Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Great Northern Swing

On June 29th Ian Cruickshank of Victoria and I set out somewhat behind schedule for Prince George. There we met up with Christopher Coxson who was to join us for the duration of an epic voyage to the extreme northeastern and northwestern corners of the province. I was still recovering from the lack of sleep over the last few days so Chris's parents were kind enough to offer us the living room for a brief snooze.

We rose around 3am and headed out towards Pine Pass. After reaching the Mackenzie junction we realized that the gas station there was not 24-hours after-all... time for another nail-biting "will we make it?" ride, this time through the Rockies over to Chetwynd. But once again we pulled through, this time in my parents's Honda CRV. I had planned to take the tercel but when my Dad saw how much gear we were trying to stuff into the little red car he insisted we borrow a vehicle. For that we are greatly thankful because, in hindsight, I'm not sure "Francesca" would have survived the journey!

After fueling up in Chetwynd we drove down Hwy 52 towards Tumbler Ridge where we stopped into the Brassey Creek Road (site of the bear vs. tent incident) for another attempt at Cape May Warbler. BUT once again we were greeted to the Peace with strong winds and warm sun which did well to mute most birds and make things very difficult. A few note from BLACK-THROATED GREEN WARBLERS and the agitated chips from CHIPPING SPARROWS were about all we could manage in addition to the highlight bird: NASHVILLE WARBLER which I assume is a rarity in the Peace area as I certainly have never seen one here before and I have heard of only a couple others. This bird was foraging silently in the alders along a road edge and because of the brief views I could not confirm whether or not it was an "Eastern" or "Western" Nashville.

With very little birdsong in evidence we continued on towards Dawson Creek where I wanted to put in a strong effort on some big misses from the last trip: Baltimore Oriole and Philadelphia Vireo. Now apparently this has been one of the worst year for orioles in the Peace and from our experiences on this trip I would have to say the same for Philly Vireo, Cape May and Bay-breasted Warbler. Anyways, we walked around the Pouce Coupe Sewage Lagoons, then birded for a few hours near the south end of Swan Lake which is often considered one of the best spots in the province to see both Baltimore Oriole and the vireo... but of course we found very little. In fact we didn't even hear or see a Red-eyed Vireo!!! Usually one of the most outgoing songsters, we saw none-- our only vireo was this curious WARBLING VIREO (photo).

After a quick nap we moved up to the Swan Lake Provincial Park campground where we prowled around some more for orioles... nothing. After a campfire stove dinner we headed out for another round of oriole-searching when we bumped into the birder from Ventura, California who found the LEAST TERN on Haida Gwaii... small world! he informed us that an oriole had been singing quite a bit near the boat-launch just a few hours before we got there... great. We tried some more but no luck.

As the sun was going down we finally had some luck. We dropped by the house of a very friendly couple on the south side of the Peace River near Taylor. Unlike most times when I've visited when there have been 3 or 4 Calliope Hummers and 1 or 2 Rufous, this evening there were more like 20-30 hummers buzzing around! And YES we managed to see at least 1 RUBY-THROATED HUMMINGBIRD! After a few weeks of disappointment, seeing this bird definitely injected some pow back into my blood.

Instead of going to bed, we drove over to Watson Slough after dark to try for Yellow Rail. No dice with the rail but it was nice to hear a NELSON'S SPARROW singing nearby. When we got to Beatton Provincial Park on Charlie Lake the gate was closed so we camped in the parking lot.

July 1rst: Canada Day--- FINALLY a BALTIMORE ORIOLE!!!

Chris woke me up with a pleasant surprise: "Umm Russell I think there's an oriole here." CHA-CHINGGGG!!! Finally !

We proceeded to search the white spruce around the playing fields in Beatton, hoping in vain for a Cape May. We did however see a fair amount of birds foraging down low, so a few nice atlas records kept the spirits up like a ROSE-BREASTED GROSBEAK nest with eggs, several warbler species feeding young, and Ian's lifer BOREAL CHICKADEES. Below is a picture I took of him; I've shown many people their lifer Boreal Chickadee over the years but this has to be the most leisurely tick yet!


We gave up birding for my targets as the winds were just getting too strong. We headed a few hours north up Hwy 97 to Pink Mountain where a 4x4 road leads to the alpine. Up there we experienced some of the strongest winds I have ever come across. It was literally impossible to walk on the west side of the mountain so we hiked along the eastern slope where after an hour or so we stumbled upon 2 male ROCK PTARMIGAN! This keeps my Pink Mountain ptarmie rate at 100% and very happy to see these guys in summer plumage as last year in May the males were still all white.

