Trip to the Plateau-Part II
In late April, I took multiple trips to the Chilcotin Plateau for birdwatching and snowshoeing. This post covers the view from the cabin there, where I saw Sandhill Cranes, displaying Wilson’s Snipes, and an intense fight between two Northern Flickers.
The small cabin looked out onto a beautiful wet meadow, edged with forest, and set against a mountain backdrop. Even in late April, most of the meadow was still under a foot or two of snow, although some patches of brown grass were beginning to emerge. As lunch was warming up, I happened to glance out the cabin window just as two large shapes swept past. A pair of sandhill cranes were coming in to land.
Upon landing, the cranes erupted into a chorus of bugling calls, celebrating their arrival, or perhaps complaining about cold toes. The two birds picked at patches of bare ground, and then slowly meandered across a snowy section, before disappearing around a finger of forest extending into the meadow. Occasionally they would emerge from behind the trees, and at one point they began displaying.
Crane displays are a wonderfully awkward, yet elegant dance in which the lanky birds jump up and down, using their wings to get a bit of extra height. Displaying cranes usually vocalize during the dance, and will even add in a bit of twirling and stick tossing if they’re feeling extra frisky. These birds were just testing out their moves, and soon stalked their way back behind the trees.
When the crane show was over, my friends and I (Katie, Dennis and a Belgian traveler, Joren) finished our lunch, packed up our stuff, and left. I was captivated by the place, and formulated a plan to return within a few days with Tara, so that we could spend a night and see what wildlife would emerge during the magic hours of the evening and early morning.
The following days were warm and sunny in the valley, and when Tara and I returned to the plateau, there had been a noticeable reduction in the snowpack. We got settled in to the cabin, and headed out for a short snow-shoeing stint. The going was slow in the mushy conditions, and we soon decided to try our luck walking the road. We had walked about a mile down the dusty dirt road when some movement up ahead caught my attention.
A solitary raven flew low over the road and landed in a branch off the side. Below the raven appeared a dark-colored red fox, climbing up the embankment and sauntering onto the road. He crossed the road and began trotting our way. The raven lifted off from its perch, and flew up in our direction as well, passing over the fox a few times before landing in another tree. The raven was clearly following the fox, hoping that the small canid would lead it to some bits of food. But when the fox had approached to within a hundred or so meters of us, it realized we were there and ran off into the brush. The raven disappeared as well, and we were left alone on the road once again.
We returned to the cabin, and I settled down on the porch to watch as twilight fell on the plateau. A haunting, winnowing sound emerged from the dusk, passing close to the cabin, and I knew we had company—a displaying Wilson’s snipe. These sandpipers are close in appearance to my favorite bird, the American woodcock (or Timberdoodle), and like the woodcock, they often display in wet meadows. In addition, they also have a flying component of their display in which their feathers produce distinctive sounds to help attract a mate. Unlike the chirping sounds of the woodcock's feathers, the snipe’s feathers make a much deeper, pulsating noise that seems to emanate from many places as the bird travels through the air, often unseen in the low evening light. I listened to the displaying snipe for a while, and then retired to the cabin for the night.
I woke early the next morning, and after stoking the fire, making some coffee, and bundling up against the cold, I reclaimed my perch on the deck. A few flurries tickled the gray skies, and as the surrounding landscape slowly brightened in the early dawn light, the birds began to rouse themselves. A small sparrow flew across the snowy gap from a cluster of trees about 30 meters away to a group of bushes and dry grass off to the side of the cabin. I craned my head around to see if I could catch a glimpse of the sparrow, but it had disappeared into the grass. As I turned back to look out across the meadow, a small hawk sped by and dove into the bush where the sparrow had vanished a few moments before. It was a male sharp-shinned hawk, and I watched as the diminutive raptor tried to flush the sparrow out of its hiding spot. The hawk worked its way down to the grass, and started reaching out its long legs, grabbing at the long grass stems. It hopped around a bit, worrying the vegetation, but the sparrow stayed put, apparently feeling secure in its hiding place. After a few minutes, the hawk gave up and flew off. With this act of life-or-death drama over, I collected my coffee and sat back to see what Act 2 would bring.
