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3 Posts from June 2010

Another Breeding Bird Survey in the bag

Last Tuesday I got up at 3:20 a.m.  Now, I’m a morning person, but that is a little bit earlier than usual.  I had to be in the western hills of Summerland by 4:20 to start my Breeding Bird Survey.  I stuck my head outside to check the weather—warm, calm and dark, the stars still twinkling.  The forecast had mentioned wind, and that’s not a good thing for a bird survey; I didn’t want to get up to the starting point and have to abandon the whole exercise because I couldn’t hear anything.  But this looked good, so I put the coffee on and got dressed.

I wasn’t alone in my early rising.  Each year, all across Canada and the United States, over 4000 birders get up really early one morning in June and do their Breeding Bird Survey.  Some have been doing it since the late 1960s when the survey began; I did my first route in 1973.  The survey design is deceptively simple.  Volunteers—yes, we’re not getting paid for this—drive a 25-mile route, stopping every half-mile to look and listen for 3 minutes.  They cover the same route once a year, every year.  The database this creates is the best tool bird conservation biologists have to monitor the populations of songbirds in North America.

I got to the start point at 4:15.  Five minutes to get the forms ready, put the thermometer on the roof of the car (note to self—don’t drive off with it there!), and assess the sky and wind.  The sky was still clear, but the wind had kicked up significantly.  The small pines were swaying and I could barely hear the Vesper Sparrows singing.  If it kept up like this I’d have to bail out after 10 stops or so and try again another day.  The wind was still high at the second stop, but at the third stop (the entrance to the Summerland landfill—where was that Rock Wren that is usually here?) it dropped to negligible levels.  A Golden Eagle sailed out of the dawn and landed on a snag at the edge of the landfill--a real surprise.  At the strip of cottonwoods and birch along Trout Creek I bagged Veery, Red-eyed Vireo and a Western Flycatcher, but no Lark Sparrow.

 

Calliope Hummingbird

The route turns south onto the Shingle Creek road and winds through open ponderosa pine forests and sweeping grasslands.  Gray Flycatchers are scattered through the pines and Calliope Hummingbirds provide a bit of spice when they buzz by.  Clark’s Nutcrackers call raucously from the hills, and at one lucky spot, a Northern Pygmy-Owl tooted from the forest.  The dominant species on this route used to be the Western Meadowlark, but today the grasslands are relatively silent and I only hear 22, about half the normal number for this route.  Not surprisingly, Breeding Bird Survey data from across the country suggest this species is only half as abundant as it was in the early 1970s.

At stop 25 I break out the coffee to help me celebrate the halfway point; I’ve been counting birds for two and a quarter hours.  The route follows Shatford Creek now, the ponderosa woodlands changing to Douglas-fir forest, and Hammond’s Flycatchers take over from Gray and Dusky Flycatchers.  MacGillivray’s Warblers sang from willow-cloaked springs.  Then the road takes a sharp right and begins to climb the mountain in a serious way, headed for the Apex ski hill.  Species diversity plummets away from the valley bottom, but high elevation specialties make each stop interesting—Townsend’s Warblers wheezing from atop the spruces, Hermit Thrushes giving their ethereal songs from across the valley, an American Three-toed Woodpecker drumming on a snag.  The wind usually increases at this point, but today it held off and the weather was fine until the end. 

 

Steller's Jay

Finally, just before 9 a.m. I reached the ski hill village and turned around at stop 50.  I put out the thermometer again (I remembered!) and counted the last birds, a Steller’s Jay and a Hairy Woodpecker.  I’d counted 525 individuals of 74 species, about average for this route.  If you want to see a full listing of what I’ve seen over the years, click here, then choose Raw Data and route BC-208 (Summerland).  I arrived home at 10 a.m., tired but satisfied that I’d provided one small but essential chunk of information biologists can use in managing landscapes for birds and other creatures.

Square bashing—bird atlas style

 

Last Saturday I loaded up the binoculars and the GPS and drove east to the Kootenays to help local birders "bash a square".  The target was the romantically named 11MQ45, a 10 X 10-km square in the mountains west of Castlegar.  The British Columbia Breeding Bird Atlas is in its third year (of five) and atlassing efforts are getting more focussed.  I’d been invited by Gary Davidson, atlas coordinator for the West Kootenay region, to join him and a few other keen birders to thoroughly cover a priority square in a single day.  One of the joys of atlassing is that it gets you into places you’ve never explored before, so I checked my calendar and agreed to meet him on Saturday evening.  Sunday was the day.

