Written By Jukka Jantunen:
Working, as usual, at Albert Creek Bird Observatory at Upper Liard in late May meant that the 2014 YBC Birdathon was going to be yet another one of my “Greater Watson Lake Area” ones. Over the years I’ve tried different routes and tactics but I’ve achieved the highest totals by starting in Rancheria/Swift River area, then Watson Lake, early morning at Contact Creek, late morning at Albert Creek (work), Watson Lake again and finish at Simpson Lake. This year the route was roughly that with minor tweaks depending on my bird needs, weather and the time available. My record for this area is 116 species but this year the prospects didn’t look good – I had no idea of the whereabouts of too many regular species and was going to have to go with a year or two years old notes and my hunches of where to find different birds.
So, in the early afternoon on Friday May 30 I headed west from Watson Lake with a plan of scouting for some missing species and a good hour or two snooze at Rancheria just prior to starting the Birdathon. Of course, the way it went was that no snooze fitted in and I reached the radio tower on the west side of Rancheria at 4:15pm, had quick late lunch, and started walking criss-cross the mountain top hoping for a Willow Ptarmigan for the start. 40 minutes later the race was on, 5pm, the starting time, had passed and I had not found a Ptarmigan in spite of all the walking and countless of attempts to coax one to call with my best imitation of the male’s song! So, as a Barn Swallow (species #1) flew by I rushed to the nearest pair of Golden-crowned Sparrows (#2), hopped into the car and started downhill. In suitable tall spruce covered slopes several Townsend’s Warblers (#5) were singing – the most important bird for me along this stretch. A few other not-always-so-easy warblers like Wilson’s (#7) and Orange-crowned (#11) were singing also as well as a Varied Thrush (#8). Alder Flycatcher (#6) high up near tree line was a bit of a surprise but if it quacks like one and walks like one then it gets called as one. Exactly on scheduled time I was back at the highway at 5:30 with 11 species on my list.
A quick drive to Rancheria Falls was followed by a brisk run to the falls, binoculars up, American Dipper (#12) left of the main fall, tick, binoculars down, 180˚ turn and run back only slowing down at the famous Pacific-slope Flycatcher spot but I had no such luck. In spite of the wheezing breath of mine I was able to hear and add Swainson’s Thrush, Boreal Chickadee and Bank Swallow (#15). Back in the car I was feeling good, almost happy, as birds were obliging and such a run in my current shape was an achievement in itself! Near Continental Divide I stopped and scoped into a Golden Eagle nest that remained unoccupied this year too. While scoping, the background noise included calls or songs of Solitary Sandpiper, American Robin and Yellow Warbler (#18).
The next area, the high altitude wet flats between Continental Divide and Swift River, was one of the make it or break it stops for the Birdathon. Well, as soon as I hopped out of the car it was making it – a cacophony of bird song hit me and within minutes I had added such crucial species as American Tree, White-crowned and Fox Sparrow plus more easy ones as Lincoln’s and Savannah Sparrow, Common Yellowthroat, Northern Waterthrush, Backpoll Warbler and Cliff Swallow. A quick run onto the ridge on the other side of the highway and Wilson’s Snipe and Mew Gull were added. Always in a Birdathon or a big day one needs to remember that the sky is your friend so scan and scan again, and I did…Two pairs of Common Mergansers were high up heading down river, a Golden Eagle was circling not too far away and in the same binocular view a closer falcon-shaped bird said “peet” – a Common Nighthawk (#29)! Yes, the sky, my friend indeed! A small pond with a mud fringe made me to anticipate a surprise shorebird but none were to be seen. However, besides just the regular Lesser Yellowlegs and Mallards, there were also Green-winged and Blue-winged Teals and a pair of Spotted Sandpipers. Nice! The last stop in the area is the one for Gray-cheeked Thrush and as soon as I got out of the car a thrush was singing… but wait a second. This one was a Hermit Thrush, singing on the pine slope behind me and not a GC supposed to be in the stunted spruce and willow! Oh well, I happily ticked Hermit as it can be tricky here (yes, you Whitehorsians, it can be tricky here!) but sadly I had to continue without the GC which meant extra stops later. As always though, there was a Rusty Blackbird and some Ring-necked Ducks so I left Swift River flats with 43 species and full of confidence.
