Churchill and Vicinity IBA – IBA Action Fund Hudson Bay Outreach – Part 2

Day 2 of our outreach trip in Churchill and the priority was to take a drive up to the Churchill Northern Studies Centre and get a feel for the area before heading out the following day to do some presentations.


Cape Merry. Copyright Tim Poole

To start, an early morning trip to Cape Merry to see if any new birds had appeared on the overnight tides. There were 3 Ruddy Turnstones on the shore by the port the only time we encountered this species during the trip. This gave a flavour of the issue we were experiencing with shorebirds as previous counts in Churchill had exceeded 6,000 individuals. We also photographed the gull below which looked a bit funky but turned out to be a 3rd cycle Herring Gull (the dark tips, dark tail with thin white band and overall smudginess suggested it might be something else). Gulls can be tricky, especially subadult birds and this one had us fooled for a while.


Third cycle Herring Gull. Copyright Tim Poole

Our plans for the day were thus to head over towards Twin Lakes via the Churchill Northern Studies Centre. We were joined for the day by one of the Granary Pond birders from the previous evening, Judy who is working for the summer at the Tundra Inn. We set off in good time and made our first birding stop at the Recycling Centre, bagging a Glaucous and Thayer’s Gull along the way. Thayer’s Gull is interesting in that it may not be considered a species for much longer – being potentially joined with Iceland Gull as a single species due to behavioural and phenotypic (i.e. they are physically almost identical) similarities.


A record shot of a Glaucous Gull, a High Arctic breeder. Note how pale this bird is compared to most gulls you expect to see in Manitoba. It is also much larger than the other paler Larus gull, the Iceland Gull and lacks black wing tips. Copyright Tim Poole

Bonnie had pointed out a couple of interesting observations along the way. The first was that there were a lot of Canada Goose (we counted them as we drove along to create a day total). The second was that the Herring Gulls had become far more widespread across the area. As predators of eggs and chicks from other birds, it did make us wonder if there might be a relationship between the population of Herring Gulls and the sparse number of shorebirds.


Bonnie searching an icy lake just east of Churchill. Copyright Tim Poole

The scenery was as expected stunning. Patches of stunted spruce trees on open ground. Driving up to one point we saw a view over the taigi, open peat wetlands with small lakes and then the rocky coastal habitats.


Panoramic view over the taiga. Copyright Tim Poole


Another view over the open taiga. Copyright Tim Poole

Cutting down towards the coastal road, we found a large Arctic Tern colony and birded along the beachfront, taking great care to check for Polar Bears, which although rare at this time of year are not out of the question. The highlight of this stretch was this wonderful Semipalmated Plover. All photos below copyright Tim Poole




Back on the road and it was time for a botany lesson. Bonnie knew some dry tundra which is perfect for Purple Saxifrage, a specialty of these habitats. We popped out to take a closer look at this and some of the other plants of the area.


Purple Saxifrage. Copyright Tim Poole

There were also regular waterfowl in small tundra ponds and lake en route. One of the more common species we would encounter is a wonderful northern specialty, the Long-tailed Duck. This species specialises in diving for molluscs and crustaceans as well as aquatic plants. It is a wintering sea duck which can be found elsewhere in large numbers feeding along sandy shorelines but they breed in the tundra.


The elegant Long-tailed Duck. Copyright Tim Poole

We next pulled into Camp Nanuq. Among the species we found was a Blackpoll Warbler, a northern real specialty of the northern treeline forests. We first detected the calling male by ear and eventually tracked him down.


Got him. Just! A male Blackpoll Warbler. Copyright Tim Poole

The screech of a Merlin interrupted the quiet of this quiet boreal lake. His main source of anger appeared to be a pair of Bonaparte’s Gull. While watching this interaction Iwe stumbled across an adult Bonaparte’s Gull in a nest. This species is unusual for gulls, most of which are ground nesting birds, as it nests in trees.


Now I’ve seen it all. A Bonaparte’s Gull nesting in a tree. This was very much a snap and move away picture as we did not want to disturb this bird any longer. Copyright Tim Poole

At this point we headed to the Churchill Northern Studies Centre. Our aim was to say hello (which we failed to do as the person we wished to meet was on a phone conference) and have a look around the grounds looking for the birds we hoped to encounter the next day. The latter we did succeed in doing up to a point at least.


