Nicola Naturalist Society – Winter & Spring Events 2022

We are resuming evening meetings starting with our March 2022 meeting – see below. We will update this posting as needed. Members please check your emails for updates on events.

Evening meetings of the Nicola Naturalist Society are held once a month from September through May. We generally meet at 7PM on the third Thursday of the month in the Lecture Theatre of NVIT (Nicola Valley Institute of Technology) on Belshaw Road, Merritt. Admission is free to members. We have awesome raffles.

Field Outings are usually held in spring, summer and fall and are listed below. Members will receive e-mail notices too. Field trips are restricted to members (but visitors can sign up as a member for the day for a nominal fee).

We are on Facebook. Check out our Facebook page: NNS Facebook

Sunday February 27th 2018 – Annual Snow Bunting Shiver outing

Continuing our winter tradition we will be heading up to the Douglas Lake Plateau highlands to look for Snow Buntings, Rough-legged Hawks and other winter specialties. In previous years we have also found Sharp-tailed Grouse, Horned Larks and once …. a Snowy Owl. And yes – we do usually see some Snow Buntings!  Meet at 9 AM at the Merritt Civic Centre parking lot. Bring lunch, a hot drink, warm clothes, binoculars, camera etc.

To see photos of this outing click here: Snow Bunting Shiver 2022

A mix of Snow Buntings and a few Horned Larks on our February 2018 Snow Bunting Shiver outing. Photo: © Alan Burger

Thursday March 17th, 2022, 7 PM at NVIT Lecture Theatre: Frank Ritcey – Ethical Wildlife Viewing & Photography   

Join Frank for an evening of videos and photos of BC wildlife and an in-depth discussion about what it means to be an ethical viewer and photographer of wildlife. An active Nicola Naturalist Society member, Frank formerly worked for WildSafe in Kamloops, promoting safe interactions between humans and wildlife. Those who enjoyed Frank’s recent photo/video exhibition in Merritt know that this evening will be a real treat.

Frank will have copies of his latest book for sale and signing: Tigers, Tumbleweeds  and Trauma

A sleepy Barred Owl yawning. Photo: © Frank Ritcey.

Sunday April 17th, 2022 – Sandhill Crane outing to the Douglas Lake Plateau.

Meet at the Merritt Civic Centre parking lot at 07:45. An early start is needed to catch the cranes before they take off on their migration.

To see photos of this outing click here: Sandhill Crane Outing 17APR2022

Thursday April 21st, 2022, 7 PM at NVIT Lecture Theatre: Camille Roberge – Are Cutblocks Affecting Moose Nutrition?

Camille Roberge is a Registered Professional Biologist pursuing a Master’s degree at Thompson Rivers University. She is collaborating with Nlaka’pamux Nation Tribal Council, BC Ministry of Forests and Teck to understand the effects of forestry on the declining moose population in Wildlife Management Unit 3-18 (north of Merritt and west of Logan Lake). Specifically, she is investigating whether plants growing in forestry cutblocks are of lower nutritional quality than plants growing in intact forests, and whether this affects the condition, reproduction and survival of moose. Come and learn more about one of our most charismatic mammals.

Camille Roberge’s presentation will feature moose nutrition in cutblocks in our area. Moose photo: © Bruce Walter. Insets: © Camille Roberge

Thursday May 19th, 2022, 7 PM at NVIT Lecture Theatre: Michael Ebenal – The Kingdom of Fungi

Humans have had a close relationship with Fungi for thousands of years. Not only do we relish mushrooms, but other forms of Fungi (yeasts etc.) are essential for our bread, beer and much more. But Fungi remain mysterious and poorly understood by most people. Michael Ebenal has been cultivating, foraging and researching mushrooms since 2015. In 2019 he built a lab, incubation area and fruiting chamber to grow mushrooms. Michael will present a slide show covering the life cycles of Fungi, Fungi as food and medicine and for remediation of toxins and damaged and poisoned landscapes. He will also explain low-tec cultivation techniques for mushrooms. Not to be missed if you like mushrooms …. or bread or beer!

Local mushrooms from the Merritt area. Photos: ©Alan Burger


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Christmas Bird Count for Kids – Merritt, January 2022

In a joint outing, the Merritt NatureKids club and the Nicola Naturalist Society ran the first Merritt Christmas Bird Count for Kids on 8th January 2022. The day turned out to be bitterly cold (-18 C at times) which meant that attendance was lower than expected, and those that did participate had to resort to regular warm-ups in their vehicles.

Keen birders at the start of the Christmas Bird Count for Kids, 8th January 2022. Photo: Loretta Holmes.

But we did have a good outing, recorded 27 species and over 2,000 individual birds. The kids had great views of Trumpeter Swans, several duck species, sparrows, eagles, doves, American Dippers plunging into icy streams and much more.

Birds Canada, which coordinates the Christmas Bird Counts in Canada, provides a wonderful aid for identification. On their website if one enters the location and the date the website produces a photo identification sheet showing the most common birds one is likely to see and a tally sheet for recording the sightings. The CBC4Kids website is here.

Here is the Birds Canada identification sheet for the Merritt area on 8 January. We did notice a few common species missing, such as American Crow.

Our first stop was at the Nicola River just below the Nicola Lake weir. The lake and most of the rivers were frozen over, but here the  stream coming out from the lake provided some open water. This attracted a nice selection of waterfowl – 8 Trumpeter Swans, 2 Hooded Mergansers, 5 Buffleheads, 2 Common Goldeneyes, and 11 Barrow’s Goldeneyes.

Alan setting up the spotting scope at child level. Photo: Loretta Holmes

Using binoculars at -18C while wearing thick mittens is not easy! Photo: Sarah Derosiers.

Kids and adults enjoying the birds despite intense cold and deep snow. Photo: Sarah Derosiers

Just a short way down the road we waded through deep snow in order to find some American Dippers. And we were not disappointed – three Dippers entertained us by plunging into the icy stream to feed underwater, and then leaping back on to the snowy rocks to catch a breath.

