Monday, 10 January 2022

Fraser Valley Big Year 2021

Banford Road/Chilliwack

         The last few moments of my Fraser Valley (FV) Big Year were spent on Banford Road. It was freezing cold, I lent out the car window and photographed snow drifting across the road.  It was my last chance to add a few more birds to my year list. The light was fading, the roads icy, it was time to call it a day. 
It had been a good year, better than I ever thought possible with so many good memories to carry forward. 

I had previously birded a few of the better known FV locations including Cheam Wetlands, The Great Blue Heron Reserve and Hope Airport. There were however many areas I hadn't. The idea was to explore, bird and have quality time. 

-13 celsius with a wind sheer of -35c. Snow drifting across Banford Road.

Mountain Bluebird
January 19/2021

There was help. The BC Rare Bird Alert  run by Mel Hafting regularly lists FV rarities and the Fraser Valley Birding site operated by Gord Gadsden reports local sightings. Both are invaluable assets. Another resource for the FV birder is eBird's Fraser Valley Hotspots 

The free ap provides stats and sightings. I studied it, mapping out where and when birds might be found. 
In the last decade eBird has changed the science of birding in the same way digital photography has. 

Horned Lark on a warmer day

         Birding in the FV was different right from day one. Unlike Metro Vancouver where a well oiled network of birders share finds 24/7 the FV has no such network, none I could find initially. At first I hardly ever met another birder. That changed as the months passed by and I began to make a few contacts, some of whom have become good friends. The only time birders seemed to meet en masse would be for a twitch. A good example was the recent sighting of a Red-shouldered Hawk at the Tuyttens Rd Wetlands in Agassiz.

Tuyttens Wetlands


Earlier in the year I had some good birds at Tuyttens. Townsend's Solitaire, Least and Western Sandpiper, Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs and Redhead, all the while surrounded by stunning scenery. I made at least a dozen trips on my way back and forth to bird Harrison Lake and nearby Cheam Wetlands

Red-shouldered Hawk.

 Other notable twitches included a Least Flycatcher, American White Pelican, Blue Jay and Black Phoebe to name just a few. Birding in the FV was mostly a solitary affair except for a couple of group trips with Ed, John, Joel and Larry up to Manning Park. 

Glaucous Gull


Here are some of my favourite FV Big Year birds by location. 

Columbia Valley

The Columbia Valley is reached by passing through Cultus Lake and completing a loop which skirts along the US border. A little creepy when you know there are camera watching your every move but great for birding.  

Red-breasted Sapsucker.


John Vooys and Ed Klassen showed me around the valley including a feeder where on my third attempt I snagged these grosbeaks as they came to ground for a drink.

Evening Grosbeak.

 Sumas Prairie

Trumpeter Swans and Snow Geese on Sumas Prairie, days before the Big Flood.
iPhone 8

Driving along Sumas Prairie an American Kestrel was hunting alongside the road. The car made for a great blind, opening a car door would no doubt have flushed the bird and more importantly lost any chance of the bird making a kill. Later on the same field a Rough-legged Hawk provided another opportunity. I waited for it to fly low so I could frame it against mountains in the distance. A White bird against a white sky does not normally make for a good composition.

American Kestrel hovering over a ditch.

Rough-legged Hawk.

 Hillkeep Regional Park/Chilliwack Mountain

    My favourite park for migratory birds was Hillkeep Regional Park where I found several species of warblers, flycatchers and swifts between early mid-May and June1. An easy hike and quiet. Part of the park overlooks the Trans Canada where the noise of traffic is evident. The north side of the park however overlooks the Fraser River and is quiet enough to make sound recordings. I was lucky enough to bird Hillkeep three times and had fallouts twice. My first visit resulted in several species of warblers, the second a fallout of Olive-sided flycatchers. On another visit I was treated to a small flock Black Swift feeding on an insect hatch.

Black-throated Grey Warbler/Hillkeep Park Chilliwack.

A view from Hilkeep.


Black Swift.

 North Bend/Fraser Canyon

I spent one day in the Fraser Canyon a week before wildfires closed the roads. In the scheme of things it was the beginning of an Annus Horribilis for BC residents dealing with fires, heat domes, floods and a deep freeze. My heart goes out to anyone caught up in any of those climate disasters. In the scheme of things a Big Year was somewhat of a frivolous endeavour compared to all the woes many others experienced. It did however keep me grounded while so many suffered and continue to suffer from the pandemic.

There were a number of birds that were relatively easy to find in North Bend including Nashville Warbler, Chipping Sparrow and Veery, all really tough in the lower FV.

Nashville Warbler.

North Bend looking toward Boston Bar.



 Willband Creek Park

Early morning at Willband.

