Peace River Birding ~ Part 3

12 June began with early morning optional birding at McQueen’s Slough once again. However, on this occasion we walked to the south and far north ends of the slough, bypassing most of the areas we had covered on 9 June. Jean Dunn enjoyed watching a Marsh Wren build a nest and David Smith was happy to spot a female Yellow-headed Blackbird. Two male Canvasbacks stood out among the other ducks which also included a few Redheads. Russ pointed out half a dozen Black Terns flying over the southwest shore of the slough. Pairs of Tree Swallows appeared to patiently wait for the tour to pass before returning to their nest boxes where incubation was underway. A pair of Eastern Kingbirds was seen carrying nest materials around a dead bush halfway up the east pathway. Other species of note included a Clay-colored Sparrow, Wilson’s Snipe winnowing, a single female Wilson’s Phalarope, and a Swamp Sparrow.

After breakfast we picked up the rest of participants and drove to Cornack Road south of Dawson Creek and the tiny communities of Pouce Coupe and Tupper along the British Columbia-Alberta border. Where the road passed through aspen woodlands Russell heard a Philadelphia Vireo, a difficult to find species that many birders miss. Eventually, with a little coaxing, the Philadelphia Vireo flew into the trees along the road. Most people got good looks at the little green and yellow vireo with its black eyes and dark lores.

Across Highway 2 Cornack Road became 201T Road, a dirt lane running to the marshes at southern end of Swan Lake. A grove of large aspens was loud with the songs and calls of a Rose-breasted Grosbeak, White-throated Sparrows, a Tennessee Warbler, ans a Least Flycatcher, all typical and fairly common birds of mature aspen woodlands. In a tangle of living and dead willows at the ecotone between the woods and a sedge marsh, a brightly hued Nelson’s Sparrow lurked behind dead stalks, as is typical of this species. The sparrow was so furtive that only a few of us got good views of it. Try as hard as he could, Russell could not get everyone on this bird which dropped down behind the willows and was lost from view. However about half of us saw it well enough to say we had seen a Nelson’s Sparrow.

A Calliope Hummingbird male was much more visible, perched on a willow stalk over Tupper Creek at the Ducks Unlimited Enhancement Project. Here we added Eastern Phoebe to our growing list of Peace River specialties, as well as an Olive-sided Flycatcher and locally uncommon Northern Rough-winged Swallows. From the farmyard we used scopes to watch a Bald Eagle feed her two five to six weeks old nestlings atop a huge stick nest in a Balsaam Poplar growing at the marshy edge of the lake. Wendy Woodworth, in particular, enjoyed this intimate view of the homelife of eagles.

Although it was lawn mowing day at Swan Lake Provincial Park, David and I spotted a male Baltimore Oriole while the rest of the crew watched a Caspian Tern and two Arctic Terns on the lake. Jean wanted to see a Belted Kingfisher, but I told her that the species was very local in the Peace where the creeks run muddy from natural erosion and fish-eating birds find it hard to see their prey. However, I unfortunately added, “If we’re going to find a kingfisher, it will be here where I’ve seen them several times before!”, words to regret.

SuAnn Hosie of Victoria picked our restaurant for lunch in Dawson Creek, an inspired choice where our server, who I will call Big Blonde, not only efficiently dished up lunch but also hugged or at least put her arm around several of us. We had to ask her not to pick up Heather in a bear hug. Friendly people in the North.

Comstock Marsh occupied part of the afternoon. It’s a Ducks Unlimited development located north of Dawson Creek on a back road. Highlights included passing a man walking to Dawson Creek to some other place far, far away. Heather, recognized that he may be a hiker she had read about, looked him up in her cell phone and updated us on his progress. Meanwhile, I rolled down the driver’s window and talked to a farm dog that wanted to chase our car. The dog looked disappointed and went home. Other highlights were two Trumpeter Swans, well over 20 Ring-necked Ducks, Horned and Eared Grebes, several Ruddy Ducks, Gadwalls, agitated Savannah Sparrows, and a Blue-winged Teal nest with 8 eggs. Val and I chased alpine butterflies to see if they were the same species as southern B.C. or something new.

13 June – Our assault on Pink Mountain. I was both anticipating and dreading this day, anticipating because we were going to summit Pink Mountain off Mile 147 of the Alaska Highway where some interesting and uncommon creatures can be found, mostly notably for this tour more ptarmigans, and dreading because some of the road between the mountain and the highway can become in wet weather a long, ribbon of soap, sending a vehicle into trouble faster than you can say BCAA. Even as we approached the mountain the thunderstorms were gathering around the peaks to the north and west. However, we got lucky. Heather spotted a male Rock Ptarmigan on a ridge only a few metres from the Nissan and all were able to get good looks at it. A few minutes later I got a Horned Lark of the white-faced alpine race in a scope for all to see. Aside from a Townsend’s Solitaire that Pat and Jean spotted, a Hoary Marmot that chose not to try to eat our vehicles, a Savannah Sparrow, and a fine adult male Northern Harrier flying over the ridges, the mountain was quiet. Wendy and I swapped tales about raising difficult children while we started to eat our snacks but a bolt of lightning and some close thunder sent me scurrying back to the SUV faster than a scalded fraidy cat. The others followed in a more dignified retreat.

Sometimes I get a feeling that a certain species of bird is close by. Maybe I unconsciously hear the bird vocalizing at a subliminal level, or perhaps the habitat looks perfect to me. Whatever the unconsciously clue, when we drove into the Inga Lake recreation site I just knew we were going to see a Boreal Chickadee, which we “needed” since we had only glimpsed one previously. As the others were admiring the Tree and Barn swallows and a Common Loon on the choppy lake, I headed for the thickest patch of White Spruces I could see. There I pished for a few phrases and in dropped, you guessed it, a Boreal Chickadee. When I lead the group into the woods to see it, a rotten Cape May Warbler in pretty breeding plumage completely upstaged my poor chickadee which disappeared in a sulk. The clients raved for the rest of the tour about the great looks they had at that stupid warbler. Yeah, yeah, “tinkling flame” of the spruce tops. Tell it to that poor chickadee.

The aspens of Charlie Lake Provincial Park on the west side of the lake had grown some since I last visited in 1997. The forest was full of Yellow Warblers and Least Flycatchers as usual in the summer but we were interested in the boat launch. From this open vantage point we could scan the width of the lake were flocks of migrants, and summer resident and straggling waterfowl traditionally occur. Two adult Mew Gulls were pleasant surprises since Mews have usually passed through the Peace by mid June. A raft of male White-winged Scoters also contained one lone female or immature male Surf Scoter. Wendy spotted about 6 Ruddy Ducks, while the rest of us added our first for the tour Red-necked Grebes as well as Greater and Lesser Scaups. We thought we had spotted a Gray Whale but it was just a local boater with his shirt off.

14 June – Our final day was a half day with an option of early morning birding along Braden Road between Dawson Creek and Fort St. John. We failed to find an Upland Sandpiper but Russell got to admire the phone photo of a Great Gray Owl that a road worker showed us when we inadvertently broke some no-parking –in-a- construction-zone rules. The owl frequently appeared along this section of roadway towards evening and the worker was proud as punch at our admiration of his photo record. Peace Island Park Road was slow for birds and a house with hummingbird feeders along Taylor Flats Subdivision Road was feeding only Calliope Hummingbirds. However Beatton Provincial Park, after breakfast, was more productive with a singing adult Bay-breasted Warbler spotted next to the parking lot during the final hour of birding.

Written by Chris Siddle.

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