked around in the cutbanks just north of the lake for fossils while a Steller’s Jay scolded me. I was in a good mood despite cycling 65 kilometres for a hawk that wasn’t there—the longspurs and pelicans, both species I thought I’d missed this year—were very much worth the trip. To say nothing of the good exercise, the beautiful gold aspens and 11 roadside onions.