Bicycle Birdathon 2016: an owly surprise
[The birdathon is a fund-raiser for the Vaseux Lake Bird Observatory. VLBO has been conducting bird surveys to monitor long-term population changes in bird numbers for the past 20 years but needs your support to keep going. Please make a donation or pledge at my birdathon website. Thank you!]
Weather is always at the top of the list of concerns at the start of a birdathon, and this year the news was good—the forecast for rain had yielded to a dry, calm, and relatively warm morning. Peter Maser met me at my house at 2:50, so by 3 a.m. we were off into the blackness to meet Eva Durance at the start of the Max Lake Road. We didn’t hear any birds on the 10-minute cycle, but Eva reported a Killdeer had called a few minutes before, so we had one species to start the day.
We had only gone a couple of hundred yards when the first Common Poorwill began calling, then a Sora and Virginia Rail called from a roadside marsh. Violet-green Swallows chattered overhead and a Western Tanager called from the hillside. Poorwills were scattered along the road—we saw eight!—and a kilometre on a Flammulated Owl hooted from high on the mountain. Things were going as planned for once. We checked the nest-boxes for owls but no luck—it’s still a couple of weeks early for Flammulateds to be nesting, but we were hoping the early spring might have moved things along.
Eva Durance, me and Peter Maser. 6 a.m. and we already had 55 species!
By now it was 4 a.m., so we sat on a log to wait for dawn to break. Robins, Chipping Sparrows, and Spotted Towhees added their voices to the chorus. At 4:30 we got on the bikes and began to slowly work our way down the road. Nashville Warblers and Black-headed Grosbeaks soon dominated the soundscape, but then a strange call up on the slopes of Mount Nkwala caught my ear: chukka, chukka, chukka… The first of several surprises for the day—the first time I’ve ever had Chukar at Max Lake!
Another mild surprise was a couple of Veeries (a bit early) and MacGillivray’s Warblers, and a late migrant Lincoln’s Sparrow was a real bonus. Once back on the West Bench we added garden birds such as Bullock’s Oriole, Brewer’s Blackbird and Eurasian Collared-Dove, and by the time we got back to my house at 6 a.m. our species total was 55—right on target. We celebrated with some fresh coffee and a bit of breakfast, then saddled up and sailed down the hill to the KVR trail to Penticton.
The buzz of a Clay-colored Sparrow on the grasslands below the house was rather unexpected, as were two late migrant White-crowned Sparrows. We were happy to hear a Yellow-breasted Chat singing on cue from the roses below and even more surprised to hear 4 more in the next few hundred yards. We cycled north to Okanagan Lake, where 2 Common Loons, 2 Western Grebes and a Belted Kingfisher were good additions, but again a migrant sparrow stole the show—a singing Savannah at the end of the S.S. Sicamous jetty.
At 7:30 we turned south to cycle the dyke trail to Skaha Lake. The chebec, chebec, of a Least Flycatcher came from the cottonwood grove—another uncommon bird for the list. The muddy oxbow by the Penticton airport had Gadwall, Northern Shoveler, and Blue-winged Teal but nothing to match last year’s Willet for excitement. Pygmy Nuthatches and Vaux’s Swifts at the south end of the dyke gave us 83 species by 8 a.m.
We turned onto the highway and began the serious slog up the Kaleden hill, rewarded by a pair of Golden Eagles at the junction. Turning on to the White Lake Road, we climbed the steep hill to Three Gates Farm and turned in to see what Doreen Olson’s garden would provide. And what a great stop it was! Perched on a log rafter above her front door was a glorious little male Western Screech-Owl. I asked Doreen if she had checked the nest-box on the driveway, but she said that there had been no visible activity there. Peter got the ladder from her shed and I climbed up to look inside—and there was a fluffed-up female owl, bill-snapping in indignation. Doreen provided coffee and juice to help celebrate the find. It was 9:30, we had 92 species and an odometer reading of 32 kilometres.
Male Western Screech-Owl
Then it was back on the road and up one of the steepest pitches of the route, a 14 percent grade through the ponderosa pines. At the top we turned off on a side road to check a pond and added Green-winged Teal and Barrow’s Goldeneye. The next pond had the displaying snipe that had been there the day before, but the pair of Ruddy Duck had disappeared. Luckily a Pied-billed Grebe put in an appearance to make up for the miss.
