March is the time to look for our first young birds of the calendar year in the Yukon. A number of our resident birds are already busily preparing to nest: Raven, Great Horned Owl, Boreal Owl, Canada Jay, Bald Eagle. But the earliest of all are crossbills! As this article from our Spring 2021 Yukon Warbler explains, crossbills can and will nest at virtually any time of year if there is enough food (spruce and pine cones) available. Previously we’ve had juvenile Red Crossbills appear at feeders in March. Often the math tells us they must have been nest building, incubating eggs, and even feeding young in the nest in bitterly cold winter weather!
What can you do? If you see either Red or White-winged Crossbills, try to look closely for juveniles. They will be brown and heavily streaked underneath, as shown in the photos in the Warbler article, and in this video taken by Don and Sharon Russell (featured in a previous Yukon Birds Facebook post). These young birds will likely be in the company of one or both parents and may be begging food from them. Bird feeders are a great place to spot these, as the parents have probably been frequenting your feeder for weeks while nesting, and naturally will want to show their newly-fledged youngsters where the feeding trough is!
If you do find young Crossbills, please make a note of your observations and try to get a decent photograph. The best place to do this is on a citizen science web site such as eBird or iNaturalist. By doing this you are contributing to a permanent database of bird information that is invaluable to scientists and the general public. If you don’t use either of these, maybe this is the time to start! Failing that, you could post your observation on the Yukon Birds Facebook Group or email it to the Yukon Bird Club.
The 2022 Whitehorse Christmas Bird Count was very successful in spite of the weather being a tad windy and cold. There were 44 participants, including 28 different parties and 11 feeder-watchers. All told, participants counted 6,822 birds of 29 species — compared with 4,162 birds of 24 species last year (the long-term average is 25 species). After a very warm fall season, the Boxing Day count was preceded by a week of brutal cold, including 20 December when the mercury dropped to -42.1 C and topped out at -36.1. Quite a few oddball birds that normally winter south of here were hanging around prior to that and there was considerable speculation about their ability to survive that kind of deep freeze. However, on count day we discovered a lot of them had done pretty well: We had all-time high counts for 9 species (American Wigeon, Common Goldeneye, American Crow, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Bohemian Waxwing, American Tree Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, White-Crowned Sparrow, and Purple Finch). People were delighted to have thousands of Bohemian Waxwings around through the Christmas holidays — quite a contrast to last year’s count when we were totally stumped! Not only were we awash in Bohemian Waxwings (almost double the previous record of 2,033 set in 2016), but for the first time ever they outnumbered our perennial winter resident Common Ravens! Thanks to everyone who participated in this year’s count!
Here’s the list:
American Wigeon 1
Common Goldeneye 5
Common Merganser 1
Spruce Grouse 3
Northern Goshawk 1
Bald Eagle 51
Downy Woodpecker 6
Hairy Woodpecker 6
Canada Jay 11
Black-billed Magpie 56
American Crow 6
Common Raven 1757
Black-capped Chickadee 101
Boreal Chickadee 16
Red-breasted Nuthatch 9
American Dipper 5
American Robin 7
Bohemian Waxwing 4032
Dark-eyed Junco 40 (Slate coloured 39, Oregon 1)
American Tree Sparrow 1
White-crowned Sparrow 4
Pine Grosbeak 88
Purple Finch 10
Red Crossbill 21
White-winged Crossbill 186
crossbill sp. 49
Common Redpoll 74
finch sp. 60
House Sparrow 152
Total Individuals 6822
Total Species Reported 29
Tracy Allard, Jeremy Baumbach, Carrie Boles, Selena Boothroyd, Diane Brent, Cindy Breitkreutz, Laurie Brochu, Linda Cameron, Syd Cannings, Paul Davis, Marianne Douglas, Gabrielle Dupont, Cameron Eckert, Alison Eremenko, Timothy Giilck, Jim Hawkings, Melody Hazel, Christine Hedgecock, Ed Jenni, Carole Kroening, Yvette LePage, Maria Leung, Elise Maltinsky, Meghan Marjanovic, Logan McLeod, Karen McKenna, Dave Mossop, Marty Mossop, Wendy Nixon, Adam Perrier, Don Reid, Claudia Riveros, Bob Sagar, Mike Setterington, Pam Sinclair, Becky Striegler, Jenny Trapnell, Jim Tredger, Lena Ware, Ryleigh Whitfield, Keith Williams, Scott Williams, Caitlin Willier
Here’s a more complete report for those who like details….
