North

Some firsts and 'surprises' in Yukon's annual bird count

A fox sparrow, a glaucous gull, a robin — the president of the Yukon Bird Club says local birders are spotting more and more unusual visitors during the December species census.

'We do see species ... sort of testing the limits of climate and range,' says bird club president

Birdwatchers in Tagish spot a roosting boreal owl during the Christmas bird count. (Ulrich Trachsel)

Yukon birders are seeing more and more "surprises" popping up in their annual Christmas bird count — and it may be attributable to a warming climate, says the head of the local bird club.

Yukon Bird Count president Cameron Eckert says several birds, spotted this year around Yukon, are rarely, if ever, seen in the territory in the dead of winter, such as a fox sparrow, a bufflehead (duck), and a robin. 

"We do see species like this sort of testing the limits of climate and range," said Yukon Bird Club president Cameron Eckert. "So, small changes in temperature over time, open water, habitat — and we are monitoring these changes in bird populations."

Christmas bird counts are organized in communities across North America, including many in Yukon, through December. Volunteers go out on a certain day and record all the species they see. It's a way of tracking the health of bird populations over time.

"Not only is it a fun and enjoyable activity, you're really contributing to knowledge of our birds, and conservation," Eckert said. He estimates about 120 to 130 people took part in Yukon this year.

A glaucous gull seen at Johnsons Crossing last month - a rare winter sighting in southern Yukon. (Minnie Clark)

Some firsts

Besides the fox sparrow spotted at Haines Junction, and the robin in Whitehorse, Eckert says some notable sightings in Yukon this year included a ring-necked duck, and a horned grebe at Johnsons Crossing — a first for the Yukon Christmas count. 

Another first was the glaucous gull Eckert himself saw at Johnsons Crossing, the day before somebody spotted one 100 kilometres away, in Whitehorse. The species is more typically found in the high Arctic and is "very rare" in southern Yukon, he said.

"To have one show up in mid-winter is just phenomenal," he said.

​Eckert's personal high point this year, however, was when he and some other birders stumbled on a boreal owl in Tagish being harassed by a bunch of mountain chickadees.

Eckert was thrilled to spot this boreal owl in Tagish, in the middle of the day. (Cameron Eckert)

"To find a boreal owl in the middle of the day, in winter, I mean that's hardly ever happened in my life. And for it to happen on a Christmas count was a real thrill. You're out there trying to find birds and here you find this beautiful owl. 

"It seems in every count, every time you go out, there is a special moment."

With files from Sandi Coleman

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