The following is an excerpt from “Best Places to Bird in British Columbia” by Russell Cannings and Richard Cannings. Published by Greystone Books, April 2017. Condensed and reproduced with permission of the publisher.
WHITE LAKE, SOUTH OKANAGAN
When visiting the Okanagan you may hear people talk about how it’s a “semi-desert” or that it’s the northern end of the Sonoran Desert, hence the abundance of rattlesnakes, prickly-pear cactus, and sweaty birders. From a habitat perspective, the South Okanagan is technically shrub-steppe and not a desert, meaning that annual rainfall is comparable to a desert’s (Osoyoos gets less precipitation than Tombstone, Arizona!) but cooler winters allow the ground to retain more moisture, thus the abundance of grasses, sagebrush, rabbit brush, and antelope brush instead of saguaro cactus and barren earth.
The South Okanagan’s unique climate and habitats support flora and fauna found nowhere else in Canada, including a number of threatened and endangered species. Since the majority of these rare species occur in the native grasslands and dry shrub-steppe country, I had to include at least one representative site in this book. Picking just one was a challenge, but I settled on White Lake due to its convenient accessibility, as well as my intimate knowledge of the place from my childhood spent chasing salamanders and searching out rare insects, to my first paid birding job studying bluebirds and swallows, then later as a member of a Canadian Wildlife Service team researching Brewer’s Sparrows and Sage Thrashers.
From the north (driving south along White Lake Rd. from Penticton), stop at the turnoff for the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory on the left side of the road where the valley opens up and trees dissipate into expansive sage brush grassland. Park near the information kiosk and assess your surroundings. Lark Sparrows nest near this spot most summers and Vesper Sparrows are abundant throughout the area. Lazuli Buntings are also in the area and you may note either Mountain or Western Bluebirds nesting in the boxes along the fenceline. Western Meadowlarks are common throughout the grasslands March–October, and this spot can be a good place to hear Common Poorwill at night in May– September.
About 700 m/yd. beyond the observatory turnoff, the Fairview–White Lake Rd. turns off to the left/south. Continuing straight will take you to the community of Twin Lakes and Hwy. 3A near Yellow Lake. The first 3 km (about 2 mi.) offer similar habitat to that of White Lake, and occasionally Sage Thrashers can be found singing along this road. The first buildings on the left are the old headquarters of the White Lake Ranch. The fields around here can be good to scan for Gray Partridge and families of Dusky Grouse in summer. The copses of aspen that come close to the road on the left side can have Least Flycatcher and Red-naped Sapsucker in summer, and Lazuli Bunting is common here, as are both species of bluebirds.
To reach White Lake, turn left/south onto the Fairview–White Lake Rd. There’s a bit of a wide spot on the left just as you start going down the hill, allowing you views of the lake. Park along this slight pull-off area (watch for oncoming traffic), and walk to the fenceline on the east side so you can scan your surroundings. Most of the biggest sagebrush is in this area, so it’s the most reliable zone to find the semicolonial Brewer’s Sparrow.