Bicycle Birdathon 2015: a wet, willety day
It was the sound you don’t want to hear at 2 a.m. when you’re waiting for your alarm to go off in readiness for a birdathon. Especially a bicycle birdathon. The sound of steady rain, occasionally interspersed with the sound of heavy rain. I was supposed to meet Eva Durance at 3:15 to start our birdathon, so at 2:45 I phoned her and suggested that we start at 4. I checked email, chatted with the team of young birders staying at our house who were doing their birdathon by car before they left at 3 and got my gear together. At 3:30 I called Eva again to say 4:30 for sure—owling was pointless, but by then the dawn chorus would have started and we didn’t want to miss that.
So I cycled off at 4:15 in full rain gear, something I don’t usually do in the Okanagan, where if it’s raining you usually wait a half-hour until the rain stops. I pumped up the hill towards Max Lake, surprised to hear a bickering Western Tanager complaining about the weather in the darkness. Eva was waiting for me at the start of the gravel road. We compared notes and found we had four species despite the downpour, then added two more as some Violet-green Swallows chattered somewhere overhead in the blackness and a Spotted Sandpiper called from the park lawn next to the road, perhaps mistaking its flooded state for a permanent pond.
We rode up the track to Max Lake, dodging enormous puddles as best we could. Amazingly, a Common Poorwill called from the hills to the west, something that doesn’t usually happen in weather like this. Dawn came very slowly, but out of the murky gray we heard Soras and Red-winged Blackbirds call from the marsh, a migrating Hammond’s Flycatcher peeped from the willows and a few die-hard Black-headed Grosbeaks, Western Tanagers, Nashville Warblers and Townsend’s Solitaires sang from the pine woodlands. The dawn chorus was a shadow of its normal self though, and was surprisingly dominated by Spotted Towhees, a species which seemed to care less about the steady rain.
At 5 a.m. we turned around at the end of the road, checked a couple of nest-boxes for possible owls (no such luck), then coasted back down through the sand, gravel and potholes. By the time we reached the houses of the West Bench again we only had 22 species, adding 8 more to reach 30 by the time we got back to my house. Normally we have 55 species at that point, and normally we’re dry enough to guzzle down some coffee, repack for the day and take off by 6:30 to really hit the road. This wasn’t a normal day, obviously, so we shed most of our clothes and put them in the dryer while we watched the feeders for hummingbirds (Rufous, Calliope, but no Black-chinned) and the nest-box for Red-breasted Nuthatches feeding their young (check!).
By 7:30 our clothes were dry, so I switched out my hiking shoes for muck boots and we were off into the deluge again. There was no sense that the rain would stop—we couldn’t even see the other side of the valley for the clouds. But the Lazuli Buntings were singing when we hit the KVR trail below the West Bench and a Yellow-breasted Chat sang from the roses. A field-guide-page of swallows lined the wires over the Okanagan River, so we didn’t have to worry about that family for the rest of the day. A pair of Wood Ducks flew by, a nice bonus as well. Things were looking up despite the short species list.
At Okanagan Lake we had a pair of Red-necked Grebes, then a pair of Horned Grebes. Three adult California Gulls on the beach confused me for a few seconds, as they were so intensely coloured that they lacked the black spots on their bills. I fought back the urge to call them pale Lesser Black-backed Gulls (they had dark eyes after all)—we were happy to see any gulls at all! By 08:50 we were heading south along the river again, about an hour behind schedule but determined to enjoy this day whatever it brought. A Belted Kingfisher boosted our morale, since we’d almost missed that species last year.
One of the best spots for bird diversity along our route is the muddy river oxbow on the east side of the Penticton Airport. It hadn’t held much of interest a few days ago, but I was happy to see a Lesser Scaup and a pair of Northern Shovelers right away. As I scanned the north shore, Eva said, “What’s that big shorebird?” I looked over to the south, and there was a lovely Willet! This would surely be bird of the day—I’d only seen one of these handsome birds before in the Okanagan, and there were only three previous records for the valley. All negative thoughts about the rain (still coming down!) vanished.
When we got to Skaha Lake we scanned the waters (thankfully very calm) and came up with three late Bonaparte’s Gulls, a small flock of Western Grebes and a Common Loon. Then it was up the long, long hill to Kaleden, the big trucks roaring by in clouds of spray on this least favourite part of our route. We were more than ready to leave the highway behind when we turned off onto the White Lake Road at 11 a.m., and within a few minutes were sheltering in the porch of Doreen Olson’s home. Doreen wasn’t home, so we couldn’t beg for coffee, but my wife Margaret dropped by with fairly dry shoes so that I could take off my big boots once the rain stopped. A male Black-chinned Hummingbird came repeatedly to the feeders there, but we couldn’t find the Great Horned Owl we’d seen there yesterday.
