Saturday, June 23, 2012

RAIN IN THE DESERT: The tale of the 2012 BCFO AGM Extension Field Trip to Southern Washington State

As lunch wrapped up in the early afternoon of June 3rd, the British Columbia Field Ornithologists’ AGM was coming to a close, it was time for 14 keeners (including myself) to keep the party rolling! After leading last year’s extension fieldtrip to Fort Nelson, I had the distinct pleasure of leading another one—this time to the interior of Washington State. Along the way we would be concentrating mainly on the birds of shrub-steppe and ponderosa pine habitats. Unfortunately poor weather made for some difficult and unpleasant birding at times, and thwarted our owling ambitions. Nevertheless, some fantastic birds and moments were had by all—here’s our report!

DAY 1: Princeton to Omak, USA
Unlike last year when we had 2 rented vans, this year we would be carpooling. So after organising the troops, our convoy left Princeton around 2pm, eastward bound for the Chopaka border-crossing near the lower end of the Canadian Similkameen Valley. Before passing through customs, we stopped in an extensive area of sage-brush where Brewer’s Sparrows and Sage Thrashers (rare) occur in most years. Unfortunately both of these specialists eluded us on this particular afternoon but we did get fantastic looks at a showy LARK SPARROW, and best of all was a singing CLAY-COLOURED SPARROW (a scarce and irregular breeder in the area). After marvelling at the buzzy song of the male, I noticed some movement in a nearby sage and caught a glimpse of a bird running away along the ground. Intrigued, I checked the bush and sure enough—there was the nest! (4 eggs)
We rolled through US customs relatively unscathed. On the other side we had a nice comparison of large flycatchers as single WESTERN and EASTERN KINGBIRDS lined up along a fence-line beside a SAY’S PHOEBE. Next we headed south past the settlement of Nighthawk (where at least one vehicle saw a nighthawk!), then turned onto the Chopaka Road which gives access to the rich riparian bottomlands of Champney Slough. Picture Road 22 near Osoyoos but on steroids, with groves of massive cottonwoods surrounded by willow-clad marshes, flooded hayfields, and a meandering creek that leads into the north end of Palmer Lake (of Ross’s Gull 2011 fame).  Along this road we were treated to scope views of several male BOBOLINKS, while our only HAIRY WOODPECKER of the trip flew past, and a GRAY CATBIRD sang from a willow thicket. Further up the road we stopped beneath a rocky cliff where the cascading song of a CANYON WREN greeted us and WHITE-THROATED SWIFTS chattered high overhead. BLACK-HEADED GROSBEAKS and LAZULI BUNTINGS added their songs to the mix, and a lone male WOOD DUCK swam by in a nearby oxbow.

We still had an hour-long drive ahead of us so we piled back into the vehicles and headed more-or-less straight to our hotel in Omak. We made one stop along the east side of Palmer Lake, where we enjoyed close views of six species of swallows lined up on a power-line, while a CHUKAR called somewhere up on the bluff. After a long weekend of late nights and early mornings in Princeton, everyone was exhausted so the evening of owling was called off in favour of a decent sleep. Mexican food at “Rancho Chico’s was pretty tasty (at least mine was!), and we all fell asleep with dreams of white-capped cone-peckers dancing in our heads.

DAY 2: Omak to Yakima
After a good night’s sleep we awoke rejuvenated and excited about the full day of birding that was to come. The weather however was decidedly “less than ideal.” Omak was shrouded in low clouds accompanied by a light but steady drizzle. Nothing we could do about that of course, so we headed up into the hills east of town for some pine forest birding.
Typical Okanagan birding scene... NOT!
When we arrived at the first patch of ponderosa pine (where I have seen a pair of White-headed Woodpeckers on two previous occasions), the drizzle appeared to be a bit heavier. On the plus side, there still seemed to be birds around so we threw on our jackets and those who had brought umbrellas deployed them (who would have thought we’d need those in central Washington?). CASSIN’S FINCHES sang from the tops of the trees, while a male SPOTTED TOWHEE trilled from a nearby shrub. Then suddenly we heard the liquidy chilup-chilup of a GRAY FLYCATCHER. This was a lifer for many in the group so we pranced around in the rain for a bit until we had it out in the open, tail wagging and all! While this was certainly a nice treat, the bird many people had on their minds, was that previously alluded-to White-headed Woodpecker! We hiked around in the woods for about 30min until everyone’s shoes were soaked through.