In Rancheria area I made numerous stops for a number of unlikely species like Yellow-bellied Flycatcher or Blue-headed Vireo and as expected failed to find them. However, on one of my stops as I was finally listening the beautiful song of Townsend’s Solitaire (#45) I suddenly heard a flycatcher whit-call higher up on the dry aspen slope. It had to be a Dusky Flycatcher but I needed more than just the ‘whit’. The wind was annoying to say the least but finally after several minutes a bit of Dusky ‘tsweep’ and I had the pedal on the metal towards Transport like you wouldn’t believe it (except that everyone who knows me believes it 🙂 ).
I didn’t slow down for the pair of American Wigeons (#47) in a roadside puddle nor for the pair of Common Loons (#48) at Veronica Lake but something about a marsh just before the Rancheria rest-stop spoke to me. Snags, tall snags! A quick “uui”, stop, dash up the embankment, scan, scan, snap – a Kestrel (#49) on top of a snag! Sweeet! As I still had time allotted for the area I stopped at various other marshes and added several waterbird type thingies like Trumpeter Swan, Northern Shoveler and Bonaparte’s Gull. Finally at the Transport tower but no Ospreys at the nest!! An Olive-sided Flycatcher was going ‘pip-pip-pip’ and a family of Gray Jays had their usual squabbles about something in the woods but no Ospreys! I decided to give them 10 minutes, then 5 more, then…no, I had to go and experience my first really hurting miss as this was the only chance for the species unless I was to have really good luck somewhere along the way. So with the way the things were I had to stop at km 1054 area for my back up Gray-cheeked Thrush but the wind was just howling and I realized I had no chance whatsoever to hear one from the road so I set on foot and into the forest along the south side marsh I went. The wind wasn’t as bad in the cover and I soon added a Northern Flicker and a Western Wood-Pewee, and finally, faintly, a Gray-cheek was attempting something song-like (#57) – good enough for me and a I quickly crashed through the bushes back to the highway with a big smile on my face! An afternoon-scouted Semipalmated Plover was an easy add-on as this time I could just view the incubating bird on its nest from the car without disturbing it – smooth!
And so I arrived back to the cell range and was able to text my tally of 58 species to my fellow Birdathoners in Whitehorse. A check of my bird feeders at Upper Liard was waste of time as there were almost no birds and a quick walk around the pond in the fields yielded no shorebirds either but a singing White-throated Sparrow, calling Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and a fly-over Bald Eagle brought the total to 61. My adventures in Transport area had put me well behind the schedule so what followed was frantic dashing around for quick peeks at the main Sewage Ponds (Northern Pintail, Bohemian Waxwing, Barrow’s Goldeneye for 64), the 2nd or Big Wye Lake (Violet-green Swallow, Herring Gull, Arctic Tern, White-winged Scoter and Three-toed Woodpecker for 69) and Wye Lake (Canada Goose, Long-tailed Duck and Red-necked Grebe for 72 species). Of these both Three-toed Woodpecker and Long-tailed Duck were good, often easily missed, additions and kept my spirits high.
I had planned to spend at least an hour at the airport but the sun was dropping quickly and the place seemed very quiet. Some campers had parked on top of my bird feeder (seed pile) so there was nothing there. An American Crow was in the small marsh and scanning the rough surface of the lake I was able to spot a small group of Greater Scaup and three Red-throated Loons, just about the only birds on the lake (!!), to bring the total to 74 species. The sun was just setting when I gently tapped the nest tree of Hairy Woodpecker and then entered the Dalziel’s Farm. I texted my tally and a note of the sunset which made some of my colleagues to think I was calling it a day – nopedy nope! This was my secret weapon, for me a recently discovered marsh full of shore and other marsh birds. Red-winged Blackbird, Sora and Killdeer were added before I even exited the car, a quick look towards the main pond and there was a Pacific Loon, the first steps away from the car and I guess a roosting Red-tailed Hawk flushed and protested loudly as it flew over onto the other side. I splashed into the marsh with enthusiasm and found…nothing, or just about!! I spent an hour tromping here and there and except for a Wilson’s Phalarope that I had found a couple of days earlier, and Snipes that I already had on my list, there were no shorebirds to be seen! Everything had left, or perhaps they were sleeping…I would find out in the morning. On my way out I almost drove over a Ruffed Grouse, my species number 83.
