Friday, January 25, 2019

Cross-Canada trip report - July 1-17, 2018 (long)

I have quite a backlog of trip reports to write up and post! I'll start here with a recounting of my trip across the country last summer, during which I drove a little over 8000 km, submitted ~270 eBird lists (many incidentals), saw ~290 species of birds (plus loads of other cool wildlife), and tried to spend as little money as possible, by eating at grocery stores and sleeping in the car! Hopefully some others find the info here useful. The sections for each province are in bold; feel free to skip to whatever part you're most interested in. Click the eBird links for my lists with many more photos and exact locations.

Intro - Nova Scotia to Ontario, July 1-9

Back at the end of June, my mom was kind enough to drive out to Nova Scotia to move me and my stuff back to Ontario, in prep for my trip to move to Victoria, where I'm working as the Bander-in-Charge at Rocky Point Bird Observatory for the fall. We made a quick turn-around of it; she got there the evening of June 30, I made a nice dinner for us and we went for a stroll around Wolfville in the fading evening light. The next morning we were up first thing and packing the car; we hit the road just after breakfast and managed a little over 1200 km of driving that day, getting us to Drummondville, QC, where we got a hotel for the night and grabbed dinner (while barely staying conscious - I was pretty exhausted from recent work and packing!). The next day we were back at it bright and early, managing to make it to Sudbury after another 800 km or so of driving on much slower roads through long weekend traffic. We only made a couple of stops along the way, one of which was at the Marais de St-Timothée in Beauharnois, QC, where we did the only real birding of this stretch of the trip (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S46947861). Some highlights were birds I don't see too often in NS, such as Common Gallinule, Willow Flycatcher, House Wren, and a heard-only Least Bittern. One thing I should note at this point is that the theme of this trip was HEAT! It was heat-wave weather the whole way across Canada for me - on this day it topped out at 45C with the humidex (it was already 40 degrees at 8am while we birded the marsh!).

The marsh at St-Timothée
We spent a day and a half in Sudbury at my grandparents' house, and then made our way back to the Sault, where I spent four and a half days unpacking, reorganizing, repacking, visiting family, biking, playing disc golf, eating way too much food, and just generally relaxing and preparing for the drive ahead. I did manage to get out birding one morning with Carter Dorscht, another young birder who's taken over the scene in the Sault! I managed to add Common Gallinule to my Algoma list that morning, and also added Le Conte's Sparrow, Yellow Rail and Red-shouldered Hawk for the year. A morning of botanizing and odeing north of town with my dad netted me my Connecticut Warbler for the year as well. Since I was going to be in almost every province this year, I had come up with a detailed plan to try to find as many new species as possible on my route west, and hopefully max out the year list without really doing a Big Year or spending the big $$$. This worked fairly well; at the start of the trip I was sitting at 316 for the year, and by the end I managed to break the 400 mark!

A Bluet sp. in Sudbury
Bog Copper on a cranberry flower near the Sault
Black-crowned Night-Heron in Sault Ste. Marie

 

Ontario - July 9-10

On July 9th, the day had finally come for me to head out on what was to be a fairly epic solo roadtrip! Having packed up the car the evening before, I hit the road a little after 6am and worked my way north through the rain and mist. Between the Sault and Wawa, the only bird of note was a Black-billed Cuckoo that flew across the highway. Given that Lake Superior was blanketed with thick low-lying clouds/fog, I didn't stop anywhere to take photos (unfortunate, as the north shore is quite pretty!). My first stop was at the Wawa sewage lagoons, where some ducks and songbirds were about, but nothing particularly exciting jumped out at me (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47103808). Making my way west, Sandhill Crane families were in evidence along the roadsides, and some construction stops gave me Boreal Chickadee and Bay-breasted Warbler, among others. An Olive-sided Flycatcher near a bog and a small family of Common Goldeneye provided quick visual breaks from the endless trees before I got to my second stop of the day; a lunch break in Rossport. This is a classic fall stop for birders along the north shore hoping for rarities - on this day it had a singing House Wren, an Eastern Bluebird and some Northern Rough-winged Swallows among the regulars (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47106328). I would have liked to explore a few of the other towns, but I had to make time and so got back on the road. At some point along the way I had a Moose (alive) in the ditch, and with temperatures warming up the raptors were out (Merlin, Kestrel, Broad-winged Hawk, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Osprey, Bald Eagle and Turkey Vulture were noted along the route). In Thunder Bay, I made a detour into town to get gas and to swing by my parents' old house (where I lived for the first 9 months of my life!). The White Pine that my dad planted around the time I was born was still standing (and is quite a bit taller than me). Moving on, I made decent time getting to Rainy River District, where a Pileated Woodpecker and a Black-billed Magpie greeted me on my way into Emo. A stop-in at the Emo Sewage Lagoons was fairly productive, with the highlight being a group of Stilt Sandpipers (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47102382). After grabbing some quick groceries for the next few days, I met up with my brother at the Emo Inn for some dinner and beers - I hadn't seen him in 1.5 years so we had some catching up to do! He's been working at a mine site near Emo for a while now, so he had a bit less of a drive than I to get to the bar. After we said our goodbyes, I carried on to the little town of Barwick, where I spent the night at a little RV campground on the river. I had outfitted the RAV4 to sleep in; the back seats fold more or less flat, upon which I laid a blanket and then my thermarest, sleeping bag and liner, complete with pillows. All my gear sat on the other side of the car, preventing me from rolling off of my little 'bed', and we had installed a screen on the back passenger window, to allow airflow and keep out the pesky mosquitos! All in all it was fairly comfortable and cozy for my week or so on the road, and on this day I was relieved to finally crawl into my sleeping bag after driving 1080 km and being awake for 18 hours.

