The third annual Tagish Christmas Bird Count took place on December 26th 2011. For the very first time during these three years we had warm temperatures and no frostbite! The first two years had averaged at -20C, but this year we had a low of only -9C. The participants this year consisted of 13 group members (including myself) and 11 Feeder Watchers at 5 different houses.
The group members met at Tagish bridge (The center-point of our count circle) at 11:00am Monday morning. The birding that day did not look promising; snow was falling heavily from the overcast sky and thick fog was laying right on the water-surface. As the birders arrived they brought sightings from the road which included 15 Snow Buntings seen by Paul and Judy Dabbs. We left the shelter of our vehicles and trucked our scopes up to the bridge where we discovered there was a slight north wind. Looking towards Marsh Lake and back toward Tagish Lake, the fog was as thick as pea soup and the snow was blowing horizontally. The river was mostly frozen, but there were patches of open water scattered down the center of the water way. In the patches closest to us we could make out the forms of six Common Mergansers. After giving the river a thorough scoping we made our way to the Gas Station on the other side of the bridge and explored Tagish Campground. We all scattered. occasionally someone would hear the quiet peeping of chickadees or the sounds of group members chatting, but most of the time it was just the heavy silence of a snowy, overcast day. A Gray Jay landed on a picnic table in one of the campground lots, and as the snow lessened Pine Grosbeaks came out to sing at the gas station. During this time three other group members were braving the weather and birding Microwave Road up to the Tagish Fire Tower by skies and skidoo. Their main target was ptarmigan, but there was none to be found in the snowy mountain-side. However, a pair of Pine Grosbeaks and a mixed flock of Black-capped, Boreal, and Mountain Chickadees were seen/heard. They scored the group our only two Mountain Chickadees, and bumped up our low Boreal Chickadee count to four.
Back down at the Tagish Campground we all split up to bird different routes. Four of the group members went to count at the Tagish Dump and at our frozen California Beach. The dump produced 25+ Common Ravens; their midnight-cloaked forms hunched in the trees, and their sharp, calculating eyes surveyed the birders carefully for any sign of food. Surprisingly, no Black-billed Magpies were seen there. At California Beach the birders counted a flock of at least 40 Pine Grosbeaks flying overhead. Another birder drove around Tagish Estates, but it was dead there and he was unsuccessful. The rest of us, Paul and Judy Dabbs, Katie O’Farrell, my Dad (Fred van Delft) and myself drove down the highway towards Jake’s Corner to check out a Beaver Pond and Secret Valley Road. Between the five of us we only managed to find two Ravens, a Black-billed Magpie, and the Snow Buntings that had already been counted earlier on in the day by the Dabbs. Secret Valley looks like it holds so much potential; the large open spaces that are roamed by horses provide the perfect habitat for raptors, owls, and sparrows.
We drove down Sydney Street and checked off 9 Pine Grosbeaks, 4 Black-capped Chickadees, 1 Gray Jay, and 1 Black-billed Magpie, then scoped the river behind Dickson Island with no luck. Our last stop was the river mouth at California Beach, which the previous birders were unable to check out due to a lack of spotting scopes. When we walked out onto the beach, it looked surreal. The sky was white, the ground was white, and the fog blending it all together was white. You could not tell the ground from the sky and it seemed like you could walk forever through the fog and not find any change. We were close to the open water though so we were able to give it a thorough scoping. Five Common Goldeneye emerged from the icy-grey water. Further upriver, right on a bend, we found three Buffelhead (one female and two males) bobbing without a care. The Buffelhead were one of the count highlights, because they are a rare duck to see in the Yukon during the winter season.
Everyone was invited over to our house afterwards for snacks and drinks. Mom had named it the Tagish CBC Social during the weeks before the count. When we walked in the door, tired and hungry, a table laden with snacks, sandwiches, soup, dips, Christmas chocolate, and other goodies that Mom had spent all that morning and part of the previous day making welcomed us. Our twelve-foot Christmas tree lit up the living room where everyone was gathered, and a crackling fire in the wood stove made it warm and cozy. It was a scene out of a Christmas story! I tallied up all of our checklists (12 bird species were counted!) and read it aloud to everyone along with some things that I had been noticing at the feeders this winter. Some of these things included a lack of Boreal Chickadees, an abundance of Black-capped Chickadees and Pine Grosbeaks, along with not a single sighting of White-winged Crossbill. Most of the others had been noticing the same thing at their feeders. This winter feeders across the Yukon have been noticing an overall lack of bird activity for some reason or another. I could not tally up the Feeder Watcher checklists until after Boxing Day because I did not have all of the Feeder Watcher Sheets. Once I had collected them all and tallied everything up, I found that eight bird species had been counted by the Feeder Watches, the highlights being six Mountain Chickadees (an uncommon chickadee species in the Yukon).
Thank you to everyone who took part in the Tagish Christmas Bird Count this year and in past years! Your sightings are an important contribution to the knowledge of overwintering birds in the Yukon. All the best to everyone in the new year!