Old World bird finds its way to the Yukon

When Herschel Island’s park ranger, Lee John Meyook, left his office on June 26 he didn’t expect the surprise he was in for.

When Herschel Island’s park ranger, Lee John Meyook, left his office on June 26 he didn’t expect the surprise he was in for.

While passing by Pauline Cove, a marshy spot on the Arctic island, Meyook and colleague Deon Arey spotted an alien in their midst — a bird native to Europe and Russia, the whooper swan.

Every year, thousands of swans pass through the Yukon on their migration routes, but they’re usually of the trumpeter or tundra variety, said conservation biologist Cameron Eckert while sitting in his Environment Yukon office in Whitehorse.

“The park rangers are quite familiar with the birds in our area and they knew when they saw this swan that it was a very different bird and it was a long way from home.”

The whooper swan, Cygnus cygnus, is a large white bird with black legs and a long thin neck.

It looks a lot like its distant cousin the trumpeter swan, but its distinguishing feature is the large triangular swath of yellow that cuts across its bill.

“When Lee John saw this bird, he was just struck with the colour and realized he had something quite different on his hands,” said Eckert.

The bill’s yellow markings are like a human fingerprint; each bird’s is unique and each bird can be distinguished by its pattern.

And as their names suggest, the birds trumpet a “whoop, whoop” sound.

The species’ normal breeding grounds are in Northern Europe and Northern Russia, and it’s rarely seen outside of the Aleutian Islands in North America.

“It’s an old-world swan and how it got to Herschel Island is anybody’s guess,” said Eckert.

He suspects the bird was following its usual northern migration route from southern Europe to its breeding ground in northern Russia and it just kept going across the Bearing Sea and wound up at Herschel Island.

“That kind of movement of birds is not unprecedented,” said Eckert.

In early June, a small Eurasian shore bird called a Red Neck Stint was also photographed on Herschel.

“Any individual rare bird sighting is very exciting for a bird watcher and the people who get to see it, but that’s all it really is — a curiosity or a surprise,” said Eckert.

Biologists have to look past the individual and investigate the overall patterns.

“Over time, looking at the patterns of rare birds and vagrant birds, we can begin to see how birds are being displaced and how environmental factors like climate change are affecting bird movements across continents,” said Eckert.

“I hear, again and again, that people in the Far North are seeing birds that they’re not familiar with, that have never been seen in their areas before — species like robins and swallows and song birds are showing up further north.”

Although it’s tough to attribute the alternate migration patterns directly to climate change, changes in ice conditions, ocean temperatures and currents, and jet stream patterns can all affect bird migration, said Eckert.

Herschel Island is about 116 square kilometres and it’s located about five kilometres off the northern coast in the Beaufort Sea.

It became the Yukon’s first territorial park in 1987, and was named Qikiqtaruk — an Inuvialuit word that means, “it is island.”

Geographically the terrain is rolling tundra covered in a brilliant carpet of wildflowers in the summer months.

It is home to more than 90 bird species throughout the year. Red fox, Arctic fox, grizzly bears, caribou and muskoxen have been spotted on the island but animals like lemmings, tundra voles and Arctic shrews are its most common residents.

And the island boasted a busy whaling settlement in the late 1800s; its remnants can still be found on the spit of Pauline Cove.

“Now the goal of the park is to protect its heritage and its abundant natural resources as well,” said Eckert.

So will the island’s newest resident stick around?

“It seemed pretty happy feeding in the ponds of Pauline Cove,” said Eckert.

But, because the bird won’t be able to find a mate on the island, Eckert guesses it will fly away home when the migration urge hits in early autumn.

The whooping swan has been spotted twice before in the Yukon — once in M’Clintock Bay and once at the Teslin Lake outflow, although in both cases it was too far away to photograph.

Although Eckert missed this unusual swan spotting, he has been on two excursions to Herschel and will venture up there again in a few weeks to study the Western Arctic’s largest population of Black Guillemots, which have found a happy home in an abandoned Anglican mission house on the island.