My RAV4 outfitted for camping
The next morning (July 10) I was up early and enjoying the dawn chorus while I got ready (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47106684). The nice thing about sleeping in one's car is all that's required in the morning is to put in my contacts, grab a drink of juice and hop in the front seat, and we're off! My first stop was Highway 619 through the Spruce Islands nature reserve (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47107014), where my main target was to try to photograph a Connecticut Warbler (no luck, but heard one). I also managed some nice boreal species, like both Black-backed and American Three-toed Woodpeckers, heard-only Great Gray Owl, and a pair of Canada Jays. Working my way west along Nelles Dike/Byrnes Rd (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47142957), I stopped off in any field-type habitat to try to pick up some Rainy River specialties. Here I was in luck, as the fields were loaded with Sedge Wrens and Le Conte's Sparrows, a few Black-billed Magpies flew by, some Upland Sandpipers posed nicely, and looking down every side road eventually rewarded me with my only Sharp-tailed Grouse of the morning. A few Western Meadowlarks were also new for the year list, although I didn't pay them much heed as I'd soon be seeing hundreds of them in the prairies! Reaching the end of the road near Rainy River proper, I made a quick stop at the sewage lagoons (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47142959), but didn't find anything of interest. After a rather lengthy border crossing (they hassled me a bit as I forgot I had fruit and some beer in the car...but eventually let me through without confiscating anything!), I zipped through Minnesota, adding 13 species to my state list (and taking advantage of the cheap gas ($1/litre equivalent instead of the $1.50 in northern Ontario!) before border-jumping again into the southeastern corner of Manitoba, for my first visit to the province in a decade.

Striped Skunk in Rainy River

Manitoba - July 10-11 (115 species)

After adding an Alder Flycatcher and an Ovenbird (#200) to my Manitoba list near the border, I drove straight across the southern part of the province, adding American White Pelican and Vesper Sparrow for the year along the way. I stopped off for a lunch break and a quick nap in the shade at a little park overlooking the Pembina Valley (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47143075) - the view was pretty nice! A few flyover Franklin's Gulls were new for the year too. Then it was onward to my destination for the day - Whitewater Lake. My dad grew up on a farm not far from the lake, and I visited it many times as a kid, finding quite a few lifers around its shores. Now it's overflowing its edges and most of the good shorebird habitat I knew is gone, although that didn't seem to stop the birds - they've just moved to new spots that the lake has flooded. Hundreds of American Avocets, Marbled Godwits, and dowitchers greeted me upon arrival at the eastern end of the lake (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47143115), and picking through the flocks turned up a few Hudsonian Godwits, Baird's Sandpipers, Stilt Sandpipers and quite a few other species! White-faced Ibis and Cattle Egrets hung around nearby while Western Kingbirds called from the wires.

Cattle Egrets with the cows at Whitewater Lake
Once I was satisfied that I'd found all the birds at that spot, I went into Boissevain to get some gas and snacks, picking up a Eurasian Collared-Dove for my MB list, before heading around to the southern end of the lake, where I found a male Orchard Oriole (new MB bird) before hitting the old viewing area (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47143149). The road and dyke system here had been completely washed away, and almost all of the shorebird habitat was gone! My only consolation prizes were a calling Virginia Rail and a flock of Bobolinks just south of there (MB birds).

The washed-out dyke at the south end of Whitewater Lake
For old time's sake, I took a drive by my grandparents' old farm, where the new owners had torn down some of the buildings and replaced them. After that bit of nostalgia I moved on toward the far southwest, stopping in at a random slough that held some waterbirds (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47143164), and making a quick stop at a bridge over the Souris River to pick up some lingering Snow Geese for the year (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47143175), along with a huge flock of Black Terns! Then I moved on toward Coulter, where a failed attempt at finding Coulter Park netted me another Orchard Oriole. Once I figured out the correct spot, I arrived at the park where a massive Cliff Swallow colony greeted me (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47143188). This used to be a reliable spot for a few deciduous forest birds, and I picked up a Willow Flycatcher, but no luck on the vireos or woodpeckers in the high winds. At this point I figured I had a pretty good day list going, and debated heading onward to try for some grassland species, but rational thought won out and I decided to call it a night, finding a shady parking spot and having dinner before crawling into bed. My total for the day ended up being 143 species - not bad for mid-July during a 30+ degree heatwave! 632 km was my total for the day.

Dinner of champions
My chosen sleep spot for the night at Coulter Park

I awoke around midnight to a massive thunderstorm passing overhead (the same one that spawned a couple tornadoes in Saskatchewan earlier in the day), with rain bucketing in my screened window. With that problem quickly solved, I lay there watching the rapid-fire lightning and hoping that a giant hailstone or tornado wouldn't destroy the car (or knock a tree onto me!). Luckily none of those things happened, the storm passed quickly, and I passed out again.

The next morning (July 11), I was once again awake before my alarm, listening to the dawn chorus as I got ready for the day (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47145580). Driving down the road a ways, I heard a Grasshopper Sparrow sing, and then spotted a pair of Gray Partridge on the road when I stopped to listen (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47145582) - year bird! Still heading west, I added Say's Phoebe, Lazuli Bunting and Ring-necked Pheasant to my provincial list, and Sprague's Pipit to my year list (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47145530), before stopping in at my last Manitoba birding spot at the old Antler Track (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47145528). Here I finally got decent looks at a Baird's Sparrow (had it as heard-only on my lifelist before this) and added Lark Sparrow to my MB list, while having a good time watching and listening to the prairie birds in the morning light. My allotted time here came to an end all too quickly, and it was time to head into Saskatchewan, for my first time really visiting the province (spent 15 mins on the Saskatoon airport tarmac back when I was 11).