Panoramic view of the boreal forest in the Twin Lakes area. Copyright Tim Poole

From here we headed down the Twin Lake Road. My primary hope was to get views of Willow Ptarmigan. As a former grouse man, seeing these species in Manitoba for the first time would be something well worth doing. Fortunately it was not long before we spotted a male and a female on a gravel ridge. Grouse feed on very course food in the Arctic region such as grass flowers and tree buds. This course vegetation is too tough to digest without help, and so grouse swallow grit. The food is stored in their crop and then passes into the stomach and gizzard, where the gravel helps to grind it down, making it more digestible.


A male Willow Ptarmigan at the side of the road. At this time of year the female has moulted to a cryptic brown plumage, ideal for camouflage while sitting on her nest. The male on the otherhand has to tradeoff between the need to select a mate and therefore be showy and the need to survive, hence the red feathering on top and the white below – and the large red cone above his eye. Copyright Tim Poole

After this we entered the fen where we saw Whimbrel fly overhead, got our only flash of a pair of Stilt Sandpipers (very surprisingly this was a species which proved elusive for the most part), heard a Dunlin and Tim even heard a Smith’s Longspur through the wind (after much contemplating he decided that this is definitely what he was hearing, plus the great Rudolf Koes had one in the same place 2 days later). Of the shorebirds Hudsonian Godwit were the most showy. Parasitic Jaegar were present in the background, at least 2 pairs flying around. These birds get their name from the fact that they harass other birds, forcing them to drop food and then eating it themselves. You might describe them as a bully, and you would be correct. Arctic Tern were also around in good numbers and it is this species which the jaegar seems to especially target.


Hudsonian Godwit in the fen. This species can often be encountered calling form treetops along the boreal forest edge. Copyright Tim Poole


Entering the boreal we encountered a number of specialists including Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Gray Jay and Pine Grosbeak. We also found Common Loon at the lake. This species is uncommon around Churchill although interestingly we counted at least 4 over the course of our visit. The highlight was a female Spruce Grouse which flew into the tree in front.


Spruce Grouse, copyright Tim Poole

The tracks showed plenty of sign and dropping from Spruce Grouse, although the most interesting feature was a dustbath. Like chickens, grouse find light sandy soils to scrape away and ‘bathe’ their feathers. It is thought that by doing this the grouse can help remove parasites from around its body.


A Spruce Grouse dustbath. Often feathers and droppings also turn up in these features. Copyright Tim Poole

The other exciting feature in the area was the clear signs of wolf, whether from fresh black scat or footprints.


Back in town and we did our second bird walk, this time attended by a respectable 10 people, including a couple of returnees from the previous evening. The Sandhill Crane came in very close this time and there were great views of Short-billed Dowitcher, Spotted Sandpiper and Red-necked Phalarope (the polyandry story from the night before got another airing).

All in all the trip was going well and we had a day delivering programs at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre to look forward to.

The daily bird checklist included 59 species and 1,047 individuals, almost half of which were Canada Goose.

Species Name Species Count
Canada Goose 429
Tundra Swan 10
American Wigeon 2
American Black Duck 2
Mallard 9
Northern Shoveler 4
Northern Pintail 22
Green-winged Teal 6
Greater Scaup 22
Common Eider 52
Long-tailed Duck 9
Common Goldeneye 59
Common Merganser 20
Red-breasted Merganser 15
Spruce Grouse 1
Willow Ptarmigan 7
Pacific Loon 7
Common Loon 2
Northern Harrier 4
Sandhill Crane 6
Semipalmated Plover 3
Whimbrel 2
Hudsonian Godwit 12
Ruddy Turnstone 3
Stilt Sandpiper 2
Dunlin 1
Least Sandpiper 1
White-rumped Sandpiper 1
Semipalmated Sandpiper 15
Short-billed Dowitcher 6
Wilson’s Snipe 1
Red-necked Phalarope 3
Spotted Sandpiper 2
Lesser Yellowlegs 6
Parasitic Jaeger 4
Bonaparte’s Gull 14
Ring-billed Gull 4
Herring Gull 85
Thayer’s Gull 3
Glaucous Gull 1
Arctic Tern 94
Merlin 2
Gray Jay 1
Common Raven 13
Tree Swallow 1
Ruby-crowned Kinglet 4
American Robin 8
Smith’s Longspur 1
Northern Waterthrush 1
Yellow Warbler 4
Blackpoll Warbler 1
American Tree Sparrow 7
Fox Sparrow 2
Dark-eyed Junco 1
White-crowned Sparrow 20
Savannah Sparrow 18
Pine Grosbeak 2
Common Redpoll 3
House Sparrow 7

The beautiful Willow Ptarmigan were certainly one of the days star species. Copyright Tim Poole