Milestone 700, Ch 36, Fort Nelson to Year’s End

Fort Nelson to Year’s End

From Fort Nelson to somewhere south of Dawson Creek, we would be wending our way out of boreal forests, leaving the fauna boreali-Americana and gradually entering the more familiar biomes of the Pacific Northwest. We will have about five days in the boreal north before the dash across the remainder of British Columbia and south into Washington before reaching home and assessing memories of our northern exposure.

*****

13 June 2013

Nearly every Ft. Nelson motel is full of employees of the many natural gas drilling operations just outside of town. The industry is conducting checks on safety and performance, apparently a standard annual inspection that happens to coincide with our arrival. Just about the time desperation sets in, we locate a motel that had a room. It is only $89 and coffee is complimentary.

Fort Nelson began in 1805 as a fur trading post. Today, most of Ft. Nelson population of 3900 derive income from vast natural gas fields north and east of town. Fracking, with the use of lakes and rivers for a source of water, is widespread in the gas fields. Not unlike the US, local citizens of the region have concerns about the problematic method of gas extraction. Before the growth of the gas industry, several timber companies were cutting boreal forests, but the US economy has dried up sales. My plan is to avoid the gas fields and remaining boreal forests and concentrate on riparian habitat just out of Ft. Nelson.

Heading northeast off the Alcan, I pass Ft. Nelson airport. The paved road then suddenly drops 200 feet down to the hilly slopes above the Muskwa River. Finlay’s bird finding guide replaces the ABA guide here, but it lacks detailed maps. A side road probably leads to the river bank, but resent rain, possibly last night, is not inviting. I can see tracks where someone had attempted to descend the sharp decline, and then turned around. The tracks in the slick mud show a four-wheel vehicle almost not making it back to solid pavement. About a mile east, the pace comes to a standstill by a road crew and the off-chance another road leading into the riparian will be passable. Mud is everywhere, but the parking area is flat. Stepping out onto the mud nearly sends me sprawling until I realize this will require more of a mincing stride and keeping my feet flat and reasonably close together. A misty rain falls and the machines of the road crew are too loud to hear most birds. I coax from the air Swainson’s Thrush and Magnolia Warbler. A couple of Yellow-rumped Warblers are moving from one dripping branch to another just enough to keep me alert for some other species. Between showers of cold mist are clouds of mosquitoes, more road machines, more mud and more silence. I slip and slide back to the birdmobile. Caking mud has built up on the bottoms of my boots, but some is possible to kick off. The rest clings fast to produce my elevated footwear. There is no point but to ignore the mud, so I step in behind the wheel.

The Muskwa and Ft. Nelson Rivers meet somewhere before my muddy foray. About a half-mile eastward, I cross the Ft. Nelson River and drive further northeast. Realizing I am leaving the river bottomlands, I find a place to turn around. Before returning, I explore the turning site, but find only Savannah Sparrow, Pine Siskin, Least Flycatcher and Wilson’s Snipe. Cracking the window just enough to hear and not enough to become wetter, I snack on a can of sardines.

Heading back past the road crew, I reach the first road I earlier rejected. I park at the top of the slope and carefully make my way down the slick incline. If my boots had been flat, I might have been able to almost ski down the slope. I could keep my knees bent and … My rough soles and the mud and gravel packed on the bottoms meant a good gripping step or a slippery ungraceful almost unbalanced slide rather than a step. At least it is not raining. Getting to the bottom is a relief. It is flat, but the dirt road is actually muddier for lack of draining. The Muskwa River flows in silence, but an unfamiliar sound weaves a few bars between singing White-throated Sparrows. Tacking down the bird is easy since the sound is coming from a low extra wet sink. Spishing brings it into the open. It is a Mourning Warbler, a species I have not seen in many years. That is true of the Magnolia Warbler too. The track is along the edge of the river. Riparian vegetation is relatively open and allows a look at a Rough-legged Hawk flying downstream. It is not interested in the Ruby-crowned Kinglets and more and more White-throated Sparrows and Yellow-rumped Warblers.

Mist returns and in a half-mile, I retrace my steps back to the SUV. The Mourning Warbler sounds off as I pass. Half-way back I notice a lightly gravelled road leading to my left. Unable to resist, I hike up the more forgiving surface hoping to see something besides the usual suspects. The occasional conifer offers up White-winged Crossbill. This is only my second time seeing this crossbill since the bird became a life species in 2006. The warblers and crossbills helped make an otherwise unpleasant day worth the effort. Possible Cape May and Bay-breasted Warblers would have been even better, but weather, timing and or effort rule against it.

My mud kicking helps although only slightly with the gathering sticky debris accumulating on the floor mats. A car wash back in Ft. Nelson allows me to hose off my boots, the floor mats and remove the accumulating mud weighing heavily in the fender welds. Rainy days might be good for a few northern birds and even better for doing laundry. A couple of locals at a laundomat recall that the original Alcan Highway was nothing more than a muddy track with bridges supported by river ice. They also tell me there were no roads before then. However, historians claim there was a road between Ft. Nelson and Ft. St. John. Although mile 0 of the Alcan Highway is usually considered at Dawson Creek, that earlier road is reason, according to some, to have Ft. Nelson at mile 0. Regardless, we will be ready tomorrow to begin our journey south to Dawson Creek before recrossing the Rockies and entering home turf.