Willband Creek Park is the place to find several species of duck, swan, sandpiper, warbler, four species of swallow, Green Heron, and American Bittern. The latter so elusive that all I ever had were scope views but that is all a lister really needs for a tick. The former bird photographer in me would have been most disappointed but over the years I have incorporated scoping and general birding into my photography and as the Brownies say, 
"Get what you get and don't get upset".

Northern rough-winged Swallow.

Yellow-breasted Chat.

    It was June 14 when John Vooys alerted me to a rare Yellow-breasted Chat. His keen ear had picked up the bird in a far corner of Willband Creek and he had asked me to see if I could check it out and make sure of the ID with a photograph. The chat was feeding on what looked like English Hawthorn although I might be corrected on that. His hunch was dead on. The chat stayed around for a couple of weeks and eventually many got on the bird, It was about this time I was beginning to make more some contacts in the FV birding community.

 Kilby Provincial Park

Due to wild fires and Covid-19 travel restrictions I decided to plan my birding/camping around a number FV campgrounds. Kilby Regional campground for example allowed me to bird not only the Kilby Village area but also nearby Harrison Mills and areas upstream. There were good numbers of birds both on the water and in the forest where I found a Cassin's Vireo, one of my target birds. Purple Martins were singing from telephone wires and fledgling Barn Swallows were taking their first flights. One of my Purple Martin sound recordings made it on the Macaulay Library which was a first for me.

Townsend's Solitaire/Kilby Regional Park.

 Cheam Wetlands Regional Park

Cheam Wetlands in summer.

Cheam Wetlands produced some really good birds including Eastern Kingbird, Solitary Sandpiper and American Redstart. There was always something of interest on the lake itself. Blue-winged, Cinnamon Teal and Northern Waterthrush, Osprey and others.

Western Wood-Pewee.

Island 22 Regional Park

One species I particularly wanted to see in the Fraser Valley was the American Redstart. After dipping on the species several times and wary of the notorious Island 22 mosquitos I arranged to meet Ed Klassen. I remember the day very well, it was around the time that 751 unmarked graves were found at the site of a former residential school in Saskatchewan. We exited our respective cars having both listened to the same news broadcast on CBC radio. Both of us were stunned, shocked by the horrific stories we had just heard. 
We needed to get into the forest and look for birds, it would help soothe our thoughts. Soon enough, after searching a number of likely spots Ed heard the telltale call and song of the redstart.
The beauty of the situations is that when looking or listening for a bird the hours go by and the thought processes just calm right down. I can see why many birders forgo the camera and just carry bins.

American Redstart.

Great Blue Heron Reserve

The birds and the ticks (not the biting type) kept coming, a few of us re-found the Least Flycatcher at the Great Blue Heron Reserve where I bumped into Ed again. Krissi Martin was there too. Later in the year she would help me find a Harris Sparrow. While looking for the elusive flycatcher an American Redstart flew a few feet above us, this time a female. Eventually I would have redstarts at three different locations. On the way back to the car a pair of raucous Great Horned Owls provided another year bird, what a way to end the day.

Least Flycatcher.

Harrison Lake and Lagoon

Harrison Lake foreshore.

Harrison Lake is a hotspot. Birds of all kinds birds funnel up and down the valley during migration, some staying longer periods while other species may only dwell a few hours. Some birds were five minute wonders, only seen by a lucky few. Good examples were Arctic Tern and Semi-palmated Plover. I tried for Vesper Sparrow six times without luck. The sheltered lagoon in town is always a good spot for wintering wildfowl. It was around the lagoon I photographed of Horned Lark, Caspian Terns, Bonaparte Gulls, Western, Least, Baird's and Spotted Sandpipers and on several occasions Red-necked Phalarope. Out on the lake the prize sighting was a Black Scoter in September. Other scoters included White-winged and Surf.
One day I met FV eBird co-ordinator Gord Gadsden and we discussed the ever changing procession of birds on the lake. He suggested if I had the time I might want to spend a day just scoping the lake. 
A few days later Oct 6 I did just that.

Baird's Sandpiper

The day began slowly with a pair of Western Grebes in the distance. Then a White-winged Scoter and eight Greater Scaup. Twenty-Two surf Scoters appeared out of nowhere. Periods of no birds gave me time for my lunch and coffee, all the while sitting on a conveniently placed park bench. Four very hungry Snow Geese and Two Greater White Fronted Geese landed metres from me and provided some great photo ops. Just as Gord had predicted the procession of birds kept coming and going. Horned and Red-necked Grebes. Yellow-rumped warblers feeding amongst the shoreline willows. The day had been most interesting, 15 species in all but no new year birds.

Harrison Lagoon.

Red-necked Phalarope showing the webbed feet.