Well, after a couple of pretty weird years, the Yukon Bird Club is back in normal field trip operating mode this year, including a fully-fledged Helmut Grünberg Yukon Birdathon held on 27-28 May – complete with an IN PERSON potluck dinner on Saturday evening after the 24 hours of birding was finished. This was a pleasant change from two years of Zoom meetings which made it very difficult to share any delicious food!
Total participants: 29
Number of people attending the post-Birdathon BBQ: 27
Total Species observed: 146 (plus 2 varieties)
(Summary Tables with names of all participants and a complete species list are at the bottom of this post…)
Most Species by a new Birdathoner:
Kirsten Wilcox 116
Dominique Blanc 96
Alex Oberg 60
Ryleigh Whitefield 44
James Whelan 26
Amy, Lauren, and Hannah Ryder 21
Lawrence Purdy and Pippa Lawson 13
Most Species by a family/household:
Wendy Nixon and Grant Abbott 50 (also winners of the yet-to-be-created Electric Car birding category!)
John Meikle and Helen Liskova 42
Amy, Lauren, and Hannah Ryder 21
Lawrence Purdy and Pippa Lawson 13
Hannah and Lauren Ryder (11 years old!)
Shyloh van Delft (28 years old)
Oldest Participant: Mary Whitley (50 species! Way to go Mary!)
Most Species Envirobirding:
Jim Hawkings 56 (traveled by Bike: Pineridge, Wolf Creek, Mary Lake, Lewes Marsh and points between)
Amy, Lauren and Hannah Ryder 21 (walked trails near/around Whistlebend)
Most species found near your own home/backyard/shared space:
Amy, Lauren and Hannah Ryder 21 (walked trails near/around Whistlebend)
This year’s Birdathon had tremendous participation. There were 29 birders, including 11 first-timers. For the first time in several years, the weather was quite pleasant (definitely in a different league than last year!), notwithstanding a few isolated squalls of rain and hail on Friday night in the Whitehorse area.
People were birding mostly in the Southern Lakes between Marsh Lake, Carcross, and Lake Laberge, but a few went as far as Haines Junction, and we had Kim Selbee up in Mayo. This was the first year in quite awhile that none of our participants were birding in the Watson Lake area, where a handful of species can be found at the very northwestern part of their North American range. In spite of that, our hard-birding crew managed to see or hear 146 species, just one less that the 147 seen in 2021, and better than the 139 seen in 2020. The best recent year was 151 species recorded in 2019.
As to the actual birds seen this year, a few oddballs turned up. A Willet – a large shorebird normally found on the prairies- was seen by multiple participants at Lewes Marsh. Tracy Allard glimpsed a Black Tern at Jackfish Bay on Lake Laberge. Black Terns are also prairie birds that just poke their noses into the southeast Yukon. A Glaucous-winged Gull was skulking among the hordes of Herring Gulls in on the gravel bars at Quartz Road, well inland from it’s usual home on the Pacific Coast. Alex Oberg found another visitor from the southeast – a Western Tanager – at the Marsh Lake Campground.
After all the Steller’s Jays seen in the past 18 months, only one turned up on the Birdathon – all that is left of the big invasion?
Our top birders this year were a team of biologists: the Dufflbags, including our feature birder Lena Ware, long-time YBC board member Cameron Eckert, and Kirsten Wilcox. They managed 116 species of birds – and even got a few hours of sleep in the middle of it! Close on their heels was Adam Perrier with 114 followed by Tracy Allard with 106. Our perennial winner, Jukka Jantunen, tried his luck in Haines Junction this year instead of his usual Watson Lake haunts. Along with teammates Shyloh van Delft and Julie Bauer, he saw 96 species.
