On May 15 Jukka swung by the house to pick me up. His car was weighted down with packages and bags that were stacked to the roof inside, and I added mine to the mix. The long-awaited day had arrived: I was going to Albert Creek Bird Observatory! This was something I had been looking forward to for months, and since I had never been there in the spring before it would make it all the more exciting. Warblers would be arriving in their brightly coloured spring plumage; normally I only band them in the fall when birds such as Magnolia Warbler are in their dull winter plumage. After saying goodbye to my family, we were off. Jukka’s plan was to bird along the way, and I hoped to pick up some new birds for the year. I still had not seen Short-eared Owl or Whimbrel, and I was ever hopeful.
Our first stop was Tagish Bridge, one of THE best birding hotspots in the Yukon, and only a couple of minutes drive away from home. The bridge area is well-known for its amazing mudflats that attract thousands of shorebirds each spring, along with many birders, birdwatchers, photographers, and fishers. When we arrived, shorebirds were gathered along the ice edge by the hundreds and a Peregrin Falcon streaking towards them at mind-boggling speed from the heavens caused a frantic scramble for safety. Flocks of shorebirds zipped all over the mudflats, trying to dodge the falcon. The shorebirds were too agile, and the falcon flew away ’empty-taloned’. Hundreds of ducks were scattered along both the mudflats and the water. A lone male Blue-winged Teal dabbled behind a small ice-spit across the little bay, but mostly there were tons of scaup, Canvasbacks, Goldeneye, Bufflehead, American Wigeon, Mallards, Northern Shovelers, Horned and Red-throated Grebes. Jukka tried to point out the Surf and White-winged Scoters out in the water, but even with my scope I couldn’t make out enough detail to call them that myself. We spent a few hours on the mudflats taking photos and scoping, but eventually Jukka reluctantly decided that we had better move on.
Johnson’s Crossing was not that eventful, but did show some interesting birds. Two Harlequin Ducks slept peacefully on an ice block floating down the river. An Olive-sided Flycatcher flew to the top of a spruce to pose for us, and a Pacific Loon was gliding near enough for me to admire its beauty as I never have been able to before.
Teslin was a lot more exciting. We first looked for an adult male Yellow-headed Blackbird that had been seen in the area with no luck. During our search we did find my year Golden-crowned Sparrow, and a small flock of Snow Geese that seemed fairly tame. Jukka pointed out a Short-eared Owl flying overhead, turning loops in the sky and lent me his binoculars. Quickly getting a view of it, I was able to make out the black crescents on its underwing for myself. Short-eared Owl made it to my year list! I had been positive before then that my chance of seeing Short-eared Owls for the year had passed me by.
Moving on to Nisutlin Bay, the magic began. The lake was still frozen, forcing the ducks to stay in the open water close to shore where we were. Looking through the scope, we were treated to breath-taking views of a wide variety of ducks. The ones that stood out for me were the Canvasbacks, Ring-necked Ducks, and Redheads. The deep, rusty reds on the Canvasback and Redheads glowed in the rich evening sun, while the Ring-necked Duck seemed to shine with a dark light. Jukka asked me if I still wanted to see Whimbrels this year; he had found a flock of 11 nearby on shore. I could see them immediately with the naked eye. In my scope it was even better! I feasted my eyes on the large, brown shorebirds with their long, slenderly curved bills. The bill is what makes them stand out, even more than their large size. Jukka suddenly said “That looks like a Little Gull!” I quickly followed his directions to the bird with my scope and found it. It was a distance away, so I didn’t have a great view; to me it looked just like another Bonaparte’s Gull. Then it took flight. The dark, slatey-blue/grey under wings became very apparent, and when it landed next to a Bonaparte’s Gull I could see that the Little Gull, true to its name, was small compared to the Bonaparte’s Gulls. The Short-eared Owl we had seen earlier flew into view. How many people get Short-eared Owl and Little Gull in the scope at the same time? Two awesome birds all at once 🙂 Little Gull is a rare migrant in the Yukon that is becoming more regular each year. The beauty of the evening made us very grateful to be alive.
By the time we left Teslin, it was 9pm and we still had a 4-hour drive ahead of us to Watson Lake. We encountered a few bears and moose in the ditches and on the shoulders of the highway. At about 12:30am I noticed that the horizon was still light. With only a few more hours until sunrise I realized that the Land of the Midnight Sun was once again becoming true to its name. Our nights will just keep getting brighter until mid-summer, when the sun just barely dips below the horizon for a couple of hours during the night. Nearing the turn-off to Albert Creek Bird Observatory, Jukka suggested that we stop there and try for the Barred Owl that had been calling for the past month since we were out late anyways. We got out at the observatory to cool, moist air and the duck-like croak of Wood Frogs in the marsh. There seemed to be hundreds calling all at once. We walked down the road in the dark towards the furthest mist nets until we were a fair distance away from the car before Jukka tried hooting. He only did a half-call, and had an immediate response. The Barred Owl started hooting frantically in the distance, shouting “who cooks for you??” at his new arrival. It was a great end to the night, and a great start to the morning.
