In the Arctic or sub-Arctic there are some birds that become aggressive when threatened near their nesting grounds. The majority of these species are seasonal residents of the bountiful feeding areas around the coastal lowlands. Churchill’s bountiful feeding grounds attract over 200 bird species during the spring and Summer. The Arctic tern is the king of the Arctic air…and for that matter all the air between the migration path pole to pole.
Arctic tern hovering above the nesting grounds. Rhonda Reid photo.
Arctic terns are notorious for pursuing capelin or other small fish stirred up by pods of beluga whales in the Churchill River or Hudson Bay. Their darting, aggressive behavior evokes the urgency of their mission to gain sustenance in the short summer feeding window. After a trip from nearly pole to pole of 35,000 km these birds really don’t have a pause phase. With lifetime accumulation of close to three million kilometers of flight, the life of an arctic tern is surely one of the highest paced of all living organisms. The majority of their lives is spent in the air.
Arctic terns also vehemently protect their nesting grounds which are usually along beaches in the strewn rocks and sand and nestled in the sea grass or tundra. I have personally witnessed near-attacks as well as direct hits on myself and Natural Habitat travelers who wandered too close to the nests. One such strike was to the forehead of a guest posing for a photograph taking the hit from a arrow-like beak right in the forehead. A small stream of blood symbolized the intent of these strong-willed birds. Although at the time the wound caused jaws to drop, the end result was constant laughs throughout the trip within the group. No stitches required!
Arctic tern with capelin in beak. Warwick Sloss photo.
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.
Hudsonian Godwit in flight. A. J. Hand photo.
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.
Fall migration routes for Hudsonian godwits Kendall and Sig. Significant staging areas were documented along Hudson/James Bay and within Colombia, Venezuela, Brazil, and Bolivia. Map by CCB.
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.
Hudsonian Godwit in breeding plumage. Seth Kellog photo. The Allen Bird Club website can be found at massbird.org/allen Seth Kellogg can be reached at email@example.com
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.
Polar bears are the king of the Arctic. Photo: Paul Brown
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.
Gyrfalcon on the tundra in Churchill,MB.Paul Brown photo.
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.
Snowy owl greets virgin travelers to the north. Colby Brokvist photo.
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.
Arctic tern hovering above the nesting grounds. Rhonda Reid photo.
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.
If you havn’t spent time in Churchill, MB in the summer, you need to go. It’s an amazing, relaxing experience you will rarely find..other than say ..Alaska. The fact that even Alaska can be more accessible makes Churchill a hidden oasis in this frenetic -paced world we live in. Everything slows down in Churchill and unlike polar bear season, nobody seems to mind at all. One comes away from a summer trip to Churchill with a refreshed peace of mind.
Lesser yellowlegs by the Hudson Bay coast. Sue Zajac photo.
Before the nearly 2,500 beluga whales arrive in the region, numerous species of birds make their annual migration to the rich food source that is the wetlands surrounding the Hudson Bay. Of course the one species that makes the longest sojourn being the Arctic tern …flying pole to pole in extreme conditions. The bird sees two summers each year traveling 44,300 miles annually. Now there’s some frequent flyer miles!
Arctic tern resting on a rock. Photo Gerrit Vyn.
Numerous other shorebirds as well as inland species enjoy a bountiful summer in Churchill and a majority overlap with the whale population’s arrival in the bay and surrounding rivers. Whales truly are the main character in this incredible performance of Wildlife in the Arctic. Everything else…the birds,wildflowers,tundra,coastal and boreal forest landscape. aurora borealis….and even the polar bears…are the supporting actors. beluga whales bring the essence of the north to the soul.
Viewing beluga whales from a zodiac. Photo Steve Selden.
No single day is the same out on the water either in the Churchill River or the Hudson Bay. Weather has a huge influence on whale behavior. Calm, placid days allow whales to fish for capelin with no effort…continuously breaking the glass-like plane of the water’s surface. Other windy,choppy days make for more erratic behavior..often making the sightings less unique. Whales stay lower in the water though the experience is just as intense…being with these magnificent creatures in the wild northern waters.