It was particularly heartening to see the 11 first-time Birdathoners, many of whom are still quite new to birding. Congrats to all of you! One of our new youngish keeners, Kirsten Wilcox, topped this crowd as well as being part of the overall winning team. Behind her was Dominique Blanc with 96 and Alex Oberg with 60. Among our newcomers were 11-year old sisters Lauren and Hannah Ryder and their mom Amy Ryder. Lauren and Hannah were also our youngest participants and their team also distinguished themselves by enviro-birding very close to their own home in Whistle-bend!
Aside from the Ryder clan, the only other enviro-birder this year was yours truly. Enviro-birders participate under their own power or using only renewable energy during the entire 24 hour period. Traditionally this has been walking, biking, or paddling. This year does mark our first Electric Vehicle participants: Grant Abbott and Wendy Nixon! Next year we will consider officially expanding this with some other categories: e-bikes, other Electric Vehicles, Car Pooling, Public Transit. Let us know if you have other suggestions!
This year our Birdathon wasn’t completely without glitches, as our normal post-Birdathon social venue, Robert Service Campground, was closed for renovations, forcing a move to a more exposed location at Rotary Park. Luckily for us, the sun was out and the wind calmed down so it was an extremely pleasant shirt-sleeve event attended by 27 people!
As always, there were interesting stories of adventure from participants. Among my memorable moments was exploring the bike trail along the Alaska Highway between Golden Horn subdivision and the Yukon River Bridge for the first time ever, even though I have lived here since 1983, and even lived for 7 years at the Yukon River Bridge! This was a very pleasant ride in the warm(ish) morning sun, made even better by a nice tailwind from the north and a generally downhill gradient. Coming back at the end of the afternoon into the wind and uphill was a bit more exhausting however. Another great moment was a surprise I got while watching an Olive-sided Flycatcher busily working the shrubby area at the far end of Lewes Marsh next to the sawmill road. I was enjoying a nice view of this bird through my binoculars and lazily waving at a bee that was buzzing around me, when the flycatcher looked my way and then, completely unprovoked, suddenly charged directly at my head. I was actually quite startled but quickly understood the situation as the bird snagged the bee next to my ear and darted back to it’s perch, where it beat it’s quarry furiously against a tree branch and swallowed it. That was the end of that buzzing.
On behalf of myself and all the other participants, I’d like to thank our Birdathon Coordinator Jenny Trapnell for all her efforts, as well as Betty Sutton who lined up prizes and took care of logistics for the BBQ. And of course thanks to all the participants and sponsors for making the event a huge success this year!
It’s been my passion – and I’m sure I’m not alone – to watch the spring progress each year, and to think about how each year compares with the ones before. This is of concern to many, many people these days as climate change strengthens its grip on our part of the world. I’ve been watching the special open water areas in the Yukon Southern Lakes that are so important to our early bird migrants, especially the Trumpeter Swans. Almost every spring since 1986 I have flown around in an airplane and taken pictures of these places on the same dates: April 24 and May 8. I talk about that photo record elsewhere on our website https://yukonbirds.ca/climate-change/. This flying costs money and I am extremely grateful to my former employer Environment Canada as well as the generosity of an American NGO called Lighthawk and local pilots David Downing and the late Gerry Whitley. I’ve also scoured through publicly available satellite images from the past 38 plus years. Satellite images are a bit problematic because regular (i.e. visible light) imagery can’t see through clouds. In addition the NASA Landsat series of satellites, which have the longest period of standard imagery, only pass over each part of the earth every 16 days. Fortunately at our high latitude the paths overlap a fair bit, so there is repeat coverage more like every 8 days. Still it’s a bit sketchy when things are changing fairly fast on the ground and many passes are obscured by clouds.