 I decided to take one more scan of the lake before leaving for home, to my complete surprise I spotted a what looked like a Brown Pelican, it was just a speck in the distance. I drove to the marina to get a better look. Any suggestions circulating that I exceeded the speed limited are just ugly rumours. The moment I arrived the bird had flown off toward Sasquatch Provincial Park. Thinking that the opportunity was lost I sent the news out to Gord and anyone else who had helped me in my Big Year. I sent a blurry pix Mel the BC Rare Bird Alert co-ordinator and soon other birders began arriving, the word was out. The pelican then suddenly returned and spent close to an hour flying around Harrison Bay and marina, periodically landing amongst the California Gulls. 
The bird was a new FV bird for everyone. Brown Pelicans are turning up more often on the BC coast but inland is highly unusual. If I had contributed one thing to anyones FV year list the Brown Pelican was it, that's good Karma and my 200th FV year bird. 

Brown Pelican

Some odds and ends

Sometimes a bird proves really elusive. One such case was the Harris Sparrow in Abbotsford. Once it was reported a number of us went to have a look. The bird was coming to a balcony feeder. Several of us spent hours in the cold and rain peering at the feeder while standing on the roadside. I cannot imagine what the neighbours were thinking but it was a fruitless and frustrating exercise. The only birds we did see were House Finches and Dark-eyed Juncos. The Harris we were told was travelling with a few White-crowned Sparrows but they rarely showed up and always without the Harris. After two attempts I decided to be pro-active and knock on the door of the house across the street where Krissi had seen it fly to. I knocked on the neighbours door explained the concept of a Big Year and politely asked if I could peer over their backyard fence to see if I could see the bird. I tried twice and both times could only stand the bitter cold for about thirty minutes. I finally came up with a cunning plan and vowed to return. The third visit I brought along some bird seed and asked the owner to spread some on the ground. Being a ground feeders, it only took a few minutes for both the White-crowned and the Harris to appear out from the undergrowth and bingo, I had my two-hundredth and sixth species for the year and what eventually turned out to be my last FV tick.

Finding the Harris Sparrow reminded of the lengths I used to go to get a picture when I worked on newspaper photo stories . I felt good to find the Harris and that my plan worked. 

Harris Sparrow
Private Yard Abbotsford

 Last Thoughts

      Finally, I would like to thank first and foremost Gord Gadsden, Ed Klassen and John Vooys for taking me under their wings right from the very start. It was Gord who suggested two-hundred year birds would be a good benchmark. I took him on his word. Their combined local knowledge made a huge difference to my final tally. Larry Hooge and Joel Schmidt for the tips on where to find a Western Grebe and Chipping Sparrow on the Matsqui Trail. Krissi Martin for a tip about the Harris Sparrow and the McDonald family for timely texts, all very much appreciated.
Dave Beeke who tipped me off to Band-tailed Pigeons at his feeder and for pointing out an Eared Grebe on Cultus Lake. Jonathan Pap for setting up a Whats Ap group to relay our finds to each other. If I have missed anyone I apologize*.
I can't possibly try to convey a years worth of birding in a blog but for those who keep tabs on such things I birded over one thousand hours ending with two hundred and six species, six more that my target. I heard a few birds but not enough to count them, a few hoots of a Western Screech Owl never made the list but there is alway hopefully another day out in the valley. I upped my Fraser Valley life list to 218 from 156 species a gain of 56 species.
If you got this far in the blog then thanks for reading and have a healthy, happy and birdy 2022.

*In my rush to publish this blog I did forget Jim Buis from Brookside Inn who allowed me to check out his feeders and introduced me to Jim Telford who allowed me to wander around his back-forty. It was there that I eventually snagged a Bank Swallow for my year list.
Vedder Canal

American White Pelican/Vedder Canal

"It's never too late for a Big Year"
John Gordon

Saturday, 13 November 2021

Size Matters

Sat Nov 13, 2021 
Sumas Prairie

Today while out looking for the elusive Cattle Egret I happened upon a flock of swans. As usual I scanned the birds until one caught my attention. It was quite a bit smaller than the swan next to it. Through my bins I noticed the yellow lore, the field mark for a Tundra Swan. Here was an opportunity to photograph both species in the same frame, all I had to do was wait until a Trumpeter walked close enough. Like many, I have difficulty in separating one scaup from another or for that matter one gull from another. The list goes on. Bird identification it seems is a life-long study. Often the swan's bills are covered in mud making precise identification difficult. The comparison photo included shows difference in size between the two species.

Trumpeter on the left.

Thursday, 7 October 2021


 Friday Sept 24 2021

Flat-out on Flatiron.

Granite slabs are scattered everywhere on Flatiron. The nooks and crannies in the rock harbour insects and plants, the flowers and seeds providing a rich food source for the many inhabitants.

