subarctic treasure


Churchill-spread-330The distance was great, but the light was perfect and the view through my spyglass was clear.

I watched gulls strolling through a wetland along the Churchill River, south of Manitoba’s still snow-capped Hudson Bay, on a cool but beautiful day in early June. I was hoping to find a needle in a haystack, a Canadian rough diamond, but all I saw were familiar faces – herring gulls, ring-billed gulls and many Bonapartes.

Then, provoked by a whim or an invisible sign of danger, the gulls rose into the air, transforming the space above the water into a tangle of flapping and spreading wings. When I tilted my scope to follow them, I discovered that the herd was hiding two small, unfamiliar tern-like gulls.

Both had black heads. One had white-edged but otherwise smoky gray wings – a small gull, the smallest gull in the world and a rare and little-known and somewhat mysterious local breeder in North America. It is certain to turn on rare bird alerts whenever it appears in the south.

The other bird’s back and wings were divided into bold triangles of grey, white and black – a Sabine’s Gull. Almost unknown in North America in winter, it spends the non-breeding season far south, off the coast of Africa and in the Humboldt Current off Peru and northern Chile. It passes rapidly through Churchill each June, rushing to reach its high-latitude breeding grounds, the nearest of which, even here, are still 300 miles to the north.

Until that time, I only knew about Sabine’s Gull and Little Gull from what I had read in field guides and magazine articles, on the Internet, or from my dog-eared copy of Bonnie Chartier’s classic. Bird Watcher’s Guide to Churchill (1994). Now I can easily imagine how each spring they and other birds follow the Churchill River north, down the bay, to this extraordinary place where the marine, boreal and forest biomes intersect. tundra.

Beautiful and fascinating

Gulls were just two of many beautiful and fascinating creatures I first saw in 2012, during a week-long stay at the nonprofit independent research and education center known as the name of Churchill Northern Studies Centre. Founded in 1976, it provides a home away from home for ornithologists and other visiting researchers while offering a wide variety of educational programs for polar bear lovers, aurora borealis watchers and other members of the general public, including me. I participated in a birding program called Spring’s Wings, one of seven so-called learning vacations the center offers each year.

Our instructor was veteran tour leader Rudolf Koes from Winnipeg. Co-editor of the Prairie Provinces column in the journal North American birds and a tireless contributor to the ambitious Manitoba Breeding Bird Atlas, due for completion this year, he knew exactly where to find Churchill’s birds, and showed many of them to me and other Spring’s Wings vacationers. .

We observed skuas, long-tailed ducks, common eiders, red mergansers and mergansers, goldeneyes, scoters, loons, terns and belugas from Windy Cape Merry, the promontory above beyond the city’s iconic grain elevators.

We found American Pipits along the Coast Road, which stretches east from town atop the 600-million-year-old rocky ridge that lines the coast of Hudson Bay.

In a hushed stand of white spruce covered in reindeer moss, we were standing so close to a spruce grouse we could hear its tail feathers fanning and folding together, and we spotted Golden Plovers. America, Chestnut-breasted Godwits, twirling Red-necked Phalaropes and other shorebirds in the wet marsh and swamp area south of the CNSC.

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We saw redpolls, willow tits and pine grosbeaks at feeders stocked by a Churchill resident. We saw a pair of Short-eared Owls flying low over a landscape littered with fallen rocket carcasses. (The center is located on the site of an abandoned National Research Council of Canada launch complex 14 miles east of town.) And one evening at a pumping station at the end of the long road where I had marveled earlier at Sabine’s and Little Gulls, we were treated to an even bigger surprise – a Northern Wheatear.

Of all the passerines that breed in North America, the Northern Wheatear is believed to be the only one to spend its winters in Africa, having migrated either westward across all of Asia or eastward across the ‘Atlantic Ocean. The American Birding Association assigns it code 2, categorizing it as a regularly occurring species (and one appeared recently, October 19, 2013, at Peckham Farm in Kingston, Rhode Island), but in Churchill it is a very rare migrant.

Our Wheatear, a buff female seen in the extended daylight of a subarctic spring evening, was certainly one of the highlights of our week. Koes later told me that in over 30 years of visiting Churchill he had never spotted one.

Learn more about Churchill

Watch a video about the research conducted at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre.

Watch a video about Andy Johnson’s study of Churchill’s Whimbrels.

Watch a video showing Nathan Senner’s research on the Hudsonian Barge.