Jukka dropped me off at the Drurys house where I would be staying for the next few days. We would be ‘waking up’ to go to Albert Creek Bird Observatory and open mist nets in about one and a half hours. Was there any point in going to sleep? Unfortunately, I left my novel at home so that when I had free time I couldn’t be distracted into doing something other than working on my math course, so I fell asleep.
Morning came the moment I shut my eyes.
My cell phone played its loud alarm song on the table and annoyed, I shut it off. I felt so tired; I knew it was a mistake to fall asleep. However, I became abnormally awake and alert for the early hours as I got up and prepared for my first day at Albert Creek. A hot, toasted bagel with cream cheese was very welcome and hit the spot. Unfortunately I left my thermos cup at home and was unable to take a hot drink with me. Outside it was already very light and the first White-crowned Sparrows of the morning began to sing.
Jukka and I met up with Ted Murphy-Kelly, the Bander-in-Charge (BiC) at the Albert Creek Bird Observatory. It was really nice to see Ted again; I volunteered with him last fall at Albert Creek.
The observatory is located in a frost pocket down at the bottom of a cold hole in a valley which was filled with fog and frost that morning. The mist nets used to catch birds with were frozen shut, and the air temperature (-6C) was too cold to band birds anyways. We weren’t able to open nets for a few hours, so we just stood and talked. At last when it had warmed up enough and the nets were thawed we grabbed our net-opening sticks and set off. I stomped my way down the trail in an attempt to warm the wooden blocks I call my feet. The nets were busy; a steady stream of birds flew into the net… not busy enough that we fell behind and started scrambling, but not slow enough that we had spare time either.
Then the worst thing happened: out of the blue it began to snow. A few flakes fell at first which was fine, we would just have to increase the number of net runs and be quicker at extracting the birds. The light flurry turned into a heavy snow fall within 10 minutes. The kind of snowfall where you can’t see anything but white fog when you look down the road. We split up and ran to the nets, extracting the birds as quickly as possible and furling the nets as soon as they were empty. Birds cannot be caught and banded in these kind of conditions; they get wet and cold very fast. We had the birds out and nets closed in record time, and all of the birds were in good health. We put the birds in their bags inside the little shelter at the banding site, and squeezed in the table and a couple of chairs and the banding equipment. Then the bander and the scribe had to fit in there as well. It was tight, but it worked very well! Birds were banded and released back out-doors where they quickly found shelter and tucked in to wait out the snow. One of the birds we caught was a Spotted Sandpiper, a very pretty little bird. A Robin was also caught; it looked very strange out in the snow.
With the observatory shut down and snow still heavily falling, Jukka decided to go birding. Apparently, the worse the weather is the better the birding. The birding turned out to be excellent even though I was cold and tired. The wet snow soaked through my water ‘resistant’ coat and made my thick hoodie damp. I felt a fever coming on; the flu that had been going around my family was finally catching up to me at the very worst time possible! So as I’m sure you understand, I wasn’t as enthusiastic about going birding as I normally would have been.
Even without the %100 enthusiasm, the day was pretty exciting. Our highlight for the day was pair of Wandering Tattler at the airport boat launch. We heard the calls before we saw them. When I asked Jukka what was calling, he said he wasn’t sure and suggested that maybe it was Whimbrel. Then we saw a pair of shorebirds flying and he identified them as Wandering Tattlers, a rare migrant to the Yukon. We went down to the boat launch where they had flown and quickly spotted them along the shore. The bank formed a short little cliff that was able to give us some cover from the birds and approach unseen. We waited at a bend in the direction that they were travelling, and within moments they both appeared about two metres away. Jukka and I both captured photos of them before they turned around and disappeared back behind the bend.
During the big snow we noticed a strange thing. The sparrows, which are a more cold-resistant species, were having a tough time with the cold. They were puffed up abnormally large and most looked sick and weak. The warblers (which winter in the tropics and sub-tropics) handled the cold well and were staying mostly warm and healthy. The next day when the snow had stopped we found a lot of dead sparrows while birding around Watson Lake. It appeared that they had just fallen over and died, perishing from the snow storm.
When we were banding before the snow started, we noticed that the warblers we caught had a lot of fat on them and were well stocked for migration, or in this case, for enduring snowy periods. The sparrows, having been here for a little longer than the warblers had very little or no fat on them at all, and were not able to find food because of the snow cover. We think this is why the snow affected the sparrows so badly and not the warblers.
