Birds [ and Birding ]
by Robin Johnstone
The drama from this distance is a faint blur of activity, but my binoculars convey a dramatic tale.
A horned lark is in the lead, streaking over the land, trying to gain some distance and some cover. Close behind, a female peregrine falcon, hungry after her long migration from coastal Brazil, matches every move of the fleeing appetizer. The distance between does not seem to close though, and the chances of escape begin to look good. Then, a sudden blur across my view, so fast my brain barely registers it. It is the tiercel, the female peregrine’s mate. The hapless lark has been ambushed. Distracted by the peregrine in pursuit, the lark does not see its partner gaining height above it. The small male peregrine misses the lark in its first steep dive or stoop, but turns up, up, and completely over in a large loop that points him straight back down at his lunch. The second stoop is deadly accurate this time, and a cloud of lark feathers are left floating on the breeze. The dead lark is deftly passed in mid-air to his mate, and the pair returns triumphantly to their nesting cliff. One more meal in a summer of hunting to provide for a growing family.
– An excerpt from my field diary: Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, Canada. May 27, 1995.
Birding opportunities in Nunavut are extensive and exciting, whether you are an expert birder hoping to add rare arctic species to your life list of birds, or someone who simply delights in watching birds going about their business. The Arctic is characterized by having few bird species, relative to temperate or tropical ecosystems. For instance, only two dozen or so species breed on Ellesmere Island, with another 10 to 20 species sighted. The lack of species number is made up for by the exotic nature of some of the species and the awe-inspiring sight of incredible numbers of others found in the large breeding colonies. Not all places harbor incredible densities of birds, but a long walk on the tundra may be very rewarding.
Tours or outfitters rarely cater specifically to birders in Nunavut; however, they provide excellent access to superb birding, as many destinations in Nunavut provide ideal opportunities for viewing birds, as well as other wildlife. For instance, a canoe trip down the Thelon River through the Thelon Wildlife Sanctuary is a wilderness adventure that also includes excellent birding opportunities. Tree-nesting gyrfalcons, short-eared owls, snowy owls, rough-legged hawks, golden eagles and many other species may be seen.
Interpretive and birding skills among outfitters vary greatly. Novice through to expert birders will benefit from the world-class interpretive program at the long-running Bathurst Inlet Lodge, which sets an extremely high standard for the industry.
The best time for birding in Nunavut is mid- to late May through August. There are excellent opportunities for birding throughout Nunavut in spring as the land begins to peek from beneath its heavy burden of snow and migrant species return in large numbers. By mid-August, many birds have finished breeding and dispersed from their colonies or nest sites. Storms can be very disruptive to any tour in August, especially when boat transportation is involved. Constant darkness and bitter cold leave Nunavut almost devoid of bird life in winter, except for the hardiest of species common ravens, gyrfalcon, ptarmigan.
A birding trip by snowmobile and qamutiik (wooden sled) in late May or June can be very rewarding, and is recommended for anyone of a mildly adventurous nature. At this time birds tend to concentrate on patches of land free of snow, or areas of open water. On land, you may be entertained by sandhill cranes doing their graceful, though somewhat awkward, courtship displays. Magnificent flights of geese and tundra swans may be seen, and stunning aerial dogfights of peregrine falcons staking a territory and a mate may be observed from a safe distance. Long-tailed ducks (formerly known as oldsquaw), common and king eider ducks, black guillemots and many other seabirds may easily be found at leads patches of open water in the sea ice, or at the floe edge throughout Nunavut. Local outfitters can best advise when to visit their community to coincide with spring thaw and the appearance of leads. Dark sunglasses and sunscreen with an SPF 30 minimum are necessary at this time.
The following is a selection of highlighted species that characterize the Arctic, and some good places at which to observe them, in my opinion. Many excellent birding opportunities and exciting sightings may be gained by the self-reliant birder, though, at destinations that don’t specify birding opportunities or interpretive programs.
Gyrfalcon, the largest of all falcons, rank highly on the wish list of keen birders, and seeing an individual of the white color phase is one of the biggest thrills any naturalist, amateur or professional, can experience. They prey mainly on ptarmigan and, if their food supply is good, they may remain in the North through winter. They are not common birds, but close proximity and relatively high densities may provide viewing opportunities at Sila Lodge, Wager Bay, and also at Repulse Bay.
Ptarmigan are one of the true arctic species, adapted for year-round life in this harsh environment. Dense feathers on the top and bottom of their feet and long claws equip ptarmigan with an effective pair of winter boots that protect them from the bitter cold, and crampons for traction on ice. Rock ptarmigan are found throughout Nunavut, and willow ptarmigan are found through much of Nunavut except eastern Baffin Island. They may be difficult to find close to communities because they are a country food item.
The snowy owl is a magnificent sight on the open tundra. Blatantly obvious perched upon the tundra, a snowy owl appears so white it is almost luminescent. Snowy owls are active during the day and may be seen throughout Nunavut when populations of lemmings peak. As lemming populations may vary among areas, check with local outfitters or the wildlife officers at the community Department of Sustainable Development office (or until April 1999, the Resources, Wildlife and Economic Development office) as to whether they have been recently seen in the area you plan to visit.
