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The Apex of Christmas birding

December 16, 2011

It was a great day for birding the high country yesterday—a little bit of fresh snow, a touch of cloud and a light breeze that couldn’t make up its mind which direction it was coming from.  I did the ninth annual Apex-Hedley Christmas Bird Count yesterday, teaming up with Kathryn McCourt and Thor Manson to do the Nickel Plate road.  We got to the edge of the circle at 0815; a little late for serious birders, but this was designed to be a fun count.  I dropped Kathryn and Thor off at the big corner where the road crosses the tiny headwaters of Shatford Creek and drove on for 500 metres or so to start my day.

As soon as I got out of the car I heard some tapping in the forest, so began my standard schtick for attracting birds in these woods—I whistled like a pygmy owl.  Immediately a couple of Common Redpolls flew out of the treetops, followed by a White-winged Crossbill.  And then a trio of Mountain Chickadees called, joined by a couple of Red-breasted Nuthatches and a Boreal Chickadee.  The Boreal was a surprise at these mid-elevations—they’re usually much higher up the mountain.  Then the calm toots of a Northern Pygmy-Owl; and I quickly found him on top of a Douglas-fir.  Finally, a Hairy Woodpecker scolded me and flew off towards the far hillside.  A good start for a count that can be annoyingly quiet for much of the day!

Mountain Chickadee

We saw several more flocks of redpolls and White-winged Crossbills, both taking advantage of a bumper spruce cone crop, excitedly working the cones in tight flocks.  I wasn’t surprised to see the crossbills doing this, but I usually see redpolls feeding on birch or alder seeds.  It was nice to see both species—we only get good numbers of redpolls every two or three years, and it can be a decade between good years of White-winged Crossbills in southern British Columbia.

After 5 kilometres of hopscotching up the road we reached the Apex ski village and spent some time searching for active feeders amidst the hubbub of snowplow activity.  Steller’s Jays and Clark’s Nutcrackers were the most conspicuous birds, but finally I heard the mellow warbles of Pine Grosbeaks.  There they were—three gorgeous birds right next to the car, nibbling willow buds.  Farther up the road there were a half-dozen more, then a flock of 20 right on the road!  We valley-dwellers don’t see this species that often, so that was a real treat.

Male Pine Grosbeak eating willow buds

Beyond the ski village the road passes through some high subalpine forests of Engelmann spruce and lodgepole pine.  Thor had seen some Boreal Chickadees here last week, so we stopped a couple of times (dodging a few very large logging trucks—amazing how early in the day those guys start!) and eventually found a small flock.  Red Crossbills flew overhead at each stop. As the road began to descend to the Mascot Mine I dropped Thor and Kathryn off again and we began our walk-drive-walk-drive down the big hill.  My first task was to get a Christmas tree—there are a lot of nice subalpine firs growing under a powerline here and I never miss the chance to get one on this count.  The White-winged Crossbill flocks appeared again as we descended, and Kathryn finally got the good long look at Common Redpolls she’d been asking for.

Boreal Chickadee in lodgepole pine along the Nickel Plate Road (photo copyright Thor Manson)

A small car coming up the hill stopped and a young skier asked if this was the way to Apex; “It’s not the usual way” I said, “but certainly the most adventurous!”  He mentioned that he’d been stuck for an hour lower down, then spun in place until I gave him a push to get some momentum on the steep slope.  An immature Golden Eagle sailed low overhead, adding raptorial spice to the subalpine songbirds.  As we reached the steep switchbacks below I realized what had caused the young skier problems—the road was sheer ice under a few inches of snow.  We carefully slid around the tight corners, passing the deep ruts that marked where the small car had gone off the road.  This was prime Townsend’s Solitaire country; the slim thrushes set up winter territories on these open slopes with an abundant supply of juniper berries.  I found a spot to pull over on a section of the road that has a two-thousand-foot drop to the valley floor; Thor immediately pointed out a solitaire atop a snag, so we hopped back in and continued down the big hill.

Winter mist in the Similkameen Valley

At another corner the road crosses a brush-filled creek gulley.  We once had a dipper here (a most unlikely place!) but our real target was Pacific Wren.  These tiny birds descend from subalpine forests to winter in thickets in the valley, but can be very skulky and hard to see in winter.  I pished a few times and a wren quickly popped up and began to call.  On a whim, Thor played the wren’s song on his iPod and the bird shot towards us, singing full tilt and swaying from side to side with its wings open.  Another bird, presumably its mate, appeared as well and silently observed the show from a few feet away.  We quickly stopped the playback, not wanting to disturb the bird further, but it was a surprising display of winter territoriality.

Pacific Wren

After uncountable switchbacks we finally reached the main highway along the Similkameen River.  We had two and a half hours to cover a section of the valley here, madly scrambling to pick up common low elevation species such as juncos, quail, and Pygmy Nuthatch.  Another focus of this section was obviously the river itself.  Dippers are regular here but numbers fluctuate from year to year, presumably because of differences in ice cover upstream as well as population levels.  At our first stop we counted 9 dippers—a very heartening total—and by the time darkness set in we had 24, I think an all-time high for that part of the circle.  And although we found a few Song Sparrows, juncos and House Finches, we couldn’t find a single nuthatch, starling or quail to add to the list.  Despite my quest to get the chickadee “grand slam”, we failed to even make a chickadee hat trick, since we’d not only missed the rare Chestnut-backed, but also dipped on—shudder—Black-capped as well.