Upland Sandpiper at the Antler Track


Saskatchewan - July 11-12 (150 species)

I decided to get right onto the provincial listing, and took the opportunity to make my way slowly to the highway along the back road I'd come into the province on, stopping at likely-looking spots to listen for birds. This worked nicely, and by the end of my first half-hour in the province I'd racked up 60 species (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47145522).

Just over the SK border
From there I worked my way northwest, picking up Purple Martin, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Common Nighthawk and a nice "Prairie" Merlin before hitting my next planned stop near Parkbeg. Some nice grassland birds had been seen here recently, and it was on the way to my other stops, so I did a quick tour around. Unfortunately the wind was blasting at this point (it did pretty severe damage in other parts of the province) and the temps were in the low 30s, but that didn't stop the birds from being active! A quick loop around the back roads and into Parkbeg netted 55 species, many of which were provincial birds (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47145502). From there I headed over to Chaplin Lake, one of the top shorebirding sites in the Western Hemisphere - and it was easy to see why. It's a large alkali lake with tons of mudflats and other shorebird habitat, and there were quite a few birds present despite the suboptimal conditions (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47145497), with Piping Plover probably the highlight. In the grasslands surrounding the lake were a singing Sprague's Pipit and I got brief looks at a pair of Chestnut-collared Longspurs which were new for the year. Next up, and not far away, was Reed Lake, where a Clark's Grebe had been present earlier in the year. No luck with that, but there were quite a few waterbirds and shorebirds present at the various stops I made along the north shore of the lake (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47145493, https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47145492, https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47145491). A few kilometres up the road, I detoured to Francis Lake, adding Red-necked Phalarope in a roadside slough along the way (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47145486). The lake itself had mostly dried up or grown in, but the few patches of water remaining held some birds, including my first Black-necked Stilts of the year (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47145485), and the nearby town added Eurasian Collared-Dove to my SK list.


Wide-open skies near Parkbeg, SK
This Marbled Godwit had a baby nearby
Finally, it was time to head to my next stop. When I was originally planning this trip, I debated heavily between detouring north to the Chaplin/Swift Current area to try for some extra shorebirds (given that I would have an afternoon to do so), or to spend that afternoon in the East Block of Grasslands NP, to give myself an extra chance at Greater Sage-Grouse and have a shorter overall drive, but probably miss out on some shorebirds. As it turned out, I got pretty much all of my shorebirds and grassland species in southwestern Manitoba, so I needn't have worried about detouring for those, however a report on eBird of some Whooping Cranes north of Swift Current swayed my decision heavily at the last minute! The 2.5h round-trip detour (off of my already rather long detour) was well worth it when the three giant white birds were right in the field where they'd been seen a few days earlier (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47143038)! I snapped a few photos from a distance as the birds seemed rather wary of my presence, and after a few minutes of observation I retreated to the car to let some friends know of my success!

Whooping Cranes near Lacadena, SK
 This was a species I figured I'd have to wait a long time to see, as I had no plans to be anywhere they're regularly found during the appropriate seasons in which to see them. The SK eBird reviewer let me know that this is just the third summer record for the species in southern SK, following a single bird at the same location the year previous and a single bird near Moose Jaw in 2014, so quite a significant sighting of this endangered species (of which there are about 300 individuals in the northern, wild population). From there I made a beeline south, picking up Caspian Tern and Lark Sparrow along the way to my final resting place for the night, the public (free) campground in the small town of Cadillac (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47145458), having put on another 918 km.

The following morning (July 12) was an early one, as I wanted to be in Grasslands National Park for sunrise and I had an hour-long drive ahead of me. Along the way I kept a keen eye out for wildlife on the road, not wanting to smash up the car! A Gray Partridge was the only bird of note, while no fewer than 17 White-tailed Deer and 2 Pronghorn lurking in the twilight along the roadside kept me on my toes. I (and the car) made it to Grasslands in one piece though, where a Bison welcomed me just as the sun was cresting the horizon. A chorus of Sprague's Pipits and Baird's Sparrows filled the (blissfully still) cool morning air as I took in my surroundings in the golden glow of sunrise. I've always had a certain fondness for the prairies, with their wide-open skies, numerous wetlands and subtly beautiful scenery, but I must say Grasslands took it to a whole new level - the scenery there was just as incredible as the birds!

Bison in the background at the Grasslands park gate
That same Bison, with the telephoto lens
Looking out over the Frenchman River Valley

I'll have to make a return visit someday to properly explore the park (and try to find some of the rarer animal species that inhabit it). On this visit, I mostly did the Ecotour route. A short ways into the park was the first prairie dog town (Black-tailed Prairie Dog), and perched on one of the mounds was my first Burrowing Owl for Canada (note this species has been marked Sensitive in eBird and won't show up on the lists: https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47163527)! A scan of the other burrows turned up another two birds, and my first Rock Wren of the year joined yet more Sprague's Pipits and Baird's Sparrows singing in the background. These latter two species would be a regular feature at almost every stop in Grasslands, and I ended up with 66 Baird's Sparrows by the end of the day (including some in Alberta).