14 June 2013

A couple of items hand washed last night require revisiting the laundromat. Heavy clouds threaten rain while filling the gas and drops fall while exiting a Subway sandwich shop. We stop twice during the 110 mile drive south, once along a widened side of the highway and once when braving the slick mud of a dirt road angling into the forest of mixed pine, spruce and alder. Pine Siskin and Least Flycatcher watch us slither back to the highway. In between a shower, a dark-phased Rough-legged Hawk sails close to the mud specked birdmobile.

Buckinghorse River Lodge could look picturesque we suppose, but the heavy rain and mud darkens today’s perspective. We quickly discover the log cabin structure is without much more than a bed. One of the sub sandwiches will be our dinner tonight. The establishment’s amenities would surely have a coffee maker, but none exist. The lodge also runs a café. Of course, one has to buy coffee there and it is $2.00 for a regular cup. Enjoying a glass of water, we wonder why coffee in this part of the country is so costly.

15 June 2013

No microwave meant waking up by a hard splash of cold water to the face. Luckily, we had a blender for a smoothie and boiled eggs prepared at the kitchenette in Ft. Nelson and kept cold in a freezer chest behind the driver’s seat. Sun shines between a sky half full of pale gray clouds while hiking a wide path cut by some machine through the willows along the Buckinghorse River a few yards behind the lodge. I imagine snowmobiles using the trails, but perhaps there was room for bucking horses. The warming sun invites Tennessee Warblers to sing along the narrow stream. Ravens, a Spotted Sandpiper and of course, Yellow-rumped Warblers are not enough to cause delaying our departure.

Somewhere south, we glimpse a couple of blackbirds on the electric lines along the Alcan Highway. Our locality does not permit identification by range as the birds could be either Brewer’s or Rusty blackbirds. Another stop added a new species, one that we had been missing since Ft. Nelson, House Sparrow. A flock frequented near a small isolated lodge between anywhere or nowhere .

2013_0618Alaska0368
Watson Slough

 

Mark Phinney of Dawson Creek had offered advice on birding Ft. Nelson and information in greater detail closer to his home. That is why we turn off the Alcan Highway on to BC Highway 29 and start looking for Watson’s Slough. Although I had looked at the site from satellite imagery on the net, we end up driving past the slough. Realizing the mistake, we turn around and park in a small lot. Informational signs confirm we are at the correct location and we walk a narrow path down an embankment to Watson Slough. The region is a favorite among birders and has promises of Yellow Rail and Nelson’s and Le Conte’s sparrows, species I have seen very sparingly over the years and potential lifers for Linda. Unfortunately, the wind causes a dull roar as it soars around our ears. Spishing, knocking small rocks from the parking area for the rail, waiting, nothing helps reveal any of the trio on our hit list.

With reluctance, we give up and decide to try our luck further down highway 29 before lodging in Dawson Creek. In a few miles, we turn into a roadside park. It sets above the Peace River. From our vantage point we enjoy the view and the buzzy strains of a Clay-colored Sparrow. Down the slope, the highway follows the Peace River. Bucolic farms, rich green fields and riparian vegetation line the river’s edge. The far side of the river is under steep gray cliffs and mountains under boreal forests. Local signs by eco-friendly citizens along the highway protest proposals to dam the valley, which would essentially back water up and over most of the highway that we are traveling and flooding Watson’s Slough and other natural habitat.

Chetwynd carvings and timber industry

Dams already interrupt the flow of the river and one of the world’s largest earth filled dams, the 600 foot W.A.C. Bennett Dam provides some sad entertainment as we explore the country. The huge reservoir pushing against the dam, now with wind-driven white caps, according to a brochure, holds enough water to fill 600 billion bathtubs. We do not take the tour for fee and snap a few pictures. No birds of note are around. Damn. Continuing our sightseeing, sans feathers, we drop into Chetwynd, a town of 3,000 full of wood carved animals, people and scenes. Many are lifelike while others take on a nightmarish flavor. We are a few days too late for the International Chainsaw Carving Championships. Across a valley in town we notice a large saw mill, not carving art but stacks and stacks of uniform small logs. Would they be for cabins, fences or ground into paper pulp? Being at the junction to the Alcan Highway and a good hour south of Dawson Creek, we put away our cameras and head north.

Savannah Sparrows sing a few yards from our Dawson Creek motel door that faces an open field on the northwest side of town. Not far beyond are houses and we enjoy a small bit of sparrow habitat and lack of rain. A call to Mark Phinney results in his suggestion of a route for early tomorrow and that we should meet later that morning. Mark is a long time resident of the region, who has published on various birds, including the Mourning, MacGillivray’s and Connecticut Warbler complex. He also has worked as a biologist/ecologist for the timber and gas industries while looking out for important boreal habitat.

