I arrived at the airport just after midnight. My plane had chased the setting sun north from Vancouver, British Columbia to my final destination Whitehorse, Yukon. Outside, it looked like dusk had only just begun to settle in. I wouldn’t see anything darker for the next two months.
This was Yukon, land of the midnight sun. Located just a hop over the border from Alaska, Yukon is a place of mountains, pin straight pines, and alpine lakes. A land of search and discovery, over the years it has called to gold-seekers, adventurers, and scientists (like me).
I am in the Yukon for two reasons. Two small, pocket-sized reasons. Here there are populations of golden and white-crowned sparrows, closely related species from the Zonotrichia genus. I am working as part of a team to discover how members of the two species manage to learn and recognize the song of their own species and not the other. Our team is led by Emily Hudson, my future lab mate at University of Nebraska, who is writing her dissertation on the project. A more detailed synopsis of the research can be found here.
The search for sites with sparrow populations began the morning after my arrival. A long ride up a bouncy dirt road ensured that I was wide awake, as did the cold drizzle when we left the warm confines of the car. Spread before us was Fish Lake, and behind it the Boundary Range. The slate-grey lake peeked out from between the mountains, just visible through the rain. I would soon learn that scenes like this are a ubiquitous part of the Yukon landscape, but for the moment I was in awe.
Slowly, we continued up the mountain doing playbacks of sparrow songs along the way to prompt responses from any sparrows that might be nearby. Both species’ songs begin with an introductory whistle. However while the golden-crowned songs typically consist only of whistle notes and a trill, the white-crowned sparrow songs have some complex notes mixed in. Except for a splash of bright yellow on the heads of the golden-crowneds and racing stripes of white and black on the head of the white-crowneds, the sparrows themselves are rather unobtrusive.
As we moved higher the rain turned to snow and my attention turned to the bright patches of lichen beneath my feet. Above tree line, the ground was speckled with red, silver and green. Later, after buying a field guide, I learned that the names of the lichens and mosses were as eclectic and varied as their appearances – mealy pixie cups, British soldiers, and greater toad pelt to name a few.
Eventually, after spotting a couple of golden crowned sparrows flying through the snow we called it a day and headed back to the car. We’d be back to catch and band these birds, analyze their responses to different songs, and eventually do the same with their nestlings.
Follow along as I spend the summer chasing sparrows and falling in love with the Yukon wilderness.
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