Burrowing Owl perched on a prairie dog burrow
Black-tailed Prairie Dog
A little farther on, the road dipped into a valley, and I set up my scope to scan the sage flats for sage-grouse. No luck on that, but I did turn up another Burrowing Owl at a distant dogtown (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47163534). Continuing on, the road followed the lush valley bottom through some nice prairie, where I added my first Ferruginous Hawk and Lark Bunting for the year, and had a close encounter with a Sharp-tailed Grouse and her chick. At one point I heard a Baird's Sparrow singing quite close to the road and got out to investigate. It turned out that its territory straddled the road, and a little bit of maneuvering got me into position for a decent photo.

Baird's Sparrow
Eastern Kingbird
Farther along, the road went up out of the valley, and I stopped at a little lookout to scope the sage flats again. Once again, I came up empty on sage-grouse, but enjoyed watching the antics of a family of 7 Burrowing Owls across the valley, and watched my lifer American Badger trundling along the valley bottom (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47163535)!

White-tailed Jackrabbit at the lookout
From there I continued along the Ecotour Route, as it left the lush prairie habitat and headed up into the drier shortgrass hills, adding a Say's Phoebe at the campground (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47163540), before briefly dipping back into the valley (Prairie Falcon, Loggerhead Shrike - https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47163544). After this point, the road gained elevation and went through some low rolling hills with hardly any vegetation. The temperature had also climbed considerably, but this didn't seem to deter the birds at all, with more Sprague's Pipits, Chestnut-collared Longspurs and Baird's Sparrows out and about (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47163546). I also got to see a nice Pronghorn right beside the road along this stretch. After this point, I decided it was getting a bit late in the morning and made some time along the last ~25 km of the route, only stopping a few times for cooperative birds along the road, and to scan a set of ponds that were filled with waterfowl with a couple of birders from Connecticut. One of the definite highlights from this section (other than adding a distant Long-billed Curlew to the year list) was watching a pair of Lark Buntings collecting food at point-blank range along the side of the road. At one point the male flew over to the female and gave her some of his collection, then went right back to foraging (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47163551).

Male Lark Bunting with food
From there, I carried on to the Seventy-Mile Butte trailhead to have a quick lunch break, and decided to give the trail a quick go. My main goal was to try for photos of Rock Wrens, and in this venture I was somewhat successful, managing a few distant record shots (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47163552). As it was the heat of the day, there wasn't much else around, and the hoped-for short-horned lizards weren't out on this day (they're pretty hard to find anyway), but it was a nice hike to break up the time in the car and to end my time in Grasslands.

Seventy-Mile Butte
Leaving the park, I headed west along Highway 18, stopping occasionally to scan roadside sloughs before my GPS took me on one of those famous 'google maps shortcuts' where inevitably it tells you to take a road that doesn't exist. Luckily with the Saskatchewan grid system, I only had to carry on another few kilometres before I found a road that did exist. One major highlight of this gravel road detour though was passing through another section of nice prairie habitat. Driving slowly with windows rolled down, I could hear numerous Baird's Sparrow singing all along the road, and then some Lark Buntings and a Loggerhead Shrike put in an appearance before I flushed up a small gray and white bird with some black on the tail from the middle of the road. Slamming on the brakes, my suspicions were confirmed when the bird circled back and landed just behind me on the road - McCown's Longspur! It turned out that there were three of them; two males doing displays for a female, and one of the males was keen on sitting in the road (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47196770). Creeping down into the ditch gave me some cover and made for some nice eye-level views for a few minutes before a big truck came by and flushed the bird into the fields.

McCown's Longspur on the road
It didn't return after that, so I kept heading west, now on Highway 13, where numerous Loggerhead Shrikes, Lark Buntings and Ferruginous Hawks kept me entertained (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47196791, https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47196801) and I finally got a decent look at a "Prairie" Merlin (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47196920) before hitting the Alberta border.

Ferruginous Hawk in SW Saskatchewan

Alberta - July 12-13 (132 species)

This was my first time in Alberta since 2003, and I started off on the famous "Range Road 20" route that goes from the SK border down to the MT border at Wild Horse. Along this stretch of road is where Mountain Plovers were documented breeding in Canada, and it's also one of the last places that Greater Sage-Grouse are known to occur in the country. Unfortunately, I saw neither of these species, but the road held many other goodies! The northern end of the road is mostly xeric grassland with small sage shrubs interspersed, and gradually gets more lush/shrubby toward the southern end, with a few wetlands near Wild Horse itself.

The north end of RR20
I decided to do a bunch of eBird lists along the road instead of the usual single list that most people do, in order to give others an idea of where on the road different species actually are. The drive started off pretty nice, with some Chestnut-collared Longspurs (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47197006) and a little farther on, near a gate, I found a nice mixed longspur flock, with yet another very tame male McCown's (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47197013). As you can see, there were also quite a few Pronghorn along the road! I spent quite a while just sitting there observing and photographing the McCown's - at times it was foraging about 2m from me and didn't seem to mind my presence at all.

