Each spring birders across North America and indeed the world participate in “birdathons” as a way of raising money for bird conservation and challenging oneself to see as many birds as possible within a 24-hour time-frame. For some, this can be a leisurely and pleasant way to pop out of the house and see what migrants are around—for others…
It’s something else.
Last year I joined Ilya Povalyaev, Chris Charlesworth, and Avery Bartels on an adrenaline-fueled 24-hour “Big Day” where we started off in the Okanagan Valley and finished off near Vancouver; We amassed 197 species which beat my dad’s long-standing record by 1!
This year Dad was selected as one of Bird Studies Canada’s guest-birders (visit BSC’s website for more details on this great fundraising effort) so he suggested we “go for it” together this year. I said “sure, sounds good.”
To round out the team we invited coastal birders Pete Davidson and Nathan Hentze—both of whom meet my tough criteria points for an all-out big day blitz:
Got time to do some scouting?
Getting along in a cramped space for 24 hours straight
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DBa96qlVggo (pre-Big Day video)
11:50pm: There we were—4 men packed into a Honda C-RV on some road near the Kelowna airport. The windows were well-fogged after an attempted pre-Big Day nap and a Killdeer was wailing emphatically in a nearby field. The sky was clear and a large moon was rising over the hills to the east; the air was a lot chillier than we had anticipated but otherwise things were shaping up perfectly.
We were parked down the road from a known Swainson’s Hawk nest (a species we had virtually no chance of getting during the day along our daytime route) and we were hoping a quick flash of our 800,000 candle-power beam would be species #1 on our day-list. But this was not to be. Despite seeing the female on the nest consistently in the days leading up to tonight, there was clearly no bird present as we approached the tree—either she’s a bad mother or there are not yet any eggs to incubate. To add to our woes, the upstart Killdeer that had been so insistent on preventing us from catching a wink, had shut up completely… But as the famous “bird”-lover Kenny Rogers once said, “You gotta know when to fold ‘em” so on we raced to our next night-time stop—Robert Lake.
We pulled into the Robert Lake parking lot at 12:15am and immediately picked up KILLDEER after opening the door—phew! The shoreline was packed with ducks; mostly MALLARD and GADWALL but a single NORTHERN SHOVELER was also picked out in the high-beams. The main target here was AMERICAN AVOCET which, like the Swainson’s Hawk, would not be expected later on in the day. 9 of these unique beauties were easily visible close to the car and a few other expected waterbirds were tallied before we rushed off for the South Okanagan.
On the drive south I spotted a GREAT HORNED OWL on the wires near Summerland then at Max Lake above Penticton we easily found SORA and VIRGINIA RAIL. We were a little worried about poorwills and flams because of the cold weather but with a bit of effort we finally hear a single FLAMMULATED OWL and many COMMON POORWILS (luckily they can’t resist a full-moon!).
Next it was the White Lake Road where NORTHERN SAW-WHET OWL and WESTERN SCREECH-OWL were ticked in quick succession, then near White Lake scored both WESTERN MEADOWLARK and BREWER’S SPARROWS singing at night! Also many COMMON POORWILLS calling in the area. We looped around Green Lake Road to Okanagan Falls then stopped along the highway at the north end of Vaseux Lake. Here we had some great luck! GRAY CATBIRD, YELLOW-HEADED BLACKBIRD, and MARSH WRENS were all singing under a 3am full-moon and then out of nowhere a female LONG-EARED OWL started barking only 20 meters away!!! Perhaps we were close to a nest?
Our last hour of darkness was spent searching for Barred and Boreal Owl up the 201 Road above OK Falls but alas—no dice. This has been one of the latest and coldest springs in recent memories, so we weren’t sure what to expect bird-wise at our first stop in the mountains. Rabbit Lake (where we usually pick up things like Common Loon, Barrow’s Goldeneye, and Spotted Sandpiper) was still frozen solid, and the snow-banks on either side of the road were still several feet high.
[Nearly a full-moon up above OK Falls; not quite spring yet!]
But one by one, their voices started to penetrate the cold darkness. The first AMERICAN ROBIN sang at 4:10am, closely followed by the haunting spiral of a HERMIT THRUSH. By 5am our day-count was up to 44 species including some key high-elevation birds like VARIED THRUSH, PINE GROSBEAK, BOREAL CHICKADEE, AMERICAN THREE-TOED WOODPECKER, GRAY JAY, and SPRUCE GROUSE. Usually we tally Spruce Grouse after hearing one or two males giving their distant wing-clap displays, but this morning they were absolutely everywhere! In 30 minutes we might have heard close to 20 birds clapping and clucking about in the snowy forest around Rabbit Lake.
[Finally some sun: Venner Larches]
Next, we made our way downhill to the zone known to birders as “Venner Larches.” Here we swept the possible woodpeckers, picking up both RED-NAPED and WILLIAMSON’S SAPSUCKERS, HAIRY WOODPECKER, DOWNY WOODPECKER, BLACK-BACKED WOODPECKER, and PILEATED WOODPECKER—feeling good! By 6:15am our list had grown to 64 species and we were encouraged by an unexpected SOLITARY SANDPIPER that I stumbled into on a flooded side-road.
