Wood Sandpiper a Yukon first at Herschel Island
By Cameron D. Eckert
Herschel Island lies just off the Yukon's Arctic Coast and is known to the local Inuvialuit as Qikiqtaruk (kee keek ta ruk) which means "It is island". The island was given its English name on July 17, 1826 by Sir John Franklin in honour of British chemist and astronomer, Sir John Herschel. In 1890, the island hosted up to 1500 whalers who had come to the Beaufort Sea in search of Bowhead Whales which had been hunted to near extinction in waters further south. The whalers were followed by Anglican missionaries in 1893 and the Northwest Mounted Police in 1903. By 1907, the whaling era was over and the non-native population dwindled. The R.C.M.P continued to breed sled dogs on the Island until 1964 when they permanently closed the post. Today, Inuvialuit continue to hunt and fish at Qikiqtaruk, now a Yukon Territorial Park, and visitors from all parts of the world travel to the island to experience its very special natural character.
On August 5 1996, Pam Sinclair, Linda Cameron, Helmut Gršnberg and I flew from Inuvik, Northwest Territories to spend eleven days on Herschel Island observing the fall passage of birds. Our camp was located at Pauline Cove on the southeast side of the island - the site of the old whaling settlement and the current park station. In fall, most of the westward movement of birds passes through Workboat Passage between Herschel Island and the mainland which is about 10 km southwest of Pauline Cove. As such we did not expect to observe large numbers of fall migrants at Pauline Cove but felt that the location's diverse habitats and position at the outer edge of the Yukon coast would make for interesting birding. This proved to be the case.
During our eleven days on Herschel Island we observed 49 species with a daily average of 25 species. Snow Buntings, Lapland Longspurs and a family group of 10 Rock Ptarmigan foraged among the huge driftwood logs, brought north on the MacKenzie River from southern forests, which defined the high water line on Pauline Cove's rocky beaches. On August 8 the distinctive high call of a single Yellow Wagtail captured our attention. While Yellow Wagtails are a fairly common breeder along the Yukon's mainland coast, this was only the second fall observation. From our camp we scanned the Arctic waters of the Beaufort Sea where small flocks Arctic Terns, Red-necked Phalaropes and the occasional Red Phalarope moved northwest past Pauline Cove. A few Parasitic Jaegers could generally be seen foraging offshore and on August 8 a Pomarine Jaeger stopped briefly at Pauline Cove.
Most interesting was a pair of Long-tailed Jaegers which we observed feeding their two fledged young each day near our camp. On August 9 and 10 the behaviour of the adult birds changed as they took to calling incessantly while flying high over the juvenile birds at dusk. On August 11 one adult and one juvenile left the area, and on August 12 the second adult and juvenile left the area. On August 9 all four Yukon loon species could be seen from our camp. For the most part, Herschel Island is bordered by steep mud cliffs which provide nesting sites for several pairs of Rough-legged Hawks and Peregrine Falcons. Pauline Cove is home to the Western Arctic's largest breeding colony of Black Guillemots which nest in the old Anglican mission house. While the guillemots were often seen perched on the Anglican mission house, on August 12 a very different shape caught my eye. Quickly moving the scope onto the bird I was startled to see the buffy yellow face of a female Yellow-headed Blackbird.
The marshes around Pauline Cove provided food and cover for small flocks of shorebirds which touched down on the island each day. On August 9, after a rather long hike along the north side of the island, I decided to check the marshy ponds by the Anglican mission house before returning to camp. Just past the first pond I flushed a small shorebird which immediately reminded me of a Solitary Sandpiper. I knew that Herschel Island was rather far north for this species and as the bird flew high out over the ocean I hoped for a better look. The shorebird circled and flew straight back toward the ponds and as it prepared to land just a few meters away I focused directly on its rump and tail. I was shocked to see that its white tail was marked only with fine lateral bars. Once on the ground the bird actively bobbed its tail until it settled in to feed. Clearly visible were its dull yellow legs and a distinctive whitish supercilium. I suspected right away that the bird was a Wood Sandpiper. Despite the fact that I was carrying my camera I decided that it would be better to alert my companions rather than risk flushing the bird again. Clearly, I made the right choice. After my frantic dash back to the camp Pam, Helmut, Linda and I returned to the ponds and were joined by Frank Elanik, Herschel Island warden and local bird expert. We quickly relocated the bird and riding a wave of excitement we carefully studied, photographed and thoroughly enjoyed the Yukon's first Wood Sandpiper. We searched Pauline Cove the following day but the bird had left the area and was not seen again.
