The yearly competition between my mentors and I to see the highest number of bird species within the Yukon in 24 hours is always a big highlight of my year. On Friday 29th I left my room at 4:30pm in order to make it to the Yukon River dam near Riverdale to track down a pair of Harlequin Ducks before the official start of the birdathon at 5;00pm. Thankfully I found them easy to locate, and settled in for a final few moments of relaxation and pizza before the birding adrenaline rush kicked in. Tick-tick-tick. 5 O’ Clock struck, my binoculars whipped up and Harlequin Ducks became my first species of the event. I left the dam for a drive through town to tick off House Sparrow and (unfortunately) miss Rock Pigeon, then scoped Quartz Road Wetland for some ducks, gulls, and shorebirds. Next I drove to the Mountain View Golf Course behind Whistlebend to get Swainson’s Thrush. They weren’t singing – the area was dead – but after some very poor mimics on my part two responded. Crestview Sewage Lagoons held a displaying Wilson’s Snipe, some Ruddy Ducks, Sora, and my only Gadwall of the birdathon.
McIntyre Marsh was next on the list, promising to be the richest stop of the evening. A chorus of bird song echoed from the bottom of the marsh valley, holding the voices of Yellow, Wilson’s, Tennessee, and Blackpoll Warblers along with Lincoln’s Sparrow and Red-winged Blackbird. Further down the road at the famed Townsend’s Warbler spot I heard a male singing from deep within the dense forest. My friend and a fellow birdathoner, Nick Guenette, met me there and pointed out a Sharp-shinned Hawk perched in a tree. Thanks Nick!! Though I checked for Hammond’s Flycatcher at a current territory multiple times while I was birding the area, the little bird evaded me. So I gave up and headed up the road for Dusky Flycatcher, of which there turned out to be many.
The sun was getting low in the sky when I finally left town for Carcross. On the way I saw a Northern Goshawk soar across the road which was an unexpected surprise. An hour later I parked at the shore of Nare’s Lake to scope the Lesser Scaup, Trumpeter Swans and Canada Geese that lounged there. A lone Cackling Goose mingled with the Canadas, and a Say’s Pheobe sang from the power poles. Owling and grousing on the way to Tagish (where sleep awaited me) produced nothing, and I was grateful to be able to sink into bed at 1:00am with a total of 56 species.
Saturday morning started at 5:00am – exactly 1.5 hours later than planned. Toren (my brother and teammate) and I were both horrified to realize we had slept in. Kicking it into high gear, we rubbed the sleep from our eyes and made it to Tagish bridge within 25 minutes. We had only 11.5 hours left of the birdathon, and 44 species left to meet our goal of 100. Greater White-fronted Geese, Arctic Tern, Hairy and Downy Woodpecker put themselves on our checklist before we rushed to Judas Creek to try and make up our lost time. The creek mouth at Judas Creek turned out to be productive. We were treated to spectacular views of our only Greater Scaup, and were able to spot Common loon, Pectoral Sandpiper, and a few other new ones before we had to leave.
Toren and I made a couple of stops along the highway on our way to town and managed to tick off American Kestrel and Rusty Blackbird. A marsh near Swan Haven produced a Long-billed Dowitcher which I was pretty excited about. We took a drive through town in an attempt to see Rock Pigeons but had no luck. We had been in a bit of a bird lull for a couple of hours; things felt very slow and we were beginning to wonder if we would even make 90 species by the end of the birdathon. However, by the time we got into town we were back on schedule and decided to try driving up Gray Mountain for some high-altitude goodies. I was driving the low-riding prius that Helmut Grunberg (recently deceased) had insured me on, and I was highly surprised (as was everyone else I told) to have it make it all the way to the top on the mountain. It was worth it – Townsend’s Solitaire and Golden-crowned Sparrow sang brightly despite the blowing wind and rain we experienced up there. It was uplifting, and we both began to feel optimistic that our lack of abundant new species was beginning to change.
Before we drove back down the mountain, I received a text from Adam Perrier, one of the younger birdathoners, reporting Canvasback and Pacific Loon at the Whitehorse Sewage Lagoons. Seeing as we were missing both of those the lagoons because our next destination. We had to be quick as this location had not been put into my birdathon schedule, so we did not do a thorough scoping. Even so, we saw not just the Canvasback and Pacific Loon Adam reported, but also a male Eurasian Wigeon, White-winged Scoter, and a singing Alder Flycatcher. By this time my brother and I both felt elated – we left the lagoons with 93 species, and we kept a new hope for 100 in the back of our minds.
