Winter Birding in the Yukon

Tagish Bridge

When fall migration dwindles to an end and the only migratory birds left in the Yukon are either stragglers or lost, this does not mean that birding has to stop. The Yukon may not have nearly the number of birds overwintering as in British Columbia, our close neighbour or other places in Canada, but there are birds around for us to enjoy. The Yukon has 43 bird species that over-winter regularly, and many of these can be seen in or around your yard.

Pine Grosbeaks eating Sunflower Seed

Because food is always short for birds in the winter, many people help them out by hanging up bird feeders. Not only do winter bird feeders attract birds such as Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers, Boreal, Black-capped, and Mountain Chickadees, Red-breasted Nuthatches, Gray Jays, Magpies, Ravens, Dark-eyed Juncos, Pine Grosbeaks, Red and White-winged Crossbills, and Common Redpolls, but they also attract a variety of other wildlife such as Martin, squirrels, and mice. The activity at a feeder will  sometimes draw in a Northern shrike, Northern Goshawk, or even the odd Boreal Owl or Great Horned Owl, which will hunt the mice and small feeder birds.

Red Crossbill Pair at a Platform Feeder

Hanging a bird feeder up can provide a ton of entertainment through the dark winter months. I had twelve feeders hanging up last year (A mixture of seed feeders, suet feeders, and scrap feeders) which brought a lot of activity to the yard. Every winter we watch many species of birds right outside our window interact, sing, and suddenly scatter from either a false alarm (of which there seem to be many), or a shrike or goshawk coming in to investigate. We watch squirrels chew the shells off sunflower seeds, their jaws moving at a million miles an hour, stuffing their cheeks before racing across the yard, quickly burying their treasure, then rushing back and scattering the birds that had taken its place. The odd Marten sometimes saunters into the yard to take leftover corn cobs or stale bread that we put into the scrap feeders. In the mornings the snow around the feeders is covered by tiny little mouse tracks, and sometimes even the wing marks of an owl diving into the snow to grab the unsuspecting rodents.

Marten in the Scrap Feeder

There are birding events that rely on winter bird feeders to provide information on over-wintering birds, such as Project Feederwatch, the Christmas Bird Counts (CBC), and the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC). Bird Studies Canada and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology joined together to create Project Feederwatch, which takes place from November through to April. To participate you have to be a member of Bird Studies Canada. Once you sign up for Project Feederwatch you will be sent a Bird calendar and poster, access to the data entry section on the Project Feederwatch website, as well as the Feederwatch handbook and instruction book. Once a feederwatcher, you have to spend a designated amount of time counting birds that come to your feeder, which you can either record online on the Project Feederwatch website, or in a data book provided with your Feederwatch kit. It is a great project to take part of; it is enjoyable to do and it provides important organizations such as Bird Studies Canada with valuable information on wintering birds. The information is compiled and made available to birders everywhere.

Common Redpoll Under a Bird Feeder

The Christmas Bird Counts take place throughout Canada anytime from December 14th to January 5th. Christmas Bird Counts take place within a count circle with a diameter of 24 kilometres, and are usually created in cities, towns, or communities. Anybody can participate in a Christmas Bird Count, and it should be easy to find one located near you. You can participate as a group member or a feeder-watcher. Group members bird different areas (often splitting up into several groups) within a designated count circle. These areas can be anywhere: rivers, lakes, meadows, fields, forests, mountain sides, urban areas, ect. Feeder-watchers count the birds that come to their feeders during the day of a count, but their feeders have to be within a count circle. The Christmas Bird Count is something that most participants look forward to every year. For the coordinators, it is a highlight of the winter season; they spend a great deal of time carefully planning their routes and organizing the counts.

Sabrina, a Feeder Watcher for the Tagish Christmas Bird Count

The Great Backyard Bird Count takes place annually in February and was created by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Audubon. This year the Great Backyard Bird Count is scheduled to be from February 17th to the 20th. Participants count the birds coming to their feeders during these four days and enter the data online. Participants have to count for a minimum of fifteen minutes, but after that for as long as they want. Anybody can take part in these birding events; age does not matter as long as you can confidently identify all of your common feeder birds.

Hairy Woodepcker at the Suet

Another great way to contribute bird data year round is through eBird. You can enter any of your checklists from a birding expedition at any time onto eBird, and then your checklist is added to eBird’s data base. On eBird you can view maps and see the most recent sightings of birds that you are searching for, you can look at graphs and tables for bird movement and sightings, and when you start contributing your checklists you can keep track of your data as well. Your data can be automatically made into graphs or tables, you can view (and/or edit) past checklists, and view your year list and life list for different places (Provinces, Territories, States, Countries). You can also view the top 100 eBirders in a province, territory, or state and check out what others have been seeing in your area. Some use eBird in competitions. Ben Schonewille and I have been competing against each other this year in a race to see who can get the most species of birds in the Yukon in one year. Our competition began January 1st 2011, and it will end on January 1st 2012. We keep track of our scores on eBird. In the top 100 eBirders in the Yukon we can view the number of species that we have seen this year, and compare our standings.

Bird Feeders are not the only place where you can see birds during the winter in the Yukon. Ruffed and Spruce Grouse are often seen pecking gravel on the highways, or pulling rosehips off of the Wild Rose bushes in your yard. Woodpeckers (Downy, Hairy, and American Three-toed) are commonly heard drumming on trees, or picking tiny bugs out of the bark in woodpiles. All of the feeder birds are seen flying overhead and singing in the trees. Landfills are great places to find Ravens, Magpies, and the odd Northern Goshawk or owl. If you find open water in a river or a lake, check it out! There are often Common Mergansers or Common Goldeneyes in there, and sometimes you will see the odd American Dipper diving from the ice-edge.

Spruce Grouse

Sometimes in the winter if you are lucky you may find an unusual or rare bird which can be quite unexpected, because most people don’t expect this sort of thing during the winter months. One of my most memorable winter ‘unexpected bird’ experiences was when our family was driving to Tagish from Whitehorse in the dark (about 11pm) in mid-November about 5 or 6 years ago. Back then, the Tagish Dump used to be an open pit that garbage was thrown into which resulted in a high rodent and owl population. As we were approaching the turn-off to the Tagish Dump, Boreal Owls were everywhere! Almost ten flew in front of our headlights in less than five minutes.  Then as the dump turn-off came into view, a magnificent Snowy Owl flew across the road ahead of us. It seemed as though time slowed down; I could make out each black speckle on its snowy-white feathers before it disappeared into the trees. Back then, I had no clue how rare Snowy Owls were in the Yukon, and so though I thought it was amazing and something that I had never seen before, I never reported it. If you see something unusual, please report it to the Yukon Bird Club as soon as possible at yukonbirdclub@gmail.com. Birds like Snowy Owls are often twitched (sought after by birders) by birders when one has been sighted and reported. If you have a camera with you always try to take a photo of the unusual bird; even bad photos can contain valuable information such as the confirmation of the ID of a bird, and it can provide important documentation.

When winter arrives there is no reason that you should stop birding. Cameron Eckert recently told me that many people stop birding at this time of year, and yet often it is at this time when there are some very interesting sightings being reported. An example is the Snowy Owl that was reported at Shallow Bay on November 22nd. Putting up bird feeders attracts a wide variety of birds, and if you spend any time outdoors you are sure to see something. Participating in the winter birding events is a great way to observe birds that you would not normally see. Always report any bird that you think  is unusual to the Yukon Bird Club. If you are not a member of the Yukon Bird Club I would highly recommend signing up and becoming a member.

Enjoy the winter, and enjoy the winter birding!

Sun Halo in the Winter at Around -30C

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