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Bicycle Birdathon 2019

May 28, 2021

My alarm jolted me awake at 2:30 a.m. and I immediately jumped out of bed to get dressed for the 2019 version of the Okanagan Big Day Challenge—a birdathon that I’ve been part of since 1986.  In the last 15 years or so we’ve been doing this birdathon on bicycles, and this year my teammate would be Martin Gebauer, who last took part in 2011.  Eva Durance was to have joined us, but had injured her leg a few days before and had to bow out. 

Martin Gebauer and I getting ready to leave my place after the early morning session at Max Lake

As I got out of bed, my wife Margaret sleepily said, “Did you hear the Great Horned Owl? It was hooting outside the window until five minutes ago.”  I quietly pointed out that any bird heard or seen after midnight would count for our list, and please wake me up next time if you hear an owl!

Luckily Martin had heard the owl from the bedroom next to ours, so it becomes species number one.  Once on the bikes at 3 a.m., the day began hopefully, almost perfectly—no sign of rain, no wind, and a mild 12℃ showing on the thermometer.  We were cycling through the darkness to the Max Lake valley northwest of Penticton.  The first hill is always the hardest, and the climb to the hills was tough for my out-of-shape lungs and legs—and there were no birds singing that can be a good excuse to stop during daytime climbs.

But Martin politely matched his pace with mine, and we did add a couple of species before reaching Max Lake—a Killdeer flying overhead and an enthusiastic robin singing in some distant garden.  Rails are often the toughest birds to add on this big day challenge, where the rules forbid any use of recordings to lure birds to call.  But as we approached Max Lake we could here a very agitated Virginia Rail kiddikking away at some unseen threat.  A poorwill called to the full moon as it appeared from behind the clouds.  Five species at 3:20.

Owls are often difficult to find at this time of year, again handicapped by the ban on recordings.  I was happy to hear a juvenile Great Horned Owl screeching past the lake, part of a brood that had fledged from a nest up the hill in the past two weeks.  A sleepy Song Sparrow sang once, and Violet-green Swallows chattered overhead.  At 3:40 we heard the first of several Flammulated Owls hooting from the hillside, and the ride up the valley was highlighted by very close-range views of a dozen poorwills sitting on the gravel road surface.

At 4:00 a.m. we reached the end of the road, got off our bikes and lay down in the grass to await the dawn.  I whistled my best Northern Saw-whet Owl imitation and was delighted to get immediate tssshk! responses from a couple of fledglings in the nearby trees.  Songbirds gradually joined in chorus—Western Tanagers, Chipping Sparrows, Nashville Warblers, Spotted Towhees, Townsend’s Solitaires—and by 4:30 we had 19 species on the list.  Martin’s keen ears picked up the OOoop! of a Dusky Grouse high on the ridge to the west.

We got back on the bikes and coasted down the rough road to Max Lake, adding birds all the way—Black-headed Grosbeaks, House Wrens, Steller’s Jays, Mountain Chickadees, Veeries.  At the lake a Mallard quacked and a pair of Pied-billed Grebes gave their haunting calls.  By 5:30 we had 41 species on the list and were back in the West Bench neighbourhood.  The plan was to make a quick stop back at my house to change out of our warmer clothes, grab a quick coffee and be on our way.

Once in the residential gardens we quickly added more species—Say’s Phoebes, Eurasian Collared-Doves, Bullock’s Orioles.  A pair of Mountain Bluebirds fed along the roadside and a late Ruby-crowned Kinglet sang from a garden.  We were back home at 6:00 with 58 species, including Calliope and Rufous Hummingbirds and Vaux’s Swifts.

By 6:40, only 10 minutes behind schedule, we were sailing down the hill to Penticton and the Okanagan River channel.  A Lazuli Bunting and Yellow-breasted Chat sang from the shrubs, two Ring-necked Pheasants rocketed off the side of the trail, Bank and Northern Rough-winged Swallows chattering at their cutbank nests.  Martin spotted a pair of Wood Ducks, a Sora called from the oxbow marsh and a Great Blue Heron flew by.  This is the exciting part of a big day, when species are added so quickly you always forget to put one or two down. 

