Thursday, 15 June 2017

Kugluktuk, Nunavut

Am fortunate to have been invited on a three-week expedition with the Canadian Wildlife Service to survey and photograph life across the central arctic. Despite the ice-covered lakes, frozen sea, and persistent snow, the burst of life here is impressive with thousands of migrant birds, an abundance of blossoming flowers, and predators and insects ready to take advantage of the short but intense arctic summer.

The land of the midnight sun. Kids in Kugluktuk emerge from their homes around suppertime to clamber the cliffs, play baseball, and ride their bikes through the night - only to go back to bed around 8am just as we are lifting off to explore the land.

Our first sign of the caribou herds were the numerous skulls and antlers that littered the tundra. In this hostile environment it takes years for bones to be scavenged or decompose, creating a mystical landscape.

Basil Bay: Frozen solid in June. Hundreds of Ringed Seals were spread across the bay around Kugluktuk - an important source of food for the two bear species here (grizzly and polar).

Rock Ptarmigan
The official bird of Nunavut and there couldn't be a more appropriate choice. One of few bird species that remains here year round. These birds are extremely well adapted to life in the arctic although they do tend to stick out during the few short months without snow.

And I thought ptarmigan were well adapted to life in the arctic! Despite their brutish appearance these Muscox are actually quite curious animals - here they cautiously approached to check us out.

Mountain Aven
One of the glories of the arctic tundra is the abundance of flowers. How come the stalks of a flower don't twist as the flower follows the sun during the 24 hours of daylight? I'll let you ponder :)

We came across this momma fox and her cubs during one of our inland surveys. She let out several mournful yelps to warn her pups to remain well hidden. We had brief glimpses of her tiny babies who were still being breastfed.

Smith's Longspur
Sometimes you can't be picky with such a short breeding season. Both males and females have multiple mating partners - a strategy called polygynandry, the rarest of all breeding strategies. This results in females having the highest rates of copulation of any bird.... sex bombs!

Lemming: It's an average year for them around Kugluktuk. Areas further East are apparently having a boom year. Hopefully we will meet these hordes as we travel East as they will surely attract owls, wolves, and other predators.

Wooly Lousewort: It's not just the locals who are still wearing thick fur coats in June. The Wooly Lousewort, also known as the bumble-bee flower, is a main source of nectar for the two species of arctic bee. Check out that undercoat!

As an adaptation to the short growing season, nearly all arctic plants grow their flower buds in the preceding summer/autumn and are ready to go as soon as the snow melts the next spring. No time is wasted!

Golden-plover: Surprisingly, our most common shorebird so far has been American Golden-plover. A reflection that our surveys have been across higher and dryer land.

Golden-plover nest
Shorebirds in general lay four eggs per nest - just the right number ;)

Some of these shorebirds migrate from as far away as Tierra del Fuego to breed right here in Arctic Canada. They are very much loyal to their nests and will risk their lives to keep us from finding them. 

Arctic Ground-squirrel

Balleen found on a random beach

King Eider

Friday, 2 June 2017

Birdathon 2017 - Species List

Between 17:10 on Monday May 29th, 2017 and 17:10 on Tuesday, Catherine Barrett and I observed a total of 90 species of bird on the Avalon peninsula.

This is our third consecutive year doing this birdathon. In previous years we have recorded 92 & 95 species, following a similar route.

So far we have raised $1500 for Bird Studies Canada and Nature NL - with some pledges yet to be collected.

Thank you to our many supporters for this years birdathon!

Species list in taxonomic order with first location observed in the right-side column.
Bolded species are notable.