In general appearance this small Tringa was similar in size and shape to a Solitary Sandpiper, but with a slightly longer-legged look. While actively foraging it showed a longish neck which was not evident when the bird rested and held its head close to its body. Just before taking flight and after landing the bird would actively bob its tail. When I first flushed the bird it flew with swift wing beats high out over the ocean but when flying short distances between ponds it exhibited a more fluttery flight. Its flight behaviour was similar to a Solitary Sandpiper.
Head and upperparts: It had a dark brown crown and a distinct buffy-white supercilium which extended from the base of the bill to well past the eye. Its dark eyeline ran from the base of the bill, to well past the eye. It had a very thin broken white eye ring. The rest of the face was pale greyish-brown with slightly darker brown ear coverts. The nape was paler brown than the crown. The back was medium to dark brown covered with very fine whitish-buff spots. The folded wings were similarly brown and patterned with lines of off-white spots on the feather edges. At rest, the wingtips extended just to the end of the tail. In flight its flight feathers appeared dark brown and it clearly showed a white rump and white tail marked with many fine lateral dark bars. The underwing was medium to dark grey, paler grey at the base and becoming darker toward the outer wing.
Undersides: The throat, breast, belly and undertail were whitish. A greyish-buff wash extended from the neck on to the sides of the upper breast.
Bareparts: Its dull yellowish legs were unlike the relatively bright legs of a Lesser Yellowlegs. Its bill was straight and approximately the same length as its head. The bill colour was mostly black with a greyish base suggesting that the bird was a juvenile (Jonsson 1992; Paulson 1993).
Voice: The bird only called once when initially flushed. Its call was a high pitched and sharp "twee twee" reminiscent of a Solitary Sandpiper but distinctly different from a Lesser Yellowlegs.
The Wood Sandpiper at Pauline Cove on Herschel Island on August 9, 1996 was the Yukon's first and Canada's second documented occurrence of this species. Canada's first Wood Sandpiper was observed on November 3-9, 1994 at Massett on the Queen Charlotte Islands, BC (Hamel and Hearne 1994). While the Wood Sandpiper is relatively common in spring on the central and outer Aleutians (Armstrong 1995) it is considered accidental in the Beaufort Sea area (Johnson and Herter 1989). There are two Wood Sandpipers records from Point Barrow, Alaska: one on 20 July 1957 (Pitelka 1974 in Kessel and Gibson 1978), and one on 20 June 1975 (Kessel and Gibson 1978).
The Yukon's North Coast is a striking landscape which rewards visitors with an opportunity to experience a unique Arctic community of birds and wildlife. During our stay on Herschel Island we had many occasions to observe Muskox, Porcupine Caribou, Grizzly Bear, Red Fox, Ringed Seal, Beluga and Bowhead Whales. On our departure flight we flew around the island before returning to Inuvik and as we rose above Pauline Cove, the magnitude of that spectacular natural world expanding around us, we began planning our next trip to Herschel Island.
We are very grateful for the warm welcome we received from Herschel Island park wardens Lee John Meyook, Richard Gordon, Frank Elanik and Colin Gordon. Frank Elanik and Elizabeth MacKenzie kindly shared their considerable knowledge of Herschel Island's birds and wildlife.
Armstrong, R.H. 1995. Guide to the Birds of Alaska. Alaska Northwest Books. Anchorage, Alaska.
Hamel, P. and M. Hearne. 1994. A Wood Sandpiper at Masset, Queen Charlotte Islands - first record for Canada. Birders Journal 6(3):257-260.
Johnson, S.R. and D.R. Herter. 1989. The birds of the Beaufort Sea. BP Exploration (Alaska) Inc. Anchorage, Alaska.
Jonsson, L. 1992. Birds of Europe with North America and the Middle East. Princeton University Press. Princeton, New Jersey.
Kessel, B. and D.D. Gibson. 1978. Status and distribution of Alaska birds. Studies in Avian Biol. 1:1-100.
Paulson, D. 1993. Shorebirds of the Pacific Northwest. University of Washington Press. Seattle, Washington.
Pitelka, F.A. 1974. An avifaunal review for the Barrow region and North Slope of arctic Alaska. Arctic and Alpine Research 6:161-184.
This article originally appeared in Birders Journal. Reference as:
Eckert, C.D. 1996. Wood Sandpiper a Yukon first at Herschel Island. Birders Journal 5(5):247-251.
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