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Government's wildlife viewing program helps curious humans make good choices

Imagine you are a trumpeter swan that has just flown all the way from its wintering grounds in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia to a rest and refreshment stop near Swan Haven at McClintock Bay in Marsh Lake.

by Erling Friis-Baastad

Imagine you are a trumpeter swan that has just flown all the way from its wintering grounds in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia to a rest and refreshment stop near Swan Haven at McClintock Bay in Marsh Lake. You have settled onto a welcome open patch of water, all too rare in a chilly boreal April, and are about to feed on some nourishing pondweed.

Suddenly a large, thrilled dog comes tearing across the ice at you. Unrested and unfed, you struggle to lift your tired 13-kilogram body back into the sky and resume the search for another open patch of water - somewhere, perhaps kilometres back the way you came - at Johnson’s Crossing or Tagish Narrows, maybe. Hopefully, there won’t be a canoeist taking his or her craft out for a first spring spin right where you hope to resettle and feed.

Carrie McClelland is a wildlife viewing biologist with Environment Yukon. She is passionate about “alternative wildlife management strategies.” These allow people to watch, come to understand and even love wildlife in natural settings without creating havoc on the land or water and among the creatures themselves by getting too ‘up close and personal.’

“We’ve found that Yukoners don’t deliberately disturb swans,” McClelland says. “It’s just that they want to go out for a walk with their dog off-leash or go canoeing and are unaware about how these activities will affect the swans. When birds are disturbed, they spend essential migration energy getting airborne and searching for a safer spot to feed and rest. What we need to know is just how limited their opportunities to regain strength are and what fortuitous combinations of circumstances draw them close enough for us to watch. There are few places in Yukon in April with such welcoming conditions for birds.”

For example, at M’Clintock Bay, where the M’Clintock River enters the Lewes River at Marsh Lake, the shallow depth and swift currents of the river lift warmer water to the surface, clearing the ice away early in the spring, and allowing migratory waterbirds to reach the pondweed below.

Ultimately, wildlife viewing programs, whether they’re about swans, bats, sheep, or mushrooms, carry a message. “We’re trying to provide educational opportunities so people can make good decisions when they’re on the land… often we’re dispelling myths or misunderstandings,” McClelland says.

For example, ducks arrive at Marsh Lake at the same time as swans and for the same reasons: food and shelter en route to summer nesting grounds. But sometimes visiting humans look out over the water and assume that the multitudes of smaller birds are baby swans. Swans are not nesting at Swan Haven, however. They are simply stopping for a rest on their way to their nesting grounds in central and northern Yukon.

Many species of ducks can be found among the swans. They feed on the leftover plants and insects stirred up by the long necks and large feet of the much-bigger birds. In return, the ducks provide extra sets of eyes and can alert the swans to predators approaching on the ice or in the sky

When one considers the predators, diminishing habitat and limited food sources, and the unsettled weather the swans and ducks encounter en route to the North, it’s obvious they don’t need any more threats. They don’t want any more of what McClelland calls “migratory headaches” brought on by naive but well-meaning folks in the outdoors.

Guided viewing programs run by biologists or volunteer naturalists are a friendly way of inviting people to be careful where they tread. “The Wildlife Viewing Program encourages Yukoners to explore the outdoors while being aware of what impacts we are having on the land,” McClelland adds.

It’s Family Weekend at Swan Haven this coming weekend, with an afternoon of swan-watching and fun activities, such as crafts, face painting and games.

Following on the heels of April’s Biodiversity Awareness Month activities is the Town of Faro’s Annual Crane and Sheep Viewing Festival in early May. As summer and early autumn come on, there will be further wildlife viewing opportunities and walks scattered around the territory sponsored by organizations like the Yukon Bird Club, Friends of the Dempster Country and the Yukon Conservation Society, to give people an informed appreciation of the natural world.

For further information on wildlife festivals, walks and related opportunities in Yukon, keep an eye on the following websites:

This column is co-ordinated by the Yukon Research Centre at Yukon College with major financial support from Environment Yukon and Yukon College. The articles are archived at