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4 Posts from March 2010

Counting owls in the dark

At last we had two calm nights in a row, so I've done my two owl surveys for the year.  I organize the British Columbia-Yukon Owl Survey, so it would have been bad form if I didn't get my routes done and all the other volunteers did.  Together, we cover almost 100 routes every spring, each of us driving forest roads in the night, stopping at preset points, listening for 2 minutes, and moving on.  My routes go through the White Lake basin southwest of Penticton and along the KVR trail north of Naramata, BC.  

 

Northern Saw-whet Owl female looking out of nest hole in cottonwood, Naramata 2007

 

 

Why count owls?  Well, their populations are a good indicator of the health of forest ecosystems, but they aren't found regularly on other broadscale surveys such as the Breeding Bird Survey and Christmas Bird Count.  The BC-Yukon owl survey has been going for 11 years now, and we've built up quite a database on the distribution and abundance of owls, though it's a bit early to detect any population trends.  We've certainly noticed that it's been hard to find Western Screech-Owls on the coast lately, but that's a topic for another blog.

Two nights ago I drove the White Lake route under a bright half-moon.  The first part of the survey was quiet, but I finally heard a Northern Saw-whet Owl tooting away at Mahoney Lake, and then another squawking along the shores of Skaha Lake south of Kaleden.  I've had Great Horned, Long-eared and Western Screech owls along this route in the past, so it wasn't a very diverse result; perhaps it would have been better had I done it earlier in March.  Last night, my son Russell and I drove the KVR trail north of Naramata under similar conditions with more heartening results.  In only 10 stops we heard 3 Great Horned and 3 Northern Saw-whet Owls, I think the best result ever for that route.

An unexpected bonus was a brief sighting of a weasel dashing across the track, still in its white winter coat.  The nicest surprise came after the survey, though.  We stopped along North Naramata Road where Naramata Conservation had put up some nest-boxes 2 years ago.  We scratched on the first tree with a box and a male flicker poked his head out--we'd obviously disturbed his sleep.  As we approached the second box, Russ saw an owl fly away from it.  We couldn't see where the owl had gone so Russ climbed to the box and carefully opened the side and found 7 eggs inside.  Almost surely a Northern Saw-whet Owl, then, since screech-owls wouldn't have that large a clutch.  We'll have to go back and check during daylight to make sure!

(PS:  Russ did go back to check the box--it was a saw-whet--you can read about it and see a photo on his blog).

Small owls readily take to nest boxes, especially in areas that lack natural snags with big woodpecker holes.  Here are front and side illustrations of the boxes I use (make sure you throw a couple of handfuls of sawdust or wood chips in the box when you put them up--owls never add any nest material of their own!).  Click on the plans to see a larger image.

 

 

The Last Spotted Owls

  

