Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Into Wapusk National Park - Part 2

The tree to tundra transition was also a special place and it was not uncommon to find multiple singing male Smith’s Longspurs (two photos of males) and Harris’s Sparrow here.

Lapland Longspur (photo of male, then female) and American Pipit were also relatively common.

These are four species that require a little work to find in Churchill and seem to be declining there. The Smith’s Longspur is always a target species for visitors to Churchill but requires effort; whereas here we would be greeted with their rich colour and song on a daily basis and we even found a nest (photo).

Travelling downstream, we perceived subtle changes in the bird community. We saw more Bonaparte’s Gulls than previously and then our first Arctic Terns (1 photo perched and one in flight) and then Parasitic Jaegers still relatively far inland.

We began seeing pairs of Semipalmated Plover on the gravel banks, accompanying the abundant Spotted Sandpipers.

Red-breasted Mergansers now became common while Common Mergansers started to become less common.

Some species which had been thinning out since we left the tracks such as Tennessee Warbler dropped out altogether. We had two surprises in store, the first being several sightings of Cedar Waxwing (apparently new for the park), the second being a Northern Mockingbird in the middle of nowhere, hanging out by a Bank Swallow colony in the steep river bank. As the river broadened we saw our first of numerous Canada Goose broods, the goslings being just a few days old. Along with the goslings though came the predators. Up until this point we had seen Bald Eagles but in the lower reaches we eventually found four different pairs of Golden Eagles! At one point, a Golden Eagle came swooping in low right over our heads and plucked a gosling off the water with just one foot (photo shows one mobbed by a Bonaparte’s Gull)! I really wanted to confirm breeding Goldens as there has always been a question of whether this species breeds in Manitoba or is just a non-breeding visitor. Alas, we did not find a nest and even though we always saw two birds at a time, since we could not distinguish male from female, we were left guessing as to what they were doing there, i.e. did they bred locally or had they just moved in for the gosling fest?

The window to paddle the Owl River comfortably is fleeting and the water levels were dropping on a daily basis. Alas, one set of rapids got the better of one canoe, after the lead canoe had gone through no problem. Perhaps a hidden shelf caused the capsize, we weren’t sure, but there were a few anxious moments until Martin and David R. managed to right their canoe and bring it into shore. The canoe was well packed and nothing was lost except Martin’s tripod that had been wedged in (instead of tied in) and his camera in his pocket in a zip lock bag was damaged thanks to a tiny break in the seal.

Martin and Dave on the other side of their dip in the Owl River. Photo: Jill Larkin

As we neared the coast, we had an additional safety concern on our minds – polar bears. We began to erect a polar bear fence around our campsite every night.

Top: camp with an alarm fence for polar bear. Bottom: view of a campsite on a sandy bar by a bend in the river. Photos: Jill Larkin

We may also have begun to look a little weary after teh long morning hikes then the long all-day paddles on a daily basis. I certainly look a little worse for wear in the photo below taken by Jill.

Near the coast, we found our one and only Horned Grebe of the trip and our first American Bitterns in quite a while plus a single Sora. Finally we reached the Parks Canada compound which is located 5 km inland from the Hudson Bay coast and were greeted by an alarmed American Golden Plover, a noisy flicker and the short sweet song of Smith’s Longspurs. Behind the compound we stumbled across a pair of Northern Shrike with 3 fledglings. This photo shows one of the fledglings on the ground.

On the following morning’s point counts, while trudging across a coastal fen, I was delighted to hear the first of seven Yellow Rails and to find a Short-eared Owl (our only owl along the Owl). That afternoon, we all decided to walk the 5 km to the coast, finding several nesting species, many shorebirds and our first Common Eiders and only Red-throated Loon of the trip.

The tide was well out though and when we looked at our GPS we realized we were standing in the bay!

All too soon, we were ready for out chopper ride back to Churchill, (2 photos) where we stayed at the new building of the Northern Studies Centre for a couple of days before boarding the southbound train.

Boarding the chopper and the view on te hway back. Photos: Jill Larkin

As we disembarked the chopper, we were told that four Polar Bears had come off the ice that day. Wow! Martin was keen to see them and, though it took several drives along the coast, we eventually found three of them including one massive individual. We were glad to see them at a safe distance from a vehicle rather than having met one on foot.

The town of Churchill produced birds we had not seen in the park along such as American Crow, House Sparrow and European Starling (that is not entirely true since Jill found a dead starling inside the Owl River compound, which might have been dropped by a passing raptor or accidently brought in with building supplies).

We completed point counts in three atlas squares from the Studies Centre to Twin Lakes but found that the densities of tundra shorebirds and tundra passerines much lower than where we had been in the park. Indeed we did not hear any Smith’s Longspur, Lapland Longspur or Northern Shrike in Churchill, Horned Larks were mysteriously scarce, and we heard only one Harris’s Sparrow – so different from our experience along the Owl River. At least some species like Parasitic Jaeger, Common Eider and Pacific Loon were more common in Churchill and there were also plenty of scoters and eiders. In addition to Polar Bear, we added Beluga, Arctic Hare and Arctic Fox to our mammal list.

