Albert Creek Bird Observatory is the oldest bird observatory in the Yukon, and is very unique. Located in south-east Yukon, fifteen minutes outside of Watson Lake towards Teslin, many eastern-type birds are caught and seen there. For some reason the Watson Lake area holds all kinds of eastern birds that the rest of the Yukon finds uncommon/rare, or does not have. In the spring and fall seasons White-throated Sparrows, Swamp Sparrows, Magnolia Warblers, the odd Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and others are heard singing or foraging in the tree tops. If you are lucky, these birds will hit the mist nets and are a nice change from the Juncos and Alder Flycatchers that are most often caught. Albert Creek Bird Observatory (ACBO) is set upon the edge of a marsh, and the mist nets are strung out through the marsh, around ponds, and across creeks. Most of the net run trail has wooden board walks across the wetter areas, and small bridges across the creeks.
The Bander-in-Charge (also known as the “BIC”) at ACBO during the fall season is Ted Murphy-Kelly. Ted makes everything exciting and fun; I really enjoyed the eight days that I spent working with him. On my first day at the observatory I went on the nets rounds with Ted until I could find my way around on my own. To me, the layout of the Mist Nets were a lot more confusing than at Teslin. Instead of the nets being set up in a loop like at Teslin, the nets at Albert Creek basically followed a little gravel road that winds past the observatory. If there are two extractors one will start checking the nets at one end of the net run, and the other person will walk down the gravel road to the other end of the net run and both will start working towards each other. The extractors meet around the middle and take whatever birds they extracted back to the observatory to band. At the beginning of our first net round on my first day, we found a hatch-year female Magnolia Warbler in a net, which Ted let me extract and band. Magnolia Warbler was a bird that I had made my goal to see this year. I listened to the Magnolia’s song on recording over and over, cementing it in my mind and poring over field guides to study its plumage. The main reason that I wanted to see one so badly this year was because I personally think that it is one of the prettiest warblers in North America, it has a beautiful song, and it would be a lifer. I finally heard one call from up in a tree while I was at Grizzly Creek Lodge (http://www.grizzlycreeklodge.com/) this past summer. I never saw it though, I only heard it. That is why finding it in the net was so amazing for me, because I finally had the chance to see one and actually examine it in my hand. It was getting pretty late for them to still be around, which made it extra special. In all I was lucky enough to band three of them during my stay at Albert Creek.
Two other Albert Creek specials that I extracted and banded were White-throated Sparrow (my first time ever seeing a wild one), and Swamp Sparrow (my first time banding them). The White-throated Sparrows were hanging out in the bushes near one of the nets one day, but none of them got caught. One of them did let me approach very close while it sat on a willow branch, which was a treat.
Another thing about Albert Creek that I enjoyed was the warm weather around noon. Teslin Lake is getting pretty cold at that time of year, but since ACBO is located in a sheltered marsh it stays fairly warm in the morning and heats up enough towards noon that you can be comfortable in a t-shirt. There is also a propane camp stove that Ted sets up on a small table beside the banding table which we use to heat up soup or water. It is very handy to heat up cold hands with; I think that every banding observatory in the north should have a little camp stove as a required piece of equipment!
One of my biggest banding goals for Albert Creek was Boreal Owls. Last year three Boreal Owls were caught in the Mist Nets and banded at Albert Creek, compared to Teslin Lake Bird Observatory which has not ever caught a single Boreal Owl. One evening when the rain had stopped Ted decided that we would try owling at the observatory, so he packed the owling gear into his van, I packed popcorn and hot chocolate, and off we went. I was really excited while we opened the owl nets; the night seemed full of potential. On one side of the marsh (the nets closest to the banding table) Ted put a stereo that played Saw-whet Owl recordings beside the open nets, and on the far side of the marsh a net was opened for Boreal Owls with a speaker playing their calls. All we had left to do was wait. We made a few net runs with no luck when it started to rain. It was about 11pm and dark. We went to shut off the speakers, close up the nets, and end our first owling night. We soon had another rain-free evening come up, and this time it looked as though we might actually make it to midnight without it starting to rain on us. I went to open all of the close owl nets (the Saw-whet nets) while Ted opened the Boreal Owl net at the far end, then we turned on our stereos. When we finished, there was the most magnificent sunset happening over the marsh. The entire sky was red like fire, and it seemed to give everything around me a reddish hue. The pond reflected the scene, and made it look like if you stepped into the water you would fall into that blazing sky. The only thing that split the sky from the pond were the sharp black silhouettes of the Spruce Trees. It went pretty fast, turning to a hot pink before it faded into a serene lavender and then deep blue.
