Morning Reflections on the Pelly River Floodplain


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Hilary Cooke
Co-Director, Northern Boreal Mountains Program

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Boreal birds

Published

2014-03-17

The Pelly River follows the Tintina Trench northwest on its path to join the Yukon River.

~Contributed by Hilary Cooke, Whitehorse, Yukon
I fell in love last summer. It had been a long time since I felt my heart racing, my skin tingling, my breath catch in my throat while my cheeks lift in a smile, and my eyes widen in appreciation. But last June while doing field work in Yukon’s Tintina Trench I fell in love with the floodplain of the Pelly River.

Located about 100 km east of the community of Ross River along the Robert Campbell Highway, my field crew and I first tried to explore this section of floodplain in late May 2013. But the spring melt had brought high water levels resulting in flooded forest and overflowing channels and ponds. We were forced to postpone until the water receded back to the river. When I returned in mid-June to do bird surveys, I fell in love.

The Pelly River follows the Tintina Trench northwest on its path to join the Yukon River. Extending from the Liard River basin in southeast Yukon through Dawson City in the west, the fault line started forming ~190 million years ago. Moving tectonic plates forced fragments of the Earth’s oceanic crust beneath the western margin of the continental shelf, and then 450 km northwest. Today the Trench ranges in width from 2 to 12 km. It is an important migratory flyway for ducks, geese, raptors, shorebirds, and songbirds. In spring, an estimated ¼ million Sandhill Cranes pass through the Trench on their way to breeding sites farther north. Approximately two thirds of the Yukon’s 219 regularly occurring bird species use the Trench for breeding or during migration.

The Pelly River flows through the Traditional Territory of the Kaska Dena people, who have lived with this land for thousands of years. Prior to the building of the Robert Campbell Highway in the mid-20th century, the Pelly and other waterways of the region were important travel routes, including for early explorers and traders. Today, mineral exploration and development is changing the face of the landscape, with potential disruptions to the cultural, spiritual, and subsistence connections of the Kaska with the land. Today, one Kaska First Nation – the Ross River Dena Council – is working with the Yukon Territorial Government to develop a resource management plan for the region. WCS Canada is collaborating to bring new science to this process, including mapping ecological benchmark areas – large, intact watersheds that support a diversity of species and habitats – and developing best practices to protect key wildlife habitats during resource development activities. Last summer’s field project will contribute information on the importance of the Trench’s valley-bottom habitats to breeding songbirds.

Our morning field work starts at 3:00 am in camp. A quick breakfast of instant oatmeal and coffee, a short-drive down the gravel ‘highway’, and I start navigating to my first bird survey location. As I bushwhack through the forest I yell ‘hey bear' so as not to surprise any black or grizzly bears in the area. It's only 3:30 but the sun is already on the horizon and the sky is light.
When I arrive at my first survey point I’m still high above the floodplain in open spruce forest. I record all the birds I can see and hear within a 200-m radius for a 10-minute period. It’s a standard field method called a ‘point count’ that is used to monitor songbirds. The first survey reveals Swainson's Thrush, Dark-eyed Junco, Yellow-rumped Warbler, and American Robin breeding nearby – the usual suspects for Yukon's boreal forest. But in the distance, towards the Pelly River, an Alder Flycatcher sings for 'free beer', a Northern Flicker calls all 'clear', and a Wilson's Snipe decorates the sky with its winnow. There is more. Down there. Where the river meets the land.

I move downslope towards the next survey point 400 m away but a straight-line route is blocked by a beaver slough. So I skirt through the forest along the edge of the slough hoping to find a way to cross. As often happens in the forest, I follow a path taken by wildlife before me. This particular wildlife trail takes me past mounds of overturned soil and roots – maybe a grizzly bear searching for the roots of alpine sweet-vetch. Also known as bear root, it often grows in recently disturbed sites including areas disturbed by fluvial, or river, processes. The young roots can be cooked and have a taste described as similar to young carrots or its other common name, liquorice root. I hardly go a few steps without encountering another upturned pile. But the trampled path I am following makes for easy walking so I risk a face-to-face encounter with a foraging bear and follow the path until I encounter a beaver dam across the channel. It is passable so I cross. I am now in the heart of the Pelly River floodplain.