The Arctic Fox sighting was partcularly dramatic. I took a whole series of photographs of one trying to steal goslings from Canada Geese but the geese stood their ground…

We also had great sightings of Red Fox with cubs at a den at Churchill but here the Red Foxes we saw were red, unlike the silver and cross foxes we had seen along the owl river.

Nonetheless it was now the end of June, no ice visible on the bay, and the migrants had moved on, so Churchill was quite different than what one would expect from a visit in early June with many fewer species. This was not the time for rarities but rather a time to appreciate those who raise their families here. We did manage to find one Iceland Gull (in close proximity to a Polar Bear) and I had brief views of a Little Gull.

The memories of our fantastic Owl River trip will linger with all of us for years to come I’m sure. I feel that we had exceptional luck on this trip and were privileged to be in such pristine wilderness. What a gem of a park we have! It is true we had to contend with several days of stiff nor’easters that forced us to paddle hard (even though the current was on our side, the wind was occasionally so strong that without paddling one came to a sit still). At least the wind was kind enough to wait until after we had finished point counting every morning before raising itself. The bird gods blessed us with freezing or near freezing nights that kept the bugs down, glorious crisp and calm mornings full of song, water levels that, even though they were dropping, were just right to carry us through, and just the right window of time to get off the river one day before the polar bears started coming off the melting sea ice. However, to chalk that up to luck would be misleading, for this trip was planned in meticulous detail by Bonnie Chartier plus Jill and Sheldon Kowalchuk of Parks Canada and others who know the north, especially Jack Dubois and Kim Monson, who’s experience and knowledge proved invaluable (they were to join us on the river until a last minute conflict made that impossible). Thank you to everyone!

We are already making plans to tackle a different section of the park next year, so this adventure will continue! And we always need volunteers…

From left to right: Jill Larkin, Christian Artuso, Martin Scott, David Raitt, David Britton, Denis Funk. Photo by Jill Larkin

Monday, September 19, 2011

Into Wapusk National Park - Part 1

Wapusk (from the Cree for “white bear” or polar bear) is a truly magnificent national park. Very few people get to enter it (less than 100 on an annual basis and most are researchers). This area is remote and very difficult to access at any time of year (other remote areas see winter traffic but not here). In June 2011, I was part of an expedition into the park for the Manitoba Breeding Bird Atlas. For two-weeks we paddled our way along the Owl River from the railway line at Herchmer to the Hudson Bay coast, a distance of 100 km as the raven flies but we put on many more clicks with the river twists and turns and our long survey transects across the tundra.
Canoes parked ahead of one of the 64 sets of rapids on the Owl River. Photo by Jill Larkin, used with permission.

Perhaps the biggest highlight of this trip was to go for two weeks without seeing a single piece of litter on the landscape (where else can you do that?). There are strict regulations in the park, right down to what is done with human feces! Moreover, we were not permitted to do anything without a bear monitor (someone with a gun). Along with the wonderful birds, there were many great wildlife sightings including otter, moose, caribou, fox, and wolf – just awesome! Long days were spent trudging across the tundra in the early morning and then paddling for up to six hours or even more to the next campsite – a grueling but exhilarating trip! We are deeply indebted to Parks Canada for making this possible.

On June 13th, Martin Scott and I boarded the train in Gillam and met up with Dave Raitt (coming from The Pas) and Judith King (from Ontario) heading north. We disembarked at the tiny “station” of Herchmer (actually an abandoned town) just over 100 km north of Gillam. Here we waited a day to meet up with Parks Canada staff Jill Larkin and Heather Stewart (in the middle of the night) coming down from Churchill. On June 15th, the six of us loaded up three canoes and, after a few practice paddles, somewhat tentatively cast off on the Owl River for a two-week journey of a lifetime into Wapusk National Park.

Off we paddle in search of birds. Photo by Jill Larkin, used with permission.

Born in Fly Lake and flowing in and out of nearby Owl Lake, roughly 25 km west of the railway line, the Owl River bear northeast and arrives at Hudson Bay approximately 100 km southeast of Cape Churchill. A narrow river with many rapids, it is flanked with boreal forest, dominated by spruces in most sections, surprisingly tall in some areas, but a little more stunted elsewhere. Travelling the river is a little like being on the prairies in the sense that when down on the river one sees only forest but if you disembark and climb the banks you are greeted with a plateau of tundra. In broad sweeping strokes, this reminded of areas of western Manitoba where I have climbed out of the Assiniboine Valley riparian forests to find prairie atop… ah, but the details differed indeed!

A view of the Owl River in asection with steep banks. Photo by Jill Larkin, used with permission.

