The History of Yukon Birding

Fore note: Most of the material I have used in this blog post has come from the ‘Birds of the Yukon Territory’, a wonderful book containing a wealth of information on Yukon birds that has been carefully collected and compiled over many decades. A great deal of work was put into the making of the book – it really shines among other bird-related publications, and I highly recommend it as reading material for anyone who is interested in learning more about the records, history, movement patterns, and habitat preferences of birds in the Yukon.

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Bird watching has been a pastime enjoyed by many people around the world for centuries. Birds feature in many aspects of our lives; for example, as subjects of scientific research and citizen science (ecological field research, breeding bird surveys, Christmas Bird Counts, ect.), providing for subsistence living and sport hunting (ducks, geese, grouse), as instigators for fun competitive events (such as ‘Big Days’ in which birders find as many bird species as possible either for fun or as part of a fundraiser), as displays and inspirations for art (mounted specimens, subjects in painting, carving, and other arts), and as important spiritual figures in many cultures around the world (eagles in North American First Nations culture). In the Yukon, the earliest written records of birds were documented back in 1860-62 by Robert Kennicott over a century and a half ago. The Yukon has a surprisingly long and rich history of bird watching despite it’s age and the small number of bird-lovers/naturalists who have been able call it home over the years.

Local Yukon artists such as Sarah Davidson use birds as inspiration to create beautiful paintings. Sarah does commissions and is currently working on a website for her art work. You can contact her at sarahdavidsonarts@gmail.com

North Slope Sandhill - acrylic on canvas - 36 x 48 inches. Sold.

North Slope Sandhill – acrylic on canvas – 36 x 48 inches – Sarah Davidson. Sold.

Bird life in the Yukon between 1860 and the early 1890s was mainly documented by fur traders, who spent a great deal of time in the wilderness on their trap lines. Due to the variety of habitats, the amount of land that the trap lines covered, and the observations of these trappers, early knowledge of Yukon bird life was improving. The Klondike Gold Rush brought a lot of new interest in bird life with all of the new people who arrived in the Yukon, seeking to strike it rich with gold. During the time of this important historical event a man named Wilfred Osgood and his assistant Louis Bishop documented birds along the Yukon River for a United States Biological Survey. Louis Bishop wrote a scientific journal report about ‘Birds of the Yukon Region’ which you can view here. It is a highly interesting report based on the results of early exploration in the Yukon, back when very little was known about birds and most of their names were completely different. Interest in Yukon birds continued even after the Gold Rush ended and the Yukon was once again people-sparse. Trappers (including Clement Lewis, a trapper at Teslin Lake) continued to record incidental observations of their sightings along the trap line, and others such as George and Martha Black collected many bird specimens for study. The efforts of these early birders and naturalists created a starting base of knowledge about birds of the Yukon for future generations to build on.

The construction of highways such as the Alaska Highway, Canol Road, and the Haines Road in the 1940s allowed easier access to a wide variety of bird habitats and areas that were rarely visited by birders before. In 1946, enough information had been gathered on Yukon bird life that A.L. Rand (who worked at the National Museum of Canada) was able to write and publish the very first list of Yukon birds.

In the 1970s, bird lovers started taking a more serious interest in monitoring birds in the Yukon. During this era, the Peregrin Falcon was in major decline which prompted a new survey program started by Dave Mossop, with its purpose being to monitor other Yukon bird populations. The Yukon Raptor Monitoring Database was created and contained information about breeding raptors in the Yukon. The construction of the Dempster Highway allowed access in the Dempster area and the first records of birds in that area started coming in. Yearly long-term surveys from around North America were brought to the Yukon including the North American Breeding Bird Survey and the Christmas Bird Counts. It was also during this time when Helmut Grünberg began writing reports on Yukon Birds and submitting them to the National Audubon Society publication American Birds, a move that connected the Yukon to the rest of the North American birding community. The 1980s was significant in that it marked the beginning of the decade long Kluane Boreal Forest Ecosystem  Project, a detailed study of population dynamics in the boreal forest that incorporated the ecology of various bird groups. Government organizations such as the Canadian Wildlife Service and the Yukon Department of Renewable Resources initiated and expanded other work on waterfowl, grouse, and birds of prey in the form of surveys  and studies though out the Yukon.