I just discovered (thank you Doug Davidge!) a series of European Space Agency satellites (Sentinel) launched in the past 7 years that offer much more frequent coverage, and have higher ground resolution than the Landsat satellites. The imagery is free to the public, and perhaps even more important, there is an extremely user-friendly web-interface that makes it easy to visualize and download samples of these images very shortly after they are acquired. Anyone can do this – you don’t need to be a techno-geek. If you can use Google Earth you should be able to handle it. You’ll find this great resource at SOAR.EARTH. (Note this link will open to images of the Swan Haven area, but you can choose to look at anywhere on earth!) WARNING: ADDICTIVE.
Here are a few of these satellite imagery gems I’ve gathered to show how spring is shaping up this year in the area of Swan Haven as compared to the previous 6 years. It’s important to note that the 2019 and 2016 images were taken much earlier in the spring than the others because there were no cloud-free images available closer to the desired date. Public satellite images are very convenient, but they can leave gaps in coverage! That’s where good old airplanes, or perhaps drones, can help. Luckily, we now have three years in a row with images on exactly the same date:
11 April 2022
11 April 2021
11 April 2020
2 April 2019. Note this is 9 days earlier than the recent images yet is shows dramatically less ice. This was one of the earliest springs we have ever had.
12 April 2018
10 April 2017
3 March 2016. This looks pretty normal, BUT it was taken 37 days EARLIER than the other images. This was the earliest spring ever in the photo record.
Spring is here! All you recovering cabin-fever cases should keep an eye out for these Trumpeter (and a few Tundra) Swans marked with neck collars in Washington State over the past few winters. If you see a marked swan, record as many details as you can and report it as described in this document. Photos are great if you can get them.
Every year around this time, people notice a few unfortunate Mew Gull nests getting threatened by rising water in the Yukon River in downtown Whitehorse.
Typically these at-risk nests are located on very low and often small gravel islands, for example in the Quartz Road/Shipyards Park area. I just got an email from a concerned resident who noticed this very thing (see photos). Why do these gull nests get flooded? Is Yukon Energy responsible for this?
Well, as it happens, the rising water at this time of year is a natural phenomenon. Natural runoff from snow melt causes this rising water. Yukon Energy operates water control structures (dams) in Whitehorse and at Marsh Lake, but from May through July they just let the River flow without any restriction. They do regulate the flow of water beginning in August and throughout the winter months to make optimal use of all the storage capacity they are allowed to use upstream of the Marsh Lake dam on Marsh, Tagish, and Bennett Lakes.
If you look at the chart above you will see that the water level on the river in Whitehorse is at a minimum in May, after which it rises rapidly through June, July, and into August due to snow melt and glacial runoff. At Marsh Lake, which is located upstream of both the Whitehorse Rapids and Marsh Lake dams, the annual minimum water level is also in May and rises in much the same fashion during June and July (see chart below).
The differences between these two locations show up during August though April, when Yukon Energy is manipulating flows through both dams to provide electricity generation when it is needed most — during the cold months of winter.
Mew Gulls begin nesting in May when water is at a yearly low pretty much everywhere in Yukon. They nest on the ground, so they are smart enough to choose islands in order to prevent terrestrial predators such as foxes, coyotes, and the like from eating their eggs and young. Successful nests are the ones that are placed high enough on these islands to survive the rising water until the eggs hatch. Once hatched, young gulls are very soon able to swim and can safely leave the nest and move to higher ground where their parents continue to look after and feed them. Some gulls, perhaps the younger, less experienced ones, gamble by nesting very close to the low water. In some years this might work – they are safe from predators and win the race against the rising water; in others they get flooded. Maybe it is a mistake they only make once — we don’t really know.
Should we rescue these nests? We probably could scoop up some of these nests and place them on the adjacent islands, but would the parents accept this or simply abandon the nests? Would other gulls nesting nearby take offence and attack the newcomers?
In fact this type of thing (nests getting flooded) happens all the time in nature….birds take risks. If they are lucky they will live to learn from them. As long as we are not causing this problem, I don’t really see a reason to intervene in the few instances that are right in front of our noses. What do you think?
