Sunday, June 30, 2013

A Rail of a surprise

Savannah Sparrow-Boucher Lake Rd

From Moberly lake it was on to Boucher lake road. I had seem some good sightings on Ebird from the location in weeks previous and since I was in the neighborhood I figured I should check it out, its always good to try places not on the radar.

The rain turned to more of a mist and it began to warm up as I passed the first few kilometers of Boucher lake road, it traversed residential area for a bit and then turned into more farm fields with patches of mostly deciduous forest. At first it seemed like a poor place for birds but soon the birding became magnificent.

At one point I had a Blue-headed Vireo and a Rose-breasted Grosbeak in the same tree both out in the open.
Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Blue-headed Vireo
 On the other side of the road the froggy "rebeer" of an Alder Flycatcher. I kept along the road, stopping at any habitat that looked good, as the habitat itself began to change to more wet meadows and marsh. Where the road began to branch off I heard a Sora call out so I stopped the car and got out.

Swamp Sparrows called from the shrubs bordering the wet meadow, it was interesting to see them in breeding plumage and hear their harsh trill kind of like a beefed up Chipping Sparrow. It was then i began to hear something weird, like a clicking..but not really more like two stones being hit together, it got louder..Yellow Rail!! This was unexpected to say the least. I had envisioned desperate mosquito filled evenings in the marsh hoping for a distant call, but here on my first day in a new location for the species nonetheless a Yellow Rail. Spectacular!

After the Boucher lake miracle the weather started to become bipolar. It switched from raining in buckets, and I mean buckets, to being sunny and hot. It made for interesting birding, as I would generally take a nap in my car while it rained and keep birding when it stopped.

Along road 1A past chetwynd pulp mill the mixed forest gave me another Macgillivray's Warbler with a confusing song, it also had a darker patch on its chest, I wouldn't claim it to be a hybrid but I would say its a possibility, unfortunately my experience with such birds isn't enough to make that call. Also a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker nest.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

The sun started beating down pretty hard, I continued on towards Dawson Creek, stopping only briefly at the East Pine rest area to check for Upland Sandpiper, to which I found none.

I spent a a few hours at Swan Lake provincial park, one of the main attractions of the Peace. Eastern Phoebes were right where I thought they would be: under the bridge before the entrance to the park.

Eastern Phoebe

Soon after seeing the Phoebe there was a big thunder storm, I took it as a sign to take a 2 hour snooze. When I woke up the forest around Swan Lake was alive again with birds, it seemed like Redstarts and Yellow Warblers were everywhere
Yellow Warbler-Swan Lake
. I had good close looks at Northern Waterthrush, which is always a treat seeing as they are usually tucked away in dense thickets.

After swan lake the rest of the day was spent at Mcqueens Slough east of Dawson Creek. There was plenty of waterfowl to pick through but the best bird was a pair of Common Grackle.

Northern Waterthrush-Swan Lake

Moberly Lake

Canada Warbler

There's something to be said about the special feeling of waking up in a new place, a place you've always dreamed of visiting. There were solid rains throughout the night but they seemed to have tapered off near dawn. Wandering through the silent campground of Moberly Lake, rain was furthest from my mind.

Moberly lake, namely the provincial park is known as one of the primer locations for birders to visit when they enter the peace. It's one of the best places for Black-throated Green Warblers, and I wasn't disappointed because shortly into my morning I heard their buzzing calls from the coniferous canopy, and much like their western counterpart the Townsend's Warbler, they are a pain in the neck(literally) to spot.

The rain started to come down again while I pursued an odd song I hoped would turn out to be a Mourning Warbler. It was coming from the low shrubbery of a grove of aspens, it seemed to be coming from right in front of me, but I just couldn't catch sight of the bird, the rain pelting the leaves wasn't helping matters, but finally I caught a glimpse of the bird, and it turned out to be a Macgillivray's Warbler. This would become a habit in the area around Chetwynd as I would see another 3 Mac's all singing just a little off in the direction of a Mourning Warbler, maybe hybrids or maybe just specially confused.

