Winter birding wonderland
It has been some time since I wrote in this blog, so I’ll try to squeeze an entire season—or maybe two—into one entry. We’re having the snowiest winter in 15 years here in the Okanagan Valley—there were 9 inches of the stuff on the front lawn yesterday, and we had one or two more inches overnight. Along with the snow, we’ve also had some other northern visitors gracing the valley since Halloween.
The first one—really more of a late fall migrant than an early winter visitor—showed up at one of my favourite winter birding spots, the S.S. Sicamous on the beach of Okanagan Lake in Penticton. This old sternwheeler evokes thoughts of early days of European settlement in the Okanagan Valley when the communities up and down the lake were linked by steamships instead of roads. My grandparents first arrived in Penticton in 1910 on the S.S. Okanagan, the predecessor of the Sicamous, which brought passengers down the lake from the railway station at Vernon.
But I digress—the ship is not the real birding attraction here, but an obvious landmark at the spot where the Okanagan River is born, flowing out of the south end of Okanagan Lake, on its way to the Columbia. In winter this spot is favoured by a diverse group of diving ducks, a few grebes, a big flock of coots, and one or two American Dippers. In the late fall large numbers of Common Mergansers loaf in the calm water above the dam that controls flow into the river, relaxing after their daily feed on kokanee spawning a few hundred metres downstream. On Halloween I stopped at the Sicamous as part of my usual daily bicycle route and scanned the coots and ducks. I cut my scan short because in the middle of the coots was a small, grey shorebird. Swimming. A Red Phalarope! This species breeds in the high Arctic and usually migrates well offshore down the Pacific coast of British Columbia. I’d only ever seen them while on boats off the west coast of Vancouver Island. I called Laure Neish and other local birders—Laure managed to get a decent shot of the bird despite the dim late afternoon light.
The next unexpected visitors showed up a week later. I stepped outside the back door to feed the chickens and heard the twittering of redpolls—18 of them in the birch tree. While Common Redpolls can be, well, common in the valley some winters, I hadn’t seen any in the yard since moving back to the homestead 3 years ago. I jumped on the bike and cycled around the neighbourhood to see what else might have arrived. Just a few hundred metres down the road I heard the jeet-jeet of a White-winged Crossbill! I scanned the top of a nearby spruce (this species is a spruce seed specialist) and there was a brilliant pair of these northern finches. We’d only had one record in the previous 50 years of one in this neighbourhood. A couple of days later one bounced off the living room window and sat on the patio long enough for me to snap a picture. This was shaping up to be an interesting winter for finches.
But the big surprise came about 10 days later. Chris Charlesworth found a Snowy Owl in Kelowna—too far to chase on my bicycle—then the next day he found another only a few kilometres from my house! In all my life I’d only ever seen one of these huge Arctic owls in the valley. I pedalled off and found the bird perched right on the shoulder of busy Highway 97 as it travels up the Okanagan lakeshore north to Summerland. I thanked Chris for calling as he snapped a few photos, then pedalled back home. To my shock, when I arrived home I found the body of the same owl on our kitchen counter—it had been struck by a car only moments after I’d left and Laure Neish (who had taken some photos a few minutes before the accident happened) had dropped the specimen off at my house. As is typical of many of the Snowy Owls we see, the bird was quite emaciated and had a healthy population of feather lice. Another one showed up in downtown Penticton on December 1st—two days later a friend snapped a photo of it eating a Mallard on a small lawn in front of the city library! Various others were reported in the valley, then a friend called one evening to say that another was perched on the side of the highway again. I drove down with my daughter Julia to see if it was OK, but we found it so weak it couldn’t fly. We wrapped it in a blanket and our friend drove it to the local owl rehab centre, but it died the next day. But still the owls kept coming—on January 6th another was seen downtown, so I cycled down through the slush to have a look. Four Snowy Owls seen in one winter—and there are a couple of months to go.
Of course the main birding excitement for the past three weeks has been the Christmas Bird Count season. I did my usual six counts in the south Okanagan. The highlight on the Penticton count was another rare northern visitor—or rather a rare visitor from northern Eurasia. Tom Lowery and Robyn de Young found a lovely male Brambling at their feeder in Summerland. I still haven’t seen this bird after 4 attempts (one of them by bicycle on New Year’s Day), but Laure Neish has a photo here. Pine Grosbeaks are scattered throughout the valley bottom, to add to the northern finch flavour of the season. Three of the counts were held on day of heavy, prolonged snow, which accented the winter feeling but kept bird numbers down. The best day for weather was December 30th, the day of the Cawston count. After a full day of snow the day before, the world was sunny bright and the trees covered in hoarfrost. The highlight was a glorious Prairie Falcon—new for the count—perched on a tree amidst the orchards.
The count season finished with another full day of snow in the highlands east of Osoyoos where we hold the Bridesville count. Marg and I scoured the forests for birds, but the snow on the trees was thick and the birds were thin on the ground. Just after lunch I spotted a dark lump in a roadside tree—a Northern Pygmy Owl intently scanning the ground for mice. We ended up seeing three of these tiny predators that day—well worth the effort of all that hiking in the snow.