Watching Dippers at the Nicola River. We found three Dippers here, feeding in the icy stream. Photos: Anne Pang (left), Sarah Derosiers (right)

The spotting scope was a popular option at the Dipper site on the Nicola River. Photo: Sarah Derosiers

Our final stop was the cattle feedlot close by. Hundreds of cows are fed hay and silage and this attracts huge numbers of birds. Close to 2,000 Mallards were among the cows or resting on the snowy river banks. Flocks of sparrows, including Song and White-crowned Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos, searched for seeds among the cattle feed.  Rock Pigeons, Mourning Doves and Eurasian Collared-doves swirled around in flocks. The cow morgue attracted two species of eagles and dozens of American Crows and Common Ravens.

Arriving at the cattle feedlot – the hay and silage fed to the cows also feeds huge numbers of birds. Photo: Loretta Holmes.

Sparrows foraging among the cow feed. On the right is a close-up of a Dark-eyed Junco – one of the common species here. Photos: Loretta Holmes.

A Song Sparrow – another common bird at the feedlot. Photo: Loretta Holmes.

Hundreds of Mallards at the Nicola River bordering the cattle feedlot. Photo: Alan Burger.

Another view of the Mallard crowds. There are also two American Wigeon in this flock, one taking off on the left and one with its cream-coloured head crest surrounded by Mallards. Photo: Alan Burger

The spotting scope was useful at the feedlot to get good looks at birds sitting on the nearby trees, like this Eurasian Collared Dove. Photos: Loretta Holmes.

Mourning Doves all fluffed up to tolerate the cold at the cow feedlot. Photo: Alan Burger

A closer view of a Mourning Dove. Photo: Alan Burger

A few of the scavenger birds at the cattle feedlot – on the left an immature Bald Eagle and three Magpies; on the right a pair of Common Ravens. Photos: Loretta Holmes

An immature Red-tailed Hawk – probably on the lookout for mice at the cattle feedlot. Photo: Alan Burger

A distant view of two Golden Eagles – quite rare birds in our area. Photo: Alan Burger.

A close view of one of the 16 Bald Eagles seen during our outing. Photo: Loretta Holmes.

After a couple of hours in the cold we were all happy to head home, having seen some beautiful and interesting birds and impressed at their ability to behave so normally during this cold and snowy weather. Here is our final tally for the day:

The tally sheet for the first Merritt Christmas Bird Count for Kids, 8th January 2022. Courtesy Sarah Derosiers.

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Merritt Christmas Bird Count 2021

When we decided to run the 2021/22 Merritt Christmas Bird Count on December 18th we knew we would have a low participant turnout and be unable to access parts of our count circle. Just weeks before, Merritt was hit by devastating flooding and several of our regular count participants were still dealing with severe damage to their homes. And the flooding  wrecked the sewage settling ponds on the edge of town, which were a regular site for interesting waterfowl.

On count day we had 17 people in the field and 2 feeder-watchers, far less than our usual 30-35 people in the field. Despite fewer people, and some nasty cold, snowy conditions we did well. Our species count was 59 on count day – very similar to the 23-year average of 61 species. And we actually set a new record for birds counted – 7,126 which is almost double the average. This high count was due to high numbers of Coot, Mallards, blackbirds, doves and pigeons (see below).

To see the complete count data, along with all previous counts, click here: Merritt Xmas Count data 2021

This photo of Mill Creek indicates the conditions for much of the Merritt CBC count day – cold and snowy. Photo: © Alan Burger

Perhaps the most unexpected discovery on our count was the huge flock of American Coot found on Nicola Lake. See if you can guess how many coot are in this photo (plus a few American Wigeon and Gadwall).

This huge flock of American Coot was found on Nicola Lake during the Merritt CBC. There were probably another 100 birds not in the photo. There are also some American Wigeon and Gadwall among the coots. Photo: © Rick Howie.

American Coot is not always found on the Merritt count – it has appeared in 15 of the past 23 counts. One coot was missing the Nicola Lake party – it was seen on the Nicola River in town. This year’s count of 1,118 birds is a new record high.

By dividing up the flock we could get an estimate of the numbers. There were at least 1017 coots in the photo and an estimated 100 more outside the photo. Photo: Rick Howie.

Here’s another view of the huge flock of American Coot on Nicola Lake. Look closely and you can see two Bald Eagles in the air – they prey on coots and cause the coots to cluster together in tight flocks. Photo: © Rick Howie.

No new species were added to the Merritt count circle, but a few unusual species did show up:

  • Wood Duck, 7 birds (only found once before in 23 years)
  • Ruddy Duck, 1 bird (reported in 3 previous counts)
  • Eared Grebe, 1 bird (reported in 1 previous count)

Fuzzy photos of a distant Ruddy Duck on Nicola Lake. The diagnostic line through the face and the vertical stiff tail feathers are, however, visible. Photos: Alan Burger

Species which appeared in unusually high numbers:

  • Mallard, 2,784 birds minimum (almost 3x the average) – most were at feedlots and nearby fields.
  • Rock Pigeon, 380 birds (more than double the average)
  • Eurasian Collared Dove, 161 birds (3x the average count)
  • Mourning Dove, 235 birds (more than double the average)
  • Northern Shrike, 10 birds (all time high, average is 4 birds)

As always, there were a few BIG MISSES – species that we almost always get that failed to show up this year:

  • Common Loon (seen in 15 of the 23 counts)
  • Pied-billed Grebe (seen in 17 of the 23 counts)
  • Hairy Woodpecker (only the second miss in 23 years)
  • Red-breasted Nuthatch (only the second miss in 23 years, but seen in the Count Week)
  • American Robin (seen in 18 of the 23 counts)

Exceptionally low counts were also noted for several species:

  • Canada Goose, only 19 birds (the average is 242 birds)
  • Green-winged Teal, 2 birds (average is 17 birds)
  • Red-tailed Hawk, 8 birds (average is 15 birds)
  • Pine Siskin, 1 bird (average is 42 birds)
  • American Goldfinch, 10 birds (average is 48 birds)

Here are some photos from the count period. Photography was tricky with the gloomy conditions and falling snow for much of the day.

Trumpeter Swans on Nicola Lake – juvenile left and adult right. We found 49 swans on the count day – a bit above average. Photo: © Alan Burger

This photo captures the mood on the Merritt count day – a Great Blue Heron on the icy Nicola River amidst falling snow. Photo: © Vic Newton.

Another Great Blue Heron hunched up and tolerating the weather. Photo: © Paul Willms.

