Horses grazing at Six Mile Ranch, near Anahim Lake
I have just returned from a bird atlassing trip to the Itcha Mountains in the Chilcotin, British Columbia. The Itchas are part of the Itcha – Ilgatchuz provincial park, a remote, backcountry region of forest, swamp and snow-capped mountains of volcanic origin. In fact, the Ilgatchuz range was so snow-capped that access was not possible this month.
Bird atlassing is the process of counting the number and species of breeding birds in a region; a BC Breeding Bird atlas has been underway for five years, and this is the final year of field work. The mostly volunteer work is coordinated by regional experts; our leader for this trip was Dr John Woods. Because of the remote terrain, our group of 13 – six birdwatchers, five outfitters (with an initial extra helper the first few days) and two other participants – went in on horseback. The outfitters, Wanda Dorsey and Roger Williams from Six Mile Ranch, Anahim Lake, wranglers Punky, Cara and Lydia and cook Jody, looked after the riding horses, the long string of packhorses and the incredible quantities of daily food consumed by the riders, while all the participants were responsible for their own tents, equipment and staying safely on their horse. Some mornings we got up at 4.00 am (daylight at that latitude) to do point counts – listening for every bird singing within earshot for a five minute period, then hiking to a spot 500 m further on in a grid line to listen again, and so on until breakfast at 8.00am.
The late spring, heavy snow and rainfall made progress slow and difficult in the lower altitudes. Horses got bogged down in thick mud and we struggled through willow thickets and the many hectares of dead, spiky pine trees, the result of the intensive mountain pine beetle epidemics suffered by BC forests in recent years. In some places, the forests had burned, and all that was left were charred stumps, scattered with golden blooms of arnica. Where the forests were still alive, Varied Thrushes, Dark-eyed Juncos and Yellow-rumped Warblers called. In the willow meadows, Lincoln’s Sparrows, Savannah Sparrows, White-crowned Sparrows, and Wilson’s Warblers were often heard and sometimes seen.
Wildlife was scarcer than might be expected in such a remote area, largely unvisited by people. However, this harsh environment is tough for birds and wildlife, although native wildflowers abounded and mosquitoes were abundant. As we moved deeper into the mountains and gained elevation, the weather improved and the views were phenomenal. Our patience in scouting the landscape was rewarded with outstanding views of Mountain Caribou, as well as the tracks of grizzly bear and wolf, though these predators stayed well away from our horse caravan. A few mountain goats, as well as red squirrels, chipmunks and other small creatures were also seen. Solitary Sandpipers were everywhere in the wet meadows, calling their urgent warnings, while the high peaks had Willow Ptarmigan, a fleeting view of White-tailed Ptarmigan, Horned Larks, American Pipit, Savannah Sparrows and remarkably, American Golden Plover (a bird I unfortunately missed seeing). Golden-crowned Sparrows sang their sweet song from conifers on the very edge of the treeline and American Robins seemed to be able to survive at every elevation. Olive -sided Flycatchers were also relatively common. Flocks of Grey-crowned Rosy-finches flew over the peaks. As we descended through the lower elevation forests we encountered singing Grey-cheeked Thrush, more commonly known as an eastern North American species, and flocks of Red Crossbills and White-winged Crossbills.
This atlassing trip was a great experience and we were in great hands with Wanda, Roger and the crew from Six Mile Ranch. The custom trek lasted for ten days: nine under canvas, plus a night before and after in the bunk house at the ranch, with all meals included. Some horse-riding experience would be recommended, in my view, for a long trip like this – although the horses are incredibly calm and well trained, the conditions are rugged. It was an excellent adventure!