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CANADA: Yukon & Northwest Territories
U.S.A.: Alaska

24 June - 13 July 2007

by Blake Maybank

Page 2  (27-29 June)

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    "There where the mighty mountains bare their fangs unto the moon,
    There where the sullen sun-dogs glare in the snow-bright, bitter noon,
    And the glacier-glutted streams sweep down at the clarion call of June."
            From Heart of the Sourdough, by Robert W. Service

27 June - Moose Creek Campground to Tombstone Territorial Campground
28 June - Blackstone Uplands and Surfbird Mountain
29 June - Goldensides Mountain and North Klondike River

27 June

This was a day more for logistics and travel than birding.  We drove north from the Moose River Campground on the Klondike Highway, stopping briefly at Gravel Lake, which lies on the east side of the road, at km 622, about 60 km north of the campground.  This lake is larger than Meadow Lake, but was less productive regarding the number and diversity of waterfowl.  Still, there were Red-necked and Horned Grebes, and at least 50 Bufflehead.  There is a picnic site, parking area, and pit privies.  And the scenery is wonderful. . .

Gravel Lake, Klondike Highway

Gravel Lake, Klondike Highway, Yukon
photo © 2007 by Blake Maybank

We stopped in at the Klondike River Lodge, at the junction of the Klondike Highway and the Dempster Highway, and returned their key, and learned they didn't carry the batteries we needed, so we continued on the Klondike Highway for an additional 40 km until we reached Dawson City.  Once in Dawson we found the batteries we needed at Maximilian's Emporium, and also discovered an impressive line of Motor Homes and RVs queued for the ferry across the Yukon River.   The small (free) ferry runs on demand day and night, but can only take one (or occasionally two) Motor Homes at a time.  Although passenger cars use a separate line, they get backed up too when there are convoys of RVs waiting to cross.   At such times waits of more than 12 hours are possible, a bit less if you're in a car.  Foot passengers, however, can cross anytime, and therein lies a solution.

If you are camping, driving a non-RV, and intending to drive the Top of the World Highway, then grab your tent, cross the ferry as a foot-passenger, and walk the 750 metres to the Yukon River Territorial Campground (98 sites).   Claim your site, set up your tent, and return on foot across the river.   Spend the rest of the day exploring the numerous attractions of the Dawson City area, have a nice meal in the town, and then take your car across after 2100 hours, by which time the line-up will have dispersed.   Drive to your campsite, unroll the sleeping bags, and you can figure out the rest.

But our planned crossing of the Yukon River was not for some time, so we left Dawson City and returned to the start of the Dempster Highway.  We filled up with gas, and I noted many swallows flying about, three species, including Cliff.  

Dempster Highway, Km 0

The Dempster Highway, Yukon
photo © 2007 by Blake Maybank

The Dempster Highway starts paved, but don't get your hopes up -- it quickly turns to gravel.   But gravel of a reasonable quality, at least at first.  Between KM 0 and the Tombstone Territorial Campground at KM 72 the Dempster Highway runs up the North Klondike River Valley (Region #1 in "Birds by the Dempster Highway"), rising in elevation from 460 m to 885 m.   For the first 50 km the vegetation is boreal forest, including spruce, aspen, cottonwood, birch.  Between KM 50 and KM 72 the broad-leaved trees become more scarce, and the timberline zone is reached by KM 68.  This initial section of the Dempster offers the most diverse and rich forest of the drive, but since the avifauna was more typical of the southern Yukon I wasn't inclined to spend much time birding that portion. 

Regardless, by the time we started on the Dempster it was already early afternoon, and we were anxious to reach Tombstone Territorial Campground and set up our tent, but I did manage to arrange a few random birding stops en route.   At one such random stop (about km 58) I heard a singing Tennessee Warbler, and managed to "pish" it out for a nice look.  This is a rare species anywhere in the Yukon away from the SE corner of the territory, and even there it is quite scarce, so I was very surprised and pleased to encounter it.

