Thursday 21 February 2013

Nature's Power

Canyon Creek is an ordinary stream in ordinary times. Flowing from Shilsky Lake nestled at the bottom of mountains, collecting water flowing down steep surrounding hills until rushing through a canyon and tumbling out to the Alaska Highway a few miles west of Rancheria Lodge. A large culvert guides the water beneath the highway and onward it runs over a wide rock-filled bed to the Rancheria River.

Shilsky Lake
An ordinary mountain stream until Nature turned on her power.

In 2012, after a cool spring in southeast Yukon, warmer temperatures arrived in late May and  a record snow pack melted fast as rainstorms continued to hit the area. Rivers were rising to flood stage.

On June 8, where the Alaska Highway snakes alongside the Rancheria River and where steep hills border the northeast side, Nature's power struck. Water gushed down the hills, and mud and rock collapsed onto the highway. Rivulets and streams grew in size and strength widening ditches, and spilling stone and wooded debris onto pavement.

Along the Alaska Highway
At Canyon Creek, the raging water tore large trees from the creek bank, carried them downstream and dropped them along its path; it cut through the pavement, moved the culvert, and created a large boulder field where the highway once ran; it spilled from the creek bed and torrents flowed downhill along both sides of the highway.

Flood overflow from Canyon Creek that is behind me.
The Alaska Highway was closed between Watson Lake and Teslin, and would remain so for four days while the water receded and a temporary culvert was installed. Boulders, rocks and trees were bulldozed off the highway. Transport trucks waited as grocery shelves in Whitehorse emptied and waited for new deliveries. A cargo plane was flown into Watson Lake to pick up the groceries from the trucks and deliver them to Whitehorse.

In Watson Lake, hotels and campgrounds filled up with travelers, and homeowners opened their doors to stranded tourists.

On the same weekend, four washouts were reported on the Nahanni Range Road north of Watson Lake. Running east from the Robert Campbell Highway, the Nahanni Range Road is a vital link for mines. Contractors rushed to install temporary bridges.
Dolly Varden Creek - one culvert missing

Where damaged culvert came to rest on Dolly Varden Creek

The rivers and creeks returned to normal water levels. Road and bridge repairs continued throughout the summer; however, a reminder of the flood's strength remained on the shores of the Liard River. At Whirlpool Canyon, a few miles east of Fireside, British Columbia there sits an enormous graveyard of trees piled and shoved together. Their bark peeled by the force of the river and submerged rocks.

For one brief time, Nature had shown her power and we were humbled.

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

Tuesday 17 April 2012

Raven's Nest

Yesterday, I visited the raven's nest. The snow on the snowmobile trail was hard and crusted on this warm mid-April morning, and after a five-minute walk through the boreal forest, I reached a straight stretch in the trail and stopped. Ahead, in a clearing, was the raven's nest high in a towering poplar. From here, I could study the nest while remaining hidden in the trees.

I had discovered the nest in early March while x-country skiing on a snowmobile trail that cut through the old logged site. Willows and alders poked through the snow while towering thick poplars, bare of lower branches, dotted the landscape. At the far edge of the clearing, where the track dipped back down into the  spruce and pine, I found the snow-covered nest of sticks built where the tree trunk divided into multiple branches.  Fifty feet from this nest, in another poplar, was a second smaller nest. Why so close? I had read that ravens don't nest close to each other. Had a nesting pair built one, abandoned it and built another?

A few weeks after my discovery, I ventured up the snowmobile trail to the clearing. The snow had melted off the nests. Ravens flew high overhead and passed out-of-sight. From the edge of the clearing, I focused on the larger nest. No movement. As I lowered my binoculars a raven flew past the nest. Darn! Had forgotten to look at the smaller nest. I waited for the raven to return. A big raven flew toward me and landed on a tall spruce behind me and proceeded to cry out his deep territorial quorks. The female returned and settled onto a spruce near the nests. The male flew to the female and sat on a branch above the female. The male's wings trembled; the female's wings trembled and her tail wagged. Then, the female flew down the clearing followed by the male. The birds didn't return.

Early April and I returned for another check. As soon as I stepped off the road and onto the trail, I heard the male's deep voice calling. When I reached the clearing, I saw the female sitting in a spruce across from the nests. After a moment, she flew away followed by the male.

Near me a deep-throated tiny buzz sounded and two red squirrels scrambled down a tree and onto the crusted snow. They sped across the trail and, with one squirrel following close behind the other, the pair zig-zagged over the snow and into the forest. Silence. Buzz, buzz - I swung around and spied the squirrels racing towards me before veering off to sprint down the trail. As the squirrels disappeared, the female raven flew back and settled into a spruce. She didn't move, so I walked down the trail into the forest and turned around. In the poplar tree, the female sat on a branch beside the smaller nest. She sidled down the branch, stepped into it and settled down until her body disappeared. The pair was nesting!