Next we walked up and down the main road as well as a gravel access road to a few houses behind a small pond. The two ponds in the area produced some nice birds including a lone PIED-BILLED GREBE, a pair of RUDDY DUCKS, several RED-WINGED and YELLOW-HEADED BLACKBIRDS, and an AMERICAN COOT. A foraging NASHVILLE WARBLER gave us a good look, then best of all, a female VARIED THRUSH came down to the water’s edge to drink!!! This is without a doubt the first time I have observed Varied Thrush in this habitat at this time of year. By now they should all be up in the boreal forests sitting on eggs, and this one was in an open ponderosa pine forest surrounded by miles and miles of sage brush plateau. Assuming she was a lost anomaly, I was even more astonished when a male started singing behind us! Not exactly a White-headed Woodpecker, but in some ways even more interesting to me… okay sorry!

The rain and lack of woodpeckers had started to affect the group’s morale so I decided to try for some sage-brush/grassland species further up the road (we could always try for the woody later). Only a few kms beyond this small piney area, the road climbs onto a large plateau (part of the “Okanagan Highlands”), where all one can see for miles in either direction is sage. BREWER’S and VESPER SPARROWS are abundant here and we were pleased to get long and close views of both. Out other target was supposed to be a little harder… I am talking of course about the “secretive” GRASSHOPPER SPARROW.

Grasshopper Sparrow feeding out in the open!
These little guys give their insect-like trills from grass-tussocks, and rarely perch high enough for a clear view (Note: If you have attended more than one Deep Purple concert in your life you may not even have a chance of hearing it). Today would be different though! Possibly because of the rain, there was a small scattering of sparrows feeding out in the open in a patch of short grass near an old out-house. They seemed to all be Vespers but then I caught sight of a smaller bird that looked grasshopper-ish! It dashed behind a grass-tuft though and someone suggested it may have been a funky-looking Vesper. “This will solve it,” I said, then played a short burst of its song on my phone. Instantly the bird flushed up and landed right at my feet, hopping around wildly as it tried to suss out where the intrusion had come from. I have seen roughly 60ish grasshopper sparrows in my life and I can confidently say this would make the top 3! Oos and Ahhs all around!

Happy with our sparrow trio, and keen to get back into the dry, heated vehicles, we headed back down the hill for one last kick at the proverbial “white-headed can.” The rain had eased up a bit but the undergrowth off the road was still soaked so I decided to lead the group along the road in the opposite direction than before. Only a few minutes later… a sharp chickachick! came from about 100m off the road. “I just heard it! That’s it!” But we couldn’t see anything, so the whole group ran back up the road to access a trail that led to where the sound was coming from. Our hearts thumping, no one wanted to miss the Holy of Holies, this ghost of the pines. “There! Oh no wait, that’s a sapsucker. Damn” Chickachick! There it is! There it is!” I shouted as it swooped by, right in front of us, before landing low down out of sight near a rocky slope.

