Home of the Bluethroat
By Cameron D. Eckert
In 1850, Edward Adams was a surgeon and naturalist aboard the British ship Enterprise which had been sent to the Bering Sea in search of the missing Franklin expedition. On June 5, 1851 Adams was traveling overland from Norton sound to the Koupac River in northwestern Alaska when he discovered North America's first Bluethroat. It was 123 years later, on June 9, 1973, when P.S.Taylor and co-workers discovered Canada's first Bluethroat - a male singing in tall brush bordering a small lake along the upper Babbage River on the Yukon's North Slope.
The Bluethroat (Luscinia svecica) is an old world thrush which breeds in most of northern and central Europe and across northern Asia to eastern Siberia and Manchuria. It winters from northern Africa across India to southeast Asia. Several races are recognized including cyanecula (white throat patch), magna (wholly blue throat) and svecica (red throat patch) which breeds across northern Siberia, northern Alaska to the Yukon. Despite the Bluethroat's regular occurrence in Alaska and the Yukon this species has never been documented elsewhere in North America - the Yukon is home to Canada's only Bluethroats!
The Bluethroat is one of the Yukon's most stunning and rarely seen songbirds. While many birders have traveled the Yukon's North Coast in hopes of observing this species, few have been lucky enough to find this elusive bird. Those who have seen the Bluethroat do not soon forget the experience. The adult male is a striking bird which gets its name from its iridescent blue throat. The blue throat is set off from the white breast and belly by a black and rust chest band. Like a hummingbird's, the iridescent throat is most striking when viewed straight on. The upperparts are earthy brown. A bold white eye brow and rusty-red tail base which flashes boldly during song displays are also distinctive field marks. The female is similar to the male but has a greyish white throat rather than an iridescent blue throat.
The Bluethroat's song is complex, fascinating and absolutely inspiring. The Bluethroat has an extraordinary ability to mimic other birds and will string together in one long song the unlikely combination of Fox Sparrow, Lapland Longspur, American Golden-Plover and Arctic Tern! Males often sing while performing aerial flight displays - fanning their tails and flashing bold rusty-red feathers.
Since the discovery of the Yukon's first Bluethroat in 1973 there have been relatively few sightings. Bluethroats do not appear to occur on the outer Yukon coast. While a variety of habitats along the coast have been well explored, Bluethroats have only been observed further inland along rivers, generally in areas less traveled by birders. The occurrence of Bluethroats away from the easily accessed coastal habitats helps explain why this species went undiscovered for so long and is still rarely observed. As well, when not singing, the Bluethroat is a difficult to observe skulker which spends most of its time quietly foraging deep in the tangles of low shrub. This may explain why only one female has been observed in the Yukon.
Despite the scarcity of observations, a pattern of habitat preference has emerged from the 16 observations of singing males on the Yukon's North Slope. All birds were observed in low shrubs, either alder or willows, along rivers or drainages. In one case (1973) a bird was observed at a lake edge. The Bluethroat has been better studied on the Seward Peninsula of northwestern Alaska. While its primary breeding habitat is low shrub thicket, a study of Bluethroats along the upper Noatak River of the Seward Peninsula found that adjacent tussock tundra was a critical habitat component.
The timing of migration of Bluethroats in the Yukon is not known. The three earliest records, all on June 9, may have had more to do with the arrival of the observers than the arrival of the Bluethroats. In Alaska, the first spring migrants reach the Seward Peninsula in late May but movements of birds have been noted through mid-June. The latest Yukon observation, July 18, indicates that male Bluethroats spend the summer on the North Slope but the timing of their departure is not known. In Alaska, most individuals depart in early August with the latest observations in the last few days of August.
Breeding status remains the largest gap in our knowledge of Bluethroats in the Yukon. The single observation of a female in 1980 is very exciting as it indicates that the Bluethroats found along Yukon's North Slope are not just males singing in vain at the edge of their range. The single observation of a female indicates that Bluethroats have likely bred in the Yukon. Confirmation of their breeding status would be an extremely exciting discovery - the perfect quest for someone with a desire to experience a remarkable landscape while learning more about one of Canada's most extraordinary birds!
This article originally appeared in the Yukon Warbler. Reference as:
Eckert, C.D. 1995. Home of the Bluethroat. Yukon Warbler. 3(4): 10-11.
For more information on birding the North Slope or other Yukon birding destinations contact:
Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada, Y1A 5P7