The 2020 Helmut Grünberg Yukon Birdathon took place from 5 pm 29 May to 5 pm 30 May. Other field trips usually offered by the Yukon Bird Club have been cancelled to date due to the restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, but a slightly modified Birdathon turned out to be a winner for both the club and keen birders in the Yukon. As can happen, the weather challenged everyone, with frequent rainshowers both days sending birders scurrying for the shelter of the nearest building or vehicle or even a handy spruce tree. In spite of these difficulties, we had 22 participants in 14 parties, including 4 families (2 or more people from the same household). Four parties (7 participants) were enviro-birding, i.e. they birdwatched using human- or renewable energy-powered transportation only from 5 pm Friday to 5 pm Saturday. In the spirit of current times, most people stayed pretty close to home – even those who used their car to get around.
A total of 139 species was seen, a bit less than last year’s 151. Jukka Jantunen, our perennial champion, saw the most species (103), but this year he only beat the runner up, Adam Perrier, by one species! Adam’s Birdathon effort was remarkable considering he did not have the benefit of species that frequent southeast Yukon, where Jukka was birding. Julie Bauer, who was also birding in southeast Yukon, managed 98 species, while Cameron Eckert and Pam Sinclair were 4th with 86 species. In the Enviro-birding category Jim Hawkings was first with 47 species; Kim Selbee was second with 38 and the family team of Melanie McFadyen with Joseph, Kalia, and Morel Graham were 3rd with 31 species.
Speaking of species found in southeast Yukon but generally not around Whitehorse, here are a few that gave Jukka and Julie an edge this year: Pileated Woodpecker, Franklin’s Gull, Ring-billed Gull, Magnolia Warbler, Swamp Sparrow, Western Tanager, Brown-headed Cowbird. In addition, they found a couple of habitually late migrants, Alder and Least Flycatchers, which had made it to southeast Yukon by Birdathon time but were not yet in the Whitehorse area. Eastern Kingbird is another species usually found only in southeast, but Adam Perrier managed to find one closer to Whitehorse this year, one of the more unusual sightings of the 2020 Birdathon.
In honour of COVID -19 this year, there was a special category for the most species of Corvids (Ravens, Crows, Jays, Magpies). Julie Bauer wins most species (Common Raven, Common Crow, and Canada Jay). Most species for a household/family team goes to Cameron Eckert and Pam Sinclair with 86 species followed by Logan McLeod and Caitlin Willier with 70 and Melanie McFadyen and her family with 31. The most species by a person new to the Birdathon goes to Logan McLeod and Caitlin Willier. The youngest participant was a 10-year-old member of the Graham clan, while the oldest participant award goes to Betty Sutton.
This year’s feature birder, Taylor Belansky, sighted 38 species. We thank her for spearheading the fundraising side of the Birdathon, with all of this year’s donations going to the Whitehorse Food Bank. We do not know how much money was raised for the Food Bank, but we sincerely thank everyone who donated in these times that are so difficult for many low-income people.
In lieu of the normal BBQ gathering at Robert Service Campground, most of this year’s Birdathon participants took part in a cozy and delicious online conference call to compare bird notes and tales of survival. Particpants on the call mused about some apparent trends in the birds seen over the years: Where have all the Red-necked Phalaropes gone? Why only one Least Sandpiper? Why no American Kestrels? Where are all the Mountain Bluebirds – they were quite common in past years? Are we going to get Rock Pigeons back in town?
So, in spite of being in the midst of a global pandemic, our 2020 Helmut Grünberg Yukon Birdathon adapted to the times and was a success. Kim Selbee summed it up pretty well after her 24 hours of fun:
I got home at 4:50pm, starving but really happy 👍. I hope you, and everyone else who participated had half as much fun as I did!!!
Thanks to all participants and fellow organizers, especially our Birdathon Coordinator Betty Sutton. We hope to see you all again next year at a real live post-event BBQ social!
Here is a list of this year’s participants and prize-winners!