Despite being only the third largest province of Canada, British Columbia is more than twice the size of California. The western 2000 miles of the U.S.-Canada boundary lies on the 49th parallel, and the three sparsely populated Canadian territories (Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut) have 60 degrees as their southern boundary, hence British Columbia spans exactly eleven degrees of latitude. From west to east it stretches from the Pacific Ocean to the Rocky Mountains, and farther north, to the Alberta Plateau. We had previously visited only three widely separated areas just inside the borders of the province, so we looked forward to the opportunity to explore some of the interior of the province on this trip.
On May 5th we took the ferry from Port Angeles, WA to Victoria, BC, on Vancouver Island. This 1.5-hour crossing of the Strait of Juan de Fuca can be very good for birds, but we saw relatively little other than Rhinoceros Auklets and Pigeon Guillemots, though quite a few Harbor Porpoises were some compensation. Once on Vancouver Island, we stayed for three nights with Terry and Rhys Harrison, with whom we have birded in Thailand and Colombia. It was marvelous to spend three lovely days in the field with them! On the first day we explored grassy balds in the greater Victoria area; these hilltops and ridges with thin soil over bedrock have excellent spring wildflower displays, featuring two species of purple camas lilies. We racked up three new species, a plant, a dragonfly, and a butterfly – the latter, called Sara Orangetip, was a real beauty!
On the second day we visited coastal locations north of Victoria. We were especially pleased to see Harlequin Ducks, the males having striking plumage, as hinted by their scientific name, Histrionicus histrionicus. The Saanichton Spit had a fine assortment of beach/dune plants including Carex macrocephala, a distinctive sedge we had not seen before. We spent a while chasing and photographing small butterflies here, which we finally identified as the scarce Vancouver Island subspecies of Common Ringlet. Finally, on the third day, we made a long drive to the Mount Washington ski area to look for the critically endangered Vancouver Island Marmot. The population sank below 30 individuals in 2003, but a recovery effort has increased the number of individuals to about 200. Although researchers had detected animals a few days before our visit, we were basically too early in this delayed spring season, and despite an intensive effort scoping the few areas not still under snow, we had no luck. But it was a beautiful area and we had a nice hike, enjoying lovely Mountain Hemlocks (Tsuga mertensiana) and photographing a new butterfly, Hoary Comma. Afterwards Eileen hand-fed all her cookies to a group of five Canada (Gray) Jays, one of her favorite activities. 🙂
Although a great simplification, British Columbia can be regarded as having four primary physiographic regions. These are arrayed approximately parallel to the Pacific Coast, and from the coast, heading inland, they are the Coast Ranges, the Central Plateau, the Rocky Mountains, and the Alberta Plateau. After taking a ferry to the mainland, we traveled east through the Coast Ranges on the Sea to Sky Highway, Route 99. The scenery along this route was beautiful, and the drive rather varied as the road crested at over 4000 feet elevation, where there was considerable snow on the ground. It then dropped down to below 1000 feet elevation where it crossed the Fraser River, which cut an impressive gorge. This road ended at the Cariboo Highway, Route 97, which we took north to Prince George.
This route took us through the Central Plateau, which in its southern half is fairly settled, with a number of ranches. From a natural history standpoint, the most interesting areas here were lakes and wetlands along meandering rivers. Each night we would try to camp on a lake, to get in paddling in the evening and/or morning (a practice we hope to be able to follow for much of our time in Alaska and northwestern Canada). On Greenly Lake we heard spectacular Common Loon concerti, featuring all three advertising calls (wails, yodels, and tremolos). On Chubb Lake Sandhill Cranes flew about and emitted their primeval calls, and we photographed breeding-plumaged Horned Grebe.
At Prince George, we headed west for the coast again on the Yellowhead Highway, Route 16. We finally started seeing some larger mammals on this stretch, finding Black Bear and Moose. At Forest Co-op Lake, Common Snipe were vocal at dusk, giving their winnowing courtship call from high in the air. In the morning it was too windy to paddle here, but Eileen hand-fed more Canada Jays, and a lovely pair of White-winged Crossbills dropped in. We reached the vicinity of the coast, near Prince Rupert, after a very long day of driving in the rain, one of only a few times during our three months on the road that we have had daytime plans significantly affected by rain. Although we again had to pass through the Coast Ranges, this time we did so via the valley of the Skeena River, so there was just a gradual decrease in elevation, rather than our passing over the crest of the range.