The next day was cold and snowy again, so the observatory didn’t open at all. Instead, Jukka, Ted, Susan, and I all went to the restaurant where we had a nice hot breakfast. Afterwards Jukka Ted and I went out birding, hoping that the snow would push down something good. Jukka told me that the worst the weather is, especially during migration, the more birds are pushed down from the sky, and the birding gets better and better. He told me to take advantage of that every time I can.
The weather caused a major thrush fallout; they were all over the place. Jukka drove his car down the ditches so we could approach the birds closer than the would have let us if we were on foot. The car acts as a blind and birds are not as scared. Often if we are parked they will hop right up to us. Mostly there were Swainson’s Thrush, but there were also some Gray-cheeked and even the odd Hermit Thrush. We had a lot of fun with photography. We spent quite a bit of time in the ditches, bushes, and on the lake shores photographing the bird life. Below are some of our results.
Our major bird highlight of the day was a pair of BLACK SCOTERS on the lake at the Watson Lake airport. When we discovered the Black Scoters, I was riding with Jukka and Ted was following us in his van. I saw the scoters in the lake through my window and thought they looked like Black Scoters. As I was about to point them out to Jukka, he said in nearly a shout “BLACK SCOTER!!!” and screeched to a halt. I leaned back from the open window expecting Jukka to reach across me to take a photo but instead he jumped out of the car with his camera. I know that birds are more scared of us than vehicles, and that if there is a rare bird not to go running out of the car (a big No-No!), but when Jukka jumped out I thought that he thought it must be ok and I got out too. The thing was, I was on the scoter side of the vehicle and very visible to them while Jukka was mostly hidden. The scoters thankfully didn’t fly, but they started swimming away. Jukka gave me heck afterwards because there was a big chance that they would have flown away and warned me against it in the future. Thankfully, Jukka and I both got documentation photos and Ted was able to see a new lifer. We had really good looks through the scope. Black Scoters are very rare in the Yukon. So rare in fact, that Jukka, one of the best birders in the Yukon, had only last seen one in the Yukon ten years before.
My last day arrived. The weather had finally changed: the cold front had passed by and the sun came out with all of its warmth. The nets were opened at their regular time and operated for the full standard six hours. There were no net runs that had a sudden big fallout of birds but there was a consistent stream that kept us busy. Yellow-rumped Warblers were the most numerous, and I was able to extract my first ever male Blackpoll Warbler. I had never had a good look at a spring male before; suddenly I had one in my hand and was able to study it in detail.
For me, the best net run was while I was checking nets at the far end of the banding site; I walked over to an empty net intending to hang up the net pins when a pair of Red-winged Blackbirds flew into the net, followed by a female Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, and then a thrush (can’t remember if it was Swainson’s or Gray-cheeked, I was too excited about the blackbirds)! For a couple of years I had been wanting to band a male Red-winged Blackbird with no success. Then I was lucky enough to have one fly (almost literally) right into my hands.
During a couple of quieter net runs, Jukka and I walked down one of the census trails that go behind the banding table to try to get a visual of the Barred Owl before I left. We reached the end of the trail and Jukka tried calling. There was no response so I tried calling it a few times and finally we could vaguely hear it down by the river, far into the trees. We continued calling back and forth, and it came a little closer but was for the most part content to stay back near the river.
The last net run came to a close, and Ted had me sign the guest book before Jukka drove me back home to Tagish. It was sad leaving; there are such great people there, awesome birds, and wonderful memories, but all good things must come to an end! I missed my family and it would be good to get home to see them and to recuperate from my flu. I am really thankful that the Drurys let me stay with them again, and that Jukka made sure to show me the area and all of the good birding spots! Hopefully the Albert Creek Bird Observatory will open again next fall; due to lack of funds it is still unsure whether the observatory will be operational or not during the fall season. If it is open, you will be sure to see another story about it come up here again 🙂
You can read about the seasonal progress and goings-on at the Yukon bird Observatories at their blog: http://yukonbirdobservatories.blogspot.ca/
If you would like to support the Yukon Bird Observatories there are a few things you can do. You can become a member of the Society of Yukon Bird Observatories by contacting Ben Schonewille at email@example.com. He will provide you with a membership form that you can fill out (Student, single, family membership, ect.). Volunteers are always more than welcome; if you would like to volunteer at any of the Yukon Bird Observatories than please contact one of the observatory managers: Ben Schonewille at firstname.lastname@example.org or Ted Murphy-Kelly at email@example.com. Donations of bird bags, nets, poles, other banding equipment, and money are very welcome! If you decide to become a member, options for money donations are available on the membership forms. For more information about the Yukon Bird Observatories, or ways to support them, please contact either Ben (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Ted (email@example.com). The Albert Creek Bird Observatory is going to close on June 10th. However, the Teslin Lake Bird Observatory will be opening July 23rd; feel free to come and visit or volunteer!
Photos published in this post may not be copied or reproduced without the permission of the author/photographer.