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Bicycle Birdathon 2021

May 28, 2021

It’s always a bit of a shock when your alarm goes off at 2:30 a.m.  After a moment of complete disorientation, I realized it was B-Day at last, or maybe BB-Day—time for the annual bicycle birdathon.  Once awake, the routine was familiar—coffee, toast, many layers of cycling gear, last minute checks for binoculars and other essential items.  But this year was different—for the first time I’d be doing my birdathon alone.  Eva Durance, my long-time cycling and birding companion, had decided to do something a little shorter and flatter this year, and a couple of friends from the coast couldn’t take part because of travel restrictions in BC due to COVID. 

Bicycle Birdathon 2021–the solo edition! A sunny start at Okanagan Lake in Penticton

Despite having no-one to meet up with, I did get myself out the door on time at 3 a.m. and cycled off into the darkness.  Happily, it wasn’t raining as it had been the last two years and the temperature was a balmy 12C.  I sweated up the hill to Max Lake, adding a couple of the usual middle-of-the-night songbirds on the way—Violet-green Swallow and American Robin.  As I got to Max Lake itself a Great Horned Owl hooted from Husula Highlands and a Spotted Sandpiper piped from the other side of the marsh.

I was hoping to hear the grunting calls of a Virginia Rail as I had the last few visits to Max Lake, but instead a Sora called, then a Song Sparrow.  Farther up the valley, a Common Poorwill flushed off the road and began calling from the pine woods nearby; I would see and hear a number of these as I continued up into the hills.

Poorwilling on the Max Lake Road

My first real task of the day was to find the Western Screech-Owl that had been so vocal beyond the marsh, but despite my best attempts at whistling like a bouncing ball, there was simply silence.  I kept pedalling up the rough road to the end, where a Flammulated Owl called in the distance (or maybe it was close by—hard to tell with those guys).  I tried again for screech-owl, since there had been one calling here as well in recent weeks.  Silence.  I whistled like a pygmy-owl, hoping to nudge the one that has literally been calling here all spring.  More silence.  Time for coffee.

I settled down on a big stump and immediately heard, or rather felt, the deep thumping of a Ruffed Grouse, beating its wings on a nearby log.  A Townsend’s Solitaire sang from the pines upslope, then a Veery called.  It was the start of the dawn chorus, time to turn my attention to songbirds and slowly make my way downhill.

The species come thick and fast after 4:30 a.m.–Wilson’s Warbler, Spotted Towhee, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Dark-eyed Junco, Mountain Chickadee, Northern Flicker, Black-headed Grosbeak, California Quail.  This is the time of day that species are accidentally left off lists and have to be sorted out the next day!  By 5 a.m. I had 20 species.

By the time I was back to the marshy shores of Max Lake, I’d added Warbling Vireo, Black-capped Chickadee, Brown-headed Cowbird, and a pleasant surprise—my first Willow Flycatcher of the year.  A Pied-billed Grebe gave its bizarre call from the centre of the pond and a coot cackled.  More songbirds piped up—Dusky Flycatcher, Western Wood-Pewee, Cassin’s Vireo, House Wren.  I heard the stuttering finish of a Rufous Hummingbird display overhead.

I only had 34 species at 5:30 (I prefer to be at 50 by then) but it was time to get back home to get sorted for the long day ahead. The rural suburbs of the West Bench provided new habitat and a very quick boost to the species list—Northern Rough-winged Swallow, Say’s Phoebe, Eurasian Collared-Dove, Pine Siskin, Brewer’s Blackbird, Evening Grosbeak, Western Meadowlark, and more.  As I turned into my driveway at 6 a.m. a pheasant called: species #50.

After another coffee and a wardrobe shift to warmer temperatures, I saddled up again was off down the hill to the KVR rail trail.  Steller’s Jays said goodbye at my driveway and a Clark’s Nutcracker called from my neighbour’s pines.  A Lazuli Bunting sang as I entered the dry grasslands, and Bank Swallows chattered at their colony.  I quickly tallied a Yellow-breasted Chat, one of a growing population in the rose thickets below, and then a Bewick’s Wren, another species growing in numbers in the Okanagan.

I saw a group of four birders walking the trail toward me and recognized them as Bishop’s Army, one of the other teams taking part in the Okanagan Big Day Challenge.  They provided the biggest surprise of the day—photographic evidence of not one, not two, but a flock of 80 White-faced Ibis!  Apparently the birds were flying south over Penticton only a half-hour before.  I spent the rest of the day looking up in vain.