After a quick stop at McDonald’s for some much-wanted chocolate milkshakes the two of us went to the Wildlife Preserve next. Unfortunately, it cost us both a larger sum than expected but its value in birds quickly repaid that. New species seemed to fall into our laps – Western Wood Pewee, Mountain Bluebird, Hermit Thrush, Brown-headed Cowbird, Barn Swallow, Blue-winged Teal, American Coot, and most exciting, a pair of Wilson’s Phalaropes made themselves visible and/or audible to us. The Wilson’s Phalaropes had been seen a couple of weeks previously and had not been reported since. Their appearance was a complete surprise and totally awesome because they are a rare species in the Yukon.
After 5 years of hard work, Toren and I had finally reached our gal of 100 species, though we didn’t realize until we reached Lake Laberge.
Whimbrel and Red-tailed Hawk were the last species to be tallied for our birdathon at Lake Laberge. We didn’t have long to scope the area as a massive thundercloud swept down the lake and drenched us with rain that hit the car hard enough to bounce up nearly a foot in the air. Nick Guenette had joined us for this area, and we also met Adam Perrier and his teammate there. All five of us were soaked as we didn’t have rain jackets on us (we didn’t expect the rain to reach us but it moved very fast) and we were a long ways from the cars out on the mudflats.
By the time 5:00pm struck on Saturday the 29th, Toren and I were extremely proud to announce our total of 103 species for the birdathon. Our goal had been met and surpassed not only in concern to the number of bird species seen but also to the amount of money raised ($1600!!!!). It was a very memorable birdathon, a lot of fun, and a hundred times more successful than I had expected it to be.
Thank you to all of my sponsors for your support! The funds will be going to a great cause: bird and habitat conservation, protection, and awareness. Below is a list of all of the bird species we saw.
2015 Birdathon Bird List:
Greater White-fronted Goose, Canada Goose, Cackling Goose, Trumpeter Swan, Gadwall, Eurasian Wigeon, American Wigeon, Mallard, Blue-winged Teal, Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, Green-winged Teal, Canvasback, Ring-necked Duck, Greater Scaup, Lesser Scaup, Harlequin Duck, Surf Scoter, White-winged Scoter, Long-tailed Duck, Bufflehead, Barrow’s Goldeneye, Common Merganser, Red-breasted Merganser, Ruddy Duck, Ruffed Grouse, Pacific Loon, Common Loon, Horned Grebe, Red-necked Grebe, Bald Eagle, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Northern Goshawk, Red-tailed Hawk, American Kestrel, Sora, American Coot, Semipalmated Plover, Killdeer, Lesser Yellowlegs, Solitary Sandpiper, Spotted Sandpiper, Whimbrel, Pectoral Sandpiper, Long-billed Dowitcher, Wilson’s Snipe, Wilson’s Phalarope, Red-necked Phalarope. Bonaparte’s Gull, Mew Gull, Herring Gull, Arctic Tern, Downy Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, Western Wood Pewee, Alder Flycatcher, Least Flycatcher, Hammond’s Flycatcher, Dusky Flycatcher, Say’s Phoebe, Warbling Vireo, Black-billed Magpie, American Crow, Common Raven, Tree Swallow, Violet-green Swallow, Bank Swallow, Cliff Swallow, Barn Swallow, Black-capped Chickadee, Boreal Chickadee, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Mountain Bluebird, Townsend’s Solitaire, Swainson’s Thrush, Hermit Thrush, American Robin, Varied Thrush, Tennessee Warbler, Orange-crowned Warbler, Yellow Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Townsend’s Warbler, Blackpoll Warbler, Northern Waterthrush, Common Yellowthroat, Wilson’s Warbler, Chipping Sparrow, Savanna Sparrow, Fox Sparrow, Lincoln’s Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow, Golden-crowned Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, Red-winged Blackbird, Rusty Blackbird, Brown-headed Cowbird, Red Crossbill, Common Redpoll, Pine Sisken.