Monday 30 June 2014

Chilcotin Plateau: Birding with Birders

June 19-25 2014 Puntzi Lake and Vicinity. The Chilcotin Plateau, Central BC

It's an eight hour drive from Cloverdale to Williams Lake and onward to the Chilcotin Plateau. I joined six members of the Langley and South Surrey Field Naturalists for the our annual week long visit to the Chilcotins. On the three previous visits we recorded bird sightings for the BC Bird Atlassing program which has now been concluded and is currently being compiled for publication. This year however we would submit our findings to eBird.
Our first stop for lunch was a fruitful one with sightings of a Wilson's Phalarope and American Wigeon in a small pond near Chasm/Green Lake. By the time we arrived in Williams Lake we were already up to thirty-five species for the day.
As we left Williams Lake heading west we climbed up onto the Chilcotin Plateau where we encountered our first good numbers of Mountain Bluebird and Meadowlark. It was a further 168 kms to Puntzi Lake where we would be based for next six nights.

I brought along the Tamron 150mm-600mm and Nikon D7100 as we would be hiking or driving in cramped quarters with no room for a big lens and tripod. I needed a light rig to take some quick snap shots like the Ruffed Grouse below or in the case of the Townsend's Solitaire after a walk up a fairly steep incline where a heavy lens and tripod would have slowed down the group. I still brought a tripod for those times when I went out on my own. As far as I recollect I shot all these images handheld unless specified in the accompanying cutline.

                                                                             Ruffed Grouse (Bonasa umbellus)
We were in the lodge's driveway on our way out when we spotted this grouse. Her chicks are hiding in the grass.

After checking into our cabins we went for a walk to stretch our legs, it had been a long but eventful drive. Behind the lodge was a steep hillside, predominately pine forest with a few aspens scattered here and there. The forest was slow to reveal its secrets but as soon as we stopped talking and listened a Townsend's Solitaire song could be heard from high up in the canopy.  At first I didn't recognize the song so I played the call and the bird suddenly showed itself, even though binoculars were needed to identify it.

Townsend's Solitaire (Myadetes townsendi)
Shot from two hundred metres away with the Tamron 150mm-600mm, handheld VR enabled.

Elsewhere in the forest Northern Flickers were feeding young, Chipping Sparrows flitted from branch to branch and brownish coloured mosquitos made their unwelcome presence known. There was fresh bear scat which is when I realized I had left the bear spray back at the cabin. Duh!

Red-naped Sapsucker nests were found in this Aspen grove.

 Puntzi Lake Area.

Below is a very vocal Merlin photographed one morning before breakfast. It had a nest nearby and made its presence known with a series of loud raucous calls. For obvious reasons hardly any others birds were to found in the vicinity.
Merlin (Falco columbarius)
I used a tripod for this shot.
In the grounds of the Kokanee Lodge Resort we found Mountain Chickadees, Chipping Sparrows, Warbling Vireo, Orange-crowned Warblers, Western Tanagers and Ruffed Grouse. Red-Naped Sapsuckers were plentiful everywhere as were numerous species of flycatchers. Spotted Sandpipers worked the shoreline and the wailing of Common Loons could be heard across the lake. Barn, Tree and Cliff Swallows were everywhere, under eaves, in nest boxes and in barns. A Northern Rough -winged Swallow colony was spotted beside the road near Redstone where we had a brief glimpse of a Black Bear and later a Mule Deer.

Barrow's Goldeneye (Bucrphala islandica)

Back at the lodge a small flock of Barrow's Goldeneye flew around our heads looking for a nest box or tree cavity.

