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Bicycle Birdathon 2018

June 4, 2018

The day began before dawn as usual.  It was Sunday, May 20th and it looked like the 2018 version of the Okanagan Big Day Challenge and the Great Canadian Birdathon was blessed with perfect weather.  One of my team members, Liron Gertsman, cycled up my driveway just before 3 a.m. and we were off in the darkness to meet Eva Durance at our first stop—Max Lake.

We were planning to cycle through the south Okanagan, counting birds and raising money for the Vaseux Lake Bird Observatory.  And getting in shape.  I usually do some training on the bike before this event, but my present lifestyle makes that a bit difficult, so had some trepidation about my stamina this time.  At any rate, I knew it would be fun, as all the birdathons I’ve done have been.

The first few birds in the dark are always fun to check off—we started with a meadowlark singing just as we got on the bikes, then more song from a Chipping Sparrow and robin along West Bench Drive.  We powered up the steep hill to the start of Max Lake Road and saw Eva’s headlamp bobbing through the grasslands toward us.  A couple of Violet-green Swallows chattered above us—four species by 3:20 a.m.!

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We cycled through deep water in the giant potholes of Max Lake Road, fed by a brand-new creek that took up the left side of the road, a creek that was draining the flooding waters of Max Lake itself.  Normally a shallow marsh, the lake was actually a lake this spring.  A catbird sang from the thickets and a California Quail called from somewhere in the hills, then we heard the first of many poorwills calling from the pines.  A Sora whinnied from the marsh, but no Virginia Rail.

Beyond the lake we added a Western Tanager giving its br-dik call from the dark forests and got our feet wet in some very deep waters on the road.  We saw several poorwills along the road—one of which I almost ran over before it flushed.  Finally a Flammulated Owl called from the high ridge above us—the real Max Lake specialty that we were here before dawn to get on our list.  Then another. A Ruffed Grouse drummed close by—luckily Eva and Liron could draw my attention to it because I have real trouble with very low sounds.  A Spotted Towhee song made it an even 10 species by 4 a.m.

Fifteen minutes later the real dawn chorus began, and we started listing species one after another—Nashville Warbler, Black-headed Grosbeak, Townsend’s Solitaire, Veery, Mourning Dove, Mountain Chickadee, Dusky Flycatcher, Dark-eyed Junco, Cassin’s Vireo, Cassin’s Finch.  At 5:00 a.m. the floodgates of birdsong really opened up as we turned around and headed back down the road, and by the time we got back to my house at 6 a.m. we had a very respectable 60 species.  The best addition was a late migrant Ruby-crowned Kinglet singing loudly from a neighbour’s garden.

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After putting on dry socks and gulping down the last of the coffee, we welcomed the last addition to the team, Peter Maser, who met us just as we set off down the hill to the Okanagan River.  The species kept coming—Lazuli Bunting and Black-billed Magpie along the KVR and several Yellow-breasted Chats singing from the rose thickets on the flats below.  An Eastern Kingbird, just back from South America, chattered along the riverbank.

At the Okanagan River dam at the south end of Okanagan Lake we added Spotted Sandpiper and another bonus bird, MacGillivray’s Warbler.  Red-necked and Western Grebes on the lake made it an even 70 species by 7:30.  No loon, no kingfisher—we’d have to keep looking for those.  We turned south down the river, adding Turkey Vulture, American Kestrel, Great Blue Heron and Osprey. A single Redhead on the airport oxbow pond was disappointing—normally a good variety of ducks are there, though a male Hooded Merganser was nice.

By 8:30 we were at Skaha Lake and the first real excitement of the day—a big flock of gulls on the sandbar and a veritable field guide page of ducks feeding amidst the floodwater debris out in the lake.  Four species of gull, including Glaucous-winged, were on the bar, and Lesser Scaup, Blue-winged and Cinnamon Teal, Ruddy Duck, Northern Shoveler, Wood Duck, American Wigeon and Gadwall pretty much filled in the duck part of the checklist. Ninety-five species and we were definitely on track for a good day.