Twenty-five years ago...
It was a cool June evening in 1985 when I first saw a Spotted Owl.  I was worried about the weather at first as we drove north and east through steady rain  from Vancouver into the heart of the Coast Mountains.  But the rain turned to showers at Whistler and eventually stopped altogether as the road turned south and tucked behind the first range of high peaks.  My friends and I set up camp on the gravelly shores of Lillooet Lake and had supper while we waited for dusk. The clouds thinned and broke as the evening wore on, and the south wind dropped to a light breeze.  Perfect for owling.  
Lillooet Lake is long and narrow, its valley carved millennia ago by a river of ice.  The dark green valley walls rise almost vertically to the mountaintops above, hidden on this evening by lingering mist.  We had to imagine the glittering ice fields that still clung to those peaks, remnants of the glaciers that had once filled the valley. The caroling of robins and the spiraling songs of Swainson’s thrushes echoed off the cliffs above. By 9:30PM the mountains were black against the orange-grey clouds, and it was time to go.  
We drove down the gravel logging road, watching the kilometre posts go by until we saw the one we were looking for. I got out of the car, put my tape recorder on the hood, and pressed play.  The stillness of the evening was broken by a loud, high, barking Hoo hoo-hoo Hoooo!
I had heard this recording many times over the previous year as we searched for Spotted Owls throughout southwestern British Columbia.  Alarmed by reports  in the late 1970s and early 1980s that Spotted Owls were declining in Washington and Oregon, biologists had organized surveys for the species in British Columbia.  We had very little idea of the status of the species in British Columbia, for like all owls, the Spotted Owl had never been properly surveyed.  So other birders and I combed likely sites in the southwestern corner of the province, listening in the dark for some response to those recorded hoots.  
Over the past few months, I had seen some wonderful patches of old forest—towering cedars, lichen-draped hemlocks and massive Douglas-firs—but I had yet to hear an answer to my tape recorder.  Then a friend reported a response during a survey along the shores of Lillooet Lake, and we had come to verify it.  As the tape played, I looked at the darkening forest above me.  It wasn’t quite the forest type I had thought Spotted Owls would choose as a home.  A steep talus slope, its boulders covered in silver-green moss, rose up from the roadside. Ancient Douglas-firs clung to the rocks, forming ribbon-like groves at intervals along the mountainside. Suddenly a high yelp answered from the trees, followed by the hoo-hoohoooo that completed the typical call.  We had all heard it and grinned at each other in silent satisfaction.  There was at least one Spotted Owl in Canada.
..............................................
The Spotted Owl was listed as Endangered in Canada in 1986, prompting years of intensive surveys and recovery planning, mostly concerned with calculating how much harvest of old-growth forests could continue to take place while still allowing for a slight possibility of Spotted Owl survival.  The Canadian population was estimated to have been about 500 pairs before European settlement, but had declined to less than 100 pairs by 1991.  However, all this action around the Spotted Owl has resulted in an astonishing amount of inaction in conserving both the owl and the old forest ecosystem it has come to symbolize. By 2009 there were only 17 birds left, and a recent status report predicted that the species will have vanished from Canada by 2012.
.................................................
Today...
Today I drove from Penticton to Vancouver, taking the scenic route all the way.   Usually I go over Allison Pass in the north Cascades to get to the coast, but my son Russell had to get to Lillooet for work, so we drove together through the Nicola Valley, down Highway 8 along the Nicola River, then through the spectacular Thompson Canyon from Spences Bridge to Lytton.  There we turned north along the ponderosa pine and sagebrush benches of the northern Fraser Canyon to the little town of Lillooet.  Russell was meeting colleagues there to helicopter in to some remote spots in the Coast Range to monitor the last wild Spotted Owls in Canada.
After lunch, I said goodbye to Russell and his friends, wishing I could fly in with them for one last chance to see the owls.  I turned west and drove up Cayoosh Creek to Duffey Lake.  It was only then that I realized there was some symmetry to today's drive.  The Duffey Lake road winds down through lichen-draped hemlocks to the green waters of Lillooet Lake, where I had seen the owl so long ago.  As I drive down the last switchbacks to the lake, the car stereo began belting out "Summer Wages", Ian Tyson's great anthem of regret, loss and wasted opportunity set in the rainforests of British Columbia.  The lyrics seem hauntingly appropriate to my despairing train of thought:
"...In all the beer parlors down along Main Street 
The dreams of the seasons get spilled down on the floor 
All the big stands of timber just waiting for falling 
...Years are gambled and lost like summer wages."
Twenty-five years ago...

It was a cool June evening in 1985 when I first saw a Spotted Owl.  I was worried about the weather at first as we drove north and east through steady rain  from Vancouver into the heart of the Coast Mountains.  But the rain turned to showers at Whistler and eventually stopped altogether as the road turned south and tucked behind the first range of high peaks.  My friends and I set up camp on the gravelly shores of Lillooet Lake and had supper while we waited for dusk. The clouds thinned and broke as the evening wore on, and the south wind dropped to a light breeze.  Perfect for owling.  

Lillooet Lake is long and narrow, its valley carved millennia ago by a river of ice.  The dark green valley walls rise almost vertically to the mountaintops above, hidden on this evening by lingering mist.  We had to imagine the glittering ice fields that still clung to those peaks, remnants of the glaciers that had once filled the valley. The caroling of robins and the spiraling songs of Swainson’s thrushes echoed off the cliffs above. By 9:30PM the mountains were black against the orange-grey clouds, and it was time to go.  

We drove down the gravel logging road, watching the kilometre posts go by until we saw the one we were looking for. I got out of the car, put my tape recorder on the hood, and pressed play.  The stillness of the evening was broken by a loud, high, barking Hoo hoo-hoo Hoooo!

I had heard this recording many times over the previous year as we searched for Spotted Owls throughout southwestern British Columbia.  Alarmed by reports  in the late 1970s and early 1980s that Spotted Owls were declining in Washington and Oregon, biologists had organized surveys for the species in British Columbia.  We had very little idea of the status of the species in British Columbia, for like all owls, the Spotted Owl had never been properly surveyed.  So other birders and I combed likely sites in the southwestern corner of the province, listening in the dark for some response to those recorded hoots.  

