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Bad Bikes and Good Birds

May 15, 2012

With my bicycle Birdathon only a week away, I decided to give the route and equipment a bit of a dry run on Sunday.  Marg and I had a coupon for Something Special B&B near Twin Lakes we needed to use up before the middle of the month, so I thought that would be a good destination.  I could cycle via White Lake to check out the various specialties there before meeting Marg at the B&B for a relaxing Mother’s Day dinner, then cycle back Monday morning.  I spent some time on Saturday getting the bike ready, installing a new odometer and adjusting the brakes.  Now, the combination of bike maintenance and me are a fine example of why a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, but after messing around with various screws, I thought I had everything set.

The weather on Sunday was predicted to be fine—so fine that I thought the afternoon temperatures would be a little warm for serious hill-climbing (30C/86F).  So I decided to leave at a reasonable hour in the morning and get the big climb to Kaleden and on to White Lake out of the way before things got toasty.  I started up the hill at 9:30 a.m. and was soon rewarded by my first Lark Sparrow of the year, singing its glorious song from a sage next to the highway.  At the top of the long hill came another bonus—a pair of Lewis’s Woodpeckers just back from their winter home in California.  Things were looking good.  I turned off on the White Lake Road and began the steep hill out of the Marron Valley.  A Cassin’s Vireo sang from the Douglas-firs and a Western Wood-Pewee called from the ponderosas—two more new arrivals.

As a pedalled through the open woodlands to White Lake, my front brakes began giving me grief, rubbing so that I had to pedal harder than necessary.  I fiddled with the adjustments again, but nothing seemed to solve the problem completely.  When I got to White Lake I put that out of my mind and got back into serious birding.  This was sparrow country and I had a couple of targets.  The first was easy, as I heard my first Brewer’s Sparrow singing from the big sagebrush basin.  I ditched my bike at the big corner and walked up the hill to the south to search the grasslands for Grasshopper Sparrows.  A warm south wind had kicked up, making it difficult to listen for this species insect-like song, and it was obvious that most of the grassland birds had quit singing in late morning sun.  I wandered over to a vernal pond in the basin, hoping to find Wilson’s Phalaropes, but all that emerged from the grasses was a beautiful silvery-grey male Northern Harrier.  I’d seen him there a month ago, so assume his mate was sitting on a nest somewhere in the grasses nearby.  I took a long loop walk through the sagebrush, hoping to kick up a Gray Partridge, but all I saw were singing Vesper Sparrows, migrant Savannah Sparrows and the ever-present Western Meadowlarks.

Spring gold in the White Lake Basin; Apex Mountain in the distance

Back at the road, I got on the bike and cycled to the south end of the basin.  I saw two spots on the road far ahead, and as I got closer I realized they were birds—that flushed off at my approach, showing their chestnut tail corners.  Partridge!  All that walking for nothing, except for the joy of meadowlark song in a sea of spring gold blooms.  Western and Mountain Bluebirds perched above their nest-boxes; I peaked in one unattended box and saw five sky-blue eggs of uncertain bluebird parentage.  At the cliffs a pair of White-throated Swifts wheeled chattering overhead while Brewer’s Blackbirds clucked in annoyance at my presence near their nests, hidden somewhere in the sage.  I found a lone juniper and decided it would be a good place for a short siesta.  I stretched out in its shade, checking its inner branches for a roosting owl—junipers in grassland here are magnets for Long-eared and other species.  There was indeed whitewash on some of the branches and a single downy feather, but no owl today.

Marg drove by at about 3 p.m., producing a fresh bottle of water before she continued on to the B&B.  I said I’d be there shortly—it was only 8 km away—and began pedaling up the long hill to Twin Lakes.  As I neared the White Lake Ranch my rear tire began to wobble, so I dismounted and checked it—flat!  A tire change is never a fun experience, especially late in the day on a hot, shadeless road.  I got out my small pump, hoping that a quick boost of air would get me to the B&B, but to my horror found that an important part of the pump was missing and it was essentially non-functional.  Since traffic along this stretch was very sparse, I gave in and phoned Marg at the B&B and asked for a rescue.  Soon I was feeling much better, drinking a cold beer in the bird-filled gardens of Something Special B&B, chatting with its owner, Sam Verigin.

The next morning, feeling refreshed and ready to tackle the bicycle situation again, I fixed the tire and the front brakes (the brake solution was embarrassingly simple).  At 7:30 I said goodbye to Sam and Marg and cycled back into Penticton—all gloriously downhill.  I found that Russell had arrived home in our absence and was off birding with Jess Findlay, a keen young birder and wonderful photographer.  I took my bike into the local shop for a professional tune-up, and when I got back Russell phoned from the Penticton Yacht Club, breathlessly saying that he was sure that he and Jess had found a Sedge Wren.  Now, Sedge Wrens are essentially unknown in British Columbia—there are only a couple of previous records.  I jumped back in the car and raced down to the spot and over the next hour or so we saw the bird a few times at very close range (but very briefly each time) and heard it call several times.  Not exactly crippling views, but enough to say with confidence that this was a Sedge Wren.

This morning I woke up at 5 a.m. and jumped on Russ’s bike to return to the Yacht Club, with hopes of seeing the wren well (and being able to count it on my non-motorized birding list!).  Russ’s bike had been sitting out unused for the past couple of months, and when I got down to the bottom of the big hill below our place I realized it was almost non-functional—the chain was so rusty it barely worked at all.  After a couple of kilometres at walking speed it eventually loosened to the point where it could propel the bike fairly well, but it was very embarrassing to squeak by the early morning joggers.  I arrived at the Yacht Club before anyone else, so walked along the trail towards the beach, then got out my coffee thermos and breakfast bagel.  Just as I poured the coffee, I heard loud shorebird calls from the beach.  I ran down and there were three American Avocets swimming away from a crow on the beach!  As a bonus, a pair of Blue-winged Teal swam next to them—both species new for the year and the avocets a very special treat here.

