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.


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.........!

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Across the Prairies

Sunday August 19 – Off to Bat in The Hat


It has been six weeks since we returned from the Atlantic Provinces and our Fur and Feathers activities have been limited to day trips from Calgary.  During that time we’ve added three species of birds and three mammals to bring our total to 464 species. The next few weeks we’ll be on the road quite a bit, going after the 36 species we need to reach our goal of 500.

At the outset we had established that we would look for birds and mammals in all of Canada’s ten provinces and territories. The current trip will allow us to achieve that ambition, and hopefully bring us closer to the magic 500 number. We are visiting Saskatchewan and Manitoba, and then flying up to Nunavut for four days on the Arctic Circle.

We leave Calgary on Sunday afternoon, Mike and Phil in Mike’s van and Ray and Brian in Ray’s SUV, bound for Medicine Hat where we will hook up with our birding friend Milt Spitzer and hopefully locate a Big Brown Bat colony.  We had been put on to this colony by Joanna Chapman who has researched bats at the University of Calgary. Meeting Milt an hour before dusk we visited the two locations – Connaught School and Elm Street School -- where the bats roost; a lady living across the road from Connaught School confirms that the bats can be seen regularly. Soon after dusk we enjoy the sight of perhaps 40-50 bats flying away from the building and at times right over our heads. Taking photos proves rather challenging however. Mike and Phil appreciate the hospitality of Milt and Elaine for the night while Ray and Brian stay in a nearby motel.

 Monday August 20 – Sashaying across Saskatchewan

Our goal today is to drive most of the way across Saskatchewan, stopping at some well-known sloughs along the way. After a couple of hours driving along the Trans-Canada Highway we pull up at Reed Lake where we encounter large numbers of gulls, ducks and shorebirds.  Amongst a flock of Semipalmated and Baird’s Sandpipers, Brian spots a juvenile Western Sandpiper, a new year bird which unfortunately is not seen by all before the flock takes off. However, this species should be common on the west coast next month.

As the day progresses we add to our Saskatchewan bird list while driving steadily eastwards, through places such as Rouleau, made famous as “Dog River” in the TV show Corner Gas. Other small farm communities boast their lesser claim to fame as the birthplace of NHL players. By the time we reach the south-east corner of the province, the temperature has risen to 34 degrees and we take in the sight of oil pump jacks rocking away in the middle of golden wheat fields. In contrast to poor yields in much of the US Midwest due to the drought, Canadian farmers will harvest bumper crops this year, and enjoy high prices as well.

Brian’s diligent study of recent postings on Saskbirds has indicated that Hwy 705 could prove productive, and we are delighted to see a flock of 40 Cattle Egrets – our second new year bird today -- appropriately accompanying a herd of cows. Great Egrets are also in evidence, as well as a noisy rookery of herons and cormorants.

Cattle with accompanying Cattle Egrets
Great Egret
After twelve hours on the road, we arrive in Carlyle, SK, to discover that the town’s hotels are fully-booked. The receptionist at the Ramada kindly helps us find rooms at the Bear Claw Resort and Casino, 10 km away, and we spend the night there. Purple Martins twittering above as we arrive at the resort provide a fine conclusion to the day.

Tuesday August 21 -- Moseying through Manitoba

Today we work our way to the south-east corner of Manitoba, the tenth and final province we’ve visited. In less than an hour we make a stop at the border to take a ceremonial picture.

Eight months into the year, we reach our tenth province

Birds are actively flying around the marsh there, and get our Manitoba list off to a great start. A half hour spent in the small community of Reston is also very productive as we run across 20 bird species including a Common Nighthawk and a flock of Red Crossbills.

As it did yesterday, it heats up rapidly as we make our way through some prairie habitat and much farmland towards Whitewater Lake. Wetlands near the lake afford close looks at American Bittern and White-faced Ibis, and more Cattle and Great Egrets as well as a variety of shorebirds and ducks.

American Bittern

White-faced Ibis

Insects, amhibians and reptiles also provide some interesting photo opportunities.

The curious grasshopper
The lake itself proves difficult to access and on occasion we encounter some gigantic farm equipment on narrow gravel roads. We finally find a good road to the south side of the lake, with an observation lookout at the end. From here we see a good variety of birds including many Western Grebes among which Brian skillfully picked out a Clark’s Grebe.
In the heat of the afternoon we make our way eastwards, eventually reaching Morris, MB where we spend the night in a motel next to the Stampede Grounds. The countryside around here is unremittingly flat, but there’s a bountiful harvest of wheat, corn and canola being brought to the many granaries. Morris must be a really exciting place to be when the rodeo’s in town during four days in July; this evening, not so much. We enjoy a pleasant dinner washed down with local Fort Garry Ale – continuing our tradition of sampling beers from across the country at the end of each birding day.

The perfect antidote to dusty roads

Wednesday August 22 -- Winding our way to Winnipeg

Up at dawn as usual, and our first target is the Plains Pocket Gopher. Sadly we see no signs of this dirt-throwing critter as we drive along some rural roads in SE Manitoba. But in the early-morning hours we see the first of many pairs of Sandhill Cranes. Excellent looks at Red-headed and Pileated Woodpeckers, Merlin and American Kestrel give us heart that this will be a fine day’s birding, and indeed it proves to be so. Stops on Mattern Road (a birding hotspot for Winnipeg birders) and elsewhere net us seven species of warbler including Connecticut, Nashville, Black-and-White and Chestnut-sided, along with several other good birds such as Eastern Bluebird and Sedge Wren, a “catch-up” bird for Phil.