As we turned for home we finally saw a flock of 30 California Quail in a Keremeos orchard right on the edge of the count circle.  Phew!  A Eurasian Collared-Dove nearby was definitely outside, so we closed our notebooks and headed for the Tim Horton’s in Penticton to meet the other count participants.  We were the last to arrive, so listened to various tales of winter hiking and skiing while we tallied our list.  My son had seen a Black-backed Woodpecker—a great find in an area without a burn or big beetle infestation.  The Nickel Plate Lake gang had come back without finding their grail bird—the White-tailed Ptarmigan—but it sounded like everyone had enjoyed the pleasant weather of the day.  Our group’s total was 37 species and the overall count was 53 species.  About average as far as the statistics go, but one of the most enjoyable Apex-Hedley counts yet!

The Christmas Bird Count season begins!

December 14, 2011

Today is the first day of the Christmas Bird Count season, which goes from December 14th  to January 5thevery year.  Why am I inside typing on my laptop you ask?  Well, I’m just getting a few errands out of the way before starting full tilt tomorrow with the Apex-Hedley Christmas count.  I thought I’d jot down a few thoughts about the counts to come, because as all birders know, anticipation is half the thrill of the sport.

Although it’s not the most diverse count of the eight that I do, Apex-Hedley is the most Christmassy, a drive through high subalpine forests.  Deep snow keeps our route firmly on the road, but we do a lot of walking through Christmas-card scenes of snow-covered firs and spruce.  Other groups on the count spend the day on skis and snowshoes, looking for the holy grail of mountain counts, the White-tailed Ptarmigan.  On a nice day, it’s the best of all counts, with flocks of Pine Grosbeaks, White-winged Crossbills, and Common Redpolls and occasional American Three-toed Woodpeckers.  Our big hope is to get the chickadee grand slam—Black-capped, Mountain, Boreal and Chestnut-backed.  The first three are easy, but the Chestnut-backed is definitely a rarity in these drier forests. The route finishes with a white-knuckle drive down hairpin bends into the Similkameen Valley, where we try to max out the American Dipper count and get low elevation species such as Pygmy Nuthatch and Canyon Wren before dark sets in.

Laurie Rockwell counting dippers along the Similkameen River south of Hedley

After that I have a one-day break before the weekend, then it’s Kelowna on Saturday and Penticton on Sunday.  Penticton is my home count, the one I started doing when I was six years old.  This year I’m hopeful for a big list at Penticton, since there have been some nice birds around— Lesser Black-backed and Glaucous Gulls, up to four Anna’s Hummingbirds, a pair of Bewick’s Wrens.  On December 20th its off to the Similkameen Valley again for the Cawston count.  That count is often stuck in the narrow valley bottom, as high elevation access is difficult, but the small, dedicated band of counters often come up with some great birds.  I like it because the valley is so wild compared to the Okanagan next door, with stands of huge ponderosa pine and cottonwoods along the river.

The Similkameen Valley south of Cawston

After the Christmas break we do the Vaseux Lake count on December 27th.  This count is the least diverse of the Okanagan valley-bottom counts, but has excellent prospects for continental or Canadian high counts of Pygmy Nuthatch, Red Crossbill, Canyon Wren and other dry forest species.  The lake is the shallowest of the big valley lakes and is often frozen by Christmas, but the river usually keeps a sizeable patch open at the north end, where a hundred or so Trumpeter and Tundra swans spend the winter, tipping up for water plants. After a two-day break we go south to Bridesville for another high-elevation count, but the one with the best chance in Canada for a White-headed Woodpecker. Then we celebrate New Year’s Eve with Oliver-Osoyoos, the biggest count in the interior of Canada in most years, with species totals up to 121 on occasion.  You just never know what you might see at Oliver-Osoyoos—a Yellow-billed Loon on the lake, a Rock Wren on the cliffs or a Prairie Falcon rocketing after some ducks.  My final count is at Princeton on January 2nd—a bit of a drive up the Similkameen, but a chance to bird with the great gang in the Vermilion Forks Naturalists, and always a chance to see a Great Gray Owl.  Here’s hoping!

Marg Holm counting Snow Buntings west of Bridesville

And these are just eight of the 2000-plus counts that are happening across North and South America this year.  You can follow the results as they come in on the Audubon website.  To find a count near you in Canada, check out the Bird Studies Canada website.  And you can read more about the Christmas Bird Count tradition in the blog I wrote last year at this time.  Happy holidays!

Recent Assessments from the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada

November 29, 2011

The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) met last week in Ottawa to assess the status of 23 species of concern.  The one bird species discussed was the Yellow-breasted Chat, found in three parts of the country—southern Ontario, the southern Prairies, and the southern Interior of British Columbia.  The Ontario population, part of the nominate subspecies Icteria virens virens, was uplisted from Special Concern to Endangered.  This population has declined markedly in numbers and now breeds regularly only in one or two locations.  This subspecies typically breeds in thickets growing in previously cleared woodlands, a habitat type becoming increasingly rare in southern Ontario and other parts of its range in eastern North America.  Chats in western Canada belong to the I. v. auricollis subspecies.  The BC population was once again assessed as Endangered because of concerns over its small numbers (only two or three hundred individuals at most) and threats to its valley-bottom riparian habitats.  The Prairie population is much healthier (a few thousand individuals) and was once again assessed as Not At Risk.

