A new tool for looking at how the spring is shaping up for the birds at Swan Haven – or wherever you like!

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.

Watch for marked Trumpeter and Tundra Swans this Spring!

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.

Why do gull nests get flooded on the Yukon River in Whitehorse at this time of year?

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.

Aerial view of the Shipyards Park/Quartz Road area on 9 May 2019. Mew Gulls (20 pairs or so) prefer to nest on the grassy islands adjacent to Quartz Road in the centre right of the photo. Large flocks of Herring Gulls are often seen resting on the gravel bar on the extreme right but few if any nest here — they prefer to nest on the rocks immediately below the Whitehorse Rapids Dam. (photo Jim Hawkings)

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?

This Mew Gull nest is about to be flooded by the rising water. Mew Gulls nest on islands to be safe from terrestrial predators, but sometimes they make a poor choice by nesting too close to the low water level. (photo Lysane Busque)
The Yukon River adjacent to Quartz Road in the vicinity of Walmart 10 June, 2020. The small dot in the water is a Mew Gull nest about to be submerged by rising water. (photo Lysane Busque)

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.

Water levels in the Yukon River at Whitehorse, December 2018 to June 11, 2020. Water levels reach a natural minimum each year in May and then begin to rise as the spring runoff hits. Click on the graph to see a larger version. (Real-time hydrometric data from Environment and Climate Change Canada)

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).

Water levels at Marsh Lake, December 2018 to June 11, 2020. Water levels reach a natural minimum each year in May, just as they do in the Yukon River below the Whitehorse Rapids Dam. Click on the graph to see a larger version. (Real-time hydrometric data from Environment and Climate Change Canada)

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?

Report: 2020 Helmut Grünberg Yukon Birdathon

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.

Shyloh van Delft and her brother Toren managed to snap a great photo of two Trumpeter Swans and a single Tundra Swan on a pond at the Takhini salt flats – a nice side-by-side comparison. Photo Shyloh van Delft

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.

In between rainshowers, Kim Selbee managed to get a nice photo of this Orange-crowned Warber. You can see the orange crown here — something that is not always prominent in the field. Photo Kim Selbee

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 Yellow-bellied Sapsucker was very cooperative for Shyloh and Toren van Delft. It’s a species that can be a bit hard to find on Birdathon Day. Photo Shyloh van Delft

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.

Kim Selbee was one of the few lucky participants to catch up with the elusive Golden-crowned Kinglet. Photo Kim Selbee

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!!!

The Birdathon is a chance to get out in your own back yard and see what might be there—right under your own nose! Kim Selbee captured this stunning portrait of a lynx while picking her way through the forest near home. Photo Kim Selbee

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!

Download (XLSX, 10KB)

And here is a complete list of the birds reported on the 2020 Birdathon.

Download (XLSX, 22KB)