A scruffy and worn looking Mountain Chickadee (Poecile atricapilla)

 Puntzi Marsh
Day two was spent exploring the area around the lodge. A small pond set aside by Ducks Unlimited provided great views of Ring-necked Ducks, Spotted Sandpipers and American White Pelicans flying overhead as well incredible views of Puntzi Lake.
As we explored back roads we passed through several cattle ranches where we found Vesper and Savannah Sparrows, Northern Flicker and Brown-headed Cowbirds.
Brown-headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater)
It was between the farms, the groves of pine, aspen and open clearings that we saw our first Common Nighthawks. I didn't realize  they fed in the middle of the day. On one occasion we climbed a hill where the added height gave us the opportunity to spot Black Swifts feeding alongside Cliff Swallows. We lunched at the end of Puntzi Lake where Spotted Sandpipers and Kildeer protecting their nests with their 'broken wing' routine. Returning to our vehicles we noticed a Golden Eagle circling on thermals, a 'Lifer' for some on the trip, then a Red-nape Sapsucker flew into a tree beside us to gather insects from a series of sap holes. It took thirty minutes to travel thirty metres as we then encountered two more species of flycatchers. An Osprey flew toward Puntzi Lake and as we returned for supper a Ruffed Grouse held up traffic while giving us great views of its raised crest.

Puntzi Lake 
The next day we spent the morning on the east side of Puntzi Lake. Our target bird was the Three-toed Woodpecker. One of our party, Alice spotted the elusive woodpecker first and therefore bragging rights goes to Alice. A brief glimpse of a Black-backed Woodpecker was also a treat, but far elusive for a photo. No tick for me, I need a better look or even better a decent photo.

Western Tanager (Piranga ludoviciana)

As we left I managed to call in a Western Tanager which was nesting nearby and then a bird caught my eye, it was unmistakably an Olive-sided Flycatcher.

Olive-sided Flycatcher on the nest.

We enjoyed our lunch under blue skies at nearby Puntzi Marsh where our first sighting was a Vesper Sparrow. Thankfully the breeze kept the mosquitos at bay.
The ephemeral marsh had been receding from perhaps a few hundreds of hectares to less than thirty. It has been a dry year with many of the feeder creeks running dry. Just one deep pond remained, it was occupied by a pair of Northern Shoveler. As we walked around a Mountain Bluebird perched on a log, a Kildeer performed the 'Broken wing' trick and a Greater Yellowlegs flew noisily around despite our group being several hundred metres away from its nest.

Greater Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca)

 Central Chilcotin/Tatlayoko Lake/Skinner's Meadow
Another morning began as every morning did, with sunshine. We headed south to Tatla Lake and the Tatlayoko Lake Bird Observatory. The fields were alive with Tree and Barn Swallows as well as Savannah Sparrows and Mountain Bluebird. Check out their website if you want to take part in banding program. We then visited Eagle Lake where we saw only one Arctic Tern and a few American White Pelican, on a previous visit a few years ago there were many more terns but nothing can be guaranteed when birding. We were granted permission to visit Skinner's Meadow which is under the control of the Nature Conservancy of Canada.
As we ate our lunch, surrounded by spectacular meadows and snow covered mountains Vesper, Song and Savannah Sparrows could be seen gathering insects and feeding young. Brown-headed Cowbirds were always lurking around to swoop in and lay their eggs. A number of Sora could be heard and we had a very good sighting of a Virginia Rail. Beside the pond a Red-naped Sapsuckers chicks could be heard chirping inside an aspen tree so we backed off and waited until the parent arrived to feed the young. It wouldn't be far off if I said the most common bird on the trip was the Red-naped Sapsucker, they were everywhere we went.

Skinner's Meadows (above) is natural grassland that the first settlers in the Chilcotins recognized as excellent grazing land. Unfortunately only 2% of the grasslands remnants remain, most of it in Canada and Mongolia. Thanks to contributors to organizations like the Nature Conservancy/Nature Trust and others important areas like this are protected with the aim of creating safe corridors for the creatures who have relied on them for many millennia.

