The 150 Bird and Birthday Challenge

On July 1, 1867, Canada enacted its Constitution Act to unite its three colonies into a Dominion called Canada. The Canadian government asked Canadians how to celebrate the event and I chose to find 150 species of birds in Vancouver by July 1. I thought it wise to ask a few friends for their opinion. “That should be easy” they all said. “On a good day in winter you might see over 100 species”. I pointed out that I was considering within the city limits only, and not the fields, delta, mountains, marshes and other great places to find birds around the Vancouver. “Oh, that is quite different”, they all said. I pointed out that the forested University Endowment Lands were outside the city. “That’s right,” they said. “That would be quite a challenge, but might be possible”.

The Greater Vancouver Area Bird Checklist said that there were 267 annually occurring species with another 139 rarities seen from time to time. I only needed to see 150 of them. A tally indicated that seeing 130 species should be quite easy to find, 140 might be difficult, and 150 might be a distant possibility if some rarities were included. On top of that challenge, I live 20 minutes outside of Vancouver. Those seemed like good odds.

So, on January 1, 2017 I arose to one of our coldest and iciest mornings the city has experienced in a long time. Snow lined the streets and few people braved the conditions in their cars. To make things worse, a rare Harris’s sparrow – a Canadian endemic species for heaven’s sake!- was in our backyard outside the city. Birds were flitting about everywhere in our garden but none of them counted in my 150 challenge.

Six days would pass before I broke out of the cold and ventured into the city. Ice prevailed, snow lay around the ground, and birds were largely absent. From the Skytrain I finally saw a northwestern crow perched on a rooftop. One down, 149 to go. A glaucous-winged gull became number 2, and rock pigeon number 3. I had a meeting planned for downtown far from good birding locations so I was surprised when I heard a black-capped chickadee in a copse of conifers near a busy street. A European starling outside McDonalds was no surprise. Five down.

The weather continued cold and there was a report of white-throated sparrow near the Teahouse Restaurant in Stanley Park. In the winter sun, the sparrow emerged with song sparrows and towhees to peck at a handful of seeds left by the footpath. This would be a good record of an unusual species not often seen in the city. Black oystercatchers on an offshore rock, and a merlin dashing out of the forest added two more species to my list.

By the end of January, I had birdwatched a few times in Stanley Park, Queen Elizabeth Park, Everett Crawley Park and John Hendry Park. The icy weather was not conducive to great birding but my list had grown to 50 species. I found many common species there but one special species would elude me.

A California scrub jay had been seen in October along South Grandview Highway near John Hendry Park. The jay was seen repeatedly by many birders, except me. Ice and snow made walking in the alleys treacherous and several visits had not turned up the jay. I asked a resident if he had seen the jay. He told me a beautiful blue bird was in the alley a few minutes before I arrived. That was not what I wanted to hear. I had given up ever seeing the mystery jay when one day while cycling home from Stanley Park, I heard its distinctive call from a nearby tree. Finally, when I did not suspect it, the California scrub jay had joined the 150 tally. Birding is often full of these kinds of surprises. It is this uncertainty that makes the hunt for species all the more appealing.

Not so for a tufted duck normally seen in Asia. New Brighton Park was the place to see it but repeated visits did not end in success. I saw a birder in New Brighton and asked after the duck. He said it had been there the previous day and was willing to show me his photos. I thanked him but told him I needed to see it, not a photo. We laughed and I left never seeing the duck.

As the weather armed, I spent increasing amounts of time on my bike riding around the city. Vancouver has nearly 300 parks, not all of which are great for birds, but each has the opportunity to attract species. By adding a few shrubs, trees and water, a sterile park can become a magnet for birds. Trout Lake in John Hendry Park on the east side of the Vancouver is about 80 hectares in area and surrounded by trees and shrubs on the north and south shore. The rest of the park is open grass with mature trees. The park is very popular for dog walkers but birds can find quiet places to rest and find food.

McCleery Golf Course along the Fraser River and among hobby farms is known among birders as a place to look for birds. I went in search of birds on a cool day in late winter hoping to see early arriving swallows along the Fraser River. From the parking lot of the golf course I thought I could see a tree swallow so I went in search of the greens keeper to see if I could gain entry. He told me I was in luck. The cold weather had closed the course and I could wander freely along the paths. I saw the swallow and thought I heard distant flocks of snow geese. Their calls were very faint but distinct. A few minutes later a phalanx flew overhead.

