Homage to a Yukon Birder

Yukon birds, and its birding community, have lost a true friend.

When he died last month, at 75, Helmut Grünberg had spent over 40 years promoting the enjoyment, study, and conservation of Yukon’s bird life.

He found his way to Whitehorse in the early ‘70s when, en route to climb Denali in Alaska, he was waylaid by a car accident. He liked the city, and stayed.

Trained in the sciences, Helmut explored the territory looking for birds, and sought out kindred spirits who became like family. Whether it was banding ptarmigan in the early ‘70s on the Haines Road with Dave Mossop (they both became Yukon College instructors), promoting Dempster Highway birding with the Frisch family, or supporting young birders, Helmut found a way to help.

Helmut’s formative years in Germany, birding and hiking with an outdoors club, may have shaped his work on the Yukon Conservation Society’s Nature Appreciation Series and later, the Yukon Bird Club’s field trip programme, and the Yukon Birdathon.

He nurtured the work of the Yukon Bird Club as one of its founders in 1993, and was one of the authors of the definitive Birds of the Yukon Territory, published in 2003. He was a natural teacher, says his friend Betty Sutton, who served on the executive with him.

I knew Helmut as a fellow board member — he was its president for years; he also led an untold number of amazing field trips, and stepped in for others, often. Most years, one of the season’s highlights was Helmut’s “fall finale” to the Whitehorse sewage lagoons, where he knew how to navigate the gaps in the gates (and sometimes had keys).

Helmut enjoyed several other spectacular birding areas found near the Long Lake Road, where he lived for many years. His favourite was Swan Lake, a refuge for ducks, shorebirds, raptors, and warblers, which he found in l976. Two decades later, he wrote a book about his and others’ observations there.

Cameron Eckert, a local birding expert, says Helmut’s lovely introduction to The Birds of Swan Lake, Yukon showed his friend’s joyful appreciation for nature, birding, and this special place — part of the Ta’an Kwach’an’s traditional territory. Helmut visited Swan Lake as often as he could, calling on friends when his car needed pulling out of the mud.

While he won Yukon’s Biodiversity Award in 2001 for his contributions, Helmut most enjoyed the limelight during the annual Yukon Birdathon — a 24-hour bird-watching blitz held each May. By recording the most species and sponsoring others in the birdathon, he was for many years the Yukon Bird Club’s biggest financial supporter; he once donated $30 per species to one participant, who saw 30 species.

One year, when he was in his sixties, Helmut impressed everyone by canoeing, walking, and cycling to Swan Lake and Jackfish Bay, recording 81 species in this epic effort. Helmut’s “enviro” birdathons were legendary, remembers his colleague, Jim Hawkings.

My favourite memory of Helmut was at one birdathon when he met me on the Millennium Trail to verify my sighting of an (uncommon) American Restart. As a novice birder my sighting was, shall we say, in doubt. Luckily, the bird appeared on cue, flashing its orange-patched sides, and wings in the willows. “Well, I think you are right,” he said, with the big smile he had. It was a thrill to have his endorsement.

After I became a trip leader years later, Helmut often came along to enjoy spring birds on the Millennium Trail. And as he did on every trip, he patiently helped identify birds, and set up his scope so that everyone could have a good, close look.

I appreciated the knowledge and love for birds that Helmut so easily shared. And like many of his colleagues and friends, I will miss him.

A celebration of Helmut’s life will take place in April with his family, friends, and others who loved birding. 

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