On May 25th, Gabe David, Sam Brett, and I set out north... The much anticipated "Peace River Country." Definitely one of my favourite places in BC to bird, as you get a fantastic mixture of northern birds, western birds, and most importantly for the BCers: EASTERN birds.
We left Kelowna a little later than planned, then made a wrong turn in Kamloops--oops-- back towards Cache Creek, here we go! (at least Gabe spotted the trip's only BLACK-BACKED WOODPECKER flying across the highway) Back on 97 we drove straight through the Cariboo and past Prince George (resisted my temptation to check the Shelley Sludge Lagoons)... then finally into Pine Pass at sunset!
A singing dendroica had us going for a bit but eventually we decided it was a wierd TOWNSEND'S WARBLER... drat!!!-- a WESTern bird!
Just a bit further though, through the mountains, and down along the Pine River... "chibek! chibek!" LEAST FLYCATCHER.. okay that's a start, keep it coming...
ROSE-BREASTED GROSBEAK singing! Yeah yeah, ooo YELLOW-BELLIED SAPSUCKER, AMERICAN REDSTART... TENNESSEE WARBLER! The highlight along this stretch of highway though was definitely what Gabe initially described as a "white mammel crawling up the bank." We eliminated Polar Bear based on range and habitat (are cottonwood lowlands good for seals?), but soon we all got a better look at what he had glimpsed-- 2 WOLVES!!! 1 white and 1 darker beast... sweeeet. Now it was too dark to bird so we headed to Chetwynd for a forgettable dinner then set up our tents in behind the bushes at a rest-stop east of Chetwynd. Perhaps not the best place to get some sleep, given the idling semis, BUT a nearby wetland produced a couple singing LECONTE'S SPARROWS which provided a final excitement to the day.
We awoke early the next morning to the songs of more cool (year) birds: RED-EYED VIREOS, BLACK-THROATED GREEN WARBLER, BLACK-AND-WHITE WARBLER, more LECONTE'S SPARROWS (photo), at least 3 UPLAND SANDPIPERS (chasing each other around some nearby fields) and a couple fly-by BLACK TERNS.
Gabe also discovered a hidden-deep hole in the ground right beside our tents... to think we could have been lost forever!
Next we headed east to Dawson Creek, then north up to Fort St. John where we stopped into a few houses around Taylor hoping for good news-- aka ruby-throated hummingbirds. Apparently it's been a bad spring for them according to the hummer-watchers in the area but we stuck around for a bit anyways. More looks at YELLOW-BELLIED SAPSUCKERS, loads of singing CLAY-COLOURED SPARROWS, a BLUE JAY, a single EASTERN PHOEBE, and in the humminbird department-- several Rufies and Callies but no rubies. One interesting observation was of a male CAllIOPE HUMMINGBIRD displaying vigorously to a female RUFOUS. Will have to check back and see if any funny-looking offspring are around later!
The main reason for scheduling this trip in late May however was for shorebirds. I figured this would be my best shot at white-rumped sandpiper since they pass through annually during a small window from late May to early June. When I was up here last year at the same time I had those birds as well as many breeding-plumage stilt sandpipers, and the prairie race of short-billed dowitchers... this year however, a heavy snowfall followed by sunny weather had preceeded us by about a week, effectively clearing out all the shorebirds. The other problem was that every single cell in the north and south sewage works around Fort St. John were high with little edge for peeps. As usual however, it was great to see the EARED GREBES at close range along with a small group of RED-NECKED PHALAROPES (photo). With no further ideas on where to find shorebirds, we decided to check out the Fish Creek Community Forest where I had never been before. It was mid-afternoon with a bit of a breeze so things were fairly quiet, but we did manage some good looks at BLACK-THROATED GREEN WARBLERS, a couple BLUE-HEADED VIREOS, and heard a distant singing OVENBIRD.
Next it was back down to Johnson Road for some more forest birding-- highlights here were a gorgeous male CANADA WARBLER and a BARRED OWL who came in immediately to my call, and continued to whoop it up for the rest of our time there, much to the chagrin of nearby WESTERN TANAGERS, ROSE-BREASTED GROSBEAKS, and LEAST FLYCATCHERS.
