It was sunny and warm on May 5th, and a wonderful day to be outside…. in between the ripping, cold gusts of wind. In the trees it was fairly sheltered, though even there the wind was strong and tried to throw the trees down. However, on the mudflats of Tagish Narrows the wind was wicked! Jukka Jantunen had sent me a text about 30-45 minutes earlier saying “Are you here yet? Dunlins and Pacific Golden Plover awaits…” after I sent him a text to see if he was still at the bridge. I was hoping to go down and meet him there so I could bird with him before his counts ended for the year. As soon as I received the text and got permission to go from Dad and permission from Mom over the phone to use her quad, I threw on a coat and tossed my tripod and backpack on the front rack of the quad. My scope always goes over my back, no matter what!
In 30ish minutes after receiving the text I was walking down the mudflats to the point towards Marsh Lake to meet Jukka. He was hunched over his scope, carefully counting all of the hundreds of birds on the mudflats and in the water, seeming to not notice the wind. I flushed a Wilson’s Snipe from the willows on my right and got a great view of it in flight. Through the roaring of the wind in my ears I could hear the many flocks of Lapland Longspurs calling back and forth to each other, ducks gabbling, the screams of gulls, and the faint, wavering song of Lesser Yellowlegs being carried away on the wind. Two flocks of sandpipers flew past me, but I kept walking thinking that I could scope them out once I reached the point.
At last I reached Jukka. I was already a bit chilled; I had thought I would be warm enough, but apparently not. He gave me a summary of the highlights in the past couple of hours including a Peregrine Falcon, the Dunlin, and the Pacific Golden Plover, before I joined him in hunching over my scope and scanning the flats. Pectoral, Least, and Semipalmated Sandpipers were plentiful, and Semipalmated Plovers even more plentiful. The ground almost seemed to move with the number of shorebirds and ducks. The amazing thing is the shorebirds had only just started arriving a short while ago and the peak has not been reached yet! Jukka guided me to the place where the Pacific Golden Plover, a rare Yukon migrant was. It was a female, and not that flashy but obviously a golden plover of some kind. To test me, Jukka asked me to explain why it was a Pacific Golden Plover. Why was it not an American? I honestly didn’t know without referring to my book, and Jukka helped point out the details of IDing them. The best way he said was to look at the undertail coverts, tertial lengths, and flanks; Pacific Golden Plovers have long tertials that almost meet their tail tips and can be seen as bars going down the tail. American Golden Plover’s tertials end quite a distance away from their tail tip. Also the female Pacific has whiteish undertail coverts (on average), not blackish like the female American Golden Plover. The Pacific Golden Plover’s white hood-edging goes right down to the tail and is straighter and thinner on average than the American Golden Plover. This is apparent with Pacific females as well as the males though the white is harder to see on females. Referring back to the scope, I could see the tertials reached down almost to the tail tip and when it flew I could see that the undertail was white and not black. The white hood edge was thin and white, though her wing drooping slightly made it difficult to see the white reach her tail. He also said as you see the golden plovers more often, you can gradually start appreciating smaller details such as the difference in leg length and bill size. It was fun, especially having one to compare to the book right in front of us!
Going back to scoping, Jukka found one of the two Dunlin beside a puddle. After giving me directions to it, I soon found it standing still and facing us; the big, black spot a prominent feature on its belly. I was thrilled with the sight; Dunlin was my second most-wanted to see shorebird (after Red Knot). It flew to a different puddle and was joined by the second one. The two foraged side-by-side for a while, before getting lost in a crowd of other shorebirds and ducks. Dunlin are a rare but regular migrant to the Yukon, seen each year but in very low numbers. A real treat to see! I scanned around some more to see a Dowitcher, which Jukka informed me was Short-billed. He told me that this dowitcher is another rare but regular migrant to the Yukon, only a few being seen each year. We went over some IDing tricks for Long-billed and Short-billed Dowitchers for future reference before once again, moving on.
Soon Jukka suggested that we head back, which I gladly agreed with. Though I was having fun and was not nearly ready to leave, my hands were so cold that they were being rendered useless and I was shivering. Darn wind!! When we got back in the shelter of the parking lot I had to ask Jukka to put my tripod legs back together because my numb fingers couldn’t accomplish the task. Even pressing the gas on the quad proved difficult. Thankfully the built-in hand warmers heated up quickly and loosened my fingers. After setting up another possible meeting for birding and saying goodbye, I went to a little meadow just down the road with an old, ruined log cabin in the middle. I had an owl box up and was going to check it for the first time. After pulling up closer, I saw something grey and round looking through the box entrance and immediately thought of Boreal Owl. Excited, I fumbled for my camera and snapped a few shots, zooming up, but I still couldn’t quite make out exactly what it was. I gave up and drove closer only to discover it was a mass of grey grass. I parked the quad against the tree and started climbing up to look inside. Though I was only 15 feet up my legs felt weak and shaky because of my fear of heights. I made it up to the box, opened the lid, and snapped a few pictures of the inside. Looking at the photos I took, the box was filled almost to the brim with grass! No living creature was inside so I took the box down and emptied the grass out, deciding to hang the box in a different location. I heard a crack behind me and quickly turned around, expecting a bear to have snuck up on me. I didn’t see the local Grizzly sow with her cubs; instead a Ruffed Grouse sat in a fallen poplar at about face-level, calmly eating the fresh buds. It didn’t seem to mind the noise of the quad running,or the noise I made climbing up the tree and back during my box examination. It acted as though none of this existed.
I got my camera and started slowly walking closer to it. It spared me a quick glance during its feast, but nothing more. I walked closer, and closer… still it paid me no heed. The light was just perfect; it glinted off the warm browns and greys of the grouse without any glare. I was about 5 feet away from it, watching and taking photos while it continued to walk from branch to branch and ignore me. I clucked my tongue a couple of times to get some shots of it with its head up, but I had to be quick because it was reluctant to look up even at strange sounds.
It made its way to the end of a branch, teetering precariously before walking back straight towards me. Then it started working its way further up. It was nice and warm there in the trees, with just the rushing of wind up above and the quiet snapping of the grouse working its way up the tree.
After a while it unexpectedly jumped to the ground, looked at me, then took of running for the thick brush, disappearing as it melded in with the browns of the undergrowth. It was gone, just like that. It was as though it came just especially for me; it seemed to want to share a bit of its day with another living being. That is one of the best things about being a birder; I never know when the next wonderful and unexpected moment will be!