Monday, 27 August 2012

Magical Nunavut

Magical Nunavut
Very early in our planning for this Canada Big Year we agreed that an important “geographic” objective would be to visit all ten provinces and all three territories during the course of our travels. Mission accomplished! And what a way to finish this geographic circuit of Canada!  Nunavut, Canada’s newest territory, has not disappointed! But our trip here has not been without its challenges.
Early Thursday morning we said our goodbyes to Mike and Milt who were beginning their drive back to Alberta.  Since the first leg of our flight north from Winnipeg was not departing until late morning, Phil, Brian and I had time for a quick birding walk around Quarry Park in Stonewall before driving to James Richardson International Airport.  Quarry Park proved to be quite “birdy” and we managed to pick up two new trip birds: Rose-breasted Grosbeak and Purple Finch. We also had some stellar views of Blue-headed, Warbling and Red-eyed Vireos.

Our drive south to the airport was without incident. Things changed once we reached the First Air check-in counter however. Our chosen destination in Nunavut was the small community of Repulse Bay, located right on the Arctic Circle way up at the top of Hudson Bay for those of our readers not overly familiar with Canada’s northern geography. We were booked on a Boeing 737 to Rankin Inlet and there we were supposed to catch a smaller plan (an Aerospatiale ATR-42) which would take us first to Baker Lake and then to Repulse Bay. It turned out however that our connecting flight at Rankin Inlet was cancelled! After much confusion, we determined that our best option was to travel as far as Rankin Inlet and make bookings to continue to Repulse Bay late the next day. Fortunately we were able to book some accommodation in Rankin Inlet for the night so without further ado, we set off for the north!
Welcome to Rankin Inlet!
Even though this late change in our itinerary meant a day less in Repulse Bay, I think all three of us would agree that it proved to be rather fortuitous. It meant a full day and a half in a second Nunavut community, thereby providing us with two different windows on this huge territory. It didn’t take us long upon arrival at our “Inns North” hotel to learn of the nearby Iqalugaarjuup Nunanga Territorial Park. This park and the area surrounding it proved to be a fine example of arctic tundra landscape. We needed transportation to see it of course but we got in touch with a local guide (Harry) who was too busy to join us but who was more than willing to rent us a “small” vehicle for our driving pleasure:
Our Hummer for the Day!
We spent three hours that afternoon driving to and through this Nunanga T. P. picking up 11 bird species, none of them new for the year but many of them exciting to see none-the-less! There were Sandhill Cranes, Pacific Loons, Tundra Swans, Greater White-fronted Geese, a couple of Long-tailed Ducks and even a lone Rough-legged Hawk. Passerines included American Pipits, Savannah Sparrows and a single White-crowned Sparrow. In the following pictures the vastness of the tundra landscape is striking.
The Arctic Tundra Landscape
Sandhill Cranes were quite common!