I didn’t have long to wait before the action resumed. This time the players were a pair of male northern flickers engaged in a battle for ownership of a nest cavity. The battle, which I suspect had begun the previous day or perhaps even before that, was entirely transfixing. As I sat watching, I slowly began to grasp what was happening as the nuances of the interaction started to emerge:
A dead tree near the cabin has what appears to be the perfect cavity for a female flicker to use as a nest site. This cavity is thus prime real estate for a male flicker looking to win the affections of a female. The only problem is that two males have claimed the cavity as their own. These males begin a series of agonistic (aggressive) displays aimed at convincing the other male to cease and desist. The males display with head bobs and weaves, fanned tails, aerial displays, and aerial chases. Neither male concedes ground, however, and the situation only escalates. At this point, I should introduce the two main actors: “Yellow” and “Red,” whose names reflect the coloration of their underwings.
Yellow’s favorite tactic is to dive into the cavity and hope that by physically occupying the space, he’ll convince Red to give up. Meanwhile, Red’s favorite strategy is to loudly vocalize from just outside the cavity, proclaiming the cavity as his own. Red will also stick his head into the cavity, taunting Yellow until Yellow can’t take it anymore and emerges to battle. Sometimes the two fight in the entrance hole, pecking at each other in the hopes of landing a definitive blow. Usually this is followed by Red flying off with Yellow in close pursuit. While the chases can go quite a distance, they always return to the cavity tree, at which point the males begin displaying to each other, almost as though a reset button has been pressed.
Occasionally a female arrives at the site of the battle. Alerted to her presence, the two males immediately divert their attention away from one another and instead direct their displays at the female. She does some head bobbing and tail-fanning of her own in recognition of their solid competition, but then she leaves them to it. Sometimes the males follow her, but they always return to the more pressing matter—vanquishing their foe.
At one point the two males come to blows in the air in what must be the final showdown. Red has Yellow’s head clasped in one foot, and lands a nasty peck to the face. I’m sure this is the decisive blow in the battle. Yellow appears dazed and confused after this, and I crown Red the victor.
But I am mistaken. Within 30 minutes, Yellow is back in the hole, and the battle rages on.
The fight of the flickers was fascinating in its own right, but there was an added layer of interest to the whole thing—both males were hybrids. Yellow had the distinctive yellow underwing color of the eastern (“yellow-shafted”) subspecies, but the red malar (mustache) stripe and clean nape of the western (“red-shafted”) subspecies. Red, on the other hand, had the orange underwing and red malar of the western subspecies, but he also had a red crescent on his nape, distinctive of the eastern subspecies. I had no idea that this area of British Columbia was a hybrid zone—the maps generally focus on the Rockies as the zone of intermixing, but the eastern and western subspecies of flickers and yellow-rumped warblers (and possibly others) intermingle west of the Rockies onto the plateau, and even down into the Bella Coola Valley.
As the never-ending battle of the hybrids continued, I turned my attention to some new action occurring on a patch of melted meadow out in front of the cabin. It appeared that the snipe’s display (from the previous night) had been successful. A female snipe had come to the area, and the male was now marching along behind her, with his tail proudly fanned out. The female led the male around the patch of exposed earth and then did something unexpected; she led him across the snow right to the steps of the cabin where I sat with my camera.
I was sitting relatively still, but I was pretty sure that both snipes were aware of my presence. Was this a test? Was the female gauging the male’s level of interest by seeing whether he would follow her right up to a potential predator? Or was she secretly hoping I would catch the male and rid her of an annoying suitor? Who knows what goes on in the mind of a snipe, but the female eventually wandered into bit of brushy vegetation, and the male took that as a sign that it was time to mate. I couldn’t see whether it was a successful mating attempt, but he continued to stick with the female after that. Later on, as I was beginning to pack up the car, I saw two small figures about 150 meters down the road—it was the female snipe and her dutiful shadow, still trailing closely behind.
