You know that winter birding season has arrived in the Yukon when the big lakes freeze over, temperatures start dropping below -20C, and the birds start fluffing their feathers to protect their fragile bodies from winters’ chill. I refilled the bird feeders with Black Oil and Striped Sunflower seeds just in time for the temperature to drop to -25C a couple of nights ago. Sunflower seeds seem to be favoured at the bird feeders by a wide variety of bird species, and they are a high fat source of food during the winter months when extra fat is much needed. We keep all of the suet feeders full as well, which the chickadees, Grey Jays, and Magpies love.
So far in the past couple of weeks that we have had the bird feeders up, we have had Black-capped and Boreal Chickadees, Pine Grosbeaks, Red Crossbills, Common Redpolls, Grey Jays, Black-billed Magpies, and a Raven visit. Mom named the Raven Poet, and she visits regularly. We assume that she was Poes‘ sister. We have also had Spruce Grouse visit, though not right at the feeder. One morning my brother went outside to discover a flock of them in the driveway, pecking at the exposed gravel patch where a vehicle had previously sat. There were nine of them in all, some were on the road and some in the driveway. We have never had such a big flock of grouse in the yard before!
Out on Tagish Lake and Six-mile River the waterfowl lingering in the cold weather have it a lot tougher. When I went to bird Tagish Bridge last, on November 10th, I noticed two Tundra Swans resting on a point of ice in the river, towards Marsh Lake. They were tucked side by side, and while one snoozed the other was preening his/her snowy-white feathers. Four Mallards flew over the bridge not far from where I stood and came to a splashing halt in a sheltered area of still open river water. Eight Bufflehead were hanging out with the Common Goldeneyes and Common Mergansers (two winter regulars), diving in and out of the frigid grey water. Bufflehead are about the size of a football, and goldeneye are only a little bigger. It’s amazing that such tiny ducks can survive the Yukon winters even if they do find a place where the water stays open for most of the winter (such as Tagish Narrows). When it drops to -30C or lower and the river freezes over, what do they do? One solution is to find an area that is not frozen. However that can be difficult, and they may have to fly to a different water source altogether. They will usually keep a little bit of water open with their own body movement; an area big enough that they can still easily move around in and forage. It’s an easier tactic that saves considerably more energy. I have heard from a few sources that if the water freezes solid, ducks will sometimes just sit on the ice and wait for the water to open again. Some people have reported observing this behavior. This choice would cause the ‘sitting ducks’ to become extremely susceptible to predators. I have never personally seen what they do. Sometimes when I go to Tagish Bridge in the winter the river is wide open and teeming with goldeneye and mergansers; the next day it can be frozen solid with not a duck in sight. I have never ever seen a duck in the area once the river freezes, even if it is just for a day. Yet, the moment it thaws again they are back in the water. So it makes sense that they would either have a small hidden area of water nearby they are keeping open, or else that they are sitting on the ice under shelter waiting for the thaw.
November can be a month of exciting finds as migratory stragglers can still be occasionally passing through. When my family and I were in Whitehorse on November 9th, we were in the process of loading our purchases into the van in the Canadian Tire parking lot when I noticed a gull flying over. My first thought was GULL IN NOVEMBER!! I tried to quickly take my camera out of the case slung over my shoulder while not taking my eyes off the gull, but it was awkward as I had not yet adapted to my new equipment. My Mom stopped to watch it with me and started taking photos as well. The gull was smallish in size (a little smaller than a Raven we thought) and pure white. It’s feet were tucked into its warm feathers which meant we couldn’t see them, and the bill was not a feature I thought much about at the time. While I was taking photos I was glancing from my camera screen to the gull, trying to get documentation and mentally noting down any obvious characteristics at the same time. My Mom and I saw only white. There was no other colour. No black wing tips or anything. Just white. It was flying a swift, straight course for the clay cliffs at the edge of town, and just before it got there it dipped to the side, then continued on until it disappeared behind the cliff. This dip gave us a quick glimpse of the back, but at that distance we could not tell if it was white or pale grey. Before that we had only seen the underside as it flew over. The photos showed us nothing. literally. The gull blended in so perfectly against the white overcast sky that neither Mom’s camera or mine could pick out the gull, and so they wouldn’t focus.
Cameron Eckert and I discussed the gull, but the lack of documentation and detail could not allow any confirmed identification. I think that out of the white gulls that he suggested could be possibilities, Iceland Gull seems the most likely. This is because it was small, not the large size of a Glaucious Gull, and if it had been an adult Ivory Gull, the black bill would have been very obvious against the pale, overcast sky. Iceland Gull is in the size range that I saw, and the bill is pale yellow, not very noticeable up high. I am not very good at gull ID though, and this one was complicated just because I could not see any obvious identifying features other than the white plumage on the underside of the bird. Other birders including Cameron went to search for it after my report (in fact the president of the Yukon bird Club went to look for it right after I had called it in, still in the parking lot), but it was never seen again and so we will never know for sure what it was. An exciting encounter anyways, and definitely my most interesting winter bird sighting yet.
During our next trips to Whitehorse after seeing the gull, I saw birds that were not at all rare but still interesting for me. A Raven sat up on a nearby lamp-post and ‘sang’. The song was composed of carefully selected caws, whistles, screams, gurgles, coos, and babbles. The raven was really putting its whole body into the song, puffing its plumage and neck feathers, stretching out, looking up at the sky, and bobbing up and down. It clearly viewed the world as its audience and gloated with careless glee. It was not an Iceland Gull, but a fun thing to watch and enjoy anyways 🙂
On this same day I was rewarded with a rare sighting of a flock of Rock Pigeons pecking at some exposed ground in a driveway. I say rare sighting, but that only applies to me. My luck with pigeon sightings is not very good, so I always love getting a glimpse of them. They are a common sight in certain areas of town, and very easy to find if you know where to look for them. I learned where their haunts are located and what their habits are just this past summer with the help of my mentors (Thank you!!), and I see them more frequently now.
What have you been seeing this winter? What has been your most interesting winter bird sighting? I would love to hear your stories, so don’t be afraid to comment or send me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org)! Have a great winter 🙂