by Shyloh van Delft
Through the month of April, the snow is turning soft and heavy and sap is beginning to run with the touch of the new warmth in the sun. In Tagish, the gentle embrace of spring is heralded by the astounding sight of hundreds upon hundreds of swans clustered in the Tagish River around Tagish Bridge. The echoing honks of the Trumpeter Swans can be heard through most of Tagish during this time. Click here for CBC video.
The community of Tagish can be considered the best place in southern Yukon to view the northward-bound swans passing through. This is because Tagish Narrows is one of the three critical resting and feeding grounds in southern Yukon (Ranked 1-3 in importance: 1.Swan Haven, 2.Tagish Narrows, and 3.Johnson's Crossing). Swan Haven holds the greatest number of swans, but unfortunately the swans are so far away they have to be viewed through scopes and binoculars; even then they are still very distant.
PHOTO BY JUKKA JANTUNEN
Swans stopping in Tagish will stay to rest for 2-5 days, depending on the weather conditions. Tagish Bridge allows swan viewers to see Trumpeter and Tundra Swans (the only two Yukon species of swan) at close range, and to experience the territory's second highest number of migratory swans in one area during the spring. Swans flying over the bridge are often so low that they only just clear the railing, giving observers wonderful views and many opportunities at great photographs.
The Trumpeter Swan is the Yukon's most numerous swan species, particularly in the spring - more than 13,000 are documented passing through Tagish to the Whitehorse area. They are larger than the Tundra Swan, and are easily distinguished by the pink 'lip' that runs along the side of their bill (at a distance, this marking can be difficult to see). Tundra Swans are less numerous than the Trumpeter Swans, but can still be fairly easily found in amongst the Trumpeters. They lack the pink 'lip' of the Trumpeter Swan and are smaller in size. The marking that most easily distinguishes them apart from the Trumpeter Swans is a small, bright yellow 'tear drop' at the inner corner of their eye. Trumpeter swans seen in Tagish in spring are coming from their wintering grounds on Vancouver Island, in the BC Low Mainland, adjacent areas of the Washington, and SE Alaska.
Tundra Swans have a longer journey to Tagish, spending their winters in the western states of the U.S.A: California, Nevada, Utah, Washington, and Oregon. Once these swans reach the Yukon some head further north, others split up east (NWT) and west (Alaska), and other disperse themselves throughout the Yukon landscape for the summer. In the fall, the swans are seen migrating through the vally in large V-shaped flocks during September and October. They don't usually stop to rest in Tagish when heading down south. The arrival of swans during April in Tagish is an important event to community members; the swans bring with them the beginning of spring, life, and warmth, and the end of the cold dark days of winter.
Swans are not the only waterfowl that visitors and residents can see in Tagish; Tagish hosts tens of thousands of ducks and shorebirds migrating north every spring. In April the overwintering Common Mergansers and Common Goldeneye are joined by their kin, and then by other ducks including Mallards, Northern Pintails, Green-winged Teal, Greater and Lesser Scaup, Rink-necked Duck, Red-breasted Merganser, Barrow's Goldeneye, Bufflehead, American Wigeon, and Northern Shoveler, as well as Canada and Greater White-fronted Geese. Snow Geese will sometimes appear in large flocks, collecting on the spit separating 6-Mile River from Marsh Lake. The waterfowl make themselves very obvious in Tagish in the spring, but in the fall they tend to stay out towards Marsh Lake. Even a flock of hundreds of ducks can go unnoticed and unchecked in Tagish in the fall due to their reclusive habits.
Once the shore ice begins to pull away from the water's edge in May to reveal the slimy mud beneath, the ground starts to seemingly move. Through binoculars and spotting scopes, viewers can watch many species of shorebird scour the mud for nutritious food. Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs flash their brightly coloured - you guessed it - yellow legs as they forage. The solid-looking Wilsons Snipe can be viewed discreetly searching the edge of the willows or heard high up in the sky in a courtship flight that sounds very much like the song of a Boreal Owl. The lucky individual can observe an occasional Hudsonian Godwit appear in Tagish to stand tall and proud amongst the smaller shorebirds. The smaller shorebirds consist most commonly of Least, Semipalmated, Baird's, Spotted, Pectoral, and Solitary Sandpipers, along with Killdeer, Ring-necked Plovers, and American Golden Plovers. These birds become a very uncommon sight in Tagish when fall migration begins, due to the fact that the water has risen and there is no shore for these birds to land and forage on.
The wide diversity of birds that can be found in Tagish are part of what make this community such a special place. Tagish is the most well-known in the birding/birdwatchers world for the numbers and diversity of waterfowl that pass through in the spring and in the fall, though large numbers and diversity of other birds species such as raptors, gulls, and songbirds can be seen in the community as well. Tagish is a migratory bird hotspot in southern Yukon; anyone who enjoys the outdoors, wildlife, and bird life would love Tagish. The bird diversity, wildlife, landscape, and community make Tagish stand out in the Yukon as a very rich and special place.
Check out Shyloh's birding blog, Beakingoff.