Hearts beating harder now, some beaming from their brief but close view, other feeling anxious, some may have even missed it… “It’s coming out in the open!” someone shouted. And there it was… a gorgeous male WHITE-HEADED WOODPECKER—graciously making his way up the side of a pine tree, almost as if he was aware of his celebrity status. We were able to follow him around for a couple more minutes before he vanished, almost into thin air, never to be seen again (on this day anyway).
Yeah BABY!
Well it’s hard to top that. For some, this experience was the culmination of multiple decades of searching in vain. Lifers ticked, jinxes broken, magnificent bird well-seen, and for me—a huge relief! I can’t deny that I was feeling a bit of pressure after 3 or 4 different people approached me in Princeton saying that this bird was the main reason they signed up for the tour. Phew… and in the rain to boot.
With morale fully rebooted beyond expectations, we returned to the valley bottom then made our way south to the town of Brewster where we picked up some lunch, while some took advantage of the great Mexican market. We brought our lunches to the Dry Falls State Park visitor’s centre—possibly the most scenic picnic area in the state! Here, a massive gorge seemingly comes out of nowhere and provides birders with a great mix of wetland habitats far below to go along with rocky slopes, steep cliffs, and grasslands close at hand. WHITE-THROATED SWIFTS darted past at eye-level, and some of the group got point-blank views of a ROCK WREN. A few ducks were scoped out in the ponds down below, and I spotted an adult PEREGRINE FALCON preening on a nearby basalt outcrop.

A great place for a sandwich
After lunch our southward progress continued with a brief stop at the south end of Soap Lake where we were treated to close views of 2 AMERICAN AVOCETS and 2 BLACK-NECKED STILTS. Next we turned east and cruised on out to the small town of Wilson Creek, home to Washington State’s only Tricoloured Blackbird colony. Having never been here before, I didn’t really know what to expect—would they be easy to find, or would it be a needle in a haystack kind of situation?

Well we didn’t have to worry about finding nice birds. At our first stop, we were pleased to find 5 GREAT EGRETS foraging in a field alongside some cows. A pair of OLIVE-SIDED FLYCATCHERS chased each other through some large trees near the farmhouse, and a YELLOW-BREASTED CHAT whistled in the distance. Although we couldn’t see any Tricolored-like objects, YELLOW-HEADED, RED-WINGED, and BREWER’S BLACKBIRDS were all abundant at this spot, and we definitely “heard” at least one of the Tricoloureds somewhere out in the marsh.

We moved along to the east end of “Crab Creek Marsh” (as I believe it’s called), where more extensive open water provided us with a few new species such as CINNAMON and GREEN-WINGED TEAL, WESTERN GREBE, and more AMERICAN AVOCETS and BLACK-NECKED STILTS. An adult BLACK-CROWNED NIGHT-HERON was spotted sitting in an isolated willow, and even better was an AMERICAN BITTERN that flew past for great looks! At least a couple more TRICOLOURED BLACKBIRDS were heard singing from the reeds then someone in the group spotted three blackbirds perched up in the open. One was a female-type that looked like a Red-wing, another was definitely a male Red-wing, but the third had noticeably whiter median coverts, and the bill appeared thinner-looking. But soon after getting the scopes on this trio, they all dashed down into some weeds, so unfortunately not everyone was able to get good looks. As it would turn out, a few more “good candidates” would pop up now and then but none that we could say for sure was a Tricoloured. The sole exception was when one of the Margarets went for a walk down the road (there were 3 Margarets and 2 Daves on this trip and apparently two of the women on the tour had spouses by home named Dave/David… good thing they stayed home! Pheew…. Anyway, back to the story). So one of the Margarets walk down the road a few hundred meters from the group and she was treated to close views of a male Tricoloured! Unfortunately the bird flew off before she could get our attention.

The early afternoon had become the late afternoon however, and we still had a ways to go to get to Yakima, so we piled back in the cars and started heading back to Soap Lake. Then as we passed a rocky outcrop, I caught some movement in the corner of my eye—a large white bird… Snowy Owl??? Bins up---Holy S*&%%%!!! ALBINO RAVEN!!!  Yes indeed, a fully albino raven (pure white with red eye and pink bill) landed on a rocky turret beside an old raven nest—we decided that it must be a recently fledged juvenile. I believe this is the first fully-albino bird I’ve seen in the wild, and a raven makes it extra-special!

Happy to end the day on such a high note, we got back in the cars once more. But what about this incoming hawk? I’d been checking the Red-tails all day. Ooo it’s big. Really white. Rusty underparts! Mottled white in the inner webs of the outer primaries! FERRUGINOUS HAWK!!! I yelled as I ran back along the road to alert all the other cars. It was cruising fast but luckily everyone was able to get out in time to marvel at this monarch of the prairie. With our eyes still glowing, it almost seemed inevitable that a smart-looking dark-morph SWAINSON’S HAWK (our first of the trip) was waiting for us on a power-pole at the next junction.