After Pink, the rain started to set in and the entire drive to Fort Nelson was quite wet and windy to say the least. Funny, last Canada Day I was stuck in a hotel in Fort Nelson waiting for the roads to dry so we could pull one of our work trucks out of the ditch. Here I was again, contemplating why the weather on the east side of the Rockies seems to hate me so much? Nah, it hates everyone I suppose. There are nice days of course, but on a Big Year, as I have found, it rains a lot when you're hoping to hear high-pitched songsters like Cape May and bay-breasted Warblers, and clears right up when you're hoping for a shorebird fall-out.

Anyways, because the weather forecast called for a week of rain we decided to high-tail it out of there and head to the Yukon. Why the Yukon? Because in order to drive into the Haines Triangle (NW corner of the province) you need to drive up through Whitehorse and Haines Junction then back down into BC.

On July 2nd on our drive NW to Watson Lake on the YT border we drove up the "Nonda Creek Corridor" track that leads up to some radio towers near Toad River and just to the south of Mt. McLearn. Not sure what the mountain was called where we were but Jack Bowling had told us that the subalpine was a good spot for Gray-cheeked Thrush and that the alpine on top could produce ptarmigan. We hiked around for a while, playing thrush tapes and beating the bushes for ptarmigan and Brewer's (Timberline) Sparrow but no dice. Lots of AMERICAN PIPITS and GOLDEN-CROWNED SPARROWS about and great scenery though!

We pushed on from Muncho Lake where gas sells for $1.78/litre (!) and pulled into the Liard River Hot Springs around dinner time. If anyone is considering a trip up north I would highly recommend this stop. It's only $10/car to use the pools and the surrounding habitat and scenery is not only gorgeous but bird-rich as well! Yes it is busy with tourists, but there's enough water to go around and it's all natural; no concrete sidings or fancy hotels nearby. We were there in a thunderstorm too which was actually quite a pleasant experience. Didn't pull the camera out during the rain but here's a nice shot Ian took of me birding the canopy from one of the more secluded pools (I think I was trying to sort out an Oporornis warbler mystery)-- it was very cool to discover that both MOURNING and MACGILLIVRAY'S WARBLERS are present here! I was also happy to note that the males from each species sang their own songs and as far as we could tell there was no mixing going on.


Now that's what call birding! Also present were BLUE-HEADED VIREOS, YELLOW-BELLIED SAPSUCKERS, WESTERN TANAGERS, WESTERN WOOD-PEWEES, RUSTY BLACKBIRDS, and nesting MEW GULLS (a nice mix of north-east-west birds!).

We spent that night with long-time Yukoners Gordon and Rose Toole at their great place on Watson Lake. Gordon's claim to fame is that he was one of the weathermen based in Snag, YT in 1943 that recorded the coldest ever temperature in North America (and for the World at that time): -81 F or -63 C. And we complain about -15 in Penticton!!! In addition to being very kind hosts, the Tooles are also Chris's grandparents, what a coincidence right? Outside of the birds, if there is one thing I have enjoyed immensely throughout the course of this "BC Big Year" it has been meeting great people like the Toole's all over the place. Many of whom don't realize just how much of a luxury it is to eat in a dining room and sleep in a bed, spending weeks at a time dining under spruce trees in the pouring rain or even in the bathrooms of highway rest-stops, and sleeping (or not sleeping) in my tiny car or in tents, or on the ground. It's all fun of course, but a big THANK YOU once again to all of those people who have shared their homes and hospitality, and also to those who call me when a rare bird shows up-- it is much appreciated!

So I guess it must have been July 3rd when we rolled into Whitehorse, the capital of the Yukon after a long drive across the territory. We stayed the night at my uncle Syd's place and had a great get-together with other Yukon bird-greats like Cameron Eckert, Jukka Jantunen, and Ted Murphy-Kelly. After prying their brains about the birds of the Haines Triangle we nodded off to bed and woke early again to drive out to Haines Junction. When we pulled into the FasGas there, a young native woman walked up to me and asked, "are you Russell Cannings?" My mind scrambled to understand how she could possibly know who I was. Had my blog suddenly become a cult classic in Haines Junction? Had word spread throughout the bird-world that "the big year guy" might possibly be passing through Haines Junction and this #1 fan had been waiting for weeks just to see me???

"Your uncle just called, he said you forgot all your food"

"Oh..."

Well at least Haines Junction has a "General Store" which gave us enough selection to last for a couple days. We headed due south on the road to Haines, Alaska and passed back into BC around lunchtime. We were not surprised to see storm clouds on the horizon, nor were we psyched out by the wind. Here we were in an unknown place with unknown birds... who knows what could be found... a Smith's Longspur? A Northern Wheatear? A Long-tailed Jaeger?

