Friday, 29 June 2012

Brit Birder In Okanagan, BC

Western meadowlark
Last Thursday (21st) Jenny and I took the 7pm ferry from Swarz Bay, Victoria and headed over to Tsawassen on the mainland. From there we drove east to Chilliwack where we spent the night at the rather lovely Vedder River Inn.

On Friday morning, once we’d filled our bellies with a hearty cooked breakfast we continued on our way: destination Penticton, in the Okanagan Valley. 
For the most part the drive was reasonably pleasant, but wasn’t too exciting bird-wise. We saw American kestrel, Vaux’s swift and other common BC birds en route along the Coquihalla Highway, the first ‘non-island’ species really being noted once we stopped for a drink and a leg-stretch at Merritt. 

Mountain bluebird
A pair of mountain bluebirds were feeding young in a nestbox just behind the Visitor Centre, I didn’t want to get too close but I still managed to get one reasonable shot of the male, with some heavy cropping.
Close by, a couple of male Calliope hummingbirds were in dispute and showed brilliantly once they settled down on their respective territory borders. Always great to see these little gems!

Vasseux cliffs
We continued along Highway 97 stopping for a short while by Vasseaux Lake. Here I got out and explored the gravel road that runs along the foot of the cliffs and had great views of several white-throated swifts overhead. I had a trundle around and came across a smart lark sparrow, the first I’ve seen in many years (I saw a few more in the next few days). A singing Western meadowlark provided the soundtrack, but I couldn’t find any of the rock dwelling wrens I was hoping might be present.

All along the highway from here to Peachland the roadside wires and fences hosted Eastern kingbirds and we eventually wound our way to Pentiction where we found our motel and got our bearings.

Eastern kingbird
The reason we were here was because Jenny was working at the annual Elvis Festival that takes place in the town, and I had decided to come along to help her out and hopefully get some interior birding in!
That evening we made the short trip to nearby Max Lake. This wetland area sits in a small ponderosa pine clad canyon and is renowned as a good site for common poorwill, among other things.

The place was positively jumping with birds. Bullock’s orioles, black-headed grosbeaks, willow flycatchers, grey catbirds, American goldfinches and a host of other species were plentiful. And I even saw a yellow-pine chipmunk. I liked this place so much that I actually visited three times over the next couple of days.
Unfortunately, my two evening visits didn’t reward me with any sightings of the small nightjar, despite the fact that I could hear them all over the place! The weather was uncharacteristically stormy and wet, and I suspect that the muddy, pool-filled road wasn’t quite as enticing location for their bug-hunting forays as would normally be the case… 
I did bag one lifer here, Cassin’s finch. These attractive birds were easily found in the pines and their songs could be heard all around. Other interesting species at Max Lake included common nighthawk, sora (the latter heard only) and a grouse that I flushed but rapidly disappeared before I could get anything on it.

By Sunday afternoon we were all Elvised out and were looking forward to driving down to Osoyoos with a few stops on the way.

Long-billed curlew
Both Ian Cruikshank and Mike Force had given me some great tips and locations to check out so Jenny and I grabbed some grub in Oliver and headed off to Road 22 in search of grassland birds.
This area is being managed to provide a remnant of a fast-declining habitat in the Okanagan, and is famously the breeding location of long-billed curlew. More importantly, as far as I was concerned, it is also a known site for the declining bobolink. Soon after we had pulled over in the small parking area I heard and saw a stunning male bobolink in the adjacent field. During our time here we saw 3 males and 2 females – another lifer in the bag! Now it doesn’t seem so annoying that I turned down that offer to twitch one at Spurn (UK) in 2001.

Western kingbird
In this area we also saw dazzling yellow-headed blackbirds, bank swallows, a pair of redhead, a western kingbird and even a lone curlew, which I was pleased to be able to point out to another birder who seemed quite keen to see one. 

While in this area we also checked out the nearby Haynes Lease Eco Reserve; a sizeable area of sagebrush sandwiched between vineyards and other agricultural lands.
By now the weather had really improved and the sun was belting down, making the place seem more like Arizona or California than British Columbia.

Jenny in Haynes Lease Eco Reserve
More Bullock’s orioles showed nicely and we found a few western bluebirds and western meadowlarks too.
The real highlight however came in the form of my third (and long overdue) tick of the trip -  Say’s phoebe. We saw at least 3 here, which was a real blessing as we didn’t come across any anywhere else over the long weekend.
The most frustrating sighting involved 3 falcons that were noisily flying around high over ‘The Throne’ cliffs.

Say's phoebe
The brief and distant views were highly suggestive of prairie falcon, but I wasn’t able to confidently clinch them 100%. The light was above them, and they appeared to have wholly dark underwings that contrasted heavily with whitish underparts and when they banked they appeared to have pale rumps/uppertail areas. I’m pretty positive they weren’t peregrines, and they definitely weren’t either of the smaller common falcons, but as I have never seen prairie falcon I’m certainly not ticking it on those stringy views!

We left the Road 22 area and headed on to Osoyoos where we stayed our last night in the Okanagan. I had plans to go and look for Williamsons' sapsuckers at a reliable site on Monday morning, but the rain returned in force overnight and scuppered those plans. So, we set off and drove back via the Crowsnest Highway, seeing little of note on the way - a gray jay and red-breasted sapsucker being the scant highlights.
We just made it to Tsawassen by the skin of our teeth, in time to catch the 5pm ferry.
So, with 3 new birds happily added to my world list, but several still eluding me I expect another trip to the beautiful OK valley must be made - only next time, I'll be hoping for some better weather.

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