The drive to Yakima took longer than I had anticipated while planning the itinerary (Washinton looks smaller on the map!), so we decided to stop in Ephrata for dinner (more Mexican) before pushing onto Yakima. Many had been looking forward to some owling tonight but unfortunately rain thwarted any hope of Flams or screeches. The best we could do were the couple of COMMON NIGHTHAWKS and a single COMMON POORWILL seen by some on the drive south.

It had been a rainy day, but it had been a very good day.

DAY 3: Yakima to Ephrata (via Toppenish, Fort Simcoe, and the Wenas Valley)
Another rainy morning; this was supposed to be a tour of shrub-steppe grasslands and deserts and the Yakima Valley received 15% of its annual rainfall in the two days we were in the area! But that’s birding—the birds are still out there somewhere, and it’s our job to find them.
Supposedly this part of the Sonoran Desert?
First off we headed to the Toppenish Wildlife Refuge—a great place for a mixture of grassland, sage, and wetlands birds. The wind and rain didn’t help of course, but there were still a few birds to be seen. A group of AMERICAN WHITE-PELICANS circled in the distance, while a WILSON’S SNIPE perched obligingly on a fence post along the roadside. We went for a short walk into the sage to try for Sage Sparrows, but there were zero sparrows to be had; not even a Vesper or Brewer’s! We did find what I believe is a Common Poorwill egg. Unfortunately however, it was cold, wet, and likely abandoned. It took over an hour but we finally found our first sparrow of the day when a Song Sparrow sang from the roadside—about time! The wind was picking up so we decided to move on to our next destination: The lovely Garry Oak grove that surrounds the historic Fort Simcoe.
Ash-throated Flycatcher

At Fort Simcoe, the sun came out for a pleasant while, but the wind was still very much with us. Luckily that did not matter as the birds performed supremely. This stand of planted oaks around the fort are well-known by Washington birders possibly the most reliable location for LEWIS’S WOODPECKER in the state, and so it was no surprise that the group got great looks at around ten of these unique beauties as we strolled around the fort grounds. HOUSE WRENS, WHITE-BREASTED NUTHATCHES, and BULLOCK’S ORIOLES were some of the other favourites in the area, along with a pair of ASH-THROATED FLYCATCHERS! The latter of course is a rarity in BC but this chatty flycatcher may one day breed in our fair land as it has been steadily expanding its range from the Oregon border north into Washington in recent years.

Oh and speaking of chats, we had heard several on the field trip to this point but no visuals. A few members of the group were starting to wonder when my “Don’t worry, we’ll see one soon” comments were going to come to fruition. Well it turns out Fort Simcoe would be the spot! We had now nearly completed a circle around the fort, and just before angling back to the cars, I heard the familiar whistle of a male YELLOW-BREASTED CHAT coming from a tangle of riparian shrubs. The group gathered in a grassy clearing, then after a few patient moments of trying to get onto a darting shape in the bushes, North American’s largest warbler decided it was time to put his vocal skills on full display as he perched up-top for the whole world to see; even shifting perches when he felt the group had seen a particular side of him for too long. We watched him doing his thing for close to ten minutes, when a male BLACK-HEADED GROSBEAK decided he didn’t want to be left out so he popped up nearby and started singing. Well with that it was time for lunch!

We ate lunch in Toppenish then headed north of Yakima to the Wenas Valley. Here a dirt road winds through a large area of protected grasslands, and is home to one of the last remaining colonies of Burrowing Owls in the state. As we pulled up to the area where the owls were supposed to be (I hadn’t been here since I was a child), a PRAIRIE FALCON was spotted soaring in front of us then it swooped down across the road and quickly out of site. While a few people managed to see it a second time later on, unfortunately a few of the cars ended up missing it (this was our only Prairie Falcon of the trip).