We continued out descent from the mountains into the valley and welcomed the warm ways of the sun after a very cold morning (Pete, who braved the night wearing nothing but a light sweatshirt, jeans, and converse all-stars was particularly pleased). In the pine forest we picked up all 3 species of nuthatches, CALLIOPE HUMMINGBIRD, LAZULI BUNTING, CASSIN’S FINCH, and LARK SPARROW (to name but a few). Dad spotted a BALD EAGLE in a snag then as we drove by I noticed there was a darker bird sitting below it and after stopping we determined that it was an immature GOLDEN EAGLE—we’ll take it! By the time we got into Okanagan Falls (around 7:15am) we were close to 100 species, but the clock was ticking fast!
We were still missing pygmy-owl so we decided to take a quick detour to Doreen Olson’s place (3-Gates Farm). No luck with the owl but we did pick up a few new forest birds like RED CROSSBILL, WESTERN WOOD-PEWEE (in hindsight, our only pewee of the day!!!), and HAMMOND’S FLYCATCHER, plus our first RUFOUS HUMMINGBIRD of the day. From there we raced to Vaseux Lake where several stakeouts performed on cue including a newly-arrived VEERY and a lingering drake CANVASBACK. LEWIS’S WOODPECKER and WHITE-THROATED SWIFTS were tallied with relative ease but CANYON WREN was surprisingly difficult—finally got it though! As we drove south along the lake Pete spotted a pair of COMMON MERGANSERS, a species we had been a little concerned about as I hadn’t seen any while scouting the South Okanagan.
The next main stop was River Road where the usual male BLACK-CHINNED HUMMINGBIRD was spotted right away followed by a female a few minutes later. Our only BEWICK’S WREN of the day answered to our pishing but no chats could be heard. After adding WOOD DUCK, CINNAMON TEAL, and CLARK’S NUTCRACKER in the same area, we decided to risk some extra time to rip up McKinney Road for one species: GRAY FLYCATCHER. This paid off as we nabbed the flycatcher and also picked up BANK SWALLOW and it only cost us 20 minutes.
[Rd. 22 marshes]
On to Road 22 where we dipped on stake-out Grasshopper Sparrow and Peregrine Falcon but picked up a flurry of goodies in a 10-minute span including LONG-BILLED CURLEW, LEAST FLYCATCHER, EASTERN KINGBIRD, YELLOW-BREASTED CHAT (heard only), and a single male BOBOLINK (the first sighting of the year). Another quick detour, this time to Deadman Lake, netted us both COMMON and BARROW’S GOLDENEYE, as well as our first BUFFLEHEAD of the day.
We left the Okanagan via the Richter Pass around 1030am, with 144 species tallied. We were about 10 species behind last year’s pace but we new some of our misses like Green-winged and Blue-winged Teal could be easily picked up on the coast. As we reviewed the list of interior misses one of them suddenly showed itself… “BELTED KINGFISHER!!!” we all shouted as two landed on a wire overlooking the Similkameen River somewhere south of Cawston. Not sure if I’ve ever been so excited to see one of those beauties! Hooded Merganser was another bird we were missing that we had very little chance of picking up on the coast. Last year there had been several on Deadman Lake but not so this time around. The only place I had seen them in the last couple weeks was Ginty’s Pond in Cawston so it was decided that we make a quick stop there. We pulled up to Ginty’s only to find that there were workers fixing some wiring along the road—not a good sign for skittish waterfowl in a small slough. And sure enough, there were no mergansers on the pond but we did see our first AMERICAN COOT of the day (at long-last). Then… just as we were about to get back into the car, Dad exclaimed, “Wait! What are these???!” From around the corner a pair of slender ducks buzzed in and skied in for a landing right in front of us—“HOODED MERGANSERS!!!” I went to grab my camera but they took off and flew off into the distance never to be seen again. Wow.
[Ginty's Pond: Smiling post-merg!]
From here, I took over driving for the long-haul to the coast. Along the way we picked up a few HARLEQUIN DUCKS on the Similkameen and our first MOUNTAIN BLUEBIRD in Princeton (phewf x2!). We made a few quick stops in western Manning Park, nabbing PACIFIC WREN, CHESTNUT-BACKED CHICKADEE, and RED-BREASTED SAPSUCKER among a few other things. After a bit of effort, we finally managed to locate a singing BLACK-THROATED GRAY WARBLER east of Hope then we drove straight to White Rock.
[The gang jogs out of Sumallo Grove--note the how synchronized this team is!]
At 158 species we were still a ways away from our target of 200species. We knew things would have to go really well along the coast for this to work out—White Rock Pier gave us a great jump-start! After dodging through the hundreds of dog-walkers and beach-goers (did I mention it was a gorgeous day??) we finally made it out to the end of the pier and one by one, Nathan picked out the various birds he had scouted on the previous weekend. SURF and WHITE-WINGED SCOTERS were expected, as were the WESTERN GREBES, but seeing that 2 or 3 PARASITIC JAEGERS were still around chasing COMMON TERNS was a great bonus! A single RED-BREASTED MERGANSER and CALIFORNIA GULL were also welcome additions so we rolled out of White Rock with high spirits.
