Monday, 11 June 2012

A taste of the Arctic

We made a short but enjoyable trip to the Northwest Territories – arriving in Inuvik around noon on Friday and departing around noon on Sunday.  This was my first time above the Arctic Circle and the weather was great – much nicer than in Calgary! 
Inuvik is situated where the boreal forest meets the Arctic tundra.  Many bird species here are at the northern limit of their range.  As one would expect, the trees (spruce, dwarf birch and poplar) are not very tall.  Many other species nest in the tundra beyond Inuvik.  We were hopeful that we would find some new and interesting birds.

Boreal forest near Inuvik
Inuvik is also on the edge of the traditional territories of the Inuvialuit and the Gwich’in people.  The Inuvialuit life and culture has strong ties to the land and sea – seals, belugas, caribou, fish, birds and berries.  The Gwich’n, originally a nomadic people, have strong ties to the migratory caribou herds.

We hadn’t made any prior arrangements for this portion of the trip so the first order of business was to rent a vehicle.  I’m sure there are more expensive rentals in the world but I don’t know where!  We were soon headed to town and checked in at the Nova Hotel.  After getting settled in our comfortable rooms, we did some in-town exploration.  We found 24 species that first afternoon – nothing new but a good selection of ducks, warblers and sparrows.  Of course, we checked out the sewage lagoons and the dump for rare gulls of which we found none.
Our next order of business was to make arrangements for Saturday.  We decided to fly to Tuktoyatuk and have a local guide take us around.  Tuk is located about 100 km north of Inuvik and is reachable by ice road in the winter, water transportation in the summer but only by air at this time of year.  To add a little spice to the day, we planned to take a crack at the Northwest Territories big day record of 64.

We had a leisurely start to our big day, finishing breakfast at 6:30 (missing out on the first 6 ½ hours of daylight!).  Our day started in the hotel parking lot with a Belted Kingfisher flying over Ray’s head.  Just below the parking lot was a bushy gully with a small pond which turned out to be quite birdy.
Parking lot birds #1-10: Belted Kingfisher, Common Raven, Northern Waterthrush, Yellow Warbler, American Robin, Swainson’s Thrush, White-crowned Sparrow, Fox Sparrow, Chipping Sparrow, Orange-crowned Warbler
Orange-crowned Warbler

We then headed south and made a couple of stops between town and the airport.

Birds #11-26:  Savannah Sparrow, Lesser Scaup, Northern Pintail, Gray Jay, Spotted Sandpiper, Hermit Thrush, Wilson’s Warbler, Mallard, White-winged Scoter, American Wigeon, Greater Scaup, Common Redpoll, Tree Swallow, Northern Shoveler, Red-breasted Merganser, Wilson’s Snipe
White-winged Scoters
We drove down the Dempster Highway just a few kilometers beyond the airport and we stopped at a roadside pond.

Birds #27-30: Yellow-rumped Warbler, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Pacific Loon, Blackpoll Warbler
Pacific Loon
Having recorded 30 species, we were at the airport at 0830 for our 0930 flight which departed at 1000.  The half hour flight flew over hundreds of lakes and ponds just to the east of the Mackenzie River. 

View from air of ice road (melting), tundra and lakes

Airport birds #31-37: Sandhill Crane, Tundra Swan, Red-necked Phalarope, Long-tailed Duck, Glaucous Gull, Green-winged Teal, Least Sandpiper

