Heading for the hills
We’ve been having some pretty lousy weather lately— it is after all the second week of November in Canada. And, although the Okanagan Valley is indeed a bit of paradise, we do get periods of high winds and sleet, the mountains socked-in with dismal grey clouds. Yesterday dawned pretty much the same as previous days, except the wind wasn’t blowing and it wasn’t raining, so I decided to make an effort to pick up some mountain birds for my year list. It’s something I’ve been putting off, deterred by the thought of a long climb when I’d rather be cycling on the valley bottom. But, in looking at my list over the past few weeks, I realized that there were four or five species I could conceivably get close to home if I was willing to gain a bit of elevation. I still hadn’t picked up a grouse of any sort, and Ruffed and Dusky are residents here. Pileated Woodpecker was another distinct possibility, and if I could get high enough I could call in a Gray Jay or Pine Grosbeak.
I cycled up to the start of the trail, then stashed the bike and began to hike up the mountain. I’m not one of these mountain bikers that can go straight up for 5 km—I could blame it on my non-fat tires, but we all know there are other factors at play. A flock of Pygmy Nuthatches was piping away at the start—always a sound that brightens up the dreariest day. It was pretty quiet after that, in fact it took another 45 minutes of hard climbing before I heard another bird. This time it was a Mountain Chickadee, so I whistled like a pygmy-owl and soon had a big flock of chickadees mixed with the other two nuthatches we get here—White-breasted and Red-breasted. After that I encountered these mixed-species flocks every kilometre or so, but the only species I added were Golden-crowned Kinglet and Black-capped Chickadee.
The forests on this side of the mountain looked in good shape—the trees were quite young as almost all the big ones had been taken out over the past 50 years, but the bunchgrass understory was lush. Bluebunch wheatgrass glowed golden under the grey skies, mixed with fescue and pinegrass higher up. A few clumps of dead pines marked the presence of pine beetles, probably the western pine beetle that specializes in ponderosa pine. My thoughts wandered to the possibility of a Black-backed or American Three-toed Woodpecker, both species that are strongly attracted to these beetle-killed trees. But perhaps the trees were too newly-dead, or the birds just too busy in the major area of beetle-kill over the mountains in the Nicola and Similkameen valleys—the trees here didn’t show any sign of recent woodpecker activity.
By the time I reached the height of land on the trail—about 950 m (3000 feet) elevation, the ground was white with yesterday’s snowfall. Tracks were few and far between—a couple of squirrels and a deer had crossed the trail, but no sign of grouse. The habitat up here was severely degraded by wild horses—the vegetation was heavily trampled and the grass more or less gone. And then, a soft chit-chit call overhead—a Common Redpoll! This was a species I hadn’t counted on, but I was happy to see it—number 200 for the year on my non-motorized list.
I hiked to the south to overlook the valley and explore the open south-facing pine slopes where the Dusky Grouse would spend the winter, but the habitat was so hammered that I wasn’t surprised that no big birds rocketed off the hillside as I walked. A croaking call alerted me to a raven overhead, then a few more, and eventually 36 were overhead, flying up the valley. Perhaps they had filled themselves at the local dump and were just flying home to roost, even though it wasn’t even noon yet. A Clark’s Nutcracker, cousin to the ravens, called from the pines up the hill, but no sign of their other relative, the Gray Jay.
A wall of white was filling the valley to the southwest, a clear sign that snow was on the way. About 5 kilometres into the hike I turned around and began to descend, taking horse trails through little valleys in hopes of flushing a Ruffed Grouse from the roses or snowberry clumps. By now it was snowing heavily, so I quickly hiked down to the bike. At this elevation the snow had turned to sleet, then rain as I headed home. A kestrel and a shrike hunted from the powerlines over the grasslands, both newly-arrived for the winter. After I was home and dry and looking out at the November weather, I realized that usually I would have foregone a hike on a day like this, and would have missed out on a great morning.