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.

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