A very tame McCown's Longspur - uncropped at 300mm!
Continuing south along the road, I encountered quite a few more flocks of longspurs and the occasional Lark Bunting or Ferruginous Hawk (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47197024, https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47197032, https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47197048, https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47197053, https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47197063). Eventually I made it to a larger patch of sage where there were quite a few sparrows, including at least 10 singing Brewer's Sparrows (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47197068). Rounding the bend, the road went from passing through dry scrubland to passing through a few wet areas with some good sedge habitat (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47197076) and a bit of deeper open water. This patch held quite a few ducks and shorebirds along with a small group of White-faced Ibis and a surprise Glossy Ibis (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47224936)! After giving the shorebirds a thorough scan, I peeked across the border at Wild Horse to add a few species to my Montana list before giving the other side of the small lake a check (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47224934). By now it was getting late in the day, and I still had a few spots I wanted to check out, so I headed north along the highway, passing a Ferruginous Hawk nest with 3 babies in it (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47163588) before taking highway 501 across toward Manyberries (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47163587). In the Manyberries area, I spent an hour in the golden glow of the evening sun slowly driving the grid roads, getting out to scope the sage wherever there was a good vantage point. Again, no sage-grouse, but watching quite a few Pronghorn and enjoying my last Baird's Sparrows of the year made the hour very enjoyable (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47163575). A half-hour later, I pulled into the Red Rocks Coulee just as the sun was going down and ate a quick dinner before crawling into bed, as a Rock Wren sang and some Common Nighthawks flew overhead, providing a nice end to a very long day (4am-10pm, 486 km) (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47163568).

Swainson's Hawk
One of many Pronghorn
My camp spot at the Red Rocks Coulee

July 13 dawned dark and early for me (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47224939), as I had tried to time my departure from Red Rocks so that I'd make it to Cypress Hills Provincial Park at sunrise. Along the 1-hour drive, a Ferruginous Hawk perched on a fence post in the twilight, a gang of Black-billed Magpies was getting an early start to the day, and the dawn chorus at a random patch of woods included my first Western Wood-Pewee and my last Baltimore Oriole of the year (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47224929). I managed to make it to the park just as the sun was cresting the hills, and I drove slowly eastward along Graburn Rd, stopping every now and then to take in the morning songs (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47224918). My main reason for detouring to Cypress was to add a few species to both my Alberta and Saskatchewan lists, with the side benefit of having another shot at a few species that I figured might be tricky in the Okanagan. Additionally, it gave me a chance at seeing a "Pink-sided" Junco in Canada - I had only recently discovered that this subspecies even bred in the country! With all of these endeavours, I had some luck, getting a doc shot of the junco and adding Dusky Flycatcher, Red-naped Sapsucker and Black-headed Grosbeak to the year list, along with a nice assortment of forest birds for my Alberta list.

"Pink-sided" Junco
 Reaching the eastern end of the road, I snuck into Saskatchewan and birded the first few hundred metres of the province, as the road passed through some mixed forest and by a small wetland, adding a whole suite of new birds to my Saskatchewan list (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47224914). From there I headed west through the northern end of the park, passing Reesor Lake and using up the rest of the two hours I'd allotted to visiting the park, picking up a MacGillivray's Warbler for the year in the process (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47224898).

Cypress Hills PP - looking north as I was leaving
 Hitting the road, I headed northwest toward Calgary. Originally I had given myself a bit of time to explore the Brooks area, but as I'd already picked up everything in Saskatchewan or near Wild Horse, I decided to skip this and head onward. As I got closer to Calgary, I began to see more and more wetlands packed full of birds along the highway. I had set my next destination as Weed Lake, but couldn't help getting distracted by an especially chock-full lake right beside the back road I was on, adding Cinnamon Teal for the year (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47224872). After that brief interruption, I made it to Weed Lake, where even more birds awaited me (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47224856). I had no real reason for visiting this spot over any other location, besides it being about three hours from Cypress, close to the highway, full of birds, and thus a nice break from driving. My 19 minutes here were pretty amazing, with 62 species of birds in evidence (15 waterfowl and 17 shorebirds). California Gull was new for the year, but not one I was worried about! Carrying on, I made decent time through Calgary and rejoined the Trans-Canada, making a quick stop along the road in Banff National Park before hitting the BC border.

A quick stop in Banff


British Columbia - July 13-17 (173 species)

Crossing the border from Banff, I quickly passed through Yoho (not turning up much in the way of avian life), only stopping for gas in Golden and then dinner in Vernon. At this point in the day I was pretty wiped, having made it through seemingly endless construction between Banff and Sicamous, but I still had some distance to go before dark, so after my dinner break I was back at it. The Clark's Grebe that was hanging out in West Kelowna took all of about five seconds to find (thankfully!), and I watched for a few minutes as it swam around and dove just offshore (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47224849).

Clark's Grebe near Kelowna
Another hour or so on the road and I finally made it to Shuttleworth Creek Rd, a logging road just east of Okanagan Falls that is a hotspot for southern Okanagan specialty birds. On my way up the road, I stopped at a few spots, getting myself oriented for the next morning and picking up a few year birds such as Lewis's Woodpecker, Cassin's Vireo, Townsend's Solitaire and Western Bluebird (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47224845). Reaching the higher elevations, I found Rabbit Lake, my planned sleeping spot for the night. Unfortunately, some recreational vehicle enthusiasts had gotten there just before me and were making a lot of noise, so I carried on up the road, finding a quiet wide spot to pull off and get some sleep. After brushing my teeth in the company of about 200 mosquitoes (the worst of the entire trip, by far!), I crawled into bed, utterly exhausted after 1154 km and 18.5 hours on the road.

