Snowy Plover touches down at Judas Creek, Yukon.
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Snowy Plover touches down at Judas Creek, Yukon

By Cameron D. Eckert and Pamela H. Sinclair


On Wednesday May 27, 1998 we were making our usual frantic dash to the S.S. Klondike to rendezvous with the Yukon Bird Club for its annual "Migration FinalÝ at Judas Creek". The Judas Creek outing, led each year by Jim Hawkings has become famous for the diversity of birds and its uncanny knack for turning up the unexpected. However, as we raced to gather optics, field guides and our two small children it soon became clear that we would be late for the scheduled meeting and we decided to head straight to Judas Creek outflow on Marsh Lake, approximately 60 km south of Whitehorse. As it turned out, we arrived well ahead of the group which had opted for a few stops along the way. We were soon joined by Linda Cameron and after waiting awhile we decided to quell our restless feet and wander slowly down the beach towards Judas Creek.

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As the mass of birds at the Judas Creek outflow began to take shape we settled ourselves on the beach to scan the flocks and wait for the rest of the group to arrive. Directing the spotting scope to a small and very active group of shorebirds and gulls on the opposite side the creek, Eckert spotted a small pale shorebird standing at the edge of the beach. Immediate interest in the bird turned to shocked amazement when it turned to reveal a partial breast band which combined with its very pale greyish colour, short bill and legs and rather squat posture made it clear that before us stood a bird which was a long way from home. Right away we recognized the small shorebird as either a Snowy Plover Charadrius alexandrinus or Piping Plover Charadrius melodus, and as our adrenaline surged we quickly checked the field guide and carefully scrutinized the bird's all-dark legs and bill and partial breast band to confirm its identity as a Snowy Plover. Before long, a douzen or so birders appeared at the far end of the beach and as they meandered slowly towards us, it became increasingly certain that this exceptional rarity would not be "the one that got away". Moments later the group arrived and one by one, each birder took their turn at the scope to enjoy a view of a shorebird that is not likely to occur again in the Yukon in our lifetime. This was the Yukon's first Snowy Plover (Eckert et. al. 1998).

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Photo by Cameron Eckert

Description

Size and shape: While larger than a Semipalmated Sandpiper Calidris pusilla, the Snowy Plover was obviously smaller than nearby Semipalmated Plovers Charadrius semipalmatus and Sanderlings Calidris alba. Its posture was very horizontal and it often crouched and held its body very close to the ground.

Bill and legs: The entirely black bill was thin with just a slight bulb towards the tip; its length was approximately equal to the distance between the base of the bill and the back of the eye. The legs were short and, and as the bird often crouched they appeared even shorter; they looked dark at a distance and upon very close inspection appeared dull grey.

Plumage: The overall impression was of a very pale shorebird. Its undersides including throat, breast, belly and undertail were white. Its face was white with a distinctive black patch behind the eye (postocular patch), and dark grey loral stripe. Its forecrown was white followed by a black patch from just in front to just behind the eye with slight extensions along the sides of the patch. The rest of its crown and nape were greyish with some tan tones. A thick black patch on each side of the upper breast formed a partial breast band. There appeared to be a thin white band extending back from the lower face across the hindneck which was bordered above and below by thin dark grey lines extending back from the postocular patch and the upper breast patch. Its back was pale grey with scattered tan coloured feathers. Its scapulars were greyish with more extensive tan feathering than the back, and its coverts and tertials appeared brownish. In flight, its flight feathers appeared dark brown to black with a distinct white wing stripe. Its rump was white along the sides with a dark greyish line through the centre. Its tail was dark greyish/black in the centre with whitish sides.

Voice: The only vocalization heard, usually when the bird appeared anxious was a soft, low rolling trill.

Behaviour and habitat: While foraging, the bird would run short distances then stop and peck, usually near the water's edge. It often foraged or rested very close to a nesting pair of Arctic Terns Sterna paradisaea which seemed to provide the small shorebird with a very effective early warning system. The bird rarely flushed and instead would run away when approached. The small plover was extremely quick on its feet and reasonable photos could only be obtained by walking parallel to the bird, rather than directly towards it.