This lump in a tree turned out to be a tiny Northern Pygmy-owl. Photo: © Alan Burger

Spot the owl. Alan photographing the Northern Pygmy-owl next to Nicola Lake. Photo: © Loretta Holmes

A closer look at the Northern Pygmy-owl. Notice the little feather tufts on its forehead. Photo: © Alan Burger

This Merlin was the only one recorded on the Merritt Christmas Bird Count, 18 December 2021. Photos: © Vic Newton

Guess how many Bohemian Waxwings are in this tree. Answer below. Photo: © Alan Burger

Our record high for Bohemian Waxwings in the Merritt count is 2,009 birds. This year we had only 290. In the photo above there are 123 birds. Most people would underestimate this flock.

Blizzard birds! These Bohemian Waxwings visit us in winter from their northern breeding grounds, so they might be used to tough weather conditions. Photo: © Loretta Holmes.

Fluffed up to tolerate the cold, this Song Sparrow was one of 38 seen on the Merritt count. Photo: © Alan Burger

American Tree Sparrows are winter visitors to our area, coming south from their Boreal and Arctic breeding grounds. They have been recorded in fewer than half of the 23 Merritt counts, but this year we had 29 birds, close to the record high of 33 birds. Photos: © Alan Burger

It was a low year for finches, apart from the resident feeder-loving House Finches (266 counted – a bit above average). We recorded only one Pine Siskin and 10 American Goldfinches and there were no redpolls, crossbills or grosbeaks.

A male House Finch (left) and an American Goldfinch (in winter plumage, right). Photos: © Vic Newton

Northern Shrikes are often seen on conspicuous high vantage points (left). The right photo gives a closer view. This year we had a record high count of 10 Northern Shrikes. Photos: © Alan Burger (left); © Vic Newton (right)

Despite the freezing weather, many of our creeks were still flowing and here we located several hardy American Dippers – a total of 10 (just above average numbers). Watching these tough little birds leap from an ice platform into icy water to find aquatic insects is an amazing experience.

An American Dipper on the ice edge at Mill Creek. How a robin-sized bird can tolerate being on ice and in icy water for hours at a time is quite astounding. Photo: © Alan Burger

The same American Dipper taking the plunge. This bird would remain submerged for 10-15 seconds and then leap back on to the ice to rest briefly between dives. Photos: © Alan Burger

Here are a couple of owls that we missed on the count day but were seen in the count week.

A Great Horned Owl seen in the count circle within the Count Week. Photo: © Paul Willms.

This Short-eared Owl was found a few km outside our count circle so unfortunately is not included in our count data, but we decided to show it here anyway! This species has occurred in the Merritt Christmas count only once in 23 years (in 2004). Photos: © Loretta Holmes.

In the mid-afternoon the snow stopped and by dusk it was positively pleasant in the Merritt area (but still cold at -6 C).

Nicola Lake at sunset on the count day, 18 December. Photo: © Rick Howie

And a beautiful full moon rose to wrap up a good birding day. Photo: © Vic Newton.

In the late afternoon gloaming, a Rough-legged Hawk flies by. Photo: © Alan Burger

Thanks to all who participated in the 2021 Merritt Christmas Bird Count.


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Nicola Naturalist Society – Fall & Winter Events 2021-22

Evening meetings are on hold due to the Covid restrictions (January & February 2022). We will update this posting as needed. Members please check your emails for updates on events.

Evening meetings of the Nicola Naturalist Society are held on the third Thursday of the month at 7PM in the Lecture Theatre of NVIT (Nicola Valley Institute of Technology) on Belshaw Road, Merritt. Our evening meetings are free for members. Non-members by donation. We have awesome raffles.

For insurance reasons, our field outings are restricted to our members (visitors can join membership-for-a-day). Annual membership runs from 1 September through 31 August. To join the Nicola Naturalist Society click here: Membership Page

We are on Facebook. Check out our Facebook page: NNS Facebook

Meet us at these Merritt community events:

  • Saturday September 18th – Merritt Street Market, 9:30 AM – 1:00 PM
  • Saturday October 2nd – Community Engagement Fair, Merritt Civic Centre from 10:00 AM to 3:00 PM

Thursday October 21st, 2021, 7 PM at NVIT Lecture TheatreAGM and Members’ Photo Night

We keep the necessary business meeting short so there is ample time to enjoy local nature photos taken by our talented membership. We haven’t seen members’ photos on the big screen for many months so this will be a gala occasion.

This little Saw-whet Owl found a sheltered spot to roost during the day. This species is strictly nocturnal. Photo: © Cathy Tombes

Thursday November 18th, 7 PM at NVIT Lecture TheatreElaine Sedgman – Common Bees of the Southern Interior of B.C.


Elaine Sedgman is a well-known Kamloops naturalist and a strong supporter of native pollinators. Her presentation will introduce us to some of the diverse bee species in the Southern Interior and their important roles in pollination and food production. This presentation was originally scheduled for May 2020 but postponed because of the pandemic.

A native bumblebee on a dandelion flower. Photo: © Alan Burger

Sunday December 12th – 09:00: Tracking with Frank Ritcey

For members only. Meet at the Lundbom parking lot. From 09:00 until about noon. Wear clothing to match the weather. Gaiters and snowshoes should be useful.

Saturday December 18th: Merritt Christmas Bird Count

Our club organizes the Merritt Christmas Bird Count – an annual one-day event focused on a 22 km diameter count circle. We are one of several thousand Christmas Bird Counts that take place each year across North America (for over 100 years in some places). You don’t have to be an expert to participate – groups are led by a knowledgeable birder. To register please email:

See our feature page on this event: Merritt CBC 2021

For information and photos from the December 2021 Merritt CBC click here: 2021 Merritt CBC

Saturday January 8th: Merritt Christmas Bird Count for Kids

An outing jointly run by the Merritt NatureKids Club and the Nicola Naturalist Society.

For a report on this outing and photos click here: CBC4Kids

Thursday January 20th 2022, 7 PM at NVIT Lecture Theatre: Meeting cancelled because of Covid resurgence

Thursday February 17th 2022, 7 PM at NVIT Lecture Theatre: Frank Ritcey – Ethical Wildlife Viewing & Photography   

NOTE: This meeting was postponed because of the COVID restrictions and risk. We hope to have this event in March 2022.

