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The Chilcotin, part 2: Bella Coola

September 11, 2012

We stopped in at the general store in Tatla Lake before continuing on to Kleena Kleene and Anahim Lake.  We gassed up at Anahim, then struck out on the gravel portion of Highway 20—kept unpaved so that its famous hill is easier to maintain in winter.  As you go west from Anahim Lake the road climbs very gently to Heckman Pass, and enters Tweedsmuir Provincial Park in landscape of small lakes, cottongrass bogs, and forests blackened by recent fires.  Then the road literally drops off the plateau and plunges down the Young Creek Valley to the Atnarko River above Bella Coola.  The Hill, as it’s simply called, has attained almost mythical stature over the past 60 years.  Local residents asked the provincial government in the early 1950s to connect Bella Coola and Anahim Lake with a road, but government engineers said it couldn’t be done.  So the locals built it themselves, with Alf Bracewell driving his bulldozer from the Chilcotin side and another team working up from the bottom. The road is still impressively steep (18 percent grade in places) and lacking in guardrails, but has been widened somewhat in the past few years, so there are only a few truly white-knuckle, single lane corners where you look down into the chasm and wonder what would happen if you met a large truck at that moment.

A wide section of The Hill

All too soon you are down, and realize that because you’ve been concentrating on staying on the road you’ve missed the dramatic change from the spruce-pine forests of the plateau to the Douglas-fir and redcedar rainforests of the valley bottom.  After a few kilometres we turned off at the village (well, it’s really not a village, just a collection of a half-dozen small houses and cabins and a lodge) of Stuie.  Here we hoped to visit our friends Joan Sawicki and Gary Runka before finding a campsite for the night.  No reply came from a knock on the door, so I walked around the deck and saw a woman sitting at a patio table.  Although I didn’t recognize her, she immediately said “Hi Dick!” and added “I know your twin brother Syd from the Yukon and you know my husband Dennis”, and at that moment Dennis Kuch walked around the corner.  I’d met Dennis at various bird meetings and corresponded with him over the years about conservation issues.  His wife was Katie Hayhurst, another keen environmentalist; both of them had recently retired and moved to their Stuie home full time.  They were actually over at Joan and Gary’s just to use their wi-fi while their internet was under repair.

Atnarko River valley

To make a long story short, we spent a wonderful three days in the Bella Coola valley, sharing stories and meals with Dennis and Katie (it turned out that Joan and Gary were away, but in the true spirit of wilderness BC, Katie and Dennis let us into Joan and Gary’s “cabin” so we could spend our nights there) and exploring the rivers, trails and communities.  The Atnarko River, which flows past Stuie, is one of the two main tributaries of the Bella Coola, and is famous for its salmon runs and attendant grizzly bears.  Unfortunately a major flood event two autumns ago had seriously damaged the pink salmon spawning population, so fish were few this year, and grizzlies fewer.

Drifting down the Atnarko

On a morning walk upriver, we did see one small grizzly which was very agitated, and the noises coming from the bush along the trail made us suspect that its mother was nearby, so we quietly retreated.  That afternoon we rafted the Atnarko with a local guiding company, Kynoch Adventures.  We slowly drifted downstream, stopping regularly to wait and watch for bears, but saw only one—a teenager who dramatically darted out onto a riverside log, huffing and puffing, then just as quickly vanished into the forest.  The drift was a wonderful new look at a river—floating silently over rocks, around giant tree trunks, past magnificent stands of cottonwoods. And always the tremendous mountains towering above the valley.

Marg at the mouth of Clayton Falls Creek, looking out at North Bentinck Arm

We spent another day in the lower valley, exploring the towns of Bella Coola and Hagensborg.  The forest changes dramatically along this section of the road as well, the old growth Douglas-firs of Stuie being replaced by western hemlocks draped in luxuriant old man’s beard lichen on the outskirts of Bella Coola.   We marvelled at the beautiful Nuxalk artwork evident in poles, memorials and even school buildings.  Near the mouth of the Bella Coola River, we walked down to the sea shore—this is where Alexander Mackenzie reached the Pacific in 1793, the first European to cross North America by land, 12 years ahead of Lewis and Clark.