Yellow-breasted Chat (copyright Tak Shibata)

Two mammals were assessed; the Black-tailed Prairie Dog was uplisted from Special Concern to Threatened because of its small, isolated range in Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan and concerns over the increasing risks of drought and sylvatic plague epidemics.  The Collared Pika, a Beringian species found in Canada only in the Yukon, extreme northwestern BC and the western mountains of the Northwest Territories, was assessed for the first time as Special Concern.  Its habitats are threatened by rapidly changing climate.

My brother Rob has described a new species of robber fly, the Okanagan Efferia, just in time to have it assessed as Endangered by COSEWIC.  Despite a lot of search effort over the past decade, this species has been found in only five patches of remnant dry grassland in the Okanagan Valley.

Okanagan Efferia (Efferia okanagana), a new and Endangered robber fly

There are now 640 Canadian species assessed by COSEWIC as Extirpated, Endangered, Threatened, or Special Concern.  To read about the other species assessed at this latest meeting, you can read the official press release or the detailed list of assessments.

Heading for the hills

November 13, 2011

We’ve been having some pretty lousy weather lately— it is after all the second week of November in Canada.  And, although the Okanagan Valley is indeed a bit of paradise, we do get periods of high winds and sleet, the mountains socked-in with dismal grey clouds.  Yesterday dawned pretty much the same as previous days, except the wind wasn’t blowing and it wasn’t raining, so I decided to make an effort to pick up some mountain birds for my year list.  It’s something I’ve been putting off, deterred by the thought of a long climb when I’d rather be cycling on the valley bottom.  But, in looking at my list over the past few weeks, I realized that there were four or five species I could conceivably get close to home if I was willing to gain a bit of elevation.  I still hadn’t picked up a grouse of any sort, and Ruffed and Dusky are residents here. Pileated Woodpecker was another distinct possibility, and if I could get high enough I could call in a Gray Jay or Pine Grosbeak.

I cycled up to the start of the trail, then stashed the bike and began to hike up the mountain.  I’m not one of these mountain bikers that can go straight up for 5 km—I could blame it on my non-fat tires, but we all know there are other factors at play.  A flock of Pygmy Nuthatches was piping away at the start—always a sound that brightens up the dreariest day.  It was pretty quiet after that, in fact it took another 45 minutes of hard climbing before I heard another bird.  This time it was a Mountain Chickadee, so I whistled like a pygmy-owl and soon had a big flock of chickadees mixed with the other two nuthatches we get here—White-breasted and Red-breasted.  After that I encountered these mixed-species flocks every kilometre or so, but the only species I added were Golden-crowned Kinglet and Black-capped Chickadee.

Grass and young ponderosas

The forests on this side of the mountain looked in good shape—the trees were quite young as almost all the big ones had been taken out over the past 50 years, but the bunchgrass understory was lush.  Bluebunch wheatgrass glowed golden under the grey skies, mixed with fescue and pinegrass higher up.  A few clumps of dead pines marked the presence of pine beetles, probably the western pine beetle that specializes in ponderosa pine.  My thoughts wandered to the possibility of a Black-backed or American Three-toed Woodpecker, both species that are strongly attracted to these beetle-killed trees.  But perhaps the trees were too newly-dead, or the birds just too busy in the major area of beetle-kill over the mountains in the Nicola and Similkameen valleys—the trees here didn’t show any sign of recent woodpecker activity.

By the time I reached the height of land on the trail—about 950 m (3000 feet) elevation, the ground was white with yesterday’s snowfall.  Tracks were few and far between—a couple of squirrels and a deer had crossed the trail, but no sign of grouse.  The habitat up here was severely degraded by wild horses—the vegetation was heavily trampled and the grass more or less gone.  And then, a soft chit-chit call overhead—a Common Redpoll!  This was a species I hadn’t counted on, but I was happy to see it—number 200 for the year on my non-motorized list.

I hiked to the south to overlook the valley and explore the open south-facing pine slopes where the Dusky Grouse would spend the winter, but the habitat was so hammered that I wasn’t surprised that no big birds rocketed off the hillside as I walked.  A croaking call alerted me to a raven overhead, then a few more, and eventually 36 were overhead, flying up the valley.  Perhaps they had filled themselves at the local dump and were just flying home to roost, even though it wasn’t even noon yet.  A Clark’s Nutcracker, cousin to the ravens, called from the pines up the hill, but no sign of their other relative, the Gray Jay.

A wall of white was filling the valley to the southwest, a clear sign that snow was on the way.  About 5 kilometres into the hike I turned around and began to descend, taking horse trails through little valleys in hopes of flushing a Ruffed Grouse from the roses or snowberry clumps.  By now it was snowing heavily, so I quickly hiked down to the bike.  At this elevation the snow had turned to sleet, then rain as I headed home.  A kestrel and a shrike hunted from the powerlines over the grasslands, both newly-arrived for the winter.  After I was home and dry and looking out at the November weather, I realized that usually I would have foregone a hike on a day like this, and would have missed out on a great morning.

A wild hawk chase to White Lake

October 29, 2011

After posting my bicycle birding update last week, Thor Manson mentioned to me that one of my wanted birds—a Rough-legged Hawk—was  hanging out around White Lake.  This species is regular out there in winter, so word of an early arrival that showed signs of sticking around meant that the long cycle might well be worth it.  I looked at the weather forecast and Saturday seemed like a good day for this venture—the south wind we’ve been blasted by for the past while was supposed to be calm in the morning before kicking up in the afternoon.  Hey, if I timed it right, I might get a calm ride out and a nice tailwind home.