After i was fully exasperated by the Mac, i walked on down to the campground entrance, Red-eyed Vireo's sang from the aspen trees, a pair of Robin's were chirping their aggravation at a Barred Owl perched low right along the road. Sadly the rain made it a bad idea to uncap the lens for what would have been a great picture.

I had my first Ovenbird moments later. Now if you've never heard one, the sound clips just won't do it justice. It's as if the bird is equipped with its own spring reverb inside its throat. Its like the leaves rattle  around it while it sings adding to the noise coming from the Ovenbird. Of course as loud as Ovenbirds are they are just has hard to see. it took a while to track him down but finally after a bit of "pishing", I got great looks of his raised orange crown and its white streaked breast.

I kept on outside of the provincial park gates along the road, the woods on both sides were alive with birds including my first for BC; Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. Soon after I heard a peculiar song that was kind of a jumbled whistle, I had never heard this one before, it didn't sound warbler like. I followed into the woods bordering the road, climbing over fallen trees and slipping along the wet underbrush. The song continued and with a little more effort I was rewarded with a lifer. Canada Warbler! A gorgeous bird one I wasn't expecting, he sad low to the ground and looked to be shaking off after the nights rain.

By this time the park gates had opened again for the day, I had spent 3 hours birding the park, and figured I better get a move on.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Pine Pass

Pine Pass is more than just another mountain pass in a province filled with mountain passes. Pine pass is for birders, where west meets east, north meets south and everything changes. For the birder who has never visited the Peace River. Pine pass is a portal. A portal that when crossed takes you to an eastern utopia where all those birds you dreamed of are just waiting to be seen. 

Of course my naivete would soon be crushed, but for now my excitement was apparent while I stood on the lookout listening to the birds and admiring the magnificent view. 

Tennessee Warbler

Somewhere in a bog north of Prince George I met my first of what would be many, many, many Tennessee Warblers. But the first one was an experience of its own. Tennessee Warblers are from underneath the definition of nondescript. Pure white/gray with no markings. If you've never heard one before, and you stand directly underneath one, you might have a hard time figuring out just what exactly you are looking at.

This is of course what I was doing as I had been tracking down a machine gun like trill for at least 20 minutes. Bathing in mosquito's craning my neck into weird contortions I finally had the bird in full first Tennessee Warbler, it would not be my last, I would hear it pretty much everywhere I went, most of the time I would remember this moment and know what it was, but their song can be varied, and there were a few times I got tricked by this little monster.

It Begins

It's 530 in the morning, Paul Lake Provincial Park, just east of Kamloops. I had made it there around 11pm the previous night. I left directly from work around 8pm. Light rain is smattering the roof of my car, creating a relaxing calm while I get my binoculars ready, my sweater on, and when I open the doors the bird song wafts around me, and within this instant it has begun.

A short walk through the typical dry interior forests and I have my first Veery of the year. It's ethereal song carries from a swath of green cutting through a dry creek bed somewhere. From Paul Lake it was northward bound. Through Kamloops to 100 Mile House, Lac La Hache to Quesnel.
I made few stops, one was 100 Mile Marsh, to take in a few Yellow-headed Blackbirds.

Yellow-headed Blackbird 100 Mile Marsh

From Quesnel my first major stop; 10 Mile Lake Provincial Park. The entrance to the park follows a road lined on each side with an impressive mix of dry forest. Both sides absolutely filled with singing birds. American Redstart's chased each other in the twos and threes, while Pewees were less conspicuous calling from anonymous locations. A lone Olive-sided Flycatcher announced that he wanted 3 beers and quick. Hammond's Flycatchers were in the darker reaches of the conifers, while three species of Vireo all made themselves known.

Northern Waterthrush-10 Mile Lake

Northern Waterthrush, the loudest of the bunch by far, sang from the blankets of shrubs.
At least 5 Waterthrush were heard

Somewhere in all this cacophony  was something a Yellow-rumped Warbler but sweeter..sweeter, sweeter. It took a bit more bushwhacking than I had expected, the forests were definitely nature, with a lush underbrush that swallowed me whole, but I pressed on through broken branches and wild rose brush towards the song.

