Friday, 28 December 2012

Spring Flood

The Liard River was rising. Would be a record flood year, the experts said, due to the cold wet spring and heavy snowpack in the mountains. On June 7, when I left Watson Lake on a trip, I stopped at the Liard  River Bridge. The brown river had risen to within a few feet below the huge white sandbags placed on the riverbank after the 2007 flood.  A backhoe worked behind the big sandbags, adding smaller sandbags to increase the height and pushing dirt in behind the bags.

photo by J. Jantunen
At the nearby Albert Creek Bird Observatory, the spring work had ended. Ted and Jukka were taking their time removing the mist nets and packing up the banding equipment in hopes of catching some species that were late arrivals. The river is at least a kilometer from the site, but it's fed by creeks, marshes, a pond and a large lake located at the Observatory. When the water started rising in the river, it backed up to the Observatory. Ted and Jukka rushed to remove the equipment, but had to leave behind a few nets where the water had risen too fast.

photo by J. Jantunen  Ted walking down the road.
After the flood peaked June 8, Ted and Jukka put on chest waders and waded through chest high water to remove the nets. The high water mark on the trees was well over their heads.

photo by J. Jantunen

photo by S. Drury
When I returned on June 13, the large white sandbags lay flat on the riverbank, a lake had replaced the fields on both sides of the highway, and buildings were immersed in water.

On the dirt road leading to the  Bird Observatory, I stood at the top of the hill and watched knee-high water flowing from the pond and forest, across and down the road, into creeks, marshes and trails as it returned to the Liard River.

photo by J. Jantunen Water from the pond flowing over the road.
I returned to the Observatory on June 30. The stretch of road from the hill to the work station was clear of water, however, past this point, the road was covered by numerous rivulets and deep puddles. Forest trails, deepened by 12 years of use, were covered by standing water. Wooden planks used on the trails lay askew on top of bushes. Bridges that once spanned narrow creeks, sat in ruin along the banks. I splashed through the sodden forest, often jumping over narrow deep rivulets.  Grass, brush and tree branches were coated with mud up to a seven-foot height.

photo by S. Drury

A few weeks ago, this forest had been alive with birds singing and fluttering through the trees, squirrels scampering along branches, and muskrats preening themselves on the creek bank. Waterfowl swam in the pond or sat hidden on their nests in the long grass. Now, the forest was quiet, wet and dirty.

A sweet sound broke the silence. A familiar sound that I had heard every morning from the same tree for weeks during the banding season. I sloshed through the water to stand beside a tall poplar, where high above me, sang a white-throated sparrow. No matter what his territory looked like now, the sparrow sang to keep his claim knowing that life does return after disaster.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Wettest Coldest Spring 2012

I see that my last post on April 17 coincided with the start of the spring migratory season at the Albert Creek Bird Observatory where I volunteer.  The Observatory was open every day except for wet weather, which meant that I spent most of my days there until June 7, when it closed. Most indoor work stopped in my house.

I returned to the raven's nest a few times.  I didn't want to visit too often, for although I could view the nest from a distance and stay hidden on a path in the forest, the male raven knew when I arrived and would call out a warning to the female at the nest. I timed my last visit when I thought that if there were any hatchlings they would be big enough to see and ready to fledge. The forest was quiet as I stood on the path looking through binoculars at the nest. No warning raven call. No ravens flying around or sitting on other trees near the nest. The nest, itself, was also quiet. Had the babies fledged? Had the nest been abandoned for some reason? I'll never know, however, next spring I'll visit the location again in hopes of seeing that the ravens have returned to use the nest.

Ted Murphy-Kelly, Manager/Head Bander putting up nets
This was the 12th spring season for the Albert Creek Bird Observatory and its busiest, wettest and coldest. A record 4,133 of 57 species were banded. A record number of American Tree Sparrows were banded, 571, up from the previous high of 345 recorded in spring 2007. We were close to breaking records with a few other species.

Banders Jukka Jantunen and Ted Murphy-Kelly
The cool, wet weather, which included some late snowstorms (May 16-19), meant that the birds stayed longer in the area to feed and renew their energy to fly farther. Shorebirds migrating in mid-May landed to escape the wind, rain and snow. Birds, that may not normally visit Yukon, arrived with the strong winds. One such bird was a Gambel's white-crowned sparrow banded in 2011 at Fort Klamath, Oregon. The majority of our song birds in southeast Yukon come from the east through the prairies.

Busy day - birds are brought from the nets in a bag
One of the records we take with birds is the fat content. This is done by examining an indentation hidden by feathers at the base of the throat. The bander blows on the area to move the feathers to expose the spot and determines how hollow or full of fat it is. This spring, we saw a large number of sparrows with low fat levels. This meant that either the birds' migration path contained poor feed or that flying conditions were so bad, that all the stored fat was used up faster. As the weather continued to be cool and wet, people began finding dead sparrows in the forests.

Visitors and volunteers at any skill level are welcome. For more information about the birds banded or observed at all Yukon bird observatories, visit

View from the banding work table