Dawn on a Penticton beach: American Avocets and Blue-winged Teal

Doug Brown and Russell arrived later, but we couldn’t relocate the wren, despite tracking down a number of intriguing calls coming from the dense grass and shrubs.  At 7:30 I cycled back, creaking up the big West Bench hill and reaching the top with great relief.  Just then my cellphone rang—it was Russell, this time calling from the river channel where he’d found a Black-throated Blue Warbler at Christmas.  “You’ll never guess what I have here” he said.  “The Black-throated Blue?” I suggested.  “No—a Black-throated Gray.”  This was crazy—two new species for the Okanagan list in two days.  Excited, but annoyed that I was at the top of a long hill, I turned the bike around and sailed down to the river in record time.  I quickly found Russell, and after a few anxious minutes of searching, I found the bird, a nice female Black-throated Gray Warbler.  This time, the pedal up the hill didn’t seem quite so tedious, but I made sure that the first thing I did when I got home was to oil up the chain thoroughly in case Russ found another great bird!

New species assessments from the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada

May 9, 2012

The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) held their spring species assessment meeting last week in the Kananaskis Valley of Alberta.  The committee considered the status of 35 wildlife species, including five birds.

Marbled Murrelet:  This small seabird breeds in old-growth forests along the coast of British Columbia.  It was assessed as Threatened in 1990 because of habitat loss caused by logging activities, and the committee upheld that status this year, citing an estimate of 20% habitat loss over the past three generations.  Other threats to Marbled Murrelets include fisheries bycatch, oil spills along existing and proposed shipping routes, and water temperature changes.

Western Screech-Owl:  Two subspecies of this owl are found in Canada:  Megascops kennicottii kennicottii along the British Columbia coast, and M. k. macfarlanei in the southern interior of British Columbia.  In 2002, COSEWIC assessed the coastal subspecies as Special Concern—based on recent population declines—and the interior subspecies as Endangered, based on a very small population and habitat threats.  This year, M. k. kennicottii was designated Threatened, since it has largely disappeared from the southern coastal region, apparently due to predation from the newly-arrived Barred Owl.  The situation along the central and northern coast is less clear, but considering studies in Alaska it is likely that populations have declined throughout the coast.  On an encouraging note, M. k. macfarlanei was downlisted to Threatened, since extensive field studies have shown the population is larger than previous thought and numbers seem to have stabilized over the last decade.  There are now thought to be 350 to 500 Western Screech-Owls in the interior.

Western Screech-Owl, Summerland, BC photo: Steve Cannings

Buff-breasted Sandpiper:  Canada supports about three-quarters of the world population of this shorebird.  It was thought to be nearing extinction in the 1920s because of unregulated market hunting.  Although its numbers have grown somewhat since hunting was banned, they remain very low compared with numbers in the 1800s.  There is renewed concern for the Buff-breasted Sandpiper, since the population is now thought to be declining again, but the species is difficult to monitor on both its Arctic breeding grounds and South American wintering grounds.  It uses grassland habitats during migration and in the winter, and most birds in these habitats are showing significant population declines.  COSEWIC assessed Buff-breasted Sandpiper as Special Concern.

Hooded Warbler:  This songbird was assessed as Threatened in 1994 and again in 2000.  However, the population has increased significantly in Canada and throughout the core of its breeding range in the United States.  Although there are still concerns about habitat loss and degradation on wintering sites, migration stopovers and breeding grounds, COSEWIC downlisted the Hooded Warbler to Not at Risk.  This assessment was largely based on intensive research on this species by Bird Studies Canada biologists.

You can read more about these and other COSEWIC assessments–from blue whales to butterflies–here.

Burrowing Owls return to the Okanagan

April 4, 2012

When I was in high school the kid next door was not the type I thought would ever look at birds.  He raced around the native grasslands south of our house in his home-made dune buggy, making a lot of noise and undoubtedly doing the delicate bunchgrass habitat no good.  But one day in the spring of 1970 he mentioned a little owl he saw while on his dune buggy adventures—an owl that dove down a hole when he roared by.  We immediately walked out to the site—only a few hundred metres from our house—and there was a Burrowing Owl, the first we’d ever seen in our neighbourhood.  Surprised and somewhat chagrined by not finding the owl before our neighbour, we nevertheless began regular watches and soon realized there were two owls at the burrow—a nesting pair!  In the middle of June, five young owls appeared at the burrow entrance; four weeks later they were making short flights.  We last saw them at the burrow on October 1st.  This was the last natural nest of Burrowing Owls found in the British Columbia interior.  The next year no owls returned to the burrow, and in 1972 a single owl stayed for a week or two in May before disappearing.

Juvenile Burrowing Owls at the 1970 nest near Penticton

Burrowing Owls were once common in the dry grasslands of the southern Interior of British Columbia, but their numbers declined rapidly when Europeans arrived in the area in the latter half of the 1800s.  In 1909, E. P. Venables of Vernon wrote: “…sometimes in the evening the call note may still be heard, but it comes from a long distance, and it is a rare sound.”  In the 1980s the BC Ministry of Environment began a reintroduction program for Burrowing Owls, bringing families in from Washington and releasing them in sites north of Osoyoos Lake.  At first the program seemed successful, as birds migrated south in the fall and some returned in the spring, but when the active releases stopped in 1990 the numbers of breeding birds dropped quickly, and the last bird was seen in 1995.

Jim Wyse carrying precious owl cargo at SORCO.