Find out how Hudson’s Bay researchers are changing our image of the prince of birds.

Learn about the Manitoba Breeding Bird Atlas and view maps of breeding sites.

Northern Wheatear
Read the 2012 paper that provided the first evidence of Northern Wheatear’s incredible inter-hemisphere migrations.

Another highlight was rubbing shoulders with young climatologists, geologists, ornithologists and other thoughtful scientists who use the CNSC as a base while conducting research in the Western Hudson Bay region. One, Nathan R. Senner, a doctoral student at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, compared the migrations of Hudsonian godwits captured at Churchill with those of godwits that nest in south-central Alaska.

As Senner wrote in The Penguin in October 2012 (and as we reported in “Birding Briefs” in our February 2013 issue), his findings indicate that the effects of climate change are not being felt evenly around the world: birds that breed in Alaska are now arriving nearly nine days earlier than in the early 1970s, while the Churchill breeding population is arriving 10 days later. The result, he concluded, is a worrying mismatch between the shorebird’s arrival time and the resources it depends on to reproduce successfully.

A colleague of Senner’s at Cornell Lab, Andy Johnson, was doing similar research while I was at the CNSC, but on a different species. He was studying the Whimbrel, a long-distance, long-billed migrant, an abundant nesting species at Churchill, and one of the most conspicuous shorebirds of the subarctic. Every day, he and Johanna Perz, a graduate student at Trent University in Peterborough, Ont., walked across the tundra or sedge bog south of the center looking for nests.

Their goals, Johnson told me, were to learn as much as possible about the habitats shorebirds choose as nesting sites, the abundance of insects the birds gobble up during breeding, and when and where. route of their puzzling and fascinating annual migrations. .

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Like Hudsonian godwits, curlews breed in discrete populations – in Alaska and the Yukon Territory in the west, and along Hudson Bay in the east. Birds of the two groups follow separate paths when migrating, and they apparently do not mix during the winter. We know that some Curlews travel up to 2,400 miles (4,000 km) over the ocean to reach South America, but little is known about their coastal aggregation sites except is that they disappear quickly. Whether, or how, this loss, combined with climate change, will affect the species is a story I’m confident Johnson and Perz will piece together shortly.

Like the other members of Spring’s Wings Learning Vacations, I was grateful for the opportunity to learn more about their fascinating research. But I found it equally valuable to be able to sleep and eat in the establishment that has just opened and which makes such work possible.

A model of sustainability

For years, the Churchill Northern Studies Center has housed scientists and visitors like me in cramped administrative buildings, remnants of when the site was used to launch Black Brants and other sounding rockets into the upper atmosphere. . But in the summer of 2011, the CNSC moved into a sparkling 27,800 square foot facility that not only hosts 88 visitors and 12 year-round staff, but serves as a model of sustainability for future developments in other remote communities. and fragile.

Designed to showcase best green building practices, the new building sheds snow, gathers sunlight and safely deters the photogenic but dangerous polar bears that emerge from the bay when the ice breaks up in July and then congregate at Churchill and around him in October and November. .

Freezer panel construction and triple-glazed argon-filled windows keep out the wind, which blows so relentlessly that it only allows branches to grow on the lee side of the trees. (Locals call them flag trees.) Timers, carbon dioxide sensors and other smart controls keep energy consumption low. No-flush composting toilets, shower timers and other innovative technologies reduce water usage well below the national average.

The building has laboratories, classrooms, a cafeteria and a herbarium, and a heated dome on the roof makes it possible to comfortably observe the northern lights. I left enchanted and inspired – and not just because I spotted Pacific loons, willow ptarmigans, snowshoe hares and arctic foxes, all from the window of room #4.

Hermetic yet still open, hardworking yet appealing, serious and playful, the building offers a compelling answer to an important question that anyone wanting to raise awareness of the world’s most treasured places is sure to ask: how do you welcome visitors? in a way that minimizes their impact? How can you increase your knowledge without harming what you study? How to share wonder without stifling it?

As I know now, it can be done.

Chuck Hagner is the editor of BirdWatching magazine.

Other articles by Chuck Hagner:

Seabirds sailing in the Gulf of Maine.

Copper Mountain: Michigan’s Falcon Mountain.

Birdwatching Cheyenne Bottoms and Quivira NWR Kansas.

Birdwatching and Gorilla Tracking in Uganda in East Africa.

Birdwatching in Alaska’s Copper River Delta.