When we stepped out of the vehicles, the wind was noticeably strong, and after scanning around the network of burrows (made by ground-squirrels and badgers), I was getting worried that the owls might opt to nap deep inside the holes instead of their typical sentinel posture in front of the entrance. We tried a few places up and down the road, but no owls could be seen and it was too windy to try for sage sparrows and the like. As a last ditch effort, most of the group went for a hike in the surrounding area, and found what we suspect were three active Burrowing Owl burrows—the entrances were littered with white-wash and pellets, and one even had an owl feather! Unfortunately, that would be as close as we would get; a flyover pair of HORNED LARKS being our sole consolation.

The weather was starting to get quite frustrating, as it seemed like either rain, wind, or both, stayed with us the entire trip. The frustration came to a peak when we reached the small community of Vantage on our way north to Ephrata. Here we had hoped to finally kill the sage sparrow jinx, with a side of Black-throated Sparrows—a pair of this distinctive desert sparrow had been reliable all spring. But Vantage was even windier! Too windy to even attempt to hear or see sparrows, and apparently this isn’t too unusual for the area given the name of the local food-stand: “Blustery Burger”

We checked into the Travel Lodge in Ephrata, where we would be spending our final night as a group. After the positive experience the evening before, the group opted to once again eat at “Tequila’s” in Ephrata, where the appetizers could probably feed a small nation-state.

Day 4: Ephrata back to Princeton, BC (via Grand Coulee Dam)
This morning the keeners in the group assembled at 5am, hoping to head down to Vantage for one last attempt at the Black-throated and Sage Sparrows. Unfortunately however, the wind was still strong and rain was threatening. Instead we decided to reconvene around 6am and check out a local park in Ephrata that is a noted migrant trap. The appropriately named “Oasis Park” is not really an amazing example of natural splendor or grandeur, but it’s the only lush patch of green amongst miles and miles of dry sage scrub habitat, so migrant songbirds are drawn to it like a magnet. About a week before we arrived, a Black-and-White Warbler and an Eastern Phoebe were both found here—great birds for Washington. It was early June however, so we were not sure if any migrants would still be around. Well in fact there were; nothing rare, but a few new birds for the trip list. WILSON’S and MACGILLIVRAY’S WARBLERS sang from a thick patch of shrubs but refused to come out in the open, but the group did get great looks at a pair of TOWNSEND’S WARBLERS, as well as an ORANGE-CROWNED WARBLER, and both WARBLING and RED-EYED VIREOS. Nice to get some of these forest birds for the trip since the majority of the tour was in the lowland open-country where these birds are hard to come by.

After a hearty breakfast in Ephrata, half the group split off as there were a few cars continuing on with their holidays either in Washington, or those heading back home to the coast. The rest of us continued birding northward toward the border. We first stopped off again at Dry Falls, where the wind had died off considerably. A single CASPIAN TERN flew north along the canyon, while the familiar WHITE-THROATED SWIFTS continued to perform at close range. Since the wind had died down, I decided we had better make one more attempt at sage sparrow before continuing north. We walked up an abandoned stretch of highway that parallels a small canyon, with big sage clumps on either side. The habitat looked ideal for sage sparrows but all we could muster were a pair of LARK SPARROWS and a singing ROCK WREN. Just before turning around, Val George of Victoria spotted a bird perched on a sage in the distance—a LOGGERHEAD SHRIKE! Soon after it flew past us and landed on a nearby fence for a closer look; our only one of the trip and a lifer for some!

“Okay one more stop, and then we need to get a move one,” I said. The birding was starting to pick up but I had to keep in mind that we still had a long trip back to Princeton and I needed to get to Revelstoke that night!