You arrive at the park boundary roughly 20 km before you reach the campground.   Here is a quick map overview:

Tombstone Territorial Park Map

Tombstone Campground, at KM 72, is located in one of the last patches of forest at the treeline, at the base of Fold Mountain.  It offers 36 campsites (none of them pull-throughs, thus discouraging the RVs), as well as a kitchen shelter, free firewood, potable water, hiking trails, and a staffed Interpretive Centre, open between late May and mid-September.  Many Yukoners camp here, and this is one of the busiest territorial campgrounds, though it was never entirely full during our visits.

The park staff maintain a sightings board, highlighting recent bird and mammal sightings, and they have a comprehensive reference library that you may consult.  There are a variety of complimentary brochures, including a park bird checklist.  They also sell copies of "Birds Along The Dempster" should you still not own a copy.  There are periodic interpretive walks and special talks, the latter usually held in the kitchen shelter.  You will likely become well-acquainted with the screened-in kitchen shelter, as there are typically more than a few mosquitos about.  And it is a great place to meet your fellow campers.   Here is a photo revealing the idyllic setting for the campground.

Tombstone Campground

Tombstone Territorial Campground, Yukon, at the foot of Fold Mountain.
photo © 2007 by Blake Maybank

The staff at the centre also have copies of an auto-tour guide for the Dempster, highlighting stops of interest (geological, natural, cultural) for the length of the highway.   These are available for loan only, and must be returned when you pass by on your way south. 

We settled in for the night, though the perpetual daylight encouraged Martine to keep reading until well past midnight.

Bird List - Yukon - 27 June 2007

Red-necked Grebe
Horned Grebe
Ring-necked Duck
Greater Scaup
Common Goldeneye
Red-tailed Hawk
Mew Gull
Northern Flicker
Alder Flycatcher
Tree Swallow
Violet-green Swallow
Cliff Swallow
Gray Jay
Common Raven
Tennessee Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Rusty Blackbird

28 June

Frisch, in his book, divides the Dempster highway into seven geographic regions, and subdivides each region into zones.  He describes Region 2, the Southern Ogilvie Mountains, as "Ornithologically the richest and most interesting of the seven regions".   This region has two zones, the North Fork Pass (km 72-87, elevation 1040-1300 m) and the Blackstone Uplands (km  87-132, elevation 920-1050 m).   This area is characterized by shrubby tundra, open tundra, some ponds and small lakes, streams and rivers, alpine tundra above 1350 m, and some scree and talus slopes.   The North Fork Pass is the divide between the Klondike-Yukon Rivers system, which flows south and west into the Pacific Ocean, and the Blackstone-Peel Rivers system, which flows eventually into the Arctic Ocean.

Our intention was to spend the day exploring this rich region, driving north to km 132 and returning to the campground.

Climbing up and over the pass the valley is somewhat narrow, and there are a couple of viewpoints beside the road, one of which provides a superb vista up the North Klondike River to Tombstone Mountain, the park's namesake.

Tombstone Mountain

Looking southwest up the North Klondike River valley to Tombstone Mountain, Yukon
photo © 2007 by Blake Maybank

                                                                                     Location of Tombstone Mountain                       

I was somewhat anxious to reach the Blackstone Uplands, the richest part of the region, but we stopped here and there as we went, and had a very productive stop where the Dempster crosses Foxy Creek, just before the creek flows into the Blackstone River.  (GPS coordinates N64 38.615 W138 22.793).  One of the first birds I encountered was Wandering Tattler, which I had not expected until a known site at Cache Creek, at km 132.  A pond on the west side of the road just north of Foxy Creek held another surprise, a nesting pair of Trumpeter Swans, and I saw a Common Loon nest in the same field of view.  The same pond also held a pair of Red-necked Phalaropes.  I scanned the mountain slopes to the west and managed to pick out two Dall's Sheep, a life mammal, one that I'd missed on my first trip to the Yukon. 

We continued north, and stopped at Two Moose Lake, where there were a variety of waterfowl, including American Wigeon, Greater Scaup, and Ring-necked Duck.  A Solitary Sandpiper worked the lake's shoreline, and there was a Lapland Longspur in display flight. 

