Boreal Bird Blog
Observations and updates from our Senior Scientist, Dr. Jeff Wells, and the BSI science team

May birding in Yellowknife was great

June 23, 2014 | Dr. Jeff Wells

Yellowknife, Northwest Territories
Credit: Jeff Wells

I had the good fortune to be able to visit Yellowknife—one of my favorite northern places—a few weeks ago (May 21, 2014). I have been to Yellowknife a number of times over the past nine years since my first visit in 2005, but each time I see new things, meet new people, and learn more about so many aspects of the Northwest Territories. This was a quick trip with International Boreal Conservation Science Panelists David Schindler, John Jacobs, and Jim Schaeffer and most of it was taken up by meetings indoors, but I did get outside a little including a pre-breakfast birding foray around Niven Lake behind the Explorer Hotel in Yellowknife where we stayed.

Birders from just about any part of the U.S. and southern Canada (not to mention other parts of the world) would be drooling to see the cool birds that are routinely seen in and around Yellowknife in migration, and I certainly was not disappointed. I had heard through the grapevine that one or more Western Tanagers were being seen around town but I was still surprised when, soon after starting down the path to Niven Lake, I spotted a flash of yellow in a spruce right next to me and up popped a beautiful Western Tanager! I was even able to snap a few photos and some video.

Western Tanager
Credit: Jeff Wells

Western Tanagers actually breed in the southern Northwest Territories and even, according to range maps, north of Great Slave Lake to the west of Yellowknife. But still they are quite unusual visitors there now. Perhaps they are expanding further northward? Only time will tell.

Western Tanager-Yellowknife-NWT-May22-2014-JWells

I did see several other bird species that are at or near their northern range limits in Yellowknife. One was an American Crow I saw near the parking lot of the Explorer Hotel. Of course American Crows are abundant across most of North America so not so special for a visiting birder, but interesting to me since I am pretty sure that I had not found the species in Yellowknife in past trips. The closest I remember seeing American Crows to Yellowknife was when the plane I was on stopped in Hay River on the south side of Great Slave Lake and I saw a large flock of them as I peered out the plane window. The other species near its northern range limit was the Black-billed Magpie, which I have seen before in Yellowknife. I even saw and photographed one way north of there in Deline a number of years ago. One of the Black-billed Magpies I saw in Yellowknife on this trip had no tail and was being pursued by a Merlin as it disappeared behind the Legislative Assembly building. Both American Crows and Black-billed Magpies are expanding their range northward, probably as a result of both more human-made infrastructure that they can follow and where they can scavenge for food and because of the effects of climate change.

American Crow
Credit: Jeff Wells

None of the birds I have mentioned so far are those that would get most North American birders enthused, but there were many that would. The Harris’s Sparrows that I saw and heard in several places around Niven Lake certainly would be in that category. Harris’s Sparrows have an unusual wintering range that extends in a narrow ellipse down the center of the Midwest U.S. Their breeding range is limited exclusively to Canada, extending from the northwestern corner of Ontario northwards to Nunavut. This limited wintering and breeding range makes it a species that many birders have never seen or see only rarely. Another species with a somewhat similar range is the Smith’s Longspur. Although I didn’t have the good fortune to find one in my brief birding time in Yellowknife, I saw through the Yellowknife Bird Arrivals Facebook page that resident birders had seen and photographed some around the time I was there.

Harris's Sparrows
Credit: Jeff Wells

Other sparrows were abundant too, including singing Lincoln’s Sparrows, White-crowned Sparrows, White-throated Sparrows, Swamp Sparrows, and Dark-eyed Juncos. Singing Yellow Warblers, Yellow-rumped Warblers, and, special for a birder from the eastern U.S. like me, Orange-crowned Warblers were quite abundant.

Singing Orange crowned Warbler NIven Lake Yellowknife Northwest Territories Canada May22 2014 JWells

It was wonderful to see and hear up close the many breeding Red-necked Grebes and Horned Grebes, which in our area are normally winter ocean residents along the coastline. In fact, several Red-necked Grebes were building nests within twenty-feet or so of the walking paths that skirt the shores of Frame Lake and Niven Lake. On Frame Lake, which was still partly ice-covered, while on a short between meeting walk with Jim Schaeffer and John Jacobs we spotted some breeding plumaged Common Loons and a single breeding plumaged Pacific Loon. The latter species is one that eastern birders only rarely enjoy. And again, although I didn’t find one while there, local birders reported seeing Yellow-billed Loons (another rarity that makes birders crazy) somewhere in the area around the same time.

Red-necked Grebe
Credit: Jeff Wells

Common Loons
Credit: Jeff Wells

Gulls were another interesting theme for me, as Yellowknife is blessed with having an interesting mix of species including species found rarely in eastern North America like California Gull and Mew Gull, both of which I observed while there. Several Arctic Terns passed over as well, probably just back after the long journey north from their sub-Antarctic wintering grounds (of course it is summer there during our winter!). But one of my favorite observations was watching Bonaparte’s Gulls engaging in nest building and courtship behavior around the trails and shoreline. Bonaparte’s Gulls are basically a breeding season endemic of the North American Boreal Forest region (i.e. they do not breed anywhere else). This fact alone makes them special, but add to this the fact that they are one of the only gull species in the world to nest exclusively in trees and you have a gull that has always captured my imagination! As I walked around Niven Lake in particular, Bonaparte’s Gulls were fluttering down to the ground between the spruce trees to find twigs and then carrying them over to larger spruce trees and almost disappearing within them as they carefully placed the twigs to make a nest. And all the while making lots of noise! Wonderfully fun to watch!

Bonaparte's Gull nest building near Niven Lake Yellowknife Northwest Territories Canada May22 2014 J

Niven Lake was more of mudflat than a lake over much of its area and this attracted shorebirds, including Solitary Sandpiper, Pectoral Sandpiper, and—my favorites—two breeding plumaged American Golden-Plovers.

A Sora was calling on and off while I was there—I’m not sure how much further north they regularly occur. There was a nice variety of waterfowl around, including a bunch of Lesser Scaup, a few Greater Scaup, Green-winged Teal, Northern Shoveler, American Wigeon, Canvasback, and Redhead.

Birders and photographers looking for a great place to get north easily with tons of great birds and amazing opportunities for close-up photography should consider a trip to Yellowknife!

And here are a couple more recordings from around Niven Lake:



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