To avoid the need to import wild owls from south of the border a new program was started—owls would be raised in captivity in British Columbia and released to the wild after suitable training.  The Burrowing Owl Conservation Society of BC was formed and began an ambitious, long-term program led by director Mike Mackintosh.  Once the program was going full steam, it was releasing over 100 young owls into the Thompson-Nicola area each year.  Lacking wild parents, these young birds were less adept at figuring out the migration habits that are necessary for Canadian Burrowing Owls, so the number returning in spring was lower than with the wild family release program.  But they raise plenty of “wild” young every year and there is renewed optimism that this amazing effort will eventually result in a self-sustaining population of Burrowing Owls in British Columbia.

Nick and Mark digging an artificial burrow

Today I played a small part in this incredible saga of conservation.  I met Mike and his gang of volunteers at a new facility built especially for Burrowing Owls at the South Okanagan Rehabilitation Centre for Owls (SORCO) near Oliver.  Jim Wyse, the founder of Burrowing Owl Estate Winery and one of the enthusiastic funders of the project, was part of the work party.  I was greeted by Pilot, the non-releasable mascot of the local program, giving enthusiastic “cu-coooo” mating calls from his flight cage.  We drove to a private ranch in the south end of the valley, bouncing along rough tracks, then hiking up over a hill into a secluded valley nicknamed Badger Flats where some of this year’s releases would take place.  We had eight owls with us, and plenty of shovels.

Sherri, Mike and Jessica put the finishing touches on a burrow

The shovels were needed to dig artificial burrows for the owls.  No owls build their own nests, and Burrowing Owls are no exception.  Normally, they use burrows made by mammals such as badgers or ground squirrels, but these animals have declined drastically in the dry grasslands of southern BC.  So Mike and his team dig burrows each year, placing nest-buckets and plastic drain pipes in them to provide long-lasting homes for the owls.  Digging a burrow in the stony soil is hard work—and luckily much of it had been done the day before so I got off lightly.  The reward at the end is hard to beat, though; watching two fierce little owls being released into each burrow.  For the next two weeks, Lauren Meads, the Okanagan coordinator for the program, will feed the owls to ease them into the wild.  Then they will be on their own, and each pair will hopefully bring more young Burrowing Owls into these grasslands.

female Burrowing Owl ready for release

Early spring birding in the Okanagan

March 29, 2012

Spring began on March 5th for me this year.  As I went out in the cool dawn to feed the chickens, I heard the sweet song of a Western Meadowlark from the grassland across the fence.  The next day three were singing, and when I cycled down to the beach there was a Killdeer announcing spring in his own way.

Northern Pygmy-Owl carrying vole

 After a rather mild winter, we’ve had a cool (sometimes downright cold) spring.  March didn’t come in like a lion, but rather like a wet blanket, with fresh snow on the ground.  It melted quickly, however, and we did get a few warm days in the first half of the month. March 10th seemed especially springlike, so I cycled up to Max Lake—my old stomping grounds in the hills behind the house.  A Say’s Phoebe greeted me as I left the houses of the West Bench and entered bunchgrass hills.  Across the road a blue blue male Mountain Bluebird called from the powerline.  As I entered the narrow marshy valley before Max Lake, the bushes were loud with robins feeding in the Russian olives, and a lone Varied Thrush sang briefly.  A group of Steller’s Jays flew from tree to tree, perhaps headed for the Northern Pygmy-Owl that called from the hillside.  The biggest surprise of all was the cooing song of a Mourning Dove coming from the ponderosa pines—that was spring indeed.

 In less than an hour I found six new birds for the year, so I decided to cycle downhill to the Okanagan River to see what was happening there.  I’d hardly gone a hundred metres along the dyke when a small flock of Violet-green Swallows flew over.  I’d been expecting them, as they usually come back in late February, and a friend had already seen some at Okanagan Falls, a few miles to the south.  The waterfowl showed few signs of new spring arrivals, though, the only slight surprise being a group of three Trumpeter Swans in the airport oxbow.  I’d been hoping for a few Northern Pintail on that pond, or maybe a nice Eurasian Wigeon to appear in the flock of American Wigeon that wintered on the golf course.  The gulls along the Okanagan Lake beach showed more sign of spring leaving than spring arrival—still only 8 California Gulls, and none of the Lesser Black-backed, Glaucous or Iceland gulls that spiced up winter birding there.

On March 13th we awoke to another snowfall—and a message that the Snow Goose at Trout Creek Point in Summerland had been relocated, after not being seen since Christmas.  Goose chasing around Trout Creek has always been problematic, since the Canada Geese forage in the orchards there and you might only be able to see 50 members of a 200-strong flock, peering between the rows of apricots and peaches.  I’d already looked for this bird a couple of times, echoing my searches for a different Snow Goose that had spent the previous winter there.  By noon the sun had melted the snow off the roads, so I got on my bike and was off to Summerland, about 12 km north of my Penticton home.  Okanagan Lake was glassy calm, making the Common Loons and Horned Grebes easy to spot.  As usual, a flock of Western Bluebirds foraged in the Russian olives on one of the small points.  I began looking in the orchards when I got to Trout Creek, but saw only a handful of Canadas in the first section.  A Turkey Vulture tilted against a fresh north breeze that had sprung up—at least I’d get one new bird for the year on this trip!  I decided to go to Powell Beach, the one goose hangout where they are easily seen (if present) and, lo and behold, there it was—an immature Snow Goose swimming with its Canadian cousins.

When I got home from that 30-km jaunt I read my emails—a Eurasian Wigeon was in the golf course flock at last.  Unfortunately I had to do some work that day, so told myself the wigeon hunt could wait until the following morning.  That night was unnaturally calm for this spring, so I decided to do one of my owl surveys—a route along the White Lake road south of town.  Highlights were two Northern Saw-whet Owls and a pair of Western Screech-Owls.  The female screech was giving a short begging call that the male answered with the bouncing ball song typical of this rare (in these parts) owl.