(photo of the Haines Road)
Plus, despite the wind, birds were ACTUALLY singing... yes unlike the Peace, we could hear birds before we saw them. Right away we started picking up cool birds like AMERICAN TREE-SPARROW, COMMON REDPOLL, and GRAY-CHEEKED THRUSH. ARCTIC TERNS were plentiful around the lakes, and GOLDEN EAGLES soared in and out of the mist overhanging the stony ridges.

We tried to drive to Kelsall Lake but soon discovered some beavers had flooded the road in two section so we took off our shoes and forded these sections and proceeded onto the lake.

(Ian looking well at ease despite the sharp rocks and frigid temperatures of the creek)


(A rainbow rises over Kelsall Lake in the distance. We checked both ends and no small green men, pots of gold, not even a longspur! By the way this is willow-habitat is favoured by the secretive GRAY-CHEEKED THRUSH. Incidentally, it is also favoured by many GRIZZLY BEARS!)

On our walk to the lake we bumped into several WILLOW PTARMIGAN including a male and female with a brood. I was surprised to see the male act so aggressively since most grouse (including Rock and White-tailed Ptarmigan in my experience) males have nothing to do with chick-rearing. Perhaps Willow Ptarmigans are more like quail? Anywhoo, here are some shots of both the male and female respectively.


Absolutely nothing was scoped on the lake so it was great to find a pair of SEMIPALMATED PLOVERS with a chick along the beach as well as 10+ LEAST SANDPIPERS (which breed nearby in the small fens). By the looks of it, more poor weather was on the way so we took shelter in this small shed/cabin originally built by a willow ptarmigan researcher. Today it is used by travelers from around the world--evident in both the guest book and on the walls. As you can see, I left some graffiti of my own.



That night we fell asleep to the songs of "Sooty" Fox Sparrows and Gray-cheeked Thrushes, and of course the constant "gobeck gobeck- gugugugugu!" of Willow Ptarmigans. I will upload a video of one to Youtube and post the link on the side of the blog. As you will see from the video, it was still quite light at 11pm!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vqB0jO-Lkvk

We rose early the next morning for a full-day of hiking. Today we wanted to put in some effort for wheatear. With no records for the area it was a longshot, but how many birders hike the rocky upper-slopes of Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Park. To get to the high county one must pass through a kilometer or two of 2 meter high willows which is a good way to surprise a grizzly. We whacked our way through the brush yelling frequently, brandishing our bear-with the safety off. Luckily we didn't encounter any large brown objects and soon got up into lichen-clad tundra. Here we found many pairs of SEMIPALMATED PLOVERS, AMERICAN PIPITS, HORNED LARKS, and SAVANNAH SPARROWS. Around the small lakes and braided rivers in the area we also observed nesting ARCTIC TERNS, MEW GULLS, HERRING GULLS, LEAST SANDPIPIPERS, and best of all- several pairs of WANDERING TATTLERS! These guys are at the southern limit of their range and it is such a treat to see them at close range in full alternate plumage, and standing on reindeer lichen and heather instead of a wave-platform along the outer coast!


(I didn't notice there was a second bird until I looked at the photo later!)

Along the barren rocky-slopes up higher we found no wheatears but it was nice to hear a SNOW BUNTING overhead-- a good atlas bird!

We got back down the hill around dinner time and headed back north to the Yukon, stopping only for this obliging GYRFALCON sitting on the side of the road. The nearby ARCTIC GROUND-SQUIRRELS were none too pleased but I think all those in the car were quite happy!


Another night in Whitehorse, then a long drive back to Fort Nelson! Before I get on to more birds, it must be said that the Alaska Highway between Fort Nelson and Whitehorse is dynamite for large mammals. We saw hundreds of WOOD BISON, many many BLACK BEARS, (possibly) 1 GRIZZLY BEAR, lots of MOOSE, a few ELK, 2 CARIBOU, 50+ STONE SHEEP, and I also saw a MINK at the hotsprings and Ian and I got great looks at a FISHER near Dawson Creek. Below are a couple animal photos for those fur-lovers out there!





When we got back into Fort Nelson we were very happy to see that the rain had gone. the wind was still there, but as the evening wore on it died down a little. We birded the Fort Nelson Demo Forest where Jack Bowling had seen both Cape May and Philadelphia Vireo only a few days before. No joy there but we did find CANADA WARBLER and , MAGNOLIA WARBLERS, and TENNESSEE WARBLERS carrying food. Ah yes and something I didn't mention earlier, there are "Eastern" WINTER WRENS all over this area which will soon be split. In the overlap zones around Steamboat in the northern Rockies and Pine Pass further south it is neat to hear both western ("Pacific Wrens") and eastern forms singing side by side. Apparently extensive studies have shown that a split is appropriate so I figured I'd find a few for this year. I understand that the species designation will probably come out before the end of the summer. For those interested, Eastern Winter Wren song is different from the one most of you are used to in that it is less rambling, more structured, often less notes, and has a more melodious quality. The call notes are also different and as you will see in your Sibley field guide, there are visual differences as well.