For out last stop of the day we headed north to Charlie Lake, where we set up camp in Beatton Provincial Park. While walking to the bathroom I heard a singing BLACKPOLL WARBLER but couldn't track it down, probably a migrant as there didn't seem to be any good habitat for it nearby. After the tents were up we headed down to the lake where a real spectacle was taking place: thousands of FRANKLIN'S GULLS staging!!! It seemed like a scene from the coast with over 6000+ of these forming shearwater-like rafts out in the middle of the lake, accompanied by hundreds of WHITE-WINGED and SURF SCOTERS. The scoters breed nearby on several lakes, but the gulls apparently don't breed in BC at all... it seems as if they party it up on Charlie Lake for a bit, then some head back to Alberta to nest in the marshes!
That night a NORTHERN SAW-WHET called all through the dark and into the late morning-- our second of the trip as one had been calling near Chetwynd as well.
The next morning we slept in a little bit and didn't get to the Cape May Warbler spot until 5am. I'm not being sarcastic either... these guys like it bright and early! Maybe it was too early in the year though because we didn't hear one at all!
Once again the wind and sun picked up-- keeping a lot of birds quiet but we kept on birding of course. While trying to get to Boundary Lake using an old map we ended up on an abandoned road that lacked a bridge over the Beatton River so no dice there... oh yeah and we got a nail in the tire so that was a fun delay. Got the tire patched for free in FSJ-- thanks OK Tire! Then headed toward Boundary Lake on a paved road--- sigh*. Along the Cecil Lake Road a about 10km before Boundary Lake I saw some muskeg on one side of the road and thought we might stop in case of Palm Warbler. We got out of the car and within seconds Gabe got onto an odd call-note and there in the ditch beside the car was a PALM WARBLER! That'll save me some long drives around the gas line of Fort Nelson! There were no obvious roads to Boundary Lake itself so we decided to head south back to Dawson Creek on a road I had never taken before (crossing the Peace River right next to the Alberta Border). Certainly a very scenic route with a lot of birding potential but we didn't turn up too much in the afternoon sun.
We continued along all the way down to Swan Lake Provincial Park along Hwy 2 south of Dawson Creek. Here at sunset we picked up a singing SWAMP SPARROW (first photo is of me and Gabe looking at the sparrow, then the next is me with one boot and one flipflop... I guess I was excited to chase down my first swamper of the year and only got one boot on!
That night we tromped around in the sedge along the south shore of Swan Lake hoping for a nelson's sparrow or better yet- a yellow rail. No luck with those birds but we did pick up some local rarities-- 2 GREAT BLUE HERONS flying by and an AMERICAN BITTERN gave it's pumping display on 3 occassions.
On the morning of the 28th we headed up the southern stretch of 201 Rd nearby and got looks at a couple singing MOURNING WARBLERS in addition to the other usuals. At the Ducks Unlmt. site an ALDER FLYCATCHER sang from the willows-- huh? And back in DC we were surprised to see 200 FRANKLIN'S GULLS fly over Safeway... I guess they get around!
For the last half of the day we poked around the Brassey Creek Road between DC Tumbler Ridge. This is where the trip started getting crazy-- mainly thanks to a large male BLACK BEAR that trashed Sam's tent while we were (thankfully) on a hike.
(and NO we didn't have any food in there!)
This bear didn't really leave either. When we drove up to the campsite and yelled at him, he kinda loped up the hill then stood his ground and huffed for a bit. When we dragged the tents back onto the road to take them apart he walked back down onto the road just a little downhill from us and just stared for a bit. He hadn't been the only big bear on the road tody either so we decided to sleep in the car that night! Not the comfiest set-up in my 2-door tercel, but better than a half-naked encounter with a curious bear.
