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.
Guiding Churchill Summer trips for 10 plus years in by the Hudson Bay brought a lifetime of memories. The ones I have of the magnificent Arctic Tern are all fleeting …mostly the fleeting or fleeing was done by travelers and guides whenever such persons ventured near enough to a nesting area of these very protective and territorial birds
Arctic tern eggs…beautifully camouflaged for the tundra. Photo Rhonda Reid.
Let’s face it these creatures have a right to be a little impatient when it comes to relaxing for a couple of months in the Arctic and laying eggs and nurturing their young. With a migratory journey of over 40,000 miles yearly from Arctic in the summer to the Antarctic in winter, they need a break. So, if you plan to get close and …well..photograph eggs like the ones above, be prepared for an attack from above and quite possibly a wound of the head from a pointy, sharp red beak. Trust me…I’ve witnessed the assault first hand a few memorable times!
Arctic tern hovering above the nesting site ready to protect eggs. Rhonda Reid photo.
After all that strenuous travel ,which is reflected quite well in the terns’ physique, nothing is going to prevent the bird from protecting its’ nest. A fluttering , darting combination of moves through the air tends to scare most predators away from the nesting area. If these gyrations fail to create hesitancy on the ground by approaching beings, the tern has no fear and converges on the threat with reckless abandon…pecking at the subject until blood is drawn or a retreat is forced.
Arctic tern sitting on its’ nest on the tundra. Rhonda Reid photo.
Once the area has been cleared…and this usually doesn’t take long…the tern returns to the nest to settle on the eggs. An amazing amount of energy is fuel for the terns’ display….one that is efficient and quite effective. My advice is to observe Arctic terns from a distance on the land. An amazing place to observe terns is the water of the Churchill River where they follow the feeding beluga whales and enjoy a bounty of capelin.
A normally quick trip aboard the Arctic rover out to half -way point became a two hour journey on the coast. Birdlife, including willow ptarmigan and chicks just by launch-site, snow geese, tundra swans, american golden plover and greater scaup… all with youngsters…graced the trail and willows. The trip serves as an introduction to the Churchill Wildlife Management Area which serves as prime viewing area for polar bears in the fall.
However, this particular group was fortunate to eye a bear on the rocks at the point jutting into the Hudson Bay. While eating lunch, the group also spotted a “binocular bear”.. actually a sow and two cubs of the year (coy) from the back deck of the machine.
After lunch while the group was stowing away the gear and preparing to leave another bear approached the bear on the rocks and they sauntered around each other yawning the entire time. Guide Sue Zajac could see one of them snapping his jaws and finally one claimed the prime spot and the other moved away. What a great first day!
A rare young beluga whale “head shot” in the Churchill River. Photo Rhonda Reid.
While the first Natural Habitat group of the season experienced curious whales and exceptional viewing overall, the weather was rainy and dreary at times. This combination created lasting memories in the Arctic. The social whales only heightened the interactions and viewing as the week went on.
Rounding out the Arctic experience was ample birding. American golden plovers, Arctic terns, and Bonapart’s gulls highlighted the sightings. While hiking the Ramsey trail out by the Churchill Northern Studies Center, four adult whimbrels warned travelers with incessant squaks.
The whale viewing for the second group started off with some less active interactions as the whales kept a slight distance. However, the bear sightings were incredible. On their rover trip, a total of seven bears were seen including a sow and two cubs. The Willows proved to be needed cover for the animals looking to rest and conserve energy. Two males, one slightly younger than the other, interacted with some fighting though it never quite escalated into full-on sparring. A well needed rest was had by both afterward. Travelers expectations were exceeded by a long shot with the bear sightings.
Some other standout highlights the past week were peaking fireweed across the tundra, healthy female cones on the white spruce trees, and a welcome lack of mosquitos for this time of year.
While the group paddled the Churchill River in Sea North Tours new fleet of yellow kayaks, the beluga whales appeared to lose their shyness as they bumped and lifted the shells, much to the thrill of the occupants. It doesn’t get any better in the north-country!
Natural Habitat guide Sue Zajac and her first group of the summer arrived by train just a -half hour late…very impressive for the summer Hudson Bay Railway train…to a more moderate Churchill..temperature -wise that is. With hot weather pervasive the past couple of weeks, the nearly on-time train arrival is even more impressive. The heat has a negative affect on the tracks, especially the further north they run, by melting the top layer of the permafrost and allowing the steel tracks to bend slightly. This affect forces the authorities to impose “slow orders” for locomotives to evade possible derailments. Most derailments happen to grain trains due to the extra weight of the cargo. The photo below illustrates an unusual breakdown of a mound most likely covered in permafrost.
Derailment due to permafrost melt. The CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Saskatchewan RCMP
With an efficient start to the adventure up north, Sue gathered the group and headed out to Cape Merry for beluga reconnaissance. With 63F and overcast skies across the vast Hudson Bay, travelers spent over an hour at the cape..a fairly mosquito – free cape at that.
While searching eyes scanned the bay and river, whales appeared at first to be quite scarce until at last out in the direction of Fort Prince of Wales across the river, some smaller groups of 10 or more among hundreds in total, seemed to be resting on the surface and remaining afloat for five minutes at a time. Even some sows and two-week old calves were scattered throughout the larger pod. The mouth of the Churchill River also has swift currents coupled with turbulent water…another possible attraction for the weary leviathans. It will be interesting to follow subsequent beluga behavior this summer. ..a new pattern each season! A “glorious day at Cape merry”!, according to Sue.
On the birding front, the greatest excitement of the trip thus far came from an excursion out to the granery ponds on the backside of the port on the edge of town. A multitude of nesting herring gulls, yellow legs, and Arctic terns greeted the group as they observed with binoculars and cameras. A green winged teal with chicks in- line crossed the road leading out to the boat docks just as the terns began their calculated assault on travelers that were, in their opinion, much too close to cherished nests. Dive bombing terns attacked the group fending themselves off with a long stick. I personally have witnessed the “wrath of the tern”, and although no imminent danger presents itself, an occasional beak to the head can draw blood… A fair warning to keep your distance.
The premature and extended heat this spring has stalled the prolific bloom of wildflowers across the tundra. Many early flowers like the avens have already gone to seed. Hopefully the rest of the summer, with a little cool weather, will provide some late bloomers.