Bird Songs of the Nahanni

As the days grow long, the snowdrifts recede and the first hints of green appear in the trees, I let bird song wash over me, a spring baptism of sorts. We are on the same trajectory, these birds and I as we both prepare for our yearly pilgrimage to the Arctic.

This week I heard the first sounds of birds in the trees around my home. A sure sign that milder temperatures and spring are on their way, a flock of pine siskins were chattering from the birch tree by my front door. Do you know their sound? I have heard it likened to the sound produced by running your thumbnail up the tines of a comb. Tzzzzzzzz!

As the days grow long, the snow drifts recede and the first hints of green appear in the trees I let bird song wash over me, a spring baptism of sorts. Many of the birds that I see in April and May in the forests of northwest BC are migrating north to nesting grounds and their seasonal homes. We are on the same trajectory these birds and I, as we both prepare for our yearly pilgrimage to the Arctic.

I enjoy thinking that the white crowned sparrows I hear on spring bike rides just might be the same birds whose vocals I hear while dipping my paddle in the Nahanni in July. For those not familiar with the white crowned sparrow, a helpful mnemonic is “poor Paul peed his pants”! You will never forget this small bird’s song using this trick!

As we so often hear more birds than we can identify by sight I have found learning bird songs and calls to be rewarding and useful. As your ears learn to tune in you will realize you have long been keeping company with some exceptional songsters. As you enjoy the evening light playing on the water listening to the call and response of kinglets, warblers and thrush you may fall, as I have, into a deep romance with these graceful and well-travelled birds.

Of the diverse array of birds found in the Nahanni the vast majority are there only in the summer season. While some stay for the whole summer, some species are only passing through as they head further north and only a small number of birds are permanent residents. These include the Northern Goshawk, four kinds of Grouse and the White tailed Ptarmigan.

We often see birds while floating on the river each day. A common sighting is the belted kingfisher with his distinct black and white colouring with a white belt around his neck. Often before your eyes can settle on this small swooping bird your ears might pick up its call which has a repetitive machine gun like rhythm.

The Ruby Crowned Kinglet is another common bird in the Nahanni that before learning its call I could not identify by sight. This slight bird’s song is a thrilling trill of quick staccato notes best identified by the distinct ending of “chubby chubby chubby, chubby chubby chubby!”

My personal favourite, and the bird song that first enchanted me is that of the Hermit thrush. I have heard this song described as ethereal and I believe there is no better word for its delicate, haunting beauty.

Of course there are some birds that we can easily identify by sight.  Loons, Harlequin ducks and bald eagles reveal themselves to us from their size and their easily distinguished colouring. Red tailed hawks can be seen circling high overhead, if you can’t distinguish their rusty colour of their tail feathers their downward “kiiieeeeee” call will help confirm their identity.

The rarely spotted red throated loon was recently seen one beautiful July evening by a group camped just above Rabbitkettle Lake. And a childhood favourite of mine, sandpipers can be seen running on their thin legs along the rocky shore below Virginia Falls.

While many journey to the Nahanni anticipating vast beauty and silence, those who tune their ears will realize the wilderness is anything but silent. Regardless of what area of the Nahanni’s watershed you travel in tuning into the plethora of birdlife around you will enrich your experience and appreciation for the Nahanni’s wilderness.

The Natural and Cultural Guide to the Nahanni produced by Nahanni National Park Reserve was used as a reference while preparing this post.