By DAN FOX
Skies above Skagway play host to an impressive and interesting array of avians – among them, the nimble arctic terns continue to be observed by the Skagway Bird Club and other local ornithologists.
“I think that they’re incredibly graceful fliers,” Shelby Surdyk, an avian technician with the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, said. “They have a flying pattern that is distinct from any other birds in the area.
“They are really beautiful I think to watch fish, because they will hover over the water and actually peer down through the surface of the water, looking for fish before they dive down into the water and grab them.”
Elaine Furbish with the Skagway Bird Club said that, based on the information the club has been able to gather, the arctic terns usually arrive at the beginning of May, and leave mid-July.
Arctic terns are a slender white bird sporting a distinctive black patch on the head, though their coloration depends on their age and season, according to the National Wildlife Federation. They migrate from points north all the way down to Tierra del Fuego, the southernmost point of South America, and then back north again.
Arctic terns are also fairly long-lived, with at least one tern known to have had a lifespan of 34 years.
Surdyk said the very first arctic tern observations in Skagway came during the Gold Rush era.
“Because arctic terns return to nest at the same site that they hatched from, it’s possible that the terns we have in Skagway today are descendants of the terns that were nesting here in the Gold Rush,” Surdyk said.
Arctic terns are a ground-nesting species, and lay their eggs in a wide variety of habitats including forests, islands, tundra and rocky beaches. In Skagway, they have been most noticed nesting in places containing a lot of rocks or gravel.
Furbish said that the arctic terns have been nesting on the Ore Peninsula since the mid 1990s.
“It is a special place where tourists can easily get close-up views of fuzzy chicks growing into elegant adults,” Furbish said.
In 2015, after a human disturbance at the Ore Peninsula colony midway through the season, the amount of terns observed in the area decreased dramatically, Surdyk said.
“So we assumed that the terns that had been nesting at that site had – because it was disturbed – abandoned the colony and had not attempted to re-nest in the same area,” Surdyk said. In 2016, the Skagway Bird Club led an effort to monitor the terns more closely and set up barricades to protect nesting areas. Surdyk said it seems the terns did return in 2016, with comparable populations to 2015.
“This year I would say it seems the same as well, though I haven’t crunched the numbers yet for arctic terns,” Surdyk said.
Out of the ordinary this year, one finely-feathered parent chose to nest on the floating Ferry Terminal, in a bit of gravel on the dock.
“It probably chose that spot because there was some gravel on the floating dock at that time, and also the high-level of activity around the area might have protected that nest site from disturbance by predators, either small land mammals or other birds such as herring gulls,” Surdyk said. “That egg did successfully incubate, hatch and fledge, so that was pretty exciting.”
Furbish speculated that the adults nesting at the Ferry Terminal may have been inexperienced new parents, to choose such a high-disturbance area away from the protection of the colony. While the bird club does not have detailed monitoring data of the arctic terns this year, only a few nests were observed on the Ore Peninsula. Furbish said the Bird Club thinks most of the colony may have nested in the Skagway River bars across from the airstrip.