During our time on the plateau, I was also treated to visits by evening and pine grosbeaks, red and white-winged crossbills, boreal and mountain chickadees, Clarke’s nutcrackers, mountain bluebirds, flocks of migrating tree swallows, and a very loud greater yellowlegs. I had originally planned on doing a fair bit of snow-shoeing on that trip, and while I did get another walk in that morning, most of the special moments occurred right outside the door of the cabin. Almost seems like that would be a good focal point for a blog or something…
Special note: The View out the Door will be taking a bit of a hiatus as I travel back across the continent to Maine. Look for the next post towards the end of June.
Trip to the Plateau-Part I
I step outside into the early morning after a day of rain showers, and the air is heavy with scent. This spring moisture is the first to fall in weeks, and it has unlocked a complex tapestry of smells. The sweet perfumes of newly emerged forest wildflowers like wild lily of the valley, star-flowered Solomon’s seal, and false Solomon’s seal are set against the thick, loamy aroma of decaying organic matter. I breathe in the world, hold it in my lungs for a moment, and head out for my morning walk.
A rich melody of bird song moves through the air, weaving in and out of the vegetation, and is overlaid upon the olfactory bouquet. Newly arrived migrants add their songs to those of the early migrants and the year round residents. Vireos, warblers, tanagers, flycatchers, and thrushes all vie for acoustic niche space, partitioning the forest levels and the soundwave frequencies among them. I focus on the soundscape around me, working to identify each bird species by its call or song, and also listening for the crack of breaking twigs; I’m not the only big animal out and about in the morning.
It’s now mid-May and the neon-green of fresh chlorophyll-filled leaves, horsetails, and grasses fills the valley. It also fills in the forest understory, making it much harder to see off the trail. The reduced sightlines has me a little on edge; a few days prior I happened upon our local black bear Albert at a much closer distance than he or I wanted. A few woofs and a bluff charge by him, and some negotiating by me settled things down, but it had left me a little uneasy. For the most part, however, Albert (and most of the bears in the valley) are just interested in filling their bellies with the rich array of fresh greens around. Newly sprouted horsetails, skunk-cabbage, and dandelions are favorites, and many of the bears seek out the road in the early spring to forage on the grasses and dandelions along the margins. In an effort to conserve energy, some of the bears will sit, or even lie down on the ground, and graze on whatever is within reach. Our resident black bear, Albert, took this “energy-conservation” to a new level the other morning when he joined us for breakfast. He slowly made his way across the property, and when he got to the patch of grass just outside our cabin, he flopped onto the ground and began munching away below our window. He grazed at that spot for a few minutes, and then, rather than get up and move to a new spot, he crawled on his elbows a few feet and resumed eating. He crawled his way around our little front yard for a while, and then came across one of Tara’s hiking boots lying in the grass. Albert sniffed at the shoe, gently nibbled on the heel portion, decided that it wasn’t to his liking, and kicked the shoe behind him. The entire half-hour that he was here was immensely rewarding to watch at such close quarters, but his palpable disgust at the shoe and subsequent desire to get it away from him is one of my favorite Albert moments to date. It just makes you realize that there are some universal truths—one of which is that nobody likes stinky shoes.
While I could fill an entire post with stories of Albert (and perhaps I will in the future), I want to take us out of the valley today, up Bella Coola’s (in)famous “Hill” and onto the plateau that sets the eastern edge of the valley. From where we are located in the valley, it’s about a 15 minute drive to the bottom of the hill. At that point the road turns to dirt and begins climbing rapidly. The next 20-30 minutes generally consists of steep (sometimes vertical) walls on one side, and sheer drop-offs (with no rail) on the other side. The road is not for the faint of heart, but it’s the only road into (and out of) the valley, so unless you’re taking the ferry, you’ll be navigating this exciting road.
