Monday, August 6, 2012

Birding in "the polar bear capital of the world"

Churchill, Canada is a tiny town perched on the wind-blown edge of Hudson Bay, and most famously known for its polar bears, that attract flocks of tourists every autumn. Less well known are the birds that breed on the arctic tundra, beloved of a limited subset of enthusiasts that appear in town in the summer, just before the polar bear season begins.

When we appeared, Churchill was clearly waiting. The cluster of containers that constitute buildings in this town looked quiet, and driving further afield for birds, we would come upon surreal sights of enormous white "tundra buggies" and strings of huskies chained a few feet apart, waiting for the tourists to arrive.

The breeding birds, however, are in full swing, as can be seen from this frantic parent, its beak crammed with food for its offspring.

Boreal Chickadee (Poecile hudsonicus)

Beyond the town, the tundra is just as beautiful as one might expect, with melting sea ice creating channels for beluga whales to swim past, and massive, fluffy grey arctic hares. I took a lot of photos. As we were there during the summer solstice, there wasn't much night to speak of, which resulted in some very frantic birding, with abortive attempts to find an elusive yellow rail between the dusky hours of midnight and 2am, and a mad dash to catch the "dawn chorus" at 2:30am.

Some of the very special birds we did manage to see, are the arctic tern (Sterna paradisaea), with its striking red-lipsticked beak, best known for its grueling yearly migration between the Arctic and Antarctic.

Another tundra beauty is the willow ptarmigan (Lagopus lagopus), which turns completely white in the winter to match the snow. In the summer, males have the glowing red wattles above their eyes, presumably highly attractive to their much more tastefully decorated hens.

The gray jay (Perisoreus canadensis) is one of my favourites, because it is what biologists call a "cooperative breeder", where individuals forgo their own reproduction to help others raise offspring. Like many avian cooperative breeders, most gray jay helpers at the nest are sons from previous clutches, though daughters will also remain to help.

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