Avocet Tours – Peace River Birding, Part 1

June 7 – After meeting at the Stonebridge Inn in Fort St. John the tour participants (10) were taken by the leaders, Russell Cannings and me, Chris Siddle, on a post-supper visit to the provincially famous Fort St. John North Sewage Lagoons. In the 1980s while teaching high school in Fort St. John, I had discovered that a wealth of birds could be found, especially during migration, at both the town’s north and south sets of lagoons. Over time I told other birders of the lagoons which to this day continue to produce an impressive trickle of rarities including Lark Bunting, Ruff, Brant, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Buff-breasted Sandpiper, and Sabine’s Gull, to name a few.

Early June was the traditional time for a few White-rumped Sandpipers to appear at the north lagoons and tonight the tour was lucky enough to see three of these long-winged migrants that winter in South America and breed in Arctic Canada. The Fort St. John Lagoons are the only reliable site in the province for this species. With them were five Semipalmated Sandpipers, and a Solitary Sandpiper. Other waders this evening included a single Greater Yellowlegs, a Wilson’s Snipe, and a Red-necked Phalarope among about 20 Wilson’s Phalaropes, which breed at the lagoons. In fact, male Wilson’s Phalaropes kept springing from the long grasses along the dikes that separate the cells. The females lay their four eggs in a neat clutch between the blades of grass and tonight the tour members were careful to avoid tramping through the nesting areas.

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Group scans for shorebirds at Fort St. John sewage ponds, where they found 3 White-rumped Sandpipers! Photo Russell Cannings.

A wide diversity of waterfowl also occur at the North Lagoons. Tonight Northern Shovelers and Lesser Scaup predominated with smaller numbers of Green-winged and Blue-winged teals, Barrows Goldeneyes and others. In the cattails were Soras and Marsh Wrens . A small colony of Eared Grebes had taken possession of the southwest cell. Other birds of interest included a Clay-coloured Sparrow and a Song Sparrow of the light and very attractive eastern-type race. It was a peaceful and pleasant evening that ended with the group finding 36 species.

June 8 – Today began with an early morning visit to Fish Creek Community Forest on the north edge of Fort St. John where Russell quickly heard the high pitched four note song of the target species, the Cape May Warbler coming from the tops of the White Spruces. Everyone was eventually able to get reasonable views of the single male Cape May that came down to investigate us. Other forest species heard or seen included Red-eyed Vireos and White-throated Sparrows, two Tennessee Warblers, and Peace specialties, the Black-throated Green Warbler and the Blue-headed Vireo. Bob and Kathy Loomis of Virginia Beach were happy to continue their introduction to the birds of the Canadian west. Val George now of Victoria was happy to re-acquaint himself with species he had first grown familiar with during his long tenure in Northern British Columbia.

Johnson Road on the south bank of the Peace River at Taylor is well known to many B.C. birders as the haunt of several species of otherwise hard to find “eastern” species. We visited the farm of Dave and Mary Galus at km 5. Dave and Mary made us welcome and invited us to watch their hummingbird feeder for the occasional Ruby-throated Hummingbirds that sporadically show. We saw a Baltimore Oriole, a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, and an Olive-sided Flycatcher. Other treats included two male Purple Finches, a singing Swainson’s Thrush and a Cedar Waxwing. Since only one hummingbird, a female Calliope, was coming to the feeder, we decided to take the advice of the Galuses and return in the evening when the birds usually appear more frequently.
At Peace River Park near the south banks of the Peace River we ate our lunch and were soon back at looking for birds in the well vegetated bottomland forest on the west edge of the park. New additions to our survey included a very co-operate Northern Waterthrush that posed for Wendy’s point-and-shoot, multiple Rose-breasted Grosbeaks singing from high in the big Balsam Poplars (locally known as “big bams”) that dominate the flood plain forest. In the understory of alder were American Redstarts, White-throated Sparrows, a male Black-and-White Warbler, Least Flycatchers, Red-eyed Vireos, and Yellow Warblers, all typical Peace River birds.

A final stop along Peace Island Park Road brought us sightings of a first-year Magnolia Warbler. I was amazed that a Canada Warbler sang from the same wooded hillside one of his ancestors had sung from 25 years earlier.

An exploration of Gagne Road on the plateau south of the Peace resulting in us encountering Brewer’s Blackbirds, European Starlings, Savannah Sparrows, and an America Kestrel, but no Upland Sandpiper because a gate barred the road to the sandpiper site.

After a heavy thundershower after supper we aborted a stop at Charlie Lake to visit Watson Slough along Highway 29 west of Charlie Lake on a benchland between Cache Creek and the Halfway River. Here things were surprisingly quiet with only one snipe heard, a Pied-billed Grebe calling, a hen Bufflehead stooging around as well as a single Green-winged Teal drake, several Red-winged Blackbirds, a few Common Grackles. Possibly the best sight was not a bird, but a North American Beaver, calmly cruising the slough. Sharp-eyed Patricia Mitchel showed her friend, Jean Dunn, both from Calgary, Cedar Waxwings, and an America Kestrel in the treeline.
We ended our first full day of birding at a dramatic spot, the highway lookout overlooking Attachie and the confluence of the Halfway River with the Peace River. The term “aspect” meaning the amount of sunlight reaching a slope, is very well illustrated by the vista. On the south bank of the Peace River, where the slope faces north, thick bands of White Spruce have grown because of the relatively shaded conditions, but on the Peace’s north bank which faces south and gets many more hours of direct sunlight, conditions are not only lighter but also more exposed to the prevailing southwest winds which allow to grow only grasses, wildflowers, a few drought tolerant shrubs like the aromatic Wolf Willow, as well as groves of aspens among the ephemeral drainages. These natural grasslands (which face south and thus have what’s termed a southern aspect) are called “breaks” and occur along the south and west facing shores of a few western rivers including the Peace and the Missouri.

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Record shot of a good bird in the Peace River! Lazuli Bunting. Photo Russell Cannings.

A few Elk were crossing a farmer’s field far below us and a Red-eyed Vireo sang in the distance. We were enjoying the evening sun and tallying the birds of the last two days when Russell who was leading the count up paused, listened to something way off and announced that he could hear a Lazuli Bunting. Sure enough, within a few seconds Russ set a scope upon a fine male Lazuli singing from a dead sapling. This provided one of only a handful of records of the Lazuli Bunting for the North Peace region.

Chris Siddle – Avocet Tours

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