A series of woodpeckers made the continued hill climb easier to take—a pair of Hairies, then a calling Pileated (which I missed) and a Red-naped Sapsucker that flushed out of the ditch of all places. A Lewis’s Woodpecker at a traditional nest site allowed me to catch up on a species Eva had seen in Kaleden. Then the glorious flatness at the top of the hill. We took a short side trip to a small pond to find a female Barrow’s Goldeneye with a brood of tiny ducklings, then a pair of Cinnamon Teal. At Prather Lake a Marsh Wren sang from a ridiculously small patch of reeds. We pulled over at the big pond south of St. Andrews to add some species I’d tied down their yesterday. A pair of Pied-billed Grebes put on a show with 7 little grebelings, a pair of Ruddy Ducks eventually appeared, and a couple of Wilson’s Snipes called. Then my brother Syd stopped by on his way to White Lake, and thankfully was carrying a couple of coffees to warm us up. The combination of coffee, a definite let-up in the intensity of the rain, and the fact we had 96 species—within spitting distance of respectability despite still being an hour behind schedule—greatly boosted our spirits.
The luck continued with a Rock Wren singing from a bluff just down the road—I’d never heard one there before, then Eva spotted a Downy Woodpecker. I cycled back to find it but never did—but as I pulled over to look a Ruffed Grouse drummed from the shrubby tangles in the roadside aspens. At White Lake we quickly added both Western and Mountain Bluebirds and a Lark Sparrow. We listened for Sage Thrashers at the top of the hill north of the lake, but heard only Brewer’s Sparrows—nice to get but not the Holy Grail.
Near the lake we came across another cycling birdathon team: Kirk Safford, Tanya Luszcz, Ruth Joy and James McKinnon. They were having lunch, drying off (the rain had stopped!), and scanning the lake with a big spotting scope. We hadn’t packed a scope because of the weather, and I could see a single phalarope spinning around in the lake, too far for binocular identification. We could hike down to the lake to get close enough, or we could save time (and wet feet) by bribing them to use their scope. We decided to tell them about the Willet (something not normally done in the heat of a big day competition) to access the scope, which immediately gave us a Red-necked Phalarope for the list. Good deal! We said thanks and goodbye and continued up the hill south of the lake, but before we had got more than a hundred metres I heard the distinct sound of a singing Sage Thrasher. I looked back to see if anyone in the other group was holding up a smartphone, but it appeared they were looking in the direction of the thrasher song, so we happily added that to the list as well.
We decided to forego the usual hike around White Lake (for Grasshopper Sparrow and Gray Partridge) because of our schedule problems, nor did we take the 1-hour side trip in to Mahoney Lake. We sailed down the hill to Willowbrook and on to Myer’s Flat, where a coursing male Northern Harrier was a nice surprise, as was a singing Gray Catbird—the first of the year. We were still missing White-breasted Nuthatch, so stopped in at Kurt and Marianne Hutterli’s place to see if their birds were still nesting in their house (their own house—not a bird house!). And after a few minutes—bingo!—there it was at the gap in the boards below the roof. Five Turkey Vultures over Covert Farms brought our total to 111 by 3 p.m., then a Sharp-shinned Hawk flew by. Hack’s Pond was devoid of ducks, but a single (!) Solitary Sandpiper was a real bonus. We stopped at River Road to call for Bewick’s Wren, but eventually gave up, only to have one call at us derisively as we saddled up to leave.
It was 4 p.m. and time to turn north again for home. We still had some serious misses hanging over us, so we pulled into the trailer park in the pines at Gallagher Lake, quickly adding Eurasian Collared-Dove (phew) and then a Canyon Wren singing from the massive cliff. Our real goal there was Steller’s Jay, so were relieved as one called just as we left. No Vaux’s Swifts, though.
At Vaseux Lake we found some Redhead, and after a lot of scanning and a few false starts we spotted a nice Golden Eagle over the cliffs. The boardwalk didn’t produce anything new, and neither did the banding station area. We were still missing Yellow-headed Blackbird, but despite a lot of looking and listening above the big marsh we couldn’t find any. At Okanagan Falls we got onto the KVR trail on the west side of Skaha Lake and cycled through Kaleden, finding a single White-crowned Sparrow near Sickle Point, but no Yellow-headed Blackbirds there, either. At 8 p.m. we came full circle back to the muddy oxbow at the airport. A male Blue-winged Teal had arrived, and two Wilson’s Phalaropes spun with the shovelers. The Willet was still there, and has we saddled up to go, there was Kirk and his team coming down the trail from the north to cash in on that information!
We checked out the Okanagan Lake shoreline again as darkness settled, then pumped up the big West Bench hill to get home by 9 p.m. We’d gone 106 kilometres and tallied 122 species—not bad for such an inauspicious start. At the brunch the following morning we found out that our total was good enough for first place in the “green” birdathon category; Kirk’s team was only one behind at 121. Remember, this was all done to raise money for bird conservation, so if you’d like to donate something to the cause (the Vaseux Lake Bird Observatory) please click here. Thank you! And if you want more information about the event, it’s part of the Okanagan Big Day Challenge and the Meadowlark Nature Festival. See you next year!