On a family vacation to the Okanagan in August, I had a bit of the blind luck that sometimes enters the life of a naturalist. My wife Karen and daughter Maia and I were reading quietly on a stony beach along Okanagan Lake one morning and a bird flew in at our feet. Thinking more about vineyards and wineries than birds at the time, I was actually reading Roadside Nature Tours through the Okanagan A Guide to British Columbia's Wine Country, a book by one of Canada's most prominent bird experts, Dick Cannings. The bird that made me look up from my book was feeding on the beach only six feet away from me and seemed not to notice or mind us there. "Hello, what are you doing here?" As the words came out I realized I was looking at a Surfbird, a species that belongs on the Pacific Coast and not the interior of B.C. I called Dick and though he put out the alert to others, it was not seen again. Luckily it stayed long enough for me to run and get the camera, proving a first record for the species in the Okanagan.
A couple of days later Dick invited us to visit the Vaseaux Lake Bird Observtory in the southern Okanagan next to one of the most picturesque bodies of water in the valley.
Here is Doug Brown (right), who runs the station, watching Allan, a volunteer, remove a bird from the mist net.
Just as Karen, Maia and I arrived, Doug and Allan came back from making their rounds to the nets. After entering the screen tent where they do the banding Doug opened one of his little cotton sacks (they always remind me of Rusty the Rooster's home on The Friendly Giant), and pulled out this lovely Yellow Breasted Chat. The B.C. population of chats is listed as Threatened based on work done by Dick. We felt fortunate to see one in the hand--and to watch a skilled bander like Doug work so rapidly and efficiently with the birds.
The hat I received earlier in the summer from B.C.'s Grasslands Conservation Council got hung up on one of the support lines for a mist net.
While we watched the bird banding work, Dick was out in the valley bottom running a regular bird survey he does for the station. When he finished, we followed him to a grassland and talus-slope spot where we could listen for Canyon Wrens.
In this photo we are watching for a wren that Dick has managed to call in with his very effective imitation of its descending whistle.
Next to the place where we were straining to see the wren, was this pictograph on a large boulder.
Later Dick toured us through the valley and to White and Green lakes where we saw a flock of Western Bluebirds, some Pygmy Nuthatches and Cassins Finches. Along the way, Dick told me about the the proposed national park for the grasslands of the Okanagan and Similkameen valleys. He sits on an advisory committee for the proposed park, and has been working hard with other B.C. conservationists for many years, making the case for the park and helping landowners and First Nations leaders see the value in having it established. I asked him about the "No National Park" signs we had seen all over the south Okanagan. To us it seemed like there was a strong core of organized opposition.
"No," Dick said,"It's basically just a couple of people who are pressuring landowners to put up the signs. We've done polls that show a strong majority support for the park." Dick is confident that the obstacles remaining in the way of an Okanagan-Similkameen park will fall in coming years, protecting a good chunk of this rare grassland and its many endangered species from the ferocious development pressures the region faces.
Here is what the Parks Canada site has to say about the area set aside for a park under a memorandum of understanding signed between Canada and B.C: "Desert-like ecosystems with sagebrush and cactus are found on valley bottoms, changing at higher elevations to dry forests of ponderosa pine and Douglas-fir, or sub-alpine forest and alpine tundra. This area is one of the most interesting and ecologically diverse parts of Canada, with many native plants and animals, and natural communities found nowhere else in Canada."
[For more information on the park, Okanagan birds and Dick's ventures as a low-carbon, cycling birder, be sure to take a look at his wonderful blog, "Birds and Books".]
I will get back to writing posts about grassland issues soon, but first I thought I'd show a few bird photos from some of my travels this summer--in grassland and elsewhere:
This black-billed cuckoo shot was taken by my good friend Chris Reed who lives in Toronto but comes out to Saskatchewan where he and his partner keep a second home in a small town. Chris is the naturalist who appears in the Greater Sage-Grouse chapter of Grass, Sky, Song. I was in Toronto in July at a reading at the Harbourfront Centre and Chris and I went for a long bird walk on the Leslie Street Spit. We heard the cuckoo first and then discovered it near at hand on a low branch. If you look at the throat in this image you can see how it distends as it utters its low, "cow-cow" song.
