Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Tombstone Territorial Park, Yukon Territory

Our first three days in the Yukon can be summed up in one word – spectacular! The “adventure” component of our Fur and Feathers travels has certainly been kicked up a notch as we are travelling around in a motor home and have just spent two nights in a remote, beautifully-sited campground in Tombstone Territorial Park at about 64 deg latitude. (This by way of an explanation for the late posting of this blog entry.)
Fri June 1 – Brian, Phil and Ray fly on Air Canada to Whitehorse, YT. It is the first time for all of us in the Yukon.  The airport terminal, briefly a hive of activity, is completely empty and silent by the time we have picked up our rental car. The car is just for our short-term needs as tomorrow we’ll pick up our 25 ft. motorhome which will be our living quarters for five nights. Tonight, however, we stay in a hotel on 1st Avenue in Whitehorse, not, as we soon find out, one of the trendiest streets in the Yukon’s capital city. Within seconds of emerging from the car we are beset by panhandlers. Our room contains three beds, making this one of our cheapest overnight stays of the year. Dinner is taken at our second choice restaurant, and we misguidedly ask to sit in on the rooftop patio, under a canopy bearing the marketing slogan, “Beer Worth Freezin’ For. As the temperature drops in single digits, we understand. Anyway we enjoy the local brews, Yukon Gold (is there a beer more aptly named?) and Yukon Red, if not the overpriced and overcooked bison burgers and caribou sausage.
Beer worth freezin' for
Saturday June 2 – We decide to put in a little birding before breakfast, despite the cool, wet weather. Emerging from the hotel and noting with relief that our car is still there, we walk along the banks of the Yukon River and pick up Arctic Tern as our first new year bird of the trip.

Arctic Tern

Cutting short our chilly walk, we decamp to McDonald’s for a quick bite and drive to McIntyre Creek wetlands, just outside of town. The rain eases off enough for us to enjoy a couple of hours of wonderful birding, with many birds singing and showing well. We had great looks at Solitary Sandpiper, Belted Kingfisher, Northern Waterthrush and a host of other species.
After a quick shower back at the hotel, we went to pick up our motor home. The franchise-owner  showed us an orientation DVD for the vehicle, and explained to us the many penalties which would apply if we returned it in less than tip-top shape. On enquiring why there are so many signs in German around the office, we are informed that 85% of their customers are from Germany.  While Ray and Phil do the grocery shopping, Brian fills the motor home with gas. Some time later, Ray and Phil return with enough food to last six months and we are off on our way.
The 500 km journey north along the Klondike Highway is rather uneventful and we are relieved to conclude our journey at the start of the Dempster Highway, where we overnight in the basic RV camping area next to the Klondike River Lodge, dining in our motorhome. Along the way we sighted one new mammal - an Arctic Ground Squirrel.
Arctic Ground Squirrel
Sunday June 3 – Mindful of the fact that birding should always start early, we set off up the Dempster Highway shortly after 6 AM, after a quick breakfast in the RV.  It is of course well after dawn at this latitude. Bird song is limited and cool damp conditions prevail as we make short work of the 71 km drive to the Visitor Centre at Tombstone Territorial Park. As the centre doesn’t open till 9:00 AM, we occupy the time by driving a little further north, picking up along the way the first of several Willow Ptarmigans prominently displaying on a small spruce. Upon returning to the Visitor Centre we are greeted by two female staff members, Alex and Margaret, who provide some helpful information and a very welcome cup of tea brewed up from twigs of some native plants which tasted rather good. They also allow us to sign out a bird book and a canister of bear spray.