Canada Goose (Branta canadensis)NL--Highway btw PCS and Chance Cove PP
American Wigeon (Anas americana)St. John's--Quidi Vidi Lake
American Black Duck (Anas rubripes)Goulds--Bidgood Park
Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos)Goulds--Bidgood Park
Northern Shoveler (Anas clypeata)St. John's--Virginia Lake
Northern Pintail (Anas acuta)St. John's--Quidi Vidi Lake
Green-winged Teal (Anas crecca)St. John's--Lundrigan's Marsh
Ring-necked Duck (Aythya collaris)NL--Bay Bulls--Long Pond
Tufted Duck (Aythya fuligula)St. John's--Mundy Pond
Greater Scaup (Aythya marila)St. John's--Mundy Pond
Common Eider (Somateria mollissima)NL--St. Shott's
White-winged Scoter (Melanitta fusca)NL--Portugal Cove South
Long-tailed Duck (Clangula hyemalis)NL--Portugal Cove South
Red-breasted Merganser (Mergus serrator)NL--Bear Cove
Ruffed Grouse (Bonasa umbellus)NL--Hwy 10--Grassy Ponds
Red-throated Loon (Gavia stellata)NL--Portugal Cove South
Common Loon (Gavia immer)NL--Renews--beach & bay
Northern Fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis)NL--St. Michael's
Northern GannetNL--Cape Race
Double-crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus)NL--St. Michael's
American Bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus)Goulds--Bidgood Park
Osprey (Pandion haliaetus)St. John's--Mundy Pond
Northern Harrier (Circus cyaneus)NL--Highway btw PCS and Chance Cove PP
Sharp-shinned Hawk (Accipiter striatusSt. John's--Lundrigan's Marsh
Northern Goshawk (Accipiter gentilis)NL--Biscay Bay
Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)St. John's--Lundrigan's Marsh
Sora (Porzana carolina)St. John's--Lundrigan's Marsh
Black-bellied Plover (Pluvialis squatarola)NL--Long Beach
Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus)Goulds--Bidgood Park
Wilson's Snipe (Gallinago delicata)Goulds--Bidgood Park
Spotted Sandpiper (Actitis macularius) NL--Cape Broyle
Greater Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca) NL--Cape Broyle
Willet (Tringa semipalmata) NL--Renews--beach & bay
Common Murre (Uria aalge) NL--Cape Race
Black Guillemot (Cepphus grylle) NL--Cape Race
Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica)NL--Cape Race
Black-legged Kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla)NL--St. Michael's
Ring-billed Gull (Larus delawarensis)Goulds--Third Pond ("Horsetrack pond")
Herring Gull (Larus argentatus) Goulds--Bidgood Park
Iceland Gull (Larus glaucoides)NL--Witless Bay
Lesser Black-backed Gull (Larus fuscus)St. John's--Quidi Vidi Lake
Great Black-backed Gull (Larus marinus)St. John's--Quidi Vidi Lake
Common Tern (Sterna hirundo)St. John's--Quidi Vidi Lake
Arctic TernNL--Renews--beach & bay
Rock Pigeon (Columba livia)Goulds--Bidgood Park
Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura)Goulds--Third Pond ("Horsetrack pond")
Northern Saw-whet Owl (Aegolius acadicus)Goulds--Powers Rd.--forest
Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon)NL--Merrymeeting Pond
Hairy Woodpecker (Picoides villosus)Goulds--Bidgood Park
Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus)Goulds--Bidgood Park
Merlin (Falco columbarius)Goulds--Bidgood Park
Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus)NL--Bear Cove
Blue-headed Vireo (Vireo solitarius)NL--La Manche PP
Gray Jay (Perisoreus canadensis)NL--La Manche PP
Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata)NL--La Manche PP
American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos)Goulds--Bidgood Park
Common Raven (Corvus corax)Goulds--Bidgood Park
Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor)Goulds--Bidgood Park
Bank Swallow (Riparia riparia)St. John's--Quidi Vidi Lake
Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica)Goulds--Bidgood Park
Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus)Goulds--Bidgood Park
Boreal Chickadee (Poecile hudsonicus)St. John's--Long Pond & Fluvarium
Red-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta canadensis)St. John's--Long Pond & Fluvarium
Golden-crowned Kinglet (Regulus satrapa)St. John's--Long Pond & Fluvarium
Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula)Goulds--Bidgood Park
Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus)NL--La Manche PP
American Robin (Turdus migratorius)Goulds--Bidgood Park
Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis)NL--Portugal Cove South
European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)Goulds--Bidgood Park
American Pipit (Anthus rubescens)NL--Cape Race
Northern Waterthrush (Parkesia noveboracensis)Goulds--Bidgood Park
Black-and-white Warbler (Mniotilta varia)Goulds--Bidgood Park
Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas)NL--Bay Bulls--Long Pond
Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia)Goulds--Bidgood Park
Blackpoll Warbler (Setophaga striata)Goulds--Bidgood Park
Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata)Goulds--Bidgood Park
Black-throated Green Warbler (Setophaga virens)NL--La Manche PP
Wilson's Warbler (Cardellina pusilla)NL--Hwy 10--Grassy Ponds
Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca)Goulds--Bidgood Park
Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis)Goulds--Bidgood Park
White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis)Goulds--Bidgood Park
Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis)Goulds--Bidgood Park
Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia)Goulds--Bidgood Park
Swamp Sparrow (Melospiza georgiana)Goulds--Bidgood Park
Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula)Goulds--Third Pond ("Horsetrack pond")
Purple Finch (Haemorhous purpureus)Goulds--Third Pond ("Horsetrack pond")
Pine Siskin (Spinus pinus)St. John's--Long Pond & Fluvarium
American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis)Goulds--Bidgood Park
Evening Grosbeak (Coccothraustes vespertinus) NL--Cape Broyle
House Sparrow (Passer domesticus)NL--Renews (townsite)

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

The Twillicks - 2017 Birdathon

Catherine Barrett and I will be doing our third annual birdathon at the end of May!
This is an all-out 24 hour effort to see as many species as possible on the Avalon peninsula.
The event promotes awareness of our natural world and helps raise money to conserve birds and habitat across our country!

