Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Worth a hundred Sparrows

Baby Common Snipe

Thursday morning I met up with Mark Phinney in Dawson Creek. His friend Inga also joined us, we travelled the road I now knew so well to Swan Lake. This time we went down a different road to the Ducks unlimited compound. I think its a training area for biologists, or something, but its not accessible to the public, so it was great to have this opportunity.

As we walked to the marsh, Mark was explaining how he had several sparrows the year prior this exact time of year, but that he had been here last week and there was no sign of one. This was one of the few spots you were guaranteed to find one, so I had high hopes. But this year was not the best year for Nelson's Sparrow and none had been seen in any location, by any birder, and it looked as if it would stay that way, as we all stood listening and waiting for a ghost bird.

While we stood I noticed a flock of ten American White Pelican's lethargically soaring in a perfect line far out over the marsh. They were my 300th species of the year.  It was bittersweet, leaving the compound sparrow less but also having reached a plateau, only having 50 more species for my goal.

We checked a few other locations for Rusty Blackbirds specifically. It was a bird that I assumed would be easy to find up north so I hadn't put in a special effort to track down, weird considering the amount of Bogs and Marsh I had explored, This might be one of those birds that comes back to haunt me.

Song Sparrow

Song Sparrow

Regardless of the fact I hadn't seen any target birds, it was a pleasure to be out with Mark. He is one of the most knowledgeable birders I've met and I learned a ton of info about the birds I was looking for, their specific habits and habitat. One of them was Connecticut Warbler. It turns out that in British Columbia, the Connecticut Warbler does not follow the habitat restrictions that field guides betroth on them. Where areas in the East they favour Spruce Bogs, in British Columbia they are found in dry aspen forests, usually on hillsides, and with little to no underbrush, there must be grass and dried leaves on the ground. These were things you don't learn reading the little blurbs in field guides.

We went back to Brassey rd and he drove to a spot containing the dry forest these BC warblers love so much. After a short walk into the forest we flushed a small bird up from the grassy understory. It was a Connecticut Warbler! Unlike mornings when they are busy singing this one seemed perturbed and flitted above our heads, making a small chip call. back and forth back and forth, giving some impressive underneath looks.

Further down the road to about 6.5 kilometers the forest began to turn into a good mix of deciduous and spruce. Mark had heard and seen a Bay-breasted a few weeks before, but after returning again it had not been relocated. When we stopped we heard it faintly right away, it was up in the spruce somewhere. We played a tape of its call and a small bird flew high up over our heads across the road, it never called again. I don't know if it was the Warbler or not, but it was not how I wanted to tick my first Bay-breasted Warbler. I'm OK with Sound only Owls and Rails, but not Bay-breasted Warblers.

By this time it was noon and getting pretty hot out. Mark offered to take me to the Del Rio Marsh in the morning, but suggested I spend the rest of the day visiting all the sedge I could. So I formulated a new plan: Look for sparrows the rest of the day, if I saw one I could avoid having to go to Del Rio before leaving for Mackenzie. If I couldn't find one Mark would meet me in Chetwynd for one last ditch effort. And I would also try Brassey Creek super early in the morning for a better chance at seeing a Bay-breasted Warbler.

Tree Swallow-Mcqueens Slough

Tree Swallow

I won't go into the excruciating detail of the next ten hours of my life but let me say there probably wasn't an inch of sedge from Dawson to Fort St John, to Watson Slough I didn't cover. Not one Nelson's Sparrow was seen, or heard. There were a few moments, maybe in hallucination I thought I heard one, a few times I was tricked by Red-winged Blackbirds, when they dive into cattails it makes a weird hissing sound resembling a Nelson's Sparrow call. I finished off in Watson Slough, around 11pm, soaking wet up to my knees, I went through all my pairs of shoes, 3 pairs of socks, 2 pairs of pants, and probably donated a few litres of blood to the Mosquito blood drive. 
red fox peaking out from the grass
As I made the long drive back to Dawson's creek I made peace with the fact that Nelson's Sparrow was most likely out of reach. I know this time will come with more species as time runs out, but this was the first one, and it was a hard pill to swallow but one I would have to. On the other hand, I felt like not seeing the bird had taught me so much more about them and the habitat they were, or in this case weren't found in. Though at this moment it was of little comfort.

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