American Pipit

The most common mammal in attendance seemed to be our old friend the Arctic Ground Squirrel, seen previously on our Fur & Feathers trip to the Yukon and the NWT. They were abundant here and posed splendidly for us. The highlight of the afternoon however was the sighting of a distant Arctic Fox, picked out by Brian’s keen eyes as he panned the landscape for something other than these ground squirrels. This was a new mammal species for the year - our 65th. Can you find it in the photograph?
Arctic Fox
Arctic Ground Squirrel
We returned to Rankin Inlet where we dined on Arctic Char before retiring to our rooms for a well-deserved early night!
August 24th; Driving to the Meliadine River and more of Nunanga T.P.
We initially hoped that Harry the Guide would be able to take us on a boat ride to Marble Island but this proved not to be possible. Instead we set off once again with Harry’s Hummer along a 17 km gravel road to the Meliadine River. The weather was sunny and clear with mild temperatures and just the lightest of winds. Insects by the way were not an issue for the most part. Black Flies were present but only rarely were they more than a bit tedious! We enjoyed being out on this impressive, rugged landscape all day despite the relatively small diversity of species. We didn’t see any more foxes or any other new mammals but we saw most of the previous day’s bird species plus several new ones bringing our Nunavut total up to 22 by day’s end. We had spectacular views of Pacific Loons and also saw one Common Loon. Horned Larks and Lapland Longspurs were plentiful and we found a handful of Snow Buntings as well. Peregrine Falcons nest in the area and we found a pair of these as well as a lone Bald Eagle. Canada Geese were present but more rewarding than this was a flock of Cackling Geese which surprised us, though it seems these are expected here in migration. Later in the afternoon, we returned to Rankin Inlet to explore the shoreline where we hoped we might sight some shorebirds but if there were any, they eluded us completely. We did however find Common Eider and Black Guillemots, both of which were new trip birds.
Pacific Loons
Horned Lark
Snow Buntings
Phil Misbehaving
By late afternoon we were back at the airport and ready to bid Rankin Inlet farewell. Our plane made an on-time departure and we were able to look down and see the gravel roads we had traversed during the past day and a half. Next stop, Repulse Bay!
Goodbye to Rankin Inlet and Nunanga T.P.
August 25th and 26th: Repulse Bay
While Rankin Inlet and nearby Nunanga Territorial Park proved to be a very pleasant introduction to Nunavut, I think we all found Repulse Bay to be the Nunavut experience we will remember best! It may be summer time but we very quickly realized that in Repulse Bay we were truly in the Arctic!
Repulse Bay and Icy Harbour
We had arranged in advance for a guide to look after us during our stay here and in particular to take us out onto the waters of Hudson Bay to find some mammals. Steve warned us in advance that due to unusual wind conditions, the harbour and adjacent coastline were almost completely blocked by broken pack ice. He wasn’t sure he would be able to get us out in his boat. In the end however, we ventured forth on both days and enjoyed the most magical of experiences! Just imagine the clear, cold, dark waters of Repulse Bay, dead calm and littered with a million fragments of ice of all sizes. These fragments of pack ice varied from very small to the size of a house and in some cases the size of a football field. Steve and his oldest son Nathaniel expertly steered us between and around the ice as we sought out new species. Quite often his 22 foot fiberglass open boat careened off the ice debris giving the three of us a bit of a fright. For the most part however, the only sound was that of his 225 HP outboard motor quietly propelling us slowly and carefully on our way. Occasionally, huge flocks of Snow Geese flew high overhead winging their way south and chattering loudly as they went! Sometimes Steve would stop the engine and we would just sit there and marvel at the silence. Magical is the right word for it!
Nathaniel Bringing Our Boat

One of Many Snow Geese Flights

But enough about magical moments! What we really wanted was some new mammal species and in particular, a Polar Bear! We saw Ringed Seals fairly frequently as we motored along but these creatures would never allow close approach – possibly because the local Inuit shoot them! But we did also come across a Polar Bear! Steve saw him first as just a distant speck on the mainland. It was our lucky day however. This magnificent bear made its way down to the shoreline and swam across to an offshore island. We entered the strait between mainland and island just as he was half way across and had a phenomenal opportunity to see him up close and get some amazing photographs. Brian and I put our powerful telephoto lenses to work but ironically, at its closest approach our lenses were too powerful and it was Phil who much to his delight captured the snap of the day with his little old cheap camera! We feature it here to honour him appropriately.
Polar Bear by Phil!
............and then he was closer!

Ringed Seal
Repulse Bay is a very photogenic place. Here are some of our pictures showing the vastness and the natural beauty of the region.

Amazing Seascape Views While Boating

Repulse Bay from the Water
We added three more bird species to our Nunavut list: Red-throated Loon, Snow Goose and Glaucous Gull, bringing our Nunavut birding total to 25 species.
Glaucous Gull

 Tomorrow, it’s back to Winnipeg! But maybe that's easier said than done.........!

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