Archive for May, 2010

Chasing Yellow-Rumps

Saturday, May 22nd, 2010

Clearly I need to clarify this entry’s title. One might think we are pursuing a coward’s rear end as they retreat, but in this case we are following the vanguard of yellow-rumped warblers as they migrate northward. Prior to leaving Minnesota we got word from our Yukon Outpost that these early migrant warblers had arrived along the Watson River, in the Hamlet of Mt. Lorne. It would be frivolous if I claimed that such news inspired us to pack up our pick up truck and head north from our Minnesota Base Camp to the Yukon but that would be stretching it.

Ever since we returned to Minnesota last fall, we knew we would be returning to the Yukon this spring to recharge our wilderness batteries. With a dependable house sitter in place and a truck packed reasonably full, complete with two bikes and a red canoe tied securely on the topper, we pulled out on the tenth day of May.

The pair of Vesper sparrows that flashed their white outer tail feathers in fluttering out of our way at the end of the driveway reminded me that we needed to start our “trip bird list.” Nancy began the process of jotting down the names of birds as we encountered them on the backside of an old envelope she found in the pocket of the passenger door. This exercise helps to pass the time on road trips and is simply a list of all the bird species that we observe on a road trip. Compiling a trip bird list is a great way to sharpen observation skills and note habitat and accompanying bird species. Some might argue that driving and birding could be the equivalent of driving while drinking a handful of beers or texting messages to anyone interested in such drivel. Since I will not drink and drive nor text or chatter on a cell phone, particularly since we don’t own one, I will periodically scan the roadsides and passing landscape for birds.

While I am very fond of birds and take pride in my ability to identify them, I am not a dyed-in-the-wool bird lister. Some birders are listers. They keep track of “life lists” or a tally of every bird species they have ever seen or positively identified by song or call. While I have had wonderful opportunities to watch birds from the high arctic to the Amazon rainforest and even on Darwin’s Galapagos Islands, I really have no clue how many bird species I’ve seen.

Just beyond our driveway, before the blacktop county road, we had scored our second entry, an American crow. Immediately, Nancy asked me for my prediction of how many birds we would total over the next 2,500 miles. Without any deliberate analytical thinking I blurted out “Fifty three species.”

The first day of birding on the road, particularly if you pass through diverse habitats, is like picking off the easy low-hanging fruit as you tally common birds. For nearly nine hours we drove northwest to a friend Karen’s strawbale home located on a lovely, rolling expanse of North Dakota prairie speckled with wetlands. Her closest neighbor is three miles, much further than our closest Minnesota neighbor. Surprisingly, our nearest Yukon neighbor is perhaps 150 yards away from the Outpost.

Karen joined us for a tour of her 611 acres of restored prairie/wetland complex. While we spotted no sharptail grouse we marveled at the trampled ground where the males had been earnestly dancing a few weeks ago. Karen suddenly held up her hand as if to be quiet and we listened to a pure tinkling sound that drew a smile on her face as she declared “Sprague’s Pipit.” The details of the distant sparrow were not easily observable but Karen, an avid birder and artist, is very familiar with this increasingly rare bird. It was a new bird for me, as I could not recall ever seeing or hearing one. We walked back to her house for a supper of sharptail grouse breasts simmering in a mushroom sauce.
But before we stepped in, I heard the distinctive winnowing of a high-flying common snipe. He was number fifty for the day. Not bad.

The next day we crossed comfortably into Canada, clearing the border in less than five minutes. Not bad compared to the three hour crossing two years ago. We hadn’t gone far when I scored a big hovering rough-legged hawk for the trip list. It was species number fifty-four, the bird that surpassed my own trip estimate of fifty three. We passed through the flat southern Saskatchewan country where oil wells scattered across grain stubbled expanses of fields seem to tirelessly bow up and down to unknown gods.

A couple hours west of Saskatoon, we found a small Fibre Mill Farm, where we would be spending the night in an old one-roomed schoolhouse. That evening as Nancy and I strolled through a yawning coulee that curved down through the rolling prairie, It was there that I got to watch the darting, mouse like antics of a LeConte’s sparrow As daylight eased into dusk, we flushed a great horned owl from a thicket of aspen near a livestock water dugout. It was number fifty-eight.

