The Skagway Christmas Bird Count

On the morning of December 17th I snapped awake to the sound of my cellphone alarm going off on my bedside table. It was 7:00am, and dark outside. I had hardly been able to sleep all that night because I was looking forward to the Skagway Christmas Bird Count the next day. Earlier on in the winter Cameron Eckert had kindly offered to take me along with him and Boris Dobrolowsky for the Skagway CBC, and then drop me off at home at the end of the day, and I gladly accepted. Since then I had counted down the days until December 17th. Then the day finally arrived. I had all of my birding gear and my lunch pre-packed and ready to go and my clothes were all laid out. Though I had very few things to do (eat, wash my hair, get my stuff into the car) I somehow got ready only just in time, and then Mom drove me to Carcross where we were meeting Cameron and Boris. The morning air was crisp but warm, and there was only the faintest hint on the horizon that dawn was on its way.

Common Raven

After meeting the birders at the Carcross Gas Station and saying goodbye to Mom, we set off on our day of epic birding. There was an air of excitement in Cameron’s van, and we discussed what we would see in Skagway. I had never been to Skagway in the winter before the Skagway CBC. On the way through the White Pass we made a game of guessing what the first bird that we would see would be, and who could spot the first bird of the day. When dawn was lighting the sky on the horizon I spotted a flock of little birds flushing up on a cliff. They could have been either Common Redpolls or Gray-crowned Rosy Finches, so Cameron turned the van around to have another look at them. unfortunately by that time the wind had already carried them away. Our first identified bird species of the day was Common Raven, which had been Boris’s guess at what we would see first. There were three sitting on a lamp-post at the Canada Border Customs.

We soon arrived at the United States Border Customs and I nervously waited while the border guard checked out the interior of the van. I had nothing to be nervous about, but those guys always scare me.

Northern Pygmey Owl Sitting on a Sitka Spruce

We entered the count circle and only a few minutes later happened across our first Christmas Bird Count bird. As Cameron drove down the highway, he suddenly slowed down and said “Is that what I think that is?” We stopped to check it out and sure enough, what Cameron had seen was a NORTHERN PYGMY OWL. It was a tiny little blob sitting on the very top of a Sitka Spruce Tree growing on a steep drop off on the side of the road. Driving by on the highway, most people would have brushed off the little blob as a clump of pine cones, if they noticed it at all. Not Cameron. It sat patiently as we set up our scopes on the shoulder of the road to have a better look at it. Through my scope I could see it was looking in my direction, but its head was tucked down and it eyes were closed. I could see the streaks on the breast and the brown wing feathers even with only the early light of dawn to illuminate it. We managed to take a few record shots of my new lifer before it suddenly dropped off the tree and flapped like a bat down into the valley below. We stuck around for a short while longer, and Cameron tried to lure it back or initiate a response from it by mimicking the song of a Northern Pygmy Owl.

However it had grown tired of us and had other things to do, so it didn’t show itself again.

After we stopped at a coffee shop to see the Skagway Christmas Bird count coordinator and collected our sheets we set off to our first area: the docks. During the summer when my family and I come to Skagway there are more often than not huge gigantic Cruise Ships parked at the docks, so it was strange going there and seeing them empty. Something that surprised me was though it was mid-December, there was very little snow at all outside of town, and in town there was no snow to be found anywhere. Once you got out of the wind, it was also warm.

In the middle of winter!

Skagway Cruise Ship Docks

There were three bird species that I really wanted to see during the count: Marbled Murrelet, Common Murre, and Chestnut-backed Chickadee. Cameron pointed out Marbled Murrelets to me right away. I didn’t expect them to be so small! They look so delicate and helpless dipping up and down in the rolling waves, disappearing entirely before they come back safely in sight. I also found them surprisingly pretty; in the bird guides they look pretty gray and drab. It was a new one for my Life List (A list most birders keep of bird species that you have seen in your life). Shortly afterward Boris saw a Common Murre flying above the waves, but Cameron and I missed it. It was difficult to walk around on the docks because there was a sheet of ice from the salt-water spray, so we mostly skated around the dock. We went to the end where there was no shelter from the wind. The wind was tearing at our clothes, slowly freezing our fingers, and threatening to knock our scopes over, but it was not miserable. It was still pretty warm out, and the smell of salt water mixed with snow in the mountains made a delicious scent: the kind I wish I could bottle up! Just before we left that dock we were rewarded with a pair of female goldeneye which Boris identified as Barrow’s Goldeneye.

Glaucous-winged Gull

At the docks we also saw Pacific Loons, a Common Loon, Red-breasted Mergansers, Surf Scoters, Common Goldeneye, Bufflehead, Long-tailed Ducks, some Glaucous-winged Gulls, many Mew Gulls, and a couple of gull hybrids (Herring/Glaucous-winged). Cameron and Boris found more Murres out in the bay, close enough to get a pretty good look at them. The Murres were far out and I found them difficult to tell apart from Marbled Murrelets until Cameron pointed out the differences to me. Once I could see the differences I found it easier to ID them. To me they resembled a mix of loon and murrelet. It was harder to see any differences between the Glaucous-winged Gulls and the Glaucous-winged Gull hybrids. A couple landed on the dock and let us approach very near to examine them. Cameron pointed out the subtle differences in plumage colour to me, such as the slightly darker grey feathers on the gulls’ mantle, and the darker-coloured primary feathers that marked the gulls as Glaucous-winged and Herring Gull crosses. I could only see these slight differences that marked them for what they were once he pointed them out to me and once I refered to my field guide for comparison. Gull identification is so tricky; it takes a massive amount of time and practice, and tons of effort to begin to understand the differences and to be able to start pointing out the species and hybrids yourself. I’m always in awe of the people who manage to reach that level, because not everyone can!

