A Dempster Special

One morning on the highway outside of Tombstone Territorial Park’s campground, I was sipping a much-needed coffee. It was Weekend on the Wing, and three birders were exclaiming over an indistinct warble from the far-off bushes.

“Orange-crowned?” frowned one.

“Yellow-rumped?” mused another.

Then all three enthusiasts stepped off the highway and vanished.

Years earlier than that, I was in a vehicle that picked up the late Bob Frisch (the hitchhiking birder renowned for long solo trips, and author of Birds of the Dempster Highway) en route to Dawson from his home at North Fork.

Bob had tried several times to get a ride to town, he explained to us with great relish, but whenever he got one he saw a bird, had to hop out, and then found himself going in the opposite direction.

This spirit still prevails at Weekend on the Wing, which Bob’s daughter Sylvia helps coordinate in her role as current president of the non-profit group Friends of Dempster Country.

There are approximately 150 bird species in Tombstone Park in the summer, and approximately 24 in the winter. Summer birds, unlike human tourists, come largely because of the bugs, eager to fatten their newly hatched offspring and fly south again.

This weekend, June 3 – 5, will be the 12th Dempster birding weekend, an event which brings birders and interested locals flocking from all corners of not just the Yukon, but much of Canada. It is an event geared towards nature enthusiasts of all kinds and levels of expertise.

And, while I find it difficult to believe that the annual Weekend on the Wing continues to be free, it still is.

To open the weekend, there will be a Friday night slide-show of ‘Dempster Specials’ – birds which can be seen during breeding season along the Dempster. These include Gyrfalcons, Hawk-Owls, Wheatears, Lapland Longspurs and Snow Buntings.

As a typical Weekend on the Wing starts up, there are pots of locally picked Labrador tea bubbling on the wood-stove and a palpable sense of excitement.

Early Saturday morning, bleary-eyed campers emerge from nylon nests with their binoculars. Sipping shade-grown coffee, they stroll around the campground and nearby trails with expert birders, who help them identify what they’re commonly hearing and seeing.

Birds identified on one such stroll included Wilson’s Warblers, Orange-crowned Warblers, Fox Sparrows, Juncoes, Common Redpolls, Yellow-rumped Warblers, a Hermit Thrush, Robins, Tree Sparrows, a Lincoln Sparrow, many White-crowned Sparrows and Willow Ptarmigan.

Saturday afternoons involve a choice of an alpine birding hike or a car convoy up the Dempster, travelling with spotting scopes. The only thing that threatens to draw attention from the newly-arrived bird migrants is the exploding carpet of wild flowers underfoot and the mountain views all around which make returning to the campground in the evening almost impossible.

The highlight of the weekend, however, is still ahead. Dave Mossop’s presentation on Yukon Birds on Saturday night will draw many local Dawsonites up just for the evening.

His passion and fascination for all things avian, combined with an encyclopaedic knowledge of Yukon birds and an engaging, easy-to-follow speaking style make him a territorial treasure.

Back to my highway memory. The abandoned tourists and I listened to the indistinct chirping and rustling from the nearby bushes where the ornithologists had been swallowed up.

“Warbling Vireo!” came the muffled cry.

These days we Yukoners sometimes disagree about how our land should be used or not used.

What such a weekend provides is a respite from these tensions and an opportunity not to take note of what should be done with our fellow citizens’ habitat, but to become aware of who is actually out there and to glimpse what their small lives may be like.

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