I knew how he felt i was getting itchy too

The sun had started to come out and warm the place up, bringing about the first of many, or should I say millions of mosquito's that would feast on my blood. I looked up into the taller snags to see a bird fly catching. A beautiful yellow breasted bird, with a black mask and a necklace of streaks down its breast as if it were hit with a splatter of black paint. It was my first lifer of the trip, a Magnolia Warbler.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Peace River I'm coming for you

Today at 615 when my shift ends, begins my 12 day journey to the Peace River. I am both filled with terror and delight. Dreams of warblers of all kinds and all colours dripping from the trees. I am going in armed with binoculars and a naive hope to find all the target species. Sure I have done my research, I know all the names of the hotspots, a general idea of what species is found where, but still alot of this will be riding on my perseverance and plain luck.

This will be one of those rare times in my birding life where I enter uncharted territory. It is one of the magical things about birding, its like christmas time for me, with a whole lot of lifer's to unwrap.

The next 12 days will be the make or break for me. I only have this one chance for the eastern specialties. There will be no going back. A late season, bad weather, a flat tire, or all the other unknowns will be the final deciding factors in weather I can attain my goal of 350 species.

stay tuned

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The lonely lives of Owls


I used to work grave yard shift at a gas station in boundary bay. It was a shit job but there were some perks. Namely i got a like 5 hours to read books, i could listen to music or talk radio all night, and there was a Barn Owl who would do a nightly fly around the gas station.
I looked forward to that Owl every night, and even wrote a song about it called "the lonely lives of owls"  I sometimes play that song with my band the Godspot,

Being an outsider of the birding community, when I chose to do a big year, I knew it would entail reaching out to people more so than I ever would have in the past. The surprising part to me is how people have reached out to me to offer help, when I never expected or asked for it. Its changed my perspective on birders, atleast a bit. Its not all just politics and egocentric eccentric posturing on message boards, and rude looks in the field.

Anyways, This post is basically a thank you to someone who gave me directions to see a lifer. And not just a lifer but one of the beautiful and haunting birds of the forest. Because of the sensitivity of the subject the location cannot be given. But here are some pictures of a Great Gray Owl family I had the pleasure of enjoying for an hour.

Turns out that insect-like buzzing was really an insect

Brewer's Sparrow-Nighthawk Rd.

Sage Thrashers and Grasshopper Sparrows. Those two mysteries of the south Okanagan, like ghosts they haunt the sagebrush. How many times have I driven Nighthawk Road in the hope a note of a Thrasher's song my hit my ear? How many hours had I trounced the dirt trails around White Lake? Scanning the grasslands, hoping to maybe flush a sparrow that would turn out to be a Grasshopper. Following each insect like find an insect behind that buzz.

The Okanagan Valley has garnered a mythical reputation as British Columbia's arid oasis, a hot spot filled to the brim with specialty birds. In most ways its valid. But in other ways its a hold over from the 60's and 70's when maybe you could find a nest of White-headed Woodpecker, easily walk through the grasslands and see a dozen Sage Thrashers. Walk road 22 and hear the buzzing of a dozen Grasshopper Sparrows.

As a young birder reading the guides, and books about the Okanagan, it felt like all I had to do was show up in the right area and find my birds, but its not so easy, in fact in 10 years of trips to the Okanagan I only this year found things like Yellow-breasted Chats, and Gray Partridge,. Now as I drive towards the okanagan, I feel like I am in a hostile place where red block letter signs scream "No National Park"! As if somehow protecting the last vestiges of the rarest of an ecological masterpiece  is a direct threat to everyone's livelihood. As if putting a limit on Wineries flies in the face of peoples god given right for more and more and more.
When you go to Vaseaux Lake or other parks in the Okanagan  you see interpretive signs showing White-headed Woodpeckers, and Sage Thrashers, and Grasshopper Sparrows, Burrowing Owls, all birds that either don't exist here anymore, or barely do on a peripheral extension of their ranges. You could add Sage Sparrow, Black-throated Sparrow, and Loggerhead Shrike to these signs and maybe have the same amount of change of seeing them. I'm not really sure what I'm on about, sometimes I think the way the Okanagan promotes itself to the birders, is not very realistic.

