Two hundred and fifty different kinds of birds have been recorded in or near Wells Gray. This represents approximately half of all the bird species documented from British Columbia, and roughly 30% of the birds of North America – but only 3% of the world total!
Much of what has been learned about Wells Gray’s birdlife is summarized in two publications. The first, The Birds of Wells Gray Park – An Annotated List, by Yorke Edwards and Ralph Ritcey, appeared in 1967. The second publication is Checklist of the Birds of Wells Gray Provincial Park, which in 2010 was revised to its third edition.
Approximately 23 of the birds included in the park checklist can be considered casual or accidental, that is, they apparently do not occur every year. In fact some, like the Black-crowned Night-heron and Northern Mockingbird, may not turn up again. Especially noteworthy is the Black-throated Sparrow seen (and collected) by Hettie Miller at Murtle Lake on 8 June 1959: for more than two decades this remained the only Canadian record.
Another 78 species are rare or very rare – at least in the sense that they are not often observed. Many of Wells Gray’s owls belong here, as do several of the ducks and sandpipers that pass through during migration. Locating such as these can pose a real challenge.
Approximately 117 bird species can be classified as reasonably common. At the height of breeding season (May through June), you might well check off as many as 70 of these during a two-day visit. To do so, divide your time between the Horseshoe-Ray Farm-Alice Lake area on the one hand, and the Trophy Mountains (upward to the peaks) on the other.
After about the beginning of July, most species stop singing, and thus take a sudden turn for the inconspicuous. Now the question of the day becomes “Why are there so few birds here”. In a sense this question is ironic, for with the recent recruitment of newly hatched nestlings, birds are actually now at their most abundant in the park. Yet there is no denying they are hard to see. Only in August, with the increasing restlessness that precedes migration, will they again come into public view.
Very few of Wells Gray’s birds can be called resident, in the sense that they live here year round. For most, home is in the tropics and temperate zones; they come to Canada only to raise their young on the abundant and otherwise unexploited food resources of mid-summer. By early August, many of them are beginning to retreat south again. About 110 bird species belong in this category, including warblers, thrushes, flycatchers, vireos and swallows.
Roughly 50 species are migrants, passing through the park en route to and from their nesting grounds farther north. Additionally, a very few species range here on a kind of post breeding holiday. The former category includes many of the sandpipers and most of the ducks, whereas in the latter belong the gulls. Because the migrants are most in evidence during May and September – October, it is then that the lakes and ponds take on special interest.
Four bird species occur primarily in winter, namely the Northern Shrike, Common Redpoll, Bohemian Waxwing and, rarely, Black-billed Magpie. All arrive with the onset of the cold season, and all disappear again once the weather starts to warm.
The rest of Wells Gray’s birds – some 30 species in all – might be called its resident species: they can be found during any month of the year. This is not to say that the individual birds necessarily stay put. Indeed, without recruits from elsewhere, the park might well lose a goodly number of its so-called resident species every autumn. Yet resident individuals do occur among such groups as the owls, the woodpeckers, and especially the grouse.
The Clearwater Valley is at something of a geographic crossroads between the Columbia Mountains and the Interior Plateau. Because it contains elements of both the wet Interior Cedar-Hemlock Zone and the drier Interior Douglas-fir Zone, many birds are at or near the edge of their range. The Alder Flycatcher breeds at its southern limits here, whereas its look-alike, the Willow Flycatcher, is at its northern limits. Here the two species can sometimes be found singing almost on the same bush.
This edge-of-range effect adds a certain zest to birdwatching in Wells Gray. Watch especially for the following species, all at their northern limits: Calliope Hummingbird, Gray Catbird, Nashville Warbler, Lazuli Bunting, Rufous-sided Towhee, and American Goldfinch.