Birding the Dog Parks
March 2, 2018 – We adopted a dog, a pug-Boston terrier cross (aka a “bug”) named Frankie by previous owners, a couple now divorced. Frankie is our first dog in over twenty years. She is a small, glossy, black, short-haired muscular bundle with bulgy chestnut eyes and a little nose like a black ju-jube. When she walks in an exciting, smelly environment, she hoovers along, nose to ground, hind hips slightly higher than her shoulders, a walking wedge followed by a curly tail. She’s energetic and has to be walked and that’s where the birds come into the picture.
The closest off leash Vernon dog parks are BX Dog Park and Mutrie Dog Park, only a few kilometres from home. Sonja and I have become very familiar with both. They are fenced fields, a bit stony, pock marked in place by the diggings of Northern Pocket Gophers. Dogs and owners have worn informal paths around the outer edges of each park.
Mutrie is simple, the bald top of a hill on the outskirts of Vernon’s populous East Hill neighbourhood. Look west and you’ll see streets of houses. Look east down the other side of the hill and you’ll see a broad expanse of hayfields in a swale to Vernon Mountain with a view up the BX Creek drainage to Silver Star Mountain.
Bare as it is, the appeal of Mutrie, birdwise, for the slightly disengaged dogwalker includes Ring-necked Pheasants and raptors. The pheasants seem abundant in the hay fields and are always doing something new, or at least new to me. For example, yesterday six hens perched side by side atop a fence presumably to take in warmth of the rising sun. Meanwhile a crowd of a dozen more trailed through the long grass below the perch. Eighteen pheasants in one spot! Clearly I have many things to learn about pheasants. However, pheasants aside, it’s raptors that are the stars of Mutrie. A pair of Red-tailed Hawks are resident and Northern Harriers may breed somewhere not too distant. Certainly, deep orange and chocolate brown juvenal harriers are present from late summer to late autumn quartering in their characteristic zigzag ways across the fields to the east, learning to hunt. Last winter a young Rough-legged Hawk took up residence south of the park, spending long afternoons on one of two favoured perches, the tallest Douglas-fir along Black Rock Road or on a pole along Mutrie Road which not surprisingly leads to the park. One of the resident Red-tails sometimes took exception to the Roughie and scraps, mostly verbal and fluttery, would occur, especially as the Red-tails’ territoriality increased in the early spring. Year round a dog walker is liable to see 1-2 raptors per walk here. However, Mutrie is most interesting during the autumn, especially when the winds creating updrafts that enable passing hawks and others an almost effortless ride.
Turley Vultures and Red-tailed Hawks are the most common migrants. In late September on special weather days with air currents just right, the passage of Red-tails can be of one bird after the other, not spectacular like Cape May or Hawk Mountain, but enough for the watcher to know that he’s seeing definite raptor movement. Most of the Red-tails are Western types but among them are occasional Harlan’s types and many birds unassignable to group or subspecies. Dark, light, and intermediate morphs, immatures and adults, phases and ages add to the mix.
From late April to late September Swainson’s Hawks are not uncommon summer residents. The lucky dogwalker-birder may see an adult with a juvenile hunting the newly harvested hayfields east of Mutrie in the later half of August. After Thanksgiving Rough-legged Hawks may pass by, though the species is much less frequent than it was in the 1990s.
BX Dog Park occupies part of a more complex landscape than Mutrie does, though it too is graced with a resident pair of Red-tailed Hawks. In 2018 the pair occupied a nest near the top of an isolated Ponderosa Pine in the middle of the park. Everything else is a grassy flat. Before the area was settled the field was the flood plain of BX Creek, its native cover a mixed forest of D-fir, P Pine, and Western Redcedar. This location was the farthest west the shade, moisture, and cool loving redcedars could advance along the deep mountain folds to the flat sun-blasted valley bottom. Remnants of the coniferous riparian remain at the eastern end of the park and beyond for the person who wants to take his dog on a longer than usual walk.
Frankie appears to find the dog parks much more fascinating than we do. It’s her twice daily opportunity to pee and poop and witness by nose and eye what other canines have done, or are doing. Also it’s clear to me that though both dogs and humans are social animals, the average dog is much social than the average human. Dogs at least sniff each other in passing whereas it’s not that rare that a human will pass another human as if he weren’t there. This is just an observation; I don’t have a problem with privacy in public places. However, one can keep one’s privacy and still watch fellow humans. Mutrie attracts lots of young mothers, retirees, and neighbourhood children walking the dog after school. BX, on the other hand, is favoured by boys (of all ages) with their big dogs that require exercise.
With a creek on one side, a brushy hillside on the opposite side, a former farm at one end and a redcedar riparian woodland at the other, BX Dog Park has three times as many bird species as hilltop Mutrie does. So far in 2019 I have seen 29 species at Mutrie but 89 at BX. While buteos, vultures and eagles soar over Mutrie, they also appear over BX, along with bird-hunting accipiters and falcons. Snags in the forest attract Cooper’s Hawks, Merlins, and even the occasional Peregrine Falcon. The Merlin is most frequent. I missed Merlins this spring but with the passing of July, a little male appeared, chasing passerines in exciting aireobatics overhead.
BX Dog Park has resident flickers, chickadees, nuthatches (including Pygmy Nuthatches), House Wrens, Bullock’s Orioles, and Song Sparrows that treeless Mutrie lacks. Summer residents include Western Wood Pewees, Violet-green Swallows, Northern Rough-winged Swallows, and Belted Kingfishers, these last two nesting in exposed face of a road cut. Also common in summer are Gray Catbirds and Spotted Towhees. Spring brings migrants in the creekside woods like Hammond’s Flycatchers, Pacific-slope Flycatchers, Cassin’s Finches, Nashville Warblers, and Yellow Warblers. Late summer and early autumn bring the wild fruit eaters to the berry thickets like Cedar Waxwings, Warbling Vireos, Swainson’s Thrushes, White-throated Sparrows, Orange-crowned Warblers, and others.
Finally winter, that grim season of packed yellow snow and grey ceiling of valley cloud, is the time for flocks of Bohemian Waxwings, House Finches, wandering flocks of Red-winged Blackbirds, California Quail huddled in the bushes and perhaps a raptor or two.
I make no special efforts to hide my binoculars when I’m walking Frankie in either of these parks. People routinely ask me what I am looking for and when I answer that I am “just” watching birds, some of the chatty ones will trot out their bird stories. But that’s not news to you, is it? You’ve been told much the same stories, some of you while you were walking your own dog, your beloved Bella, Kingsley, Loki, or Muffin. However, I find that even after spending almost all of my life being a birder, I am still self conscious about pishing in public. And pishing is required almost daily, especially in BX Park where birds must be drawn out of the thickets and woodland edges. I walk close to the shrubby edge, I look around to see of the coast is clear of other dog walkers and I pish, but as soon as a walker is within what I consider to be hearing range, I stop pishing and try to look silent, innocent and sane.
For those of you who consider yourself liberated from society’s restraints and the tyranny of self-consciousness, I dare you to pish in public, alone, not with some group, but as a solitary figure in a landscape where your only emotional support is the family dog. Let me know how you do.