16 June 2013

Ten days ago, we departed Delta Junction, Alaska, the other end of the famous highway. From that point to here is 1,422 miles producing a leisurely trek of just slightly averaging 142 miles per day or about three hours of driving to get to Dawson Creek, officially designated by the Milepost as Mile 0. The population is close to 12,000 with twice as many people scattered nearby. Dawson Creek began in the late Nineteenth Century, and started prospering in 1930 when a railroad put it more on the map. Of course, the Alcan Highway ten years later changed everything. Today, the oil and gas industry, logging (tourist brochures call it forestry) and tourism drive Dawson Creek along with agriculture. Satellite photographs of the region reveal a highly fragmented boreal forest broken by numerous and large plots of farm fields. Located well east of the Rockies and at the edge of the vast Canadian prairie, the region offers birders good chances at a few eastern species, especially warblers. We hope to enjoy the region before heading the nearly 1,300 miles southwest, back over the Rocky Mountains and into the differing avian domains of the Pacific Northwest.

IMG_2427
High ground above Swan Lake

 

Morning comes early. I drive south-southeast toward Edmonton, Alberta, on route 2, AKA the Dawson Creek – Tupper Highway, and, pass Swan Lake that my ABA finding guide mentions. Mark’s directions are flawless. It is great to have someone on the ground, who has current information. I would have otherwise floundered around Swan Lake for birds that, owing to logging, probably are no longer there. Following Mark’s instructions, I turn south on road 201. The dirt road, which parallels the boundaries of British Columbia and Alberta passes a drive leading to a house before continuing its straight course up a hill. Lower reaches along the road appear devoted to farmland. The broad Swan Lake sets far below, surrounded by green. Trees border the road after traveling maybe a little over half way to the ridge top, some 600 feet above the lake, rising in the cold partly cloudy morning. Mark’s advice is to park at the top of the hill or about two and a quarter miles to where the road makes a 90 degree turn west. Then, I should proceed along a less traveled path, go past the no trespassing sign and start looking.

The cold partly cloudy morning is at first quiet. Grass and what appear weeds probably introduced by logging years ago are wet and my pants are wicking a chilly dampness up my legs. As the morning warms, birds begin advertising their presence. Tennessee Warblers are everywhere. Mark said the species is especially abundant this year. Next in line of shear numbers are Yellow Warblers. A different chip heard in the chorus is an Oporornis sound not a Geothlypis “thimk” of a Common Yellowthroat. I remind myself that MacGillivray’s, Mourning and Connecticut warblers, formerly in Oporornis, are no longer congeneric; Connecticut Warbler remains in the genus whereas the other two species are in Geothlypis with yellowthroats. The three hooded warblers do seem related and certainly a call note is not necessarily evidence, according to the AOU, to lump or split former the three warblers as one or more genera. What ever, the note drives me to distraction since it might be a Connecticut Warbler. It never reveals itself. Instead, a male Rose-breasted Grosbeak offers a photo opportunity, the calling warbler becomes silent and time is ticking.

Mark asked me to call when I return from road 201. I do so from the motel, which provide opportunity to update Linda and get a change of dry socks. In thirty minutes, I meet Mark at the juncture of two country roads. His plan includes finding Connecticut Warbler and other species and offers that I either leave the birdmobile parked at the side of the road and jump in his large pickup or follow him in my vehicle. I am not comfortable leaving our home away from home at the side of the road and besides, I might want to linger at certain locations on the way back. In seconds, I am speeding behind Mark down a road to a boggy flat forest. Mark is wearing rubber boots. I am wearing my trusty all-purpose boots that are slightly moist from early morning’s wet vegetation percolating down by long socks from my knees down to my toes. The dry socks help, but those rubber boots make me wonder what I am in for. Mark announces that he has had nesting Connecticut Warblers here and I think, Connecticut Warbler, hell, I have only had a fleeing glimpse of one in 2006 and I am not going to miss one today. We slog forward. Mark is energetic and goes through the brushy forest with a mission of force. I follow, careful to avoid the black watery pools and step on the high squishy spots. Thick clouds and the heavy over story of leaves darkens the view. We march from spot to spot where Mark had marked territories of Connecticut Warblers last year. Birds frequently return to the same sites year after year, but the forest is silent, even when Mark plays the Connecticut Warbler song.

Back on the pavement, we follow Tumbler Road which may also be Heritage Highway or highway 52 for about 15 miles before turning on to a gravel road. Mark is moving at a rapid pace since he needs to get home this afternoon. Leaving the pavement , I think we might be on Chunter Brassey Road, but I am guessing as I trail on to the dirt/gravel road. Everything is wet, but it is not raining. There is a hint of sunlight as we speed into the wilds of northeastern British Columbia. Gas drilling operators apparently do not think it is so wild and we must slow for company trucks that we meet or that we pass or when they pass us. Their vehicles are seemingly too wide and long for the narrow road that traverses the hill country. Mark later informs that the traffic are work units going to and from gas drilling pads located throughout the forested Crown land, which is real estate technically owned by the Queen. Provincial Crown land occupies 94% of Brtish Columbia and about 1% of federal Crown land occupy the remainder of the province. Rental of the land for mineral rights provides revenue from most of the gas extraction by fracking. I wonder how sustainable these operations are since water is so heavily impacted. Despite personal misgivings , I give the large company trucks plenty of room and a wave meant to look friendly.