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Then came the big climb of the day—up the long Kaleden hill on the highway, more climbing to the White Lake Road, and some steep climbs to the height of land above that. A Rock Wren and Sharp-shinned Hawk gave us good excuses to catch our breath along the way.  By 10 a.m. we turned into Doreen Olson’s driveway at Three Gates Farm—Doreen was just leaving but had left us water to recharge our supplies.

Doreen has a fabulous property for birds, and the obvious highlight for us was a Western Screech-Owl nest.  Hammond’s Flycatchers sang, Red Crossbills called overhead and we were happy to get a couple of Black-chinned Hummingbirds, our third hummer species of the day.  Another sign of a good list to come—all three nuthatch species at the sunflower seed feeder.

We struggled up the steepest hill of the day above Doreen’s, brightened by an unexpected Lincoln’s Sparrow, singing from the wet swale in the open pine forest.  A Pileated Woodpecker called, but not Lewis’s Woodpeckers appeared at their nest snag. That would haunt us.

Happy to reach the height of land at St. Andrew’s, we checked off a Golden Eagle and Cooper’s Hawk overhead.  At the marshy pond beyond the golf course, we quickly added Common Yellowthroat, Pied-billed Grebe and Wilson’s Snipe, but had to work for quite a while to get the Virginia Rail we’d missed at Max Lake.  Just down the road a Gray Flycatcher called from the open pine forest—a new site for that species that first arrived in Canada in the south Okanagan only 30 years ago.  It was just before noon and we had 113 species.

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Around the corner we cycled into the big sagebrush bowl at White Lake, quickly adding Brewer’s Sparrow, Lark Sparrow, Clay-colored Sparrow and Mountain Bluebird.  A Sage Thrasher sang from the flats, a species we usually miss.  Ring-necked Ducks, Green-winged Teal, and a small flock of Wilson’s Phalaropes were on the lake.  A single Eared Grebe was a real bonus.

After an hour at White Lake, we sailed down the big hill to Willowbrook and stopped to make a decision about our route from there.  It was clear we’d seen pretty much everything we normally pick up along the Secrest route to the south, so we broke with tradition and turned northeast to Mahoney Lake and Green Lake, hoping for the Barrow’s Goldeneye we usually get on the White Lake Road.

Unfortunately, no goldeneye were on either of the lakes, but Eva and Liron heard Chukar from the cliffs on one section where I was uncharacteristically far ahead of the pack.  At Green Lake we began the exciting descent down “The Wall” to the marshes north of Vaseux Lake.  We cycled north along the river, then crossed over to the highway to go south to Vaseux Lake.  A Common Merganser flew by over the lake, White-throated Swifts chattered overhead and a Canyon Wren sang from the cliffs.  We decided not to make the climb to the Lewis’s Woodpecker snags, thinking that it was just as likely to get them on the way to Kaleden.

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On the boardwalk through the marshes we added Marsh Wren, Cedar Waxwing and Downy Woodpecker.  It was 4 p.m. and we had 130 species, close to our record total for a fully green bicycle big day.  We turned north for home with only a few gaps on the possible list.  We didn’t find any Merlins in Okanagan Falls, but Skaha Lake pulled through with three Common Loons in the first few kilometres.  A Belted Kingfisher perched over the shoreline, something we missed last year.  Then one of the big highlights of the day—Liron spotted a flock of seven American White Pelicans flying up the valley.  As we watched them sailing north a Swainson’s Thrush began giving its “bic” call from the shrubbery, another new arrival from South America.  134 species and a new record for us.

We continued north along the KVR rail trail to Penticton, checking the airport oxbow again and then the Okanagan lakeshore at the SS Sicamous.  Nothing new.  We turned back up the West Bench Hill and were home by 8:30 with 103 kilometres on the odometer for the day.  Eva added a Great Horned Owl for a team total of 135 species—good enough to win the Okanagan Big Day Challenge and bring home the coveted Flammulated Owl trophy at the brunch on Monday morning.  Unfortunately I missed the good food and great tall tales of the brunch as I had to catch the 6 a.m. flight back to Ottawa, but I had thoroughly enjoyed another great day of birding and camaraderie!

We did all this to raise funds for the Vaseux Lake Bird Observatory through the Great Canadian Birdathon.  If you’d like to donate to the cause, you can click this link.  Thank you!



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