My mentor, Cameron Eckert, had gotten back into town after a busy couple of months of travelling, and offered to take me birding at Swan Lake last week. Swan Lake had been a mysterious bird hotspot that I had read about in Helmut Grunberg’s book a couple of years ago… a place so rich with birds, huge diversity and some rarities were sure to be seen upon each visit! Over the years, the lake had risen to the top of my list of hotspot targets, so I was very enthused to go see it with Cameron.
He had tipped me off on the fact that a very rare Yukon breeder – Wilson’s Phalarope – could typically be found there in low numbers, so it was something we were both watching for. We took a road on the east side of the Yukon River in Whitehorse, and drove past Long Lake and the Whitehorse Sewage Lagoons. Cameron took over driving past that point, as the road turned muddy and quite treacherous in some areas.
After an hour of driving, we finally reached our destination. I was fairly non-impressed with my first view of the lake. We had gone down a different trail than the one usually used, and at the point we stopped to scope it looked like just another marshy Yukon wetland – nothing mystical or full of rarities at all… Or so I first thought. Cameron spotted a Hooded Merganser ( a rare but regular migrant to the territory ) diving with the goldeneye and scoters on the other side.
Moving onto his usual path, we walked through a marshy area named in Helmut’s book as ‘Mallard Marsh’, and continued back behind the lake to the famous ‘Rarity Ponds’. Here, shorebirds were smattered across the wetlands. With shorebird migration in full swing, and several local family groups in the area, more birds showed up with every binocular scan: Long-billed and Short-billed Dowitchers, Lesser Yellowlegs, Solitary, Least, Semipalmated, and Pectoral Sandpipers, Semipalmated Plovers, Wilson’s Snipe, Red-necked Phalaropes, and Wilson’s Phalaropes! There were three juvenile Wilson’s Phalaropes travelling with the Red-necked families, and were fairly tame which meant fantastic views of my lifer birds.
More time spent scanning these marshes revealed ducks including Northern Pintail, Green-winged Teal, Northern Shoveler, and American Wigeon. Raptors (Bald Eagle, Red-tailed Hawk, Northern Harrier, Merlin, American Kestrel, Peregrin Falcon, and Short-eared Owl) began popping in with the warm south wind, causing the shorebirds to scramble like mad for safety. After one of these alarms, I noticed a Lesser Yellowlegs with a seriously broken wing struggling in the grasses. Upon closer inspection of the other yellowlegs in the area, I noticed that several were missing either feet, or entire legs. Apparently, these birds are preyed on fairly heavily.
After several hours of fun watching these birds, doing photography, dragonfly-catching, and getting blackfly bites, we packed up and headed back towards town. It was a great day, so much fun to catch up with my mentor and do some serious birding, and the lifer was a total bonus! I was thrilled to finally get to experience Swan Lake, and amazed to see exactly how much migration is occurring already, so early in the year. A memorable day overall 🙂