My first foray out of the valley was a few weeks ago when Katie and Dennis took me “up top” to do a bit of snow-shoeing. At that point the valley was still cool, with nighttime temperatures around freezing and daytime temps generally in the 40’s and 50’s F. Up top, at approximately 5,000 ft elevation, the land was still in the icy grip of winter, with 3 feet of snow on the ground in many places. During our ascent we came across small flocks of winter finches in the road—white-winged and red crossbills, pine grosbeaks, and pine siskins flew up as the car approached, then rapidly returned to resume their activities. I wasn’t sure if they were ingesting grit, which helps break down hard seeds, or perhaps minerals like calcium carbonate, but whatever they were after was clearly important to them.
We finally leveled off, and drove for maybe 15 minutes onto the plateau. A thin layer of fresh snow covered the road, and along the edges the snow was piled up a few feet high. We passed stands of charred tree trunks, remnants from some of the wildfires that have scorched the area in recent years. We met up with Joren, a Belgian biker on his way from Canada to Mexico, and got set-up with our skis and snow-shoes. I attempted to hike the snow-covered trail in my boots, but after punching through to my thighs a few too many times, I put on my snow-shoes. The trail passed mostly through newly regenerating forest growing in the shadows of blackened lodgepole pine skeletons. When we had gone a few kilometers, we decided to break, and as the others grabbed a quick bite, I ventured down the trail a little further. Around a bend in the trail I came across the fresh tracks of some ptarmigan. These chicken-like birds are a type of grouse, and they typically live at high elevations, and/or high latitudes. I had no idea if the birds that had made the tracks were still in the area, but I slowly crept off the trail, following some of the four-toed footprints. I looked up and over, and on a small rise I saw a pair of willow ptarmigan frozen in place. These birds are practically impossible to see in a snowy landscape because they molt into an almost pure white plumage during the winter. In the spring they molt into a mottled brown, but the two birds I had spotted were still sporting their winter-wear. I watched the two birds for a while, and soon realized there were others nearby. One of these other birds came up out of a small ravine, saw me, and exploded into the air. That sent all the others into the air as well, and the 10 or so birds flew off into the snowy woods. When the birds had disappeared from view, I turned around and began making my way back. The weather, which until that point had been mostly sunny and almost warm, turned as well. Snow began to fall, and the wind kicked up, agitating the landscape into a blustery snow-globe.
I trudged on down the trail, rounded a corner and 10 meters in front of me stood the flock of ptarmigan, sprinkled along the path. I stopped, and they froze and we eyed each other for a few moments before they took flight again, moving further down the trail and off to one side. The sun had now reemerged, only to disappear a few minutes later behind an even heavier snow squall. I came upon the ptarmigan again, and this time they felt safe in their location off the trail. I took some photos in the deteriorating conditions, and headed on towards the car and the cabin where we were planning to eat lunch.
As I approached the road, a Canada jay was calling angrily, and I looked up to see the unmistakable silhouette of a northern hawk-owl. These owls live in the far north, and unlike most other owls they are active during the day. They get their name from their hawk-like behavior—they hunt for small mammals and birds by perching on top of a tree, and scanning the surrounding area for prey. This bird was on top of a short pine, and then it flew across the road towards me, and landed in the top of a dead tree, about 15 meters up. Some of the nearby Clarke’s nutcrackers, as well as the mountain and black-capped chickadees called out their agitation, but they left the owl in peace. The owl scanned the area, often swiveling its head 180 degrees around to look over its back. He flew off to another dead tree, where he remained until I left to join the others in the cabin.
To be continued.
Mother's Day Special
“View vignettes” are short stories centered around images I’ve taken over time. This week’s vignettes celebrate Mother’s Day with a collection of stories about the hardest workers in the animal kingdom.