The day dawned perfectly—clear and calm.  The cupboards were bare at home, so Marg and I had breakfast at a local coffee establishment at the bottom of the hill.  I cycled away from there at 08:30, deciding to check out the Okanagan Lake shoreline while I was close by, before turning south.  I thought that yesterday’s strong south wind might have tired some migrants overnight and there might be something of interest on the beach.  And for once, my hunch payed off—there on the log boom across the river mouth (right next to the Lesser Black-backed Gull Laure Neish found last week, I might add) was a magnificent American White Pelican.  I’d almost given up on pelicans for this year’s list; they migrate in small numbers through the Okanagan each fall and spring.  Last year I’d seen a flock go by, but I hadn’t been in the right place at the right time this year, despite several close misses.  I called Laure Neish to let her know, partly to pay back for the information of the gull!

American White Pelican resting at the head of the Okanagan River Channel, Penticton, BC, 29 Oct 2011

I then started down the river channel, watching the gulls dive for bright red kokanee salmon—it’s quite something to see these birds gulp down a whole fish!  A late Osprey (most are gone by early October around here) sat on a cottonwood, watching the spectacle and likely digesting its breakfast.  A big flock of Canada Geese filled the river, new arrivals since my last jaunt down the channel.  A couple of tiny geese caught my eye in the middle of the flock, so I paused for a closer look—Cackling Geese!  Some yelping calls elsewhere in the flock drew my attention to three more.  These geese were Mallard-sized and much darker than the bigger geese around them.  Probably another gang that bailed after bucking that south wind yesterday.  The airport oxbow had another surprise—my first Tundra Swan of the season.

Lesser Black-backed Gull with California, Herring and Glaucous-winged gulls, Penticton, BC, 29 Oct 2011

While all this waterbird action was exciting, I couldn’t help but notice that the afternoon’s south wind had arrived early.  By the time I got to Skaha Lake the surf was up and the lake was covered with whitecaps driven by 30-kph winds.  I wasn’t looking forward to the next part of the bike ride—a 10-km climb to Kaleden, all uphill and into the wind.  I settled into low gear and daydreamed of good birding for the next half-hour as I slogged along.  Just past Kaleden I took the White Lake road to the southwest.  This road climbs steeply into the ancient volcanic hills framing the White Lake basin itself, but at least they blocked the wind.

Now, bicycle birding has many advantages over vehicle-based birding.  The fitness angle is obvious, as is the fact that you can see and hear a lot of things you’d miss from a car while travelling between two sites.  But you also find a lot of neat stuff along the roadside—watches, toilet seats, hookless bungee cords, cordless bungee hooks, far too many flattened rattlesnakes and only occasional live rattlesnakes.  Today my big find was on the steep switchbacks along the White Lake Road coming out of the Marron River Valley (the Marron River is only a metre wide and I’ve always wondered why it deserves such a presumptuous title, but it does flow through a nice little valley).  As I struggled up the hill I spotted a lovely fresh onion on the roadside.  This onion was in perfect condition, obviously dropped there only this morning.  Not needing too much of an excuse for a rest on the hill, I stopped and popped it into my pocket.  And around the corner was the real bonus—ten more pristine onions.  Someone probably bought them this morning in the Penticton Farmers Market, put the bag on top of the car and drove away, the onions staying there until the car reached the tight corners of this hill.  A pelican and 11 onions—already a successful day!

Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory at White Lake. The poles of the antenna array (used to detect very longwave radiation) provide a lot of perching opportunities for hawks!

I reached White Lake at about 10:30 and began my Rough-legged Hawk search.  Conditions were perfect—nice lighting and almost no wind.  White Lake is one of my favourite local haunts–the basin is featured in the banner photo for this blog.  The wide open spaces, the fragrant smell of sage, the quiet.  The Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory, a series of dishes and antenna arrays, adds a bit of mystery to the landscape. The basin is alive with activity in spring and summer and attracts a lot of Canadian birders as one of the best places to find Sage Thrashers in the country.  Today the sagebrush flats were silent; a Clark’s Nutcracker called from a lone pine while a Red-tailed Hawk soared in the sunlight.  I cycled up to the junction, then south for a kilometre or so to the centre of the basin.  I was beginning to despair about the Rough-leg—Thor had said it was always there in plain view, hovering in the sky over the sage.  The other species I was hoping to get here, though it was getting a bit late in the season, was Lapland Longspur.  So I stopped for a coffee break to scan the horizon and listen for longspurs.  And then, right on cue, a flock of eight Lapland Longspurs flew overhead, giving their rattling dt-dt-dt-dt and sweet dew calls.  A juvenile harrier coursed over the grass, diving periodically for montane voles.  I cycled back up the hill to the Twin Lakes Road and turned west, hoping to find the hawk in the higher part of the basin.  Magpies called from the high ridges, a couple more Red-tails watched me from hillside trees and a Northern Shrike, the first of the season for me, sat on an overhead powerline.  But no Rough-legged Hawk.

