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Yukon bird observatories are now 'full fledged'

Early this month, the US National Audubon Society released the Birds and Climate Change Report: 314 Species on the Brink.

by Erling Friis-Baastad

Early this month, the US National Audubon Society released the Birds and Climate Change Report: 314 Species on the Brink. Meanwhile, the US National Wildlife Service in co-operation with Cornell Ornithology Lab gave us The State of the Birds Report for 2014.

It didn’t come as a shock that the reports target disappearing habitats and threatened species or that they call for awareness and action, while stressing the need for ever more knowledge, communication and co-operation.

What is surprising is how well Yukon is positioned to meet these needs.

That was underscored in July when the Society of Yukon Bird Observatories was granted full membership in the Canadian Migration Monitoring Network, CMMN.

The Yukon society maintains the observatory at Albert Creek near Watson Lake, the Teslin Lake Bird Observatory and the McIntyre Marsh Bird Banding Demonstration Site in Whitehorse. “We are now full-fledged,” says biologist Ben Schonewille, station manager for McIntyre Marsh and co-founder of the Teslin operation. “You have to be able to show that you are really doing things in a scientifically rigorous manner. They put you through the paces to become a member of the network.”

The network includes national member stations, Bird Studies Canada and the Canadian Wildlife Service. “The vision of the CMMN is: To be an essential component of bird monitoring, migration research and conservation planning in the Western Hemisphere,” says a statement on the Bird Studies Canada website.

Yukon field ornithologists have been displaying their skill and devotion since Ted Murphy-Kelly launched a banding station at Albert Creek in 2001. Since then, amateurs and professionals have been maintaining careful counts and consistent coverage of species, locations and dates.

Full CMMN membership has real benefits, especially that of being fully included in annual national bird-trend studies, says Schonewille. The new status also opens further fundraising opportunities, he adds. That’s especially important when it comes to having trained, experienced field ornithologists on site.

The bird observatories are well served by a host of volunteers, but banding is a delicate operation and requires professional direction. The society is fortunate to be able to hire local field ornithologist Jukka Jantunen each year.

The long wait for full membership is significant in another way. Both the Audubon survey and The State of the Birds 2014 report cover a broad swath of geography: the Outside. Many southern observatories that have been in operation longer than those in the Yukon. One can’t expect all of their observations and data to match those of our territory, says Schonewille. It takes time to turn evidence into even tentative conclusions. Ornithologists have to sort ongoing trends from brief anomalies.

“We can’t simply look at the data we’ve collected in one year or two years or five years,” he says. “The main reason for that is when you are monitoring songbirds there’s a lot of variation for different reasons ... Variation in weather is a major factor.” For instance, the heavy, prolonged rain of this late summer could have affected the number of birds stopping at Teslin. Some may have come to ground while others may have taken detours.

While the Albert Creek observatory and the McIntyre demonstration site operate only in spring, the Teslin observatory opens for bird business in mid-July. Its personnel will be banding until the end of September and the station will remain open until mid-October. Anything can happen. “For that reason we can’t really even look at trends in our data until we have 10 years,” says Schonewille.

There are indicators ornithologists can use to tell whether birds have had a productive year or not. In the fall it’s easier to gauge the local productivity of passerines. Observers can readily tell the young from the old and determine how many were born during a particular year.

“It’s different for different species, but so far we’ve seen record levels of yellow warblers.” But it’s unwise to draw conclusions about the long-term prognosis for either species based on one bumper summer. “If we saw them increasing every year for the next five years that would really be interesting,” he says.

This has been a rich year for pine siskins as well, but these birds are described as an “irruptive species.” They go through lean years, where comparatively few show up, and then all of a sudden, for some reason, there are many of them.

“So far, as of mid-September, we’ve seen record numbers,” he says.

As for all bird species passing through Teslin - the daily tallies for September are about average this year, the biologist adds. “Though a week ago in Teslin they caught 90 birds in one hour.”

Teslin bird observatory is the furthest north of Canada’s avian observatories. Albert Creek is on the southern end of the Tintina Trench flyway, near Watson Lake. Many songbirds breed just to the south of the community, in northern B.C. and southern Alaska, so they have traditionally shown up sporadically in the Yukon. Some of these, such as the Cape May warbler and western tanager, are among the birds now, as Schonewille says, “inching their way up the map.” In the wake of warming trends, they are appearing in greater numbers in the North.

Of birds listed in the Audubon climate change report as being endangered because of diminishing habitat, many pass through Yukon stations. These include Bohemian waxwings, white-winged crossbills, boreal chickadees, varied thrushes and Wilson’s warblers. (For a complete list go to

“We are uniquely positioned to monitor the process and we know where the birds are coming from,” says Schonewille.

If that “inching up” among songbirds isn’t, at first blush, as dramatic as the fact that the white-faced ibis is now nesting in Saskatchewan, it is certainly very significant and will require ongoing surveillance.

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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