Over the past few months, I had seen some wonderful patches of old forest—towering cedars, lichen-draped hemlocks and massive Douglas-firs—but I had yet to hear an answer to my tape recorder.  Then a friend reported a response during a survey along the shores of Lillooet Lake, and we had come to verify it.  As the tape played, I looked at the darkening forest above me.  It wasn’t quite the forest type I had thought Spotted Owls would choose as a home.  A steep talus slope, its boulders covered in silver-green moss, rose up from the roadside. Ancient Douglas-firs clung to the rocks, forming ribbon-like groves at intervals along the mountainside. Suddenly a high yelp answered from the trees, followed by the hoo-hoo hoooo that completed the typical call.  We had all heard it and grinned at each other in silent satisfaction.  There was at least one Spotted Owl in Canada.

..............................................

The Spotted Owl was listed as Endangered in Canada in 1986, prompting years of intensive surveys and recovery planning, mostly concerned with calculating how much harvest of old-growth forests could continue to take place while still allowing for a slight possibility of Spotted Owl survival.  The Canadian population was estimated to have been about 500 pairs before European settlement, and had declined to less than 100 pairs by 1991.  However, all this action around the Spotted Owl has resulted in an astonishing amount of inaction in conserving both the owl and the old forest ecosystem it has come to symbolize. By 2009 there were only 17 birds left, and a recent status report predicted that the species will have vanished from Canada by 2012.

.................................................

Today...

Today I drove from Penticton to Vancouver, taking the scenic route all the way.  Usually I go over Allison Pass in the north Cascades to get to the coast, but my son Russell had to get to Lillooet for work, so we drove together through the Nicola Valley, down Highway 8 along the Nicola River, then through the spectacular Thompson Canyon from Spences Bridge to Lytton.  There we turned north along the ponderosa pine and sagebrush benches of the northern Fraser Canyon to the little town of Lillooet.  Russell was meeting colleagues there to helicopter in to a remote spot in the Coast Range to monitor one of the last three pairs of Spotted Owls in Canada.
I said goodbye to Russell and his friends at the helicopter base, wishing I could fly in with them for one last chance to see the owls.  I turned west and drove up Cayoosh Creek to Duffey Lake, following the shortest route from Lillooet to Vancouver.  My thoughts turned to the fate of the Spotted Owl in Canada, and the fact that the British Columbia forest industry that has all but killed the owl is now on life support as well.  The tragedy of short-term planning is often too painful to contemplate.  
It was only then that I realized there was some symmetry to today's drive.  The Duffey Lake road eventually winds down through lichen-draped hemlocks to the green waters of Lillooet Lake, where I had seen the owl so long ago.  As I drove down the last switchbacks to the lake, the car stereo began belting out "Summer Wages", Ian Tyson's great anthem of regret, loss and wasted opportunity set in the rainforests of British Columbia.  The lyrics seem hauntingly appropriate to my despairing train of thought:

"...In all the beer parlors down along Main Street 
The dreams of the seasons get spilled down on the floor 
All the big stands of timber just waiting for falling 
And the hookers standing watchfully, waiting by the door ...

...Years are gambled and lost like summer wages."

Postscript:  Russell did find a pair of Spotted Owls during his field work; you can read his account (and see a short video) on his blog at http://bcbigyear.blogspot.com/.

Here's a recent article from the Vancouver Sun about Spotted Owl management in BC, 

 

A non-motorized year

This morning I bicycled to Trout Creek Point on Okanagan Lake about 14 kilometres north of my home. Trout Creek is well-known in local birding circles for being the only place in Canada where you can regularly find Lewis's Woodpeckers in winter.  When I was young you could find Lewis's Woodpeckers in a number of places in the south Okanagan Valley in winter, and we tallied over 20 on some Christmas Bird Counts.  But the wintering population has dwindled to a single pair in this idyllic rural suburb of Summerland, BC.  They are still widespread in summer, so I could have waited until the migrants returned from California in May, but I was anxious to add a species to my non-motorized year list for 2010.

