The red-necked phalarope, pictured, and the evening grosbeak are two migratory bird species which spend part of their lives in the Yukon and are being considered for “special concern” status under the federal Species At Risk Act (SARA), partly due to their declining populations nationwide. (Malkolm Boothroyd/Submitted)

Two Yukon bird species with declining populations are being considered for a special federal status

The red-necked phalarope and the evening grosbeak are being considered for “special concern” status

Two migratory bird species which spend part of their lives in the Yukon are being considered for “special concern” status under the federal Species At Risk Act (SARA), partly due to their declining populations nationwide.

According to an Environment Canada guide to SARA, a species of special concern is one which “may become threatened or endangered because of a combination of biological characteristics and identified threats.”

Both species – the red-necked phalarope and the evening grosbeak – up for special concern nomination are also protected under the Migratory Birds Convention Act, says Saleem Dar, a northern liaison biologist for Environment Canada. While adding the birds to the special concern list under SARA won’t offer a lot more immediate protections for them, it would act as a “trigger” to a more expansive investigation and planning processes which include all involved parties – First Nation, provincial, territorial and federal.

SARA is best viewed as “one piece of the puzzle” when it comes to protection for vulnerable species, says Dar, and what the federal government can and will do is dependent on the “level of risk” of the species being discussed. SARA does not override First Nation land rights or territorial jurisdiction.

It’s important to note, says Dar, that when a species is placed under protection under SARA, it doesn’t mean “the federal government just parachutes in and takes over” planning and management of the land and wildlife affected.

“We can’t compel the Yukon (or First Nation) government(s) to do anything,” he says. “It just shines a light on the issue.”

At the special concern level, the federal government will have three years to cooperatively put together a management plan for these species with the First Nations and provincial and territorial governments involved, Dar says.

Species are reassessed 10 years after they’ve been added the list.

The red-necked phalaprope (Phalaropus lobatus), a member of the sandpiper family, is a “cute little shore bird” with some “peculiar” habits, says Syd Cannings, a species at risk biologist with Environment Canada. Weighting in at around 35 grams (1.2 ounces), these petite birds dine on tiny insects, crustaceans and larva, such as those of the caddis fly.

Unlike other sandpipers, phalaropes feed while swimming, sometimes using a twirling, spinning motion, like a pirouetting ballet dancer – if a somewhat frantic one – in order to stir up up food and bring it closer to the surface.

Phalaropes are also unusual among birds in that it is the females – not the males – who do the courting. Females are not only larger than the males, but have brighter plumage, actively pursuing, and even fighting for, males amongst each other, according to the National Audubon Society.

Phalarope females will mate and then leave their eggs in the care of males, who incubate and then raise for the young. Once the eggs are laid, the females leave, seeking out another male and laying eggs with him, which he will also care for.

Males who lose their eggs to predation will try again to raise a brood, either with the same female or a new one. When it grows too late in the season to successfully hatch offspring, females begin their annual migration ahead of males, who come after when the chicks are able to fly.

“The males of this species are really, really good dads,” Dar jokes.

Exactly why the red-necked phalarope’s numbers are declining is unclear, especially as the bird has a wide migration range. Because the bird – again, unusually for a sandpiper – spends much of its winter season on the open sea, it is especially susceptible to oil pollution and other environmental risk factors like microplastics and climate change.

Although much of the data is for eastern populations and it’s “not clear how the western population is doing” it appears to be in decline as well, Dar says. Three-quarters of the population of red-necked phalaropes – estimated at around 2.5 million birds – is thought to breed in Canada’s subarctic regions, Dar says, where the birds inhabit wetlands formed by permafrost. As global warming causes that permafrost to melt, those wetlands shrink, reducing the phalarope’s habitat.

In the case of the evening grosbeak (Coccothraustes vespertinus)– a tiny member of the finch family with a “big honking beak,” which prefers older boreal forests – it is already at the “the limits of its range” in the Yukon, says Cannings. It is found mostly east of Watson Lake in the territory, as it needs “good-sized trees” to do well.

“It’s kind of a rare bird, here in the Yukon,” Cannings says.

Males, which are a striking yellow, attract females with intricate dances, according to the Audubon Society, and pairs nest together, with females incubating the eggs and both parents helping to care for the offspring.

In the summer months the bird prefers to dine on large caterpillars, particularly the spruce budworm, a destructive parasite. The species has been in decline since the 1960s, Cannings notes, with up to a 70 per cent decline in Ontario, which may be related to chemical pest control efforts to kill off the budworms the bird finds so delicious and reduction of its habitat through cutting of the boreal forest.

The bird might have been considered for “threatened” status, but its numbers have been stabilizing and even starting to bounce back since 2010, Cannings says. The increase has driven “considerable optimism” in the grosbeak’s recovery, prompting it to be considered for special concern status.

Given the extremely wide range of the evening grosbeak and habits like changing nesting and feeding grounds each year, precise population counts are difficult, and there are notable differences in eastern and western population’s calls and behaviours, he notes, although it’s hard to define exactly where those ranges begin and end.

A decision on the status of the birds is expected by June. The federal government can either decide to reject the recommendation, to accept the recommendation or to send the recommendation back for further study.

Public comment on the status of these two birds is open until Feb.11. For more information or to comment, contact Dar at saleem.dar@canada.ca.

Contact Lori Fox at lori.fox@yukon-news.com.

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