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

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