A Flock of American Wigeon in Tagish Narrows

A Flock of American Wigeon in Tagish Narrows

The 1990s was when migration monitoring of shorebirds and gulls really got going, followed by raptor and waterfowl migration watches in 2000-2002. Regular counts of gulls and shorebirds conducted by Cameron Eckert, Pam Sinclair, and Helmut Grünberg  gathered a significant amount of data on migration in the southern lakes region; regular migrants were recorded along with a wide variety of rarities and uncommon species. These counting and monitoring efforts revealed the importance of the southern lakes region as a resting migratory hotspot for waterfowl and improved understanding of the migration patterns of water-focused bird groups. M’Clintock Bay (Swan Haven), Tagish Narrows, Shallow Bay Nares Lake, Johnson’s Crossing, and Nisutlin River Delta are critical migratory waterfowl hotspots in the southern lakes region, and are recognized internationally as Important Bird Areas. As a birder, I am very lucky to be living in Tagish as I get to see so much diversity in bird species. In 1991 the Cooperative Roadside Waterfowl Breeding Population Survey was initiated as well as the Trumpeter Swan Surveys in 1990, largely coordinated by biologist Jim Hawkings along with colleagues from the Canadian Wildlife Service, and Yukon Department of Environment. Studies in the southeastern region of the Yukon revealed the area to be a goldmine in terms of the numerous species nesting there that were unknown or considered vagrants in the rest of the Yukon Territory, such as the awe-inspiring Black Tern colony at Blind Lake (25km east of Watson Lake). Palm Warbler was an exciting new species discovered in the Peel Plateau (northeast corner of the YT) when surveys were conducted there for the first time. From 2000-2002, biologists such as Jukka Jantunen did spring and fall migration monitoring in the Whitehorse area, focusing mainly on raptor and waterfowl movements. During the same time the first Yukon Bird Observatory was established.

Albert Creek Bird Observatory was started by Ted Murphy-Kelly just outside of Watson Lake in 2001; the first of three. This observatory acted as an important tool in documenting the patterns and timing of songbird migration in south-east Yukon, and still does today. Teslin Lake Bird Observatory was established in spring 2005 by Ben Schonewille and Ted Murphy-Kelly, and after a few years of testing the site began full-scale migration monitoring in 2008. McIntyre Marsh Bird Observatory was established in 2009 as a public demonstration site for education on migratory birds, rather than a full-scale migration monitoring site. The observatory is also used to collect information on the use of the McIntyre Marsh wetlands by migratory birds for conservation purposes. McIntyre Creek is an important green space within Whitehorse City Limits, and the source of much debate between conservation groups and city developers. The Society of Yukon Bird Observatories (SOYBO) was registered as a non-profit organization in 2010, and now acts as an umbrella under which the three observatories formally operate. The current objectives of SOYBO are: “to contribute to the conservation of migratory birds in western North America through monitoring, research and education; to make the public aware of the value of the avifauna of the Yukon Territory and to educate the public in recognition of such through creating educational opportunities for youth/students and the public, and to work with other societies, organizations and individuals  having similar objectives to this society, within and outside of the territory.” (Sourced from the Yukon Bird Observatory website)

To contact the Yukon Bird Observatories Email Ben at teslin.bird.banding@gmail.com or Ted at  tedmurphykelly@northwestel.net You can read their blog here and check out their website here.

