the good news bad news for northern birds

Biologist Cameron Eckert often receives emails with the subject line, "What kind of bird is this?" They are accompanied by photographs of some amazing new visitors to the North.

by Erling Friis-Baastad

Biologist Cameron Eckert often receives emails with the subject line, “What kind of bird is this?” They are accompanied by photographs of some amazing new visitors to the North.

For a director of the Yukon Bird Club, it’s always exciting to view a photo and learn that some erstwhile avian stranger, such as a scarlet tanager or blue grosbeak, has been visiting a feeder in the territory. Just this week, a wayward turkey vulture was spotted by Del Buerge at Partridge Creek Farm in the Dawson region.

It can be perplexing as well, however. The appearance of a rufous hummingbird on the Dempster Highway or a scarlet tanager at Big Salmon Lake may well be an indication of great changes happening to migration patterns and ecosystems here and to the south. And for some birds, like the very lost great blue heron that turned up in Pangnirtung, Nunavut, last fall, the end of the story could well be a bleak one.

Meanwhile, says Eckert, though new bird visitors are showing up here, “there is a much longer list of birds that are in serious decline throughout the boreal regions and in northern Canada.” Among them are shorebird species such as red- and red-necked phalaropes, semipalmated sandpipers, and American golden-plovers. Neotropical migrants, such as some species of warblers and rusty blackbirds, are spotted ever less frequently, as are waterfowl, like lesser scaup and northern pintails. Aerial insectivores, like common nighthawks and violet-green swallows, appear to be diminishing as well.

Most of us notice when a new bird shows up – a lovely Eurasian collared-dove or the raven’s strikingly smaller relative, the American crow, says Eckert. But unless someone asks us something like, “When was the last time you saw an olive-sided flycatcher?” we’re not likely to take much note of birds that are missing.

To some extent, the reasons for the new arrivals and the vanishing of old friends overlap. “There’s a whole body of science that’s investigating those sorts of things … changes to climate patterns that change prevailing winds and the types of conditions that birds have adapted to over thousands of years to dictate their migratory flyways.”

The change appears to be working very well for some birds. The Yukon’s first Eurasian collared-dove was photographed by Wolf Riedl in Haines Junction in 2006. “It was just a show stopper!” says Eckert. “Now we’re seeing numbers of Eurasian collared-doves every summer.

“It appears to be a hearty dove … with a high dispersal rate,” he says. “They don’t just breed and stay put. Those young are dispersing fast and dispersing widely.” Alaskans sighted their first collared doves in 2006 as well, shortly after Yukoners spotted theirs.

“People are seeing rapid changes over half a decade or a decade, well within their lifetimes,” says Eckert. “They’re seeing significant changes to bird populations.

“Not long ago, an American robin in winter was a bit of a novelty,” he says. “But this past winter we had a flock of robins spend the first part of the winter feeding every single day on the Yukon River just below the footbridge on the Millennium Trail.

“The weather finally did close in … it was in the minus 30s. Those robins quickly disappeared and weren’t seen again. They either perished or moved on. It seems more likely that they perished because once you’re settled into your winter spot it gets difficult to just up and fly 200 or 300 kilometres south to a better spot.”

A small but growing number of trumpeter swans have been more successful at overwintering lately. “Ten or 20 years ago, it wasn’t all that unusual to see one or two trumpeter swans in very early December. Those birds would get frozen in and eaten by a fox or they would leave.

“For the last five or six winters now, we’ve had a flock of trumpeter swans that spends the whole winter on the Teslin River at Johnson’s Crossing.”

Meanwhile, declines of many bird populations in the North have been noticed over the past three decades, says Eckert. The declines were probably “kicked off” by habitat fragmentation and loss to the south. But over the last 10 or 20 years, increasing habitat loss in the North has been caused by developments such as the oilsands, gas extraction and logging. As well, climate change is altering habitats – sources of food and shelter – faster than many species can adapt.

We don’t yet know what birds do when they arrive at a winter nesting ground their ancestors relied on for centuries or millennia, only to find it razed by industry, says Eckert.

“Yes, a story like this can be depressing,” he agrees, but adds, “I think it should be a call to action for individuals and communities in the North.

“Around the City of Whitehorse, we have fantastic habitats for birds and wildlife. We have very rich wetlands but the onus is on us as a community to ensure those areas are maintained and protected.”

That’s not always an easy task, especially now when essential concepts such as biodiversity and conservation are so often dismissed as being obstacles to prosperity, Eckert warns.

“If you want to keep advocating on behalf of wildlife you have to have a fairly thick skin and a high degree of optimism,” he says. “I stay positive by getting out and enjoying the Yukon’s amazing birdlife.”

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