Now for some grassland birds, taken mostly in the upper Indian Head Creek drainage, on and around the Strawberry Lakes Community Pasture, the landscapes featured in Grass, Sky, Song.
This male Bobolink (a species of concern according to COSEWIC) let me get rather close to him in the saline grass along Indian Head Creek just west of our property.
Here are a couple more shots, including a final one with his more cryptically-plumaged spouse:
While I was standing at the edge of this wet grassland, a Wilson's Phalarope nesting in the creek's marshes kept circling overhead and giving its alarm calls:
On the uplands above the valley, the community pasture was in high June bloom, spangled with astragulus, pentstemmon, gaillardia, and anntenaria flowers.
An upland sandpiper cirled past me and landed in the grass momentarily. . .
. . .before rising up again to fly past. It must have had a nest or young in the vicinity so I backed away.
Another prairie shorebird, the willet, flew over while I retreated.
Turkey vultures often wait for the sun to warm the air in groups along fencelines. On my return drive, I found eight of them perched on eight fenceposts, lined up like some kind of grim tribunal of old men. Here is a shot of one of them.
Here are the best shots of ruby-throated hummingbirds I could manage this summer. First a couple of females in flight . . .
. . . and two shots of a male perched (when the sun is not hitting the gorget directly, it turns black):
Two pairs of Eastern Phoebe nest in buildings on the property. This one was flycatching for the young in its nest by sallying out over one of our garden plots.
In late July we had a moonrise that shot the sky with colour and streams of light after a rain shower.
The next morning, July 26, was calm so I rose early to see what grassland songbirds I could find in the western part of the pasture land. Here is what our little valley looked like, with strands of mist hugging the hills and lake, as I drove up onto the prairie:
The first birds I heard were Grasshopper Sparrows, singing from barbed wire perches.
Here is a closer view of one singing:
Nearby I found a lone Sprague's Pipit, as usual several hundred feet up in the air--damned near impossible to see with the naked eye and still only a smidgen through my 400mm zoom lens.
I saw a handful of Western Meadowlarks that morning. This was the only one who allowed me a photo of his yellow breast. Something about this pose and the shape of the chevron on his breast reminds me of the Fred Lahrman painting on the cover of GSS.
These young Brown-headed Cowbirds were feeding among a herd of Angus on the pasture.
This summer we followed the fortunes of a pair of Cedar Waxwings who nested in the lilac hedge near our cabin. Here is photo of an adult on the nest on July 13:
When it flew off to feed, I snuck a shot of the eggs.
By August 2, the nest looked like this.
As far as I know, three young waxwings fledged.
Next posting, I will show some images from a holiday to the Okanagan, which has perhaps the rarest kind of grassland in Canada.
Out at the cabin for the last couple of weeks, I haven’t been able to post to Grass Notes, but when I get some time I will post some photos from the summer. Meanwhile, here are a couple of thoughts on grassland conservation that have been on my mind:
My ecologist friend, Rob Wright, told me recently that out of the 1.2 million acres of land in the Regina Plain Landscape Area (or ecodistrict K17 - on the Ecoregions of Saskatchewan map), a mere 450 acres still have their native grass cover. That means 99.07% of the native grass on the Regina Plains is gone. What can one say about that kind of annihilation?
Carla Sbert of Nature Canada sent me an article from the June 2007 issue of WorldBirdwatch, entitled “The Tyrant and the Gaucho.” It is about grassland conservationists in South America facing the same issues we grapple with in this hemisphere. Asked why grassland seems to be so undervalued compared to other kinds of natural cover, Anibal Parera, BirdLife International’s Coordinator of the Alliance for the Conservation of South America’s Southern Cone Grasslands, says “For most people, grasslands are like the freezer—a place where their food comes from. When they think of grasslands, they think of cows, crops, and horses. When people think of forest, they think of jaguars, owls, toucans. . . .” Anibal’s colleague Rob Clay added, “the changes resulting from grassland conversion are less dramatic than those caused by rainforest deforestation, so to the untrained eye there is little difference between a grazed pasture, cereal crops, and pristine grasslands.”