Bishop’s Army and their tales of ibises

I reached the Okanagan River Channel and turned north.  A Great Blue Heron flew overhead, then I heard the sputtering chatter of my first Eastern Kingbird of the year.  A singing Gray Catbird was also my first record of the year—this species can be easily missed on long May weekends that happen a few days earlier in the calendar.

By the time I reached the southwest corner of Okanagan Lake it was 7:15 and I had 68 species.  The lake added Common Merganser, Horned Grebe, Red-necked Grebe and Western Grebe, but not a single gull to be seen.  Happy with the grebes but disappointed in being gull-less, I turned around and headed back down the river to begin the big southward trek of the day.

My spirits were quickly buoyed by the “chebek-chebek-chebek” of a Least Flycatcher calling from the cottonwoods, then a Wood Duck flew over.  A half-dozen Turkey Vultures perched in a big dead cottonwood, waiting for thermals to form.  Downriver I added Osprey, Western Kingbird and Black-billed Magpie.  The marshy oxbow by the airport held Cinnamon and Blue-winged Teal, the latter my first of the year, but none of the diving ducks that had been there for weeks.

By 8:30 I was at Skaha Lake and the list stood at 80 species, barely respectable according to my cunning plans.  Luckily, several Pygmy Nuthatches called and a Yellow-rumped Warbler sang from the pines in Skaha Lake Park, but there were no gulls on the beach.  As I started west to climb the Kaleden hill I took one last long look at the lake, hoping to find a Common Loon before the predicted winds kicked up in the afternoon.  After scanning the distant waters for a few minutes, I lowered my binoculars to realize that a loon was swimming directly in front of me only a metre offshore.  Phew!

The long climb to Kaleden was uneventful and unbirdy—I went over an hour without adding anything new.  I turned off the highway onto the White Lake Road and with some relief (it’s a very steep hill!) reached Three Gates Farm, home of my friend Doreen Olson.  Doreen was doing a “big sit” at Sickle Point today as part of the birdathon but had thoughtfully left out a pitcher of water so that I could recharge my water bottles.  And, of course, there were a few birds attracted to her magnificent garden in the forest—Hammond’s Flycatcher, Red Crossbill and, after a nervous wait, a male Black-chinned Hummingbird. 

After a 45-minute break, I was back on the bike continuing up the steepest hill of the ride.  A nice surprise was a Gray Flycatcher singing in the open pine forests, the fifth and final Empidonax species I would get.  Immediately after that I arrived at a known Lewis’s Woodpecker nest tree, and the birds didn’t disappoint, flying in and calling to make sure I saw them. 

Refreshed by those additions I continued up the hill to the point where it levelled off by Saddlehorn Road.  There, a Pileated Woodpecker flew silently over the road ahead.  Nearby ponds held Green-winged Teal and a Ring-necked Duck.  The list was at 92 species, within striking distance of my checkpoint of 100 species by lunch.

At the pond on the south side of the St. Andrews golf course I listened intently for a Virginia Rail to call.  They’re always there.  But not a peep.  A Wilson’s Snipe called though, and a Ruddy Duck gave its bizarre bubbling mating display.

As I reached the open sagebrush grasslands of the White Lake basin my hopes were high for a rapid jump in the species total.  A Western Bluebird perched on the wire above its nest, then a Mountain Bluebird doing the same.  I bumped into three different Kelowna birders checking out the local specialties, perhaps drawn to the south Okanagan today with the prospect of an ibis hunt.  But I was disappointed with the utter silence of sparrows—I ended up missing Brewer’s and Lark Sparrows here.

I set up my scope overlooking the lake and before I could even begin to scan, a Sage Thrasher sang on the slope below me.  I breathed a sigh of relief and started to look through the waterbirds, quickly adding Gadwall, Lesser Scaup, Northern Shoveler and Wilson’s Phalarope.  The Buffleheads that had been there yesterday were gone.  No swifts on the east cliffs.  Sparrowless, I decided to cut my losses and move on at 12:30 with 109 species on the list.  Because of the numerous gaps in that list, I decided to go to plan B and take the longer route down the Secrest Road to try to fill some of those embarrassing lapses.

As I sailed down the big hill out of the White Lake Basin and into the Park Rill valley, I met up with my main competition in this Challenge—the always-tough Chafing for Chickadees team made up of Kirk Safford, Tanya  Luszcz and Lucy Reiss.  They were basically doing the same route as mine but in reverse, but I knew their younger legs gave them a distinct advantage.  When I told them I was going to Secrest Kirk cryptically said I’d find plenty of sparrows on that route.