I left the farm at 11:30 and it was now dark. I briefly contemplated whether to go to have a short rest and make some coffee now or to do it later. Later it was to be as I headed north on Robert Campbell Hwy to check on some owls that me and Ted had heard in March. At km 19 marsh there was a Swamp Sparrow singing and at km 23 I saw something move in the headlights. I slammed on the brakes and the car came to a stop just a few meters of an Upland Sandpiper standing in the middle of the road in the middle of the night!! What the…!! Wow, talk about an unexpected tick! At km 27 our March Boreal Owl was in full song and so, very, very satisfied I ended the day with 86 species!
By quarter to one I was on the move again with a full thermos of fresh coffee, munching on potato salad (about a kilo of it!) and cake doughnuts – life was good! I was thinking of going to Albert Creek for the Barred Owl but instead, since I really had all night before I needed to be at Contact Creek, I decided to head back to Transport area for a Great Gray Owl I had heard two nights earlier on my way back from Whitehorse and for an off-chance of hearing a Pied-billed Grebe from the marsh there. Well, when I got there the wind was howling and I was more sure than sure that I had just wasted gas and time and that I was not going to hear anything. Luckily the wind had some pauses and I could hear a few Snipes and a few Thrushes and Robins. Suddenly there was a short burst of distant Boreal Owl. I tried different spots to get away from the wind and to hear something, more, better, anything. The “Boreal” would sing a bit every once in a while and as I got closer I became aware that it had the Hawk Owl quality to the song, and then there was a longer series – it had to be a Hawk Owl! I got to a spot where I thought I was close to the now silent owl, stuffed a bear spray in my jeans back pocket, and into the woods without flashlight I went, this time to the north side! Only about 100m in I reached the side of the marsh and there it was – a Northern Hawk Owl (#87) giving angry alarm call with a perfect silhouette visible against the paler northern sky!! And as if it was the cue, the Great Gray (#88) decided to make himself heard too!!! It was surreal, a moment I’ll never forget! Later I learned that I had actually walked in an angle behind the Hawk Owl nest. Cruising through the night stopping for more owls here and there (found 2 more Boreals and a Gray-cheeked Thrush) I was in the 7th heaven!
I arrived at Contact Creek at 3:40 to find the Cosh Creek road blocked by a fallen tree. No problem, I’d try along the highway where I had good luck last year. It was light but the sun wasn’t up yet. The wind had died down. Perfect timing and perfect conditions! There was already lots of birds song, mostly species that I already had. Warbling Vireos and Tennessee Warblers were everywhere and in the nearest aspen patch the first bonus bird of the morning, a MacGillivray’s Warbler, was loudly advertising its presence. The next stop had Least Flycatcher on one side and a Hammond’s Flycatcher on the other side of the road. Higher up in slope covered by large aspen an Ovenbird (#94) was singing ‘teacher-teacher’ – the target species! It only took three stops and I was able to start heading back to Watson Lake.
I stopped at the horse corrals to look for Say’s Phoebe but could not turn one up. However, I wasn’t completely out of luck here either as a Magnolia Warbler (#95) was singing under the power line. At the “scale marsh” there were all the usual suspects like Swamp Sparrows and Red-winged Blackbirds but no Harrier cruising the far end as it often is. A Brown-headed Cowbird (#96) flew over headed to the horse corrals. At 2nd Wye Lake I got stuck in the car exchanging morning greetings and news with another Birdathonist but, since I was doing it with the door open, I was able to add Greater Yellowlegs and Common Goldeneye (#98) while texting. Afterwards a quick scan gave me visuals of both species but otherwise no new additions. An unexciting stop at Wye Lake was still not without a new species as Pine Siskin became #99.