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Field sketch by Cameron Eckert

Discussion

The identification of the Snowy Plover at Judas Creek was relatively straightforward. Leg and bill colour, combined with its partial breast band and dark stripe running up the centre of its rump readily excluded Piping Plover. The bold black bar across the forecrown, black postocular patch and black patch on the side of the upper breast suggested that the bird was a breeding plumage male; none of these areas showed the brownish tones typical of females (Hayman et.al. 1986; Paulson 1993). Further, the dark loral stripe noted on the Judas Creek bird is apparently an uncommon plumage characteristic which occurs in some males (Paulson 1993). The tan feathers nestled among the otherwise grey mantle and more extensively brown scapulars and coverts of the Judas Creek Snowy Plover indicated that it likely belonged to the subspecies C. a. nivosus, which is the only one found on the west coast of North America (Paulson 1993).

Judas Creek is a well-known southern Yukon "rarity trap" which has hosted such outstanding birds as Red Knot Calidris canutus, Little Stint Calidris minuta, Parasitic Jaeger Stercorarius parasiticus, and Black-legged Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla. Despite this impressive list of rarities, the occurrence of Snowy Plover at Judas Creek or anywhere in the Yukon was totally unexpected. Southern Yukon is approximately 1700 kilometres north of its nearest breeding grounds in southern Washington (Paulson 1993), and this species is even considered very rare along the south coast of British Columbia (Campbell et. al. 1990), 1500 kilometres south of Judas Creek. Other extralimital West Coast records include one on 12 July 1980 at Sandspit, Queen Charlotte Islands, B.C. (Campbell et. al. 1990), and one on 23-24 May 1991 at the mouth of the Nome River, Alaska which was identified to subspecies C. a. nivosus (Gibson and Kessel 1992; Gibson and Kessel 1997). However, being an inland location approximately 300 kilometres from the outer Pacific Coast, Judas Creek stands out as an even less likely destination for a Snowy Plover.

The Snowy Plover remained at Judas Creek until May 29 when it was seen by just one lucky birder on the annual Yukon Birdathon. However, as is typical for late spring on Marsh Lake, water levels rose rapidly during the last few days of May and by the end of the first week in June, the mudflats of Judas Creek had disappeared, the Arctic Tern nest had been washed away and migration was over. The Snowy Plover was never seen again.

Acknowledgments

Thanks to Jim Hawkings for introducing Yukon birders to the rich bird life of Judas Creek. Gus van Vliet kindly provided information on the Alaskan record.

References

Campbell, R.W., Dawe, N.K., McTaggart-Cowan, I., Cooper, J.M., Kaiser, G.W., and C.E. McNall. 1990. The Birds of British Columbia, Volume 2, Nonpasserines: Diurnal birds of prey through woodpeckers. Royal British Columbia Museum, Victoria, B.C., Canada.

Eckert, C.D., Grunberg, H., Kubica, G., Kubica, L., and P.H. Sinclair. 1998. A Checklist of Yukon Birds. Yukon Bird Club, Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada.

Gibson, D. D. and B. Kessel. 1997. Inventory of the species and subspecies of Alaska birds. Western Birds 28: 45-95.

Gibson, D. D. and B. Kessel. 1992. Seventy-four new avian taxa documented in Alaska 1976-1991. Condor 94: 454-467.

Hayman, P., Marchant, J., and T. Prater. 1986. Shorebirds: An identification guide to the waders of the world. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, Massachusetts.

Paulson, D. 1993. Shorebirds of the Pacific Northwest. University of Washington Press. Seattle, Washington.


PAJA

This article originally appeared in Birders Journal. Reference as:

Eckert, C.D. and P.H. Sinclair 1998. Snowy Plover touches down at Judas Creek, Yukon. Birders Journal 7(5):250-253.

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Note: The Judas Creek outflow on the shores of Marsh Lake is located approximately 60 kilometres south of Whitehorse. Access to the best birding areas is a bit tricky and those wishing exact directions should contact the Yukon Bird Club: ybc@yknet.yk.ca

For more information on other Yukon birding destinations contact:

    Yukon Bird Club
    Box 31054
    Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada, Y1A 5P7

    Email: ybc@yknet.yk.ca


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