An Arctic Primer
As this is my first opportunity to write for 10,000 Birds I thought I might introduce you to my “beat”, and perhaps some of the birds in it. Arctic Canada.
Arctic Canada… Arctic… Canada…
Okay, first thing you need to know is it is a really big place. Really big. I live in one of Canada’s three northern territories, the newest one: Nunavut. Nunavut is encompassed entirely in the Arctic. The other two territories, the Northwest Territories and the Yukon also form part of Arctic Canada. How much depends on one’s definition of the Arctic, and there are many. Some use any area lying above the 60th parallel, some the Tree Limit, some the limit of contiguous permafrost. Some hard core people define it as the lands above the Arctic Circle, 66 2/3 degrees north, the point on the earth that has at least one day a year where the sun doesn’t set, and one day when it doesn’t rise.
But by what ever measure one uses, it is a massive amount of land and sea. Nunavut, my home for the last eleven plus years, has a land mass of over two million square kilometres. That is over one fifth of Canada’s total land mass. In fact if Nunavut was a country, in terms of land mass, it would be the 14th largest country in the world.
So we have a lot of land, but what we don’t have is a lot of people. Our population is less than 30,000. That’s less than, say, Fairbanks, Alaska. And those two factors, huge area that is extremely sparsely populated, make for a very interesting opportunity for bird enthusiasts, such as myself. A large area with few people, and even fewer birders, means there are great gaps in our knowledge of birds up here, especially in the realm of populations and breeding data. It gives an opportunity for even someone like myself, with mediocre birding skills, to add to the data pool, sometimes significantly. Programs such as the NWT/Nunavut checklist program and eBird allow me to contribute. Because there is such little data, every little bit becomes even more important.
Now we get some amazing birds up here. Birds that few people in North American get to see, or get to see in their breeding finery. Just not this time of the year. Where I live, an amazingly beautiful corner of the world called Arctic Bay, the winter isn’t very bird friendly.
I live some 700 kilometres NORTH of the Arctic Circle, at 73 degrees north. The sun set here on November 5th, and unless I travel south I’ll not see it again until February 6th. As I write this (about 2 hours before my deadline) it is an unseasonably warm -7 degrees Celsius (19 F), but the wind is gusting upwards of 80 kms/hr (50 mph). Normally temperatures this time of year are in the minus 30s, and usually it is calmer in these parts.
I’ll not see any migrants up here until May, and the big rush of breeding migrants comes in early June. This time of year I am pretty much assured of seeing one species of bird. Luckily it is one of my favourite birds, my constant companion, the Raven.
There are others though, this is turning out to be a great year for redpolls, mostly Hoary Redpolls which, surprisingly, is a year round resident of the High Arctic. Then there are ptarmigan (almost exclusively Rock Ptarmigan in the neighbourhood, although Willow Ptarmigan are also a possibility). And thanks to the keen observations of some friends of mine up here we know that at least some Gryfalcon winter here, rather than farther south as conventional wisdom has told us.
And that pretty much rounds up the usual (winter) suspects. But don’t despair, spring and summer brings birds close by that many of you would drive a long way to see. Breeding plumage Red Phalaropes, Ivory Gulls, Ross’ Gulls, Sabine’s Gulls, Lapland Longspurs with their singing flights and gorgeous plumage, Black Guillemots, Thick-billed Murres, Red-throated Loons, Pacific Loons, Yellow-billed Loons and many others. In all of Nunavut, the total species count is a little more than 200. But many of those species were observed in our southern fringes. Up here fifty species would be an amazing count. But what glorious birds they all are.
Female Red Phalarope
Red-throated Loon pair