Mother opossum and her baby joey backpack
Early last May, I was in rural Illinois conducting the spring bird count on a protected tract of forest and grassland, when some movement on the grassy road ahead of me caught my attention. I grabbed my binoculars from the car-seat and was surprised to see a very handsome opossum sauntering my way. Opossums are generally nocturnal, and most encounters happen at night (especially on the road). It was unusual to see an opossum ambling along in the daytime, but there was also something very unusual about its back—it seemed to be moving all on its own.
I looked closer, and realized that its back was squirming with baby opossums. Mother opossum continued in my direction, and it wasn’t until she was 2-3 meters (6-9 feet) away that she also realized that something was amiss—a giant object (my car) was blocking her path. Virginia opossums have pretty poor vision, but they have excellent olfactory (smelling) abilities, and she was trying to make sense of the car (and me) with her nose. She took a few hesitant steps towards the car, and then decided she would detour around us. Her troop of nine babies seemed unperturbed, and took the opportunity to reposition themselves and adjust their grip on her fur.
Baby opossums (like all marsupials) begin life as pink, hairless, and blind joeys no bigger than a jellybean. Once they are born, they immediately crawl to the mother’s pouch (no small feat for a jellybean) and latch onto a nipple, where they continue to develop for the next few months until they get too big for the pouch. At that point, they clamber onto the mom’s back and morph into joey backpacks. They hang out on their mom’s back for a few weeks until one day, they fall off, and begin their solitary juvenile and adult lives.
The nest out our door
Most people in North America have probably seen the American robin performing its maternal duties. Robins are ubiquitous throughout much of North America, from the pristine forests of the wild north, to urban backyards and suburban parks across the continent. And it is in our very own backyards – either on a low hanging branch, or below an awning of our home- that we find their nests and get a glimpse into the parent-offspring relationship of this common species.
A mother robin’s parenting role begins even before she lays any eggs. The female will select an appropriate location for the nest, and then work on nest construction. This might happen quite rapidly, or may occur over the course of a week or more. The latter scenario is more common for the female’s first nest of the year, when temperatures can fluctuate dramatically.
A few years ago, we had a robin pair that decided to use an outdoor shelving structure on our balcony for their nest site. This was rather exciting because it gave us a behind-the-scenes view into the robins’ private lives; we could closely watch the robins’ activities from our living room without disturbing them. Mother robin began her construction process by laying a mesh of grass and sticks, which she slowly built up into the rough edges of a nest.
The eggs need a well-shaped cup for both physical safety and thermal incubation. When it came to the cup-shaping phase, this robin would add some muddy grass, and then wiggle down into the nest to create the perfect mother robin-shaped cup. As you can see in the video below, she wiggled in almost a complete 360 degree rotation so that the cup would be properly shaped in every direction.
Once the nest is built, the mother robin will lay one sky-blue egg per day (usually in the morning), until her clutch is complete. Young robins, or those in poor condition usually lay fewer eggs (2-3), whereas older and healthier robins will lay more (4-6). Four is the norm, and that is just what our neighbor robin laid. After 12 days of mom incubating the eggs, they hatched, and then both mom and dad began the never-ending task of feeding the four nestlings. Once the nestlings were a few days old, we would occasionally join them on the balcony, and mother robin quickly adjusted to our presence. The dad, on the other hand, would alternate between scolding us, and ignoring us, but they both continued to provide a constant food supply for their babies. The incubation and nestling period are both critically important for proper development of young robins, and the high-level mothering our robin delivered surely provided her young with a great head-start in life.
A mother-cub trip to the seashore
Many of the black bears in coastal British Columbia have learned to take advantage of marine resources, and oftentimes, this extends beyond their classic fish-catching behaviors. Black bears in undisturbed areas will make their way to the shoreline at low tide and forage in the intertidal zone. There they slurp up just about any food items they can find; crabs are a delicacy, as are bivalves such as mussels and clams. In September 2017, I spent some time with a mother black bear and cub on Vancouver Island. During my time with this bear duo, I was able to watch from a kayak as mom led her growing cub around a quiet inlet. They traversed the exposed flats side by side, searching for marine morsels. The cub would parrot the behavior of the mom, crunching up chunks of barnacles, and flipping rocks to get at whatever was hiding beneath. While mom could flip over hundred pound rocks with ease, the cub would knock over smaller, more cub-appropriate ones. At one point they took a quick siesta, but like many kids at nap time, the cub was more interested in carousing, and engaging in a bit of play-fighting with mom.
