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...

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