Heading up Shuttleworth Creek Rd as the sun was setting
 The morning of the 14th started even darker and earlier than the day before, as I had a special bird to try for. I don't remember what time my alarm was actually set for, but I do remember that my sleep was rather restless that night, and I awoke at 1:15am, crawling out of the car in my pyjamas, hoping the mosquitoes had settled down. Luckily, they had, and even more luckily, my target bird (a Boreal Owl) cooperated, giving its territorial call in response to some (very brief) playback. This bird also cooperated for the big year birders (Neil and Andrea MacLeod) a few weeks later, in the exact same spot (they actually got to see it), but on this night, I was content to go back to my warm bed having only heard it, to try to catch up on some much-needed sleep.

At 4am, I reluctantly avoided the 'snooze' button on my alarm, and got straight to birding. I spent the first hour or so cruising the road at these upper elevations, alternating walking and driving as the woods came to life around me. The dawn chorus was mostly thrushes, but also included the 'Slate-colored' race of Fox Sparrow, a few American Three-toed and Black-backed Woodpeckers, and my first Cassin's Finch of the year. My wanderings managed to turn up a Spruce Grouse, and I eventually stumbled across some chickadees that had a lone Boreal with them (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47224833). Before long it was time to move on, and I headed back down the road to my next stop - Venner Meadows Rd - where I was greeted by my first Western Tanager and Townsend's Warbler of the year (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47220009). I again used the strategy of driving a bit, then getting out and walking around while listening. I ended up heading pretty far down the road, hitting the first of the wet meadows (Northern Waterthrush) before turning around. Back at the larches, I eventually heard my main target here - a Williamson's Sapsucker - calling off in the distance. It was a bit far off the road to go look for, so I had to make do with a heard-only, for now. I then spent the next two hours slowly making my way back down Shuttleworth Creek Rd, getting out whenever I heard something interesting or passed a side trail (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47219995). In doing so, I added five more birds to the year list, with Calliope Hummingbird and Pygmy Nuthatch being the highlights, and had nice views of Lewis's Woodpecker and Red-naped Sapsucker.

California Quail at the bottom of Shuttleworth Creek Rd
 After reaching the end of the road, I made a quick stop at a spot that looked good for Chukar on the east side of Okanagan Falls. No Chukars, but a White-throated Swift was new for the year. I then headed to the nearby Three Gates Farm in Kaleden, where the homeowner was nice enough to allow me to watch her hummingbird feeders for a bit, and mentioned that her breeding pair of Western Screech-Owls were still around, although she hadn't seen them in a while. I didn't see them either, but had great looks at Black-chinned, Calliope and Rufous Hummingbirds around her feeder setup (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47219961).

Black-chinned Hummingbird
Next up was a stop at White Lake to look for Sage Thrasher (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47219948). Arriving at the spot, it took all of about 30 seconds to hear one singing, and shortly after I was watching it sing from atop a sage bush. Despite the heat, a Grasshopper Sparrow (new for my BC list) was singing, and a distant Golden Eagle was new for the year. There were also a few ducks on the lake, which was blue rather than white, due to the wet summer.

White Lake, looking rather blue
After my time in the sage, I made my way down to Vaseux Cliffs via Vaseux Lake. There wasn't much happening at the lake, so my stop there was brief before continuing on to the nearby cliffs. A couple of Canyon Wrens and Lazuli Buntings greeted me while White-throated Swifts buzzed by overhead (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47219925). After failing once again to find Chukars, I made my way toward Osoyoos, where I birded around Rd 22 for a while (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47219895), turning up a few Yellow-breasted Chats, a Cinnamon Teal and a couple Bobolinks. My next stop was the Haynes Lease at the end of Meadowlark Lane, another supposedly good spot for Chukar. Likely due to the heat (it was somewhere around 35C by this point), there wasn't much activity, but a few Bullock's Orioles and a Say's Phoebe posed for photos (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47219881). Cutting my losses with the Chukar, I decided to head into the hills to escape the heat for a bit, and drove up the McKinney Rd. I made a few stops at spots which have had Gray Flycatchers, before eventually running into one at Porcupine Place (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47219870). By this point in the day, I was feeling my compounded lack of sleep and long drives over the previous few days, and kicked back for a two-hour siesta in the shade of some pine trees. When I woke up, the Gray Flycatcher had left, so I made my way around some of the back roads in the area, seeing what I could turn up. The general neighbourhood was pretty empty, but making my way back down McKinney turned up another Gray Flycatcher along with some of the more common montane birds (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47219834). As the sun was getting lower in the sky (and thus better for photography), I decided to head back to White Lake to try for some better photos as the air cooled down a bit. I wandered around the wet area and the forest to the southeast of the lake, hoping the family of Dusky Grouse that had been seen there recently would make an appearance. No luck there, but I did have a very cooperative male Mountain Bluebird who seemed intent on checking out a nest box (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47219770). Back at the Sage Thrasher spot, the bird was doing his rounds of his territory, and I simply sat beside a fencepost and waited for him to make an appearance on one of his favourite bushes (which I'd observed earlier in the day), where I got a few photos and a recording before heading out (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47219757).

Sage Thrasher
Mountain Bluebird

From there I went back to Vaseux Cliffs, hoping for a shot at Chukar as the light faded. This time I was in luck, as a couple of Chukars eventually called from somewhere high up on the cliffs, as Canyon Wrens heralded the dusk and a family of Lewis's Woodpeckers went about their business (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47219748). Next, I headed back to the Three Gates Farm, and walked up and down the main road listening for owls. A distant Common Poorwill was the first night bird to start up, and then the family of Western Screech-Owls started calling from somewhere down in a ravine near the road (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47219737). Despite my efforts, I couldn't see them, and given my early start to the day and need for sleep, I made my way toward Max Lake, where a bit of effort only turned up a young Great Horned Owl and a few distant Common Poorwills - no sign of the Flammulated Owl that had been there earlier in the summer (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47219725). I called it quits around 11pm, and crawled into bed, parked just off the road in a convenient turn-around. 236 km today, exploring almost all of the main south Okanagan hotspots.
 