The next morning the wind had returned with typical force, but I made a valiant effort to find the Eurasian Wigeon.  Unfortunately most of the flock must have been hiding out in the bunkers or water hazards of the golf course instead of grazing the fairways, so I left empty-handed.  I tried again on March 19th and was stymied again—but was happy to see four tiny Cackling Geese fly over in a flock of Canadas.  The following day I cycled the length of the river in Penticton and finally found the handsome red-headed male Eurasian Wigeon after trying several angles on the golf course. These birds have become rather regular in recent decades—this was one of at least five Eurasian Wigeons present in the Okanagan Valley this March.  When I first began birding here in the 1960s, it took me about seven years to see one—and that was probably the first record for the valley.

Vaseux Lake cliffs--Chukar and Canyon Wren country

I took a break from bicycle birding on Thursday to go out with birding friends from Calgary who are doing a laid-back Canada Big Year.  Phil Cram, Brian Elder, Mike Mulligan and Ray Woods decided to do a “Fur and Feather” year, visiting every province and territory in Canada to see what kind of list they could amass in 2012.  This was their first visit to British Columbia for the year, so it was fun to help them add some western mountain specialties.  Highlights of the day included Canyon Wren and Chukar at Vaseux Lake, Long-eared Owl at Osoyoos Lake, a pair of Williamson’s Sapsuckers on Anarchist Mountain, and a Hoary Redpoll on Sidley Mountain Road (a new BC bird for me!).

The White Lake basin

Last Saturday dawned perfectly calm—I quickly decided to take advantage of the weather and cycle to White Lake to try to break my jinx with Rough-legged Hawks.  I had yet to see this winter visitor in three years of bicycle birding, and time was running out for this year.  I cycled down the Okanagan River channel (there was that pesky Eurasian Wigeon—so easy now that I’ve seen him once), up the big long hill to Kaleden and then into the winding hills to White Lake.  A Golden Eagle soaring over Mount Parker, Western Bluebirds checking out nest-boxes in the pines, Spotted Towhees singing from the shrubs—it was a great morning.  When I got to the White Lake Basin I started scanning nervously for big hawks, looking in the sky, over the sage, on the poles.  Nothing.  Please let it be over the next hill.  No, another Red-tail.  I decided to go all the way around to the south side of the basin, where maybe I’d at least get a pintail for my list.  And then I saw a suspicious blob on top of a Douglas-fir on the ridgeline.  I took a look at it through the binoculars, and there was the pale head of a Rough-legged Hawk.  Phew!  Eventually it flew down and almost allowed me to take its picture, but I enjoyed the close views in the morning sun.  There were no pintails on the south pond (it had frozen overnight!), but a Cassin’s Finch sang from the hillside pines.  Springtime in the Okanagan.

Anniversary birding: Take 2

February 6, 2012

Some of my faithful readers might remember that last year I attempted to bicycle to Osoyoos as part of a silver wedding anniversary weekend.  The idea was to increase my non-motorized birding list by getting to a place too far away (for me) for an easy one-day trip—I’d cycle down, we’d overnight in a nice resort, then I’d cycle back the next day. That attempt of course ended badly, as it coincided with the greatest single-day February snowfall in Okanagan history.  As Marg and I began planning what to do this year, I casually looked at the weather forecast for the weekend and noticed that it could hardly be more benign—calm winds with no precipitation.  A recent warm spell had melted what little snow we had around Penticton, so the riverside trail was clear and dry.  So I suggested we give the bicycle idea another go, and fortunately Marg agreed.  My only concern was my fitness level—I hadn’t done any rides over 20 km for a long time, and this would be two 60 or 70-km trips back-to-back.

Skaha Lake

Saturday dawned calm as promised, with low valley cloud that can be common here in mid-winter, the temperature about -5⁰C (23⁰F).  I set off down the Okanagan River channel in Penticton and soon noticed that the family of Tundra Swans were still in the river.  I phoned Laure Neish to let her know—she has given me prompt calls of many good birds over the past year, and I thought she might appreciate news of some very photogenic swans.  On reaching Skaha Lake I was surprised to see it completely iced over, since two days before only the south end was frozen, and it hadn’t been that cold.  Then I noticed the channels formed shoreward of all the swimming buoys, and realized that this ice had recently blown in from the south end.  I took the Eastside Road along the lake, a relatively quiet—and more importantly, mostly flat—route.  One of the nice things about birding by bicycle is that you hear birds along your entire route—Pygmy Nuthatches piping from the pines, Western Bluebirds chirping quietly, Clark’s Nutcracker cawing from the hills, a Hairy Woodpecker tapping next the roadside.  At one point I stopped to take a picture of the ice-covered lake and heard some more tapping from across the road—and there was a Pileated Woodpecker, a species I missed entirely on last year’s bike list.

Skaha Lake ice

I took a side trip at Okanagan Falls to check out the river below the dam, and found the local American Dippers in a singing frenzy, flying back and forth and chattering constantly.  There were at least six of them, but with all the confusion I couldn’t come up with an exact number.  By the time I got to Vaseux Lake, the valley cloud had begun to clear off, and I could see a good number of swans around the open area at the north end—this shallow lake freezes early most years.  Reaching the north end of Oliver, I noticed that there were still significant amounts of snow on the ground—2 to 4 inches—and more importantly, the riverside trail looked unbikeable, covered in lumpy, rutty snow and ice.  I worked my way south through the back roads of Oliver, adding a pair of Green-winged Teal to the year list, then the flock of Eurasian Collared-Doves at Road 9.  At the Road 9 bridge I looked at the dike tracks on either side—although they were snow-covered, tire trucks had produced a flat, frozen path down them.  This would save me the climb into the vineyards on the east side of the river, so I set off down the river.  Within a few hundred metres I began to think I might have made a mistake; the path began to vary between fast, snow-covered ice to mud and to wet ice.  Instead of watching the ducks on the river for Red-breasted Mergansers or Eurasian Wigeon, I was intently watching my front wheel.  Even with that care I did go down hard once.

