Yukon News

Whitehorse photograph takes flight

John Thompson Wednesday November 30, 2011

Keith Williams/Yukon News


Tree swallows huddle on a branch during a May snowstorm in Whitehorse.

A remarkable photograph by Whitehorse resident Keith Williams has been published by two big British dailies with a combined circulation of more than 2.5 million.

Last week, both the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph ran a photo Williams snapped back in May, when Whitehorse had been hit by a freak spring snowstorm.

It shows two-dozen tree swallows huddling along a single branch. Williams noticed several hundred of the birds gathered around several trees along the Yukon River as he walked his dog, Brandy.

Caught without his camera, Williams hurried home and returned with his gear and camouflaged clothing. He found several hundred swallows, of several varieties, huddled together on an alder tree.

Williams, an avid birder, realized the swallows had been caught by the storm during their annual migration.

The wide-roving bird has a range that extends from Honduras to Herschel Island. They return to the Yukon to nest and mate.

Ian Stewart/Yukon News


Whitehorse photographer Keith Williams' photo of tree swallows in torpor got some attention in the UK press recently.

Caught in a cold snap, swallows bunch together. Some photos taken by Williams show the birds piled atop one another.

“By forming a dense mass like that, it’s the most efficient way to conserve heat,” said Williams. Similarly, swallows tuck in their heads and puff-up their feathers to take advantage of what Williams calls “nature’s down sleeping bag.”

And he reckons the flock he found had slowed their metabolisms to a state of semi-torpor to conserve precious calories. They appeared dopey, allowing him to sneak up within a few metres.

“To get that close to any bird is amazing, let alone swallows. They just don’t tolerate that kind of thing.”

Shooting conditions were difficult, with wet snow blowing towards his camera lens. Williams kept a rain cover on his camera and, when not shooting, kept it stuffed in his jacket.

To make the scene all the more brilliant, sunlight struck the birds in such a way to cause their usually-dull plumage to appear a bright metallic blue-green.

It’s the same phenomenon that causes a rainbow to appear in a sheen of oil.

“You have to get it at exactly the right angle, in the right kind of light, otherwise you just see this little brown and white bird,” said Williams.

At the time, he worried the birds may not survive. But he returned to the same spot over the next few days and found they had left, with nary a frozen bird left behind.

A short while later, he sold photos of the affair to the Solent photo agency. He was surprised to learn on Friday last week that they’d finally been published.

“I’m thrilled, of course. It’s not any day that a Whitehorse nature photographer can get any kind of attention, let alone international attention.”

Williams, 59, is a retired youth worker. He’s already sold his nature photography to conservation groups and nature magazines. “For me, it’s great exposure.”

To see more photos by Williams, visit http://www.flickr.com/photos/keithmwilliams/

Contact John Thompson at

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murface wrote:
5:39am Saturday December 10, 2011

Wow, what a nice shot!  At first blink it looked like a caterpillar…

Yukon Newfie wrote:
8:20pm Thursday December 1, 2011

very nice…congrats..smile

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