Anniversary birding: Take 2
Some of my faithful readers might remember that last year I attempted to bicycle to Osoyoos as part of a silver wedding anniversary weekend. The idea was to increase my non-motorized birding list by getting to a place too far away (for me) for an easy one-day trip—I’d cycle down, we’d overnight in a nice resort, then I’d cycle back the next day. That attempt of course ended badly, as it coincided with the greatest single-day February snowfall in Okanagan history. As Marg and I began planning what to do this year, I casually looked at the weather forecast for the weekend and noticed that it could hardly be more benign—calm winds with no precipitation. A recent warm spell had melted what little snow we had around Penticton, so the riverside trail was clear and dry. So I suggested we give the bicycle idea another go, and fortunately Marg agreed. My only concern was my fitness level—I hadn’t done any rides over 20 km for a long time, and this would be two 60 or 70-km trips back-to-back.
Saturday dawned calm as promised, with low valley cloud that can be common here in mid-winter, the temperature about -5⁰C (23⁰F). I set off down the Okanagan River channel in Penticton and soon noticed that the family of Tundra Swans were still in the river. I phoned Laure Neish to let her know—she has given me prompt calls of many good birds over the past year, and I thought she might appreciate news of some very photogenic swans. On reaching Skaha Lake I was surprised to see it completely iced over, since two days before only the south end was frozen, and it hadn’t been that cold. Then I noticed the channels formed shoreward of all the swimming buoys, and realized that this ice had recently blown in from the south end. I took the Eastside Road along the lake, a relatively quiet—and more importantly, mostly flat—route. One of the nice things about birding by bicycle is that you hear birds along your entire route—Pygmy Nuthatches piping from the pines, Western Bluebirds chirping quietly, Clark’s Nutcracker cawing from the hills, a Hairy Woodpecker tapping next the roadside. At one point I stopped to take a picture of the ice-covered lake and heard some more tapping from across the road—and there was a Pileated Woodpecker, a species I missed entirely on last year’s bike list.
I took a side trip at Okanagan Falls to check out the river below the dam, and found the local American Dippers in a singing frenzy, flying back and forth and chattering constantly. There were at least six of them, but with all the confusion I couldn’t come up with an exact number. By the time I got to Vaseux Lake, the valley cloud had begun to clear off, and I could see a good number of swans around the open area at the north end—this shallow lake freezes early most years. Reaching the north end of Oliver, I noticed that there were still significant amounts of snow on the ground—2 to 4 inches—and more importantly, the riverside trail looked unbikeable, covered in lumpy, rutty snow and ice. I worked my way south through the back roads of Oliver, adding a pair of Green-winged Teal to the year list, then the flock of Eurasian Collared-Doves at Road 9. At the Road 9 bridge I looked at the dike tracks on either side—although they were snow-covered, tire trucks had produced a flat, frozen path down them. This would save me the climb into the vineyards on the east side of the river, so I set off down the river. Within a few hundred metres I began to think I might have made a mistake; the path began to vary between fast, snow-covered ice to mud and to wet ice. Instead of watching the ducks on the river for Red-breasted Mergansers or Eurasian Wigeon, I was intently watching my front wheel. Even with that care I did go down hard once.
After 4 long kilometres I reached Road 18, where I had to continue south on the dike because it ran alongside the oxbow woodlands I needed to search for owls. Bushwhacking through the Osoyoos Oxbow woods is like spinning the wheel of owl fortune—you never know what you’ll find. The day before, Doug Brown had been through here and found a Northern Saw-whet, a Barred and a Long-eared Owl. Last year I’d hit the bankrupt slot and found nothing. I found an easy spot to go over the fence (remembering my predicament of last year, when I’d torn by pants in spectacular fashion) and headed for my first target—The Juniper, a lone conifer in the birch and alder bush, a tree that almost always has some sort of owl roosting in it during the winter months. Doug had found his saw-whet in it the day before, but before I even reached the tree I was pretty sure I wouldn’t find one there today—because a beautiful Barn Owl flew out of the tree. Barn Owls are very rare in the British Columbia interior, so this was a huge bonus. I then searched a section of birches where Doug had seen a Barred Owl the day before, but only found a nice dark Great Horned. I finally reached the south end of this part of the woods, a real thicket favoured by Long-eared Owls. Marg had walked up the dike to meet me, so we ventured into the brush together. Another Great Horned flew off, but after a few minutes of clambering through brambles we saw the Long-eared, sitting in a typical roost low in a clump of birches. The Barn and the Long-eared were both species I’d never got in the last 3 years of non-motorized birding, so as Kenn Kaufman would say, it was a superb-owl weekend (and yes, I missed the game on TV the next day during my return trip).
