Tuesday, June 28, 2011

June BCFO Conference and Extension Trip (Peace River Region and Fort Nelson Lowlands)

The annual general meeting of the BC Field Ornithologists was held in Fort St John this year (June 10-12). Below are a couple photo-highlights (of typical RussC quality) followed by my full report on the extension trip to Fort Nelson...

[Canada Warbler---Johnson Rd (Taylor, BC]

[One of the fieldtrip groups, birding along the Kiskatinaw River Valley north of Dawson Creek. I think they're looking at an Olive-sided Flycatcher in this one?]

[Good "Quiz Bird" material. This Philadelphia Vireo was one of 3 or 4 that delighted our group along the 201 Rd near Swan Lake--I missed this species entirely on my "big year" in 2010... bloody hell!]

[Male Mourning Warbler in typical skulk-mode--also near Swan Lake]

I had the honour of leading a fieldtrip up to Fort Nelson and back with 12 other birders. Here's the story---

Day 1: Evening birding around Taylor and Watson Slough
The conference wrapped up with a final lunch-mixer this afternoon, signalling the beginning of the “BCFO Extension Trip Version: 2011.” Procuring vans and accommodation in Fort St. John ended up being a bit of a headache but by 3:30pm, the designated drivers (Apparently I can’t rent a minivan because I’m under 25…)and I had rounded up 2 Dodge Grand Caravans—a bit of a tight squeeze for 13 people but we made it work!

The tour officially got started at 7pm as we left the Quality Inn and headed for the small town of Taylor (site of the CBC reality show: “Village on a Diet”) which overlooks the narrow Peace River Valley. Both weekend fieldtrips had spent some time birding this road already so we spent most of our time watching the hummer feeders at one house where Ruby-throated Hummingbirds have been known to occur. The landowners Dave and Mary are very welcoming to birders and had set up a fire-pit and put out chairs upon our arrival—luxury birding!

We sat and chatted, marvelling at the impressive garden and of course looking at the birds: PURPLE FINCHES (**********) dashed to and from the seed feeders, while HOUSE WREN, SWAINSON’S THRUSH, ROSE-BREASTED GROSBEAK, and CLAY-COLOURED SPARROWS sang from the surrounding bushes. Dave showed us an EASTERN PHOEBE nest inside a nearby barn, and several COMMON NIGHTHAWKS called overhead as dusk set it. At the hummer feeder, there wasn’t too much action with only 1 or 2 CALLIOPE HUMMINGBIRDS in attendance. Then all of a sudden a larger bird buzzed—female RUBY-THROATED HUMMINGBIRD! Unfortunately it only stayed for an instant then disappeared behind the house before everyone could get satisfactory looks.
[Pair of Purple Finches visit a feeder near Taylor]

After waiting a while longer we thanked Dave and Mary for their hospitality, then headed back up the highway to Fort St. John—marsh bird time! Since 2009, Watson Slough (located along Hwy 29 along Bear Flats) has become known as a reliable site for Yellow Rail. It also happens to be a reliable site for millions of mosquitoes but birds like this require a blood sacrifice! Upon arrival we bumped into George Clulow and Kevin Bell who had just heard two up at the NE end of the marsh. We were in the central unit where the sedge is most extensive (Yellow Rails are short and dumpy compared to their relatives and therefore prefer damp sedge to water-filled cattail marshes), and we didn’t have to wait long! Within minutes of walking down into the grass we could hear 3 YELLOW RAILS ticking at once! So that means there are probably at least 5 in the area—and this is supposed to be a mythical bird in BC?!
[The gang patiently awaits the appearance of a Yellow Rail--Watson Slough]

Soon after the rails tuned up, I picked out a singing NELSON’S (Sharp-tailed) SPARROW singing nearby. Unfortunately it was too dark to find him but everyone present was pleased to hear this strange “hushy” song. By 11am it was simply too buggy to stay-put any longer so we called it a day, adding a nesting AMERICAN KESTREL, and a singing SWAMP SPARROW to our “Extension Trip List” as we left the marsh. This wetland (Watson Slough) by the way—would all be under 6 meters of water if “Site C” goes ahead.

Day 2: Fort St John to Fort Nelson via Pink Mountain

After breakfast we checked out of our hotel in Fort St John and headed to a nearby community known as Baldonnel. Like many other small “towns” in the Peace, Baldonnel consists of a community hall and maybe 4 or 5 houses—essentially a suburb of Fort St John just past the airport. More importantly, we had just received a hot tip that a Connecticut Warbler could be found along one of the side-roads in the area. As luck would have it, the male was singing loudly as we pulled up and after a bit of coaxing, everyone managed some fantastic looks at both male and female CONNECTICUT WARBLERS as they darted between black spruces. This was a life-bird for many present and a big treat for everyone as this species is notoriously difficult to see whether it be on the breeding/wintering grounds or on migration. Also it was interesting to find this pair in a black spruce bog as the preferred COWA habitat is usually old-growth aspen stands with little to no understory. Here’s the video link-


[Rare glimpse of a Connecticut Warbler as it darts through a thick spruce stand]

From Baldonnel we headed north up the Alaska Highway for a few hours until we reached the settlement of Pink Mountain. After loading up on homemade sandwiches and cookies at the hotel, the gang embarked on what would be the greatest challenge of the trip—trying to take 2 fully loaded minivans up to the top of Pink Mountain. As you can see we had a few large puddles to deal with but I was most worried about bottoming out in some of the rough patches of the road, or getting stuck in some of the snow-drifts still clinging to the west side of the mountain.