An unexpected bonus is a Northern Goshawk cruising over the tree tops. Although there have been sightings during the year by individual members of the team, it is a new team bird, seen by all. A Blue-headed Vireo perches quietly allowing for super views, but our target Golden-winged Warbler is elusive.
Blue-headed Vireo
For lunch we repair to the golf course at Steinbach, not only for sustenance but also for another of our targets, Green Heron. A stroll by a pond right next to the course allows us to finally catch up with this species which we have sought in various places during the year.

Green Heron
It is now time to head to famed Oak Hammock Marsh, just north of Winnipeg. After checking into a motel at Stonewall, MB we drive to the marsh and tour the surrounding area in search of Buff-breatsed Sandpiper and Short-eared Owl. Nearby sod farms have recently been visited by the sandpipers, but today they are not in evidence, and we content ourselves with picking out three American Golden-Plovers in a flock of 40 Black-bellied Plovers. We spend a couple of hours visiting different parts of the huge marsh complex. Along the way, Brian and Ray in the lead vehicle encounter two foxes with black tips to their tails – Grey Fox, a new mammal for us. We all get good looks at a Striped Skunk from a safe distance.

Striped Skunk
It is almost dusk before a Short-eared Owl lifts off from the long-grass prairie and we are happy to get our third new bird species of the day. Fifteen hours since we set out this morning we make our way back to Stonewall for a delicious pizza and a couple of glasses of Fort Garry. In the morning we say goodbye to Mike and Milt who will head home to Alberta while Brian, Ray and Phil fly up to Nunavut. Thanks to Milt for sharing this part of the Fur and Feathers adventure with us!


Saturday, 11 August 2012

Some cures for the summertime blues

Have those dog days of summer got you down?  Not enough to entertain you between infrequent Fur & Feather posts?  Well, here are some suggestions to make your summer a little more interesting.

While the forests have gone silent, action on the local sloughs and mudflats must surely be heating up.  Here in Alberta, many of the regular migrant shorebirds have been seen on their southward journey as well as a couple of rarer ones.  I missed Hudsonian Godwit in the spring but there have been a few of them passing through this month.
Hudsonian Godwit

Shorebird aficionados take delight in pointing out the various molt stages for the adults and juveniles; me, I’m happy just to identify the birds!  Anyways, this is a good time in Alberta to pick out the less common Short-billed Dowitchers amongst the more common Long-billeds.
Short-billed Dowitchers
A few days ago, Red Phalarope was reported south of Calgary.  We couldn’t get there right away but we did do a team outing last Thursday in search of the bird.  At what is referred to as the Brant slough, there were hundreds of Red-necked Phalaropes and we diligently studied each one of them.  Viewing conditions were excellent as many of the birds were within 5 metres. 

We didn’t find a Red Phalarope but we did become very familiar with the various molts of the Red-necked Phalarope. 
Red-necked Phalarope juvenile

This time of year, there are lots of juvenile birds to be seen and heard.  The juvenile plumages of shorebirds are depicted in the field guides but others are often not illustrated.  Here is male Northern Harrier – it is neither in juvenile plumage nor in adult plumage so I assume that this is a one year old bird.
Northern Harrier

Think you know your juvenile plumages?  Well, here is a little quiz for you (answers at end of the post).


Summer can be a quiet time for birds, so you may wish to turn your attention to mammals – uh, scratch that thought based on our recent lack of success! – butterflies and dragonflies.  A few years ago, I had a contest with my brother to get the best dragonfly flight shot.  I lost but am still practicing … does this photo count as a dragonfly flight shot?
Black Tern with dragonfly
Not into insects?  Well you can work on your ATPAT list.  What’s ATPAT you ask?  Google it and you’ll get Army Test Program Advisory Team … obviously not related to birding.  To bird listers, ATPAT refers to All Territories & Provinces Added Together.  That is, you add together the total number of birds seen in each province and territory.  While not an objective of our big year, at least three of us will likely best the record of 1423 (our totals currently range from 1100 to 1355).  Since we haven’t birded much in Alberta, we have been scrambling to add birds to our Alberta list.  You can check out all of the listing records at:

Need a little more excitement and challenge?  Try birgoling!  Birgoling is a combination of birding and golfing on the same day.  The objective is to see more birds than your golf score.  At this time of year, we usually have to use a team best net score to have a chance of birds seen exceeding our score.  Speaking of golf, round 2 of the Birders Cup was held on Friday with Ray jumping into the lead.  I’m close behind and Phil has positioned himself well in his attempt to set a record for the biggest comeback!

Our total is still at 464 and unlikely to change until our Manitoba & Nunavut trip coming up in a week and a half.  Until then, have fun with those juvenile plumages!

Quiz answers:  A)Forster’s Tern, B)Townsend’s Solitaire, C)Dark-eyed Junco, D)Sora