Entrance to Tombstone Territorial Park
Willow Ptarmigan
The day remained rather overcast, but doesn’t dampen our spirits as we bird our way along the Dempster . Traversing the Southern and Northern Ogilvie Mountain Ranges, it is a very memorable journey. The highway traverses the arctic tundra, providing a rare opportunity to access this habitat which is the breeding ground for a good variety of birds, most of which we only see in Alberta on migration, if at all. There are many rushing streams and ponds along the route, one of the most notable of which is Two Moose Lake, which contains a variety of waterfowl and other birds nearby. The Dempster is 735 km in length, terminating in Inuvik, NWT.  Our journey takes us only as far as Km 158. Here a well-known Gyrfalcon nest on the cliffs is found to contain a female bird, the head and upper parts being clearly visible to us through the scope. At the same spot we encounter Collared Pika, a cute but not overly-inquisitive mammal.  We eat sandwiches at this wild spot before heading back down the Dempster and returning to the Visitor Centre before checking in at the nearby campground.
Besides the new birds and mammal for our year list, we enjoyed wonderful looks today at birds we often only see fleetingly, or in non-breeding plumage, or at a distance. Gray-cheeked Thrush, Wilson's Warbler, Fox Sparrow, Red-necked Phalarope and Red-throated Loon all put on great displays for us.

Fox Sparrow
After dinner in the campground, where only three of the 25 spots are occupied at this early stage of the brief summer season, we meet up with Cameron Eckert, Yukon’s premier birder, with whom Brian has corresponded prior to the trip. Cameron joins us for a Yukon Gold or two and provides us with much helpful information. He plans to hike the nearby Blueberry Ridge tomorrow, and invites us to join him, but after a careful assessment of our aging backs and joints, we politely decline. The best piece of advice Cameron has to offer is very welcome – no need to get up early for birding in these parts. He leads us on a late evening walk towards a possible Wandering Tattler site, but we have to abandon it because of snow on the trail. Still, back at the campground, Cameron points out a flock of six Dall’s Sheep on a distant ridge. We hope to get closer looks at this fine mammal in a few days’ time. Even more fun is scoping the nearby slopes in a game of “spot the Rock Ptarmigan”. Approximately one-third of the white spots on the hillside turn out to be this desired bird, the other two-thirds are ptarmigan-shaped white rocks.
Monday June 4 – Following Cameron’s advice, we drive back up the Dempster to Surfbird Mountain, a journey of about 25 km. The weather is perfect. Soon after we start the drive we see a magnificent male Grizzly Bear beside the road. Brian is able to get a quick photo before an onrushing truck scares the bear which disappeared into the willows. What luck, hardly any traffic at all on this road, and the worst of timing for a truck to pass by.
On the access road to Surfbird Mountain we get fantastic looks at the beautiful Smith’s Longspur. After parking the motor home at the end of the road we set off up to the ridge. Hiking over the tussocks on the tundra is tiring work, and we are happy to terminate our hike after an hour. As we enjoy some snacks, Brian spots one, then two Long-tailed Jaegers cruising below us. Ray gets onto them, but Phil dips. (It pained me to write that bit!).

Smith's Longspur
We make our way back to the campground, spotting a pair of Wandering Tattlers in a mountain stream still choked with huge blocks of ice. Shortly afterwards we come across two young Caribou, another arctic specialty.

Wandering Tattler

A late afternoon rainstorm encourages us to head back to the campground. But soon it clears and we decide to drive back to Two Moose Lake and eat our dinner there. By chance, we meet Cameron at Two Moose Lake and he joins us for dinner. His hike had been very arduous and we are glad we didn’t join him, although he had spotted a single Northern Wheatear which we will likely not get to see.
It has been a great two days in Tombstone Territorial Park, and we have totted up six new bird species and seven new mammals so far on the trip.


  1. Nice report and great pictures as per usual, the only thing I can add is that I had Northern Wheatear today on the West Coast of Scotland...... but thats not unusual as they breed here! Want to swap one for a Smiths Longspur?

  2. Hi David - we would have got the wheatear if it had been down low; for some reason the birds like the mountain tops here. Anyway, send us a Northern Wheatear and when we get it, we'll try to find you a Smith's Longspur! Brian