August 9th – Devastation!

I found this adult Northern Gannet next to shore, struggling to keep its head above water. Thirty meters away the beach was littered with the bodies of its kin. -DOL

A Northern Gannet soars, black wingtips setting off a bright white body and yellow head. Face down, it scans the sea surface far below looking for the schools of capelin that provide much of its sustenance. In the distance a school of dolphins breaks the surface alerting the birds to the presence of the fish. The gannets home in quickly on the potential bonanza and then, spotting their prey below, pack their wings in tight against their body as they plunge headfirst, like a missile, into the ocean eventually resurfacing with a fish. It’s a sight I never get tired of watching.

So it was very difficult today to watch the struggles of an adult gannet right next to a rocky shore, trying hard to maintain its balance in the wind and waves and keep its head above water. Only meters away, high and dry on the beach, lay the bodies of its kinsmen…dead.

Seabird carcasses strewn along a beach – a common sight now in Newfoundland. -DOL

Seabirds on Canada’s East coast have been hit by avian influenza -“flu”- and have been dying by the thousands…literally. Beaches around Newfoundland are strewn with the carcasses of dead – and dying – birds. Northern Gannets, Common Murres, Razorbills, Greater Black-backed Gulls, Black-legged Kittiwakes and probably many others; the above are just the ones I can attest to first-hand.

Adult Common Murre (“bridled” variety – see the thin white eye stripe). -DOL

Seabirds tend to nest in large, compact colonies and this makes them highly susceptible to the spread of virulent diseases – not unlike the present human condition only for the birds there’s no vaccines, face masks, distancing requirements, or hospital recourse for badly infected. They simply die; some close to or on shore but most offshore. The bodies strewing the beaches are likely just the tip of the iceberg, so many are lost at sea. It’s difficult to predict what impact this will have on the various populations and on the ecology of the sea itself – seabirds play an important role in recycling nutrients back into the environment.

This adult Razorbill was standing alone on a sandy beach, dazed, unable to move away from my approach. -DOL

My understanding is that dead birds can be found in good numbers right around the island. I found large numbers on beaches of the Avalon Peninsula and in the northeast around Deadman’s Bay – the only two spots I searched. In both areas carcasses could be seen strung out along the beach at the high tide mark, as far as you could see. So the die-off is VERY significant….and concerning….and, in the end, sad.

Juvenile Black-legged Kittiwake – the disease is hitting both young and old. -DOL


July 26th – Here Today, Gone Tomorrow

I was doing my usual York bird count route the other day when I chanced upon a White-tailed Deer working its way through a 10-acre belly-high field of winter wheat. it’s been a good field for Vesper Sparrows this year. But today the wheat was gone, taken right down to the bottom few centimeters. No Vesper Sparrows today, just a few American Crows picking up the crumbs left by the harvesting. It must be what a war feels like: in a moment your home and community is completely obliterated.

Yesterday morning this White-tailed Deer was wading through a sea of wheat. -DOL

Today the wheat is gone and the straw as well. Hopefully the Vesper Sparrows that were inhabiting the field fledged young successfully. -DOL

Recently I visited the Farm to take a look at the amount of work that will be required to get the banding operation up and going in September. If you want to help it would be greatly appreciated but you’ll need a weed whacker or a scythe and a strong back. Much to my surprise there was a Great Egret perched in the dense vegetation just behind the pond.

At first glance you might think this is a scene from the Everglades but…no….this Great Egret has the lush growth of the Farm pond as a backdrop. -DOL


July 24th – Dealing With The Heat

Setting out a Potter trap for Snow Buntings with frozen Frobisher Bay behind me – this was in the 2nd week of June. Temperature down by the shore was about 4 degrees. -SSP

I returned from the Arctic 2 weeks ago and seemed to jump from the refrigerator into the sauna. The most difficult adjustment for me has been handling the heat. But here’s one good method that brings a modicum of relief -if brief: looking at pictures of the Arctic where the highest temperature was around 15 but more usually hovered around 8. Just the memory makes you forget, for a moment, these temperature conditions. I was aided in this pursuit by receiving some very fine pictures of the experience from my young colleague, Samuelle Simard-Provencal aka “Sam”. I’d like to share them with you to help you think cooling thoughts….

American Pipit were common in the right habitat – sparse grass tundra (of which there is a lot around Iqaluit. Note that this bird is standing next to an Arctic forest – a nice “stand” of dwarf willow – the only tree in the Arctic. -SSP

Pipit nests are VERY hard to find. Samuelle found this one when the sitting female exploded from almost right beneath her feet. -SSP

The next 2 pictures encapture, for me, what was a huge conundrum. There was a tall guy wearing high rubber boots trying to work his way across the swift-flowing, but shallow, Apex River. He seemed to get “stuck” in mid-stream and just stood there until a friend/colleague, shod in leather low-cut dress shoes, came along with a big plank which he tried to lay down, in the fast current, so the guy with boots could work his way along it. The plank got slippery and the current kept flipping it on its side so it was useless. Finally the guy with the boots just finished walking across and the guy in the shoes hopped from rock to rock and, I think, kept his shoes relatively dry. What was the point!?

For some unexplainable reason (to me at least), the guy on the left, with low-cut shoes, came to the “rescue” of the guy on the right, with high rubber boots. He was laying down a plank for him to walk on and not get a soaker….which didn’t appear very likely. -SSP

The plank was a poor choice as the water made it slippery and the current kept turning it on its side. Looks like the guy in the boots could have simply walked… -SSP

A marvellous Arctic flower: Arctic Cotton Grass. -SSP

Our main study species was the Snow Bunting.

