Last Saturday was the bird walk being led by Devon Yacura in Skagway, Alaska. My Mom, little sister and I, plus our friends from Tagish and my mentor Cameron drove out to meet the Skagway birders on this beautiful morning. The Skagway road is a very scenic drive; it follows a long string of lakes including Windy Arm before reaching an area that basically consists of large gray, weathered-looking rocks surrounded by streams and pools, sparsely grown over with lichen and grasses. Alongside the road the spruce trees are very scraggly, bent and twisted and mostly bare on one side due to the wind that seems to never stop scouring the land. As the road goes higher up in altitude, Balsam Firs become common, giving that cold, fresh, and spicy scent to the air outside. They too are scraggly and half-bare. The White Pass itself right now is covered in at least two meters of wind-swept snow that thickly blankets the rolling hills and mountain peaks. Rocks that are exposed stand in stark, black, contrast to the blinding whiteness. In some areas, nothing shows in the snow except for the road, and poles placed a regular intervals alongside the road help drivers to stay on the road if the conditions ae bad. I have been up there when it is snowing and cloudy; the light makes everything flat, obscuring the dips and hills. All you can see is white. During those times it looks as though the road is the only solid part of the world, that if you step off of it into the snow you would be stepping into a mist or a cloud and may fall right through. It is a very disorienting feeling.
This captivating and deceiving world is not barren of life. Ptarmigan are common along most of the Skagway Road. The area around and in between Fraser and Log Cabin seem to be where they are the most commonly seen. During our drive to Skagway last Saturday, the skies were clear and sunny and the mountains were filled with skiers and snowmobilers. We saw three Willow Ptarmigan on the road near Log Cabin, which is not far from Canada customs (Fraser), on the Canada side. These were the second group of ptarmigan I had ever seen, and they were tame enough to allow excellent views and decent photos. On our way back home that evening we saw at least fifteen Willow Ptarmigan in the same area, sitting in a willow. It was really cool. They looked so out-of-place there; large, very noticeable white blobs scattered throughout this scrawny willow.
We all met the group of birders at the Skagway Ferry Terminal at the docks. Though the skies were still clear it was windy, and the wind was cold. Luckily it warmed up a little later and birding got much better. From the docks we saw 1 Mew Gull, and about 4-5 Herring Gulls across the bay, 1 Marbled Murrelet, 1 Bald Eagle, and 1 American Crow, plus a big ship being towed out to deeper waters by two little tug boats. The next spot Devon led us to was a little pond that usually holds an American Dipper for Cameron and I during the Skagway Christmas Bird Counts. We didn’t see a dipper this time… in fact, for a long time we didn’t see anything. But after walking down the creek a ways and stopping to listen for a while, birds began to make themselves known. Another eagle flew out above us, a couple of crows foraged in the bushes, and we heard a single Black-capped Chickadee, at least one Ruby-crowned Kinglet, and a couple of juncos calling. Someone flushed a snipe out of the bushes from around the stream, but since it did not call or whistle as it flew I missed it. Then one of our friends from Tagish found a Pacific Wren and managed to snap a photo of it. Cameron and I went to find it again as I had never seen one before, and it did stick around. As we stood on the banks of the creek searching for it, it suddenly have a harsh two-noted call from on the ground near our feet in a gnarled willow. We searched all over for it and Cameron even tried pishing, but it never responded again and we never found it. It somehow must have darted away unseen right after it called. After that the group headed over to the park area near the creek. There we saw a couple of Common Redpolls, a couple of Oregon Juncos (which I always get excited about! These were my second sightings ever), and a Ruby-crowned Kinglet. By this time it was fairly warm, and all of the Yukoners in the group gloried in the snowless town where green things were popping up everywhere, including skunk cabbage in the creeks and ferns on the hills.
The bridge at the beginning of the Yakutania Point Trail across the river at the edge of town was the next and last stop for the group. We saw 5 Buffleheads, 4 Common Goldeneye, 2 Marbled Murrelets, 1 American Dipper, 2 human scuba divers, and Harbour Seals. After that, we said goodbye to our field trip leader Devon, who had to go back to Whitehorse. Thank you Devon!! Next, our friends from Tagish and my family and I all followed Cameron to the Dyea Campground (located outside of Skagway) in a search for Red-breasted Sapsuckers. Along the way we encountered road construction where we had to wait for a pilot car, so we ended up having a couple of lengthy road-side gatherings there and back. The construction took us right by these huge and beautiful mudflats that held a ton of ducks and many swans; likely a couple of shorebirds too. From what we could make out they were mostly Mallards, and Cameron said that one of the flocks may have been Green-winged Teals. Our walk through the campground was really nice; it was warm, sheltered, and sunny, and the dried leaves from the previous fall made a thick carpet on the forest floor that crunched beneath our feet and gave a spicy, late summer aroma. Strangely, there were no sapsuckers responding to Cameron’s stick-made, territorial drumming mimics, when his past experience was that they normally responded instantly – with enthusiasm. Despite the lack of sapsuckers, everyone had fun and enjoyed the gorgeous walk. We all headed back home after that, ending our day at Skagway.
Birding for the day wasn’t done for me yet though! Jukka picked me up later on that evening for some birding at Tagish Bridge and for his Atlin Road Owl Survey after that. There was a beautiful sunset at the bridge, and there were quite a few ducks flying over. Jukka pointed out a pair of Eurasian Wigeon to me, as well as a Song Sparrow foraging underneath some willows at the edge of the gas station parking lot. The sparrow had been hanging out there for about a week, and though I had heard it singing once this was my first time seeing it.
Before we left we heard a Great Horned Owl calling; the first owl of the night. As Jukka drove down the Atlin Road to the starting point of his survey we discovered another Great Horned Owl – this time perched at the top of a tree beside the road, but by the time he stopped and started turning around the owl had flown away. The survey ended up producing 10 owls in all; 6 Great Horneds and 4 Boreal Owls, not including those 2 Great Horneds we had before the survey. A great end to an awesome day!