Birding is not always about watching birds. Sometimes you meet some interesting people. I had bumped into a young couple who had just started birding and had been afflicted by ornithophilia – the love of birds. They were keen to talk birds and I told them about 2018 being the year that Vancouver would host the International Ornithological Congress and Vancouver International Bird Festival. They were intrigued by Bird Week that was less than a month away.

Not much later I dropped by Trout Lake in hopes of finding some early migrants where I saw a man picking up garbage. I was commending him on his civic service when I noticed he had a pair of binoculars around his neck. Before long Pete and I were talking about birds and my quest to tally 150 species. He told me that a mountain bluebird had been seen at Mountainview cemetery. By the time we arrived, a cold northern wind was blowing across the headstones. We made our way south, searching in vain until about the time we were going to give up, I saw a male bluebird in bright plumage huddling out of the wind on the top of a gravestone. It all seemed a little macabre to find such a brightly coloured creature among the dead.

There comes a time in everyone’s life when you think you might have made a big mistake. I had coaxed several friends to join me in the 150 challenge. Simon Fraser University Department of Environment asked me to give the Dean’s 150 lecture on the subject as well as how Vancouver adopted birds into their plans. Newspaper articles had mentioned my quest as part of Bird Week. My Twitter account cheered me on. I had assumed that spring migration would fill up my list quite quickly. Half a dozen shorebird species should be easy to find. Or so I thought. I discovered that there was not a lot of mudflat habitat used by shorebirds in the city. So scarce was the mud that the very abundant western sandpiper would not be one of my 150. I had imagined scouring the beaches on June 30 for an early returning western sandpiper. “What have I gotten myself into”, I wondered. I had to make do with long-billed dowitchers on the edge of pond in Vanier Park, of all places.

Queen Elizabeth Park overlooks Vancouver where the high treed ground draws many birds and birders. Some species are elusive and required patience. I stood silently for nearly 15 minutes awaiting a Lincoln’s sparrow to show itself in a patch of brambles. Ed stopped by to say hello and alert me to a Nashville warbler in the cherry trees. An Anna’s hummingbird surprised me when it alighted on its nest in a birch in January. A few weeks later, the Anna’s hummingbird would be elected as the official city bird of Vancouver.

My tally reached 128 species by May 1 but pied-billed grebe was not one of them. Grebes like shallow marshy lakes but Trout Lake had not turned up a grebe so I rode my bike to Beaver Lake in Stanley Park. I found a grebe there and was feeling quite happy about it when I saw a young man walking toward me with a rubber chicken. For a moment, I thought that this sighting might end up having to do for 150 if I ran out of time so I stopped him to ask why he was walking with a rubber chicken. It turned out that Hamish the chicken was being taken on tour (of course) of sights across Canada during the 150th year. A proud and unique Canadian after my own heart, I thought to myself. The young man’s father smiled and we all had a good laugh. Turned out that they were from Ontario and keen canoeists. I had canoed Algonquin Park in 2016 and our conversation soon was about where and when to go canoeing in Ontario. I asked to photograph Hamish, which was obliged and we parted company. I had my back up bird ready to reveal.

Spring arrived late and by early May I was wondering what had happened to the birds. The forests were quiet. The dreaded Silent Spring was upon us, I imagined. Not much later, a fallout of migrant warblers descended on Vancouver and my fears dissipated. The bright yellow bodied, and black capped Wilson’s warblers where everywhere. They flitted among shrubs, among tree branches and even among isolated trees in parking lots. After a while, I ached to see something new despite the Wilson’s warbler being a perennial favourite.

Vancouver is located on the Pacific Ocean and the city limits reach out into Burrard Inlet. The Pacific WildLife Foundation where I serve as President, had been conducting surveys of birds in the inlet and nearby Fraser River delta using a boat for several months. The surveys were my opportunity to tally some seabirds such as marbled murrelet, Bonaparte’s gull and Brandt’s cormorant. On a return survey, we came within a few meters of the most unusual bird on my 150 list. A pomarine jaeger lifted off the water showing us its distinctive tail. This species is a rarity in Vancouver and was not a species I ever thought I would see. It might also have been my first sighting ever!