[A rare photo with me in it--White Rock Pier]
A quick stop at Sunnyside Woods produced PURPLE FINCH and PACIFIC-SLOPE FLYCATCHER, then onto Blackie Spit where the rising tide brought in a surprisingly diverse grouping of shorebirds. Mostly BLACK-BELLIED PLOVERS, DUNLIN, and WESTERN SANDPIPERS, but 12 RED KNOTS and 2 SANDERLING were also picked out as well as an unidentified dowitcher and nearby were 3 WHIMBREL! Most surprisingly there were no Purple Martins to be found in the area so we hoped that Iona would give us that one later. Some flooded fields on Colebrook Road notched LESSER YELLOWLEGS, BLUE-WINGED TEAL, and GREEN-WINGED TEAL, then it was onto Boundary Bay where at 6:25 pm the tides were just right. At the Mansion we added both SEMIPALMATED and LEAST SANDPIPER, as well as SEMIPALMATED PLOVER, SHORT-BILLED DOWITCHER, NORTHERN PINTAIL, and then—just like the hooded merg episode—Pete spotted a MERLIN just as we were leaving (species#184).
On 88th Street we got permission to check a barn for BARN OWL and “cha-ching” there were 2! In Pete’s neighborhood in Tsawwassen we were pleasantly surprised to hear the resident HUTTON’S VIREO respond to our calls, then at a nearby overlook we tallied a male ANNA’S HUMMINGBIRD and several more seabirds including PACIFIC LOON, PELAGIC CORMORANT, and most significantly, a pair of BLACK SCOTERS. I noticed a small gull floating on a log in the distance that we all speculated was most likely a mew gull but alas it was too far (this would prove to be our only whiff of the species today… no check-mark I’m afraid). The ferry jetty was worth-while too: We missed the hoped-for Horned Grebe and Mew Gull but successfully ticked all 3 species of cormorant, BLACK OYSTERCATCHER, some BRANT, and a pair of PIGEON GUILLEMOTS.
At 8 pm the light was fading fast so we raced out to Brunswick Point where we were all relieved to count 15 white figures in a distant field—SNOW GEESE. Then after some stressful scanning, we finally found a single MUTE SWAN at Canoe Pass.
Oh and by the way, that Mute Swan broke the previous record set only last year! But the day wasn’t over, so I can’t say we really celebrated that much. We could smell 200.
We made it to Iona Island just after 9pm and ran over to the outer ponds where we hoped to see the black tern that had been around recently. No dice there, but the white-bellied barn swallow (reported earlier by Rick Wright) was a nice surprise. But where were the martins??? We scanned everywhere and Dad ran down to the river… but NOTHING! Had all the martins in the Lower Mainland up and left? Who knows why but we missed them altogether today!
So what were we going to do? Still 2 away from 200—we hoped the stake-out Cackling Goose would still be somewhere in the inner ponds so we punched in the code and entered the sewage plant. Immediately after reaching the first pond, someone (I can’t remember who as it was dark and we were kind of “losing it”) shouted “GOLDEN-CROWNED SPARROW!” And there it was; a single bird that quickly ran off the trail and into a thick blackberry hedge. 199. As we approached the NW pond we could hear that several Canada Geese were present. We scanned through the darkness then Nathan calmly announced, “I’ve got it.” CACKLING GOOSE = 200!!! After a few high-5s we retreated toward the car to plan out next move. I suggested we take a different route back just in case we flush a Long-billed Dowitcher. 3 minutes later, we flushed 4 LONG-BILLED DOWITCHERS… No high-fives; just 4 knowing grins that come from a mix of extreme sleep-deprivation, post-record-setting-euphoria, and sheer serendipity.
[The Sun sets over the waves west of Iona Island, casting a pink hue over a Cackling Goose (#200)--don't try and look for the goose in this photo as it is not there ;)]
One of our big missed of the day was Swainson’s Thrush so we beat the bushes around Sea Island hoping for a nocturnal thrush to show itself—no joy. By this time we were all fading a bit and Nathan had to give a lecture in the morning so we dropped him at the skytrain station and headed off to Tsawwassen. The 3 of us that remained, stopped off at Westham Island where Pete knew of a nesting BARRED OWL. When we parked, the adult was already sitting on the wire above the road. And so we ended the day with the same species as last year.
Horned Grebe, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Peregrine Falcon, Greater Yellowlegs, Pectoral Sandpiper, Bonaparte’s Gull, Mew Gull, Northern Pygmy-Owl, Willow Flycatcher(late), Purple Martin, Swainson’s Thrush, Cedar Waxwing, MacGillivray’s Warbler(late)
Can’t wait ‘til the next one! 210 is within reach, perhaps with more thorough scouting.
FULL BIRD LIST (202 species):
Great Blue Heron
Great Horned Owl
Northern Saw-whet Owl
American Three-toed Woodpecker
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Black-throated Gray Warbler