Below:  Trout Creek Point on Okanagan Lake, with Okanagan Mountain in the background

A year ago I hadn't heard of the term non-motorized list, or NMT as it was cryptically called in the local birding email lists.  I had to ask naively what NMT was, and as soon as I found out that a number of birders in western Canada were actively tracking birds seen while walking or on a bicycle, I knew I'd have to give it a try this year.  The concept wasn't brand new; Richard Gregson of Baie d'Urfé, Québec has been popularizing the "BiGBY" (Big Green Big Year) for some time through his website.  There is also a Facebook group that provides a forum for BiBGY/NMT enthusiasts.  Perhaps the biggest NMT birding effort yet was my friend Malklom Boothroyd's massive trip in 2007 and 2008 to raise money for conservation and to raise awareness of the need to cut back on our consumption of fossil fuels.  You can read more about his quest on his blog, but the hard facts are that he cycled 21,144 km from June 2007 to June 2008 (starting in Whitehorse, Yukon!), saw 548 bird species and raised more than $25,000 for bird conservation.  I had done bicycling big days on 5 different occasions, but they weren't true NMT trips, since I'd driven to a starting point then was picked up at the end.  While I cut my big day driving distance in half, it still violated the central rule of NMT listing--you can't use any motorized transport and you must start and finish your walk or your cycle at your home.  And while many birders do it for the environmental benefits, I must admit that the big attraction for me was the possibility that it might actually get me physically fit for the long term.

So when I looked out the window this morning and saw a perfect spring day for a bike ride, I quickly saddled up and was soon cycling Highway 97 along the shores of a glass-smooth Okanagan Lake.  The water was dotted with Horned and Red-necked Grebes, some of them well advanced in molting into their colourful breeding plumage.  I spotted a pair of Canada Geese nesting atop a silt bluff above the highway, and a few Clark's Nutcrackers called loudly as they sailed out of the pine forests, presumably coming down to the lakeshore for a morning drink.  When I got to Trout Creek I turned off the highway to explore the Lewis's Woodpecker territory, a remnant stand of ancient cottonwoods the birds used for nesting, roosting, and storing their winter supply of nuts.  I could hear tapping and drumming all around me--unfortunately it seemed that every flicker in the world was in full courtship and nest excavation mode, so I knew I'd have to find my Lewis's by sight rather than tracking down woodpecker-like noises.  I worked my way down to the mouth of the creek, where a big flock of Greater Scaup rested on the lake.  Bonus! There were 4 Western Grebes with them, a new year bird for me.  I cycled slowly back through the cottonwoods, quietly despairing that I might miss the birds again as I had last month.  But at the last second I saw one flying low overhead, its steady flight so different that the typical woodpecker bounce.  And then none of our other local woodpeckers have a bright pink belly, either.

Relieved, I spent the next while cycling north along the point, scanning the water for some other lucky find like a Yellow-billed Loon, but the most interesting bird I could find was a single mallard-sized Cackling Goose in a flock of its big cousins, the Canadas.  Satisfied, I hit the highway again and turned south to home.  My NMT year list is now 89 species (gunning for 200!) and, more importantly, I've biked, walked and run 501 kilometres in 2010.  Here is the list: NMT 2010.txt

 

 

 

A rainy day in the Okanagan

It's a rainy day in the Okanagan and probably as good a day as any to start my blog.  We haven't had anything in the way of snow here since the first week of January, but this is our first good dousing of spring rain.  It hasn't seemed to have dulled the spirits of the Great Horned Owls.  The male, roosting in the spruce tree nearest our house, is still hooting every hour or so throughout the day, eliciting a short answer from his mate, who is ensconced near the top of a thick blue spruce a few metres away, presumably sitting on eggs.  The California Quail, too, still go about their business, scurrying from cover to cover, flying into full on panic when one of the local Cooper's Hawks (that's one below!) cruises through the yard.  The Bohemian Waxwings seem to have left for the season.  Up until two weeks ago there were still hundreds in the neighbourhood, gleaning the last of the mountain-ash berries from local gardens, the trilling flocks nervously circling again and again before landing, then gone again in a whoosh of wings.  

The first migrants have returned from the south.  I heard the first meadowlark song on the last day of February, then within a few days there were three or more singing at dawn from the grasslands across the fence as they have for millennia.  On March 7 I saw a Turkey Vulture tilting on a warm south wind, back from Central America a couple of weeks early this year.  Then a Say's Phoebe singing at the gravel pit, then a half-dozen Killdeer quietly feeding on the school field.  I expect the Violet-green Swallows will be next.

I've been waiting for a calm, dry evening to do my owl surveys, but Pacific storms have brought high winds to the Okanagan Valley recently so I haven't ventured out.  The Northern Saw-whet Owls should be whistling away out there, and maybe I'll be lucky enough to hear the bouncing ball toots of a Western Screech-Owl.

For those of you who are CBC listeners, I'm scheduled to be on BC Almanac on Friday, March 19.  One thing I'll be mentioning on air is my new book--Flights of Imagination-- an anthology of writing about birds.  More on that later!

Immature Cooper's Hawk looking for quail