Veering on to a relatively flat spur road, I feel the slick mud slip under the tires of the birdmobile. We stop, listen a few moments and slip and slide back to the main road where traction is in greater abundance. Mark slows near a small creek crossing under the road, and then accelerates a few yards further before coming to a stop and getting out. I also slow at the creek. A birch woods covers the hill to the right where I hear a call note that could be a Connecticut Warbler. Rushing to Mark’s location, I mention the call note just as he points out a singing bird. It is a Connecticut. The slope into the birch forest is between 20 to 30 degrees, but we plow up the hill to a singing bird. It is high in the 50 foot canopy, which seems odd to me since Connecticut Warblers nest on or near the ground. With the help of Mark’s playback device, the singer provides us with great views and stiff necks from looking almost straight overhead.

Back down to the road, an open field hosts sparrows. We are soon up and over the barbwire fence and circle through the foot high vegetation. Besides Savannah Sparrows, LeConte’s Sparrow and Clay-colored buzz their distinctive songs. Back in our vehicles, we stop again for Bay-breasted Warbler, but the forest is silent. Two more stops higher on a ridge, perhaps 3500 feet, several more warblers make themselves known, thanks to Mark’ expertise. An out-of-place Ovenbird is among Black-throated Green and Magnolia warblers and American Redstarts. Our last stop is down a spur road of a spur road. After parking, I walk to one edge of the road. The abrupt drop is so steep it seems impossible that trees and understory cling thickly nearly straight down to a hidden bottom. Mark asked if I would like to see a Canada Warbler, whereupon I said I would, forgetting in the excitement that I had seen the species this morning. A playback of the song caused a Canada Warbler to catapult up the slope and out of the vegetation. This was an in-your-face Canada Warbler. We both felt guilty for upsetting this bird to the point of avian cardiac arrest. Looking over our shoulders as we leave, the warbler appears to settle down several heart beats.

Mark then heads home down the mountain. I follow, attempting to keep up in order to avoid becoming lost in the mountains since I am now on my own. My heart beat seems to compete with that Canada Warbler as I speed further and further behind Mark. Luckily, I realize from the landmarks that I should be able to find myself back to the pavement. With some confidence, I recheck a couple of the places we earlier visited. Nothing was added to a great outing.

Two non-avian observations made on the trip with Mark also make the day memorable. One includes ant mounds that remind me of the horrific fire ants of Texas and elsewhere. Checking the web during a lull after returning to Dawson Creek reveal that what I had been seeing are mounds built by so-called thatch ants belonging to the genus Formica. I first came across these ants while dodging rain drops near Ft. Nelson. Mounds also dot the forest slopes today. Determining whether the mounds are from the same species is beyond my annuity grade. The second non-bird happening came as butterflies. As far as I can determine from the web, the phenomena today is a swarm of thousands of Canadian tiger swallowtail butterflies. The identification is a guess and the butterflies today seem to fit Pipilio canadensis, one of several species of swallowtails. The ones today were apparently what lepidopterists call mud puddling, something I have seen Oregon butterflies perform, but never have I seen so many butterflies doing this. The multitude of swallowtails filled the air as Mark, with me a car length behind, slowly drive through the cloud of black and yellow butterflies. Thoughts of stopping vanished when I realize once passed the gathering that I needed to speed up to catch Mark.

Intrepid Mark said he had information that might result in finding a Boreal Owl and that I should contact him when I return to the Dawson Creek Motel. I call. His directions sound precise. However, with so many turns and different junctions to navigate, I wonder if it is wise to wander into the hills southwest of town in the dark. Thinking of getting lost or stuck in the cold of the night makes finding a Boreal Owl less and less attractive. Also, we really do need to get home someday and a late night will make unpleasant travel tomorrow.

17-20 June 2013

We leave Dawson Creek under a sky with fewer clouds than yesterday and a temperature reaching the mid-70s. Our plan is to drive 251 miles to Prince George. On the way we again cross a low summit of the Continental Divide, leave the Rocky Mountains behind, buy our last of pricey coffee for $2.10 at an isolated inn before a stop once to get off the pavement to look for birds. It is not too late for a chance at eastern species, and, although not strictly eastern, an American Redstart is the reward and adds to Linda’s growing life list. The drive to Prince George is an easy trip. Our early arrival allows time to have the tires rotated, something required to keep the warranty valid. Although free at my local tire dealer, the rotation costs an unbelievable $55!

Fresh coffee brewed in the motel warms the next morning. Out in the parking lot I meet a man from Oregon who is on his way to Whitehorse, Yukon, for a kayak race he attends annually. We see more and more evidence of logging and petro operations with scenes relieved by daisies and other wildflowers. We also experience more and more towns that are closer and closer together. It is a sad observation that periodic torrents of rain continues to dampen the air, raising the humidity uncomfortably during bouts of sun. Now, traveling in more typical Pacific Northwest birdland, chances of seeing anything but the usually suspects of our home base is waning. We think of home and that we could be normal tourist so we stop at a remote shop to buy a couple of souvenirs. The parking lot reveals Hammond’s Flycatcher and Bullock’s Oriole, which are new for our trip list.