The big sagebrush bowl of the White Lake basin is always a highlight of a south Okanagan birdathon, and this year was one of the best. The beautiful warbles of a Lark Sparrow song greeted us as we turned up the road west of the radio telescope, then the sky-blue flash of a male Mountain Bluebird. At the top of the hill we added the expected Brewer’s Sparrows, and were relieved to hear the long, beautiful song of a Sage Thrasher. Thrashers usually don’t arrive until June at the north end of their range (and this is about as far north as they usually go in the world), so we were very happy to check that one off the list (I had found this bird the day before while leading a day tour for the Meadowlark Festival). And on the other side of the road a Grasshopper Sparrow sang, also discovered the day before—this bird was using the relatively lush bluebunch wheatgrass habitat created by a grassland fire a couple of years before.
Eva looking and listening for Grasshopper Sparrows in the White Lake basin.
We coasted down the hill toward White Lake itself, then stopped to scope the lake. A flock of wigeon was a nice sight at the north end of the lake, but even nicer were Red-necked Phalaropes in colourful breeding plumage scattered around the shore. And two more Sage Thrashers singing nearby! We waved to the Chafing for Chickadees cycle team across the lake, then pedalled on south. We stopped in a patch of forest to look for a Pileated Woodpecker, but no luck. Meyer’s Flat had White-throated Swifts rocketing overhead and a couple more buzzing Clay-colored Sparrows, and the Secrest scout camp pines had a flock of Red Crossbills. The missing species were slowly getting checked off!
Racing down the winding Secrest Hill we just about collided with another birdathon group coming up—a gang of young birders full of stories and enthusiasm. As we chatted a Lewis’s Woodpecker flapped by. Then one of the biggest surprises of the day—a lone Sandhill Crane soaring overhead. Cranes migrate through in early April, so this one was a month late on the move north. We stopped in at Inkaneep Park, where Eva and Peter heard a Bewick’s Wren while I was using the facilities.
Then it was north and homeward. We were two hours ahead of last year’s rain-delayed schedule so feeling confident about the return trip. We made a swing through the Gallagher Lake trailer park in a vain, desperate attempt for Clark’s Nutcracker (we should have had them while eating breakfast at my house!). A pause on the busy highway below the massive rock face of McIntyre Bluff gave us a singing Rock Wren, but no Peregrine showed.
As we got to Vaseux Lake I was relieved to hear the nasal calls of begging juvenile Clark’s Nutcrackers, and there was a family of them in the pines by the cliffs. We made a quick stop at the big cliffs at the north end, whistling for Canyon Wren. I didn’t hear a reply, but saw a movement on the rocks high above and there he was, flashing his rusty tail.
We cycled through the poison ivy to the boardwalk, meeting up with part of the young birders team once again. Singing Marsh Wrens and Common Yellowthroats were a couple more easy additions, as were the Redheads and Red-necked Grebe on the lake and the Ring-billed and California Gulls at the river mouth.
A stop at the Vaseux Lake Bird Observatory site north of the lake might give us Cinnamon Teal, Northern Harrier and Yellow-headed Blackbird, so we ducked down the trail to the oxbow and ditched our bikes. We were immediately beset by a Yukonian swarm of mosquitoes so just ran through the willows and marsh grass out to the dyke, swatting as we went. No teal, no harrier, but fortunately we saw two or three distant Yellow-headed Blackbirds flying over the distant cattails, flashing their white wing patches.
At Okanagan Falls we decided to take the rail trail along the west side of the lake. We were running out of options for easy additions to the list, but a single male Lesser Scaup hugging the shore gave us one more. It began to rain lightly, then heavier as we pedalled north, watching for any dots on the lake that might be a Horned Grebe or anything new. But the only dots we saw were Common Loons and Western Grebes.
We were drenched by the time we got back to Penticton, meeting up with Glenda Ross at the airport oxbow. Unfortunately, no Cinnamon Teal had miraculously appeared over the course of the day, so we slogged on to Okanagan Lake again. The north end of the Okanagan River was a spectacle of swallows in the rain—thousands and thousands of all six species (Tree, Violet-green, Northern Rough-winged, Bank, Barn, Cliff) flew over the water and perched on sagging wires. We scanned the lake for grebes and the beach for gulls but couldn’t pull one last new species out of the bag. At 7 p.m. we turned for home, unaware that we were cycling by a lovely male Harlequin Duck at the dam seen moments before by the Chafing for Chickadees gang.
Wet but happy to be off the saddle after a long eventful day, we said our goodbyes and made the final checklist tally: 126 species, 102 kilometres and 900 metres vertical climb (Peter’s GPS kept track!). A very respectable total, but regrettably second in the team competition to the 131 species seen by the Chafing for Chickadees team. Next year!
The birdathon is a fund-raiser for the Vaseux Lake Bird Observatory. VLBO has been conducting bird surveys to monitor long-term population changes in bird numbers for the past 20 years but needs your support to keep going. Please make a donation or pledge at my birdathon website. Thank you!