Tundra peregrine falcons can be seen at many places across Nunavut. Peregrine falcon hot spots include Wager Bay, Bathurst Inlet, Rankin Inlet and Repulse Bay. They also breed close to Coral Harbour. Surrounding Rankin Inlet is one of the densest and most easily accessible populations of peregrine falcons in the world. They are often seen at the airport, or you can take a taxi ride to the Ijiraliq (Meliadine) River Territorial Park to observe a nearby nest. Peregrines may be observed hunting over colonies of black guillemots, flying almost at ground level over the tundra searching for fledgling passerines, and even lemmings a prey item unusual for this species. The Rankin Inlet peregrine population has been studied for the last 15 years, and visiting biologists will happily answer any questions you may have. Unfortunately, the future of this program is uncertain, so check with the local Department of Sustainable Development (or RWED) office for their activities. Your visit may coincide with one of their public slide presentations.
Keen birders seeking to lengthen their life list of birds may choose to visit Nunavut for a sighting of the ivory gull. Rarely venturing out of the Arctic, it is common in the eastern High Arctic. It spends the winter along the floe edge between Greenland and Canada and may be seen along the floe edge at Pond Inlet, especially during migration in late May/early June and later in October, as well as during the summer months in open coastal waters adjacent to colonies further inland. Occasional sightings are also made of the Ross’s gull by lucky birders in the Baffin Region, although it seldom breeds in the Canadian Arctic. They have also been spotted on the Boothia Peninsula, Igloolik, Cornwallis Island, and McConnell River, so wherever you are, keep your head up, and your binoculars handy.
Parasitic jaeger and long-tailed jaeger nest on the arctic tundra throughout Nunavut. A third species, the Pomarine jaeger, is limited to parts of the Kitikmeot, southern Baffin Island, and southern Southampton Island. Described as “dashing pirates” for their habit of robbing other birds of food, jaegers also prey on lemmings, the eggs and young of nesting songbirds and shorebirds. All three species may be seen around Kugluktuk, Cambridge Bay, Bathurst Inlet and Umingmaktok.
Few places in the world can match the sheer scale of seabird colonies in the Arctic. An incredible place to observe seabirds is the Prince Leopold Migratory Bird Sanctuary, which is accessible from Resolute. The steep cliffs of this small island are home to almost 375,000 seabirds, including thick-billed murres, northern fulmars, black-legged kittiwakes and black guillemots. Other places to enjoy the spectacle of such dense concentrations of seabirds are Bylot Island Migratory Bird Sanctuary, accessible from Pond Inlet, and Coburg Island, accessible from Grise Fiord.
Few groups of birds herald the arrival of the warm months in Nunavut like waterbirds. Early June, when bodies of open water are limited, is one of the best times to observe them. Flocks of common eider and the gaudy king eiders are often seen skimming low over the sea ice and at meltwater ponds or leads. They are relatively numerous near Igloolik and Cape Dorset, but may be seen from many coastal communities along the ice edge during migration. Males gather on the sea from early July before departing for the South. Rafts of females and young persist in northern regions through September and into November in southeastern Baffin Island. Long-tailed duck (oldsquaw) and northern pintail are probably the most common ducks throughout the region, but surf scoter and common scoter may be seen. The red-throated loon breeds throughout Nunavut, while Pacific loons may be seen on tundra ponds throughout most of Nunavut, except for the High Arctic and northern Baffin Island. The yellow-billed loon breeds on tundra lakes and rivers throughout the Kitikmeot Region, northern parts of the Kivalliq Region and Baker Lake. It is replaced by the common loon in the southern Baffin and southern Kivalliq regions.
Many North American birders will be familiar with the species of geese that are found in Nunavut. A visit to Nunavut will give the opportunity, however, to see these species on their breeding grounds. Some 450,000 lesser snow geese, particularly those of the blue color phase, 50,000 Canada geese, and 1,600 Brant can be seen on the vast sedge lowlands and tidal flats of the Dewey Soper Migratory Bird Sanctuary. This is an excellent birding area and has been recognized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as “a wetland of international importance.” Sabine’s gulls and red phalaropes also nest here. Presently, the only way to get there is by air charter from Iqaluit. More easily accessible, and for less money, is the McConnell River Migratory Bird Sanctuary, just south of Arviat, where 300,000 lesser snow geese and Ross’ geese nest. Northern pintail, black duck, common goldeneye, lesser scaup, and green-winged teal may also be seen here, and perhaps a short-eared owl. Harry Gibbons Migratory Bird Sanctuary on Southampton Island, accessible from Coral Harbour, is rich with waterfowl, nesting black-bellied plovers, and Brant. Brant may also be seen at Katannilik Territorial Park Reserve, near Kimmirut.
Shorebirds form one of the principal groups of arctic avifauna, with a variety of species nesting in Nunavut, including black-bellied, semi-palmated, and lesser golden plovers; ruddy turnstones; dunlin, pectoral, Baird’s, semi-palmated, and white-rumped sandpipers and two species of phalaropes both red and red-necked. Arviat and Coral Harbour are prime locations for excellent views of shorebirds.
*Reproduced from an article in the Nunavut Handbook.