Female Snow Bunting. -SSP

Male Snow Bunting -SSP

The first day of Snow Bunting nest building consists of the female laying down an insulating layer of moss. -SSP

The next two days consist of adding layers of grass and shaping it into a neat bowl. The 4th day is feathers – which are surprisingly findable on the open tundra. -SSP

A successful result: a nest of juvenile Snow Buntings. -SSP

Male carrying food for its offspring. This is the easiest time to find nests as the parents bring food over 12 times an hour – sometimes much more often. -SSP

Female with a mouthful. -SPS

In future years I hope we get around to studying Norther Wheatears. These hardy birds migrate each year between Sub-Saharan Africa and the Arctic. Interestingly, they appear to compete with Snow Buntings in the area. Not so much for food resources as for nesting sites as they also prefer boulders and cracks in rocks.

My favourite: male Northern Wheatear. It’s in prime habitat with nesting rocks and cracks all around. -SSP

Another look at a male Northern Wheatear. We weren’t looking for their nests particularly but found 4 without too much trouble. One right in town, 25 m. from my bedroom window. -SSP

Other Photos:

Long-tailed Ducks are “sea ducks” but they come inland to nest in the numerous ponds dotting the tundra. -SSP

The call of a Sandhill Crane seems to add to the wild feeling of the Arctic. This bird flew over high overhead. -SSP

Semipalmated Plovers were relatively common and in a variety of places, from open tundra to sewage lagoon edge. This one was on the tundra. -SSP

A very cute – but insidious – nest predator: short-tailed weasel. -SSP


July 18th – Is It Time?

5 Juvenile Snow Buntings inside their rock-walled nest. -FV

I recently returned from 5 weeks in the Low Arctic working on a Snow Bunting study in and around Iqaluit in Nunavut. Since 2005 I’ve been pushing the concept of C.R.A.P. – Centre for Research On Arctic Passerines. Now, as the World heats up even more (and remember that this warming is happening twice as fast in the Arctic than in temperate parts of the globe), we really need to get a handle on how this change is going to affect Arctic wildlife. Birds make ideal study subjects as they are readily observable and one can follow individuals and populations over time to assess the impact.

The leaders of the project I was involved in are Dr. Francois Vezina from the University of Quebec at Rimouski and Dr. Oliver Love from the University of Windsor. They want to determine how increasing temperature impacts Arctic birds, especially their ability to successfully raise young.

Snow Buntings have evolved to live in cold conditions. When we see them in the Winter, in the wide open, wind-blown fields with snow coming down we get concerned. But….there’s no need. As long as they can find food (and, I must admit, this is becoming a problem with our industrial farming methods) the cold is not a problem. Studies have shown that they can tolerate temperatures approaching -90 degrees C. It’s heat they have trouble with. Once it gets over 12 degrees C. they have much greater difficulty. How do they adjust to this condition?

In this, the first year of the study in Iqaluit, we concentrated just on Snow Buntings. A great deal of time and effort was put into finding nests (by the time I left of July 8th the team had found over 60!) and checking them almost daily to watch their progress. Clutches ranged from 3 to 8 eggs, usually around 5-6. Snow Buntings nest in tunnels in rock piles, scree fields, or in large cracks in rock faces. They are relatively easy to find by watching females carrying nesting material or, once the eggs hatch, both parents carrying food. The method is the same as down here for, say, warblers but up there there’s no trees and you can “follow” a bird for a couple of hundred meters if need be with just your binoculars.

However, this is just one species. And this is where CRAP comes in: it’s time to expand the range of birds studied to include the other common Arctic passerine breeders: American Pipit, Horned Lark, Lapland Longspur, and (my favourite) Northern Wheatear – the latter spending the Winter in sub-Saharan Africa. These birds utilize different aspects of the habitat (although buntings and wheatears compete for nesting spots, as both use cracks in rock faces). Not much is known about these species – we need to find out while there’s still time. So talk to the politicians and bureaucrats that you know and tell them about CRAP and let them know IT’S TIME. This research needs to be funded.
Photo Gallery:

American Pipit nests are notoriously difficult to find. Here’s one with 2 eggs. -SPS

Male Horned Lark

Female Horned Lark – very cryptic when on the nest. We were lucky to find this one. DOL

Horned Lark nests are also very difficult to find.

A deep crack in the rock – ideal for Northern Wheatears. -DOL

A closer look at that crack. -DOL

Inside the crack a female Northern Wheatear sits tight on her eggs. -DOL

Female Snow Bunting carrying food at the entrance to her nest. -DOL

The height of this crack is about 5-6 cm – perfect for keeping out foxes and probing Common Ravens…but not much good against weasels. -DOL

Snow Bunting nest with 8 eggs.

Wing feather development on a Snow Bunting about 8-9 days old. -DOL

Female Lapland Longspur -DOL

Male Lapland Longspur -DOL

As the temperature warms up, there are more passerine species making their way into the far north – although Common Redpolls are likely not “new” as many locals reported them as Winter residents at their feeders. And this is interesting: a number of locals told us that there are Snow Buntings that spend the Winter in Iqaluit and get by using the bird feeders they they put out. This was news to us! Think of the savings in energy resident birds have – as long as there’s food, why take on that perilous, long journey. [When one of “my” Snow Buntings was resighted in Nuuk, Greenland I had an interchange with the finder and he told me that some buntings and redpolls stay along the west coast of Greenland using feeders.] We’ll have to see about getting up there in the Winter to study these birds!

Interestingly, one of our collaborators in Iqaluit put out his old dried up Christmas tree and it attracted a nesting pair of Common Redpolls:

Here’s the nest of a Common Redpoll – another bird that should probably be added to the “Big 5”.

Southern birds are beginning to push their way north too: there were at least 2 American Robins around the house we were staying in for the whole time I was there. And upon arrival I came across 2 White-crowned Sparrows. Several years ago, I found a Yellow-rumped Warbler along the Iqaluit shoreline!