As I continue my exploration, I follow where my heart leads. First, a stand of old growth spruce – large white spruce trees, spongy mounds of moss and lichen, snags with old woodpecker cavities, and middens of white spruce cones collected by red squirrels. There are signs of an old forest fire – blackened roots poke out of the thick, green moss.

I move through the stand of big, old trees to the edge of a beaver pond. The water is releasing its heat to the cool early morning air, creating a mist over the old ponds and channels. A Bufflehead duck is on the water. Perhaps it's nesting in that old Northern Flicker cavity at the top of the white spruce snag on the pond’s edge? A downy white feather is caught just inside the entrance suggesting a cavity full of eggs on a nest of Bufflehead feathers.

A lone Horned Grebe floats in the rising mist. A Yellow Warbler sings sweetly from willows on the pond edge; there must be a nest near somewhere. The drop in water levels since the spring floods receded has exposed mud flats and old beaver dams. Five Lesser Yellowlegs are calling to each other as they skip and forage along the exposed mud. A Green-winged Teal flies by, and four Blue-winged Teal are around the next bend.
I move away from the pond on a compass bearing towards the Pelly River and find myself in a completely different habitat – an open flat of dwarf birch and short white spruce trees. A Chipping Sparrow is claiming the top of a tree with its emphatic, buzzy trill. Close by, a White-crowned Sparrow competes for air time and attempts to drown him out. Next my path takes me through a patch of large balsam poplar trees, where last year’s leaves crunch under my boots. Many of the poplar are showing signs of decay so I scan the trunks and branches for cavities excavated by Northern Flickers. The habitat changes again, and I'm in a thick stand of white and black spruce where I'm welcomed by the high-pitched trill of a Blackpoll Warbler and the soft chips of a Boreal Chickadee feeding a caterpillar to young in its nest cavity.

I push blindly with head down through a dense thicket of willow and dog-hair black spruce to emerge stumbling in thick mud around yet another pond. A Rusty Blackbird is perched at the edge. The Rusty Blackbird is a migratory species that breeds primarily at wooded wetlands in Canada’s boreal forest. Its population has declined by nearly 90% in the past 40 years, resulting in a listing of ‘Special Concern’ under Canada’s Species At Risk Act.

The cause of the decline of Rusty Blackbird is not entirely understood but likely results from multiple factors, including loss of wintering habitat in southeastern United States. I’ve covered less than 100 ha this morning and already have encountered 6 Rusty Blackbirds. When the results of all bird surveys are tallied at the end of the field season, Rusty Blackbirds are the 5th most common species at this field site. Combined, my field assistants and I surveyed ~3,000 ha of the Trench’s valley-bottom habitats in 2013. Of the 66 species detected across all field sites, Rusty Blackbirds were the 13th most abundant. Canada has responsibility for conserving this at-risk species, and the forested wetlands, bogs, and shorelines of the Tintina Trench contribute to its critical breeding habitat.

I've explored only a small corner of the floodplain this morning. There is much more I want to see. But the sun is getting high, the day is warming, and the birds are quieting down. So I head back towards the upland forest and the Robert Campbell Highway. My explorations haven’t brought me close to the river itself – it is still more than a kilometre away as the crow flies and many more kilometres to navigate the ponds, channels, and wetlands. But the small area I’ve explored has shared more than I could have imagined.

By the time fall comes to the Tintina Trench, my assistants and I have observed 81 bird species in this small corner of the Pelly River floodplain. This is not a biodiversity hotspot; no place in Canada’s boreal region is considered a global ‘hotspot’ for biodiversity. But we saw more different bird species here than any other site I’ve surveyed in the Yukon, including two federally-listed Species At Risk and several species of conservation concern in the Yukon. I've also seen abundant sign of several Yukon mammals – wolves, caribou, moose, beaver, snowshoe hare, red squirrel, porcupine, and black and grizzly bear. I am in awe, and yes, a bit in love. I want to come back to this place. I want to know the birds here. I want this place to be on the map. This is a place where ice, water, fire, and beaver have come together to create a floodplain of habitats that collectively provide breeding habitat for over half of the ~130 bird species known to breed in the Ross River Dena planning region. This is a place of abundance, and beauty, and life, and wonder. This is the place I will go back to in my heart to find inspiration and hope when the challenges of conserving wildlife and wild places seem so hard. This is the Pelly River floodplain.

Commentary: Change is on our doorstep

Commentary: Change is on our doorstep

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