Nuxalk pole, Bella Coola

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The Chilcotin–there and back again, part 1

September 10, 2012

On August 22nd, Marg and I headed out on a much-needed summer holiday.  I’d just got back from 10 days of meetings in Vancouver with a birding tour tacked on to the end of that, so we were ready for a break.  Our destination was the Chilcotin Plateau, a vast area of central British Columbia lying between the Fraser River and the Coast Mountains.  The Chilcotin has a good highway running through it so is relatively accessible, but for whatever reason lies off the main tourist routes in the province, and I think the locals prefer it that way.

I spent a wonderful 6 months living on the eastern edge of the plateau back in 1978.  My brothers and I had great job sampling aquatic insects over a 10-day cycle; since it only took us two and a half days to do all the sampling each cycle, it gave us a lot of time to explore the Chilcotin in the other seven and  half days.  Don’t worry—we weren’t paid much for this, in fact we were each paid one-third the normal salary for a research assistant.  But the office conditions and perks were well worth the meagre pay, and I’ve had a soft spot in my heart for the region ever since.  I had only visited the Chilcotin on a few occasions since, and Margaret had never been, so we were looking forward to the adventure.

View from Bracewell’s Wilderness lodge

Our first day was one long drive—we had to be in Tatlayoko Lake in time for dinner, since I was going to a board meeting of the Nature Conservancy of Canada there.  We motored from Penticton over the Coquihalla Connector to Merritt, then across the plateau to Logan Lake and the huge Highland Valley copper mine, down the big hill into Ashcroft, across the Thompson River and north past Clinton onto the heights of the Cariboo Plateau.  We stopped for lunch at Williams Lake, enjoying the trails at the Scout Island Nature Centre, before gassing up and turning west on to Highway 20, the main artery of the Chilcotin.  The highway descends into the steep-walled Fraser Valley and crosses it on the Engineers Bridge.  The valley walls are covered with grass and sagebrush at low elevations and big Douglas-firs toward the top.  Huge limestone outcrops along the river look very un-British Columbian—they are in fact part of the Cache Creek terrane, bits of tropical sea floor squashed between the old coast of North American and the incoming Quesnellia terrane about 180 million years ago.  Above the limestone is a thick cap of basalt, laid down much more recently when the Chilcotin was awash in lava a few million years ago.

The road winds up and up to the top of the plateau, then turns west across a remarkably flat landscape—Becher’s Prairie.  This was our old stomping grounds in 1978—a bit of the Great Plains transported into the British Columbia mountains; golden grasslands dotted with ponds and small lakes.  Beyond Riske Creek the highway makes another long descent, this time into the Chilcotin Valley. We followed the Chilcotin upstream for miles, past the tiny communities of Hanceville, Alexis Creek and Redstone.  In its lower reaches the Chilcotin is a big, milky blue river, fed by the glacial waters of Chilko Lake and the Chilko River.  But above Bull Canyon and the confluence with the Chilko, the Chilcotin is a more sedate stream, flowing clear and dark through spruce-willow swamps.

Beach time at Tatlayoko

Throughout the afternoon the Coast Mountains were getting closer, starting as a few peaks poking above the horizon, then by Tatla Lake a real range of rock and ice to the southwest.  We turned south at Tatla for the short side trip into Tatlayoko Lake.  The road goes over a small pass and enters the Homathko River drainage—at Tatlayoko you are only 65 km from saltwater at the head of Bute Inlet.

Tatlayoko Lake Bird Observatory

The scenery of the Tatlayoko valley is simply stunning—the big blue lake, towering mountains iced with small glaciers and snowfields, the hayfields golden green along the river.  We stopped in at the Lincoln Creek Ranch, one of several properties owned in the valley by the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC).  NCC has been actively purchasing ranches and buying conservation covenants here (while allowing local ranchers to continue working on the properties) because of the valley’s importance as a corridor for migrating birds and big mammals.  Grizzly bears are common here, feeding on the lush vegetation in early summer before many of them move over the Potato Mountains to Chilko Lake to gorge on sockeye salmon in early fall.

Skinner Meadow and the Niut Range

At Lincoln Creek we met some of the other board members and staff, then carpooled down the east side of the lake to Bracewell’s Wilderness lodge, our home for the next few days.  After supper we were regaled with stories from Gerry Bracewell, the matriarch of the family, whose tales of life on the Chilcotin were spell-binding—particularly the story of how her husband Alf built the highway down the hill to Bella Coola (more on that later).  Between meetings we visited the Tatlayoko Lake Bird Observatory, a migration monitoring station operated by NCC, and other key properties.  On the last day we had lunch up at Skinner Meadows before parting ways.  Marg and I were headed north and west to the Bella Coola Valley, a bit of Shangri La on the central coast.