The annual get-together with Chafing for Chickadees

At Willowbrook I took a side trip into the east part of that rural area to find the Lincoln’s Sparrow that was singing loudly yesterday.  No luck.  I continued south through the Meyer’s Flat cienega and was relieved to have a few chattering White-throated Swifts rocket overhead.  I turned left onto Secrest, my ears on the alert for White-breasted Nuthatch calls but heard only Pygmy Nuthatches.  Oh, and a Hairy Woodpecker!

The Meyers Flat cienega

I popped in to visit Marianne and Kurt Hutterli, since they usually have a White-breasted Nuthatch nesting under the eaves of their house, but alas, apparently Violet-green Swallows had taken over this year.  Then it was down the big Secrest hill (always nicer going down this than up!) and into the Hack’s Pond area at the bottom.  This had to be where I’d find a couple of new sparrows, but no luck once again.  The pond itself is one of the best places to find Virginia Rails along my route, but complete silence on that front. 

I was beginning to suffer the mid-afternoon blues that often take over on birdathons as it gets harder to add new species and each miss is a tough disappointment.  I stopped in at the gas station to get some fluids and quickly felt better, especially when a Vaux’s Swift squeaked overhead.  At McIntyre Bluff I spent some time gazing up at the massive 300-m high (1000-ft) cliff to scan for Peregrine Falcons.  I’d seen one there the day before, but it requires some luck to have one show itself at those distances, and that luck was apparently not with me.

I was soon at Vaseux Lake and another opportunity to add some waterfowl and other wetland species.  My other need here was Canyon Wren and Rock Wren on the dry cliffs.  I scanned the south end of the lake and saw only geese, and tried to whistle up a Canyon Wren with my chapped lips.  Silence.  Farther up the lake I spotted a flock of ducks in the distance that proved to be mainly Redheads and suddenly a Canyon Wren began singing behind me with no urging from my lisping whistles.  A couple of Bonaparte’s Gulls flew up the west side of the lake.  Things were looking up.

At the north end of the lake I walked out on the brand new boardwalk to the bird blind (certainly one of the finest boardwalk/blind combinations in the country!) and was relieved to hear the chatter of a Marsh Wren and the sight of a single American Wigeon in with some Redheads.  No Virginia Rail, no Downy Woodpecker.  The forecast winds were kicking up now, gusting to 50 km/hr out of the north, right into my face for the 30-km ride home.

On my way back on the boardwalk I met Dan Albas, one of my MP colleagues who represents the riding of Central Okanagan-Similkameen-Nicola.  We chatted a bit about Bill C-12, the Climate Accountability Act, that is in committee hearings right now, and then his wife Tara said “Did you see the Bald Eagle?”  That snapped me out of political talk and politely bid them farewell to get out of the woods and look for soaring eagles.

Tara and Dan Albas

I cycled north up the highway to the Vaseux Lake Bird Observatory site, where, lo and behold, there sat the Bald Eagle on a big pine.  I walked into the site and immediately heard a Virginia Rail calling from the marshy oxbow.  Phew!  A Bewick’s Wren sang as well—something they never do when I need them at this time of the day. 

It was 5 pm and time to start the homeward stretch. I stopped to scan the big marsh for Yellow-headed Blackbird—success at last!  As I got on the KVR Southern Spur trail in Okanagan Falls a Belted Kingfisher flew in, calling loudly.  Voila!—species number 120.  My list was officially respectable if not in a winning position.  Cycling against the wind along the west side of Skaha Lake, I was pleasantly surprised to see a couple of brilliantly lit male Greater Scaups close to shore. 

Ponderosa Pines at Sickle Point

I passed by Sickle Point, a beautiful little patch of riparian woodland and wetland that had recently been purchased for conservation after a strong community campaign.  I was hoping that Doreen Olson and Glenda Ross would still be there on their “big sit” but they’d obviously packed it in for the day.  As I reached the north end of the lake, I had to decide whether to take the Old Airport Road to look for sparrows or go up the river channel.  Feeling that the wind would make it difficult to find sparrows (and generally feeling let down by sparrows all day), I chose the river channel.  I was rewarded with an American Kestrel (at last!) but no new waterfowl on the oxbows.  No ibis either. 

At Okanagan Lake I made one final scan for a gull, any gull, but the wave-washed beach was bare of birds.  I turned homeward and pumped up the West Bench Hill and was home by 8:35, with 107 km behind me and 122 species on the list.

Skaha Lake

The next morning, we had the traditional Okanagan Big Day Challenge brunch, held for the second year in a row over Zoom.  Thirty-seven people had taken part and many stories were told!  As I feared, the Chafing for Chickadees team had prevailed with 125 species for the overall trophies, thanks to their superior effort and good fortune with sparrows.  But everyone agreed it was one of the nicest days for the event and a great way to raise funds for the Vaseux Lake Bird Observatory.  Until next year!

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