Fall colours on the White Lake Ranch

After an hour and a half of fruitless searching, I turned north and began the cycle home.  This time it was fun—almost all downhill and with the wind.  I poked around in the cutbanks just north of the lake for fossils while a Steller’s Jay scolded me.   I was in a good mood despite cycling 65 kilometres for a hawk that wasn’t there—the longspurs and pelicans, both species I thought I’d missed this year—were very much worth the trip.  To say nothing of the good exercise, the beautiful gold aspens and 11 roadside onions.

Bicycle Birding 2011–an update

October 24, 2011

Last year I began a quest to get in shape and have fun birding by keeping a list of species I saw while biking or walking from my back door.  I haven’t provided an update recently on my adventures in 2011—in fact I don’t think I’ve mentioned it since my biking birdathon back in May!  Last year I tallied 192 species by non-motorized transport (NMT) and biked 1374 kilometres; my goals this year were to find 200 species and bike over 2000 kilometres.

By the end of May I had 170 species, but then things got tough.  I added a few species over the summer—a Flammulated Owl in a nest-box a few kilometres from home, a Black Swift rocketing over the house, a female Gray Partridge with a youngster walking across the lawn.  Fall migration brought a few shorebird species, but Penticton has few mudflats so I’ve missed a number of species that would have been easy farther north in the Okanagan Valley.

This kind of birding isn’t always easy.  On September 19th I set off to Kaleden to look for a Red-breasted Sapsucker reported a couple of days previously.  After pedalling for 20 kilometres and climbing a big hill, I was just pulling into the driveway to look for the sapsucker when my phone rang.  It was Laure Neish, breathlessly reporting a Sabine’s Gull back in Penticton, only minutes away from my house.  Agh!  Needless to say, I looked in vain for the sapsucker for 40 minutes, managing only to call in a Northern Pygmy-Owl.  Disappointed, I biked back to Penticton but couldn’t find any trace of the gull.  Strike two.

I got my first real rarity on October 3rd, the Ancient Murrelet covered in this month’s earlier blog.  Three days later I was down on the Okanagan Lake beach again and saw Laure Neish, the murrelet’s discoverer.  As we stood there chatting, she said, “Don’t you need scoters for your NMT list?”  “Yes!” I said, turning around to see four Surf Scoters flying by the shore—species #188.  On October 8thmy son Russell walked down the hill to bird in the thickets along the Okanagan River, hoping for a vagrant warbler or two.  I soon got a call from him, announcing not one but two Bewick’s Wrens—the first record for the Penticton area.  This species has been solidifying a toe-hold in the Okanagan over the last few years, but are still very hard to find north of Oliver.  I jumped on the bike and was down there in a couple of minutes, but it took 15 minutes of nervous searching before we relocated the birds.  Number 189!

Bewick's Wren, Penticton, 8 Oct 2011

Bewick's Wren along Okanagan River in Penticton, BC, 8 October 2011. I just noticed as I heavily cropped this poor picture that the bird was banded! This is probably a bird dispersing from the Oliver area to the south.

Russell called again a couple of days later with news of another Sabine’s Gull—this one flying lazily along the Skaha Lake beach.  Although it was late in the day I jumped on the bike and was away—realizing as the wind blew through my beard as I sailed down the hill that I’d forgotten my helmet.  I kept going down the river trail to Skaha, but there was no sign of the gull.  Russell had said the bird was last seen heading south along the west side, so I got onto the old railway grade and headed towards Kaleden, but still couldn’t see any little gull with a striking wing pattern.  On the way back I checked the oxbows for dowitchers and Pectoral Sandpipers, but no luck there either.  It was getting dark by the time I got home.

On October 10th, on one of my regular checks of the Okanagan Lake waterfront I managed to find a Pacific Loon with some migrant Commons, but couldn’t turn any of the Western Grebes into the rarer Clark’s—though Laure Neish had seen one there the week before.

On October 18th I cycled down to Vaseux Lake on a picture-perfect fall day—the lakes like mirrors, reflecting the golden leaves of cottonwoods and aspens.  After helping Doug Brown dismantle the Vaseux Lake Bird Observatory, I searched the shrubs nearby for Pacific Wren, a species Doug had seen regularly there in October.  No luck.  I then went down to the boardwalk (featured prominently in The Big Year movie, standing in for Patagonia Lakes State Park), where I managed to find a Pacific Wren hiding under the boardwalk itself.  I’d been there a couple of days before on a field trip with Canadian Migration Monitoring Network participants, and we’d seen Chukar up against the cliffs.  So I cycled up the gravel road to the cliffs, then walked along the edge of the giant talus slope.  Canyon Wrens chattered in the warm afternoon sun, and finally I heard a Chukar, well, chuckling.  I was up to 192 species, tied with 2010!

The next day, Russell returned from a wild birding expedition to Haida Gwaii with friends Ilya Povalyaev and Ryan Merrill.  As I stood on the porch to welcome them back, a Hairy Woodpecker flew overhead, calling.  Number 193, and a huge relief to get a common species that had so far eluded me despite many trips into the forests around town.    Then, on the afternoon of October 22 I got another call from Laure Neish—this time she’d found an adult Lesser Black-backed Gull along the beach—just where we had the scoters.  I put on my shoes and was away—and this time the gull was there, and Laure had stayed there to point it out to me—a dark-backed gull with a big yellow bill floating with the California Gulls just offshore.

