Posted by: Anne Murray | June 30, 2011

Breeding Bird Atlassing in the Okanagan

The BC Breeding Bird Atlas is a five year project by a group of bird conservation and nature organizations, designed to ascertain the number, diversity and distribution of breeding bird species in the province. It is based on similar atlasses conducted in other provinces, e.g. Ontario, Alberta and the Maritimes, and in many places around the world. Atlasses are a valuable tool for bird conservation, and can ensure bird habitats are conserved effectively by knowing their use and value to particularly species.

Western Bluebirds in a nest box, part of a Bluebird Box route

I joined up with three other Atlassers, local to the Okanagan Valley, to do a day’s surveying of dry grassland and range habitat, west of Penticton.  The weather was good and we started the day early, to ensure that we would hear as many birds as possible singing on territory. This is one key indication that birds are probably breeding. Building nests is something else to watch for, as is carrying food, which usually means that young ones are needing to be fed nearby.

Western Meadowlarks and Lazuli Buntings were singing as we began our observations, and we soon saw a Western Bluebird feeding a young, fledged bird. House Wrens sang from the shrubs along the river and Vesper Sparrows trilled from the farm fence.  A colony of Cliff Swallows with nests under a barn roof  gave confirmation for that species, as did  mating Barn Swallows on the wire. Singing Veery, Warbling Vireo and American Robins were typical of a riparian stretch. Once into the grassland, we enjoyed the sight of thousands of wild flowers, particularly the bitterroot, their flowers growing leafless, right out of the ground.


The pond had a solitary Common Loon and several other odd ducks, looking like a lonely hearts club for unmated birds. A couple of Painted Turtles basked on the shore and a Beaver swam through the water. Calliope Hummingbirds visited the Scarlet Gilia flowers and Bullock’s Oriole, Vesper Sparrows, Black-billed Magpies, Willow Flycatchers, Eastern Kingbirds and Brewer’s Blackbirds were all paired up and singing. Kathryn and I spent some time looking for the oriole’s nest which must have been well-hidden in the birch tree. Eva and Kay went on ahead to do a point count at the end of the lake, getting good views of Western Kingbird among other species. Kathryn and I took a moment to rest on a rock, only to notice a garter snake beside an adjacent rock. Looking closer, at this very still (aka comatose) snake, we became aware of a much bigger snake beside it: a rattlesnake! This was very exciting.

Rattlesnake sunning on a rock

Pileated Woodpecker, Evening Grosbeak, and Vaux’s Swifts were found around a wooded gully as we headed back, after a successful survey of this beautiful area.  In an adjacent atlas square, while driving to check the bluebird boxes, we confirmed the presence of a pair of Lewis’ Woodpecker, another grassland specialist that is becoming increasingly rare.

Scarlet gilia, a native grassland plant, and a favourite nectar source for Calliope Hummingbirds

Two-tailed Swallowtail Butterfly near the Kettle Valley Railway


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