There were more ponds north of Two Moose Lake, and while I was pleased to find Oldsquaw (Long-tailed Duck), I was unable to locate any Red-throated or Pacific Loons.   Arctic Terns often nest on exposed gravel bars of the Blackstone River, but I couldn't find any, nor could I spot any Bonaparte's Gulls where previously present.   I frequently scoped the tundra in the hopes of seeing Long-tailed Jaegers on hunting sorties, but without success.   I did, however, spot a large Grizzly Bear more than a kilometre to the west, and though at first it was slowly meandering away from us, it suddenly picked up speed, and moved at a remarkable clip, still away from us, fortunately.   An impressive sight, and a reminder to be vigilant while exploring the Yukon's wilderness.

Other birds new for my Yukon list awaited.  The park boundary ends at the south end of Chapman Lake (though the Blackstone Uplands continue north), and at the lake we found 4 Tundra Swans and a group of 70 Surf Scoter.   In a small pond north of Chapman Lake there was a family group of Semipalmated Plovers, and further north we encountered a road-side family of Willow Ptarmigan.   There were passerines in the uplands, including longspurs and Savannah Sparrows, but most songbirds were in the shrubby areas that lined ponds, streams, and the river, including Gray-cheeked Thrush, Wilson's Warbler, and Lincoln's Sparrow. 

We drove as far north as Cache Creek, at km 132, and we found the creek almost dry, a consequence of an extended drought in the area.  Unsurprisingly there were no Wandering Tattlers present, and the low water levels might have explained why I found them at Foxy Creek.  

As the day progressed the clear skies were gradually replaced by cumulus clouds, many of which eventually produced rain.  (This was a typical pattern in these mountains, which encouraged us to adopt the practise of rising early and doing much of our photography before the afternoon showers.)   We headed back south from Cache Creek, but not before we photographed the uplands for posterity.

Blackstone Uplands, looking south

Looking south over the Blackstone Uplands, Yukon
photo © 2007 by Blake Maybank

After so much road-side exploration we decided we needed some proper exercise, so we chose to hike part way up the side of Surfbird Mountain, the unofficial designation of a smaller peak upon whose sides Surfbird nests had been located in the past.  There is no established trail, but there was a convenient starting point, at a communications tower that is accessed off the Dempster Highway.  The ungated and unmarked road runs west of the Dempster at approximately km 100, but is, in any event, quite obvious, as is the tower, which is visible for some distance around.  The road runs a little more than a kilometre to the tower, where you can park.   From there, of course, it is uphill.   Here is a map.

Surfbird Mtn location map

For this, our first hike, we ascended only 180 metres, up to a ridge crest, from where we had a view of a small plateau to the west.  There was quite a breeze blowing, so we didn't take our bug jackets, a decision I regretted every time I had to photograph "belly plants", as the mosquitos were lurking in the calmer air close to the ground.

The first notable bird was an Upland Sandpiper that led us off by performing an impressive distraction display.  Somewhat further off I could hear calling Whimbrel, but try as I might I could not locate them.   The only passerines we saw at first were American Robins, but when we reached the first ridge and inspected the gradually rising plateau beyond I heard a displaying Smith's Longspur.   We were also vigilant for Grizzly Bears, as we weren't too far from where I'd seen one earlier that day.

I took a number of flower photos, but our energy levels were fading, so we returned to the vehicle, leaving a more intensive search for Surfbirds for another day. 

Back at the campground we met a variety of our fellow campers, including a couple who were in search of a ride back to where they'd left their car at the Grizzly Creek trailhead, some 20 km south along the Dempster.  They'd spent about a week hiking the back-country; their ambition put our car-camping in perspective.   Martine volunteered to drive the female half of the husky hikers back to their car, while we men stayed behind to watch over the beer.  It was during this vehicle retrieval that we experienced our first flat tire, which the ladies handled with aplomb.  Their car was fine, and unmolested, despite being left unattended for more than a week.  This is an experience typical of the Yukon, though not most places in the world, alas.

All was eventually made right, and we slept well, after a long day of exploring the Blackstone Uplands.