Near the train line, the forest extends further back well off the river and there are some areas with relatively recent burns, but you don’t have to travel very far to the east to meet the tundra transition and to start picking up species like Smith’s Longspur. A little surprisingly, however, (at least for your truly) there seems to be a bit of a transition back into boreal forest closer to the coast again before the forest finally gives way to the coastal fens and then the intertidal zone where sprawling bear prints send shudders down your spine and the waves deposit memories of era long passed…

… And birds abound! So may highlights, so many smiles creeping across your face, it is a little hard to know where to start… so i will do this chronologically. No sooner had Martin, Dave, Judith and I unloaded the canoe Judith had brought north from the train and piled the bags neatly, I issued to order to point count first and eat later! Well, hey, we were still shy of the four and a half hour after local sunrise cut off – a time that cannot be replaced! Working in teams in different directions along the tracks we counted until the sun climbed too high, recording our first surprises – Pacific Loons and Surf Scoters, which we hadn't expected this far inland. Were they breeding here or waiting for more northern lakes to thaw? Certainly there seemed to be some pair bonding and such shenanigans but we all know that waterfowl don’t wait for the breeding grounds to begin that dance.

For the first time we were greeted by the mournful whistle of Harris’s Sparrows and the fluty song of Gray-cheeked Thrushes and Blackpoll Warblers (male shown in photo below) seemed to be dripping from the trees.

I even found the first of many Willow Ptarmigan along the railway, another species which I was not expecting so far inland in June.

Swampier sections echoed with the buzzy song of Palm Warbler, Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, Swamp Sparrow, Savannah Sparrow and others, and I found an unexpected Winter Wren in a section of taller trees near the water before a little evening rain ended a long day. As with the Thompson – Gillam section there were a lot of White-winged Crossbills around but here their flight calls were joined by those of Common Redpoll.

The train came by on time (who’d have thunk it?) in the middle of the night, though Judith was the only one to hear it, permitting a dark and drowsy rendez-vous with Jill and Heather. All settled back down for a little more sleep ahead of a long paddle, except Dave and I who set out at 2am for a long walk on the tracks so he could finish the remaining points in one square while I yomped a further 10km to the next square and squeezed in 15 more point counts. The counting was done before 9 am and we assembled to go over the plans and protocols and load the canoes. How are we going to load all this stuff?? Well, it is amazing what a canoe can hold! Thank goodness Heather knew what she was doing!

The river had many twists and turns that would take us, now closer, now further, to our first campsite. Martin counted each rapid that Heather led us through – over 20 on the first day and we didn’t line a single one of them! Northern Waterthrushes, Blackpoll Warblers, Yellow-rumped Warblers, American Tree Sparrows, Fox Sparrows and others serenaded us as we paddled.

We soon established a pattern camping near a square boundary, or better yet the corner of four squares, then splitting into two groups to do our morning surveys, coming back for a late breakfast before canoeing 20 km or more to the next camp site. In the burnt areas just west of the park boundary and just inside the park we found Three-toed and Black-backed Woodpeckers, Spruce Grouse, Bohemian Waxwings and Common Nighthawks. We found our only Olive-sided Flycatcher just west of the park boundary and it wasn’t too long before we saw our first of several Northern Shrikes.

Rusty Blackbirds were common and often caused me to pause from paddling so I could waypoint them (since they are Special Concern). Just inside the park our walks up and away from the river revealed the magical world of the tundra, clad in the subtle greens, reds, yellows and browns of lichens and other ground covers, soft and bouncy underfoot but not as treacherous as the boreal bogs thanks to the permafrost layer below.

The landscape was dotted with melt water ponds of all sizes where both yellowlegs, snipe, Hudsonian Godwit, Whimbrel, Red-necked Phalarope, Stilt Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper (photo shows one walking over dew clad tundra), Dunlin, Short-billed Dowitcher, American Golden Plover and other shorebirds displayed with zeal.

As is common among birds that use song to advertise territory, many of the shorebirds would perch on the stunted tree tops to call and display, thereby permitting their voices to carry further across the tundra (see photo in previous posting of the perching bird of Wapusk)

We found all three species of scoter and Long-tailed Duck on some of the larger ponds, often in pairs, and sometimes behaving suspiciously as though they had a nest to conceal. On one occasion, a female Black Scoter slinking away furtively along the shoreline while a male looked anxiously on from the middle of the pond caused us to divert our energy briefly away from point counting and into nest searching but we didn’t find the nest and realizing that the birds were stressed we decided to vacate the area. I really wanted to confirm breeding for the scoters but alas “P for pair” was the highest we could muster. I was able to find nests of other species such as Tundra Swan, some of the shorebirds and some of the ground-nesting passerines.

To be continued...

Friday, September 2, 2011

Perching Birds of Wapusk National Park, Manitoba, Canada

If you think that the term “perching birds” is synonymous with the passerines, try a trip to the Hudson Bay coast area (these photos from Wapusk National Park, Manitoba Canada) and you may be surprised who is perched on the treetops...

(from left to right: Bonaparte’s Gull, Lesser Yellowlegs, Willow Ptarmigan, Hudsonian Godwit)

more detailed posts from this area to follow!

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