July 15th started a little later than my usual 4am wakeup, and I took my time (relatively speaking) getting ready, rolling out of Max Lake around 5:30 (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47219719). Seeing as I'd covered most of my target species the day before, I skipped past the hotspots, picking up my first Vaux's Swifts of the year over downtown Penticton and breezing through Osoyoos before the tourists woke up. I made a quick stop at the Hwy 3 viewpoint (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47219688) before checking out one of the neighbourhoods that has had some good woodpeckers in the past (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47219688). None were to be had, though I did add Pacific-slope Flycatcher for the year, so I carried on toward my main goal of the morning - Wagonwheel Rd on Anarchist Mountain. This sounded like a good spot to find Williamson's Sapsucker, from eBird reports and the Cannings' book on birding in BC, so I stopped at a couple of larch stands to try my luck. The first spot didn't hold much, but farther up the road I found a better-looking stand and got out to walk around. To my surprise, I heard a Flammulated Owl calling from a large tree, although I couldn't see if there was a hole, and the tree was on private property so I couldn't explore further. A group of Clark's Nutcrackers went through, and I added my first Violet-green Swallows of the year while Mountain Chickadees and Pygmy Nuthatches provided entertainment. Farther up the road, I heard what sounded like baby owl begging calls, and after a few minutes of this an adult called back to them. Peering into the woods, I was surprised to have my suspicions confirmed, as two baby Great Gray Owls sat on a branch looking back at me! The female was sitting nearby, seemingly unperturbed by my presence, and the male called from not far away. The babies just sat there inquisitively inspecting me as I stood quietly and took a few photos before leaving them be. What an experience!

Great Gray Owlets
Not long after, I heard a Williamson's Sapsucker calling, and eventually found a pair near the road. My two hours here were quite productive, and its definitely a spot I'll be revisiting at some point in the future (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47219650). From there I drove the loop around Sidley Mountain Rd (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47219630) before heading back toward Osoyoos. In town, I stopped in at a grocery store to pick up some lunch and breakfast foods, before making my way up toward the Kilpoola Lake area, where I figured I'd have a nice quiet lunch break out of the heat and look for one or two birds I was still missing. On my way up, I was driving with the windows down, as I usually do on back roads while out birding, and heard a call that sounded out of place yet oddly familiar. Could it be? I quickly stopped the car and stuck my head out to listen. The bird called again, confirming my initial suspicions - Lesser Goldfinch! I jumped out of the car, camera in hand, and managed a few shots before the bird flew off over the hill (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47211004). I looked around for a few minutes but it seemed like the bird had departed, so I carried on up to my lunch spot by the lakes, and tried texting out photos of the bird to get the word out - cell service was pretty spotty but eventually the message went through. I had just seen and heard lots of these earlier in the spring in Utah, and the year before in California, but it was a pretty nice addition to my Canada list! I spent the next while up in the Kilpoola Lakes area, eating lunch and watching the birds and butterflies while looking unsuccessfully for Dusky Grouse (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47219617). After this rather enjoyable respite from the heat, I went back to the goldfinch spot, hoping for a repeat performance. After getting out of the car, I quickly heard the bird again, and then to my surprise saw not one, but two males chasing one another around and singing. One of the males came back and fluttered around some roadside bushes, and upon closer inspection I discovered a female bird there (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47214287). Three Lesser Goldfinches, in one spot! This was somewhere around the 30th record for Canada, and I'm pretty sure all of the other ones were single birds. Remarkably, later in the year this little flock would grow to at least 15 individuals, perhaps indicating they were or will soon be breeding in the area.

Lesser Goldfinch near Osoyoos
 Once I'd had my fill of the little goldfinch party, I made my way up Mt Kobau, where the bird activity was a bit low in the afternoon heat, but I did finally manage to pick up a Dusky Grouse (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47219560). From the top, I could see that some other birders had arrived at the goldfinch spot, so I made a brief stop there to say hi before continuing on my way westward. A quick stop on the Nighthawk Rd turned up some panting sparrows (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47219439) - it was around 36C by now - but no Chukars. My last birding stop for the day was the alpine road in Manning Park, where I hoped to see a Sooty or Dusky Grouse along the roadside, or get some photos of nutcrackers at the lookout. I had no luck with these, and didn't really have many birds to speak of during my whole time here, but did have a nice walk along the Heather Trail at the top (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47224819). I then carried on toward Falls Lake, which would be my camping spot for the night, and was in bed at the relatively early hour of 9:30pm (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47224951). 485 km today, and some fantastic birding!

Manning Park from the lookout

July 16th was another early one, as I wanted to be on the trail by first light and up the mountain before it got too hot. The trail in question was the Needle Peak/Flatiron Mountain trail north of Hope, in the Coquihalla Recreation Area. I had seen quite a few reports of a certain alpine bird from the top, and figured I'd give it a shot. After a few weeks of mostly being confined to the car and short walks, it was also nice to get out and stretch my legs for a bit. The hike started off innocuous enough, gaining a bit of elevation through some nice coniferous forest. Eventually it got steep - really steep, and after a lot of huffing and puffing I eventually came out on a gently sloping, mostly open ridge. Making my way up this, I eventually hit snow, and a few Hoary Marmots, in a little gulley-like area before reaching the T-junction. Turning left would take me to Needle Peak, while turning right would lead to Flatiron. I turned right, as my target bird seemed more reliable that way. After losing elevation down another ridge, it was a short hike up to a small alpine lake, surrounded by rock-strewn meadow and snow.