Join Frank for an evening of videos and photos of BC wildlife and an in-depth discussion about what it means to be an ethical viewer and photographer of wildlife. An active Nicola Naturalist Society member, Frank formerly worked for WildSafe in Kamloops, promoting safe interactions between humans and wildlife. Those who enjoyed Frank’s recent photo/video exhibition in Merritt know that this evening will be a real treat.

A sleepy Barred Owl yawning. Photo: © Frank Ritcey.


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Nicola Naturalist Society – April 2021 “Nature News”

With continuing covid restrictions, our website has become the substitute for monthly meetings. A regular feature at our normal meetings is “Nature News” with photos and stories of local nature from our members. So here is the online spring 2021 version. Enjoy! And many thanks to the photographers who contributed.

Lets go with mammals first.

Seen in February with the pond still frozen and snow covered – here is where Muskrats spend the winter, under the ice and in a lodge made of matted vegetation and mud. Muskrats don’t hibernate but probably sleep much of the winter in between nibbling on their supplies of aquatic vegetation. Photo: © Alan Burger

When spring arrives and the ice melts off their home ponds and lakes Muskrats become more active. Here, at Separation Lake, Knutsford, a young Muskrat munches on roots of a water plant. Photo: © Alan Burger

Another rodent emerging at this time of year is the Yellow-bellied Marmot. These large gophers hibernate for 7 to 8 months through the winter. It must feel really good after all those months to get out on a warm rock and enjoy the spring sunshine. Photo: © Cindilla Trent

Another rodent emerging in April is the Yellow Pine Chipmunk. It is always a delight to watch these colourful and hyper-active little critters. Photo: © Bruce Walter

Another Yellow Pine Chipmunk. Related to squirrels, they are at home on the ground or in the trees. Photo: © Cindilla Trent

Red Squirrels remain active all winter, but one seldom sees them during the really cold and blustery winter weather. In spring they become much more lively, maintaining territories and seeking out mates. Here the squirrel is feasting on the old seed head of a sunflower. Photo: © Cindilla Trent

A young Bighorn Sheep near Spences Bridge. Small herds of these sheep are most often seen in the warmer valleys along the Thomson River. In pre-European times their range was much wider and covered much of the Nicola Valley. Photo: © Vic Newton

A herd of Mule Deer in the sagebrush. Photo: © Vic Newton

This Mule Deer has something wrong with its right eye – notice the opaque look to the eye. Despite this handicap the deer is in good shape. Photo: © Vic Newton

More Mule Deer – a lot more! A big herd grazing on a hayfield. Photo: © Bruce Walter

This Mule Deer had a portrait shot taken as it browsed on lichens right next to a wildlife camera set in a tree. Lichen-covered twigs had been placed around the camera to help with camouflage – Logan Lake ski trails. Photo: © Alan Burger

A nice shot of a Coyote sneaking through the brush. Photo: © Cindilla Trent

These River Otters in the Nicola River have caught fish to make any angler proud – a big rainbow trout above and an even bigger burbot below. Extremely dense fur keeps these otters warm even in the icy water. Photos: © Vic Newton

Some of our birds remain with us all winter, providing wildlife interest through the bleakest weather.

Mountain Chickadees, with their distinctive white eyebrows are common year-round in the forests through most of the Nicola Valley. In many areas they overlap with Black-capped Chickadees. Photo: © Alan Burger

A flock of Mourning Doves having a break from foraging at a Nicola Valley feedlot. Photo: © Anne Pang

This Northern Pygmy Owl was a regular visitor in Vic and Susan Newton’s backyard, providing opportunities for great photos. These tiny owls are fierce predators, taking both mice and small birds. Photos: © Vic Newton

Northern Shrikes breed in summer in the arctic and boreal areas, but come south to overwinter with us. Although they belong to the songbird (Passerine) order of birds, they have developed characteristics of small birds of prey – using their strong hooked beaks to catch small mammals and birds. Photo: © Bruce Walter

Snow Buntings are another winter visitor in our area. In April they start heading back to their arctic tundra breeding grounds. This photo was taken at a cow feedlot in Lower Nicola. Photo: © Diana Grimshire

Nuthatches, like chickadees, remain with us all winter. Nuthatches and chickadees are often found in the same winter flocks, hunting for dormant insects and seeds in the trees. This is an unusual ventral view of a White-breasted Nuthatch – the least common of our three nuthatch species. Photo: © Bruce Walter

Pygmy Nuthatches are, as their name says, the smallest of our nuthatches. They are often found high in the branches of big ponderosa pine trees  Photo: © Bruce Walter

Time for the quiz. Can you identify this bird? Hint – it can be found in our area all year round but becomes more obvious when breeding season begins in spring. Keep scrolling down to see the answer. Photo: © Anne Pang

April is the time that many of the migrants return, having spent the winter in warmer southern latitudes. For some species this might be the southern U.S. or Mexico, but some of our breeding birds migrate as far south as the tropical forests of South America. It is always a joy to see them return in spring.

Swallows are the acknowledged harbingers of summer to come. Tree Swallows are usually the first to arrive in our area. This is a male with its lovely glossy plumage. Photo: © Alan Burger

Western Meadowlarks are also early spring arrivals, and their lovely lilting songs drifting across the grasslands are a sure sign that spring is here. Photo: © Bruce Walter

A few Spotted Towhees remain with us for the winter but most head south and then return in spring. Photo: © Bruce Walter

True to their name, Song Sparrows give loud voice to spring, as they establish their territories and start attracting a mate. Photo: © Anne Pang

In April as the ground warms up, snakes begin to emerge from their winter dens (hibernacula). This is a Common Garter Snake – our most common snake in the Nicola Valley. Photo: © Bruce Walter.

As the ice leaves our lakes and ponds, huge flocks of waterfowl return to the Nicola Valley, some to breed here but many just in transit to breeding areas further north. Here are a few seen in recent weeks.