Adding waterbirds thick and fast!

Once on the river dyke, we turned north for the quick trip to Okanagan Lake.  An Eastern Kingbird was a nice surprise along the river—a new arrival from Amazonia, my first of the year.  We added waterbirds thick and fast—Common Merganser, Spotted Sandpiper, Red-necked Grebe, Common Loon, Bufflehead, Northern Shoveler.  By the time we turned south back along the river we had 76 species.

Riverside bush and wetlands added Common Yellowthroat, a migrant MacGillivray’s Warbler, two Bald Eagles, a pair of Gadwall.  We reached Skaha Lake at 8:30—right on time—and 83 species.  The lake was disappointingly empty—usually we had a cluster of duck and grebe species here.  But we were on schedule, so we started along the highway to Kaleden—and the biggest hill of the day—with high hopes for the rest of the day.

From the highway viewpoint we searched Skaha for waterbirds and did get distant views of a flock of Western Grebes and four California Gulls.  Highway birding by bicycle is frustrating at best with the constant traffic noise, but we did add a few birds on that section—American Kestrel, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Pygmy Nuthatch, Red Crossbill, Clark’s Nutcracker.  After an hour we’d made it to the White Lake Road junction and turned off the highway and into the hills.

A Red-naped Sapsucker flew in to a roadside tree, and a Cassin’s Vireo sang as we reached the thicker forest.  At the top of the first brutal hill we turned off into Three Gates Farm, where our friend Doreen has a bird-filled garden surrounded by diverse forest.  We immediately added Black-chinned Hummingbird and White-breasted Nuthatch—both tough species to get some years. 

Doreen has had Western Screech-Owls in her nest-boxes several times, so we borrowed her ladder to see if any were in residence this year.  The first box, conveniently located by the house, contained only poorwill feathers, so had obviously had an owl in it recently.  We hiked down a very steep hill to a second box and were ecstatic to find a female owl with three big nestlings inside.  We quickly slipped away to leave them in peace and returned to the idyllic. 

There we found Eva, Doreen and Kathryn McCourt doing a “big sit”.  We joined them for twenty minutes or so, adding a couple of good species from the comfy chairs—a pair of Anna’s Hummingbirds at the feeders and a Lewis’s Woodpecker on a snag high up the hill to the west.

We reluctantly left Three Gates and continued along the White Lake Road, immediately climbing one of the steepest hills of the day.  A small pond at Saddlehorn Drive added Green-winged Teal (species number 100 for the day!), Blue-winged Teal, Barrow’s Goldeneye and American Coot.  The marshy pond on the south side of the St. Andrew’s golf course had Ruddy Ducks, but the Wilson’s Snipe that had been so cooperative there yesterday was in hiding.

By noon we were at the big sagebrush basin at White Lake.  A pair of Western Bluebirds was an expected addition there, but our search for sparrows proved fruitless.  Normally we can find several Brewer’s Sparrows with no trouble at all and often add Grasshopper, Lark and Clay-colored Sparrows.  We spent an hour searching for those four species with no luck at all.  Luckily a Sage Thrasher sang and gave Martin a quick look, and two Northern Harriers interacted overhead. 

Another thing missing from White Lake was any sign of other competing teams—it usually ends up being the lunch stop for some of the biking birders.  We wondered if we were missing something somewhere else!

The lake added a few good species as well: Wilson’s and Red-necked Phalarope, Cinnamon Teal, Hooded Merganser, and Redhead.  We left White Lake after 1 p.m.—now behind schedule because of our sparrow hunt—with 113 species.  We’d hoped to have 120 species at that point, so reassessed our route for the rest of the day.  Normally we go south to Secrest and River Roads in north Oliver, but we had most of the species expected on that route.  We decided to go through Mahoney Lake and Green Lake to Okanagan Falls and spend more time at Vaseux Lake, so at Willowbrook we turned left.