Good thing we stopped though. Immediately after getting out of the car, I heard the distant warbles of a SAGE THRASHER! This is a bird I thought we would find easily, but the wind and rain had thwarted much of our sage-brush birding. We walked closer and closer to the sound then there it was! We watched with glee as it sang from atop a sage, before flying across the road and onto a chain-link fence. This was a lifer for most present so there were plenty of “yipees” and “All rights!” followed by even more excitement when the thrasher dropped from the fence and into some tall grass, flushing a pair of GREY PARTRIDGES!!! How often does that happen? Thanks for the help Mr. Thrasher!
Sage Thrasher-watchers
After the dampened moods of the morning and previous afternoon, this flurry of excitement certainly boosted the morale as we pressed north along the east side of Banks Lake. Here we made a few stops, hoping to find some breeding groups of Western Grebes where we might luck into a couple Clark’s mixed in. The first couple recommended spots were duds however, but then we checked in at a small cove near the NE end of the lake. There were only four grebes present but BINGO! One was a CLARK’S GREBE! As Adrian Leather of Quesnel remarked, we had all been expecting to have to scope through a distant flock of grebes to pick out the one with pale flanks and orange bill, but this one swam right past us giving us all splendid views of every field mark. Not to mention the gorgeous backdrop of sage-brush grasslands butting up against rocky cliffs, all reflected in the dark, glassy surface of Banks Lake. Not surprisingly, ROCK WRENS chimed in from the rocky outcrops nearby, and we were all ready for another celebratory lunch! For this we headed through Electric City and into the historic town of Grand Coulee, home of the Grand Coulee Dam.
Clark's Grebe (Photo: Val George)
After lunch the remaining cars headed back to Princeton at their own paces. A few  new birds were added to the trip list such as BLACK SWIFT and GOLDEN EAGLE, but mostly we just continued directly back to Princeton where the rest of us had left our cars. For those last few hours we soaked in the lovely scenery that is the Okanagan and Similkameen Valleys in springtime.
I’m sure everyone was a little worn out after the long 3.5 days of birding (added to the long weekend of the conference and the pre-conference fieldtrip for some), but I also suspect that we all returned to our separate lives with the glow of another great birding adventure. Looking back on the trip list, it’s hard to believe we fit that all into those few days!

Until next time,

Russell Cannings

 **And big thank you to Les Gyug and Art Martell who both put in a lot of work organizing the drivers and hotel reservations**

Full species list (highlights in CAPS)—Total of 149 species
Canada Goose
Wood Duck
American Wigeon
Blue-winged Teal
Cinnamon Teal
Northern Shoveler
Green-winged Teal
Ring-necked Duck
Greater Scaup
Lesser Scaup
Barrow's Goldeneye
Ruddy Duck
California Quail
Ring-necked Pheasant
Pied-billed Grebe
Red-necked Grebe
Western Grebe
Double-crested Cormorant
American White Pelican
American Bittern
Great Blue Heron
Black-crowned Night-Heron
Turkey Vulture
Bald Eagle
Golden Eagle
Northern Harrier
Cooper's Hawk
Swainson's Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
American Kestrel
Peregrine Falcon
American Coot
American Avocet
Spotted Sandpiper
Wilson's Snipe
Wilson's Phalarope
Ring-billed Gull
California Gull
Herring Gull
Caspian Tern
Rock Pigeon
Eurasian Collared-Dove
Mourning Dove
Common Nighthawk
Black Swift
Vaux's Swift
White-throated Swift
Rufous Hummingbird
Belted Kingfisher
Red-naped Sapsucker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Pileated Woodpecker
Olive-sided Flycatcher
Western Wood-Pewee
Willow Flycatcher
Gray Flycatcher
Say's Phoebe
Western Kingbird
Eastern Kingbird
Cassin's Vireo
Warbling Vireo
Red-eyed Vireo
Black-billed Magpie
Clark's Nutcracker
American Crow
Common Raven (Including an albino individual!)
Horned Lark
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Tree Swallow
Violet-green Swallow
Bank Swallow
Barn Swallow
Cliff Swallow
Black-capped Chickadee
Mountain Chickadee
Red-breasted Nuthatch
White-breasted Nuthatch
Pygmy Nuthatch
Rock Wren
Canyon Wren
House Wren
Marsh Wren
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Western Bluebird
Mountain Bluebird
Swainson’s Thrush
American Robin
Varied Thrush
Gray Catbird
European Starling
Cedar Waxwing
Orange-crowned Warbler
Nashville Warbler
MacGillivray's Warbler
Common Yellowthroat
Yellow Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Townsend's Warbler
Wilson's Warbler
Spotted Towhee
Chipping Sparrow
Brewer's Sparrow
Vesper Sparrow
Lark Sparrow
Savannah Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Western Tanager
Black-headed Grosbeak
Lazuli Bunting
Red-winged Blackbird
Western Meadowlark
Yellow-headed Blackbird
Brewer's Blackbird
Brown-headed Cowbird
Bullock's Oriole
Cassin's Finch
House Finch
Red Crossbill
Pine Siskin
American Goldfinch
Evening Grosbeak
House Sparrow