Please help us reach our fundraising goal of $1787. You can click on our team page here and then click on our names to see our personal fundraising pages and make a donation :)

In 2015 we tallied a record-breaking 92 species and then in 2016 topped it with 95 species!

Can we reach 100 this year...

Donations can be made as a flat fee (e.g. $20), or you can donate per species!

A tax receipt will be generated automatically via email. If you prefer you can give your donation to Catherine or myself directly (cash or cheque) and we will forward it to Bird Studies Canada.

A portion of the funds we raise will be returned to this province to Nature NL.

Thank you for your support!


"Twillicks" is a local name used by Newfoundlanders for Greater Yellowlegs - a species guaranteed to be seen during our 24-hour extravaganza!

Last years highlight came in under the wire with less than 5 minutes remaining in the 24-hour period: 
Euro Golden-Plover

Saturday, 15 April 2017

Yellow-billed Loon - A First for Atlantic Canada

Last weekend Ian Jones & Jeannine Winkel discovered a significant concentration of seabirds in Trepassey harbour. There were literally thousands of birds where normally there would be less than 100. The reason for this phenomena was easy to explain: pack ice.

Trepasssey is indicated by a black star:

An unprecedented movement of pack ice occurred over the preceding couple weeks associated with two massive low pressure systems. These weather systems pushed ice towards the Avalon at break-neck speed. On March 29th, Ed reported thick pack ice off the Northeastern tip of the Avalon. By the next day it was all the way down past Cape Spear and two days later it was well past Cape Race. Then the winds switched and all that pack ice South of the Avalon got driven up against the Southern coast of the Avalon: an event I certainly have never seen, and hasn't happened for decades!!

Watch the movement of the pack ice (date is indicated at top right of image):

Here's a photo from Portugal Cove South where sea ice hasn't been seen for decades:

A close up of Trepassey harbour shows why the pack ice never got into the inner part of harbour - there is a barachois and large headland (Powles Head) protecting the harbour.

As this ice invaded the Southern shore many of the thousands of seabirds in the area got trapped in Trepassey harbour with literally no where else to go.

Birders took in this phenomena and tallied record breaking numbers of birds including a whopping 589 Common Loons - a record likely to never be broken again in Newfoundland!

Many of us commented that with all these loons we should be seeing the other species as well: Red-throateds and a rare Pacific Loon known to be in the area. There were only 4 Red-throated Loons and the Pacific Loon was not to be found. We also dreamed of other rarities: Common Scoter... Arctic Loon... Eared Grebe... and Yellow-billed Loon flickered through our dreams.

After that initial weekend the excitement wore off for those who had already visited.
A few birders continued to visit early this week and continued to report hundreds of loons in the harbour. Peter Shelton made the trek down on Tuesday and enjoyed great looks at these loons. One stood out to him as being much paler than the rest with a large yellowish bill. He did a great job photographing the bird despite not realizing its significance. Responsibilities tied him down over the next couple days before he could review his photos on Thursday afternoon.

This is the email I got from him, what happened next is history:

Within 10 minutes I had my gear gathered up and had plans to meet Bruce Mactavish at his place before heading directly for Trepassey (a 2 hour drive). We did not feel confident it was still around as the sighting was 48 hours old, and we had assumed the sea ice had moved off. We made the gamble, knowing we'd have 1-2 hours of sunlight left to search for the loon.

Within 30 minutes of arriving we had the bird in our scopes and enjoyed an hour of watching this mega rarity for Eastern North America:
Bird is 4th from the left.

This was one of my top 5 most wanted for Newfoundland - but, like the rest on that list, it was a very unrealistic dream. It was also my 300th species of bird observed in Newfoundland!

Check out the eBird list for a description of the bird.

The next day a crowd of birders diligently searched through the loons without finding it. Unfortunately, the majority of the loons escaped the harbour sometime between sunset on Thursday and sunrise on Friday. The reason was obvious when we checked Powles Head: the sea ice had dissipated.

Powles Head:

Following are some of Peter's photos of this Yellow-billed Loon taken on April 11th, 2017:

An unprecedented sighting for Newfoundland. Hard to believe it really happened, and hard to believe it will again. We all wish that Friday had turned out differently.

Here's a map of North Americas sightings:
Clearly it is an exceptional bird in the Atlantic ocean, but for whatever reason there is a precedent of Yellow-billed Loons turning up at inland locations across North America. Only two previous records for this side of the Atlantic ocean - both from within the last 10 years....