Flatiron gleams in the sunlight

The forest trail to Flatiron was steep, rocky, slippery and wet. There was hardly a sound in the forest, just the odd Chestnut-backed Chickadee and Douglas Squirrels. Mushrooms were abundant. A few pickers were out collecting. After a two kilometre hike the forest opened up providing 360 degree views of the surrounding mountains. 

Yak Peak and mountain pond.

During the summer there had been numerous reports of Northern Pygmy Owls, Mountain Chickadees, White-winged Crossbills and White-tailed Ptarmigan, all birds I needed for my Fraser Valley Big Year* 
 Craig, my hiking companion for the day soon picked up the call of a Northern Pygmy Owl. Fortunately we were able to climb a little higher until we stood on the same level as the bird which was perched right above the trail.

Northern Pygmy-Owl

Then to our surprise a second owl perched alongside. The birds had their eyes on something, they seemed agitated. One of the birds plunged into the undergrowth and out of sight, looking back the other owl had left too. What a start to the day.

 Moments later they were gone.

 We continued upward, my legs turning to putty and heart racing, my lack of fitness leaving something to be desired. Five minute breaks were the order of the day. Climbing higher a flock of White-winged Crossbills were feeding on Sitka Spruce cones. They stayed long enough for a few photographs.

White-winged Crossbill.

Crossbills pry open the cones with their powerful bill and extract the seeds. 

 Eventually we reached the monument and a fork in the trail. Needle Peak to the left and to the right Flatiron and hopefully the Ptarmigan. We were still 1.5 km away. When we arrived there were already a few hikers and swimmers cooling off in the lake but alas no Ptarmigan. A flock of birds flew overhead, they sounded like Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch but I couldn't make them out or get an ID picture.

Craig takes in the view with Flatiron in the middle distance. 

 Craig decided to make his own way up the granite strewn escarpment. I waited below. Eventually through my binoculars I could see by his stance he was photographing something, probably the Ptarmigan. It was time for me to move.

 A climb from the lake to the summit took another twenty minutes. 

Suddenly my legs came to life, the energy that had been drained away on the hike had miraculously returned. Soon I was within metres of the summit and the radio tower. That last scramble was a 167 m gain but well worth it. As I reached the summit my heart was beating so hard I couldn't hold the camera still, especially a 500 mm.  I waited a few moments before firing off a few frames in case the Ptarmigan decided to take off on me. They didn't. 
The master of disguise.

Among the tangle of rocks a slight movement gives away an elusive White-tailed Ptarmigan. 

The Ptarmigans's plumage is a perfect defence against aerial predators.

The perfect camouflage.  

Eventually we counted twenty-five or more Ptarmigan, most were hidden in cracks or in the shade of the rocks, yet others nibbling on a type of sedge. Their presence became apparent only when they moved. 

Once the birds realized we posed no threat the covey came out to feed.

There was plenty of vegetation between the outcrops.

At this point I wish I had brought my Nikon 200mm-500mm F 5.6 zoom rather than my fixed 500 mm F5.6 prime. While Craig was able to stand in one spot and compose his photographs I had to back up. A zoom would have been a better option, albeit heavier. 
I used a CCS G3 Cotton Carrier camera and binocular harness with the 500 mm on my chest and my binoculars on the side. During the hike I hardly noticed their presence except when I needed to shoot. I've photographing for forty years and it has proven to be the very best carrying system I have ever used.

Part of the  covey.

We reached an elevation of 1898 m with a combined elevation gain of 867 m from the car park. Eventually it was time to leave and make our way back down the mountain. The Ptarmigan were my third year bird** for the day. 

 Needle Peak from the lake.

The walk back was filled with the most majestic views imaginable, it's been a long time since I had been hiking. I had forgotten how beautiful the mountains can be. I used my iPhone 8 to take the accompanying scenics.

 The descent I was warned could be as difficult as the accent. True to form the steep trail was a combination of wet moss and slippery granite, for me at least it was treacherous. I'm glad I carried a pole for balance.

On the decent I thought I heard chickadees. Eventually, after a bit of searching we found four Mountain Chickadee, right on the trail,  the fourth year bird of the day. I screwed up the exposure but thankfully I had shot in Raw and was able to save the picture albeit the highlights were lost. A shame really as the background was perfect.

Mountain Chickadee

A hour later were we almost back at the car. My brain and feet were completely out of sync. I was exhausted, both mentally and physically. However both the birds and scenery were well worth the effort. Who knows, I might even try another hike one day.

Established in 1986, Coquihalla Summit Recreation Area lies in the territories of the Nlaka’pamux, Sto:lo, and Yale First Nations. (Outdoor Vancouver

*A big year is a personal challenge or an informal competition among birders who attempt to identify as many species of birds as possible by sight or sound in any one year.

** A year bird is a new species found during a big year.

"It's never too late to take a hike"

John Gordon


BC Canada