I left Vancouver after work 8pm, along the way I had a close encounter with a coyote crossing hwy 3. Most coyotes wouldn't give to stares before bounding off into the forests. Mostly because they are openly shot by farmers/hunters whomever has a gun and feels like killing one. There is no regulation on Coyote killing, they are considered pests, though they are no different than your pet dog, other than they are smarter, and wild.

This coyote was curious, maybe because it was pitch black and he was unaccustomed to cars stopping for him. He sat in the grass and watched us as we watched him, both of us as curious as the other.

I slept at nighthawk Rd. When I awoke the sun had not yet risen, but the grasslands were alive. Meadowlarks, brewers, vestper and chipping sparrows. The nasal Peent of a common nighthawk, i looked up and saw it batting across the skies.

for two hours I combed nighthawk roads sageland. careful to listen to everything and note every movement and every bird...there were no thrashers, and no grasshopper sparrows. At White lake it was pretty much the same.

I did have a few other birds to see. Black-Chinned Hummingbirds, in Oliver river road. an easy score, as well as Olive Sided Flycatcher on Sidley Mountain. I checked for very at every streamside thicket, but maybe the 27 degree weather had withered away all bird song.
I also needed black swift, but the lack of clouds probably had them up so high they were near space.

I had left at 8pm and was back home in Vancouver by 8pm the next day, a total 24 hour bird blitz. There had been success, failure, uncertainty, and more exciting and intense encounters with nature. My big year has been filled with many such moments but I think that on Sunday after hearing from Russ Cannings that a Sage Thrasher had been found by him, singing literally a 100 feet from where i had slept the night before, it was the first time I questioned my own ability. As in was I good enough to even do this?

Where are you Sage Thrasher?

Monday, June 10, 2013

California Birding

Mourning Dove-Caleveres rd

While I was in California I did manage to go on a few birding excursions, in between graduation ceremonies, wine tastings, and family dinners. My time was limited to the San Jose area, instead of detailing each day I will just review some of the better locations in the vicinity.

San Jose may not be on the radar as a priority destination to Canadian Birders, but birders would be surprised to find out it is actually a wonderful area filled with a variety of habitats and parks. The hills surrounding the bay area contain a few large state parks and natural areas that are almost devoid of people, and many of the California specialties most sought by listers are most easily found here and the surrounding Santa Clara County.

Joseph D Grant State Park

Located in the hills on the way to Mount Hamilton, Joseph D Grant encompasses a massive area containing a variety of habitats. Rolling dry hills turn to Chaparral, Creeks flow through the center creating riparian areas, while two lakes draw shorebirds, and herons. Another highlight is an old heritage house with a nice fenced in garden, the centerpiece a large bird bath where you can sit on a bench and watch a variety of birds take a dip. While I was there I had Anna's Hummingbirds, Lesser Goldfinch, House Finch and even a Bullock's Oriole.

California Towhee-Joseph D Grant
The highlights of my times birding here have definitely been the abundance of Lawrence;s Goldfinch. These are the least common of the three Goldfinch and can be difficult to find year to year. The last two years I've birded Joseph D Grant, I have had Lawrence's Goldfinch. This time I had at least eight of them, hopping around the parking lot. Black Phoebes were all over, calling and flycatching, while Quail and Wild Turkey Called from hidden places.

Another species I added to my life list here a year ago, and saw again this May was the White-tailed Kite. From a horse field I watched one hover, dive down and come back up with a rodent of some sort. It was a delight to see such a gorgeous bird of Prey.

Around the Lake, Great Egret;s were plentiful as well as Ash-throated Flycatchers. I spied a family of Killdeer, and Bullock's Oriole's chased one another from the large cottonwood trees. Other birds common here are Oak Titmouse and Red-shouldered Hawk.