But we still couldn't find a Cape May or Philly or Bay-breasted to save our lives so we drove up Hwy 77 towards the border with the Northwest Territories and camped at Beaver Lake-- a traditional Cape May Warbler spot (where we had already tried and failed). In the morning we were not completely shocked to find that the wind was still kicking up the trees but we played tapes, pished our hearts out, and tracked down every bird-like object that we could find. After a bit of a lull period when we were detect absolutely zero birds, Chris announced, "a warbler-type thing just flew into that tree." "Probably another Yellow-rump" I said but got out the Cape May song recording once again. I played it and played it... nothing but wind. "Alright, well... let's go" I murmered. "Wait I've got one! The tall spruce!!! Frickin beauty!!!" Chris shouted. Before I could ask, "which tall spruce?" it flew to another tree right in the sun and the three of us were treated to the gourmet Cape May show. Which warbler is supposed to be the candle in the forest? Is it Cape May or Blackburnian? Whatever, this bad-boy lit up the canopy and lit up our bins as we drooled over a great bird and felt the weight of a week of searching fall from our shoulders.


Next we birded the Patry Mainline, a forestry road that is now becoming a busy gas road. I chose this site because last year I had at least singing 12 Bay-breasted Warblers and 3 or 4 Philadelphia Vireos in the span of two days. Surely this year with three sets of eyes we could find at least 1??? We tried for several hours without success. Maybe it's the wind? The time of year? A bad year? Obligations down south meant that we didn't have a lot of extra time. We decided we would return early the next morning and go for broke, then drive the 1,700 km back to the Okanagan around 8am.

We camped out in the wilds near the Fort Nelson River that night and were treated to the chorus of a wolf pack that came within 100m of the tent after we tried out some howls of our own. A particularly deep-toned individual, probably the alpha-male, obviously took issue with our trespass and threatened us with some hearty growls... which did the trick. I don't think any of us wanted to make the evening news on our last day of birding the north.

We woke up early the next morning, and... no wind! No rain! This will be perfect! But wait, something is missing. NO BIRDS. It is early July we are in beautiful mix old-growth aspen/spruce forest and there is not a single bird singing! Okay there goes a swainson's thrush... a few minutes pass, "did I just hear a sapsucker in the distance?" "Oooo a chipping sparrow! Maybe there IS hope." We birded that road HARD for 3 hours and could not find a single vireo let alone a phily, and NO we did not get any of the supposedly abundant Bay-breasts.

"It must be the time of year" we concluded. But how could it be this bad? Birds are still singing in the Okanagan where it's 38 degrees! Birds are still singing like crazy in the Haines, why is Fort Nelson and the Peace for that matter so dead??? I talked with Mike Boyd who had been up around Dawson, Fort St. John, and Hudson's Hope and he bailed early on his trip because of the same problem: no warblers, no vireos.

"Time to bite the bullet and scram I guess." For those planning a big year in the future or just a trip up to the Peace, perhaps you should make sure to go in early and mid-June. I don't know if this is normal but it seems very odd. By the sounds of it, I just happened to do my big year during one of the worst Baltimore Oriole, Cape May Warbler, and Philadelphia Warbler years in recent memory... but that's understandable. I was fully prepared to miss a few breeders based on annual fluctuations but to hear it so absolutely quite I KNOW the birds are there is something else. Not sure what the deal is with the Bay-breasted Warblers. As far as I know, no one has seen or heard a Bay-breasted in BC this year. That's quite a decline considering that they were fairly common in appropriate habitat all over the Fort Nelson area last summer and in some years they breed around Fort St. John. Cape May Warblers go up and down but they seemed practically absent from the entire Peace this year (based on the reports of a few birders I've talked to).

I'll stop complaining now, but really... what happened this year? So YES I missed both Philadelphia Vireo and Bay-breasted Warblers. Two supposed "gimmes." This will certainly hurt my chances at the record but I'm not out of it yet. Still a few easy ones to get yet and you never know what the fall will bring.

This was an incredible trip all-told and with the BAIRD'S and SEMIPALMATED SANDPIPERS at long last) we found at the Fort St. John sewage lagoons, my BC year list has been bumped up to 332 just 6 shy of my casual total last year. With luck, I'll be over 360 by the end of September... but we'll see. The going gets tough here.

Until next time!

Russ C

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