Although the heart of winter has really just begun in Churchill, we are starting to dream of summer and the Arctic secrets revealed during the warmer months in the north. Birds, beluga whales, Arctic wildflowers and other wonders of the short Churchill Arctic summer season will leave a lasting impression on any travelers to Churchill during this time.
More and more shorebirds are arriving into Churchill as the summer takes hold. This time of year is a bird watchers dream in Churchill as new species appear almost daily in the build up to the nesting and foraging season on the coasts as well as inland. every trip outside creates new opportunities for spotting different birds. Depending on your preference you can do a boreal forest hike or stay along the coast or near inland thermakarsts or pools. There’s plenty of these winged creatures for all types of spottings.
Birds love Churchill in the summer months when the Arctic food chain grows exponentially to take advantage of the short warm season. The tidal pools and coastlines are teeming with plankton, krill, capelin and many other food sources unmatched by any other region in the world. The pure number of birds migrating to Churchill in the spring certainly is a testimony to the bounty of the Arctic.
Nearly 250 bird species appear in Churchill over the course of the year. Most of those are “summer” migratory species while some reside in the region year-round. Personally, I feel the ones that come and go tend to be more intriguing.
Today’s focus is on the Hudsonian Godwit, a large shorebird with a long, upturned bill. This bird breeds in the Arctic and winters in southern South America. Because of its remote breeding and wintering grounds the godwit is one of the more obscure American shorebirds.
Nesting on the mixed tundra and wetlands of northern Canada and Alaska, the godwit travels across the great plains of the United States in the spring then returns south along the Atlantic coast to South America in the winter. Reported nonstop flights of several thousand miles between these sites are not uncommon. At times, in the fall, “touch-downs” on the Atlantic coast are necessitated by northeasterly winds.
The long upward bill of the godwit digs in muddy, rocky or sandy shorelines as well as marshes, mudflats and flooded tundra or fields. The length of the bill allows it to search deep in the earth to acquire insects or organisms unreachable by other foragers. The Hudsonian, however, is the smallest of the four godwit species. In my guiding days I would associate the upturned bill with “god”, (heaven generally thought of as above in the sky) in order to help identify the bird from a distance or while mixed in with other shorebirds. Whimbrels have similar long bills, though slightly curving downwards, and dowitchers have more straight, dagger-like bills. All three are found on the shores of Churchill in the spring and summertime. Due to their similar feather markings and size, the bills are quick and easy identifying symbols.
Once thought of as one of North America’s rarest birds it now is know to be more prolific. Vulnerability for the species remains quite high as the population is confined to only a few locales geographically.
When found in groups, godwits are generally collectively known as an “omniscience”, “pantheon” or “prayer”. A “prayer of godwits” fits quite nicely with my bill reference for identification. These birds truly are incredible in all facets of their lives.
If you have the urge to track the summer life cycle of the Hudsonian Godwit, come to Churchill with Natural Habitat Adventures! Visit nathab.com for details.
Let’s face it, “cold” is what the Arctic does best….especially to those living below this amazing region of our planet Earth. So, other than the hearty mammals, particularly the mighty polar bear and humans, very few birds overwinter at high latitudes. Less than 10% of all birds that venture to Arctic and sub-Arctic regions unpack their bags and set up a permanent home there.
Birds that do either have some hearty DNA or have developed some unique ways to cope with cold temperatures that can dip to -55 Celsius. Most of you know the raven can subsist just about anywhere on the planet and the intelligence and intuitiveness of this creature has been well documented. He is truly the sentinel of true survival…especially as his shining black defiantly glares out against the snowy north.
Rock and willow ptarmigan can be seen in Churchill as the fall arrives and throughout the winter, changing to their winter’s best camouflage white. Ivory and the illusive and highly prized Ross’s gull also stay put for the winter. I’ve spotted the Ross three times in over a decade of guiding Natural Habitat Churchill summer trip. All three times the sightings were facilitated by Churchill birding master and legend Bonnie Chartier when we worked together up north.
The Common and hoary redpoll, Brunnich’s Guillemot, Little Auk and Black Guillemot also inhabit the Arctic full-time. Snow buntings and gray jays are quite friendly species that call Churchill home all year. Higher up in Greenland the birds tend to shelter in utility tunnels known as utilidors.
Boreal chickadees and occasionally boreal owls and great horned owls inhabit the boreal forest. And, the mighty gyrfalcon, the fourth fastest bird on the planet…er off the planet, can be seen sporadically hunting or soaring from point to point. I have seen this bird dart across the Churchill tundra and even through town.
The most intuitive behavior exhibited for warmth and survival is how ptarmigan and common hoary redpolls take shelter in snowdrifts and endure the frigid cold by utilizing the snow as insulation. Ptarmigan and Snowy Owls grow leg and feet feathers to keep them warm throughout the winter months. They also change plumage from dark to white in order to stay camouflaged and safe from predators.
The summer months are reminiscent to a beach-side resort with the bird population ballooning by more than 200 additional migrant species arriving in early spring. These are birds that cannot survive the harsh conditions of winter in the far north though return each year to take advantage of the bounty of food sources thriving in the Arctic summer. The most incredible journey is clearly that of the Arctic tern…making the pole to pole round trip of nearly 45,000 miles.
Many of these species arrive early and set up nests for the short but productive breeding season. With snow cover still prevalent, these hearty nurturing parents live off their stored fat reserves for energy. The majority of the Arctic and sub-Arctic species are wetland feeders such as various ducks, swans and geese. Waders and shorebirds also scour the marshes and shoreline plucking all the organisms they can from the Earth.