I stood on the height of land between the Okanagan and Shuswap watersheds at the northern extension of Deep Creek and thought back on my ten-day thru-hike. I felt sad that my journey was over but exhilarated over what I had accomplished. I gained a deeper understanding of the Okanagan landscape and its people. I really enjoyed the skyscapes and soundscapes of the early mornings and the shimmering and occasionally brooding clouds of late afternoon. The exceptional views of Okanagan landscape I had created tracks across and the kindness of Okanagan residents were burned into my memory. But most importantly, I had the opportunity to reflect on my goal of preserving bird habitat in the Okanagan and in San Blas. What had I learned about the ability of the Okanagan Basin to continue to support neotropical birds?
Desert habitat is diminishing in the Okanagan. New vineyards are springing up everywhere, especially in the south Okanagan. Walking along the Canal Walkway, I passed row upon row of milk cartons being used to shade new grapevines in the sandy soil. I chatted with a fruit farmer near Osoyoos who was tending young Empire Apple trees about the changing height and styles of fruit trees. Orchardists like him are becoming less common in the Okanagan. The predominant change in the landscape from Osoyoos to Armstrong is the shift from fruit to grapes.
Covert Farms to Vineyard
The economics are easily explained: $1.50 per pound for grapes versus $0.20-0.30 for tree fruits. The larger impact of a more structured environment in the vineyards is not good for birds. The fruit orchards that do remain are made up of smaller trees more intensively farmed. These new generation fruit trees have a much smaller root stock, are planted more densely and have a lower canopy which means less protective habitat for birds.
The alteration of the desert landscape where large vineyards are planted and active discouragement of birds from these landscapes has had a decidedly negative impact on bird numbers in the Okanagan Valley. I saw relatively few kingbirds or sparrows and only a few Western Bluebirds between Osoyoos and Oliver where my route passed a large number of vineyards which replaced the orchards and desert landscape. The new style of intensive agriculture with fewer large tree windbreaks and more monoculture means that the dry south Okanagan landscape is no longer as bird friendly. There are still large swaths of land between the Richter Pass and White Lake Observatory that contain abundant natural values and may one day become part of a national park. The valley bottom is a vastly altered landscape that does not support the same number of neotropical breeding birds it would have 50 years ago. There was a huge contrast between the starlings, quail and magpies heard near the newly planted vineyards of Covert Farms, at least a kilometre across, and the trail over McIntyre Bluff where I saw Mountain Bluebirds, Steller’s Jays, and Mountain Chickadees before heading down the steep slopes to the sage and antelope desert above the oxbow lakes on the Okanagan River.
I was fortunate to walk in riparian habitat along Osoyoos Lake, the Okanagan River from 22 Road north to McAlpine Bridge, along Vaseux Lake and from Okanagan Falls along Skaha Lake to Naramata. This stretch of the south Okanagan contained a lot of riparian thickets of birch, willow, alder and red osier dogwood where birds flourish. But, riparian habitat everywhere in the basin is under threat from housing developments and their accompanying roads. The dry and narrow south Okanagan valley has always had limited riparian habitat for breeding birds. Luckily, protected areas exist near Vaseux Lake and there are large undeveloped tracts of First Nations land which for now support neotropical birds dependant on riparian habitat, such as Yellow-breasted Chat, Yellow Warblers, Lazuli Bunting, and Bullock’s Oriole. Lakeshore riparian land is sought after for housing and recreation and is some of the most valuable landscape in the Okanagan. The remaining riparian land also needs to be recognized for its value to breeding birds.
Walking the lakeshore from Okanagan Falls to Penticton, I noted recreational land (campgrounds, summer cottages, and marinas) can be bird friendly places. This is in contrast to intensive agriculture which provides much less vertical canopy and escape habitat for birds. Appropriate zoning and planning policies that encourage protection of marshland along lakeshores can provide incentives to private landowners to protect areas of their land for wildlife. Once I reached Penticton, I realized how much of the valley that the city consumes. Between Skaha and Okanagan Lakes, the urban landscape has overwhelmed the orchards and small farms interspersed with swampy riverine land, which used to provide habitat for birds 40 years ago.