Mule Deer along the Skaha Lake road

After 4 long kilometres I reached Road 18, where I had to continue south on the dike because it ran alongside the oxbow woodlands I needed to search for owls.  Bushwhacking through the Osoyoos Oxbow woods is like spinning the wheel of owl fortune—you never know what you’ll find.  The day before, Doug Brown had been through here and found a Northern Saw-whet, a Barred and a Long-eared Owl.  Last year I’d hit the bankrupt slot and found nothing.  I found an easy spot to go over the fence (remembering my predicament of last year, when I’d torn by pants in spectacular fashion) and headed for my first target—The Juniper, a lone conifer in the birch and alder bush, a tree that almost always has some sort of owl roosting in it during the winter months.  Doug had found his saw-whet in it the day before, but before I even reached the tree I was pretty sure I wouldn’t find one there today—because a beautiful Barn Owl flew out of the tree.  Barn Owls are very rare in the British Columbia interior, so this was a huge bonus.  I then searched a section of birches where Doug had seen a Barred Owl the day before, but only found a nice dark Great Horned.  I finally reached the south end of this part of the woods, a real thicket favoured by Long-eared Owls.  Marg had walked up the dike to meet me, so we ventured into the brush together.  Another Great Horned flew off, but after a few minutes of clambering through brambles we saw the Long-eared, sitting in a typical roost low in a clump of birches.  The Barn and the Long-eared were both species I’d never got in the last 3 years of non-motorized birding, so as Kenn Kaufman would say, it was a superb-owl weekend (and yes, I missed the game on TV the next day during my return trip).

Vaseux Lake

I then cycled over to the meadows south of Road 22 where we often seen American Tree Sparrow, a species that is annoyingly rare and local in winter in British Columbia, despite the fact it is common in summer in the northern half of the province.  A Northern Harrier coursed over the marshes (my sixth new species for the day!), but the only sparrows I could find were White-crowned and Song.  Marg pulled up in the car, so I threw the bike on the back and climbed in for the ride to the hotel, with visions of a very deep bathtub dancing in my head.  I’d cycled 63 km, and would start the next morning where I finished today.

The Juniper

The following morning dawned calm and very grey, with the valley cloud even lower than the day before.  After a hearty breakfast we drove back to Road 22 and resumed the hunt for the American Tree Sparrows.  I ventured out into the marsh and noticed some sparrows flying from the roses and cattails back to the hillside across the road.  After a quick chase I found them in some antelope-brush—all White-crowneds except for two Tree Sparrows at the back!  Marg enjoyed crippling views of one—this had been a bit of a jinx species for her over the years.  A Northern Shrike flew by—another new one for the year list.  I then got on the bike and began the trip north, while Marg went south to explore the northeast corner of Osoyoos Lake.  I looked for Gray Partridge in the grasslands a bit, but no luck.  As I was going by Burrowing Owl Vineyards, Marg pulled alongside to say she’d seen both Rough-legged Hawk and Chukar on her jaunt, both species I needed.  I decided to keep going north—going on a 5-km dash to hopefully see a hawk that was flying away seemed foolhardy, and I could check for Chukars at Vaseux Lake on the way home.

Starting the cycle homeward: the Road 22 meadows

I decided to take the side trip up to the feedlot off Black Sage Road—although it was all uphill for a kilometre, there was a decent chance to see Rusty Blackbird there.  Unfortunately, the blackbird flocks were on a distant hillside and the landfill was closed, so I couldn’t get close enough to check the Brewer’s for that one bird with the rusty head.  I scanned the wigeons feeding amongst the cattle for Eurasian, but they all looked decidedly American to me.  After that, I sailed down the hill to the Road 9 bridge and retraced the previous day’s route through rural Oliver.  I did find a feeder with two Common Redpolls—a relief to get, since I don’t see this species every year.  I was feeling rather chilled, so decided to climb the hill into Oliver to get some extra coffee and get some more air in my rear tire.  As I munched on a muffin at Canteloupe Annie’s, Bob and Chris McKay walked in, so I had a good chat with them about various birding adventures, including the Ross’s Gull treat at Christmas.

A bighorn sheep looks down at me and the Chukar at Vaseux Lake

I stopped in a Inkaneep Provincial Park for lunch, but couldn’t find a Pacific Wren there.  I did the loop around River Road in hopes of finding Marsh Wren or Mourning Dove, but no luck there, either.  When I got to Vaseux Lake I thought I should make a decent effort for Chukar, since I’d had a hard time getting on last year.  I cycled up the hill to the cliffs and stashed the bike behind a giant boulder.  As I looked up, a Golden Eagle sailed over the cliffs—bonus! I walked along the base of the talus slopes and quickly saw two tan partridge scurrying up and over the rocks—Chukar!  After getting back to lake level, I walked out on the boardwalk to check the swans and counted 66 Trumpeters.

Winter afternoon at Skaha Lake

With no targets left for the day, I began the cycle home in earnest, stopping briefly to enjoy the Western Bluebirds again along Skaha Lake and the Tundra Swans on the river.  As I pumped up the last big hill, I realized that there was another big plus about bicycle birding—the getting home part feels so much better.  Especially the hot tub part.  After a good soak I tallied up the weekend’s totals—12 new species (I now have 85 for the year—well ahead of last year) and 134 km added to the distance column.  An anniversary to remember.