A pair of Ring-necked Ducks, male on the left, female right. These ducks dive down to feed on aquatic insects and worms on the bottom of ponds and lakes. Photo: © Alan Burger

Another duck that dives underwater to find food is the Canvasback. Female left, male right – seen here in a pond in Tunkwa Provincial Park. Photo: © Alan Burger

Gadwall are a big dabbling (surface-feeding) duck. The black vent of the male (on the right) is a diagnostic feature to look for. Photos: © Anne Pang

Even with its head underwater there is no mistaking a male Pintail, one of our most attractive ducks. Photos: © Vic Newton

Eurasian Wigeons are close relatives of our common American Wigeon. Small numbers of this species regularly find their way from Asia to British Columbia. The brick red head of the Eurasian male differs from the green head of the local male. This April several Eurasian Wigeons were seen in the Nicola Valley – this was one of three seen on April 17th on Stump Lake. The ducks in the foreground are female and male Mallard. Photo: © Alan Burger

Huge numbers of Lesser Scaup can be found on our lakes in spring, but only a few will remain to breed in our area. These were just a few of the hundreds on Stump Lake in mid-April. Photo: © Alan Burger

And finally here are some spring arrivals that are seldom seen, unless one goes looking at their specialized habitats.

Long-billed Curlews certainly live up to their name. This was one of two birds seen regularly on the hayfields in Lower Nicola. Small numbers of this rare bird do breed in our area, usually in areas where the grass is not mowed through the summer. Photos: © Diana Grimshire

Early in the spring, a drive up to the Douglas Lake grasslands might produce some Horned Larks. This one, along with a dozen or so more, was found on March 12th. Small numbers do breed on open areas in this area, with their melodious songs reminding us that they are larks. Notice the feather tufts that give the “horned” appearance. Photos: © Alan Burger

Two Grey-crowned Rosy Finches showed up among the juncos in a Logan Lake backyard on April 10th. These finches are normally found in high alpine meadows and snowfields. Photo: © Alan Burger

And the answer to the quiz ….

Photo: Anne Pang

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Sandhill Crane outings – April 2021

Our club headed up to the Douglas Lake grasslands twice this April to monitor the migration of Sandhill Cranes. The Douglas Lake Plateau Important Bird & Biodiversity Area (IBA) was established primarily because of its importance as a staging ground for thousands of cranes heading north in the spring. Our club, along with the Kamloops Naturalist Club, are the custodians of this IBA, checking on bird numbers and factors that might be affecting birds. All our monitoring is done from the public roads. Having an outing coincide with a lot of cranes is always a bit hit and miss – but we did well this year.

On 11 April a small convoy of club members drove up to the grasslands, following strict anti-Covid guidelines. We encountered four groups of cranes on the Douglas Lake Ranch – two groups (8 and 84) near the Englishman Bridge, one group of 54 on the wetlands west of Chapperon Lake and a large aggregation of 150 at Chapperon Lake itself. In total 296 cranes for the day. Here are some photos from 11 April:

Spot the cranes? On April 11th this was our first small flock of Sandhill Cranes – way across the field next to the trees. Two pairs of Canada Geese closer. Photo: © Alan Burger

Then just around the corner, a larger group on the irrigated field.

Sandhill Cranes foraging on the dry hayfield, Douglas Lake Ranch, 11 April 2021. Photo: © Alan Burger

The wetlands west of Chapperon Lake are often a great place for migrating cranes and some were there again this year:

A few Sandhill Cranes on the wetlands near Chapperon Lake, 11 April 2021. Photo: © Alan Burger

Finally, at Chapperon Lake we had large flocks flying past the road, giving their distinctive bugling calls – wonderful sights and sounds.

Sandhill Cranes heading north – Chapperon Lake, 11 April 2021. Photo: © Alan Burger

A mass of Sandhill Cranes taking flight after resting overnight on the Douglas Lake Ranch. Photo: © Bruce Walter

Sandhill Cranes on their spring migration northward. Chapperon Lake, 11 April 2021. Photo: © Alan Burger

A crisp close-up view of one of the departing Sandhill Cranes. Photo: © Bruce Walter

Besides cranes there were many birds to be seen.

Immature Bald Eagles near Englishman Bridge. Eagles are attracted to the ranch during the spring calving time when cow placentas offer a feast. Photo: © Alan Burger

A close-up view of an immature Bald Eagle. Photo: © Bruce Walter

An adult Bald Eagle in the ranchlands. Photo: © Bruce Walter

The first Turkey Vultures are just arriving in the Nicola Valley in mid-April. Photo: © Bruce Walter

A pale-phase Rough-legged Hawk. As the summer migrants arrive, our winter visitors, such as this species, will be heading north to their arctic breeding areas. Photo: © Bruce Walter

The lakes were loaded with waterfowl of every description – some migrating on their way north and others arriving to breed here.

Two male Green-winged Teal on Rush Lake, Douglas Lake Plateau. Photo: © Alan Burger

A much smaller group of Nicola Naturalist members came out on the April 17th expedition, but were well rewarded. Our first group of cranes was somewhat modest – just two birds near Englishman Bridge. But a couple of km further on as we came over the hill we hit the crane bonanza at the usual wetlands site.

Part of the flock of almost 1500 Sandhill Cranes on the wetland near Chapperon Lake, Douglas Lake Ranch. 17 April 2021. Photo: © Alan Burger

Here is a close up of part of this mass:

A small section of the big flock of Sandhill Cranes on the wetlands, 17 April 2021. Photo: © Alan Burger

So – how does one count such a large number of birds. The best way is to take a series of photos with a telephoto lens, stitch the photos together and then laboriously count every crane. It helps to divide up the flock into countable sub-sections. This is done with a high resolution photo, too large to show here, but here is a greatly reduced version. (click on the photo to see it enlarged; click on the back arrow to get back here):

A low-resolution version of the 10-photo panorama used to count Sandhill Cranes at the Douglas Lake wetland, 17 April 2021. Photo: © Alan Burger

In total 1449 cranes were in this photo and another 11 just out of the photo, giving a flock of 1,460 cranes. Shortly after we arrived the cranes started taking off to resume their northward flight. As more and more took off the sky above us was filled with circling, calling cranes – this has to be one of the most spectacular wildlife experiences in southern B.C. No photo can do it justice. These birds will be heading to breeding grounds in northern B.C., Yukon and Alaska. A handful will remain to breed in our area.

