Ian McTaggart Cowan

Chapter 18: Okanagan Honeymoon 1936

“Up at 5 a.m. as usual.”

– Ian McTaggart Cowan

The newlyweds planned a full summer honeymoon expedition in the interior, starting in the Okanagan grasslands. They drove up via Merritt and Princeton to Anarchist Mountain, near Osoyoos, as their first stop. Anarchist rises 1,500 feet out of the pocket desert that straddles the US border and was a favourite birding site of local naturalists such as Allan Brooks, whom they had visited in the summer of 1931. At Anarchist they camped for four days in the shade and orange scent of Ponderosa Pine at 17 Mile Creek. Water is a natural draw for birds and mammals in dry landscapes and Joyce and Ian observed and collected ample specimens of both. At dawn the breeding Red Crossbills and ill-named Evening Grosbeaks would sing them awake with their high kip kip or burry chipping calls as they came in to drink.

The still of their evenings was also interrupted by the antics of the deer mice and ground squirrels that invaded the campsite while they prepared specimens in the cool air. They shared all the prep work, including entries in the catalogue, so the museum was getting two for the price of one. It was not a conventional honeymoon, but the adventures were undoubtedly happy for the pair.

Canyon wren

They hiked through most of the south Okanagan from Okanagan Falls to White Lake, an alkali lake, where they watched Sage Thrashers and Brewer’s Sparrows making second nests under “the broiling sun” and hunted around in alfalfa fields “where all the rattlesnakes in the country were there, there must have been 500 if there were 10 – nice country to find birds in!!” Then they followed the Okanagan River to their favourite spot at Vaseux Lake.” Huge cliffs tower above the west side of the lake, and it was in these cliffs that they had previously observed the elusive Canyon Wren.

This journal note about Munro’s over-zealous collection of wrens marks the start of Cowan’s philosophical shift away from his mentors on the question of collections. His decision to leave the chat was a new Cowan, with an adjusting set of conservation principles emerging. Nesting in the rose thickets in the northern margins of the lake below the cliffs was the aptly named Yellow-breasted Chat, BC’s largest wood warbler, with its distinctive whistling call.

Yellow-breasted chat
Ian McTaggart Cowan with Frank Paul and Joe Smith (1960)

Vaseux held a particularly important place in Cowan’s own biogeography at the start of his married life and throughout his career. The presence of the chats also symbolized an indicator for him of continuing habitat health over the decades. Not just on the grounds of adequate food, shelter or security for an animal but on the basis of disturbance through noise. Continuity didn’t just represent health of the ecosystem. Cowan drew enormous strength from the continuous support of Joyce over their 66-year marriage. According to Ann Schau, their daughter, “I would guess she always was dad’s sounding post. She was a very good naturalist, as she came from a naturalist’s family. It was a world that was entirely familiar to her.” They would return to Vaseux Lake all their married lives. In 1966 Cowan supported the Okanagan Similkameen Parks Society purchase of 500 acres of Vaseux Lake for a wildlife reserve.

Red Crossbill specimen : adult male
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