Red-naped Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus nuchalis)

Another day began with the short drive to the Ducks Unlimited property just a few miles from the lodge.
It didn't take long for the lakes to reveal their secrets as a pair of Black Tern flew by, albeit quite a distance away for pictures. Again there were Sora, along with Yellow-headed Blackbirds, Eastern Kingbirds, Tree, Barn and Cliff Swallows. In the hedgerows and on the edges of the wet areas Willow Flycatchers, Cedar Waxwings, Western Tanager added to our ever growing list of species.
Further along the road we visited the Nature Trust's Chilkanto Wildlife viewing area. Amazing scenery and habitat and an old homestead now turned over to the birds and other critters.
We stopped for lunch and rested in the shade of an old farmhouse. There were barn and tree swallows in the air. Some of the birds seemed rather large for swallows, a quick viewing revealed they were Common Nighthawks feeding over the ponds on a recent Mayfly hatch. 

Common Nighthawk (Chordeiles minor)

Walking closer to the lake we passed a pair of Eastern Kingbirds, Yellow-headed Blackbirds, Cedar Waxwing and amongst the nighthawks were an equal number of Black Terns, also feasting on the hatch. 

Black Tern (Chlidoonias niger)

As the trip was coming to an end we decided to go back along South Puntzi Rd to see if we could relocate the Three-toed Woodpecker, alas there were none but we did spot more flycatchers which provided lots of discussion and puzzlement. We used playback to distinguish species. We also watched a Yellow-rumped Warbler feeding a fledged Brown-headed Cowbird but a picture was impossible due the blocking foliage. Our second stop on day 6 was the road leading to Pyper Lake. Like all the locations they are short distances off Hwy 20.

Distant ID shot of an Olive-sided Flycatcher (Contopus cooperi) showing white belly, throat and white patch.
We had seen many flycatchers including Eastern Kingbird, Willow, Olive-sided, Western Wood-PeeWee, Pacific-slope, Alder, Hammond's and now Pyper Road provided us with a Gray Flycatcher, a lifer for most of us. 
The day ended at a road called Chilanko Loop where within minutes we were watching a Northern Waterthrush feeding along the water's edge. I have one fuzzy shot of the bird with two caddis and a  stickleback in its beak. A fish eating warbler, who knew!
Around the bridge where we also spotted Song Sparrow, Cedar Waxwing, Yellow Warbler, and even more Red-naped Sapsuckers.

Last Day: Scout Island Nature Reserve.
We left for Williams Lake at and stopped off at Scout Island as is tradition with our group.
First up were Yellow Warblers and Willow Flycatchers and out in the bay Caspian Terns could be heard long before being seen. As we made our way back to the car we spotted a pair of Red-necked Grebe floated in a backwater, the male bringing food to the young perched on the back of the female, something I had never witnessed.

Red-necked Grebe (Podiceps grisegena)

The icing on the cake was the last shot of the day before leaving for the Lower Mainland. As we left  our trip leader Gareth Pugh noticed a Northern Waterthrush feeding in the shallows close to the bridge linking the islands. With my camera batteries almost depleted I managed to squeeze off a few final frames before heading back to the car and Vancouver.

Northern Waterthrush (Seiurus noveboracensis)

So there it is, we ticked off 113 species, had a wonderful time in some glorious countryside and for myself I added Black Swift, Ruffed Grouse, Gray and Olive-sided Flycatchers to my life list.

It's never to late to start birding

John Gordon

I have tried hard to make this account as readable as possible but as I have explained before, management takes no responsibility for any grammatical errors. However positive feedback is welcome!

All Images and Text ©2014 John Gordon Photography


  1. Beautiful photos John! I love the mountain chickadee and the tanager. You sure were in beautiful country.

  2. The whole trip was amazing with such diversity in both flora and fauna. My favourite day was the evening we counted Common Nighthawks, they were everywhere we stopped. Thanks for the continued feedback.

  3. That was fascinating, so many sightings! Years ago when I use to travel into the Caribou and I was not into birding I thought it was just dead out there, I never noticed any wild life at all. Obviously there are many birds to be seen. I really enjoyed your posting.
    Nick Balachanoff

  4. I was the same before I began to bird seriously (2011). I had been in the area many times photographing California Bighorn Sheep but never saw any birds.