There are a good number of possible species I can add to my 2011 list over the next two months—perhaps a Greater White-fronted Goose will appear on the golf course with the Canadas, or a Harlequin Duck might show up at Okanagan Falls.  I haven’t seen a Northern Goshawk or Rough-legged Hawk yet, both reasonably common wintering birds around here.  And maybe I’ll finally have to make that hike up the mountain to get Dusky Grouse, Gray Jay and Pine Grosbeak.  All I need is a half-dozen species–and I’m only 181 kilometres shy of the 2000 mark!

Return of the Ancient Mariner–er, Murrelet

October 3, 2011

Last year I reported the sad case of an Ancient Murrelet found dead on the icy shores of Okanagan Lake at Penticton, BC.  Murrelets are birds of the open ocean, but this species shows a tendency (in some individuals at any rate) of occasionally straying inland to be seen on lakes across the continent.  Despite birding in the Okanagan Valley for much of my life I’d never seen one away from the coast.  But all that changed today.

At about 10:30 a.m. I got a phone call from Laure Neish, who breathlessly reported that she had found an Ancient Murrelet at the Penticton Yacht Club.  I quickly said “I’m on my way”, hung up the phone, jumped on my bicycle (this is only 6 km from my house, so would be an easy species to add to my non-motorized transport list!) and was off down the hill in the steady drizzle.  After  a few anxious moments involving spray in the face, wet brakes and sharp corners, I arrived at the Yacht Club.  Laure was there, and helpfully pointed out the bird near the far shore.  It gradually came closer, then flew a few hundred metres to the west.  I made some more phone calls, including one to Chris Charlesworth in Kelowna.  He fortuitously was already out birding (why am I not surprised?) with Mike Force, so they turned south to cover the 1-hour drive to Penticton in prompt fashion.

Ancient Murrelet

Ancient Murrelet, Okanagan Lake, Penticton, BC, 3 October 2011. photo by Dick Cannings

Meanwhile, Laure and I had lost the bird, but it eventually came around a corner of the rock breakwater, its feet churning like a sternwheel steamboat.  It foraged within a foot or two of the shoreline, along the beach where its compatriot had met its end last year, and eventually came right along beside us.  At one point, it bumped headlong into a rock while looking sideways at me.  It kept moving west, and we lost it again for a few minutes, but eventually found it by the walking pier just before Chris and Mike arrived.

I’m not sure how many of these lost murrelets eventually find their way back to the saltchuck, but hopefully this one will survive to see Haida Gwaii–the main breeding site of this species–next summer.

Autumn in Ontario: working with Bird Studies Canada and the Nature Conservancy of Canada

October 2, 2011

I’m on my way home today from meetings with two of my favourite organizations:  Bird Studies Canada and the Nature Conservancy of Canada.  I work half-time for BSC, coordinating the Christmas Bird Count and eBird nationally, and the BC and Yukon Nocturnal Owl Survey.  I also help with the BC Breeding Bird Atlas, and it was fun to see preliminary species-density maps produced by Andrew Couturier pulled out at the meetings.  I was happily surprised to see the packed room at the BSC staff meeting—the organization has grown steadily since it was formed by the Long Point Bird Observatory in 1995, and now has strong offices across the country doing all sorts of interesting and valuable work.

Monarch nectaring on asters at Bird Studies Canada headquarters

The staff and board meetings at BSC’s headquarters in Port Rowan, ON were preceded each day by informal birding trips to Old Cut, the banding station at the base of Long Point.  Fall migration was still going strong, with mixed flocks of warblers (dominated by Blackpolls) and good numbers of Blue Jays moving overhead.  A couple of times the nets were full enough that I got to help out the talented volunteers in extracting Philadelphia Vireos, Northern Parulas, Black-throated Green Warblers and other (exotic to me) eastern species.  During lunch breaks, we walked through the tallgrass prairie meadow in front of the BSC headquarters building, which has matured over the last 5 years into a glorious mix of flowers and grass, dotted with groves of small trees.  The asters were alive with nectaring butterflies, especially hundreds of monarchs that were beginning their epic journey to the highlands of Mexico.  Buckeyes were common as well, and a few fiery skippers darted down the grass trails.  I stayed with Andrew Couturier and his family in Simcoe; on Sunday afternoon we enjoyed a walk through Spooky Hollow, a glorious patch of Carolinian forest near the shores of Lake Erie.

Large American beech in Spooky Hollow

Last Wednesday I travelled from Port Rowan to Kingston for the national board meeting of the Nature Conservancy of Canada.  This is another dynamic organization that is very fulfilling to work with.  I sit on the board with a cast of dedicated people from across the country, and am constantly amazed at the quality of projects our staff pull off every few months.  The focus of these meetings was the work NCC is doing on the Frontenac Arch, a band of beautiful forest north of Kingston.  The flora of these forests, growing on a southern extension of the granitic Canadian Shield, are a diverse mix of the Algonquin Highlands to the north and the Adirondack Mountains to the south.

We toured the region on Saturday, first visiting the Elbow Lake property, an 1100-acre piece of forest and lake recently purchased and now co-managed with Queen’s University.  We then drove to Hawkridge Farm, where Michael and Elaine Davies have donated a 265-acre piece of gorgeous mixed forest, with some of the most northerly pitch pines in the world.  Despite the blustery fall weather, we enjoyed the early autumn colours, a few migrants birds (including good numbers of Turkey Vultures tossed on the wind) and the heart-warming stories of important habitats conserved forever.

NCC biologist Gary Bell walks through the woods of Hawkridge Farm with Elaine Davies.