Snowy Egret

Ed Levin Park

Ed Levin is more of a city park, people like to go there to fish and walk their dogs, but compared to a park in Vancouver its downright empty. One of the main attractions of this park is the lakes that attract Green Heron and Black-crowned Night Heron. As well as Forster's Terns. The larger deciduous areas produce Nuttall's Woodpecker. It was at Ed Levin where I got my first Tri-coloured Blackbird, my second lifer of the trip. At first it seemed impossible to pick one out of the hordes of Red-winged Blackbirds that were gathering up for the night in the reeds. Just as I was about to give up, I heard that weird toy gurgling song only Tri-colored Blackbirds make, and soon after I had zoomed in on a lovely male.Interesting thing about the Red-winged Blackbirds in California is they are a subspecies that lacks the yellow median covert, they only have the triangular Red Patch on their wings

Sunol Wilderness

Yellow-billed Magpies 
This is a winding trip through the hills above the Calevera's reservoir. It is a must if you are wanting Yellow-billed Magpie. I had at least 15 along the 30 mile drive through the hills, you also have the choice of continuing to Del Valle Lake, which is also good for birding but is a pay park. I had my first California Thrasher close to here, a bird I had missed 2 other times I had been birding in California

Turkey Vulture

Sunol Wilderness is blessed with a bunch of hiking trails that can take you through many different habitats. possible birds would be Sage Sparrow, Rufous-crowned Sparrow, and if you are lucky Black-chinned. Turkey Vultures are everywhere and unlike in BC, they are pretty tame. I found myself surrounded by 5 of them in a grove of trees. I admired these oddballs while they stared down quizically at me.

Turkey Vulture

Don Edwards NWR

Don Edwards would be the crown jewel of the Bay Area. Boasting one of the few breeding locations for the California subspecies of Clapper Rail, as well as Snowy Plover. Least Tern stage here later in the summer, and sometimes even Black Skimmer is possible.

I chose this location to introduce my girlfriends family to birding. They had asked me to take them out birding while I was visiting, I chose Don Edwards because of the variety of larger birds I could actually show them. Most people birding for the first time don't wanna stand around a bush waiting for a Wrentit to make a move. So they stood in awe as a White Pelican flew over our heads, and marvelled at the Snowy Egrets, and Black-necked Stilts, American Avocets, and nesting Forster's tern.

Though none of the birds matched their love for this California Ground Squirrel.


Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Stuck inside of Creston with the Forster's Bues again

I should just make every post title a play on a Bob Dylan song..
Well i tried writing a blog post about my last bird adventure in May before leaving to California but for whatever reason I just didn't have the inspiration, maybe because so much time lapsed, also California has a lot of Wine, and Wine tasting...
Anyways I will just do a quick update on whats happened on my Big Year since last I posted.

I started out going to Salmon Arm for Clark's Grebe. This is the only location where you can regularly see them in B.C. I was lucky enough to meet another birder already scoping out the Western Grebes.
Western Grebe-Salmon Arm
of which there were atleast a hundred in the reeds at the edge of Shushwap Lake. Luckily he had already found the Clark's minutes earlier. I'm a great scavenger birder... The birder I met was named Randy and i already knew who he was because he was only 1 bird behind me on ebird for birds of BC this year, it was nice to meet a new birder, and after walking along the boardwalk admiring the Cliff and Barn Swallows, and this nice Myrtle Warbler I took off to the Okanagan.

Myrtle Warbler

I hit up Robert's lake in a vain attempt to see a Black-necked Stilt or other rare shorebird, but it was pretty quiet, there were some Avocets sitting on nests, which is always fantastic to witness.
Spent a while at Kalamalka Lake, one of my favourite places in the North Okanagan. Bird life was limited due to the heat, I did get a nice Lazuli Bunting, but the highlights were photographing the lovely Yellow-bellied Marmots.

Yellow-bellied Marmot

Yellow-bellied Marmot

California Quail-Kalamalka Lake

Kalamalka Lake

The evening was spent atop Silver Star Provincial Park. I had info there was a Boreal Owl heard calling a few nights earlier. I spent about 3 hours trouncing around in the Cold hoping to hear one. It never happened but I was serenaded by the many Hermit Thrush. These are my favourite birds so it wasn't a bad night at all. 

