When Mary Whitley went bird-watching up the Fish Lake Road recently, she knew she’d likely see bald eagles. She didn’t expect to witness raptors in rapture. “I saw a bald eagle come flying in, quite low, and I watched it fly over to a tree that was mostly dead, on the hillside, where there was another eagle. And they proceeded to copulate! There’s a lot of wing flapping, I’ll tell you, when eagles copulate. Oh my word! I mean, that was a sight. I’d never seen that before. I mean how often do you get to see eagles mating?”
It’s moments like these that make bird-watching a thrill, even for a veteran birder like Whitley, who’s been at it for decades both in the Yukon and in other parts of Canada and the world. Being out there constantly, in bird habitat, can bring surprises. She remembers a time hiking the Sheep Creek Trail in Kluane country and being amazed by two thrushes, Townsend’s Solitaires, who were trying to impress a female.
“The males would fly up and sing and sing and sing and fly around in circles and sing and sing. And it’s a beautiful, beautiful song, “ she recalls. “They’re ordinary-looking birds — until they fly — and they’ve got these translucent, pale yellow tail feathers that you can’t see until they’re flying. Beautiful birds.”
These kinds of experiences could be in store for participants in the upcoming annual Helmut Grunberg Yukon Birdathon. Whitley has been named Feature Birder in the event, a 24-hour birding marathon that takes place every year on the last weekend in May. From 5 p.m. Friday, May 28 to 5 p.m. Saturday, May 29, birders will head out to identify as many different species as they can. They’re encouraged to go by their own power – foot, bike or paddle.
Participants can get sponsored per species or they can sponsor Whitley, as the Feature Birder. The event is the main fundraiser for the Yukon Bird Club, supporting educational and bird conservation activities such as birding field trips, the Christmas bird count and scholarships for students committed to environmental conservation.
Whitley has taken part in almost every birdathon since the first one in 1986. “I think the value of the birdathon is that you might stretch yourself somehow. You’ll do something or go somewhere or learn something you didn’t know before.”
She remembers one birdathon when she and a friend had stopped to rest while walking the Takhini salt flats. “And a peregrine falcon flew in and landed on a dead tree like right in front of us. We looked at each other and went “That bird has huge feet!’ And they’re bright yellow! So that’s the last thing their prey would see — is these huge yellow feet coming at them!” she says. “It sat there for the longest time. Then it went off to kill something.”
She believes one reason the bird lingered is that she and her friend were practicing good birding behaviours. It’s important to wear subdued, earthy colours (not whites or brights), to move slowly, speak softly and avoid sudden gestures, she says.
Beginner birders, Whitley says, can increase their chances of identifying birds by learning in advance about a few species they’re most likely to see. The bird club lists the species of Whitehorse, Dawson City, Faro, Watson Lake, Herschel Island and the entire Yukon on checklists that can be found at yukonbirds.ca. It also reports on the 139 species observed in last year’s birdathon. You can pick a few and learn how to identify them using online resources such as allaboutbirds.org, with apps such as Merlin or Sibley, or with field guide books.
These tools can also help tune your ears to birdsong. Whitley learned by listening to tapes and by repeatedly asking experienced birders. For many years, she volunteered on a breeding bird survey and quickly learned the importance of listening.
“In some places it was complicated because there were three thrushes over there and two sparrows over there and a warbler over there and blackbirds down there and you had to sort out how many, of what species, in three minutes. And they’re all singing at the same time.”
And where might you hear such singing? The best places to bird around Whitehorse include Schwatka Lake, the McIntyre Creek wetlands, Lewes Marsh, Haeckel Hill, Mary Lake, Wolf Creek, M’Clintock Bay, the Quartz Road wetlands, and the Millennium and Yukon River trails, according to the bird club’s publication, Birding in Whitehorse. Great birding spots in other parts of the Yukon include Nares Lake, Wye Lake, the Dezadeash River, Teslin Lake, the Dempster Highway, and the La Biche River.
Whitley says, however, you don’t have to go far to find birds. She now has limited mobility, and plans to bird this year by doing a “big sit” in one or more places. She says the most important tool, for any birder, is binoculars.
“Always carry your binoculars. You’re going shopping, bring your binoculars,” she says, adding they should be out and not in your pack. That means you’re always ready for the surprises birds bring, no matter where you are. She and her late husband, Gerry, spotted “one of the nicest birds we ever saw,” a scarlet tanager, outside a Belize airport while waiting for a flight home. “When I lived in Hillcrest, we had a picture window in the front and one in the back of the house. I’d have my binoculars on my body, in the house, because there were sometimes birds in the front and birds in the back. So, carry your binoculars!”