A flock of Sandhill Cranes departing from the Douglas Lake wetlands, 17 April 2021. Photo: © Alan Burger

More Sandhill Cranes leaving to resume their northward migration, 17 April 2021. Photo: © Alan Burger

And when we got to Chapperon Lake there were more big flocks of cranes coming over the hills and heading north.

How good is your crowd estimating? How many cranes in this photo?

Some of the large flocks of Sandhill Cranes passing Chapperon Lake on 17 April 2021. Photo: © Alan Burger

Using a high-resolution version of this photo, a total of 434 cranes were counted. And other flocks added more. Overall we estimated at least 650 cranes passing Chapperon Lake.

In total we encountered 2,123 Sandhill Cranes on 17 April. It has been estimated that over 25,000 cranes use the Douglas Lake Plateau as a stop-over on their spring migration. These ranchlands are a critical bit of habitat for these magnificent birds.

Once again, on April 17th there were plenty of other birds to see on the grasslands and on the lakes.

White Pelicans are always a treat to see. On April 17th we found these big birds resting at the pond next to the Douglas Lake Ranch headquarters. These pelicans are probably headed to the only  breeding colony in B.C. – at Stum Lake on the Cariboo Plateau near Williams Lake. Photo: © Alan Burger

A dark-phase Rough-legged Hawk at the Douglas Lake grasslands. These hawks overwinter in our area, but migrate north to the arctic and boreal areas to breed. Photo: © Alan Burger

A pair of Mallards on Rush Lake, 17 April 2021. Photo: © Alan Burger

A Pied-billed Grebe on Rush Lake. These little grebes nest in the emergent cat-tails. They feed on small fish and aquatic insects. Photo: © Alan Burger

Here is the complete bird list of our two April 2021 excursions to the Douglas Lake Plateau. Click here: Bird lists April 2021

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Sandhill Crane monitoring in the Douglas Lake Plateau

Sandhill Crane monitoring in the Douglas Lake Plateau Important Bird Area – courtesy of the Kamloops Naturalist Club

Rick Howie, a member of the Kamloops Naturalist Club, has provided us with instructions on how best to monitor the Sandhill Crane migration. He has also created a recommended route map along with the data forms to record your sightings. The annual migration through the Kamloops-Merritt area is approximately from April 1 to May 15.

Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) migrate across the Douglas Plateau in spring and fall with a small number of breeders scattered across the plateau during the summer months. An estimate of 22,000 – 25,000 birds use this route.

The provincial IBA program coordinator, Liam Ragan, has expressed interest in conducting surveys for cranes and species at risk within the Douglas Lake Plateau IBA. The importance of the area to Sandhill Cranes was instrumental in having the area declared an IBA in the first place.

The following suggestions for methods to survey Sandhill Cranes are provided in order to help kick-start the survey process. Anyone may participate. Complete one or both of the forms below.  The completed data forms can be submitted through e-mail to Rick Howie ( by May 15. 

For an overview of Sandhill Cranes in the Douglas Lake Plateau, download this document. On page 5 is a map of  suggested locations.

Crane Monitoring

If you want to observe from one location, download this form.

Standwatch Site Form

If you want to follow a driving route, download this form.

Crane driving route form

Here is an example of a completed form.

For more information on the Nicola Naturalist Society’s role in monitoring the Douglas Lake Plateau Important Bird & Biodiversity Area (IBA) click here

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Nicola Naturalist Society – January 2021 “Nature News”

As the COVID restrictions continue, the Nicola Naturalist Society is having no evening meetings. Instead we are posting local nature photos and stories provided by our members, which we normally share at our evening meetings as “Nature News”. Here is the latest batch – nicely demonstrating the diversity of our wildlife, even in winter.

We’ve had our share of stormy weather, so it is appropriate to begin with a dramatic photo of a rapidly approaching storm.

Incoming winter storm! Photo: © Vic Newton

It seems a bit early for birds to begin any courtship or territorial displays, but Anne Pang looked out of her window in early January and this is what she reports:

“Grouse hunt! It is truly a lesson in patience with no better teacher than the grouse itself. We spotted from the window, this spectacular display that the bird put on while just walking from one end of the yard to the bushes.  The blurry pictures were taken from the window and at some distance.”

Displays by a Ruffed Grouse as seen through the window. You can easily see where the name “Ruffed” Grouse comes from. Photos: © Anne Pang

Anne continues:  “Then hoping for a better picture, I dashed outside and crept up upon it but it kept well within the bushes and brambles. I stood as still as possible and waited for an interminable time till the cold got to me and I gave up!”

Photos of the same Ruffed Grouse that was displaying. Photos: © Anne Pang

Why would a grouse display in the mid-winter snow? One guess is that this is a male starting to get a touch of testosterone and practising for the spring. It probably takes some skills to woo the lady grouse so never too early to start practising.

Another relative of the grouse recently seen:

A beautiful male Ring-necked Pheasant found in our area. This is an introduced Asian species but is often bred and released by game-bird hunters. Photo: © Paul Willms

In winter we get several bird species visiting us from their summer breeding grounds way up north – in the boreal forest or even in the Arctic tundra. That makes for some interesting winter birding. Here are a few of these species.

It seems like a good winter in 2020-21 for Northern Shrikes. Several have been seen in local Christmas Bird Counts. These tough little birds catch small birds and mice. Photo: © Bruce Walter

In winter we sometimes get flocks of hundreds of Bohemian Waxwings. These winter visitors love Mountain Ash and other berries but once they strip an area of berries the whole flock moves on. Photo: © Alan Burger

Part of the huge flock of 800+ Bohemian Waxwings that spent several weeks within Logan Lake town. Photo: © Alan Burger

A closer view of Bohemian Waxwings. These birds visit us in winter and are very similar to the Cedar Waxwings that we see in summer and that breed here. The Bohemians breed in the far northern boreal regions. Photo: © Alan Burger

A Common Redpoll (notice the red forehead). This tiny finch is another winter visitor to our area, but is a very fickle traveler. Sometimes years go by when we don’t see any, but a few have been reported in the 2020-21 winter in our area. This photo was taken in early January 2021 near the Quilchena Hotel. Photo: © Alan Burger.