Slowly but surely we nosed our way up through the forest, picking up our only DUSKY FLYCATCHER of the trip, before reaching the alpine. Up top we had looks at a lovely TOWNSEND’S SOLITAIRE from the van windows; then it was time to hike! After polishing off the remaining morsels of lunch, the group formed a wide line to sweep for ptarmigan. Pink Mountain, a unique outlier of the Northern Rockies, is home to a small population of Rock Ptarmigan—the main reason for our visit. AMERICAN PIPITS and HORNED LARKS popped up for brief flurries of song along the high ridge-lines while down in the subalpine willow and fir scrub, GOLDEN-CROWNED SPARROWS chased each other around while a male NORTHERN HARRIER patrolled the meadows for rodents. Kevin Neill spotted a moose swimming across a lake way down in the valley, while up on the mountain itself HOARY MARMOTS inspected us with mild curiosity.

Not too long after we formed the ptarmigan-line someone yelled out, “There’s one!” I got it in the bins and immediately realised it wasn’t a Rock but in fact a male WILLOW PTARMIGAN! An unexpected but very welcome bonus! All 3 ptarmigan species have been recorded on this mountain but Rocks are by far the most regular residents. After a few minutes of “oos” and “aahhs” from the group, the ptarmigan obviously decided enough was enough and launched into a frenzied display flight than disappeared behind another hillside.

After 4 hours up on the mountain we returned to the highway where we chanced upon the previously unknown “Pink Mountain Sewage Ponds” (as we have dubbed them) behind the gas station. The two postage stamp-sized ponds produced our only GREATER YELLOWLEGS of the trip as well as several new broods of MALLARDS. From here it was a two-and-a-half hour drive north to Fort Nelson, passing through seas of black spruce along the way. We tucked into dinner at a local sports-bar just in time to see the Canucks get obliterated in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals. At least we had the birds to celebrate!
[Mud-stained Sandhill Crane beside the highway somewhere south of Fort Nelson]

Day 3: Fort Nelson area
5am saw as at the Fort Nelson Demo Forest for some pre-breakfast birding. The forest was disappointingly quiet but gradually we starting building a decent list including OVENBIRD, MAGNOLIA WARBLER, CANADA WARBLER, BLUE JAY (scarce and very local this far north), ALDER FLYCATCHER, and WHITE-WINGED CROSSBILL. Unfortunately, the hoped for (Eastern) Winter Wren and Cape May Warbler—both had been here last year—did not show for us.

After breakfast we headed west out of town, stopping briefly to admire a flock of 42 SANDHILL CRANES feeding in some ploughed fields. We turned up the Liard Highway (Hwy 77 to the NWT) and stopped in at the Beaver Lake Rec Site—another good site for Cape May Warbler and Winter Wren. No luck with the warbler but we could immediately hear the fluty song of a distant WINTER WREN. Unfortunately it had to be counted as “heard only, along with a distant calling BOREAL CHICKADEE. On the lake itself (more of a large pond) we noted 2 male RING-NECKED DUCKS and a lone BARROW’S GOLDENEYE. Several groups of WHITE-WINGED CROSSBILLS chattered overhead, and a single COMMON NIGHTHAWK called in the distance. Satisfied that we had covered the site well, we moved on up the highway, crossing the mighty Fort Nelson River then turning onto a west-leading forestry road. The side-road I had intended to concentrate on was gated so—time for a walk! The forest was surprisingly quiet here to but soon we were able to get good looks at MAGNOLIA WARBLERS, 1 CANADA WARBLER, a singing OVENBIRD, several AMERICAN REDSTARTS, roving bands of WHITE-WINGED CROSSBILLS, a pair of YELLOW-BELLIED SAPSUCKERS, and a couple RED-EYED VIREOS (just to name a few). The main target along this road was Bay-breasted Warbler but there was no sign of any (just like last year!). But, as often happens in these targeting situations, one was singing by the cars when we got back! I got out the tape and tried to coax it in but at first nothing happened. As the bird continued to sing in behind a stand of spruces I began to wonder if this was just a redstart mimicking a bay-breast, so I switched to a redstart recording. Within seconds of playing the tape a bird came buzzing in and Kevin shouted, “BAY-BREASTED WARBLER!!!” Odd that it responded only to a redstart but we weren’t complaining! I had told everyone that he would probably keep to the mid-level branches but then all of a sudden he dropped right down onto the ground in front of us and started running up and down a log right at my feet! I scrambled to take some photographs but only managed to get a video of him singing in a spruce after he crossed the road. Here’s the video link (enjoy!)----


