Thursday, 30 August 2012

Manitoba and Nunavut trip wrap-up

Last Monday, our flight from Rankin Inlet to Winnipeg was cancelled so we spent a day in Rankin Inlet courtesy of First Air.  We arrived in Winnipeg late Tuesday afternoon and went looking for the Buff-breasted Sandpiper that we missed earlier.  Ray spotted two of them quite a distance away in amongst Black-bellied and American Golden Plovers at the sod farm.  Too far away for pictures but we were happy to reach species #475.

Phil flew home while Ray and I drove the 1330 kms to Calgary.  We had originally planned to look for Ord’s Kangaroo Rat in the Great Sandhills of Saskatchewan but no longer had time to do this.  After spending Tuesday evening in Brandon, we drove the rest of the way on Wednesday making a few birding stops along the way.  Our highlight was … Buff-breasted Sandpiper!  We found 5 of them at Reed Lake in SK and they approached to within a few metres of us for a much better look than the day before.
Buff-breasted Sandpiper
Southern Prairies recap

We had a delightful time in southern Canadian prairies as we picked up 6 new team birds and 2 new mammals.  We started off the trip on a successful note as we watched Big Brown Bats leave their roost in a Medicine Hat school.  As we travelled across the prairies, our focus was on shorebirds and water birds but we occasionally stopped in a small town to check out the passerines (or for our now traditional ice cream break!).  We were impressed with how neat and tidy the towns were, particularly in southern Manitoba.  We found 3 of our main target birds - Cattle Egret, Green Heron and Buff-breasted Sandpiper – but couldn’t track down a Golden-winged Warbler. 
Cattle Egret
However, we did find an unanticipated mammal at Oak Hammock Marsh - Gray Fox.  We didn’t expect to see this mammal because of its nocturnal habits but, in the early evening, we observed a pair (young ones?) on the road to the North Observation point.

Nunavut (“our land” in Inuktitut) makes up almost a fifth of Canada’s area but has a population of just over 31,000.  We visited Rankin Inlet (due to flight cancellations) and Repulse Bay.  Nunavut was not particularly productive – no new birds, 3 new mammals – but will be one of our most memorable trips. 

We spent a day and a half in Rankin Inlet en route to Repulse Bay.  It is a small town by southern standards but the second largest in Nunavut.  We were put in touch with a local outfitter – Harry Htinaur – and after a brief phone call, he came to the hotel and gave us the keys to his Hummer!  We enjoyed visiting the territorial park and exploring the other roads in the area.  Of the 22 bird species, my personal highlight was seeing 5 Pacific Loons still in breeding plumage.
Pacific Loons
The Arctic Ground Squirrel (Sik-sik) and Arctic Fox were the only mammals we saw.  We talked to a couple of guys doing Peregrine Falcon research and they indicated that they had only seen 1 lemming in 3 months in the field and no Arctic Hares … we didn’t spend too much time looking for mammals after talking to them!  The low mammal population undoubtedly contributed to the high failure rate of the Peregrine nests this year.

Our primary destination was Repulse Bay, a place we chose for its mammal possibilities and remote location … we wanted to experience the Arctic.  Repulse Bay is located on the Arctic Circle (actually 2 miles south according to our GPS!).  As with Rankin Inlet, the hamlet has modern facilities … no more igloos or sod houses!  Inuktitut is their language but most also speak English.  Western clothing predominates though we occasionally saw some more traditional dress.

For the most part, snowmobiles have replaced dog sleds but we saw many dog teams in both communities.  I asked what the dogs were used for and was told that they were still used for tourists (in the right season), racing and some freight hauling.
Though the communities were modern in many ways with cable TV, cell phone coverage (unless you have Telus like we do!) and internet (albeit very, very slow), it was like a step back in time for us.  We could arrive at the airport a ½ hour before the flight and there was no airport security to delay the departure process.  In the streets, there were kids wandering all over town without a parent in sight.

Our guide, Steve Mapsalak
Our contact was Steve Mapsalak and we had arranged to spend 3 days exploring the area by boat.  About a week before we arrived, Steve warned me that the bay was full of old pack ice that had been blown in by the southerly winds and that we might not be able to go boating.  Fortunately, we did get out but the ice limited our outings to within a mile or two of shore.  We saw a few Ringed Seals but they were very leery of us ... perhaps because they were actively being hunted.

Nathaniel with harpoon
The Inuit have always been hunters and that is still true today.  While we were there, many were hunting Caribou and seals.  We spotted 2 Caribou from the boat and Steve reported the location on the radio.  One of his sons went out and shot one of the Caribou … with quads (ATV’s), high-powered rifles and nowhere to hide, the Caribou don’t have much of a chance.  The Inuit have traditionally hunted Narwhal and Bowhead Whales and still are permitted to do so under a quota system.  Narwhals must be hunted with a hand thrown harpoon such as the one Steve’s son Nathaniel is holding.  
According to Steve, Narwhal, Bearded Seal, Bowhead Whale and Walrus were all in the area but we just couldn’t get far enough out into the bay to find them.  While the ice hindered our mammal search, it certainly added to the Arctic experience.  I never had imagined that one day I would be standing on some floating ice in the Arctic!
Brian on floating ice

Our Polar Bear sighting was certainly the highlight of the trip.  Steve said that the bears usually “head for the hills” when they see a boat but this one came toward us and was swimming to an island when we caught up with it. 
Polar Bear
The Arctic – be it Nunavut, NWT or Yukon – is quite unlike southern Canada and is well worth a visit.  Unfortunately, it is very expensive (this trip cost more than any of our other trips) and there is not much information available.  Also, as we found out, the weather can play a big influence.

We are now at 475 species – 408 birds and 67 mammals – and still think we have a shot at our 500 target.  Not much time to rest before we head west for a pelagic trip out of Tofino.  We’ve got our fingers crossed for decent weather as there are about 10 species that we hope to get along with a mammal or two.


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