By mid-May I had reached 140 species and by months end I was at 147. I felt relieved that the chances were good I would reach 150 species before July 1. I rode my bike into town, circled Stanley Park, pedalled to Jericho Beach, tracked along the edge of the Endowment Lands all in search of a band-tailed pigeon. I headed off along Southwest Marine Drive and coasted down the hill into Southlands to peer over the Fraser River. Surely a purple martin or cliff swallow would come into sight. Maybe a Brewers blackbird would be hanging out with the horses. No such luck. Off along the North Trail I went watching overhead for swifts. At Fraserview Golf Course I scanned treetops for band-tailed pigeons. A scary hair-in-the-wind ride down Kerr Street hill brought me to Riverfront Park. No cliff swallow flew along the river. I was skunked. The cliff swallow would evade me and never make the list. There would be several days just like that.

On June 4, I cycled to Jericho Beach Park. There had been reports of Vaux’s swifts around the University of British Columbia. I thought they might wander down toward Jericho Beach. The distance was only a few kilometers by bike and nothing for an aerial master like the swift.

I scanned the seashore wishfully thinking there might be a shorebird on the beach before turning my attention to the ponds. I gazed at the birds in the trees and the ponds. On a whim, I lifted my binoculars to stare high overhead where out of sight to the naked eye were half a dozen Vaux’s swifts and number 148 on my list. I noticed a birder nearby searching for birds. His binoculars were a dead give-away but the slow walk-stop-listen movement had all the field marks I needed to know his past-time. I asked him if he had seen the swifts. He had not and before long we were chatting about birds. Turned out his father, now in his nineties, was an ornithologist I knew from my younger years.

I was beginning to feel impatient about finding the last species. Many hours of searching were required to add one species- if I was lucky. On a warm sunny morning, I set out on the bike for Southlands where I stepped on the foreshore near Deering Island. Across the water was Iona Island renowned for its birds. Purple martins nested there and I thought if I waited long enough one would show up. Fifteen minutes passed when I finally saw a large swallow shape swoop along the river. It was June 9 and finally purple martin was bird 149. One more bird was all I needed. Hopefully it would not have to be Hamish the rubber chicken. With over three weeks to go, I could surely find my last species.

On June 10, Sharon and I set off by car for Stanley Park. I was set on finding a band-tailed pigeon along the western shore where about a decade earlier a high wind had brought down the rainforest hemlocks opening the forest to new deciduous growth favoured by this west coast endemic bird. The band-tailed pigeon is a western forest species that avoids cities and is noticeably shy around people. Its closest living relative is the extinct passenger pigeon.

We set off through the conifer forest where a party of crows were shouting insults at a pair of ravens. Across the main road in the park ran a trail that entered the regenerating forest and where I suspected band tails could be found. We were serenaded by Swainsons thrushes, Wilsons warblers, song sparrows, spotted towhees, American robins and pacific slope flycatchers. I said to Sharon that the location looked perfect for pigeons and even if none showed up, we could enjoy the morning song of birds.

We checked the time. I thought that we should soon turn back but we pressed on down the trail where Sharon caught movement from the corner of her eye. “Look, there” she said, pointing into the foliage. I raised my binoculars to see two band-tailed pigeons about four meters away. My heart skipped a beat. They looked sleek in their breeding plumage, pale banded tail, and yellow bills. After 162 days, I had finally seen the 150th species on my 150 list. We let the pigeons move to a nearby tree before shouting out our good fortune.  I had spent over 100 hours in 30 days searching for birds. It was time to celebrate.

My adventure showed me that Vancouver city has a lot of species and that even in the downtown area, scattered trees will attract species. I watched a family of bushtits feeding in cherry trees at the Burrard Skytrain Station while scores of commuters came and went, and a party of migrating warblers in a parking lot near the Museum of Vancouver seemed unconcerned about cars moving around the lot. Small patches of forest with small ponds such as in Charleson Park on False Creek drew migrating warblers by the dozens in late April. City dwellers are not always aware of birds around them but when they do notice, birding can become their gateway to nature. I travelled hundreds of kilometers by bike, public transit, boat and by car. I met wonderful people and saw new places in a city I know well. But most of all, I learned that birds are everywhere and they can bring pleasure to our lives in ways we are only beginning to understand. And that is something all Canadians can celebrate.

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About rob butler

I am a scientist, author and naturalist with over four decades of field study of wild animals. You can read more at my web site at robbutler.ca.
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