An open letter to Premier Christy Clark regarding a National Park in the Okanagan Valley

January 17, 2012

British Columbia Minister of the Environment Terry Lake recently announced that the British Columbia government would be withdrawing its support of the proposed National Park for the south Okanagan and Similkameen Valleys.  Up until now, the BC government has backed the park idea, and 8 years of hard negotiations had brought everyone onside save for a small group of hunters and all-terrain-vehicle enthusiasts.  The legitimate concerns of ranchers and First Nations communities were being dealt with successfully through complex consultations and were either resolved or close to being resolved. It is therefore apparent that immediate action is needed to get this important initiative back on track.  I have just sent this letter to Christy Clark, the Premier of British Columbia.  Feel free to adapt it as you wish and send in your own version.  Addresses to use are:

Premier Christy Clark:

Minister of Environment Terry Lake:

Even better, mail a printed copy through the post to these people at their Victoria postal address:

Parliament Buildings
Victoria, BC
V8V 1X4

Here is my letter:

Dear Premier Clark:

I was both surprised and disappointed to hear of your government’s decision to shelve the plans to create a National Park in the South Okanagan.  The reasons for my surprise are as follows:

— The local people want this park.  The only scientific poll carried out to date indicates about two-thirds of the people in the south Okanagan and Similkameen are in favour of the park, while only a quarter oppose it. In my personal experience, many opponents to the park plan are very misinformed about the size, placement and management of the proposed park, and are actually objecting to situations that were rectified through consultation years ago.

–Local businesses want this park.  Hotel, motels, restaurants and other tourism-based businesses would benefit directly from the extended visitor stays the park would promote.  Wineries and other related businesses would similarly benefit.  The Thompson-Okanagan Tourism Association has incorporated the park concept into their 5-year plan and obviously hoping it becomes a reality.

–The park would provide about 500 permanent jobs, a badly needed boost to the local economy.  These would be “clean” jobs generated by a project that the public wants.

–Eight years of negotiations have answered objections initially raised by the ranching industry, and my sources tell me that the vast majority of local ranchers now support the park concept.  Similarly, negotiations with local First Nations are in advanced stages, ironing out how co-management would work in the Park.

–Park opponents seem to be dominated by local hunters and all-terrain vehicle users.  These groups have the entire valley to play in, and will only suffer minor inconvenience if the Park goes ahead in its present form, a form much reduced in size from previous plans.  In contrast, supporters of the park proposal will be denied the considerable benefits that the park will provide if the plans are shelved.

My disappointment obviously stems from the fact that your government has chosen to listen to a small minority of constituents and threatens to cancel an exciting project that would be of great benefit to the social, economic and environmental well-being of British Columbia.  Please reconsider this decision.  We can’t afford to lose this opportunity and all the hard work that has gone into making this dream a reality.  In closing, I would simply like to know why you feel the desires of the few opponents outweigh the obvious benefits to this park?

Yours sincerely,

Dick Cannings

2011 Non-motorized List

January 1, 2012

It’s New Year’s Day 2012, so time to wrap up all those 2011 lists.  The one list I really tried to beef up this year was my non-motorized list–all those birds seen while I was cycling or walking from home (or looking out the living room windows!) in Penticton, BC.  This list is also known as a BIGBY–Big Green Big Year.  Part of this is an effort to reduce my carbon footprint while birding, but it’s really a carrot for me to get out and exercise more.  I had two goals this year–to see more than 200 species and to cover more than 2000 kilometres.  I managed to do both, tallying 203 species and cycling, walking and running 2151 kilometres.  The last species was perhaps the most surprising, a female Black-throated Blue Warbler that Russell found on the Penticton Christmas Bird Count that I managed to track down again on December 19 (here are some great photos by Laure Neish).  For all you list-o-philes out there, here is my complete 2011 non-motorized list.

Snow Goose
Canada Goose
Cackling Goose
Tundra Swan
Trumpeter Swan
Mute Swan
Wood Duck
Green-winged Teal
Northern Pintail
Blue-winged Teal
Cinnamon Teal
Northern Shoveler
Eurasian Wigeon
American Wigeon
Ring-necked Duck
Greater Scaup
Lesser Scaup
Surf Scoter
Common Goldeneye
Barrow’s Goldeneye
Hooded Merganser
Common Merganser
Red-breasted Merganser
Ruddy Duck
Gray Partridge
Ring-necked Pheasant
California Quail
Pacific Loon
Common Loon
Pied-billed Grebe
Horned Grebe
Red-necked Grebe
Eared Grebe
Western Grebe
American White Pelican
Great Blue Heron
Turkey Vulture
Bald Eagle
Northern Harrier
Sharp-shinned Hawk
Cooper’s Hawk
Northern Goshawk
Swainson’s Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
Golden Eagle
American Kestrel
Peregrine Falcon
Virginia Rail
American Coot
Sandhill Crane
Semipalmated Plover
American Avocet
Greater Yellowlegs
Lesser Yellowlegs
Solitary Sandpiper
Spotted Sandpiper
Semipalmated Sandpiper
Least Sandpiper
Wilson’s Snipe
Wilson’s Phalarope
Red-necked Phalarope
Bonaparte’s Gull
Mew Gull
Ring-billed Gull
California Gull
Herring Gull
Thayer’s Gull
Lesser Black-backed Gull
Glaucous-winged Gull
Glaucous Gull
Common Tern
Ancient Murrelet
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Eurasian Collared-Dove
Flammulated Owl
Great Horned Owl
Northern Pygmy-Owl
Northern Saw-whet Owl
Common Nighthawk
Common Poorwill
Black Swift
Vaux’s Swift
White-throated Swift
Black-chinned Hummingbird
Anna’s Hummingbird
Calliope Hummingbird
Rufous Hummingbird
Belted Kingfisher
Lewis’ Woodpecker
Red-naped Sapsucker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Olive-sided Flycatcher
Western Wood-Pewee
Willow Flycatcher
Least Flycatcher
Hammond’s Flycatcher
Dusky Flycatcher
Gray Flycatcher
Pacific-slope Flycatcher
Say’s Phoebe
Western Kingbird
Eastern Kingbird
Northern Shrike
Cassin’s Vireo
Warbling Vireo
Red-eyed Vireo
Horned Lark
Tree Swallow
Violet-green Swallow
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Bank Swallow
Cliff Swallow
Barn Swallow
Steller’s Jay
Clark’s Nutcracker
Black-billed Magpie
American Crow
Common Raven
Black-capped Chickadee
Mountain Chickadee
Red-breasted Nuthatch
White-breasted Nuthatch
Pygmy Nuthatch
Brown Creeper
Rock Wren
Canyon Wren
Bewick’s Wren
House Wren
Pacific Wren
Marsh Wren
American Dipper
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Western Bluebird
Mountain Bluebird
Townsend’s Solitaire
Swainson’s Thrush
Hermit Thrush
American Robin
Varied Thrush
Gray Catbird
American Pipit
Bohemian Waxwing
Cedar Waxwing
European Starling
Orange-crowned Warbler
Nashville Warbler
Yellow Warbler
Black-throated Blue Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Townsend’s Warbler
Northern Waterthrush
MacGillivray’s Warbler
Common Yellowthroat
Wilson’s Warbler
Yellow-breasted Chat
Western Tanager
Black-headed Grosbeak
Lazuli Bunting
Spotted Towhee
Chipping Sparrow
Clay-colored Sparrow
Brewer’s Sparrow
Vesper Sparrow
Lark Sparrow
Savannah Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Lincoln’s Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Golden-crowned Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Lapland Longspur
Red-winged Blackbird
Western Meadowlark
Yellow-headed Blackbird
Brewer’s Blackbird
Brown-headed Cowbird
Bullock’s Oriole
Cassin’s Finch
House Finch
Red Crossbill
Common Redpoll
Pine Siskin
American Goldfinch
Evening Grosbeak
House Sparrow