Black bears remain with their mothers for the first year and a half of life or longer (depending on if/when the mother gets pregnant). During this time, the mother provides her cub with food, protection (male bears are a major threat to cubs), and an education in both proper foraging techniques and threats to avoid.
A few weeks ago we saw a mom and her two very young cubs in Port McNeil, BC. But we have yet to see any cubs here in the Bella Coola valley (despite our 30+ bear sightings). It could just be random chance, but I suspect that the moms are keeping their cubs out of the bear-packed valley for the time being until the cubs become a little more agile and can escape from threats. As much as we’d love to see some more mother and cub duos, a mother bear that feels her cubs are at risk will fiercely defend them from perceived threats, and that is one wild experience I’d rather forego.
I’d like to wrap up with a special thank you to my own mom! In support of my passion for the animal world, she patiently tolerated the ever-changing menagerie of animals that made their way into my bedroom. This included a collection of frogs, turtles, snails, salamanders, the occasional injured bird, free-range rats (just in my room—not the whole house of course), and, despite her own very strong feelings towards them, snakes. I loved snakes as a kid, and I was constantly on the prowl for them. I loved them so much that I would occasionally put them down my shirt in a bizarre display of bravado, or as part of a summertime talent show. And there was the one time I let a garter snake share a sleeping bag with me for the night because I was afraid it was too cold outside. Through all of this, my mom encouraged these interests and helped instill a deep-seated curiosity, respect, and love for the natural world. Thanks mom, and Happy Mother’s Day to moms everywhere!
Next week: Trip to the Plateau
Home in the Bella Coola Valley
Note for new readers: View Out the Door has been on the road for three months, traveling throughout coastal British Columbia. After a six week stint on Quadra Island, we made passage North to Bella Coola- a small community nestled in the mountains at the interior of a long fjord. This post covers our travel to and settling in to this new place. Current view out the door: A coniferous forest edge with a heavily bear-proofed garden.
The nineteen-hour journey to Bella Coola was both sensational and aggravating. The enormous ferry we were on passed by an almost endless stretch of snow-capped mountains looming over forested valleys, some baring granite cliff faces weeping snow-melt. We traveled around and among dozens of islands, some no more than barren, wave-lashed rocks, others that were dozens of miles in length. A few small pods of porpoises or dolphins passed by far off from the boat, and as the sun dipped towards the western horizon, the sky began filling with clouds. The temperature outside dropped with the sun, and Tara and I made ourselves comfortable inside our snug ferry cabin.
At 1:00am, we arrived in the small, primarily Heiltsulk First Nations community of Bella Bella on Campbell Island. We were supposed to then board another, much smaller ferry and head off to the ports of Shearwater, Ocean Falls, and Bella Coola. Instead, we spent the next 2.5 hours sitting in our overstuffed car in the cold because they had overbooked the ferry and needed to drop some vehicles off at Shearwater before returning to collect us. Finally, the lights of the ferry appeared in the thick black of the night, and we piled on to the small boat (only a few cars and passengers could fit aboard). We pulled our sleeping bags and pads out and tried to get some sleep on the benches inside the passenger cabin. After a few fitful hours of sleep, my senses slowly came back online, and I looked out into the early dawn.
Our ferry was slowly making its way through a narrow fjord called Cousins Inlet, and when I looked towards the front, I could see we were approaching a small community located at the very end of the inlet. The town of Ocean Falls sits between the fjord and Link Lake, and seems unsure whether it is ready to slide into history. A few year-round inhabitants remain in this incredibly remote town, which is only accessible via boat or float-plane. At one point, the town held almost 4,000 residents, and even had an enormous hotel. But with the closing of the paper mill, which was the largest mill in BC for a number of years, the town faded, and now most of the buildings are gone or decaying.