Wells Gray Day

September 14, 2011

Last weekend I drove north to Wells Gray Provincial Park to visit my friend Trevor Goward and help out with his campaign to protect a significant wildlife corridor in the Upper Clearwater Valley.  Trevor had organized a “Wells Gray Day” packed with speakers and events that sounded well worth the long drive, if seeing that fabulous valley wasn’t enough.  Trevor lives on an exquisite 10-acre property—“Edgewood Blue”—about 20 kilometres north of the town of Clearwater.  I hadn’t been there for about 18 years, but remembered the driveway winding through a stand of mature aspen on a low ridge, leading to a house overlooking a pond filled with cattails and dragonflies.

Trevor Goward makes last-minute preparations for Wells Gray Day at Edgewood Blue

I arrived about 7 p.m. on Friday and was immediately put to work putting the finishing touches on the property for Saturday’s big event.  Botanist Lynn Baldwin and I helped Trevor move gravel and rake it into position along new trails, finish the fire circle and bring in firewood.  By the time darkness fell in earnest everything looked more than presentable—Trevor had obviously done a tremendous amount of work over the past few months turning his property into a learning centre, with a small amphitheatre overlooking the pond, a covered open-air classroom by the fire-pit, and several trails through the diverse woodlands and marshes.

The Wells Gray Day event was organized to celebrate Trevor’s donation of his property to the Land Conservancy of BC, along with a similar donation by his neighbours, Edwina and John Kurta.  Thompson Rivers University is involved as well, since they have a field station across the road and will be using the properties for their outdoor classes and research.  Bill Turner of TLC, Chief Nathan Matthew of the Secwepemc (Shuswap) Nation, and Terry Lake, BC’s Minister of the Environment, all welcomed us to the morning’s talks.  Cathy Hickson, a volcanologist who has studied the incredible geology of Wells Gray for decades, gave us the highlights of the fascinating story of the region’s deep past, a story of fire and ice.  Just before lunch we moved across to the TRU field station, where Tom Dickinson, Dean of Science at TRU, showed off the plans for the new facility.  It was idyllic in the unseasonably warm September sun, with Compton’s Tortoiseshells dancing overhead and sunning themselves on the walls of the old one-room schoolhouse that is the main edifice on the site now.  Ralph Ritcey, one of the éminences grises of BC wildlife biology, told stories of early moose studies in the valley.

Ralph Ritcey telling stories of moose and men

After lunch, CBC’s Mark Forsythe and I talked about the importance of park interpretation, including some reminiscences on my part about the golden days of BC park naturalists in the 1970s.  The program was privatized in the 1980s and more or less died away from lack of funding in the last few years.  We need to get this program going again—write Terry Lake and tell him so!  As I prepared to tell a few stories about my park experiences I was surprised to see two of my old park superintendents in the audience—Herb Green and Pat Rogers.  We broke into groups for the rest of the afternoon and walked the trails of Edgewood Blue, learning from each other about mosses, dragonflies and of course lichens.  There were hardly any birds active in the hot, still afternoon sun—we saw a Song Sparrow and a Common Yellowthroat, but missed a Bald Eagle that flew over while we were admiring the small beauty of sundews!

The fate of park interpretation in British Columbia? The old outhouse at Edgewood Blue.

The day was capped off with a dinner in the historic log community hall down the road, followed by a wonderful talk on the Sepwepemc sense of place given by Ron and Marianne Ignace.  A few of us gathered around a bonfire under the full moon, talking til past midnight about Wells Gray, the world and more.  Well done, Trevor!  And remember, Trevor will name a new lichen species after you if you win the “Name that Lichen” auction that is open until October 2nd–all proceeds go towards his Wells Gray conservation project.

The following morning I got up early and drove up the valley into Wells Gray Park itself, stopping first at Helmcken Falls, truly one of the most spectacular waterfalls on the continent.  I then walked into Bailey’s Chute, since Mark had told me about seeing big chinook salmon leaping there the day before.  It was mesmerizing to watch the roaring waters against the sunlit forest; I was pulled from my reverie at one point by the chatter of a dipper as it flew towards me and disappeared into the rock bluffs below my feet.  It had probably had its fill of aquatic insects, and maybe a few salmon eggs, and was going for a bit of a nap.  Maybe it was because of the early hour, but I had to wait patiently for about 30 minutes before a big fish–probably 30 pounds or so–rocketed out of the pool at the base of the falls and battled desperately against the crashing foam before being thrown back.  These fish had come up the Fraser River, turned right at the Thompson, left at the North Thompson and left again at the Clearwater River–an amazing journey.  And the ones trying to climb Bailey’s Chute were the real pioneers, the ones trying to blaze a new path above the spawning grounds below.  We can learn something about persistence from these magnificent fish, a lesson that may prove useful in struggles to preserve this and other magical spots on earth.

Misty dawn at Helmcken Falls

A late summer getaway at Cathedral Lakes

September 9, 2011

Marg and I just spent a glorious three days in one of my favourite places on earth—Cathedral Lakes.  Nestled in the Okanagan Range of the North Cascade Mountains, these lakes are the jewels in a spectacular landscape.  We were invited up there by a group of local school teachers who had come up with the ideal professional development idea—get inspired by soaking up the natural grandeur of the mountains, learning about geology, ecology and conservation.