Bicycle Birdathon: the 2012 edition

May 21, 2012

I had great hopes for a good Birdathon this year.  The forecast for the day was ideal for cycling—overcast with a high about 22⁰C (72⁰F), south wind picking up in the afternoon.  On top of that, I’d been on my bike a lot more this spring, so my legs (and rear end) were in better shape for a long day in the saddle than in previous years.  The only downside was that a recent warm spell had seen a lot of high-elevation and northern birds clear out of the bottom of the Okanagan Valley where we would be cycling, unlike last year when we put up with cold, wet weather but got 131 species, a very nice total for a totally non-motorized day (biking to and from home).

Our team, the V-Vaseux Vireos, gathered at my place on the West Bench of Penticton at 2:30 a.m. and we were off at 2:45.  Our team name came from the fact that there were five (V) of us and we were doing the Birdathon to raise funds for the Vaseux Lake Bird Observatory.  The Vireo part was just bird alliteration, as well as perhaps a nod to the best bird ever found at the Observatory, a Black-capped Vireo.  With me were Sebastián Pardo, Tanya Seebacher and Josie Symonds; we would meet the fifth team member, Eva Durance, about 2 kilometres up the road since she was cycling from her home as well.  On top of raising funds for VLBO, we would be one of seven teams competing in the Okanagan Big Day Challenge, a fun event held annually since 1986.

The V-Vaseux Vireos: Sebastián Pardo, Eva Durance, Josie Symonds, Tanya Seebacher and Dick Cannings

As we met Eva, a Killdeer called—species number one at 3:02 a.m.  A Song Sparrow sang briefly as we entered the narrow Max Lake valley, and when we stopped at the first marsh a Virginia Rail called on cue.  We woke some California Quail from their slumbers as we clattered by some shrubs, then heard the loud whinnying calls of Soras coming from the main marsh.  The eyes of a Common Poorwill gleamed in the light from our headlamps as it sat on the road, looking for moths.  We pedalled further up the rough dirt road to get into Flammulated Owl territory, the primary goal of this nocturnal foray.  At the end of the road we heard a soft hoot coming from the mountain to the north and could check the owl off on the list—species number seven at 3:48 a.m.  It was a relatively mild night, so we lay down in the bunchgrass and waited for dawn to wake up the songbirds.  The night was filled with poorwill song as the sky lightened, and the owl kept calling.  Just after 4 a.m. a Townsend’s Solitaire and an American Robin piped up, and within minutes the valley was filled with the songs of these thrushes, soon joined by Spotted Towhees, Chipping Sparrows and Nashville Warblers.  The owl and poorwills were still in full song at 4:20, leading us to think that we didn’t have to get up so early to find these night birds.

We got back on the bikes at about 4:35 and began the ride downhill through the early dawn.  Western Tanagers and Black-headed Grosbeaks had joined the chorus, and things were looking on track until I heard Eva call out in surprise behind me on one of the hills.  Her front tire had hit some sand on the track and she had fallen badly.  Fortunately she wasn’t injured beyond badly scraped fingers, a nasty bruise on her face and sore ribs, but her rear gear-changer was broken, a serious problem for a long day of cycling.  After going over the options, she decided that she would make a quick detour to her home after we left Max Lake, since she had an old bike that was serviceable for the day.

We continued down the road, checking off species after species in that exciting part of a Birdathon where every second bird is new.  A Rock Wren sang at the gravel pit—something that would save us a half-hour of cycling at Vaseux Lake—and an American Kestrel watched from the power line.  We’d missed kestrel entirely last year, so that was a huge relief.  Back at the house, we did some quick rearranging of packs, watching all the while for Black-chinned Hummingbird at the feeders.  The black-chin never showed, though, so when Eva appeared on her replacement bike we headed down the hill to Penticton, hoping that we could find that hummer later in the day.  From the KVR trail we listened in vain for Yellow-breasted Chat—presumably the males at this site hadn’t arrived back from their winter haunts yet.  A Ring-necked Pheasant called from the fields, and a Veery called from the woods below.