Our primary reason for the substantial detour to the coast here was to attempt to record Keen’s Myotis (Myotis keenii), a very uncommon and poorly known bat of limited distribution. It is found close to the coast, and on offshore islands, from extreme southeast Alaska to extreme northwest Washington (where it may no longer be present). Although formerly regarded as conspecific with M. septentrionalis, it is now known to be most closely related to M. evotis, and likely the two should be combined into a single species (Lausen et al., Canadian Journal of Zoology, 8 Nov 2018). But the reference we use currently lists M. keenii as a full species, so we endeavored to find it. It is hard to distinguish from M. evotis either in the hand or via acoustic means, so we sought an area within the range of M. keenii but outside the range of M. evotis.
The only place we could find that met these criteria, and was accessible by vehicle without a costly ferry ride, was the Prince Rupert area. We had no information where to try for the species, and so targeted Prudhomme Lake, where we could camp and so have access to the lake at night, where the bats might come to drink or to forage along the coniferous forest edge. We were rained out the first night and nearly froze the second night while sitting on the beach recording for 3.5 hours, but were rewarded by obtaining two call sequences of M. keenii! This was our 42nd bat of 47 species in North America north of Mexico. We also recorded Little Brown Bat, California Myotis, and Silver-haired Bat at this location.
Although it rained most of our three days near Prince Rupert, we did manage to fit in a paddle on which we located Nephrophyllidium crista-galli (Deer Cabbage), a plant in a genus we had never seen before – quite an exciting discovery for us! This monotypic genus (contains one species) is in a small family (Menyanthaceae) having only three genera and four native species in North America. We also got in a hike on the Butze Rapids Interpretive Trail, which was a lovely walk. It leads through several interesting habitats to a pretty set of rapids that can actually flow upstream on an incoming tide! Here we found a new species of Oak Fern, Gymnocarpium disjunctum, differing subtly from a much more widespread species.
Returning east on the Yellowhead Highway past Terrace (where we camped on pretty Ferry Island), we took the Cassiar Highway, Route 37, north towards the Yukon Territory. Almost immediately the land became wilder and the habitats developed more boreal character, with patches of muskeg appearing (these are wet peat lands typically partially occupied by black spruce). Finally, around 55 degrees latitude, we were entering territory with arctic overtones. We soon saw our first Grizzly Bears of the trip, a mother and cub, and started racking up Black Bears, seeing 16 in one day. We took a very interesting side trip to the coast at Stewart, BC (the only place we had cell signal in our last 8 days in the province) and crossed over into tiny Hyder, AK. We drove the road past Hyder, stopping at interesting Fish Creek, a bear viewing area when the salmon are running, and continuing back into British Columbia, to view the scenic Salmon Glacier. We camped the nights before and after at Clements Lake, where we saw six Mountain Goats on the steep slope behind the lake, and had our first Beaver of the year while paddling.
We had more lovely camping at Kinaskan Lake, which had a nice assortment of ducks, including many pairs of Barrow’s Goldeneyes, and migrating flocks containing Surf and White-winged Scoters. We were especially pleased to hear the haunting calls of Long-tailed Ducks. A paddle yielded our second new plant genus of the year, Geocaulon, which, like the first one, was monotypic. We took another side trip down Telegraph Creek Highway, but turned around before it reached the scenic river gorge, because the area had been burned to a crisp for many miles. Although it was still effectively early spring here (and everywhere else we visited in mainland British Columbia), there was a slightly better assortment of flowers along this road than we had been seeing elsewhere, including significant stands of the beautiful Corydalis aurea (Golden Corydalis).
Our last camping place in British Columbia was at Boya Lake, where we had been advised that the paddling was superb. This was indeed the case; we paddled 25 miles of shoreline in two days, seeing just one kayak the entire time, and enjoying the superb cyan water color, usually associated with tropical waters. The color is the result of the lake bottom consisting of white marl, which is precipitated calcium carbonate. In shallow areas, the marl reflects enough light that the lake surface color is significantly affected by the light that has passed twice through the water, removing most of the red component. (In contrast, in deeper water, or with dark lake bottoms, surface color is mostly determined by reflected sky light, which is more blue than cyan.)
Highlights while paddling were hearing Trumpeter Swans calling magnificently while in flight; watching Horned Grebes giving their territorial call, which we had never heard before; and finding an occupied Common Loon nest, where the loon kept his or her neck and head low to the ground and did not move a muscle, so as to be less visible. Our three nights and two days here were a fine and fitting end to our 22 days in British Columbia, a province with which we now feel some respectable level of familiarity.