We stayed at the Cathedral Lakes Lodge, located near treeline on the shores of Quiniscoe Lake.  It’s hard to beat the idea of hiking in the alpine all day and coming home to a hot shower and great food!  I’ve camped at Cathedral many times, but must admit the Lodge is always tempting.  You can hike up to the lakes, but it’s a long, steep, dry 15-kilometre walk, so I’ve always taken the Lodge taxi service up.  The drive is an adventure in itself, perched in the back of a Unimog as you climb up some pretty  hairy mountainsides.  You start in the hot pine-fir forests of the Ashnola Valley, and an hour later you’re at the lodge, with cool mountain breezes coming off the lake and late summer snowfields.

Calm morning: Quniscoe Lake and Quiniscoe Mountain

Cathedral Lakes is one of the finest places in British Columbia for mountain birding as well.  Clark’s Nutcrackers are common around the Lodge, and Spruce Grouse are easily found in the subalpine forests nearby.  Many trails climb up the cirque walls past rock bluffs and snowfields, where Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches are often seen.  We took our first walk along the trail to Ladyslipper Lake.  It begins in spruce forest that has been heavily impacted by a spruce beetle outbreak for the past five years or so.  American Three-toed Woodpecker numbers soared after the beetles arrived, but now most of the large trees are long dead and we only heard one woodpecker calling.  Younger trees are still common though, so the forest is very functional, and was full of mixed species flocks.  A group of chickadees—both Mountain and Boreal—moved through the trees while juncos flew up from the grouseberry.

What was very noticeable were the flowers—the subalpine meadows were spectacular with lupines, daisies, arnica and paintbrush.  Normally this bloom wave occurs in late July, but this year it was obviously 5 weeks late because of late, deep snowfalls and a cool start to summer.  The snowpatch at the top of the trail—often melted by early August—was still large, it’s melting edge swarming with yellow springtails.  As we reached the ridgetop, a Prairie Falcon rocketed by, probably on the lookout for Columbian groundsquirrels.  A pair likely breeds on the cliffs of Crater Mountain, a few miles north, but this is still a very rare bird in British Columbia.

Female Spruce (Franklin's) Grouse

The next morning we took the trail to Glacier Lake, climbing the ridge where the movie “Clan of the Cave Bear”was filmed.  I remember sending a couple of Californian birders up to the Cathedrals that summer to look for Spruce Grouse—I don’t know if they saw any, but they were certainly surprised to encounter a Neanderthal on the trail.  Unaware of the movie shoot, they were dumbfounded by the sight, and even more surprised when the caveman calmly asked them how far the lodge was.  We did see a Spruce Grouse on the trail—a female with a single small young.  These grouse are often called “Franklin’s Grouse”, since they differ markedly from the eastern Spruce Grouse by lacking the reddish-brown tip to the black tail.  The males also have a different display, one in which they flutter down from a tree branch and loudly clap their wings together over their back.  The resulting double-clap is quite startling when heard on an early morning hike in the mountains.

The open slopes below the lake are carpeted in juniper bushes, full of grey-blue berries.  Not surprisingly there was a Townsend’s Solitaire at the meadow edge, guarding its juniper patch.  Another (or was it the same?) Prairie Falcon flew overhead, heading for Ladyslipper Lake, its crop full.  We climbed beyond Glacier Lake to the cirque wall beyond.  A couple of American Pipits fed in the steeply falling brook that came out of the snowfields above, but we didn’t see any Rosy Finches around the snowfields.  They specialize in eating insects that become marooned on the cold snow while flying over mountain ridges on warm summer days.  A couple of pikas gave their nasal enk! calls, scampering away with mouthfuls of hay.

Ladyslipper Lake from the Rim Trail

Once on the ridge we enjoyed the view of the North Cascades, from Glacier Peak in the south to the alpine ridges of Manning Park to the west.  A big flock of Horned Larks twittered by, then dropped onto the tundra to forage in the grass.  We walked south to the remarkable rock formations of Stone City, a collection of rounded quartz monzonite boulders the size of small houses.  This ridgetop was not scoured by the continental glaciers that flowed south out of the Columbia and Rocky Mountains during the Pleistocene.  The northeast side of the ridge was scooped out by a series of alpine glaciers, however, creating the cirque valleys that now hold Quiniscoe, Glacier, Pyramid and Ladyslipper Lakes.

Some of the group continued on from Stone City to explore Smokey the Bear and the Giant Cleft, rock formations in the huge wall that forms the south end of the ridge as it turns east to Goat Lake and Boxcar Mountain.  Marg and I led separate groups back down into the valley.  I took the steep scrambly route down to Ladyslipper Lake that goes through a magical meadow dotted with huge boulders.  In the lee of each boulder huddled a stunted alpine larch.  I’d expected to encounter a herd of mountain goats here, but they had obviously slipped behind some rock formation and we never did see them.

Giant Cleft: note hiker in gap for scale

Dawn on the following day was beautifully calm, Quiniscoe Lake a mirror for the orange tints of Quiniscoe Mountain, a glittering layer of late summer frost on the rustic dock in front of the lodge.  We took a short walk to tiny Scout Lake that morning, finding a snowshoe hare feeding on grouseberry along the way.  Some of the group took the long way back over Red Mountain, but after yesterday’s long hike, most of us were content to amble through the valley meadows and forests.  The gang was quieter on the way down, tired but recharged with stories of adventure they can tell to their classes this fall.