Somewhere, several miles ago, we begin noticing signs that are designating various establishments as Cariboo this or that. At first we think the incorrect spelling of caribou is a joke, but it turns out the name cariboo is in use for a political region of British Columbia. Cariboo is also the name of many geographic entities such as the Cariboo River, Cariboo Mountains and Cariboo Plateau not to mention schools, roads and possibly Cariboo caribou. Geographically, cariboo is an intermontane region running from the Cariboo Mountains which we see to our left while driving south of Prince George along the Fraser River. As for the incorrect spelling, one theory is a miner naming the region did not know how to spell the animal name caribou or it was an invention by an early journalist.

We continue south on highway 97 following the Fraser River. The Cariboo Mountains our to our east as we leave the river at Williams Lake and drive through settlements named 100 Mile House and 70 Mile House. Their names reflect the number of miles from Lilloet, BC, on the Old Cariboo Road. As with many roads and trails, First Nation trails and the Hudson Bay Company forged ahead of most gold rushes such as the Fraser Canyon Gold Rush of the mid-1800s that left 100 Mile House with its name. Today, our road, even in the deluge of rain, allow us to sail pass former trapping lines and mining claims. The habitat along the paved Cariboo Highway leaves what we interrupt as broken boreal forests to a stretch of small spruce similar to the muskeg of Alaska and Yukon. In a few miles and at last with a dry windshield, we abruptly enter an arid landscape reminiscent of eastern Oregon. A comfortable motel in the town Cache Creek is our last lodging site in Canada.

Driving along the Fraser River                 Arid land near Cache Creek

The next morning, 19 June, reveals more of the unexpected dry landscape. Canada Highway 1 heads east out-of-town. Back in March 1827 David Douglas also headed east and apparently his route was either along or near the same landmarks as Highway 1. Douglas traveled with a Hudson Bay Company brigade all the way to York Factory, Manitoba, on the shore of Hudson Bay. Along the way, he met John Franklin and John Richardson of Fauna Boreali-Americana fame. In addition to plants, Douglas collected type specimens of a subspecies of Ruffed Grouse and “Franklin’s” Spruce Grouse, which he formally described two years later. This last bird, is presently a subspecies of Spruce Grouse and is the same taxon we first met in the beginning of our journey.

Today, we drive through rain and traffic as we travel south first along the Thompson River, then in and out of several tunnels carved through the steep flat-topped treeless mountains high above trains threading along the rail that perches dangerously along the deep river canyon. Eventually, the highway again takes us high above the Fraser River. Again, early Nineteenth Century history reminds that Douglas traveled the Fraser River in 1833. He went as far north as Stuart Lake and historic Ft. St. James, which is now about 1 hour and 50 minutes northwest of Prince George, where, yes, it may be said that David Douglas slept there. As far as I know, he did not make any significant ornithological discoveries on that particular trip. For Linda and I, in the early Twenty-first Century, are traveling is on rain drenched pavement. Beyond the almost nonexistent shoulder of the highway is space above the river to our right. To the left is oncoming traffic and blinding splashes from vehicles pushing the accumulated rain filling the road on to our windshield and another nonexistent shoulder adjacent to rocky cliffs rising almost vertically. This is not a place for car trouble. Between the downpour are signs warning of approaching mountain goats, but to Linda’s dismay, there are no goats. Another sign warns drivers to watch out for elk, but there are no elk. Warnings about flooding or slides seem more likely to produce what the signs advertise, but there are no slides although flooding looks to become a reality. Meanwhile, we are not making any significant ornithological discoveries either.

The rain lets up and it is possible to concentrate less on driving and see that everything is green. There is little doubt left that British Columbia is beautiful. All of a sudden, it hits us. We feel the twinge of sadness with the realization that our trip that the trip. In a few miles we begin preparing for crossing the border. Sure enough, the custom agent is grime and unwelcoming, but at least there is no cavity search. We find the same motel we lodged in Bellingham, WA, before sailing up the Inside Passage on 17 May.

Rain falls while we unload as little as possible for our stay in Bellingham and rain dominates the sky the next morning. North of Seattle we cross an interstate bridge that accidentally dumped at least a couple of vehicles into the water below only a day or so after we crossed on our way north. Everything is fine, or is it. Driving in the rain is physically and emotionally stressful after so many days of great weather to our north. Everything is not fine as the traffic snarls the route and takes us further and further from our northern memories.

Late June to early July 2013

All trips must end and although the trip to Alaska and Canada was too short, its conclusion precipitates comments and questions. After the dust settles, I could not help wondering about birds missed. High hopes of small auklets overflying Wales was dashed by the much delayed breakup of shore ice. The dotteral was either hiding from my brief foray or was I too early.