After our first net round I made popcorn on the propane stove for us while we waited between net runs. It was totally silent except for the occasional splash from a Muskrat in the marsh, and the owl recordings floating through the trees. We went on several net rounds with no success; I decided to commit myself to just enjoying the night and not worry about whether we would catch an owl or not. At about 11pm, Ted said that we would go and close the nets for the night since we weren’t having any success. We went to the close nets first and closed them all except for one. As we were winding up the last one we heard a contact call somewhere in the forest. Ted and I froze, listening. It called again. A Boreal Owl was responding to the recording across the marsh! We shut off the Saw-whet Owl recording and brought the stereo to the van, but kept the Boreal Owl net open and the Boreal recording on. While we waited at the table, the contact call kept coming from in the trees nearby. Then a second Boreal Owl about 200 – 300 metres back in the trees behind us started singing in sync with the Boreal Owl recording. The recording would sing, then we would hear the real owl quietly echo the song somewhere behind us. After a couple more unsuccessful net rounds they stopped calling and Ted decided to close the last net. It was about midnight at that point, and we had to get up at 6am for another day of bird banding that next morning. As we walked to the Boreal Owl net, I was getting excited thinking that maybe we would find one of the Boreal Owls caught in a net for us. The net came into sight and I followed Ted down to it. There was nothing in the net. I stopped at one end and shone my flashlight around me on the tree branches in case there was an owl sitting there somewhere. Ted was half way down the net when I saw it. My flashlight stopped on a Boreal owl sitting at face level on a spruce branch watching the stereo, only a couple of feet away from Ted’s head, one metre away from the Mist Net! I started hissing to Ted as loud as I could without startling the owl: “Ted! Stop! Come back! Ted! Look beside you! In the tree!” The owl cast a shocked glance at me and then glided silently off the branch in the opposite direction of the Mist Net, disappearing in the thick black of the forest. We waited another hour and kept the net open, but this time Ted curled up against a tree at the end of it and I sat against some bushes. I stayed as still as possible, knowing that if an owl could hear a mouse heart-beat, then they would be able to hear mine as well. I didn’t want to scare it, so my legs quickly grew numb from not adjusting my position. A Muskrat was splashing close-by, and at one point a little mouse ran along my leg. The owl called for a while after we had startled it, but then grew silent. I was starting to get a chill when we decided that it was time to close the net, and this time we did it. Even though we didn’t catch any owls, I still wouldn’t call it an unsuccessful night. We heard two Boreal Owls for sure, maybe three, and I had a great look at one. It was one of my favorite times at Albert Creek!
The days were fairly slow for birds; sometimes we would only catch one or two birds in a net round, or none at all. Most of the birds were common migrants through the Yukon, such as Orange-crowned, Yellow, and Yellow-rumped (Myrtle) Warblers,Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Alder Flycatchers, Pine Siskens, Dark-eyed Juncos, Lincoln’s, Chipping, American Tree, and Fox Sparrows, as well as Black-capped and Boreal Chickadees (not considered migratory birds). These were mostly what we caught during my stay, and because Ted let me do almost all of the banding during that nine days I was able to get a lot of much-needed practice aging and sexing the birds. One aging trick that Ted encouraged me to practice was skulling. When you blow/part the feathers on top of the bird’s head you expose a small patch of skin that you can examine. The skin is so thin that you can easily see the colour of the skull (little birds are much easier); adult birds will have a pure, milky-white skull that is uniform in colour, while very young birds have a dark, reddish skull. In mid to late fall however, hatch-year skulls have developed enough that in some areas they will look white like an adult, but they will still have dark windows. At the time of year that I was at Albert Creek (early September) we had to look for the contrast in colours on a skull which can be easy, but it can also be difficult. Bird skulls change colour because adults have two layers of bone which are separated by bone columns. Hatchlings only have one layer, but develop the second layer through the late summer and fall which causes the contrast in colours.
Have you ever listened to a bird’s heartbeat? One day I saw Ted holding a bird up to his ear listening to the heartbeat, and he told me I should try it. When I put a sparrow up to my ear for the first time, I was amazed. The heartbeat was so fast it was a thrum rather than a slow, steady beat. It had a slightly hollow quality to it; it seemed as though the tiny heart was trying to smash its way through the bird’s ribcage. That was a Lincoln’s Sparrow. I listened to a Ruby-crowned Kinglet next which is quite a bit smaller than a sparrow, and even though it seemed impossible its heartbeat was faster than the sparrow’s! It hummed like a hummingbird’s wings, and sounded the way a nail lightly tapping on a piece of suspended paper might. Ted had showed me something wonderful that I will never forget.
If you are interested in volunteering at Albert Creek Bird Observatory, or have any questions concerning the observatory, please contact Ted Murphy-Kelly at email@example.com , or at (867) 456-7431.