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Bicycle Birdathon 2020

May 28, 2021

All week we’d been looking at the forecast for rain on Sunday, May 17th, the day of the 35th annual Okanagan Big Day Challenge, now part of the Great Canadian Birdathon.  All week I kept thinking that the forecast would change—there’s no way that even smart meteorologists can predict the weather so many days in advance, and the weather had been so fine for weeks.  But the forecast stuck, day after day.  When the alarm went off at 2:30 a.m. my first thought was “Is it raining?”  The sound of steady drizzle outside came as a quick answer.  The weather people had been right all along.

Sunny break at White Lake

I phoned Eva Durance, the other member of team CORVID 19, and suggested that we until the rain let up.  At 3:24 I gave up waiting and off I went into the wet darkness.  For the first time since we started using this route, there were no birds calling as I cycled up to the Max Lake Road.  Our first bird was a Song Sparrow at Max Lake, followed quickly by the bizarre calls of the resident pair of Pied-billed Grebes.  Some Violet-green Swallows twittered overhead, and then a Common Poorwill flushed off the road.

As we neared the end of the track, a Flammulated Owl called three or four times from the steep hillside—a big relief in the spitting rain!  Dawn chorus was already slowly beginning in the gloom, and we quickly added Spotted Towhee, Townsend’s Solitaire, Hammond’s and Dusky Flycatchers, Western Tanager, Black-headed Grosbeak and more.  A Barrow’s Goldeneye, probably a bird breeding on one of the ponds up Blue Mountain to the south, circled overhead quacking and its wings whistling.  Then a Veery called, the first of the year, and a singing MacGillivray’s Warbler was a bit of a bonus.  The big disappointment was the lack of a Northern Pygmy-Owl, considering I had heard one hear every time I visited this spring.

At Max Lake itself a Virginia Rail called loudly, followed immediately by the whinny of a Sora.  With only 40 species on the list as we left the Max Lake Road, we were about 10 behind normal pace, but added Say’s Phoebe, Western Kingbird, and Western Meadowlark in the remnant grasslands on the way back to the West Bench rural suburbs.  By the time we got back to my house at 06:15 we were in steady rain again, but had caught up a bit in the species total with 54. 

Eva listening to a damp dawn chorus along the Max Lake Road

Calliope and Rufous Hummingbirds buzzed around the feeders and the local gang of Cassin’s Finches fed on sunflower seeds.  The Red-breasted Nuthatch popped out of its nest.  We took advantage of the opportunity to throw our outer layers into the dryer and made some fresh coffee and a quick breakfast.  As we left the house at 06:50 we added Wilson’s Warbler, Evening Grosbeak and a surprise Great Blue Heron flyover. We sailed down the hill and onto the rail trail to the Okanagan River channel.  Yellow-breasted Chats and Lazuli Buntings sang on both sides of the trail.

We turned north at the river and cycled to Okanagan Lake at the SS Sicamous.  The rain had stopped and the lake was glassy smooth.  And empty.  Desperate, I dug out the scope and found a single loon along the eastern shoreline—species 74 at 07:40.  Turning south, we headed back down the river as the rain began again, this time quite heavy.  We were hoping for Belted Kingfisher, Northern Harrier and Blue-winged Teal, but had to settle for Vaux’s Swift, Yellow-headed Blackbird and Pygmy Nuthatch.

Skaha Lake, which often provides a wealth of waterbirds, was as empty as Okanagan Lake except for a couple of Common Mergansers.  The rain clouds began to lift but the showers continued, even after the sun came out at Kaleden.  At the highway lookout above Skaha I talked to a woman who was waiting for the arrival of the Snowbirds; I remember thinking later in the morning that we never did hear them roar by but didn’t hear of the Kamloops tragedy until I got home.

The Kaleden hill is about 9 km of steady highway uphill, and I was sweating in the humid sunshowers.  There were a few gaps in the traffic, thanks perhaps to the COVID crisis keeping people at home on this holiday weekend, so we actually could hear birds on occasion.  Eva was way ahead of me on her e-bike (though I found out later I couldn’t even keep up with her when she was using her regular bike), so we missed a couple of sightings—I had a Lark Sparrow and she had heard a Ruby-crowned Kinglet. 

We turned right onto the White Lake Road and began the steeper climb to Three Gates Farm, where our friend Doreen Olson has always provided water, coffee and good birds.  By the time I got there Eva had already seen a White-breasted Nuthatch at the feeder, but I one-upped her when I saw two Black-chinned Hummingbirds while she was inside.  Doreen’s big contribution this year was a Northern Saw-whet Owl nest in a box along her driveway and a Western Screech-Owl nest in a box down by the creek.  Since I’d put up both of those boxes many years ago I feel good every time I see them used.