Once we had exchanged a few passengers, we were on our way again, heading further inland among the maze of fjords and mountains. The grey sky was turbid and sat close to the mountain peaks. We pushed slowly through the calm, dark waters of the inlets, watching the scenery and a rich array of wildlife. Humpback whales appeared a few times, puffing out a few clouds of CO2 and water before disappearing back under the oil-slick-like surface. We passed by loafing harbor seals, a few dolphins, and many hundreds of surf scoters staging in the coastal waters before heading inland to breed on boreal ponds. During our 7 hour journey from Ocean Falls to Bella Coola, we saw one small fishing or prawn boat, a few abandoned buildings, and no other signs of humans. No signs except those left by the logging industry, that is. Huge swaths of forest had been cleared in many of the places we passed, although most were in some stage of regrowth. Some were probably 10-20 years old, others closer to 50 or 75 years. Much of British Columbia is a “working forest” which means that it is actively managed for lumber, as well as other natural resources and outdoor activities. Many places operate a rotational wood-block system in which they clear a block, replant it, move on to the next block, and anywhere from 40 to 60 years later, they return to the original block and log it again. Some areas have been logged 3 or 4 times already.
Around 1pm we rounded a corner of the inlet, and the first signs of human habitation began appearing. We passed a few aquaculture facilities, some buildings, and then began approaching a small harbor. A few docks, some parked cars and container buildings, and a dirt road was about it. But beyond the dock an immense valley spread out before us, bounded on all sides by mountains. Some mountain-tops were jagged spires, etched with snow and ice, while others had been worn down by the eons to softer, more rounded summits. Many mountain tops were wrapped in clouds, and not visible at all. The Bella Coola and connected Atnarko valleys sit between two mountain ranges—the Coast Range and the Rainbow Range. The Rainbows (so-called because of their mineralized, colorful appearance) are part of a massive 8-million year old shield volcano that has been worn down by glaciers. The Coast Range mountains here are also volcanic in origin, but they still sport sharp, granite peaks that loom over the valley. At the far end of the valley, the road climbs steeply up “the hill” to Heckman Pass, and an elevated interior plateau still blanketed by snow.
After we picked our jaws up from the deck of the ship, we gathered all our belongings, bundled ourselves into the car, and headed off on the dirt road towards town and the valley beyond. Near the edge of Bella Cool town, we stopped at a path that led through a thick Douglas fir and cedar forest to the estuary. One of the Bella Coola River channels passed by the trail, and the staccato chatter of a belted kingfisher rang out as we approached the water. We had our cameras, our binoculars, and our bear spray with us as we ventured further in, thrilled and a little unnerved by the knowledge that we were in the thick of grizzly (or brown) bear country. It was pretty quiet in the estuary and nearby forests, however, and despite the beauty of the surroundings and the excited calls of some ruby-crowned kinglets, we were both tired and ready to see our new home. We got back to the car, and began our ascent up the valley.
The town itself, with its lone grocery store, was gone before we knew it, and a few miles later we drove by the edge of Four Mile, a Nuxalk (nu-halk) First Nations community. We passed by and through forests and farms, crossing numerous creeks and winding sections of the Bella Coola River. The town of Hagensborg, with the only other grocery store and gas station in the valley, was another 10 miles or so up the road. The Bella Coola River guided us along our slow ascent up the valley, weaving its way across the valley floor. The road led us through the town of Firvale, and then, after about an hour’s drive from the estuary, we hit the edge of Tweedsmuir Provincial Park. At this point, our river companion was now the Atnarko, which joins forces with the Talchako River a little ways down valley to create the Bella Coola. We turned off the main road (the two-laned Chilcotin-Bella Coola Highway) onto our side street, and slowly made our way to our new home – welcomed by towering columns of old growth Douglas fir, cedar, and hemlock.