Species List - 28 July - Blackstone Uplands and Surfbird Mountain

Common Loon
Trumpeter Swan
Tundra Swan
American Wigeon
Green-winged Teal
Northern Pintail
Ring-necked Duck
Greater Scaup
Long-tailed Duck
Surf Scoter
Barrow’s Goldeneye
Red-breasted Merganser
Willow Ptarmigan
Semipalmated Plover
Wilson’s Snipe
Upland Sandpiper
Lesser Yellowlegs
Solitary Sandpiper
Spotted Sandpiper
Wandering Tattler
Least Sandpiper
Red-necked Phalarope
Mew Gull
American Herring Gull
Cliff Swallow
Gray-cheeked Thrush
Swainson’s Thrush
American Robin
Varied Thrush
Gray Jay
Common Raven
Orange-crowned Warbler
Yellow Warbler
Wilson’s Warbler
American Tree Sparrow
Savannah Sparrow
Fox Sparrow
Lincoln’s Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Lapland Longspur
Smith’s Longspur
Common Redpoll

Species seen - 45

29 June

Knowing as we did that the weather was better, on average, in the mornings, we chose to rise early for our hike part way up the side of Goldensides Mountain.   The trailhead is quite close to the campground.   Drive north on the Dempster Highway for less than 2 km, and turn right on an unmarked gravel road, which arrives, in about 1 km, at a communications tower.  The signed trail-head is beside the parking area outside the fenced tower.   The elevation here is about 1330 metres, and the trail, of course, goes mostly uphill, though there is a small valley to cross as you go.   Here is the profile of our hike.

Profile of our hike up Goldensides Mtn

Profile of our hike up Goldensides Mountain

The trail is easily discerned, and we stopped often as we went, as there were many flowers to photograph.  Birdlife was not too diverse, as expected, though it was wonderful being surrounded by the constant singing of White-crowned and American Tree Sparrows, as well as Common Redpolls.   Higher up on the mountain flanks we encountered a family group of Golden-crowned Sparrows, and at the point where we halted our ascent, at roughly 1540 metres, I could hear, and eventually saw, a Northern Wheatear higher up the mountain.   The bird was undertaking display flights from a saddle ridge, and I could see him in silhouette on the ridge when he rested between flights.   A new bird for my Yukon list was a nice reward for a long hike.

And so was the view.   Here is a panorama shot from the high point of our hike, showing the campground, the North Klondike River, Tombstone Mountain, and the trailhead.

Panorama from Goldensides Mountain

Panorama south and west from the flanks of Goldensides Mountain, Yukon
The communications tower (trailhead location) is visible in the lower right.
photo © 2007 by Blake Maybank

Despite the exertions of the morning we decided on one more hike, and in the afternoon, accompanied by the two dogs belonging to a Whitehorse birder at a neighbouring campsite, we hiked the trail that led from the campground up the east bank of the North Klondike River.   More flowers, of course, and no new birds, but we hiked as far as remnant snow and ice packs along the river, visible in the photo above.

Back at the campground, while we were preparing supper, a flock of White-winged Crossbills appeared, presumably attracted by the heavy cone crop on the conifers.  The males almost immediately began singing territorial songs, and were still doing so when we returned to the campground the following week.   Other campground birds included Gray Jays, and nesting Merlins.  

As usual I didn't manage any serviceable bird photos, but on the hike up Goldensides I snapped a couple of butterflies.

White-veined Arctic (Oenis bore)     - - - - - - -    Arctic Fritillary (Boloria chariclea)

[left photo] -- White-veined Arctic (Oenis bore hanburyi)
[right photo] -- Arctic Fritillary (Boloria chariclea)
photos © 2007 by Blake Maybank

Species List - 29 July - Goldensides Mountain, Tombstone Campground

Swainson’s Thrush
American Robin
Varied Thrush
Northern Wheatear
Boreal Chickadee
Gray Jay
Common Raven
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Wilson’s Warbler
American Tree Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow
Golden-crowned Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
White-winged Crossbill
Common Redpoll

Species seen - 16

30 June+ -- pending. . .

Blake Maybank
White's Lake, Nova Scotia, Canada

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