Early spring birding in the Okanagan
Spring began on March 5th for me this year. As I went out in the cool dawn to feed the chickens, I heard the sweet song of a Western Meadowlark from the grassland across the fence. The next day three were singing, and when I cycled down to the beach there was a Killdeer announcing spring in his own way.
After a rather mild winter, we’ve had a cool (sometimes downright cold) spring. March didn’t come in like a lion, but rather like a wet blanket, with fresh snow on the ground. It melted quickly, however, and we did get a few warm days in the first half of the month. March 10th seemed especially springlike, so I cycled up to Max Lake—my old stomping grounds in the hills behind the house. A Say’s Phoebe greeted me as I left the houses of the West Bench and entered bunchgrass hills. Across the road a blue blue male Mountain Bluebird called from the powerline. As I entered the narrow marshy valley before Max Lake, the bushes were loud with robins feeding in the Russian olives, and a lone Varied Thrush sang briefly. A group of Steller’s Jays flew from tree to tree, perhaps headed for the Northern Pygmy-Owl that called from the hillside. The biggest surprise of all was the cooing song of a Mourning Dove coming from the ponderosa pines—that was spring indeed.
In less than an hour I found six new birds for the year, so I decided to cycle downhill to the Okanagan River to see what was happening there. I’d hardly gone a hundred metres along the dyke when a small flock of Violet-green Swallows flew over. I’d been expecting them, as they usually come back in late February, and a friend had already seen some at Okanagan Falls, a few miles to the south. The waterfowl showed few signs of new spring arrivals, though, the only slight surprise being a group of three Trumpeter Swans in the airport oxbow. I’d been hoping for a few Northern Pintail on that pond, or maybe a nice Eurasian Wigeon to appear in the flock of American Wigeon that wintered on the golf course. The gulls along the Okanagan Lake beach showed more sign of spring leaving than spring arrival—still only 8 California Gulls, and none of the Lesser Black-backed, Glaucous or Iceland gulls that spiced up winter birding there.
On March 13th we awoke to another snowfall—and a message that the Snow Goose at Trout Creek Point in Summerland had been relocated, after not being seen since Christmas. Goose chasing around Trout Creek has always been problematic, since the Canada Geese forage in the orchards there and you might only be able to see 50 members of a 200-strong flock, peering between the rows of apricots and peaches. I’d already looked for this bird a couple of times, echoing my searches for a different Snow Goose that had spent the previous winter there. By noon the sun had melted the snow off the roads, so I got on my bike and was off to Summerland, about 12 km north of my Penticton home. Okanagan Lake was glassy calm, making the Common Loons and Horned Grebes easy to spot. As usual, a flock of Western Bluebirds foraged in the Russian olives on one of the small points. I began looking in the orchards when I got to Trout Creek, but saw only a handful of Canadas in the first section. A Turkey Vulture tilted against a fresh north breeze that had sprung up—at least I’d get one new bird for the year on this trip! I decided to go to Powell Beach, the one goose hangout where they are easily seen (if present) and, lo and behold, there it was—an immature Snow Goose swimming with its Canadian cousins.
When I got home from that 30-km jaunt I read my emails—a Eurasian Wigeon was in the golf course flock at last. Unfortunately I had to do some work that day, so told myself the wigeon hunt could wait until the following morning. That night was unnaturally calm for this spring, so I decided to do one of my owl surveys—a route along the White Lake road south of town. Highlights were two Northern Saw-whet Owls and a pair of Western Screech-Owls. The female screech was giving a short begging call that the male answered with the bouncing ball song typical of this rare (in these parts) owl.
The next morning the wind had returned with typical force, but I made a valiant effort to find the Eurasian Wigeon. Unfortunately most of the flock must have been hiding out in the bunkers or water hazards of the golf course instead of grazing the fairways, so I left empty-handed. I tried again on March 19th and was stymied again—but was happy to see four tiny Cackling Geese fly over in a flock of Canadas. The following day I cycled the length of the river in Penticton and finally found the handsome red-headed male Eurasian Wigeon after trying several angles on the golf course. These birds have become rather regular in recent decades—this was one of at least five Eurasian Wigeons present in the Okanagan Valley this March. When I first began birding here in the 1960s, it took me about seven years to see one—and that was probably the first record for the valley.
I took a break from bicycle birding on Thursday to go out with birding friends from Calgary who are doing a laid-back Canada Big Year. Phil Cram, Brian Elder, Mike Mulligan and Ray Woods decided to do a “Fur and Feather” year, visiting every province and territory in Canada to see what kind of list they could amass in 2012. This was their first visit to British Columbia for the year, so it was fun to help them add some western mountain specialties. Highlights of the day included Canyon Wren and Chukar at Vaseux Lake, Long-eared Owl at Osoyoos Lake, a pair of Williamson’s Sapsuckers on Anarchist Mountain, and a Hoary Redpoll on Sidley Mountain Road (a new BC bird for me!).
Last Saturday dawned perfectly calm—I quickly decided to take advantage of the weather and cycle to White Lake to try to break my jinx with Rough-legged Hawks. I had yet to see this winter visitor in three years of bicycle birding, and time was running out for this year. I cycled down the Okanagan River channel (there was that pesky Eurasian Wigeon—so easy now that I’ve seen him once), up the big long hill to Kaleden and then into the winding hills to White Lake. A Golden Eagle soaring over Mount Parker, Western Bluebirds checking out nest-boxes in the pines, Spotted Towhees singing from the shrubs—it was a great morning. When I got to the White Lake Basin I started scanning nervously for big hawks, looking in the sky, over the sage, on the poles. Nothing. Please let it be over the next hill. No, another Red-tail. I decided to go all the way around to the south side of the basin, where maybe I’d at least get a pintail for my list. And then I saw a suspicious blob on top of a Douglas-fir on the ridgeline. I took a look at it through the binoculars, and there was the pale head of a Rough-legged Hawk. Phew! Eventually it flew down and almost allowed me to take its picture, but I enjoyed the close views in the morning sun. There were no pintails on the south pond (it had frozen overnight!), but a Cassin’s Finch sang from the hillside pines. Springtime in the Okanagan.