December 1st marks an important day in the birding world: the ‘beginning’ of the winter birding season. This year I woke up to winter in Whitehorse where I was kindly being housed by Cameron and Pam for the weekend. It was -20something Celsius outside, but with the freezing wind howling through the valley it felt more like -40C. The course I was taking that weekend didn’t start until 11am (compared to 8am the morning before), so at Cameron’s suggestion the two of us decided to go birding along the Yukon River to rack up some bird species for our winter checklists. We parked at the river dam and began the trek across the walk bridge to the trails on the other side. It was cold. Cold doesn’t even cover it – it felt like our faces had painfully frozen solid the moment the frigid wind hit us. It was all worth it though when Cameron pointed out a Starling flying away from us across the river – it was my first winter Starling. We were also able to watch a little American Dipper bobbing in and out of the river water, pausing to stand and sing for a moment, seemingly glorying in the face of the cold before submerging again. They sure are tough! We had to thaw out in the van before proceeding to the next spot along the river. This next spot was more sheltered; the wind was following the edge of the river and the walking trail was weaving in and out of the trees nearby. It was really cool to look at – the river was emitting tons of fog and steam into the air, and it was surrounded in ice and speckled with icy islands that had formed over the rocks peeking from the water surface. The wind was screaming down the river, blowing the steam around and adding snow flakes and sharp ice crystals to the storm. You could literally see the border on the bank where the storm was, unable to get at the comparatively calm and peaceful walking trail where we were. Before we called it a day we took a drive through Riverdale to check for a large flock of Bohemien Waxwings that Cameron had been seeing recently hanging out in the Mountain Ash trees. When we found them, it looked as though every waxwing in town had collected into one large flock of about 250 birds. On the way back through town he noticed the entire Whitehorse flock of nine Rock Pigeons gathered on a ledge beneath the eves of one of their favourite buildings, adding another bird to our lists. We packed it in with a total of 12 species each. Not bad for the first day of winter!
Later on in the week back at home, I took a walk down California Beach to bird for the first time since early summer. The hope was to find a pair or trio of Bufflehead in the river for the third winter in a row, but they were absent. Instead, I found very high numbers of Common Goldeneye, and some Common Mergansers. Walking down the river to the beginning of a little bay that marks the end of my regular trail, I counted 83 goldeneye and 14 mergansers. I could not believe it! Never before had I seen such a high number of ducks in the winter. I think my previous highest winter goldeneye count was 26.
I was on the beach until the sun started to set, during which the entire beach and all the steam coming off the river turned orange. It was truly breath-taking! It lingered, and I was able to repeatedly play around with different settings on my camera, initiate the 10second timer, and run into the frame to stir things up. It was a lot of fun, and the photographic results were really interesting!
The day after counting all the ducks in the river, I decided to take advantage of the warmer weather and grab my snowshoes for a hike down the entire length of Six Mile River. The purpose was to pack a trail in for the Christmas Bird Count, complete a hike I had been wanting to do for years but never got around to, and get a more comprehensive count of the ducks in the open water. It took 2.5hours and I counted fewer ducks than the day before: 65 goldeneye and 10 mergansers, plus a surprise Northern Goshawk and 1 Coyote. I reached the bridge after the sun had set and the evening was starting to dim. The mountains were faint pink, the sky was turning purple, and the first evening star was shining brightly under the moon. It was exactly the kind of night the verse from Robert Service’s poem, The Spell of the Yukon describes: “I’ve stood in some mighty-mouthed hollow, that’s plumb full of hush to the brim; / I’ve watched the husky sun wallow in crimson and gold and grow dim. / ‘Till the moon set the pearly peaks gleaming, and the stars tumbled out neck and crop; / ‘Till I thought I was surely dreaming, with the peace of the world lying on top.” The Yukon is a really special place to be. It feels like the last remaining place in the world that is mostly untouched; a place where you can truly connect with nature and be yourself. When I reached the bridge on snowshoes the other night, it felt like the evening should last forever, but when Mom drove into the parking area with a nice warm van my frozen hands could not get the door open fast enough!