At the Tuktoyaktuk airport, we were greeted by Chuck Gruben, a local Inuvialuit guide.  Chuck started by giving us a town tour though we often had him stop so we could view the local bird life.  We enjoyed close up views of Long-tailed Ducks and displaying Lapland Longspurs. 
Long-tailed Duck
All visitors have to dip their toes in the Arctic Ocean and we were no exception.
Phil and Brian at the edge of the Arctic Ocean
One of the town highlights for us was the community freezer.  This freezer is a series of compartments in the permafrost about 10 m below the surface.  We viewed the frozen shaft but none of us wanted to venture down into the darkness. 
Tuktoyaktuk is an Inuvialuit settlement and has a population of just under a 1000.  All of the houses in Tuk are built above ground including the fuel, water and sewage tanks.
At the edge of town, we came across a tidal area that had a few shorebirds.  The birds seemed oblivious to us and we were able to walk within a couple of metres of them.
Stilt Sandpiper
Tuktoyaktuk birds #38-44: American Pipit, Lapland Longspur, Stilt Sandpiper, Semipalmated Sandpiper, American Tree Sparrow, Rough-legged Hawk

We then switched from Chuck’s truck to quads – Ray and I had our own to ride while Phil rode with Chuck. Phil and I had not ridden a quad before and didn’t know what to expect.  After 30 seconds of instruction we were on our way.  I was a little tentative at first but soon got the hang of it.  We started off on a gravel road and then turned on to a quad track through the tundra.  The quads were amazing in their ability to go through the hummocks and ditches.  After about 15 minutes, we rejoined the road and stopped periodically to check out the birds.
Ray on a quad
Our destination was an old gravel pit where Chuck had recently seen jaegers.  We arrived there about 1510 but found no jaegers.  We had a plane to catch at 1600 and were 20 km out of town so went back as quickly as we dared go.  Along the way, Phil and I switched to give him at turn at driving.  We got to the airport in time but needn’t have worried as the plane was about an hour late. 

Quad birds #45-55: Red-throated Loon, Herring Gull, Surf Scoter, Greater White-fronted Goose, Peregrine Falcon, Northern Harrier, Whimbrel, Bank Swallow, Canada Goose, Semipalmated Plover, Arctic Tern
On the way back to Inuvik from the airport, we picked up birds #56-57: Osprey, Bald Eagle

Back in town, we had some dinner and decided that we would stay in town for the rest of our big day.  We were sitting at 57 species and, without any prior scouting, didn’t think that driving 50 km out of town would result in enough new species to warrant the effort (it turns out we were wrong!).  We stayed in town and quickly picked up birds #58-59 – Mew Gull, Harlequin Duck

We decided we’d be happy with 60 species but, after an hour of unsuccessful searching, we headed back to the hotel.  Near the hotel, Phil spotted species #60: Merlin 

We had about 4 hours to bird before flying home so we drove 50 km out of town and then worked our way slowly back.  We were surprised to see a Sharp-tailed Grouse zooming over us and stopped when we saw another one.  A few Bohemian Waxwings perched nearby for another new Northwest Territories (NT) bird.  We found some swampy land and added a few more birds for our NT list: Solitary Sandpiper, Lincoln’s Sparrow, Northern Flicker.  In all, we saw 9 birds that we didn’t see the previous day.

Bohemian Waxwing

Our time in the western Arctic was very brief but served as a memorable introduction to the land, its people and its birds.  We didn’t add any new team birds and saw one possibly new mammal (see below for discussion) but we thoroughly enjoyed the adventure.  Birding highlights were numerous Pacific Loons in breeding plumage, some very good views of shorebirds, and the displaying Lapland Longspurs.
Semipalmated Plover
We had 70 species for the Northwest Territories and our Canada team total is now 427 – 375 birds and 52 mammals.

Arctic or Snowshoe Hare?
We saw a few hares in the Inuvik area but haven’t yet identified the species.  Snowshoe and Arctic Hares are very similar and one of my books indicates that Snowshoe Hare is the one found near Inuvik while the other says it is Arctic Hare.  Points in favour of Arctic Hare: it appeared a bit bigger that the Snowshoe Hares we have seen elsewhere and it had white legs (a characteristic of summer plumaged Arctic Hares); in favour of Snowshoe Hare: both books suggest that northerly Arctic Hares remain white all year long (but neither defines northerly).  Anyone help us?
Hare near Inuvik

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