White Wagtail was a possibility both at Wales and Nome, but maybe I was too early. Steller’s Eider would have been a good one, but that eider is not down on my ABA life list. A certain vindication came when reading on the web a report of someone finding an Bristle-thighed Curlew on Teller Road on 24 May. I wonder if it was the one I found there two days later. One birding tour group could not find Arctic Warbler from 29 May to 2 June, although another group located the species on 30 May. The bird I saw 27 May was most certainly an Arctic Warbler and the species is on record for showing up in late May although early June is its normal arrival time. The same group finding the May Arctic Warbler also found Bluethroat the same day I did. Timing is almost everything, and being in Nome in early June might have improved birding, especially considering the late spring on Seward Peninsula this year. Being later might have improved chances for seeing Rufous-necked Sandpiper again. Possibly, I would have heard about the White Wagtail on Teller Road near the Sinuk River. Perhaps the tail wagger was there the day I turned around just six miles south of the Sinuk. Of course, I would have missed the Ross’s Gulls at Safety Sound, a species not reported by tour groups.

Nome’s late spring, the latest in 17 years, and fast thaw this year was cause for some birds to migrate far beyond shore ice and meant land birds were sometimes inaccessible due to floods washing out roads. I might have done better in and around Nome with anyone with first hand information, but my only hope there did not materialize. Bob Dickerman and his party, I thought would be in Nome the week before my arrival. I had asked Bob to leave notes of his findings at the hotel, but Bob visited Nome in June, not May. His party and other birders arriving the second week of June enjoyed repaired roads. James Huntington did not return to Nome. Tours mentioned washout roads, barely making it up Kougarok Road and Council Road still being closed a week after my visit. The Nome Convention and Visitors Bureau kindly mailed me pages from the observation log for late May to the first week of June that show shorebirds increasing. The reports also include a Ruff and a Black Guillemot, species I am sorry I missed. Nonetheless, based on the abundance scale on a checklist of birds of Seward Peninsula, I had calculated I might find, for my list, the seven species designated as uncommon to abundant and that I might locate five more out of the 40 species on the list that I have never seen. As luck and hard searching would have it, I found the magnificent seven and six designated less than uncommon. Months before going to Alaska, I calculated 12 ABA lifers possible for the Seward Peninsula. How can I complain.

Should I have paid the extra hundred dollars and taken the tour out of Seward that might have encountered Parakeet Auklet? Supposedly the high-priced tour was no guarantee of finding the auklets. Now, I will have to wait for a chance waif off Oregon or better yet, return to Alaska. I should have tried harder to locate a Boreal Owl. Dan had suggested prodding one of his contacts further, but I did not. Most guided bird tours stopped their routine practice of showing decreasing Boreal Owls to their groups before heading for the Seward Peninsula.

The unsuccessful hike into the Kluane Mountains in Yukon was both enjoyable for the scenery, adventure and prospects of observing Timberline Sparrows on their breeding turf and stressful since the region is grizzly country. Some may wonder why expose oneself to the ugsome prospect of running into a cranky or confused grizzly, especially for a taxon already on the life list. Owing to the fact that the huge bruins do not discriminate between birders and others who intrude their domain, spishing for a small brown bird could seem reckless. Reliable sources indicate black bears kill more people than do grizzlies. Also, most people in the US die from diseases such as heart attack and cancer, with fewer deaths from murder, boating, lightening and bee stings. In fact, man’s best canine friend kills about 4 times more of us than do bears. However, the set of statistics for Yukon are likely biased towards bears, but maybe not as much as my nerves signaled the day of my hike.

The boreal forest of Yukon and British Columbia brought nesting eastern warblers and vireos up close and personal. Parts of eastern British Columbia, especially the region around Dawson Creek seemed full of birds only otherwise witnessed during migration. Of course, we missed several species of warbler, and our results pale compared to a big year in British Columbia. That was three years ago, when Russ Canning, who I met over a Northern Jacana in Texas, found 373 species in the province. He later lamented missing Bay-breasted Warbler, which Linda and I missed, and Philadelphia Vireo, which we saw many. Mark Phinney, who pointed to many of our B.C. birds, is correct that birding especially around Dawson Creek begs for an extended return visit someday.

One July day in Oregon, I ran into a fellow home birder, who reminded me of several inspiring species found in the home county during the spring. Teasing a little, I lamented missing the spring, and with a smile of satisfaction, revealed I was away in Alaska and northern Canada. Linda and I recorded finding 212 species during our trip, which by some standards is a paltry low number of species for over 30 days of birding. Certainly more species could have been found but at the cost of ogling scenery. Nevertheless, the trip was a success insofar as finding 69% of the birds on the hit list. That is 18 new species for my ABA list. Linda added at least 50 new species to her life list. Boreal Owl, White Wagail and three species of auklets, to mention some species, are just a few good reasons for going back.

Another success of the northern trip was seeing several species for only the second time since beginning the search for 100 species to reach 700. My list of second sightings and the general location of the first sighting include often fleeting views of species including Sharp-tailed Grouse (Montana), Arctic Loon (Oregon), Common Ringed-Plover (California), Bar-tailed Godwit (Oregon), Slaty-backed Gull, (Oregon), Horned Puffin (California), Lapland Longspur (Oregon), Connecticut Warbler (Alberta), Pine Grosbeak (Montana) and White-winged Crossbill (Washington). Leconte’s Sparrows near Dawson Creek were also my second encounter; my first was in Texas in 2005 before I began the countdown from 600 to 700.