We immediately encountered the Chafing for Chickadees team that has been our traditional rivals for several years.  They admitted to being behind schedule, but you never know what misinformation other teams give you along the trail.  A few minutes later we met the youth birding team, who did mention a Lark Sparrow near Green Lake. 

At Mahoney Lake we heard several Gray Flycatchers, a welcome relief so late in the day, and a pair of Rind-necked Ducks was a surprise on the lake—they hadn’t been there yesterday.  A Hairy Woodpecker called from the ponderosa pines.  By now the predicted north wind had pick up and when we got to Green Lake and See Ya Later Ranch we had a tough time listening for Lark Sparrow and gave up on that option quickly.  We braked our way down “The Wall”, the steepest cycling hill in the south Okanagan, to the Okanagan River just north of Vaseux Lake.  A Yellow-headed Blackbird was in the marsh and a Canyon Wren sang from a roadside cliff.

We crossed the river at one of the weirs and made our way over to the highway just south of Okanagan Falls, turning south to Vaseux Lake.  A Cooper’s Hawk flew over the highway—whew!  We walked out to the dyke at the banding station, but didn’t find anything new.  We went out the boardwalk (Martin dodging the rampant poison ivy to which he is very sensitive!) and got to the blind, hoping to see the Bonaparte’s Gull that was there yesterday.  No gull (though we found out later that it had been seen by two other teams earlier in the day) but the Marsh Wrens there got us to a respectable 200 species by 3:40 pm.

At the cliffs we decided not to cycle up the hill but listened at the bottom and eventually heard a single Rock Wren call.  It was after 4:00 by now, and time to head north for home.  We stopped off at the IGA in Okanagan Falls for a coffee and ended up having a leisurely political conversation with a local. 

Vaseux Lake boardwalk trail and cliffs

It was after 6 pm by the time we were on the KVR trail on the west side of Skaha Lake. A Ring-billed Gull flying along the lake was species #122, but the rest of the lake didn’t add any new species.  I was telling Martin how last year we’d had better luck, stopping to scan the lake and finding Surf Scoters, while a Swainson’s Thrush called from the trail and a flock of pelicans flew overhead.  Just as I pointed out that lucky spot, 11 white pelicans glided silently by.  One out of three ain’t bad!

At the north end of the lake, we decided to take the Old Airport Road back into Penticton, since it offered a good chance for Lark and Clay-colored Sparrow.  The wind had died down and it was a beautiful evening but no sparrows sang.  I tried to turn an unusual Lazuli Bunting song into a Lark Sparrow.  As we listened at the last meadow that has had Clay-colored Sparrows in the past, Martin heard a high buzzing trill.  He was convinced that it was a Grasshopper Sparrow, so we added that bonus species to the list.  Eventually we got crippling views of the bird only two metres away!

We ended the day as usual with another trip to Okanagan Lake—and just before we got there a Belted Kingfisher flew by and landed on a sign.  It was species #125 at 8:15 pm, and our last addition for the day.  We saw the youth birders cycle by, on their way to Max Lake, but we turned for home and a well-earned rest after 105 kilometres in the saddle.

The next morning, all the teams gathered in my garden for the traditional Monday brunch.  We found that the youth birders, who had begun their cycling day with a car ride to the high plateaus east of the Okanagan (and thus not eligible for the green team trophy) had tallied 142 species, a remarkable total that gave them the coveted Flammulated Owl Award.  Chafing for Chickadees had found 126 species, beating us by one for the green team award.  Bird of the Day went to Michelle Hamilton and Grant Halm for a pair of Double-crested Cormorants seen in Kelowna, and the Sour Grapes Award for biggest miss went to the Wilson’s Warblers for finishing the day without seeing a Great Blue Heron.  Our team, the Ottawarblers, didn’t get any awards but we had enjoyed the day immensely.

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