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Shuttlewirth Shufflers Report: May 20, 2012

This is a summary of my 2012 “Baillie Birdathon” which I undertook to raise money for the Vaseux Lake Bird Observatory. Each year on the May long weekend, the Meadowlark Festival hosts the “Okanagan Big Day Challenge”—where different groups of birders team up to try and see the most amount of species in a 24-hour period. These days, most teams are “NMT” (non-motorized transport) and so our group decided to walk all day, as we did last year. Michelle Hamilton and Grant Halm (of Kelowna) returned again, while newcomers Aaron Gaffney (Vancouver) and Kai Bosch (Egmont, Sunshine Coast) added some out-of-town enthusiasm to the mix. Our name, the “Shuttleworth Shufflers”—comes from our walking route, starting from Venner Meadows at KM 20 on a logging road east of Okanagan Falls, then winding down the Shuttleworth Canyon toward the valley bottom.

5:15am saw us at the chilly marshes of Venner Meadows. Soon after getting out of the car, the dawn chorus of boreal songbirds became evident—The downward spiral of a singing HERMIT THRUSH, the trill of an ORANGE-CROWNED WARBLER, the burble of LINCOLN’S SPARROW. As we walked along the fringe of the willow wetlands, more songsters were added including NORTHERN WATERTHRUSH, COMMON YELLOWTHROAT, MACGILLIVRAY’S WARBLER, SONG SPARROW, and DUSKY FLYCATCHER. Off in the forest somewhere a NORTHERN GOSHAWK called, and we got brief looks at the local breeding pair of NORTHERN HARRIERS.

The main disadvantage of doing a walking big day is of course that you can’t cover a lot of ground and you can’t do it quickly! Because of this, we couldn’t whip over to the next good patch of woods—instead we had to walk 5km through regenerating Lodgepole Pine where bird diversity is fairly low. BUT, the ADVANTAGE of walking is that you hear and see things that would be missed from a car or even a bicycle. Case in point: a PINE GROSBEAK that called once as it flew over—the only one recorded by any team today!

After last year’s steady drizzle, it was wonderful to be dry as well strolled into the larches near KM 15. Here a distant BARRED OWL responded to our hoots then a WILLIAMSON’S SAPUCKER drummed and called, followed by a RED-NAPED SAPUCKER. Our only HAMMOND’S FLYCATCHER of the day was picked up along the roadside, and further down the road we lucked into a pair of BLACK-BACKED WOODPECKERS. But our woodpecker good fortune didn’t end there! Around the next corner we heard more tapping, then some calls, and high up on a snag we spotted a pair of AMERICAN THREE-TOED WOODPECKERS!
Mid-morning snack-break amongst the Venner Larches
It was a good thing we had picked up a few high-country goodies, since we wouldn’t be walking back up of course, and we had another ~5km walk to get into some new habitat. Once we got down into a lower section of the Shuttleworth Road, we started picking up new species more associated with Ponderosa Pine and open country such as SPOTTED TOWHEE, HOUSE WREN, RED CROSSBILL, and CASSIN’S FINCH. Out first NASHVILLE WARBLER sputtered away from a maple-fringed gully, then the distant screeches of WHITE-THROATED SWIFTS alerted us to a feeding flock high overhead. Several times we were treated to close views of RUFFED GROUSE strutting across the road, and soon our first WESTERN TANAGER churupped from up in a pine.