I then cycled over to the meadows south of Road 22 where we often seen American Tree Sparrow, a species that is annoyingly rare and local in winter in British Columbia, despite the fact it is common in summer in the northern half of the province. A Northern Harrier coursed over the marshes (my sixth new species for the day!), but the only sparrows I could find were White-crowned and Song. Marg pulled up in the car, so I threw the bike on the back and climbed in for the ride to the hotel, with visions of a very deep bathtub dancing in my head. I’d cycled 63 km, and would start the next morning where I finished today.
The following morning dawned calm and very grey, with the valley cloud even lower than the day before. After a hearty breakfast we drove back to Road 22 and resumed the hunt for the American Tree Sparrows. I ventured out into the marsh and noticed some sparrows flying from the roses and cattails back to the hillside across the road. After a quick chase I found them in some antelope-brush—all White-crowneds except for two Tree Sparrows at the back! Marg enjoyed crippling views of one—this had been a bit of a jinx species for her over the years. A Northern Shrike flew by—another new one for the year list. I then got on the bike and began the trip north, while Marg went south to explore the northeast corner of Osoyoos Lake. I looked for Gray Partridge in the grasslands a bit, but no luck. As I was going by Burrowing Owl Vineyards, Marg pulled alongside to say she’d seen both Rough-legged Hawk and Chukar on her jaunt, both species I needed. I decided to keep going north—going on a 5-km dash to hopefully see a hawk that was flying away seemed foolhardy, and I could check for Chukars at Vaseux Lake on the way home.
I decided to take the side trip up to the feedlot off Black Sage Road—although it was all uphill for a kilometre, there was a decent chance to see Rusty Blackbird there. Unfortunately, the blackbird flocks were on a distant hillside and the landfill was closed, so I couldn’t get close enough to check the Brewer’s for that one bird with the rusty head. I scanned the wigeons feeding amongst the cattle for Eurasian, but they all looked decidedly American to me. After that, I sailed down the hill to the Road 9 bridge and retraced the previous day’s route through rural Oliver. I did find a feeder with two Common Redpolls—a relief to get, since I don’t see this species every year. I was feeling rather chilled, so decided to climb the hill into Oliver to get some extra coffee and get some more air in my rear tire. As I munched on a muffin at Canteloupe Annie’s, Bob and Chris McKay walked in, so I had a good chat with them about various birding adventures, including the Ross’s Gull treat at Christmas.
I stopped in a Inkaneep Provincial Park for lunch, but couldn’t find a Pacific Wren there. I did the loop around River Road in hopes of finding Marsh Wren or Mourning Dove, but no luck there, either. When I got to Vaseux Lake I thought I should make a decent effort for Chukar, since I’d had a hard time getting on last year. I cycled up the hill to the cliffs and stashed the bike behind a giant boulder. As I looked up, a Golden Eagle sailed over the cliffs—bonus! I walked along the base of the talus slopes and quickly saw two tan partridge scurrying up and over the rocks—Chukar! After getting back to lake level, I walked out on the boardwalk to check the swans and counted 66 Trumpeters.
With no targets left for the day, I began the cycle home in earnest, stopping briefly to enjoy the Western Bluebirds again along Skaha Lake and the Tundra Swans on the river. As I pumped up the last big hill, I realized that there was another big plus about bicycle birding—the getting home part feels so much better. Especially the hot tub part. After a good soak I tallied up the weekend’s totals—12 new species (I now have 85 for the year—well ahead of last year) and 134 km added to the distance column. An anniversary to remember.