June 9, 2008

"Weekend on the Wing" - Tombstone Birding

We arrived late in the day at Tombstone Provincial Campground on Friday, and the “Weekend on the Wing” officially started that evening with a nice presentation reviewing pictures, calls and characteristics of birds we’d most likely see. Several options were offered for Saturday, one of which was a hike right in the campground. The hike was led by Mary from Whitehorse (purple jacket - green headwrap), who really knew her calls and was a great help in identifying what we saw, which included Wilson’s Warbler, White Crown & Tree Sparrows and Robins.

As you can see in the photos, the cover is extremely thick, making it great habitat for the birds and difficult for birding.

I’d have to say the highlight of Saturday morning was the Wilson’s. I didn’t get a picture of the bird (just these avid birders), but I will say that it’s brilliant yellow color with the contrasting black cap topped the more mundane appearance of it’s neighbors.

That afternoon, we went on a caravan which drove from the campground up the Dempster all the way to Lake Chapman over a period of roughly five hours. Led by another skilled birder from Skagway, Nola (in the black hat & brown vest) did a terrific job of stopping at each & every potential spot along the way.

I particularly enjoyed the stop at Two Moose Lake, where we saw both Tundra & Trumpeter Swans, many species of ducks we’d seen before including Scaup, Mallards, Widgeon, Ring Billed, Shovlers, Pintails and new for us was the unique Long-Tailed Duck!

While standing there on the platform, we were “dive bombed” by this lone Bald Eagle, obviously after a nice tasty lunch below. He literally flew about 30 feet over our heads on a couple of passes! Many of the ducks on the Lake became visibly nervous, and flew to the far end as a precaution. What a show this fellow put on for us!
The rest of the drive was spent in search of the Red Throated Loon which we did not see until we made the drive up to the Artic Circle (subject of another post). The only unique thing on the rest of the drive was getting caught in some fair sized sleet….

Sunday’s adventure was a long hike up the Surfbird Mountain ridges led by Mary, with Mike, Greg, Kim & I and Tony trying to keep up with her speedy pace. I’m still not quite sure why we parked way out the road, it sure made our first objective (the mountain behind us) a long hike through the thick tundra. I think Kim was asking the same question here…

So, tundra, let’s see thick growth directly over the permafrost, as you can see here with my hiking poles “bottomed out” about three inches below the surface on solid ice! The photo here on the right was taken elsewhere, but the cross-section of the tundra & ice show what's actually beneath. It's hard to believe that beautiful wildflowers and the bearberries grow and thrive in these harsh conditions.

Approaching the halfway point, we see a Long-Tailed Jaeger sitting perhaps on a nest? Almost instantly the bird started flying in large circles high above. I stayed behind to get some photos as the group walked ahead towards the mountain. Suddenly, the Jaeger started diving at me almost posing for a nice aerial shot.

A few minutes later, I discovered why…as I walked briskly to catch the group, I see where one of them had almost stepped on the single egg the bird was guarding.

As a few small outcroppings appear, we suddenly come upon this Rock Ptarmigan, a new bird for us on this trip! We also began to notice more wildflowers.

The final stretch to the top looked easy from below, but increased in slope as we neared the crest.

Kim tried an alternate route, which petered out into loose rock, slowing her down a bit.

At 4000+ elevation and roughly 2000 feet higher and two miles away our vehicles, the view was breathtaking. Here we see Greg & Tony watching Kim on the far left make the last part of the climb….
I paused at the top long enough to allow the others to start down a long ridge on the other side as Mary had set the next mark at the top of the snow-laced peak far ahead!

The plan was to top that one then follow the far top ridgeline all the way around to the left in this photo below, picking up the road at the extreme left and back to the vehicles….more on that later.
As we reentered the tundra, Mary spotted the first caribou antler, hey Mary that rack belongs on top of a male…..

Greg & I get ahead as Mary & Kim find the going a bit tougher as we enter thicker willows.

It wasn’t long before Greg spotted a better example of antler, unusual for this time of year, because it has survived many months without being eaten by other animals for it’s rich mineral content.

Near the base of that far peak above, Kim, Greg & I make the decision to split from the group to cross the valley and head back to the truck, thinking we would see more birds and possibly a caribou in the brush, willows and tundra. Mary, Mike & Tony pushed on the ridge hike, and were able to see the Golden Plover up above.

Greg has a background in botany, and pointed out the rare and beautiful plants & flowers we came upon in a small meadow after moving on.

Our long, tough journey through the thick brush only produced one reward, a nice pair of caribou antlers, attached to part of the skull, obviously from an animal that had either died or been killed, and a cool running creek for refilling our Seychelle filter bottles.

It still was an arduous hike back to the truck, made easier by interesting conversation about the area from Greg as he & I strolled the road for the final mile.