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