Yesterday when I returned, the nest was quiet. No ravens called or flew. Were they still there? The male appeared and with flapping wings and spread-out tale, he landed on the branch beside the nest. The female hopped out, grabbed something from the male's beak, and hopped back into the nest while the male flew away. She must be incubating!

Incubation is for twenty-one days and I've calculated roughly when the eggs could hatch. Hatchlings stay in the nest for 6 weeks where they will reach adult weight. When they leave the nest, they stay with their parents for another 6 to 8 weeks as they learn to forage.

Nature has given me a gift as I watch the progress of the nesting ravens.

Tuesday 3 April 2012

Love is in the Air

Boss Squirrel must be in love. He's allowed another squirrel into his territory (my front yard). While he sat in the wooden bird feeder eating the sunflower seeds, a second squirrel was across the yard eating at a platform feeder. Instead of immediately chasing the trespasser as he's done all winter, Boss Squirrel seemed not to care. Later, the two squirrels were sitting in the willow tree inches from each other with no show of hostility.

Hairy woodpeckers are the territorial bosses these days. While they ignore the Downy woodpeckers, my resident pair of Hairy Woodpeckers don't like other Hairy intruders. A new female showed up one day and the older female Hairy showed her displeasure by vocalizing high-pitched 'keeks' and following the newcomer from trunk-to-trunk, branch-to-branch, cage feeder-to-cage feeder.  The newcomer finally had had enough and flew off down the street closely followed by the resident female.
Resident female top right does not like newcomer bottom left.

While this female drama was going on, the resident male Hairy was happily feeding alone at a tree on the other side of the yard. After the females left, the male left. A few seconds later the females returned to the yard with the resident female still chasing the new female. They flew across the yard and disappeared behind the house. Hours later, the new female returned to the suet feeder, but the resident female quickly arrived and chased her off. The newcomer has never returned.
The escape.

Spring also brings on a wider variety of song notes by the winter feeder birds. The Common Red Polls add extra trills to their songs, the Pine Grosbeaks jabber away in low and high 'finchy' rubbery tones, and the Blackcap Chickadees call out their sweet mating notes including a sharply pitched 'sweetheart' 'sweetheart'.

Love is certainly in the air.

Time to Sing

Thursday 1 March 2012

Raven Predators

The evidence was in the snow. Dark feathers scattered in the driveway under the window from where I looked.  Running outside, I followed the trail of feathers to spilled tree buds on the ground. Around the corner on the side of the garage was the predator - a raven feasting on a ruffed grouse. The large black bird flew away at my approach. The grouse's throat had been torn open to expose the tree buds it'd been eating. It's breast had been plucked bare, and was cold and soft. Not yet frozen.

Had the raven killed the grouse? I'd never heard of ravens actually killing something. Didn't they eat only carnage?  I disposed of the grouse carcass and feathers.

In the past two weeks, six ruffed grouse had returned each day to feed on the buds in the willow trees in my front yard. From beneath the low spreading branches of the large white spruce in the neighbor's yard, the birds crept out on the snow, flapped up to the fence, and walked along the round metal pole until they reached the first willow. After flying up to a heavy branch, the birds walked along this bridge that bent close to the next willow. Another flap and hop and the grouse would spread out in the big willow tree to feast on the buds. Branches bent as the heavy birds reached the thinner tips.

The grouse had appeared as usual in the late morning of the raven attack. In the afternoon, after I cleaned up the evidence, I went out to the willows to replenish the black oil sunflower seed in the bird feeders. Beside the snow trail through the lawn to the willows, I found more evidence - a hole in the snow the size of a grouse and imprints of raven feathers in the snow around the hole. I eyed the distance of the hole from the willow branches. If a raven had flown in from the street and attacked a grouse feeding out on a branch, the target would have landed in this area. Darn... wish I'd seen it!

After telling friends about the raven attack, I heard stories of ravens attacking live animals. Common observations were of ravens picking songbirds out of the sky. One friend had seen a cat surrounded by ravens in the street.  Then, I remembered an incident when I lived in Old Crow, Yukon. On a chilly fall day, I stood on the riverbank high above the frozen Porcupine River and watched four ravens peck continuously at a seagull they had surrounded on the ice. The large black birds jumped closer. The seagull flapped its wings, yet, no sound came from the birds.

An old man stopped to watch with me. The seagull was weakening under the attack. The elder and I walked on to let mother nature take her course.

Sunday 19 February 2012

Rainbow Trail

Walk on a rainbow trail; walk on a trail of song, and all about you will be beauty. There is a way out of every dark mist, over a rainbow trail.
- A Navajo Blessing

Double Rainbows at Boya Lake Provincial Park on the Stewart Cassiar Highway in B.C.