Vaseux Lake Christmas Bird Count 2011 results

December 27, 2011

Here are the results of the 38th annual Vaseux Lake Christmas Bird Count,
held today under decent conditions-some wind on Skaha Lake, but only breezy
or calm elsewhere, little or no precipitation, little or no snow on ground,
Vaseux Lake more than half open. The species total of 86 is above the
long-term average, but the second-lowest total in the last decade. The
highlight was a Peregrine Falcon seen flying north over Island Road by Pete
Davidson, a first record for this count. Other good birds were a Mute Swan
(Vaseux Lake, Doug Brown); a Eurasian Wigeon on the Okanagan River channel
(Eva Durance), two Northern Shovelers (Okanagan River, Eva Durance; Hack’s
Pond, Dick Cannings) and 15 Eurasian Collared-Doves (12 in Kaleden, Jim &
Deirdre Turnbull; 2 at Inkaneep Park, Dick Cannings et al.). Thanks to all
26 participants, and especially to Phyllis Jmaeff of Mountain Springs Nature
for hosting the countup.

Canada Goose  154
Trumpeter Swan            75
Tundra Swan     2
Mute Swan        1
Gadwall            13
Eurasian Wigeon           1
American Wigeon          91
Mallard 470
Northern Shoveler          2
Green-winged Teal         2
Redhead           1
Ring-necked Duck         210
Greater Scaup   2
Common Goldeneye      10
Barrow’s Goldeneye      45
Bufflehead        89
Hooded Merganser        18
Common Merganser      116
Ring-necked Pheasant   1
Ruffed Grouse  1
California Quail  648
Pied-billed Grebe          4
Horned Grebe   16
Red-necked Grebe        4
Great Blue Heron           7
Bald Eagle:  adult          6
Bald Eagle:  immature   5
Sharp-shinned Hawk      4
Cooper’s Hawk  4
Accipiter, sp.    1
Red-tailed Hawk            15
Golden Eagle 6
Peregrine Falcon           1
American Kestrel           4
Merlin   3
Virginia Rail       2
American Coot  186
Ring-billed Gull  7
Herring Gull       1
gull, sp.            8
Rock Pigeon     85
Eurasian Collared-Dove            14
Mourning Dove 75
Great Horned Owl          2
Northern Pygmy-Owl      3
N. Saw-whet Owl           1
Belted Kingfisher           1
Downy Woodpecker      11
Hairy Woodpecker         6
Am. Three-toed Woodpecker     2
Northern (R.-s.) Flicker   99
Pileated Woodpecker    2
Northern Shrike 5
Gray Jay           3
Steller’s Jay      35
Clark’s Nutcracker         34
Black-billed Magpie       101
American Crow  15
Common Raven            70
Black-capped Chickadee           113
Mountain Chickadee      168
Red-breasted Nuthatch  53
White-breasted Nuthatch            29
Pygmy Nuthatch            89
Brown Creeper  5
Canyon Wren    17
Pacific Wren     5
Marsh Wren       5
American Dipper           18
Golden-crowned Kinglet 24
Ruby-crowned Kinglet    1
Western Bluebird           33
Townsend’s Solitaire      8
American Robin 2
Cedar Waxwing 30
European Starling          2429
Spotted Towhee            2
Song Sparrow   51
White-crowned Sparrow 53
Dark-eyed (Ore) Junco   161
Red-winged Blackbird    120
Pine Grosbeak  4
House Finch      514
Red Crossbill    5
Pine Siskin        2
American Goldfinch       135
Common Redpoll          3
Evening Grosbeak         1
House Sparrow 463

Total individuals            7343
Total Species    86
Observers         26
Parties (min)      10
Parties (max)     15
Hours on foot   50
Hours by car     56.8
Km on foot       83
Km by car         494

Rose Spit: a Christmas Bird Count like no other

December 21, 2011

Rose Spit is a long sandspit at the northeastern tip of Haida Gwaii, the Queen Charlotte Islands.  It is only accessible by foot or all-terrain vehicle, but every year Peter Hamel and Margo Hearne manage to do a Christmas Bird Count there.  At the end of the spit you are at the mercy of the weather and surrounded by some of the roughest waters in the north Pacific, but streams of passing seabirds can make this a magical place for a count.  Here is Margo’s report from this year’s effort (photos by Peter Hamel and Margo Hearne):