The alpine lake on Flatiron Mountain
There were quite a few mosquitoes out, as the weather was absolutely spectacular - blue skies, no wind, and a nice temperature, but they proved only a minor distraction as I quickly located my target! A female White-tailed Ptarmigan (my 400th species for the year in Canada) came trundling down the snowy, rocky slope, with her brood of chicks in tow. I ditched my pack and scrambled through the boulders, positioning myself near where I thought she was heading. At first she seemed a little alarmed by the big intruder, but once I settled in, she calmed down and brought her chicks right over to where I was sitting. The little fluffballs wandered around, picking food out from between the rocks under the close watch of momma ptarmigan, as I sat still and snapped probably way too many photos. Eventually a male flew in to keep tabs on his territory, and then flew right over my head on his way downslope. Not long after, the female led her chicks down toward the lake, and I retrieved my pack before heading up to the summit (and had a Black Swift fly by on the way).

Momma White-tailed Ptarmigan
One of her brood of four chicks
 The name of the mountain is apt, as the top is really quite flat, with plenty of short alpine plants and small pools of water. Up here, I found several more ptarmigan, along with a few breeding Horned Larks and American Pipits, and a small group of Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches flew by. After wandering around for a while, enjoying the company of the ptarmigan, I took a lunch break on a little cliff overlooking the lake and a small waterfall.

Looking toward Needle Peak from the top of Flatiron
My lunch spot overlooking the lake
Male White-tailed Ptarmigan

Then it was time for me to head back down, and I took a quick but refreshing dip in the lake before retracing my steps down the trail. I had made it about halfway back down before I ran into the first of several hiking groups on their way up - I had definitely beaten the crowd, and it was spectacular having the mountain all to myself (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47235428). After making it back to the car and driving a ways, I stopped in at the Great Blue Heron Nature Reserve near Chilliwack, where a Black Phoebe had set up shop for the summer. It was just my luck, however, that the sighting the previous day turned out to be the last time the bird was ever seen... (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47267305).

Pacific Forktail at the GBH Nature Reserve
I then made my way into Vancouver, where a Great-tailed Grackle had spent the entire spring in a little abandoned lot. Dipped on that too, then went to Iona where the bird had also been seen recently. No sign of any grackles, and the shorebird selection was pretty weak as the tide was out (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47267291). I then grabbed some dinner and made my way over to Boundary Bay to wait for the tide to come in at the end of 104th St. After quite a long wait, and walking a ways down the dike toward a flock of shorebirds, the tide eventually came in, and the birds moved closer, and closer, and then suddenly took off and flew in the opposite direction, just as I was getting close enough to ID most of them (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47267285). Argh! I made a quick stop at the end of 88th St, but it was immediately apparent that no birds were there, so I cut my losses and headed up to West Vancouver to catch the last ferry of the day to Nanaimo. It was already dark by the time the ferry left, so I didn't get any birding in. Once on the other side, I drove north, arriving at a little side road near Mt Washington at something like 1am. Someone was already camped in the little spot I'd picked out on Google Maps, so I went a bit farther up the road to a wide spot, and crawled into bed. 447 km driven today, plus the ferry.

July 17th, my last day of the roadtrip. I was up before dawn, and dozed until it was light enough to see. I'd deliberately slept at my target spot for the morning, so I was in no real rush to get going. Eventually the sun came up, and I spent the next three hours walking back and forth on the little side road, as well as along the main road, checking warbler flocks and really any bird I could find. Eventually I caught a glimpse of my target - a male Hermit Warbler that had held a territory here for the last month (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47267296). It was quickly gone though. About an hour later, I heard it sing once, then nothing. Another hour went by and I had the bird actually fly over me across the road, got it lined up in the camera while in flight, and then my camera shutter wouldn't work. Frustrating! In checking what was wrong with my camera, I lost track of the bird and then was unable to find it again. This entire time, a Sooty Grouse had been hooting from across the road, so I gave up on the Hermit Warbler and went to try to track down the grouse. This proved fruitless, and although the bird kept calling I just couldn't figure out where it was - I've still never actually seen a Sooty Grouse, despite hearing them calling on a few occasions... Some day! Band-tailed Pigeon and Red-breasted Sapsucker were also new for the year. On my way south, I made a quick stop at Goldstream Provincial Park, dipping on dipper (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47267270), before arriving at my final destination near Metchosin, where I'd be living and working for the fall as the bander-in-charge at the Rocky Point Bird Observatory (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47267264). 253 km today to end the trip.

My first Band-tailed Pigeon of the year, while looking for the Hermit Warbler
Overall, it was a fantastic trip, covering most of the ecosystems in the southern part of Canada. It was great to get to spend some time birding the prairies and the Okanagan Valley, two areas which I hadn't visited in 10+ years, and to have a nice camera with me to document a lot of what I saw along the way. Since it was July, past the peak of breeding season, and in the midst of a major, country-wide heat wave, I had set out with rather low expectations of being able to actually find my targets, but I ended up managing to find almost everything I set out to, plus a few bonus birds. The ones I missed will just have to wait for another time...

1 comment:

I'm Birding Right Now said...

What, what a trip report. I dig your frugal road-trip style. Great photos, too - a White-tailed ptarmigan chick?!! Awesome!