Woke up the next morning around 3:50am-- this time we weren't gonna let any keener Cape Mays evade us... but it was well below zero (felt like it anyways)and bird song was not plentiful. Once again we figured the CMs just hadn't returned yet. OLIVE-SIDED FLYCATCHER was a new year bird for me though (at long last!), and a tooting NORTHERN PYGMY-OWL and STELLER'S JAY were respectively north and east of their usual ranges. Our failure with Mr. C-May was vindicated however when we stopped the car for a listen near the bottom of the road (where it hits the highway)... from up on the hill in a stand of old aspens we heard an explosive-"tip-tip-topateepo!" CONNECTICUT WARBLER!!! We bailed out of the vehicle and loped up the wet hill and into the woods. Gabe played a recording and right away the bird flew in and gave us startling looks at this seldom seen Oporornis!!! Oh and I forgot to mention, right after we saw that bear, my camera ceased to function. Perhaps in fear, or perhaps due to all the times it got "bumped," all I could get it to say was "lense error," the darn thing wouldn't even turn on. So ya, no COWA shots! [This lack of a functioning camera would prove very frustrating later on in the day.]
Back up north and over to Chetwynd for breakfast... fantastic omlettes but can't remember where we got them... too tired. We fueled up with gasoline and food, then headed NE up the Jackfish Lake Road towards the fabled area known as "Del Rio" (ooo, exotic name!). Last year I spent a few days surveying the area for rare marsh species but didn't manage to find one of Mark Phinney's favourite spots for Yellow Rail etc. This time I had a map though-- printed off the internet--- what could go wrong? The map showed a road paralleling some railroad tracks, leading straight to the wetland. Took us quite a while to find the railroad tracks, even with the GPS, but when we got down there, the "road" my Dad and I had scouted out in the virtual world, was in reality more of a grassy trail through some trees and small marshes. Not to be outdone, and despite driving a tiny V4 car fully loaded with campers and supplied, we attempted to drive this path/track/quick-sand marsh/mountain range for a couple kilometers. Not sure how we made it that far, but eventually decided there was no way this was the right way to get to such a popular birding location. We backtracked, and finally discovered using the road-atlas, that a 2-lane graded gas road went straight to where we wanted to be... slightly frustrating...
Anyways, we drove right to the area and sure enough there were some great patches of sedge etc etc. We played around in the aspen woods waiting for dusk, and when the sun started setting the magic happened! We started out with point-blank looks at more LECONTE'S SPARROWS, then I heard a NELSON'S SPARROW sing nearby and eventually it popped out for about 10 minutes, singing away- lit up by the blood-red sun! (remember no camera). With the daylight waning, I gave up on any hopes for philly vireo or baltimore oriole (I guess like the CMs, they just hadn't come back yet)... it was time to turn our attention to one final target: Yellow Rail.
Easier said than done, I had spent 2 whole weeks last year surveying for them and only had 2 on the very last day in a place where one wouldn't expect. But the habitat here looked good, so Sam and I (Gabe didn't have boots) headed out into the marsh brandishing "rail stones" and with ears cocked to the max. We flushed lots of LECONTE'S SPARROWS and heard a few more SWAMP SPARROW but nothing responded to our clicking noises. Then on the far side, we stopped to talk about where to go next when a "tick tick tik-tik-tik" broke the silence with two insect-like phrases. We both looked at eachother to make sure we weren't imagining it. YELLOW RAIL! But what do we do? Poor Gabe who has never seen one and declared the species his main target for the trip was stuck back on the road out of view. We decided to rush back to the road, quishing and squashing the whole way, trying to avoid tumbling into the cold water. We exclaimed our triumph to Gabe, then Sam, in an act of ultimate kindness and birding solidarity, gave Gabe her boots. The two of us struck out back towards where we had heard the bird. In my mind I couldn't help but worry if I had dreamed up the bird... was it actually there? It only called once or twice... last time they called all night... please call again, please call again! We arrived at the spot and Gabe played the tape, no response. After a few failed play-backs I tried out my rock-clicking again-- this time it responded almost immediately! "Okay now let's see it" Gabe said. I cracked a nervous smile and we proceeded to walk in the direction of the calling bird. It had stopped a few minutes ago and despite a few passes of the area we turned up nothing. "Try your rocks again, it seems to prefer that to the real