Birdwatching in Nunavut

Bruce
Bruce Mactavish
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One of the perks of working as a biologist for an environmental consulting company is getting to travel to interesting places occasionally. A birdwatcher always has something to look forward to in a new place. The farther from home, the more interesting the birds or birding atmosphere will likely be.

I have been to the Arctic a few times and have a rapidly growing appetite to see more. The Arctic is a huge area. There is so much to learn about what makes it tick and how birds make it work for them.

During the third week of August, I got to go to Pond Inlet, Nunavut, to do some aerial surveys for marine mammal surveys.  Pond Inlet is a little over halfway between St. John’s and the North Pole. It is on the north end of that big island in the eastern Arctic called Baffin Island.

This is the beginning of High Arctic. Much of the terrain is devoid of vegetation except for lichen-covered rock. Richer areas occur in river valleys and ponds near sea level.

The land around Pond Inlet is a bit of an oasis with patches of grass and other vegetation. Here, Arctic poppies are among the tallest plants, reaching just above ankle height. Many of the shorebirds had already migrated south, but the larger water birds were still present. There were groups of snow geese on the tundra containing grey young still too young to fly. Red-throated loons were still feeding flightless young on shallow ponds. There were glaucous gulls, kittiwakes, guillemots and other birds in the saltwater.

The community of Pond Inlet is located on Eclipse Sound. This is a body of water separating Bylot Island from Baffin Island. At Pond Inlet, Eclipse Sound is about 12 kilometres wide. The 5,000-foot mountains on Bylot Island make it seem a lot closer than it is. A strong tidal current flowing through Eclipse Sound produces upwellings and riptides, stirring up nutrients that feed zooplankton which, in the end, are food for fish. Birds eat the fish.

During my time off before and after the aerial surveys, I walked five minutes from the hotel room to the shoreline to watch the birds feeding in the riptides.

When the tide was strong, swarms of kittiwakes and fulmars moved about Eclipse Sound looking for fish and zooplankton forced to the surface by the currents. The feeding areas were temporary, as the currents slacken in one area and strengthen in another a few hundred metres away. Squadrons of kittiwakes and fulmars hurried from one feeding swarm to the next. The feeding activity attracted the attention of pirate birds. These are the jaegers, who make their living by stealing food from other birds.

There was nearly continuous action, with pomarine jaegers and a few of its smaller cousins, the parasitic jaegers, chasing the kittiwakes. Sometimes four or five jaegers would gang up on one kittiwake and chase it, staying a bill length behind the tail while mirroring its every desperate twist and turn until the kittiwake disgorged the contents of it stomach. Usually this was a whole fish, which one of the jaegers snapped up before it even hit the water.

On one occasion I witnessed a jaeger pull the fish right out of a kittiwake’s mouth before it had a chance to throw it up completely. It was a wicked world out there.

Overall, all the birds fed well. Oddly, the jaegers would not fish for themselves. It is ingrained in their method of survival to take food from other birds. It is not quite like this all the time.

Jaegers also feed on lemmings. Lemmings are a large field mouse-like creature living above the Arctic Circle. They are famous for their cyclic high and low populations. This was a good year for lemmings in the Pond Inlet area; therefore, it was a good summer for pomarine jaegers. The 50 or more chasing the hundreds of kittiwakes off Pond Inlet was considered an unusually high number for the area. Some of them were young of the year.

For me, it was nice to see the adults still in high breeding plumage in an Arctic atmosphere. They were feeding over saltwater but were still attached to the Arctic land mass. Small groups of the birds rested on rocks and a gravel bar at a small river mouth.

How I wish I could have been close enough to get a picture of those jaegers. Pomarine jaegers have a different feel when you can see them migrating south past Newfoundland. They are strictly pelagic, meaning they live at sea. They are usually not observed from land without using a high-powered telescope, or maybe after a storm forces them in from the open sea. I have never seen a pomarine jaeger resting on the land in Newfoundland and Labrador.

While watching the jaegers from my comfortable rock by the edge of Eclipse Sound, the ever-present ravens made themselves known by their calls and aerial antics. Ravens are part of the Inuit culture and have never formed a fear of people in the Arctic.

There were the occasional sounds and sights of locally bred snow buntings and lapland longspurs flying overhead or feeding among the rocks around me. A couple of hoary redpolls still in juvenile feathering visited the seaside slope one evening.

The frog-like grunts of red-throated loons flying overhead carrying small fish to feed their young on inland ponds made you look up. A few Thayer’s gulls among the more numerous glaucous gulls patrolling the shoreline added a foreign flavour to the day.

I have not even mentioned things like the majestic scenery — ancient mountains and grand glaciers or the pods of narwhal that collect in Eclipse Sound during the summer.

If you get a chance to visit the Arctic, never refuse. Go for it!

Bruce Mactavish is an environmental

consultant and avid birdwatcher. He can be reached at wingingitone@yahoo.ca, or by phone at 722-0088.

Geographic location: Arctic, Pond Inlet, Nunavut Bylot Island North Pole Baffin Island Newfoundland

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