Northern Saw-whet Owl

We were tempted to spend the rest of the day in Doreen’s garden waiting for an Anna’s Hummingbird to show, but we eventually gave in to reality and continued the steep climb to St. Andrews.  A Lewis’s Woodpecker was on its tree this time (we’d missed them last year) and we added Green-winged Teal and Ruddy Duck in the ponds.  It was absolutely pouring again when we got a phone call from Chris Charlesworth telling of a Prothonotary Warbler found at Osoyoos Lake by Nathan Earley.  “Are you going to go for it?” he asked.  I replied that I was on a bike in the middle of a rainstorm and that diversion would add 50 km to an already gruelling day, so no.

The sun came out again as we got to the White Lake basin, and after a few minutes of searching the sage we found a pair of Brewer’s Sparrows, but no Sage Thrasher sang. The lake was fairly empty compared to my last visit, but we did add Cinnamon Teal (species #100!), Northern Shoveler, Hooded Merganser, and, just as we were giving up, three Wilson’s Phalaropes. We left an hour behind schedule at 1:30 pm, tallying the White-throated Swifts chattering overhead as we sailed down the hill into the Park Rill watershed.

Looking for Brewer’s Sparrows at White Lake

I decided to stop at the Willowbrook cattleguard to try for pygmy-owl again—no luck there, but a Rock Wren surprised us with a series of songs from the distant scree slopes.  We turned left on to Green Lake Road at Willowbrook and soon met up with the Chafing for Chickadees team coming the other way.  We traded laments about rain for a few minutes in the sun, then continued on to Mahoney Lake.  There we added Ring-necked Duck and Gray Flycatcher, and just as we were feeling good about that a Pileated Woodpecker called from across the road.  I must say that was the best feeling of the day—adding a good bird in the sunshine in the middle of the afternoon doldrums.  But it was 5:10 pm and we were losing time and about 50 km from home.

We screamed down the See Ya Later hill (aka the Wall; glad we were going down, not up) to the Vaseux Lake marshes, and crossed the river to the new sewage plant.  Some wigeon-like ducks disappeared in flight behind trees, and we didn’t add anything new until we got back on the highway and headed south to Vaseux Lake, when some Lesser Scaup showed themselves in the marsh. 

At the lake we added Western Grebe, Red-necked Grebe, Marsh Wren, Common Yellowthroat, Downy Woodpecker and Ring-billed Gull—a nice haul but a few species were decidedly missing.  We were at 117 species, so only three away from 120 and some respectability.  We reluctantly turned north as time was running out and muscles were beginning to seriously complain. By the time we got onto the KVR south spur trail at Okanagan Falls just before 6 pm, the rain began once again and steadily increased to a decent downpour.  We added nothing over the next hour along Skaha Lake and by the time we got to Penticton we were thoroughly soaked once again. 

Rain over Skaha Lake

As we cycled north up the river channel we thought we had a good chance for Northern Harrier, Blue-winged Teal and Belted Kingfisher but no such luck (we found out later that the Chickadee team had seen all three only a half-hour ahead of us, sigh).  At the north highway bridge, Eva decided to head home up the hill to feed her horses, so I continued on to the lake by myself, hoping for some new waterbird.  I met the Chickadees coming the other way, they just said there was nothing on the lake but one gull and it had “flown away”—I later learned it had been a California Gull which would have been new for us.  The Chafing for Chickadees said they were going up to Max Lake to try for owls—I wished them luck and was glad that extra climb wasn’t in my plans.

The rain stopped and the lake was calm again when I got there, but absolutely empty.  I cycled along the beach promenade to the walking pier and set up the scope for one last search.  The plume of Penticton Creek had a Mallard and,… a pair of wigeon!  Species 118, our last of the day, at 8:30 pm.  I turned back and headed home, climbing the West Bench Hill as the rain started up in earnest.  I got home at 9 pm, with 102 km on the odometer for the day.

The gloomy gloaming on the Okanagan Lake walking pier

We held a Zoom meeting the next morning at 10 am to hear the stories of the other teams—almost 50 people in all–that had been out on the Challenge.  The Chickadees captured the coveted Green Team Trophy for best non-motorized result—they had ended up with 126 species, including a pygmy-owl at Max Lake in the rain.  Sigh.  But they definitely put in that extra effort.  There’s always next year!

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