Satisfied with our find we returned to the Fort Nelson area where we stopped in at Parker Lake. Several YELLOW-BELLIED FLYCATCHERS gave us brief glimpses as they chased eachother through the spruce/tamarack woods lining the lake, while MARSH WRENS (near the north end of their range) and COMMON YELLOWTHROATS chattered from the cattails. Out on the lake itself we scoped a lone SURF SCOTER, among other more common species including a pair of TRUMPETER SWANS.
[The gang at Parker Lake]

In the hot afternoon we paid a visit to the Fort Nelson Sewage Lagoons. Very little on the ponds but we did tally our one and only NORTHERN PINTAIL of the trip. After dinner we visited the FN Demo Forest once again and somehow managed to get lost on one of the many side-trails that cut through the park. Lots of bugs and 13 pairs of wet shoes later, we made it back to the parking lot, stopping to gawk at a male CANADA WARBLER singing near the trail.

Day 4: Fort Nelson back to Fort St John
Since we were still missing Palm Warbler, and some still had not locked onto a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher yet, we returned to Parker Lake this morning. It had rained for most of the previous night so we decided to walk in along the muddy road to avoid the possibility of getting a van stuck on the final day of the tour. A singing BLACK-AND-WHITE WARBLER teased us with its rusty-wheel whistles but did not allow for a clear view, then right on cue, a male PALM WARBLER popped up! The light wasn’t great for photography (as you can see) but through the scope everyone had great views of this muskeg-loving warbler. Our luck continued once we got to the lake when a YELLOW-BELLIED FLYCATCHER came into view and sat patiently for everyone to get a good look. To cap it off, we had nice looks at two different pairs of SWAMP SPARROWS moving through some low alders.
[Palm Warbler]

[Yellow-bellied Flycatcher]

To break up the trip south we stopped in at Andy Bailey Regional Park (recently downgraded from Provincial Park status for whatever reason…). The forest and wetlands habitat here is fabulous but for the most part, birdsong was pretty meagre. Most conspicuous were the OVENBIRDS, but a male ROSE-BREASTED GROSBEAK is always a crowd-pleaser! This is also where we had our only BELTED KINGFISHER of the Extension Trip.

We got back to FSJ in the early afternoon and returned the vans and said our goodbyes. All in all it was a great birding tour for bird but particularly for weather. The Peace and Fort Nelson regions are notorious for prolonged thundershowers and high winds in June and it seems that we escaped this for the most part! As you can see from the Extension Trip list (below), the variety of habitats visited allowed for an attractive and well-rounded list! Add this to a very successful weekend at the conference in Fort St John and I think we all had a fantastic time.

EXTENSION TRIP LIST (116 species):
Canada Goose
Trumpeter Swan
American Wigeon
Blue-winged Teal
Northern Shoveler
Northern Pintail
Green-winged Teal
Ring-necked Duck
Lesser Scaup
Surf Scoter
Common Goldeneye
Barrow’s Goldeneye
Ruddy Duck
Ruffed Grouse
Willow Ptarmigan
Common Loon
Bald Eagle
Northern Harrier
Sharp-shinned Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
American Kestrel
Yellow Rail
American Coot
Sandhill Crane
Spotted Sandpiper
Greater Yellowlegs
Wilson’s Snipe
Bonaparte’s Gull
Ring-billed Gull
Common Nighthawk
Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Calliope Hummingbird
Belted Kingfisher
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Northern Flicker
Pileated Woodpecker
Western Wood-Pewee
Yellow-bellied Flycatcher
Alder Flycatcher
Least Flycatcher
Dusky Flycatcher
Eastern Phoebe
Warbling Vireo
Red-eyed Vireo
Gray Jay
Blue Jay
Black-billed Magpie
American Crow
Common Raven
Horned Lark
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Tree Swallow
Bank Swallow
Barn Swallow
Cliff Swallow
Black-capped Chickadee
Boreal Chickadee
Red-breasted Nuthatch
House Wren
Winter Wren
Marsh Wren
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Townsend’s Solitaire
Swainson’s Thrush
Hermit Thrush
American Robin
European Starling
American Pipit
Cedar Waxwing
Tennessee Warbler
Orange-crowned Warbler
Yellow Warbler
Magnolia Warbler
Bay-breasted Warbler
Yellow-rumped (Myrtle) Warbler
Palm Warbler
Black-and-White Warbler
American Redstart
Northern Waterthrush
Connecticut Warbler
Common Yellowthroat
Wilson’s Warbler
Canada Warbler
Chipping Sparrow
Clay-coloured Sparrow
Vesper Sparrow
Savannah Sparrow
Nelson’s Sparrow
Fox Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Lincoln’s Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Golden-crowned Sparrow
Dark-eyed (Slate-coloured) Junco
Western Tanager
Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Red-winged Blackbird
Brewer’s Blackbird
Common Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird
Purple Finch
White-winged Crossbill
Pine Siskin
House Sparrow

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