Compiling notes gathered in the northern climes now requires breathing high summer temperatures in southwestern Oregon and air-filled with wildfire smoke floating into the Rogue Valley in all directions. On an exceptionally hot afternoon, a final post-northern cleaning out the birdmobile revealed a few CDs hiding inside. They were placed in the console in early May. The number one title included the set on birds in Alaska, which we reviewed periodically. Based on other trips, we usually never played any music CDs, but the trip to Alaska begged audience with some sort of appropriate orchestral commemoration of the grand trip. Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite came to mind, partly because of the moving music and because my first appreciation of the composition came about the same time I discovered Jack London and things boreal. I had certainly been exposed to classical music, primarily from Disney’s Fantasia. However, on a spring day during my second year of birding, a school friend played a vinyl of Grieg. The recording blew me away. My ears opened, with outspread lobs. Akin to good sonata form, my introductions to London and Grieg form part of the history of the long desire to visit Alaska. Entering Alaska would be accompanied by “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” the fourth movement of Suite 1 of Grieg’s Peer Gynt. However, we would not be escaping malignant trolls of the Norwegian mountains with Peer, but joining those who came before us and who celebrate the grandeur of the north. Perhaps a better choice would have been something by Grofe, but he never wrote a piece on boreal-Americana. Something by Alan Hovhaness would have worked, but it was too late, the Grieg CD wins over too many choices. I could hear music while sailing up the Inside Passage, but the CD is in the shadowy deck nested inside the birdmobile. The day we drive on to Alaskan soil is so exciting that I forget the CD tucked in the console. In fact, the CD is not remembered until months after returning to Oregon. There is no regrets since fanfare would have been over the top of what we saw and felt. A recent playing of Greg’s Peer Gynt Suite now takes us beyond just imagining the score and bathing the layers of polyphony colored by superb orchestration. The day my long-lost grade school friend introduced me to the love of classical music was the day I heard Peer Gynt for the first time with heart-felt appreciation. Now the suite also floods our minds with unforgettable panorama of Alaska and northern Canada.

August and September 2013

Wildfire smoke continues and thoughts of looking for a wayward Gray-tailed Tattler or Long-toed Stint at the local shorebird hangouts is given little time. Instead, attention is devoted to the much overdue and anticipated public distribution of the AOU Supplement. The grapevine had months earlier spread the news about one of the proposed splits, that concerning Sage Sparrow. Sure enough it is official, the little sparrow was split into two species, the Bell’s Sparrow and the Sagebrush Sparrow, now, to be known as Artemisiospiza belli and A. nevadensis, respectively. Although formerly in the genus Amphispiza, John Klicka and Dick Banks corrected the generic designation of the former Sage Sparrow a couple of years ago. I had expended considerable effort on a hot day in 2006 to place belli, then a mere subspecies of Sage Sparrow, on my escrow list since I was reasonably certain that good taxonomy would prevail. Of course, taxonomic changes and some geologic events move slowly. In the case of Bell’s and Sagebrush Sparrows, the present status of the species complex took 115 years to get to recognizing two species again.

The last bell has not sounded though. A comment in the 54th supplement states “Populations of A. b. canescens of the San Joaquin Valley and Mojave Desert differ in morphology and ecology from belli and may represent a distinct species. Analysis of mtDNA indicate that Mojave Desert populations of canescens are distinctive, whereas canescens from the San Joaquin Valley share haplotypes with coastal belli.” In other words, the fat female sparrow has yet to sing. When will research answer the remaining burning question: really, what is canescens? In the meantime, especially since I do not have 115 years to spare, I wonder if I had I ever seen what ornithologists are presently designating as canescens? Digging back into the cobwebs of my mind, I try to remember what species I have seen in southern California, specifically what sparrows might have crossed my glass during brief encounters in the south.

Southern California was home while living there a year as a second grader, which, at that age, meant being firmly within the city limits of Los Angeles. Besides, the birding bug had not bitten me then. Fifty years later brought me back for the miserable Navy time in San Diego. No sparrows there, but, in May during the mid-1970s, I worked with Bruce Bury, a herpetologist and his crew including seabirder Richard Rowlett, while surveying off-road vehicle use in the Mohave Desert. My own records somehow stayed at the museum or became lost when moving to Oregon. However, recent mining of the internet revealed a 1977 paper acknowledging my time surveying birds at various sites west of Barstow. The paper also stated categorically that L. R. Kirkendall and I documented Sage Sparrows as a breeding bird in the tire scarred desert. Reading the report jogged my memory and I started remembering the long days with sand and Mojave rattlesnakes and only a couple of scattered nights at a motel for a much-needed shower. Also on the menu of the fieldwork was snoring, worrying if a sidewinder or other rattler might slither into my shared tent, weather and the volume of water exceeded by beer. It seemed to me that too much of the suds often got in the way of the mission, but that is another cup of tea. I also recall the military jets flying so low over our study sites that the planes stirred up the sand. It was otherwise a quiet and enjoyable time and I remember silence broken by singing Sage Sparrows.