The BC Breeding Bird Atlas project is similar to the many other natural history atlas projects that have taken place across North America and around the world.  The simple idea is to divide a geographical region—in this case, BC—into a grid of squares, then to sample the birds (or flowers, or butterflies, or whatever) in as many squares as possible to get a snapshot of each species’ distribution.  Most atlases use a 5-year window to get that snapshot.  You can then go back after a period of years, usually 10 or 20, and do the exercise all over again to see what changes have taken place.  The results are often surprising.  One of the best examples of this atlas technique is the Ontario Breeding Bird Atlas, which was done first in 1981-1985, then again in 2001-2005.  I use data from that atlas regularly when assessing the status of Canadian birds.  The challenge of doing an atlas in British Columbia had delayed the project for many years—there are over 10,000 squares to cover in a very rugged landscape—but a few years ago a partnership of birding groups, naturalist clubs, governments and private companies formed to take on the task.

I drove south through the Okanagan Valley to Osoyoos, then turned left just north of the border to follow Highway 3.  As I climbed over Anarchist Mountain, I was happy to see several soaring Swainson’s Hawks, a prairie species that has a very local distribution in British Columbia.  One of the things the atlas will accomplish is to really provide a clear picture of the present range of some of these uncommon species.  I stopped for coffee at the Rock Creek Trading Post (never miss that opportunity) then continued on through the beautiful Kettle Valley to Greenwood and Grand Forks.  When I went through Grand Forks I turned on the GPS—I had some time to do a bit of solo atlassing in a square I’ve been working on just west of Christina Lake. 

 

White-throated Swift

11MQ03 has some spectacular scenery and habitats.  I pulled off the highway on to the Gilpin Forest Service Road, then stopped to have a listen.  A dozen or so White-throated Swifts chattered overhead, some courting in dizzying cartwheels.  A Rock Wren trilled, then the cascading song of the Canyon Wren.  To think that I once thought of all these birds as Okanagan specialties!  I stopped at a cattleguard to check a line of nest boxes on the fence.  The first had a clutch of House Wren eggs in it (NE: confirmed!), the fourth contained 4 newly-hatched Tree Swallows (NY: confirmed!) and the eighth had 4 Violet-green Swallow eggs (NE!).  The road wound up the steep hillside into the ponderosa pine and Douglas-fir forests.  I added singing Western Tanagers, Black-headed Grosbeaks, Cassin’s Finches, and lots of Spotted Towhees to the list.  Higher up there were Swainson’s and Hermit Thrushes.  Not bad for a late afternoon stop.

I continued east around Christina Lake and up over Paulson Pass.  I noticed the Shields Creek forest road going off to the north and figured it would be fun to explore that for a half-hour or so (11MQ35 here I come!).  The songbirds were pretty quiet this late in the afternoon, but at one spot I had a Red-naped Sapsucker and a pair of Mountain Chickadees.  I then saw two more chickadees and wondered if I was looking at a family (FY: fledged young).  But no, it was a pair of Boreal Chickadees!  Nice addition.  Then an American Three-toed Woodpecker drummed in the distance.  A nice start for this square.

In Castlegar I went to Ed and Hazel Beynon’s house to meet with Gary and the others for a planning session.  We formed four teams to cover the square; I was teamed up with Linda Szymkoviak, a birder from Rossland who I’d corresponded with but never met.  We were to cover the little village of Genelle on the Columbia River, then go up Sullivan Creek to cover some high elevation forest.  After the meeting I drove down to Genelle to make sure I could find the roads, but discovered that the Buckley Road up Sullivan Creek was gated and locked.  While atlassing gets you into new country all the time, it often throws curveballs at you simply because you don’t know the roads!  Time for plan B.

I stayed at Ed and Hazel’s with a few others—we were up at 4:15 a.m. for a quick breakfast of oatmeal, then parted to cover the square as best we could.  I met Linda at Genelle and we immediately began finding point count locations.  These counts are used to develop relative abundance data and maps for the atlas; we try to get at least 15 done in each square, and have to cover the habitats of the square in representative fashion.  Genelle turned out to be a gem of diversity, with three species of hummingbirds, three species of vireos and a host of other valley bottoms species.  We quickly confirmed the breeding of a number of species—an American Robin and Brewer’s Blackbird carrying food (CF), Violet-green Swallows building a nest (NB), a European Starling feeding young in a hole in an old cherry tree (NY); Tree Swallows entering a cavity (AE), a Yellow Warbler with 2 eggs in her nest (NE).

 

Brown-eyed Susans, aka blanketflower, Gaillardia aristata, Gilpin, BC

At 0730 we headed up the highway to the 9-mile forest road, our plan B to get to subalpine forest.  It was a brand-new road, so we drove slowly through the cedar-hemlock forests, gradually climbing higher and higher.  We did three more point counts here to balance out the valley bottom ones, adding species such as Hermit and Varied Thrushes, Townsend’s and Wilson’s Warblers.  A Ruffed Grouse drummed from a thicket.  After reaching the end of the road, we went back down, then up an old branch of the College Creek road.  Going even slower up this goat track we did find a Northern Pygmy-Owl calling and a pair of Chestnut-backed Chickadees carrying food.  At noon we retreated to Genelle to see if we could add anything else, then called it a day at 2 p.m.  We all entered our data separately, so by the following day we could see the success of our efforts—24 point counts done and a total of 84 species on the square list.  Now only 9999 squares left to go!

