Thursday, June 3

Churchill: The Beginning

Hudsonian Godwit

The ground was getting closer quickly as the twin prop plane descended to the landing strip. I could still see nothing but expansive, grassy bogs with stunted spruce, willow and birch, pools covered in blue ice, and scattered snow banks; no trace of man until the gravel edge of the runway came into view, not thirty feet from the ground.

I was met by Carly, one of the naturalists from the Churchill Northern Studies Centre. We were then joined by Hans, an older man from Denmark, who I had pegged as a birder since the gate in Winnipeg (by his tall boots and a heavy winter parka). From what I understand, he is here independently studying various shorebirds; he's spent much of his career in the high arctic reaches of Greenland, and was excited to experience this transitional, sub-arctic region. As we travelled east to the CNSC via the gravel "highway," we spotted our first Tundra Swans, Long-tailed Ducks, and Pacific Loons, and various peeps flushed from the road.

Red-necked Phalarope

The landscape here is subtly impressive. It appears bleak and barren, with miles of open, boggy tundra, and an occasional patch of craggy, bare tamaracks; but life abounds here when you take a minute to look. The tundra is speckled with mounds of lichens and mosses, which are in turn teeming with insects and arachnids. The tiny arctic wild flowers are just beginning to flower now, as well as a few willows. As we trudge across these expanses of wet, grassy tundra, stepping cautiously lest we exceed the height of our muck boots, birds flush constantly from seemingly lifeless, open areas; longspurs mostly, but shorebirds of all sorts as well: Golden-plovers, Godwits, Whimbrel, Baird's and Stilt sandpipers. The Lapland Longspurs and Snow Buntings that abound now will soon be replaced by Smith's Longspurs-- a day I am anxiously awaiting.

So far, our work has involved checking and setting up our insect transects. These are sets of points across a certain area where we dig plastic cups into the peat at the surface that act as pitfalls for insects, or anything else that would be a potential meal for a Godwit chick. Some we check daily, others every third day, and still others weekly. We use a plastic watercolor brush to pluck the critters out of the isopropyl solution in the pitfalls, and put anything we find into a corresponding vile with solution for later analysis (identifying to order, counting, and measuring whatever we find). Today, we spent the morning and afternoon setting up three of our weekly transects, each consisting of 11 pitfalls located every 100 meters along a 1 kilometer transect-- that eventually amounted to about 10 kilometers of walking, which is a lot when you're taking very tall, careful steps, and sucking your boot out of spongy peat every time.

As far as the birding goes, I have had 5 life birds so far, and countless "life plumages." The lifers were Hoary Redpoll, Boreal Chickadee, Willow Ptarmigan, Little Gull, and Sabine's Gull. But it's been even more amazing just seeing familiar birds in unfamiliar garb, such as Lapland Longspurs, Parasitic Jaegers, Long-tailed Ducks, Pacific Loons (not that they are all that familiar), and all the shorebirds. So far, nothing quite compares to the absolutely stunning plumage of a breeding adult Pacific Loon; I have yet to get satisfactory photos of these idyllic beings, but I'm not too concerned about that since there's a pair in practically every pond we've seen. Now, as I'm sitting here reminiscing, cooling my wind-burned cheeks with my cold hands, I can't help but look forward to the high season, when the Polar Bears show up, when all the birds will be displaying and defending nests, and when we'll be banding Godwits; but I'm also a bit apprehensive about mosquitoes...I guess however hard they hit, they'll be worth it!

Lapland Longspur

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