Day 2 saw me hit up Road 22, the flooded fields were attracting quite the novelty birds. It wasn't long til I had my first Franklin's Gull. I wasn't able to see the Red-necked Phalarope reported among the Wilson's but I did get singing Bobolinks. Along the Oxbows I managed to hear a Chat, and a Catbird at the same time, their songs mashed up together so I was unable to verify exactly what I was hearing until I finally caught the Chat perched high up on a snag. My first BC Chat!

Singing Yellow-breasted Chat

 I then found the Catbird down lower as it came into view. Very nice!

Gray Catbird
 Afterwards I hit up Mckinny Road in hopes of some higher altitude birds like Olive-sided Flycatcher, it was fairly quiet up there but I did manage a Gray Jay.

In the evening I headed up Max Lake to hopefully get Flammulated Owl. Randy had told me he had one the previous night, so it seemed like the best spot for it. As the sun was setting Calliope Hummingbirds were doing flight displays. They would buzz straight up into the air and slowly raise themselves down lower and lower like a helicopter.
Calliope flight display at dusk-Max Lake
Further up the trail I ran into a crowd of birders. They had been participating in the South Okanagan Big Day. They were lead by Mr. Russell Cannings himself, at this point in the game it had been 25 kilometers of walking, I was in awe. It turns out they were looking for the same Flammulated Owl as I was. As the darkness set in the Common Poorwills began calling. We all waited quietly for that Flammulated "hoot"

It seemed as though not even Russells inspired mimic calls would not even get one to pipe up. While we turned to walk back down to our cars a birder stopped and shouted Flammulated! We all stood around with our ear's pricked up..and finally a hooting flammy was heard way up on a rocky hillside. Amazing!

I thanked the birders and headed down to White Lake/Fairview road in hopes of lucking out on a Western Screech Owl. Although I never heard one, I ended up seeing 3 Great Horned Owls pearched on powerlines along Fairview Road. I heard another one by Willowbrook, as well as hearing another Flammulated Owl! Easily the best night of Owling I've had.

Sunday Morning I hit up the South Grasslands in hopes of Grasshopper Sparrow or an early Sage Thrasher. I checked out Nighthawk Road and the Spotted Lakes area. There were 3 Avocets at Spotted Lakes, a new location for me. I checked out Blue/Kipoola lake and though I didn't find the target birds I did managed to come accross this lovely little fawn hiding in the grass.

Spot the Fawn

Literal definition of Fawning

Shortly after I took the second picture he darted up and ran off towards his mother somewhere in the Brush.
It was another amazing encounter with nature, of which I have already had so many this year.

I finished off checking out the benchlands of Osoyoos, nothing too exciting but was able to get some good looks at Western Kingbirds and Bullock's Oriole.

Western Kingbird

Bullock's Oriole

American Robin
Finally to finish this weekend I headed on to Creston. I made it there around 5pm, which gave me enough time to check out the Wildlife Management Area. Of course it wasn't long before I found a nice Western Painted Turtle sunning himself on the side of a road.
Just Chillin'
At Duck Lake there were no Forster's Tern's, I had hoped to get them so I could move on and hit up cranbrook on and loop around back to Vancouver, but as the sun faded over Duck Lake, I knew I would have to stay in Creston and try again in the Morning.

The next morning I drove that terribly rough Channel Road, and I thought about how I never wanted to drive this road again this summer. It had been the 5th time I had done this already this year. When I got to Duck Lake, I scanned the marsh, and the lake, but there was nothing. I felt that old impending failure filling up in my lungs, but then heard a :"Kreeer" over my head, I looked up..and there they were 5 Forster's terns careening through the air, they followed a path that took them over the lake and to the other side. Success!

I spent the rest of the morning around West Creston Road where I managed to get my first Red Eyed Vireo of the year, as well as this lovely American Redstart.

American Redstart.

It was a Wild Weekend for sure, but now I was at 261 birds, and felt a little better about leaving for California until June. Its now June 3rd and I am planning a one day blitz of the Okanagan on Saturday, This will be strictly for Sage Thrasher and Grasshopper Sparrow, the last of my Okanagan specialties, and two birds I have never seen before. Wish me luck.
-Ryan Edward Johnston