A new national park for the Okanagan?

The weather gods were on our side yesterday.  After a week of overcast skies, heavy rain and high winds, the sun shone and the June air actually felt warm.  Fortuitous indeed, for we were off on a helicopter tour of the south Okanagan and lower Similkameen valleys with a Global TV crew and local media reporters, promoting plans for a new national park in the area.  The tour had been organized by the local committee for the park proposal, as well as the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society and the Wilderness Committee.

 

View south over Kaleden and Skaha Lake to Vaseux Lake in the left distance.

My day began at the Eclipse Helicopters hangar in Penticton, where we climbed on board and were soon high above the hills south of town, looking down on the blue waters of Skaha Lake and the old volcanic terrain of the White Lake basin, dotted with small alkaline lakes.  One of these lakes, Mahoney, has the highest measured concentrations of hydrogen sulphide for any lake in the world, and has a remarkable layer of pink, porridgy sulphur bacteria that separates its oxygen-rich upper waters from the black, anaerobic layer below.  We cruised over the tremendous gneiss cliffs of Vaseux Lake and McIntyre Bluff, home to Peregrine Falcons, Golden Eagles, Canyon Wrens and Chukar, then swung southwest to follow the long, high ridge of Mount Kobau.  To the west were the high peaks of the north Cascades—Snowy Mountain, Chopaka and beyond the alpine ridges of the Cathedral Lakes. 

 

Mahoney Lake, Sleeping Waters and Green Lake

The Similkameen River wound through rich bottomlands below us, on its way to the US border only a few miles away.  There are ridiculous plans to flood this valley by raising the dam at Shankers Bend just west of Oroville, WA, but I am confident that an intelligent appraisal of the project will result in all river-altering options being shelved.  We paralleled the US border to the highlands west of Osoyoos, where Kilpoola Lake nestled in the hills.  Like all small lakes in this area, it has shrunk dramatically in size over the last 20 years as drier climatic conditions and increased water use have drawn down the local water table.  Below us (though not visible from our altitude!) was the only Canadian population of the beautiful Lyall’s Mariposa Lily.  We landed at Osoyoos so that another group could board the helicopter for the trip back to Penticton; we boarded their van for a full-day trip of the land we had just flown over.

 

Spotted Lake, a unique alkaline wetland in the grasslands west of Osoyoos

I have long dreamed of a national park in the Okanagan Valley.  My parents were deeply involved with conservation efforts here in the 1960s and 1970s, including the formation of the Okanagan Similkameen Parks Society which was instrumental in the creation of Okanagan Mountain and Cathedral provincial parks, the Vaseux-Bighorn National Wildlife Area and the Haynes Lease Ecological Reserve among other accomplishments.  But I have seen too many other opportunities squandered over the years by governments lacking foresight.  In 1980 Parks Canada contracted me to write a report outlining some options to complete the parks system—the Dry Interior of British Columbia was the last ecozone in the country without a national park.  The south Okanagan and lower Similkameen valleys were one of the obvious focal points of this study, since they are the most diverse part of the region and contain most of the species at risk in the BC Interior.  In fact, the south Okanagan has long been touted as one of the most endangered ecosystems in Canada, and analysis of species ranges from the federal Species at Risk Act show that it has by far the highest concentration of endangered species in the country.  So ironically, although the Dry Interior is the only region of Canada without a national park, if we were starting the parks system now it would be at the top of the priority list to get one.

Bitterroot blooming south of Kilpoola Lake

Absolutely nothing happened for over 20 years, then the idea was revived in 2002 by John and Mary Theberge, Senator Ross Fitzpatrick and others who took the idea to Prime Minister Chretien.  Within months, the federal and provincial governments signed an agreement to begin a feasibility study of the park proposal.  Local support for the park proposal has been high all along, with about 70% support.  A small number of local people—about 8% according to polls—are strongly opposed to the park, and have been very vocal in that cause.  The study process has been slowed and stalled recently by various issues, but there are indications recently that some of the issues that have bogged down the proposal may be close to resolution, and I’m more optimistic now that the right thing will be done.

 But to see this park become reality, we will need more than the weather gods on our side.  It is important that many people voice their support for the park, and do so quickly.  You can send a message directly to Jim Prentice, the Minister of Environment, or fill in the online message form on the Wilderness Committee’s website.  Thank you!

Vaseux Lake with McIntyre Bluff in the distance

 PS:  the Global TV piece on the park proposal will be aired on the 6 p.m. news on Monday, June 7, 2010.