In the Yukon, October is the last major month of avian fall migration. It is the month when all birds are feeling the cold temperatures even through their warm, insulating feathers, and leave everything behind to seek out their wintering grounds. It is usually around late October when the large lakes begin freezing over, forcing the reluctant ducks to move further south to find more open water. The berries have mostly been eaten except for the rosehips and mountain ash which attracts grouse and Bohemian Waxwings. The Golden Eagles come through mainly in October and start to dwindle by the end of the month. Some straggling birds do not leave until it is well into November or later. Sometimes a lucky birder/birdwatcher is rewarded with the sighting of a rare or uncommon straggling bird; one either reluctant to move on because of a source of abundant food, or one too weak and cold to carry on. I was one such lucky birder just last Thursday, on October 25th. I met up with Cameron Eckert who found a lifer Harris’s Sparrow for me that had been hanging out in this one spot in Whitehorse for about a week. The sparrow was in the company of a flock of House Sparrows and happily foraging in the grass. Harris’s Sparrow is a very rare bird in the Yukon, with this bird being only the 10th documented record. It was awesome!!
Besides the odd rare bird, birding in mid to late October is usually not very eventful, and as we have not yet adapted to the cold temperatures it doesn’t take very long for the air’s cold fingers to seep through our many layers of clothing and into our limbs. Still, despite the dwindling numbers of birds and the cold temperatures, birders and birdwatchers alike are drawn outdoors to watch the last of the birds depart on their long journey; hundreds, or even thousands of kilometres to their winter home.
For me, October is when school and weekly trips to Whitehorse (over an hour away) start-up regularly for the year and so I don’t get out birding as much as I do during the rest of the year. I try to get out at least once a week in October to check on the progress of bird migration through Tagish Narrows, and since we are lucky enough to live alongside such an important migratory funnel I see many waterfowl. Raptors and songbirds follow this route during migration as well, but you have to look harder for them. The songbirds flit quietly through the bushes or in flocks high in the sky, while raptors catch the closest thermal updraft and soar to mind-boggling heights. It is often nearly impossible to see raptors in the sky even with binoculars and spotting scopes. The waterfowl fly low over the water coming to rest in Tagish Narrows, where they gather together in flocks to rest and forage.
When I went scoping at Tagish Bridge on October 15th, there were about 200 unidentified scaup, along with 141 Bufflehead. I also saw Common Goldeneye, Common Merganser, and even some Greater Scaup I could confirm, but only in small flocks. I was shocked at the high numbers of ducks; I had expected very little to be found. When I went back to the bridge on October 24th, just over a week later, I saw only 30 unidentified scaup, and 14 Bufflehead. A drastic change in numbers! There was also a pair of American Wigeon that day which was a pleasant surprise. They are different from what I usually see at this time of year. A Trumpeter Swan and 2 Tundra Swans foraged with the wigeon and chatted back and forth. That day I spent the afternoon birding all over Tagish, so I also went and drove around Tagish Estates in search of raptors, and to California Beach. I only saw a single swan (possibly Tundra) fly over, as well as 3 Gray Jays and 2 Black-billed Magpies within a roadside willow in Tagish Estates.
California Beach was much more productive. A tame American Pipit was hopping around on the sand to greet me when I walked to my high vantage spot before it flitted down to shore to join another of its kind. Three more flew overhead, calling to the other two as they went. ‘Pipit! Pipit!’ I listened to the drumming of a probable Hairy or Downy Woodpecker hidden in a nearby yard while I counted the ducks out on the lake. At first I could not identify them because they were too far away; I was trying to decide if I was looking at Goldeneye or Bufflehead. Then suddenly a few that were hanging back from the others started enthusiastically throwing their heads back to between their wings, excitedly bobbing around a single unresponsive duck. Goldeneye! The male Common Goldeneyes are one of my favourite ducks, purely for the fact that when they have a female in their sights they start displaying by throwing their heads back with everything they have and making a zipper call. Their zipper call sounds like a zipper being unzipped really fast. It’s a high-pitch ‘zweee!’ sound. There is so much enthusiasm and expression put into that single head toss. I don’t know if the female goldeneye feel as impressed as I do… they usually try to escape the cluster of males surrounding them, all throwing their heads back at once. It would be a pretty overwhelming situation for the females.
I went out birding again the day-before-yesterday at California Beach and Tagish Bridge. My first bird at the beach was a big flock of Bohemian Waxwings. The community bird-lovers all look forward to the waxwings arrival in Tagish. They come in colourful swarms, filling the trees and bushes while they eat Mountain Ash berries and make merry.
It was such a beautiful day; for once the sun was out and the sky was mostly clear. A lot more shore ice had built up since my last visit to California Beach and the sunlight made some pretty effects on the scene. Out on Tagish Lake was about 65 ducks, along with a Common Loon and a single Common Goldeneye. A Bald Eagle flew by with steely determination; very possibly focused on getting to Skagway as fast as possible. I lingered in the area longer than I had originally meant to, but California Beach is such a photogenic and interesting place I always find it difficult to leave.
Tagish Bridge was the opposite of California Beach. The wind was strong, and cold with the sharpness of a knife. My cheeks felt nipped by the end of the grand total of ten minutes I spent there. The sky was totally grey, making it difficult to see ducks at a distance. Two Trumpeter Swans flew right over the bridge and landed near the tip of the willows towards Marsh Lake. Four Tundra Swans were also in the area. After doing a very brief count I went without hesitation back to the warm shelter of the van. The Bander-in-Charge at the Teslin Lake Bird Observatory, Jukka Jantunen, is doing his final day of migration watching for the season today, Halloween; it would take incredible dedication and a serious passion for what you are doing to be able to last the month of October in the cold on the shores of Teslin Lake with no shelter. The wind makes it freezing there early in the fall; late fall must be miserable, especially for a person standing there scanning the lake/sky back and forth with binoculars and a scope.
Fall may be coming to an end, but we have November 1st to look forward to next. November 1st marks the official beginning of the winter birding season. It’s always fun to bird on November 1st and see what birds you can add to your winter records list. A couple of years ago I saw a Horned Grebe in winter plumage for the first time ever on that day; it was one of my coolest winter sightings ever! I look forward to November 1st… not only does it mean winter birding season has begun (which means bird feeders can go up, and I can plan for the Tagish Christmas Bird Count), but it also means that Christmas season can begin 🙂
Enjoy the last day of fall birding season, and have a Happy Halloween!