Above Naramata, the Kettle Valley Railway trail winds up and over the highlands of Okanagan Mountain Park which was badly burned in 2003.
Almost to Penticton
In what seemed no time at all I had walked from urban Penticton to just past Chute Lake. At camp that night, I could see the lights of Kelowna! The next two days was involved with getting through Kelowna, which seems to have spread from just north of Chute Lake to Woods Lake. The scale of suburban sprawl in Central Okanagan Regional District is startling. The one area that remains an oasis within the city is the Mission Creek Greenway which provided a welcome morning landscape for the day I took to pass through Kelowna. There was a lovely tract of naturally lakefront along Woods Lake that was the birdiest place between Kelowna and Oyama where I observed 25 species one cool morning. I hope this is the property that may be acquired for its amazing lakeshore natural values. There is so little lakeshore land in the central Okanagan that doesn’t have houses or marinas on it.
Even on the ridge above Cougar Canyon, I looked out over the developments and housing tracts on the west shore of Kalamalka Lake. It took a day to drop down from the delightful trails of Kalamalka Lake Park and to walk the roads and streets through Coldstream and Vernon. While walking down the slope above the lake, I had great views of the new housing tracts and golf courses sprouting over Vernon’s hills and vales. Not until I reached First Nations land on Goose Lake
at the far side of Vernon did I get a sense of how the landscape used to look in the north Okanagan.
The pastoral landscape between Vernon and the end of my hike was made up of small farms, housing developments, and commercial or industrial buildings. The landscape had changed from the open grasslands of Goose Lake to an area of agricultural meadows interspersed with copses of Douglas-fir and Ponderosa pine. Some protected riparian landscape remained, but overall the land was intensively farmed or was peppered with housing development. This north Okanagan landscape seemed more bird friendly than the urban landscape of Kelowna and Vernon and I saw many raptors and a goodly number of flycatchers, warblers and vireos. The riparian zones at Swan Lake and on First Nations land at the end of Okanagan Lake provide good riparian bird habitat for breeding waterfowl and passerines. Luckily, much of the remaining green space above Vernon is protected commonage or owned by DND, so it is undeveloped for now, and I hope most of these lands will be protected for wildlife.
Nearing Armstrong on the Otter Lake Road, the dairy farms and llama ranches began to be interspersed with some newly planted vineyards. Local residents Eric and Jennifer, for example, were proud of a small pond they had created on their Otter Lake Road acreage where I had stopped to watch a Wilson’s Phalerope and two Cinnamon Teal. However, the Pinot Noir grapevines in their milk cartons visible from their porch foreshadow the changes to come even in the North Okanagan. Although the main threat to the remaining bird habitat in the north Okanagan is rapacious development, conversion of mixed farming to vineyards will increase with warming trends.
The people of the Okanagan valley were so kind to me during my journey. They care about the land and the birds and see the connection between the two. Landowners, small and large, whether working vineyards, orchards or milking machines, are concerned about the effect they are having on their local landscape. But, short term economics continues to outweigh the long term social, environmental and economic consequences of alteration of the Basin’s natural ecosystems. I hope that by walking 267 kilometres through the ever-changing landscapes of the entire length of the Okanagan Basin I was able to increase public support for preserving bird habitat, both in the Okanagan and in Mexico.
Thank you so much to everyone for contributing to the $1,157 raised for the Vaseux Lake Bird Observatory and the $458 for the San Blas Migratory Bird Festival Bird Club as well as the 8 pairs of binoculars donated for the young volunteers. Please keep this site in your favorites as we update it to include some photographs of each leg of the trip athttp://www3.telus.net/dcarsen/okthruhike/. The 107 bird species observed during my walk are shown below.