The small drive led us to a bit of an opening in the forest. As we emerged from the woods, we passed a good-sized garden on our left, encircled by a split rail fence, and reinforced with electric wires (to keep the bears and deer out), Madeline cabin (our new home) on the right nestled under a large birch tree, and then a smattering of other log cabins tucked in between the firs and cedars. A larger cabin, set against the backdrop of the Coast Range Mountains and cottonwoods trees, sat a little further in, and as we pulled up, Katie and Dennis came out to greet us. They moved here about 40 years ago, and have a deeply rich understanding of, and connection to, the natural and human history of the valley. They had prepared dinner and apps for us, and after we unloaded some of our belongings into Madeline cabin, we were treated to a wonderful feast of food and stories at their place. We talked late into the night before we retired to our cabin, happy and full, for our first night in the valley.
I don’t want to use the cliché that coming to this valley is like taking a journey back in time, because it’s not really accurate. There are heli-skiing operations, wireless high-speed internet, cars, logging, depleted fisheries stocks, etc. But this valley provides glimpses into what once was. Strands of 600 year old forest remain in places, and when I walk among those sentinels, with their massive trunks and towering canopies, I feel a sense of euphoria tinged with melancholy. The thrill of being among these ancient giants is tempered by the sadness of how rare an experience this is. I work to put the sadness out of my mind to enjoy the moment, and to immerse myself in the surroundings. I want to see and know everything about this place, which means that it can take me hours to go anywhere. Almost too-small-to-see blue-eyed Marys poke up among the conifer needles on sandy forested slopes. The Calypso, or fairy orchid, produces a single, ground-hugging leaf in the fall, which overwinters before sprouting a short stem that bears a solitary bright pink flower in the spring. Birds abound, and the woods are full of the songs from varied thrushes, Pacific wrens, kinglets, warblers, sparrows, and more. And of course, there are the bears.
The valley is home to a healthy (~50) grizzly bears, and probably hundreds of black bears. The reason for their abundance is also the lifeblood of the valley’s ecosystem—the salmon. The rivers are home to five salmon, plus cutthroat and stealhead trout, and the dolly varden. The bears are supported by the bounty that runs up from the sea every year, although some of those runs are disappearing, and all have declined dramatically. There are no fish runs at this time of year, however, and the bears are out looking for fresh grass and horsetail shoots to munch on. Sharing the forest with these bears is thrilling (bird watching here has an extreme sport feel to it), but is not an endeavor to be taken lightly. There are very real human-bear conflict issues in the valley, and I want to be sure I don’t contribute to that. I see at least one bear on most of my trips into the forest, but we don’t even have to leave the house to have a close bear encounter. Last week, Tara and I were working in the cabin when we heard a sound as though someone were scraping the side of the house. Tara looked out the window over our bed to see a large, brown-colored bear a few feet away. The bear shuffled over to a patch of grass outside the front door, and began grazing away. Only when it went to munch on some planted pansies did I knock on the window to shoo it away. We initially thought this was a young grizzly bear, which made the encounter quite thrilling, but it turned out to be a large, brown-colored black bear with some distinctive scarring on its face. The encounter was a good reminder that we are visitors in their home, and that we have an obligation to be aware of our surroundings whenever we’re outside.
We’ve now been here for two weeks, and the wildlife sightings have been prolific. New birds are migrating into and through the valley on a daily basis, and we’ve taken a few trips up to the pass where winter still reigns, but is slowly giving ground to spring. I’m excited by the prospect of witnessing the emergence of spring up and down the valley, and sharing that here.
Next week: A Mother’s Day Special!
About the author:
Loren grew up in the wilds of Boston, Massachusetts, and honed his natural history skills in the urban backyard. He attended Cornell University for his undergraduate degree in Natural Resources, and received his PhD in Ecology from the University of California, Santa Barbara. He has traveled extensively, and in the past few years has developed an affliction for wildlife photography.