Sightings of wintering waterfowl in our area are very dependent on whether the lakes are frozen over. Nicola Lake has been largely open through December and early January this winter and yielded big counts of ducks, geese and swans in the Merritt Christmas Bird Count. Other lakes are mostly frozen over. But waterfowl sometimes persist in our rivers and running streams.

As Logan Lake freezes over in December the waterfowl crowd together in the remaining open water – until that too freezes over and they all leave. Here are Canada Geese, Trumpeter Swans and a lone Lesser Scaup. Photo: © Alan Burger

A pair of Barrow’s Goldeneyes – male on the right. These little ducks can often be found in swiftly running streams, like the Nicola River. Photo: © Anne Pang

A neat little parade of Hooded Mergansers along the ice edge – three males and one female. Photo: © Vic Newton

A Great Blue Heron on the ice bordering the Nicola River. In winter these herons will often use ice as a platform to hunt for fish. Photo: © Anne Pang

Time for some mammals …..

A small herd of Mule Deer resting in the long grass. Photo: © Vic Newton

And where there are deer there are predators. Vic got these photos of multiple cougar tracks at an undisclosed location in our area.

Cougar tracks along a rural road. Photo: © Vic Newton

A closer view of the Cougar tracks. Photo: © Vic Newton

A lovely shot of a Snowshoe Hare pretending it is invisible in its white winter coat. Photo: © Paul Willms

Muskrats remain active all winter, but those living at frozen-over lakes are seldom seen as they forage under the ice. This one was swimming in the Thompson River at Kamloops. Photo: © Alan Burger

It seems like a good winter for seeing owls …..

Vic Newton did not have to go far to get photos of a Northern Pygmy-owl – this one was in his backyard! Photo: © Vic Newton

Pygmy-owls have “eyes” in the back of their head – or so it would appear. This feature of their feathers probably deters predation by larger owls or raptors on these tiny owls. Photo: © Vic Newton

Another tiny owl – this time a Saw-whet Owl, which found a sheltered spot to roost during the day. This species is strictly nocturnal. Photo: © Cathy Tombes

Northern Hawk Owls are rare in our area. This one was hunting for mice and voles during the day at a marshy forest-edge near Logan Lake. They are mid-sized owls, about as big as a crow. Photo: © Alan Burger

Barred Owls are now common through much of southern British Columbia, but before the 1950s they were seldom found here, being resident mostly east of the Rockies. Habitat change related to logging and agriculture has allowed the species to invade and thrive in B.C., although it remains fairly uncommon in our area. Photo: Paul Willms.

A Northern Pygmy-owl near the Quilchena Hotel – January 3rd, 2021. The fencepost gives one a good idea of how small these robin-sized owls are. Photo: © Alan Burger

Another view of the same Northern Pygmy-owl. These owls mostly hunt during the day, and this one was so intent in searching for rodents in the long grass that it ignored the photographer. Photo: © Alan Burger

Raptors are also frequently seen in our area in winter. The next two photos show the two most common large hawks found in winter here. The differences in their underwing and tail patterns are key to identfying them when seen from below.

Red-tailed Hawks can be found year-round in our area and are our most common large raptor. This is an adult bird showing off its underwings and red tail. Notice the difference between this bird and the Rough-legged Hawk in the next photo: Photo: © Paul Willms

A Rough-legged Hawk. The name comes from the feathery legs – visible in this photo. This species breeds in the Arctic tundra but is a regular visitor to our area in winter. The small whitish head, black lower belly and black “wrist” patches are diagnostic identification features. Photo: © Paul Willms

Another large hawk that is often seen in winter is the Northern Harrier. This raptor hunts by flying low and slow over open grassy areas and plunging down when it detects a mouse or a vole. The conspicuous white rump, barely visible in this side view, is a diagnostic feature of this species. Photo: © Alan Burger

Northern Harriers are among the most aerobatic of our raptors, doing interesting contortions while in flight if they see something interesting below. Photos: © Alan Burger

Here are some photos of two closely-related finches – one common in our area most of the time and the other a rare and unpredictable visitor.

The Red Crossbill is an interesting species and generally found year-round in our area. The crossed beak allows them to pry seeds from conifer cones. There are at least five different morphs of this species; each morph favours a different conifer species and has a slightly different beak shape and subtly different calls. Here are a female (left) and male, evidently the type that prefers Douglas-fir cones. Photos: © Anne Pang

White-winged Crossbills are far less common in our area than their Red Crossbill cousins. These ones were seen on the Savona Christmas Bird Count. Photos: © Alan Burger

And to wrap up, a pic of a bird we see all year round which is always a reliable contributor to Christmas Bird Counts across much of our province.

A Song Sparrow, fluffed up to resist the winter cold. Photo: © Alan Burger

To see photos and the results of the Merritt Christmas Bird Count on 20 December 2020 click here: Merritt CBC 2020


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Merritt Christmas Bird Count 2020

Well, the COVID pandemic certainly threw a wrench in the planning of the Merritt Christmas Bird Count this year. After considerable debate the Nicola Naturalist Society decided to go ahead and run the count, but with strict anti-COVID precautions. We didn’t publicize the count in the media and invited only those who had participated before. We re-organized the count areas within the 22-km count circle to accommodate more, but smaller, groups and kept groups to 2-3 people. On the count day everyone traveled in their own vehicle or within a family or established social bubble. And when on foot we carefully maintained 2 m distances, especially when taking turns to look at a bird through a spotting scope. And, sadly, the popular post-count potluck dinner had to be scrapped.

Loretta and Alan showing covid-safe spacing while birding at Nicola Lake on the 2020 Merritt Christmas Bird Count. Photo: Craig Gartner

Despite these restrictions, and some gale-force winter winds, the count was a success – the 22nd count for the Merritt count circle. Thirty people participated (about average for recent years) and they tallied 61 species and 3,977 birds (also close to average for the 22 counts). A further 6 species were added during the Count Week period.

To see the complete count data click here: Merritt CBC Data 2020

No new species were added to the Merritt count list, but Wayne Weber’s group did manage to call up 4 Virginia Rails at the Coutlee marsh – only the second time this species has been found.

With Nicola Lake and other water areas mostly ice-free, our waterfowl counts were above average for most species and record high counts were tallied for Gadwall (43 birds) and Barrow’s Goldeneye (76). Trumpeter Swans were in high numbers too (75) with many grey juveniles indicating that there was good breeding success in their northern breeding grounds.