Marbled Murrelet

We checked out a pond alongside the road on our way to a different dock to get a different view of the bay and found several Mallards resting quietly. They flushed in a noisy ruckus when we exited the vehicle, leaving behind only ripples in the water and possibly a few stray feathers floating in the air. In a small creek that runs beside the pond Cameron spotted an American Dipper picking along the water’s edge. Then it sprinted into the water and was quickly carried away by the creek current.

Boris (left) and Cameron (right) Checking Out a Pond.

On our way to the Skagway River Mouth we decided to do a little poaching around town. In the birding world, poaching is when we go to another birders route/territory and steal their birds by checking off species that we see on our lists. It’s all done in fun. Cameron and Boris both agreed to say that it was my idea to poach in town if anyone caught us in the act; fortunately we got away unseen and my little ‘dirty deed’ had gone unnoticed. In town we saw Steller’s Jays, Northwestern Crows, Dark-eyed Juncos, Black-billed Magpies, Common Ravens, and Pine Grosbeaks. In the river mouth there were Harbour Seals everywhere in the water! Their heads came to the surface frequently, and there was a swarm of gulls (mostly Mew) along with Common Goldeneye. The seals looked like big wet dogs poking the faces above the water. I guessed there to be about 7 or 8.

Steller's Jay

Cameron and Boris bought some snacks for us to have along with the lunches we packed before heading out on another poaching cruise around town. When we didn’t find anything new Cameron drove to the Yakutuna Trail Head which was part of our route. When we stepped into the trees I quickly wished that I had left my coat behind. It was sheltered from the wind, and so warm! I was perfectly comfortable in my hoodie. Not only was it warm, but the thick carpets of moss growing on the massive boulders and piles of rocks was green. I was shocked. I could smell wet, peaty earth and moss. The rock formations were amazing; some were pretty tall, and made the coolest landscape. It was very much a coastal forest with Hemlocks and Sitka Spruce being the main tree species.

I almost expected Edward Cullen or a pack of werewolves from Twilight to step out from the older part of the forest.

Here along the trail we were hoping for Chestnut-backed Chickadees. Cameron and Boris both assured me many times that they were an easy bird to get and that they expected to see them within the first ten minutes of our hike. However, time went on and still no chickadees. One spot along the trail seemed like perfect Barred Owl habitat, and Cameron tried mimicking their classic “Who Cooks For You” song, along with a couple of others such as Saw-whet Owl. The forest was dead; It seemed like there was nothing living anywhere. We didn’t even see a squirrel.

The wind was a constant rushing sound in the tree tops.

We came to a fork on the trail and turned right, towards the bay. The trail came out on this amazing outcrop of boulders that thrust into the waves. It was like a miniature ocean; white-capped waves hurled themselves against the rock throwing salt-water spray into the air, and in front of us the bay stretched on until it came to a rocky pass and disappeared. To the left we could see the Skagway water-front and the river-mouth; to the right there were more rocks and rolling waves and snow-capped mountains. After struggling for hours, the sun finally managed to push its way through the thick covering of clouds for the first time that day. It shone down on the water for about five minutes and then was once again enveloped by the clouds. The wind was strong there; it roared in my ears but it only added to the magic of the place.
We set off down the last stretch of the trail. With not far to go until we got back to the van everyone started getting anxious because we had not yet seen any Chestnut-backed Chickadees. It was still absolutely dead in the forest, nothing stirred.
Then suddenly out of the stillness, we heard a single ‘peep’. From out of nowhere a flock of ten chickadees flew low over our heads and into the tree branches above us. They sang the typical  ‘chickadee-dee-dee’, but it sounded different, more ‘buzzy’. My wish had come true! We glimpsed the Chestnut-backed Chickadees flitting in the branches and singing, almost as though they were playing. One landed about 8 feet away from Boris and I and hopped around on the ground, picking at bugs in the moss. I could clearly see the warm chestnut-brown that covered the birds back, and I also noticed a whitish colour on the wing forming a kind of bar. It was a better view of it than I had hoped for. Everyone was pretty happy; they were the only Chestnut-backs that we saw for the entire count.

Cameron and I at the Rock Bluffs

The last stop in our route for the Skagway CBC was the Dyea Road. We scoped a little bay where the Harbour Seals and Sea Lions like to hang out and found 100 Mew Gulls, 20 Glaucous-winged Gulls, 30 Mallards, 1 Bufflehead, and 1 Pacific Loon. Far out, dipping up and down in the waves was a single lonesome Marbled Murrelet. As we scoped, I came across a flock of Common Murres and pointed it out. Cameron and Boris started counting. Later, Cameron announced there to be 105 Common Murres, a record high number for the Skagway Christmas Bird count! At this point I was very tired and not as excited as I would normally have been, but I still found it very cool. It’s not something that you see every day! At the end of a long but amazing day, we all wearily packed our scopes into the van and finished our routes with a total of 25 species, the highlights being the Northern Pygmy Owl, the record-high count of Common Murres, and the Chestnut-backed Chickadees (one of my personal highlights). After Boris dropped off our sheets at the Skagway Christmas Bird Count coordinator’s house we left Skagway and headed for home tired, but victorious!

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