At KM 5.5ish on the Shuttleworth (201) Rd, we turned off onto the old Irrigation Creek Road which leads down to Vaseux Lake. This decommissioned road has changed a lot since the fire of 2003, but there is still plenty of good habitat to keep us walking birders happy! At the upper end we were quite pleased to hear and see several GRAY FLYCATCHERS (only the second time since the fire this once regular species has been found at this location), and soon we had all 3 species of nuthatch in the bag. ROCK WRENS ching-chinged from up on the ridge, then lower down we entered a narrow box canyon where we were all delighted to watch a CANYON WREN deliver food to a nest cavity! This is the same general area where we found a nest on last year’s walk—he sang too!

A little further along, we bumped into a pair of calling NORTHERN PYGMY-OWLS—phew! Thought we had missed out chance further up.  LAZULI BUNTINGS were also tallied near here, along with our one and only WESTERN WOOD-PEWEE. As we left the canyon, we got our first distant look at Vaseux Lake. From up here on the hill it’s a little too far to scope, so we kept on trucking. By this point we had essentially swept all possible forest species (except Steller’s Jay), so there was no point in stopping too much before we reached the bottom—“Come on guys, just another 3 or 4 kms!” This is the time of day where the knees and feet start to complain, but no one was complainin—we had work to do!

Possibly the greatest group photo ever taken
A lone LEWIS’S WOODPECKER on a burned snag gave us the woodpecker sweep, then SAY’S PHOEBE and MOUNTAIN BLUEBIRD both performed on cue near the ranch-house. As we approached the first decent look-out over the lake, we tallied our first WESTERN KINGBIRD and BULLOCK'S ORIOLE, as well as LARK SPARROW, and a few other grassland birds we had been missing.
From up on the hill we scoped the lake and picked up a nice mix of new waterbirds including REDHEAD, AMERICAN WIGEON (only 1!), RING-NECKED DUCK, OSPREY, and best of all—a BLACK TERN! (Thanks in part to a tip from some passing birders). The tern was fluttering around near the north end of the lake with a swarm of hundreds of swallows. Once we got down closer to the lake we were able to tick off all 6 species of swallow—CLIFF, BARN, NORTHERN ROUGH-WINGED, BANK, TREE, and VIOLET-GREEN. It was warm but quite windy on this particular afternoon, so we scrapped our idea of scrambling around the rocks in hopes of chukar, so instead we headed to the Vaseux boardwalk. The wind made bird-finding very difficult, but luckily a few birds were still calling late in the day so things like MARSH WREN, EASTERN KINGBIRD, and YELLOW WARBLER were jotted down with great sighs of relief.

For our last stop, we spent several hours exploring the riparian thickets and marshes around the Vaseux Lake Bird Observatory (a series of trails that are accessed off Hwy 97 just north of the boardwalk parkinglot). Here things were relatively quiet, but luckily we eventually heard both SORA and VIRGINIA RAIL call from the reeds (we missed both last year!). CINNAMON TEAL, GREAT BLUE HERON, VEERY, and YELLOW-HEADED BLACKBIRD also made their way onto the list—one by one we were climbing higher!

And then the highlight of the day… we were walking along (remember it’s a walking big day), and out of the corner of my eye I caught some fuzzy grey stuff poking out of an old crow’s-nest. A quick look through the bins revealed a couple sets of eyes looking back—LONG-EARED OWL chicks! For several minutes we gawked in awe at our great find then we spotted the male roosting nearby!

Since it was getting close to dinner time, we had walked around 25km, and we still had to drive back up to Venner Meadows to retrieve the other vehicle, we decided to end the day on a high note. Our final species tally was 122—Not bad for a morning walk! 2 more than last year and we didn’t walk all the way to Okanagan Falls!

Big thank you to everyone who made pledges to our team in support of the Vaseux Lake Bird Observatory! If you haven’t made a pledge yet there is still time—click HERE to donate online.