Once at the Okanagan River channel, we cycled north on the dyke to Okanagan Lake.  I check this site almost daily and had been worried about how empty of birds it had been in the last week.  But directly off the SS Sicamous jetty was a little flock of Bufflehead and tucked in with them was an Eared Grebe—my first of the year and a rare migrant here.  Then seven Northern Shovelers landed with a splash in front of us!  The only thing missing was a loon, so we decided to make the extra trip along the beach to the yacht club in hopes of finding one.  The mixed scaup flock was still at the yacht club, where an immature Ring-billed Gull, but Sebastian pointed out the biggest surprise—an adult Herring Gull perched on a pole, something I hadn’t seen for weeks.  But no loon.

Adult Great Horned Owl clutching a pigeon in downtown Penticton

We cycled back via Westminster Avenue, hoping to see one of the Great Horned Owls that had nested there this spring.  The three young had fledged in the first week of April, but I hoped that the family would still be in the area.  We scanned the trees as we cycled along, and finally, near the end of the avenue, we found one of the adults, clutching a freshly-killed pigeon in its talons.  Back on the river channel, we turned south for Skaha Lake.  I was happy to see a pair of Wood Ducks flying overhead, as I see this inconspicuous species only occasionally, even though they nest along the channel.  The airport oxbow really came through—single male Blue-winged and Cinnamon Teals and a Pectoral Sandpiper.

At Skaha Lake Park I stopped to listen for Pygmy Nuthatches despite the hubbub from the finish line of the Peach City Half-Marathon, and within a minute we heard the shrill piping calls of this ponderosa pine specialist.  As usual, we found ourselves weaving through runners on our route along the east side of Skaha Lake, but did find two late Horned Grebes.  We were in Okanagan Falls by 10 a.m., about a half-hour behind schedule despite the north wind that had been at our backs.  We checked our species total—95—a little off our planned 100-by-10 pace.  We decided to not bother looking for dippers at the dam—I hadn’t seen them there the day before—but did check the local Merlin nest and weren’t disappointed as the male flew in screaming within a minute or two.

Walking over to the river at the Vaseux Lake Bird Observatory site, we added a number of marsh species—Redhead, Marsh Wren, Common Yellowthroat, Yellow-headed Blackbird, and a handsome male Northern Harrier.  A Belted Kingfisher—a good find this time of year—perched next to the channel, and an American Coot hugged the shoreline.  At the north end of the lake we found three target species quickly—White-throated Swift, Lewis’s Woodpecker and Canyon Wren—but the lake itself held nothing new.  We kept scanning the water as we cycled south, and finally found a Common Loon at the very end of the lake.

Scanning the Okanagan River channel north of Oliver

I stopped the gang at McIntyre Bluff to scan the huge rock face for Peregrine Falcons—this is one of the local nest sites and I’d seen a bird there a few days ago.  But the sky was empty save for wheeling, chattering White-throated Swifts, and the only new bird was a brilliant male Western Bluebird carrying a big bug to a nest box.  We reached River Road at about 12:30, almost an hour behind schedule, but luckily I’d built a spare hour into the plans for this eventuality.  I decided to go south down Island Road to search its deciduous woods for Downy Woodpecker and Bewick’s Wren, but the big surprise there was a singing Yellow-breasted Chat.  Back on River Road, we looked at the north end for Black-chinned Hummingbirds, but found no hummers at all.

A Cooper’s Hawk provided a bit of a boost for our spirits as we approached the steepest hill on our route—Secrest Road.  I let the others forge on ahead as I struggled up the slope, and although I did stop once to cool down in the wind (now miraculously from the south as we turned north), I managed to pedal most of the way up, a major improvement over past performances.  At the top I found the team watching a Hairy Woodpecker, a species we’d missed last year, but the Lark Sparrow I’d found a few days before refused to show in the now-strong wind.  A Cassin’s Finch called, ending my worries about missing this common species, but the the Park Rill woodlands failed to produce that other Cassin’s—the Vireo.  Considering our name, it wouldn’t do to go home without at least two species, and so far we’d only tallied Warbling Vireo.

At 2 p.m. we turned north onto the White Lake Road and began the long trip home—65 kilometres on the odometer and about 55 left to go.  Our species list was still pretty scanty—only 116, about 10 less than the plan suggested, so we had no choice but to do the Mahoney Lake side trip to try add a few more.  We quickly bumped into Tanya Luszcz, one of the Chafing for Chickadees team, and gradually found the rest of their large team (7 in all) scattered along the road).  After exchanging a few pleasantries, we pedalled on ahead to avoid awkward situations of pointing out new birds—this was a competition after all.