Albert Creek Bird Observatory (5)

In 1993 the Yukon Bird Club was founded by Cameron Eckert, Pam Sinclair, Helmut Grünberg, and Wendy Nixon. The Yukon Bird Club links birders young and old across the territory, and provides a focus in the Yukon birding community that was never available before. It has been proven that  “the establishment of a strong local bird club has facilitated a remarkable increase in public awareness and appreciation of Yukon birds” (Quote: Birds of the Yukon Territory, page 37) through the steady increase of interest and participation in bird club activities by the general public. The Yukon Bird Club has been very proactive since its establishment, organizing bird walks and educational events through the year, involving itself in various environmental and conservation issues both local and territorial, collecting and compiling bird-related data in a database, and sharing Yukon bird findings with other organizations across North America. An official Yukon Birds Checklist is reviewed and updated by an organized YBC checklist committee, and a YBC newsletter is published bi-annually. “The Yukon Bird Club is a non-profit, charitable organization dedicated to promoting awareness, appreciation, and conservation of Yukon birds and their habitats.” (Sourced from the YBC website). It was the Yukon Bird Club that got me started in the world of birds, and the people in it  who helped to get me to where I find myself today. I was encouraged and given advice and help by the people I looked up to whenever I needed it, and still do. I think that being involved in a strong bird club is very important for birdwatchers and birders, but especially for young birders just getting started in the naturalists’ world. It connects you to other people with similar interests – people who can help you – and makes available plenty of valuable resources and opportunities for new experiences.

You can visit the Yukon Bird Club website here, and contact them at: yukonbirdclub@gmail.com . If you would like to become a member of the YBC, follow this link to find the membership forms and their mailing address.

Revelations in the knowledge and study of birds over the years has been largely due to an increased interest by the public, the new and wonderful world of the internet (and everything that comes with it for fast and easy communication such as E-Bird and Facebook), as well as the invention of new advanced technology such as digital cameras (which allow instant documentation of birds that would previously have gone unconfirmed, or even unidentified). The communication power of the internet combined with the relatively cheap digital camera have given the natural world ‘instant’ and powerful tools of documentation, according to Cameron Eckert.  Before digital cameras and the internet birds were documented on paper or as specimens, while cameras used rolls of film which were costly to purchase. It would take months or even years before a sighting of a rare bird reached the ears of birders across Canada, compared to today where we can simply take a snapshot or film clip of a bird and download it onto an email or vast online network such as Facebook to share with the world within a few minutes. As our methods of documentation continue to improve and the passion for birding and bird-monitoring stays strong, we will continue to learn more about birds here in the Yukon. Thanks to the immense efforts of our senior and expert birders, and the Yukon’s early explorers, an interesting and inspiring history has allowed a way for new generation birders like myself, Adam Perrier, and Nick Guenette to continue down the path of discovery, knowledge, and advocacy in this remote and beautiful part of the world.

Three Ptarmigan hill  - acrylic on canvas - 6 x 8 inches - Sarah Davidson

Three Ptarmigan hill – acrylic on canvas – 6 x 8 inches – Sarah Davidson

Cool Fact: The Yukon’s hardy, personality-rich, and well-known ruffians – the Ravens – were chosen to be the territory’s official bird in October 1986.

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Print Resources:

Birds of the Yukon Territory; UBC Press Vancouver-Toronto 2003; Sinclair, Nixon, Eckert, Hughes

Online Resources:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geography_of_Yukon

http://yukonbirdobservatories.org/

http://www.yukonweb.com/community/ybc/

http://www.cic.gc.ca/english/games/teachers-corner/fact-sheet-yukon-territory.asp

Citations:

Cameron Eckert, Conservation Biologist at the Yukon Parks branch.

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Interesting Websites to Visit:

The Yukon Bird Club

The Yukon Bird Observatories

Bird Studies Canada

Audubon

50Birds.com (70 Bird Species That Nest in Nest Boxes)

NestWatch

Arctic Institute of North America

Books I Recommend:

Birds of the Yukon Territory

Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America

Birds of Swan Lake (Helmut Grünberg, 1994)

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One response to “The History of Yukon Birding

  1. Pingback: Birding News #48 | Prairie Birder·

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