In these SE Yukon Birdathons my goal is always 100 species and as I rolled to the airport one of the first birds I saw was a big brown shorebird on the flat open area in the east end – a Whimbrel at 5:24am and even 100! From here on every new species was going to be bonus and holy smokes did I ever hear that bonus bell go ding-ding in the next couple of hours. Just the minutes following the Whimbrel were crazy. I set up my scope at my usual vantage point and among the very few birds on the lake I was able to find a Red-breasted Merganser, two Canvasbacks and two Horned Grebes. A Sandhill Crane decided to land right behind me startling me badly with its loud call and as I was watching the crane an American Golden-Plover landed next to it! That was the end of that burst of new species and after checking a few other areas I left the airport with 105 species! The float plane base offers the only public access to view the east end of Watson Lake and my good luck continued – with a group of a few American Wigeons and Lesser Scaups there were four Surf Scoters and the only Redhead I saw at Watson all spring!! Before I hopped back into the car an American Redstart sang from the nearby trees bringing the tally to 108. Things started to look really promising for breaking my personal record as I still had several really easy species to see. My feeder seed piles at Upper Liard gave me three of those: Common Redpoll, White-winged Crossbill and Black-capped Chickadee(#111) in a few minutes time span!
Now it was the time to go to work, I mean literally. I was supposed to run the Albert Creek Bird Observatory for the next 3 to 4 hours but just as I arrived to ACBO the freshly appeared clouds started to pour rain on me! So, instead of opening the nets I proceeded to walk the census legs and count birds. While doing this I added the regular Barred Owl and a Belted Kingfisher. A Golden-crowned Kinglet sang in the usual spot outside the ACBO count area and a Western Tanager was in full song by the far nets. That was 115 species but now things got difficult. The rain got harder and finally after 40 minutes of searching I heard the usually so easy and regular Cape May Warbler way into the woods and past its usual hang-out along the census 3 trail. At 8:30 walking down the main road with Susan a singing Purple Finch became the species number 117 and the new record!
All the great runs come to an end at some point and for me the Purple Finch was that point. After the PUFI I went for 3 hours and 45 minutes without a single new species! The long walks on both sides of ACBO for Spruce Grouse or Pileated Woodpecker were fruitless as was the search of the marsh for Yellow-headed Blackbird that had been present for about a week. I went and birded along the road to Watson Lake campground for Blue-headed Vireo but didn’t find any and as the wind picked up again the second visit to the airport was disappointing. What had seemed like nesting Merlin was a no-show and heat and water waves made it nearly impossible to see if anything new had dropped in on the lake. So back to Dalziel’s farm it was then. There had to be something new lurking there, but no. I spent about an hour and a half there walking an even longer loop than last night and there were birds, of course. Many birds, but I could not turn up a new shorebird or any other new bird. Finally I was out of choices at Watson Lake and decided to start driving north earlier than what I normally do.
I made it to Target Lake no problem and finally at 12:14pm added Red Crossbill as species #118. The lake had fewer birds than normally, mostly Lesser Scaups and White-winged Scoters. The drive north on Robert Campbell Hwy that followed was a hard one even though the road was in better shape than I have ever seen it. The problem was my lack of sleep and the very strong will of my eyelids to close. It felt like I was stopping every few minutes just to stay awake, getting out of car and listening, scanning, running, drinking coffee but nothing helped and no new birds emerged. I did make it to the north end of the lake and there were lots of birds – wigeons, more Blue-winged Teals I’ve ever seen at that location, shovelers and so on but no Gadwall. I don’t think I’ve ever stopped at Simpson in Birdathon without seeing one! However, among the Trumpeter Swans there was a Tundra Swan (#119). And then I had to have a 15 minute snooze, then some lunch, sugary drinks and treats for dessert, and my energy came back. I think it came back too much as I got the crazy idea of going to the burn at Nahanni Range Rd for Black-backed Woodpecker. Well, I made it through nasty road construction and had over 20 stops at the burn and didn’t hear a single woodpecker of any kind! My consolation price was a female Spruce Grouse (#120) but I don’t think I will try that extra leg again in the future no matter how much time I have left.
On my uneventful drive back I saw a male Pine Grosbeak at 3:31pm for my last bird of the Birdathon. As I had no idea where else to go and what species to try I ended up at the airport once again and spent the rest of the time left in my usual vantage point just hoping for something new to drop in but that did not happen. And so I ended my Birdathon with 121 species, a new Greater Watson Lake Area record for me, a celebratory beer and some more potato salad! I relayed my species to Shyloh and fell asleep in my car right there on top of the embankment with Common Loons yodeling, and slept through the evening and the whole night – the life was good indeed!