Two days later we finally reached the Alaska Highway. However, not until you pass through the oil country of St. John and Fort Nelson can you really ease into an epic landscape that draws out sudden exclamations of astonishment. As we climbed higher in elevation, we encountered some stubborn sightings of roadside patches of snow. The aspens here are only beginning to show the slightest of green blushes. I am confident we have advanced ahead of the primary songbird migration, as any sightings of feathers were less common.

At Summit Lake, in northern British Columbia, the highest point on the Alaska Highway, we encountered winter. The lake was white and frozen while the surrounding area was still nearly knee deep or more in snow. Leaving Summit behind us, we descended and it didn’t take long to come upon the soft greening of aspens again.

Number sixty-eight came shortly after passing five elk on the slope to our right. It was a cautious ruffed grouse that took its time in crossing the Alaska Highway directly in front of us.

The yellow-rumped warbler is generally the first warbler species to make its appearance in Minnesota each year. They move on northwardand are common nesters at the Yukon Outpost. We did not see our first one until we were at the Liard Hot Springs. I might add I tallied a Lincoln’s sparrow while I slowly and quietly breaststroked across the hot springs to within six feet of the little foraging fellow.

Oddly we never did see a single loon the entire trip and the last bird we tallied, number eighty-six, only two hours from our destination at the Outpost, was a bald eagle. Go figure.

The irony about this whole bird listing exercise is that once we arrived at the Outpost and I settled down to read the Yukon News Newspaper, I found a story announcing that Hollywood is coming to the Yukon this summer. A portion of an upcoming movie, entitled The Big Year will be shot in the northern part of the territory and will star Steve Martin, Jeff Black and Owen Wilson. The movie is based on a book, of the same title, by Mark Obmascik who, in 1998, followed a trio of competitive birdwatchers who raced around North America trying to spot the most bird species in one year. This sort of competition attracts bird fanatics who drop everything in their lives to spend a year scouting out sometimes more than 600 species of birds. I thoroughly enjoyed the book and look forward to the movie.

I wonder if they need any stand in birders?


The following is the entire bird list. I have also included our wild mammal tally for the Alaska Highway portion of our trip.

1) Western Grebe
Double-crested Cormorant
Great Blue Heron
Cattle Egret
Common Egret
American Bittern
Canada Goose
10) No. Pintail
Blue-winged Teal
Am. Wigeon
Wood Duck
Ruddy Duck
Red-tailed Hawk
Swainson’s Hawk
20) No. Harrier
Am. Kestrel
Ring-necked Pheasant
Wild Turkey
Moorhen (Coot)
Upland Plover
Common Snipe
30) Ring-billed Gull
Franklin’s Gull
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Chimney Swift
Tree Swallow
Cliff Swallow
Blue Jay
Common Crow
40) Robin
Eastern Bluebird
Sprague’s Pipit
Western Meadowlark
Yellow-headed Blackbird
Red-winged Blackbird
Common Grackle
Vesper Sparrow
Chipping Sparrow

Day 2 Bird List

50) Horned Grebe
House Sparrow
Harris Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow
Rough-legged Hawk
Horned Lark
Rusty Blackbird
Western Kingbird
Great-horned Owl
LeContes Sparrow

Day 3 Bird List
60) Avocet
Savannah Sparrow

Day 4 Bird List
White-throated Sparrow
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Water Pipits
Ruffed Grouse
70) Common Goldeneye
Barred Owl
Ring-necked Duck
Belted Kingfisher
Trumpeter Swan

Day 5 Bird List
Mew Gull
Gray Jay
Common Merganser
Dark-eyed Junco
Yellow-rumped Warbler
80) Semi-palmated Plover
Greater Yellowlegs
Lesser Yellowlegs
Solitary Sandpiper

Bird List Day 6
Spotted Sandpiper
Herring Gull
86) Bald Eagle

Alaska Highway Wild Mammal List
1 red squirrel
1 coyote
1 red fox
9 black bears
8 moose
20 stone sheep
5 elk
33 woodland bison
5 mule deer