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Sacrificial Harp Seals

Arrived at Cape Spear this morning excited for the opportunity to see Ivory Gulls and Polar Bears. Ended up being one of the most dramatic and grisly visits to the point.

With the help of a number of large low pressure systems, pack ice has encompassed the Eastern Avalon for the first time in over a decade (probably decades). With it there are hundreds if not thousands of harp seals - particularly young, weeks old, harp seals. These young'uns are riding the pack ice regardless of where it takes them - and today the pack ice took hundreds of them on a direct collision course for North Americas most Easterly point: Cape Spear. Normally this wouldn't be so disastrous, but today was a windless day following the passage of a significant low pressure system churning up the ocean to our East = massive swells breaking at the point.

With an ocean full of small-house & truck-sized ice-boulders being tossed around like children's toys the seals really had no chance once their chosen ice-pan ferried them close to shore.

It was a gory scene with one seal after another being flung into the air and battered down by the ice. They had no chance to survive with these tsunamis of ice.

If you look at the chunks of ice in these waves you'll hopefully appreciate the energy that was out there today!

One of many harp seals approaching its end:

A cruel way to go:

Every one of these seals suffered a similar fate today...
Nature can be a cruel beast, but at times it is astonishingly glamorous:

One seal miraculously made it beyond the war-zone and was waiting out the tempest on shore:

Gulls were migrating North along the Eastern Avalon today in big numbers. Hundreds of Herring Gulls, and Glaucous Gulls by the tens.

Mobs of Black-legged Kittiwakes were going North as well: 

Friday, 31 March 2017

Back from the North

Actually, this is old news that never got around to being published. After seeing the sea ice in St. John's Harbour today I was re-inspired to finish it off!


The Arctic. It's an exhilarating and daunting place. The stakes are high. The birds are exhilarating. The thought of a nearby polar bear constantly lingers and hopes of a snow white gull keep one dreaming at night.

The sea ice. Always looming on the horizon as if waiting for an opportune moment to pile ashore. And when least expected it invades every last cove and inlet. Only to be frightened right back, like the tide, to its safe space on the horizon.

Life is different. Not only must it prepare for the regular prolonged arctic blasts, but it must contest with the unpredictable movement of sea ice and absolute lack of nourishment. How these animals survive is beyond me - but, sometimes, there are clues:

This image shows the droppings of a grouse - the large clump at the top is from the birds ceca.
Grouse (and other bird species) have outpouchings in their intestines called cecas. Grouse & Ptarmigan eat very tough food (tree twigs, etc) during the winter - they rely on the diversion of food into the pouches to break down the food over a long period of time so that they can absorb nutrients. In fact, their intestines grow to prepare for the winter and shrink by up to 50% in the spring!

Pine Grosbeaks continue to impress me as the most hardy of our finches.
Throughout this relatively bleak winter there were very few finches to be seen - the only finch species that I regularly encountered in the woods were Pine Grosbeaks. Despite the abysmal cone crop, and lack of other food they somehow eek out a living even as far North as St. Anthony!

Another exceptionally hardy species is the Snow Bunting.
A very appropriate name :)

It's not just the wildlife that impressed.
This fellow lives in the most Northerly house on the island of Newfoundland. Living just short of Cape Norman, he is not just isolated in rural Newfoundland - but lives about 5km from the closest community. He has lived here for over 50 years.
What a guy!


Mmmmmmm... I saw this individual Gyrfalcon on 5 occasions. A real treat to have it around the community of St. Anthony where it kept a watchful eye on the daily Glaucous Gull commute.

American Three-toed Woodpecker! 
One of the highlights of this trip was coming across this beauty of the dense spruce forests:

Sunny calm days made for some photogenic scenes:

L'Anse-aux-Meadows taking in the light show:

The snow storms were far beyond anything I had ever experienced before:

I did come across a few small flocks of pale redpolls - I'll leave it at that.
I'm very much "pro-OneRedpollSpecies"

The most spectacular birding came towards the end of my rotation.
As the ice continued to press closer to shore it drove eiders by the thousands close to land. Eventually they had no where to go but out over the ice to seek open water elsewhere.

The scenes were both dramatic and breath-taking with flocks in the thousands passing by the headlands.
This flock of over 5000 individual birds (image only shows 20% of flock) could be heard approaching from over 2km away - far before I saw them! These flocks most form annually in this area - creating one of Newfoundlands most impressive wildlife spectacles.

St. Carol's headland - probably the most exciting place in the area:

Iceland Gull:


Overall an excellent trip! But I'm definitely not hardy enough to be moving up there!