thing," Gabe suggested. I pulled out my lucky stones (chosen carefully from the roadside), and starting ticking. After about 20 seconds I heard something small crash into the sedge just a few meters from where I was standing. "Psssst---" I gestured in the direction of the noise... "I think it just landed there" I whispered. Gabe started slowly walking towards me, then suddenly the bird flushed from his feet and landed about 5 meters away... "__________!" (insert excited profanity here) The bird landed in view, then dashed over a tuft of grass and dissappeared into a small depression. We approached slowly and gawked in awe as the adult breeding-plumaged YELLOW RAIL let us get within a meter and a half!!! I guess its defense mechanism is to hunker down and hope that it's golden-streaked plumage would blend in to the old sedge grass. Well it would have if we hadn't watched it go there first. We were able to watch it continuously first in daylight then eventually in darkness. Was it on a nest? Why was it staying put? We watched it preen, we watched it stretch its wings, and cock its head when it heard our boots crunch... WOW. Now the question was, would it flush if one of us went back to get Sam? Our experiment proved that it was quite happy there, and Gabe-- who was in rail Heaven/Cloud Rail whatever... offered to return Sam's kindness my sacrificing his bare feet to the cold marsh water. I ran back with the boots and left him with the 2 lights since one was dying. Sam must have been a little worried to see me running back, huffing and puffing, no flashlight, with Gabe's boots but no Gabe. Was she expecting me to yell, "Gabe's gone! I saved your boots though, we need to get out of here!!!"? No, I explained the situation and once again we trekked out there and luckily the rail was still there! Sam got fantastic lifer views in the flashlight and even saw it catch an insect of some sort! Gabe was getting a little shivery and the tevas we gave him didn't really help. We stuck it out though, hoping to observe some rare unknown yellow rail behavior... perhaps it would lead us to a pot of gold or grant us wishes? OK, I think I was getting REALLY tired at that point... remember how we woke up at 3 something in the -10 or whatever? What a day though, a truly magical birding day from the connecticut to the nelson's sparrow, to the rail... and we were still running into bears everywhere. At some point (I lost track of time) the rail just decided it was time to go and took off, showing his distinctive white secondaries. THANKS BUDDY!
We walked back to the car and Gabe changed into some dry clothes. "Should we sleep in the car again or take turns driving through the night to Blue River to check out this Indigo Bunting?" The answer was obvious, I woke up at a gas station somewhere outside of Prince George, and took over the wheel. Evidentally we should have purchased some gas at that gas station because I realised somewhere out in between PG and McBride that we wouldn't be able to drive 130 KMs with the dial hovering around EMPTY. Not much we could do other than pull over at a rest-stop with 93 KMs to go and hope that someone (at 6 in the morning) had a jerry can or could give one of us a lift to McBride. Luckily we met a friendly couple who offered to escort us as far as the car could go, then they would drive the rest of the way to McBride and bring us back some gas. So we piled back into the car and set out: 80km left and the dial has been well below empty for 20kms now... 60km left-- we're still going? ... 35km left- well at least they won't have to drive as far now... 15km left, "NO WAY IS THIS ACTUALLY HAPPENING... YOU CAN DO IT FRANNY (my car)... (insert rubbing of dash motion)... 2KM left!!! We can do it! Into the station, "wwweeeeewwww!!!! YEAAAAH!!!" The other patrons filling up must have thought we were drunk out of our minds. 110+ KMS on empty... thank you 1993 Toyota Tercel! "Must have been the new air filter I bought ya eh?"
Okay this blog entry is really starting to go on here. Basically we made it to Blue River in one piece and met up with the very friendly owners of the Bone Creek Wilderness Retreat" where the bunting had been seen. Unfortunately we missed out on it, but did see a male COMMON GRACKLE which must be a good bird for that area! Made it back to the Okanagan, and now I'm typing this in Revelstoke, BC where I've just started field work.
In addition to my broken lense, my back-up camera as well as both Gabe's and Sam's were out of batteries... I guess Yellow Rails don't show when you're ready. But I'll take it!
What a crazy trip and I can't wait to get north again! First though, I need to make some money... at least Revelstoke and Golden have their fair share of birds. Picked up MAGNOLIA WARBLER and COMMON NIGHTHAWK yesterday, waiting for black swift and willow flycatcher to finally catch up with me!
Until next time,