A few of the hundreds of Canada Geese on Nicola Lake – overall 536 geese were counted across the count circle – about double the average but not a record high. Photo: © Alan Burger
Another group of Canada Geese at Nicola Lake. Photo: © Alan Burger
More Canada Geese at Nicola Lake near Quilchena. Note the adult Bald Eagle in the top left corner. Photo: © Loretta Holmes
Spot the Gadwall. The duck in the centre is a female Gadwall, looking very similar to the female Mallards that surround her. We tallied a record high of 43 Gadwall on the count day, mostly on Nicola Lake and at the sewage settling ponds. Photo: © Anne Pang

Away from the water most species had fairly normal count numbers, but notably high counts were recorded for Pygmy Nuthatches (30 birds – double the average), American Robins (53 – all in one noisy flock), European Starlings (405 – well above average) and American Tree Sparrow (10 – the second highest count in 22 years). Dark-eyed Juncos (115 – double the average) and Pine Siskins (160 – second highest count) were also in high numbers.

An American Tree Sparrow having a drink at a puddle. Ten of this species were seen, the second-highest number in our 22 Christmas counts. This little sparrow is a winter visitor from northern boreal forests. Photos: © Alan Burger
A great view of a White-breasted Nuthatch. The least common of the three nuthatch species that we get around Merritt, this species was missed in several of our recent Christmas Bird Counts and this bird was the sole representative this year. Photo: © Vic Newton
Another view of the same White-breasted Nuthatch, with a seed in its bill. Photo: © Vic Newton

Big misses on the count day were Common Loon (previously recorded on 15 of 22 counts), Pileated Woodpecker (previously on 16 counts) and Townsend’s Solitaire (previously on 18 counts), although the loon and woodpecker were later seen during the Count Week period. Notably low counts were American Dipper (only 2 seen, the average is 7) and Bohemian Waxwings (66 seen, well below the average of 460 and the record high of 2,009 birds).

Here are more photos from the Merritt CBC:

Alan and Craig birding at the Triangle Ranch near Quilchena. Photo: Loretta Holmes
Two female Common Mergansers on choppy Nicola Lake. High winds for much of the day made it difficult to spot birds out on the lake. Photo: Loretta Holmes
A few of the 951 Mallards seen on the count day. Notice the leg band on the female in front. This bird has obviously been captured and banded at some point in its life. We were unable to read the band information. Photo: Loretta Holmes
This was the only Ruffed Grouse seen on the 2020 Merritt CBC. Photo: © Gerry and Jill Sanford
A couple of shots of a female Hairy Woodpecker on count day. Photos: © Vic Newton
Song Sparrows have appeared in all 22 of the Merritt Christmas counts over the years. They are year-round residents in our area. Photo: © Alan Burger
Northern Flicker is another species that has appeared in all 22 Merritt CBCs. This bird, with the red moustache is a male; females don’t show this feature. Photo: © Anne Pang.
American Goldfinches – female on the left, male in winter plumage on the right. Goldfinches, like most finches, show big fluctuations in numbers as seed crops vary. This year we counted 53, just above average, but in previous Merritt counts the numbers have fluctuated from 1 to 152. Photo: © Anne Pang.
Sharp-shinned Hawks are fairly regular in the Merritt Christmas counts, being seen on 15 of the 22 counts. They are often seen near feeders, where they try to catch smaller birds like sparrows, finches or starlings. Photo: © Vic Newton.

Many thanks to those who participated.


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Nicola Naturalist Halloween Outing – Oct 2020

On Saturday 31 October 2020 a small group of Nicola Naturalist Society members participated in a COVID-safe outing to a site near Juliet Creek. Situated just off the Coquihalla Highway, this was a special site that Norm Hansen had discovered. When the Coquihalla Hwy was built more than 35 years ago the engineers designed spawning ponds to enhance the breeding of the Coldwater River salmon. Our outing was to one of these sites, much modified since it was first built.

Our first sight of the spawning ponds near Juliet Creek. Photo: ©Alan Burger
Beautiful calm conditions – a fine fall day to be out in nature. Photo: ©Alan Burger
Chris R. lost no time in looking for interesting plants in the marshy areas. Photo: Alan Burger
Fall is a time for berries – in this case Squashberry or Soopalalie (Shepherdia canadensis). The leaves of the plants have all fallen, leaving the bright red berries to attract passing birds. Photo: ©Alan Burger
A close view of Snowberries (Symphoricarpos albus)
Emergent grasses make a colourful contrast with the green pond. Photo: ©Alan Burger
This American Dipper was sitting mid-pond and singing heartily – an unusual activity for a bird in the fall. But in this case it seems it was trying to deter an intruder into its territory. We watched it chase another Dipper multiple times around the pond. Photo: ©Alan Burger
During most of our visit we could see this Common Merganser diving in the shallow water, seeking small fish – likely juvenile salmon. Photo: ©Alan Burger
Chris L. and Norm exploring. Photo: ©Alan Burger
One of the large beaver lodges in the ponds. Photo: ©Alan Burger
Beavers tend to build dams where there is running water. As a result they block up the channels intended for salmon the access the spawning ponds from the Coldwater River. To try and deter the beavers, the engineers built extensive cages to keep the channels open. Photo: ©Alan Burger
But in many places the beavers have succeeded in damming up the channels intended for fish access. Photo: ©Alan Burger
Evidence of recent beaver activity. Photo: © Alan Burger
Another large beaver lodge in a separate pond. Photo: ©Alan Burger
The Coldwater River runs past the spawning ponds. Photo: © Denise Williams
Alan and Norm on the Coldwater River bank. The trail that is barely visible along the steep bank is part of the Trans Canada Trail. Originally this was a railbed of the Kettle Valley Railroad, but over many decades the river has eroded it all away at this spot. Norm and other volunteers come here every spring to maintain the trail for cyclists and hikers. Photo: © Denise Williams.
Cottonwood trees with glorious golden fall leaves. Photo: ©Alan Burger
An adult Bald Eagle keeping watch over the river from a tall cottonwood tree – already bare of leaves. Photo: ©Alan Burger
And Chris R. still finding interesting plants to photograph – in this case a tiny sedge. Photo: ©Alan Burger




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