I’d checked out Mahoney Lake the day before on my Meadowlark Festival tour, and thankfully the Barrow’s Goldeneyes were still there along with the single immature female Common Goldeneye.  But the Ring-necked Ducks that had been on Green Lake were nowhere to be seen, so we turned around and made the return 7.5-kilometre trip to the White Lake Road, battling the south wind all the way.  From here the road climbs steadily for about 5 kilometres to White Lake.  Half way up I suggested we stop for a short hike into a Western Screech-Owl nest box even though I knew it was very unlikely to see either of the owls.  The Northern Pygmy-Owl that had been so cooperative here in April also failed to respond to my whistles, but we did hear a brief song from a Cassin’s Vireo.

Sebastián counting Wilson’s Phalaropes on White Lake

The south wind was really howling at White Lake, but a Brewer’s Sparrow gave its canary-like trill and some distant shorebirds on the lake itself suggested that a hike down to the shoreline would be worthwhile.  Fanning out, we hiked through the sagebrush in hopes of flushing the pair of Gray Partridge I’d seen a couple of times in the last week, but we dipped on that possibility.  At the fenceline I scoped the shore again and saw that the shorebirds were Wilson’s Phalaropes, without the Greater Yellowlegs that had been there last weekend.  By now the skies looked seriously threatening, and the darkness was probably deepened by the partial solar eclipse that was going on behind the clouds.  We stopped at the St. Andrew’s marsh and did hear and glimpse the Wilson’s Snipe I’d seen there regularly in the past week.

Storm clouds over the White Lake basin

At 6:30 p.m. we pulled into Three Gates Farm, home of my friend Doreen Olson.  We were greeted by a pair of White-breasted Nuthatches, a species we’d been searching for all day.  Doreen offered to refill our empty water bottles and invited us in to watch the hummingbird feeders from the warmth of her kitchen.  There, the Black-chinned Hummingbird male appeared within seconds, so after a short rest we got back on the bikes for the final leg of the trip.  A light drizzle had begun to fall, but home was only 20 kilometres away.  Sailing down the highway hill north of Kaleden we could see the Chafing for Chickadees team on the railway trail far below us (we later found they’d seen a Lark Sparrow at the north end of the trail—only a few metres from our route, and had also seen the dipper at Okanagan Falls—arrgh!).  We turned back up the Okanagan River channel and made a quick check of the airport oxbow—an American Wigeon was there, something we’d missed in the morning (but again, we missed the Ring-necked Duck the C for C team found there a few minutes later).

Although the comforts of home were calling loudly, I convinced the others that a check of Okanagan Lake would be worthwhile.  The rain continued to fall, the beach was busier with people than it had been at 7 a.m., and we couldn’t find anything new along its length, so we turned around and headed back for the river.  As we struggled past the sternwheeler S.S. Sicamous I saw something white on the dark water, so stopped for a look—a Western Grebe!  It was 8:27 p.m. and time to go home.  We only had one more hill to climb—the West Bench hill, and it seemed to be the easiest hill of the day.  The house was filled with birders and chatter about the day; I enjoyed a beer and a plate of curry, then climbed into bed.

I woke at 6:30 a.m., fed the chickens, made myself a cup of coffee, then sat down to figure out how many species we’d seen.  Our three lists had gotten out of whack through the day so we didn’t have an exact total at the end.  After adding three species to my list, then deleting one of the double-counted Western Kingbirds, I came up with a figure of 126 species for the day.  A very respectable total, and coincidentally close to our distance travelled—just shy of 123 kilometres.

By 9:30 the house was full of birders again as the 28 participants in the Okanagan Big Day Challenge gathered to tell stories of their adventures.  Doug Brown and Doug Ghrist–who had driven around the Oliver-Osoyoos Christmas Bird Count circle–came out on top with 133 species.  The Green Team award for best non-motorized transport day was a very close affair–but after several judicial recounts the Vireos were declared winners over the Chafing for Chickadees–126 to 125.  The Wilson’s Warblers of Kelowna came up with the bird of the day–a White-faced Ibis at the mouth of Mission Creek–and the Shuttleworth Shufflers got the Sour Grapes Award for missing Rock Pigeon.  A great day, great fun, and thousands of dollars raised for the Vaseux Lake Bird Observatory–you can follow our fund-raising totals (and donate yourself if you like) by clicking here, then clicking on one of names of the team members.

The V-Vaseux Vireos with their Okanagan Big Day Challenge hardware!

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.