By Pamela H. Sinclair
It's May 23rd and not cold, but the wind blowing across this wide-open landscape is relentless. A small bird is buffetted across the ridgetop where we're hiking, and disappears over the leeward side. Was that a flash of white on its tail? We scramble over some loose rocks, escaping the wind just below the ridgetop, relocate the bird, and YES! It seems miraculous that this delicate little bird, a Northern Wheatear uttering metallic alarm calls as it bobs its striking white-and-black tail, has just arrived from Asia. We take a good look at its handsome black mask and other field marks and quickly move on, leaving this remarkable bird to enjoy its respite from the wind.
For birders from around the world, the Dempster Highway is one of the Yukon's main attractions. To have vast expanses of tundra, and the fascinating bird communities which make this landscape their home, just a few hours from the urban sophistication of Whitehorse is an enviable situation. But you need not wait until tourist season to visit the Dempster! By mid to late May, most birds have returned. One of my favourite spring trips is to the Dempster for the long weekend in May. We usually set up camp at Tombstone Campground at km 72 and take day-trips from there. Short excursions from Tombstone will take you to a variety of rich bird habitats, including Moose Lake and the surrounding tundra at km 102, the Blackstone River Crossing and associated wetlands at about km 92, and "Surfbird Mountain", a series of rounded hills to the east of the highway at about km 96.
In terms of weather, anything can happen. You might have a gloriously warm, sunny weekend, or you might be scooping snow off your tent and chipping at blocks of ice for your morning coffee. But bad weather will not ruin your birding opportunities?on the contrary! Many migrants have already arrived, so a snowfall at this time of year will concentrate birds in areas of bare ground. You may not have your hike up Surfbird Mountain, but instead you have a chance of seeing Surfbirds, Northern Wheatears, Gray-crowned Rosy Finches, and other high-alpine birds right down near the highway.
At Tombstone you will wake up to a chorus of northern songbirds including the musical offerings of Varied Thrush, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, White-crowned, American Tree, and Fox Sparrows, and Orange-crowned, Wilson's, and Yellow-rumped Warblers. This sounds particularly melodious if you have chosen a campsite that was also claimed by a territorial male Willow Ptarmigan. The frenzies of goofiness that comprise this ptarmigan's courtship flight displays in the wee hours can't help but make you laugh. Due to the vagaries of late spring weather, the stage of moult the ptarmigan are in may make them very conspicuous. A late snowfall may suddenly make brown summer-plumaged birds stick out like sore thumbs. On the other hand if the snow has melted off quickly, Rock Ptarmigan may be scurrying to any dirt or dust they can find, to "bathe" in it and dim their dangerously bright white feathers. Like us, the ptarmigan always have one eye open for an approaching Gyrfalcon.
If the snow has melted, then you will be able to do some hiking up the mountains and hills beside the highway. Unless you like struggling through vast wet tangles of dense willows, a good access to higher ground is the communications tower at about km 96, on the west side of the highway. Walk along the road to the tower and then head up to your left for a very pleasant walk along these rounded hills and ridges. Up top, you will have fantastic views of the landscape, and you will have a chance of encountering American Pipits, Horned Larks, Rock Ptarmigan, Northern Wheatears, and Surfbirds.
The Surfbird is a Yukon specialty. The Yukon territory is the only place in Canada where this species breeds. In fact, the world range of nesting Surfbirds is limited to the Yukon and central Alaska. It was the late Bob Frisch, who contributed an extraordinary amount to our knowledge of central Yukon birds, who first confirmed that Surfbirds nest in Canada. The Surfbird leads a curious dual life. In winter, large flocks frolic on rocky shores of the Pacific Ocean, dodging crashing waves and getting drenched in salt spray. Watching these wintering flocks, which share barnacle-speckled rocks with the likes of such ocean-loving birds as Black Turnstones, Rock Sandpipers, and Black Oystercatchers, it is difficult to imagine them more than a few metres from water. However, Surfbirds are very particular about their nesting habitat, and it has little to do with water. In summer, they seek out dry heath tundra on mountaintops many hundreds of miles from the sea. If you are lucky enough to see this enigmatic species on its nesting grounds along the Dempster, stop for a moment to ponder the strange life of this chunky shorebird.
Moose Lake, at km 105 is invariably full of ducks in late May. Tundra Swans may also be seen, along with Horned Grebes and Mew Gulls. The tundra around and just south of Moose Lake is particularly productive. American Golden-Plovers in their striking spring plumage are sometimes feeding here by the dozen, and Pectoral Sandpipers and a Whimbrel or two are often seen as well. Be on the lookout for Short-eared Owls flying low over the tundra with deep, stiff moth-like beats of their long wings. Watch too for Long-tailed Jaegers, and enjoy their breath-taking beauty as they hover gracefully over the tundra in search of mice and other prey. The Blackstone River crossing at km 92 is a good place to stop and look for a variety of birds including the exquisitely handsome Harlequin Duck, and the cryptic Wandering Tattler. Check the grounds around the outfitter's cabins here for Snow Buntings, Lapland Longspurs, Gray-crowned Rosy Finches, and a variety of other birds which gather here to feed on leftover grain.
This article originally appeared in the Yukon Warbler. Reference as:
Sinclair, P.H. 1996. May Birding on the Dempster. Yukon Warbler. 4(1): 10-11.
The most detailed birding resource for the Dempster Highway area is:
Frisch, R. 1987. Birds by the Dempster Highway. Revised Edition. Morriss Printing Company Ltd. Victoria, BC.
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