Beluga whales in the clear, cold water of the mouth of the Churchill River. Photo Steve selden
Beluga whale in the Churchill River. Steve Selden photo.
Because of heavy ice -pack in the north, beluga’s do not have a dorsal fin. Fins would be at serious risk of damage when surfacing among the ice….causing life threatening injury. Increased acuity at tail fluke maneuverability and pectoral fin movement compensate for the lack of the dorsal fin. These animals can turn on a dime and dive in the same instant..their fine sense of space and motion is rounded out by echolocation that is so fine tuned in the water. Whales are very comfortable in their surroundings.
“We just arrived in Churchill today and from shore saw a beluga festival out near the edge of the bay along with Herring and Bonaparte gulls flying overhead indicating a feeding frenzy!” reported Sue Zajac this past week with her first Natural Habitat Arctic Summer group. Up North for another season of ever surprising wildlife encounters, Sue finds a way to uncover all the natural wonders this unique region has to offer. Assisted by local resident/guide Rhonda Reid, the pair have been scouring the tundra and Arctic waters to insure travelers leave no “Tern unstoned”…uh..rather “stone unturned. The former would not be good…those poor little guys have to fly a long way to get their capelin.
In the ponds adjacent to the grain silos the group viewed two -week old herring gull hatchlings nesting on a rock protected by surrounding water, as well as another pair of fledglings nearby. Lesser yellow legs and a female lesser scaup with seven chicks, short-billed dowitcher, red-necked phalarope and attacking Arctic terns suggesting a nest. A molting male greater scaup rounded out the birding extravaganza. The weather was windy and warm with a hint of rain. A background of grain dust filled the air as grain cars were unloaded to fill the towering elevators guarding the Churchill river. No grain container ships in port or on the horizon yet though a small barge left port, escorted by a tugboat. All eyes will be on the grain port this August through November to see how the lack of a grain commission affects the supply and demand of this inland seaport.
As Summer in the north progresses, wildflowers come and go like the tide. Fireweed, an everlasting sentinel, lines secluded dirt roads all throughout Churchill, Arctic avens, the initial sign of Spring have now mostly gone to seed as have many of the willows, hedysarum or Mackenzi sweet vetch, and purple Indian paintbrush color the tundra with shades of purple and red.
Hedysarum or Mackenzi sweet vetch…one of Churchill’s prize wildflowers.
Arrival in Churchill began with a visit down to the shore of the Hudson Bay near the inukshuk behind the town complex. After a long train excursion from Winnipeg, the travelers were content with settling into the northern pace and feeling the ground. The serenity of the Hudson Bay does this better than any other place.
Guide Sue and travelers walked the beach on the Hudson Bay.Photo Rhonda Reid
Day one in Churchill was an adventure out on the water aboard the Sea North 2, a 30 passenger viewing craft made to go around ice flows. The sea north gives people a view above the water and has a front and rear deck for photography. Although one cannot getas close to the beluga’s as you would aboard the zodiacs, this is made for getting clear more interesting photos. The boat is also used to transport the groups across river to fort Prince of Wales. The group made the trip and luckily was prepared with bug nets as the mosquitos were out in full force. when you experience a remote environment you have to take the good with the bad. This is not a zoo where the climate can be made to order. A taste of the real thing , even when annoying, can make the experience everlasting.
Sea North 2 on the Churchill River looking for belugas. Photo Rhonda Reid.
The next day the wind forced zodiacs to stay at the dock so the morning was spent out near goose Creek with Bill Calnan birding and story telling. Always different and interesting. After a visit to the iconic Eskimo museum the group just went with the flow out on the land exploring along the coast near Miss Piggy (an old plane wreck on the rocks above the coastal road) and the fossil beach below it at low tide. These spontaneous days in Churchill always seem to lead into something eventful. Serendipitous to say the least. Back on the outside of town, Conservation officers were dealing with a bear that had just come out of the water and was unwilling to be persuaded back in and along the coast. They chased the sub-adult male along the rocks all the way from the complex to Cape Merry …with cracker shells as a motivational tool. Meanwhile the group followed at a safe distance watching every move…amazing luck with the timing!