Fly Down Trails in the South Chilcotin -by Geoff Playfair

Say South Chilcotins to most people and either they’ve never heard of it or they envision the high country: alpine meadows in bloom, single track disappearing over a ridge, rich colours of mineral-stained scree competing with the blues of lupines, purples of shrubby penstemon or pinks of moss campion. Bicycles are often involved.

All of that is here – this region is jewel known to relatively few but becoming recognized at the international level for its trails and scenery. But there is more, there are birds. This region also supports a rich avian diversity, from raptors to game birds, migratory waterfowl and songbirds, along with the resident species.

June into early July is prime time in the valley for birders, that strange breed that dons stranger plumage including wide brim hats, binoculars, cameras, note books, phones with bird apps and outer wear that looks rummaged from, well, a rummage sale.

OK, I’ll admit it here: I’m interested in birds. Maybe I’m not yet ready to admit to being a fully fledged “birder” and I certainly will never be an Ornithologist, but I can happily go for a walk and observe the birds I encounter, I do have a bird feeder (well, two), I own a variety of bird identification books and, yes, I have a bird app on my phone. Frankly, the bird app and mushroom app are about the only use I have for a cell phone in this valley, since the lack of cell service makes the cell phone useless as a communication tool.

So why is this area so special for birds? As with real estate, it’s all about location. The Bridge River valley is shadowed from rain by the Coast Mountains and butts up against the colourful Chilcotin Range, making it a transitional zone between the West Coast Temperate Rainforest and the Inland Grass and Douglas Fir biomes. Biodiversity is further enhanced by numerous waterways: the Bridge River, Cadwallader, Gun, and Tyaughton Creeks, along with a peppering of lakes, ponds and two huge reservoirs running west-east for almost 100 kms. Adding to this is the 40,000 hectare regrowth from the 2009 forest fire that burned east from Pearson’s Pond to Marshall Lake, along with a patchwork quilt formed by various aged logging cuts. Everything combines to create a rich biodiversity providing varied habitat to numerous species, including many birds.

In the last few days, without any actual effort on my part, I’ve seen the following birds:

Rump of a Yellow-Rumped Warbler (Audubon’s)

Rump of a Yellow-Rumped Warbler (Audubon’s)

Raptors, including Red Tailed and Sharp Shinned Hawks, Merlins, a Northern Harrier and, two nights ago, I heard a Great Horned Owl hooting.

While biking in the woods I saw a Sooty Grouse in all its mating splendor: bold red eyebrows, full tail fan that always makes me think of a rooster trying to imitate a turkey, hooting for a mate.

Yesterday, fishing on Mowson’s Pond, I saw a pair of Barrows Goldeneyes, Common Mergansers and of course, Loons.

The songbirds are in high season presently. The cacophony that greets me as I write this, sitting on the porch with my morning coffee is difficult to describe, let alone break down by individual voice. Various Warblers, including Yellow-Rumped Audubon, Townsend’s and Yellow Warblers, Swainson’s Thrushes, Robins, Western Tanagers, Cedar Waxwings, various Viroes, Finches and Flycatchers, Mountain Bluebirds, and Chipping Sparrows, all compete for airtime. Rufous Hummingbirds visit the flower boxes. Tree Swallows dart around the grassy openings and high above soar Vaux’s Swifts.

The forests generally, and the burn specifically, attract woodpeckers by the hundreds. Between yesterday and today I’ve seen Pileated, Hairy and Downy, as well as Northern Flickers and the colourful Red-Naped Sapsucker. No recent sighting of the American Three-Toed or Blackbacked.

Of course there are plenty of residents as well: chatty Juncos, Black Capped and Mountain Chickadees, voracious Siskins, Red-Breasted Nuthatches bulleting through the trees, Red-Winged Blackbirds at the ponds, the brilliant yellows, browns and white of the Evening Grosbeaks, Spotted Tohees, Golden Crowned Kinglets, noisy Ravens and the occasional Crows (I won’t get into whether they are American or Northwestern, you’ll have to decide) along with Whiskey Jacks and Clark’s Nutcrackers.

Western Tanager

Western Tanager

Again, this is just what I’ve seen around my property and near home in the last two days. If you go into the mountains you’ll shift habitats and likely see many more species.

For example, a fantastic spectacle occurs in late August when Rufous Hummingbirds invade the alpine meadows. Literally hundreds of hummingbirds can be seen all around you as they draw the last of the nectar from the meadow flowers, over a mile above sea level. Why the rush? At this elevation, frost is only days away and winter is rapidly approaching. The phenomenon lasts briefly and then they’re gone.

So, if you find bird watching relaxing, a trip to the Bridge River valley may be just the vacation you need. If your focus is a ride or a hike, you can increase your enjoyment by becoming more aware of your surroundings. Listen for the different songs you will hear as you pass under the trees. Look for and try to identify the various birds you see. Observing their colouring, behavior, feeding habits and surroundings will help in identification.

While you’re out there, you might see me. I’ll be the guy on a bike, packing binoculars along with my bike tools. And yes, you might see me off my bike, with binoculars in hand, trying to determine what type of warbler I’m looking at. When you start noticing the birds around you, it gives new meaning to “flying down the trail”.