Margo Hearne on Rose Spit

“We didn’t know when we’d do it so there wasn’t a lot of advance planning, but with concerts and counts and cards and Christmas, it seemed that the sooner the Rose Spit count was completed, the better. It’s such a risky place to get to in winter and it has its own weather. The morning was perfectly calm and dry with a stunning red sunrise. What could go wrong? The weather. While we stood counting loons near the end of the spit, we noticed a long dark cloud approaching from the south and within fifteen minutes it was over us. Bam! Stinging rain and high winds hit us and stayed for the rest of the day. The hundreds of loons speeding around the spit when we first got there had a message, we should have followed them back to Tow Hill. But we toughed it out.

Peter Hamel and Martin Williams in a typical Rose Spit shelter

Ancient Murrelets landed close by and Short-tailed Shearwaters soared beside us. A tiny Song Sparrow came out from among the logs and a few Red-necked Grebes dove close by. But we had to leave, it was just too exposed. We went south down East Beach. It has changed a lot since we were last there. There are larger ponds, shifting sandbars and buried logs. Along the inside path where we often found sparrows, a dense spruce plantation has sprung up. We found chickadees, kinglets and a few song sparrows, but nothing new. On the way home the gull numbers along Tow Hill beach were incredible. Mew, Glaucous-winged, Western, Thayer’s, Herring and California fed along the waterline for miles. Eagles dropped in from time to time and a Peregrine Falcon swept low over the fringe of trees bordering the beach. Over 500 tiny white Sanderlings ran among the gulls and three very rare Glaucous Gulls were mixed in with the lot. There were more, but we got so wet we were beginning to get hypothermic. It was time to go home; to the wood stove, hot tea and cookies. Enough with the birds! ”

Glaucous Gull on Rose Spit Christmas Bird Count, 15 Dec 2011

Ross’s Gull in Okanogan County!

December 21, 2011

Yesterday I took part in the Cawston Christmas Bird count, covering the Lower Similkameen Indian Reserve, one of the most beautiful spots in southern British Columbia.  At one point I stood at the old Chopaka border crossing (now a locked gate with a polite sign from Homeland Security outlining what evils would befall you and your possessions if you even thought about hopping over the barbed wire fence) with Tracy Lawlor, the environmental coordinator for the Lower Similkameen Indian Band, and Guy Wilson, a mutual friend of Tracy and mine from Naramata.  There weren’t many birds around there, and as I took in the glorious river bottom woodlands backed by the snow-capped crags of Mount Chopaka, little did I realize what amazing bird was only 7 miles to the south at Palmer Lake in northern Washington State.

As darkness fell, we made our way to Marilyn and Bob Bergen’s place in Cawston for the count-up dinner.  As we wolfed down lasagna and garlic toast, my son Russell got a message from his friend Ryan Merrill of Seattle.  “Ross’s Gull at Palmer Lake”, he calmly announced to the table of birders.  So close and yet so far. It was obviously too late to look for the bird that day, and as we drove home it began to look like we might never get down there.  We hit a major blizzard in Keremeos and crawled home on the highway to Penticton, unable to see where the road was most of the time.  I was feeling like I’d been hit with a major flu bug, then Russell remembered he’d left his passport in Vancouver.

But today dawned bright and cheery, I felt a whole lot better, and Russell realized that his birth certificate was in the bank in Penticton.  With that and his driver’s licence and an amenable border officer, we should be able to cross the border, especially if we added the bit about the Ross’s Gull.  We got to the Oroville crossing just before noon and the agent did let us through with the comment “Good luck with the bird—I hear they’re best done on a slow rotisserie.”

The Similkameen Valley through Shanker’s Bend was an endless series of postcard-perfect scenes—the winding river, the high cliffs and blue blue sky.  Our plan on reaching Palmer Lake was to look for birders—there would surely be some there after the alarm was raised on the coast, since this was only the second record for Washington.  Sure enough, as we approached the south end of the lake, there was a cluster of three cars and a bunch of scope-toting people showing all the field marks of serious birders.  One turned out to be Charlie Wright, a Facebook friend I’d never met.  They directed us to the bird right away, pointing at a deer carcass on the lakeshore.

Ross’s Gull in flight

Pecking at the carcass was a tiny, dove-like gull, solid gray on the mantle and distinctly pinkish below.  This was the holy grail of many birders—one of the rarest and most enigmatic species on the continent.  We watched it quietly as it fed, then saw it fly out over the lake, briefly preening, then returning for another course of deer meat.  At one point two locals stopped with binoculars.  “I heard about the bird and wanted to show it to Daddy” said the man.  Daddy looked at the gull and said, disappointed “It just looks like a bird—I thought it would be bigger.”  Eventually the gull flew down the beach a short distance and began a prolonged period of preening and resting, so we took our leave and drove north to the border.

Adult Ross’s Gull, Palmer Lake, Washington

This time we crossed at the “new” Chopaka customs station just north of Nighthawk, Washington.  The Canadian border guard wanted to know more about the gull, since he’d already had some birders go through telling him why they had only crossed the border to see a bird.  We asked if we could poke around in the sagebrush at the border to look for Gray Partridge, and he said that would be fine, but stay at least 100 metres away from the actual fenceline.  We did go for a bit of a walk there and saw some partridge-like tracks, but no birds flushed from the sage.  Ah well, we’d seen a Ross’s Gull today—nothing much could be finer.  I guess it would have been nice to see it in the Canadian Okanagan, but it’s always good to have an excuse to cross that border on a beautiful day.

Early winter in the Chopaka sagebrush hills