At the time, I was unconcerned what subspecies I was observing of the then recognized Sage Sparrow. Many years later, I began wondering about subspecies and their taxonomic standing. Others people had already formed the same question with our old Sage Sparrow. After all some subspecies prove to be species, which is why I took the time to find the northern dark population now known as Bell’s Sparrow. Could canescens be another species to go on my ABA list? The name will wait on my escrow list until the taxonomic status of the southern population is decided. In the meantime, Bell’s Sparrow stands as my ABA life species 685.

The taxon canescens is currently a bird of the Barstow region according to one current checklist. I wonder just how well the birds I saw back in the mid-70s are faring. The 1977 paper by Bruce Bury et al. concluded that off-road vehicles are detrimental to the health of the ecology of the tiny portion of the Mojave Desert we studied. My colleagues documented loss of mammals, large and small, low populuation of reptiles and amphibians and depletion of birds. Other studies concluded similarly. Much of the Mojave vegetation was being ground into the sand of the Mojave by off-road vehicles. That was obvious, but in 2006, at least 5,000 miles of roads had been set aside for legal use of off-road vehicles. Then, there are legally unrestricted areas, which I think means not staying on the designated trails. However, evidence from wheel scars by those not following the set legal boundaries also laces the desert floor. I know how that works since a favorite local birding spot is constantly victim during wet winter months by those testing their four-wheel idiot-mobiles. The Mojave Desert is vast, ranging over much of southeastern California to Las Vegas, Nevada. The ecology is extremely fragile, yet improper use of off-road vehicles continues. Their operators push for more and more legal room that destroys Mojave habitat.

Another AOU supplement change was correcting the spelling of the generic name from Ptilogonys to Ptiliogonys. The correction also changes the family name Ptiliogonatidae of Phainopepla and other silky-flycatchers. In this case, I am glad the ayes have it since I had pointed out the earlier misspelling in a paper dealing with none other than William Swainson of Fauna Boreali-Americana fame. It is not such a big deal, but vindication feels gratifying.

An email from the ABA bounced in on 11 September. It announced that the ABA added Nutmeg Mannikin to the official list. The species is countable only from southern California. Great, I thought, but wait a minute. In early May 2005, Linda and I were near the end of a 45-day birding trip and stopped at San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve north of San Diego. At the parking lot on the south side of the lagoon, I saw around ten little brown birds. A quick look informed me that the birds were Nutmeg Mannikins, a species familiar since a neighbor back in my late teen years raised estrildid finches. He had several species including waxbills, Java Finch and munias or mannikins, including Nutmeg Mannikin that he called Spicebird. The variety of these birds was fascinating. It would be interesting, I thought, to raise estrildid finches, but that never happened. Instead, I ignored the waxbills I saw near Washington National Airport during the museum days, the occasional escaped non-native duck or goose, Budgerigar or some other parrot almost anywhere U.S.A. and the Nutmeg Mannikin at San Elijo Lagoon. Perhaps I remember the sighting because the flock caught my attention and I had a history with the species as a cage bird. The Nutmeg Mannikins that day were but a footnote that never even made the escrow list until a few months ago in 2013 when rumors began to divulge that the species would soon be countable. Nutmeg Mannikin, Scaley-breasted Munia, Spicebird, whatever English name the powers to be assign, it is Lonchura punctulata and is now my ABA 686.

*****

Memories of the trip north continue to dominate our thoughts, even over prospects of someday soon birding the East Coast. Just as the last sentence reporting the wonders of 2013 ends, coming nearly full circle in Bellingham, Washington, it is impossible to ignore David Douglas concerning a species on the 2013 trip list. It seems that, as reprinted in Quarterly of the Oregon Historical Society, specifically in volume 5, Douglas made observations on crows of the Pacific Northwest. As reprinted, Douglas wrote “There are two species of Crow, one large and the other small ; the lesser kind is shyer and not so abundant, being only seen on the banks of rivers and near old encampments, where it feeds upon carrion.” It seems that he is writing about Northwestern Crows, the smaller and shyer species and the larger more abundant American Crow. Douglas claims to have collected the smaller and shyer crow, but wherever the specimen ended up, probably in a collection of either Glasgow, Edinbrough or London, the formal description of the Northwestern Crow did not occur until decades later when my museum’s very own Spencer Fullerton Baird named the species Corvus caurinus in 1858. Alfred M. Bailey, the pioneer biologist inspiring me to go to Wales, thought there are two species, but, at the risk of losing an ABA species, I lean in the direction of the crow lumpers. I am not completely sure who is correct, and regardless of any decision, information on the taxonomic status of the two types of crows must go beyond the anecdotal for the AOU to act.

One thing is certain, the old adage so aptly stated by a former Smithsonian employee that “the further north you go, the fewer southern birds you see” is true. That that is true made the year a highlight. That going to Alaska, cruising up the Inside Passage, driving the famous Alcan Highway, and witnessing the grandeur and wildlife is definitely a trip of a life time. But is it? Is one trip in one life it? Maybe. Maybe not.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s