November 6th – E-bird Alert….Sort Of.

Dovekie up close

Hi Rick
Thought you might like this early record of a Dovekie inn South Dakota – date probably about 1877. From the Little House on the Prairie Series. Just saw the picture of it in the Blog.
Cathy [Badger]

Cathy Badger has been a long-time birding enthusiast and visited the banding program at Ruthven many times – even though it’s a long haul for her to get there. Some of you might remember her daughter Hannah. This lovely young women spent a lot of time here learning about birds and banding and then went on to get married here in the Coach House. {Somewhere I have a delightful picture of Hannah on that “magic day” when she visited the banding lab in her lovely white gown and….black rubber boots….to see how the banding was going – she had asked us if we could keeping the program going into the afternoon so that the children attending the wedding could see birds up close….we did.}

Anyway…Cathy found this true story about a Dovekie that seems to have got blown inland (probably from the Great Lakes) during a storm.

This was a very unusual sighting. It would have been noteworthy for the Great Lakes but remarkable for South Dakota. If it occurred now there would be hundreds, if not thousands, of birders trekking to the site to check it off within minutes of hearing about it. This story about the bird, occurring in the 1800’s, was about as quick as you would have got it in those days.

I was interested in the description of the bird’s need to have to patter along the water to get enough lift to take off. “Wing loading” is a term that refers to the bird’s mass in relation to the area of its wings. A bird with a heavy wing loading (like the Dovekie) has small wings for its weight and has difficulty getting into the air. This makes them vulnerable to one of their greatest predators: the Glaucous Gull. I have had a good chance to watch this predator-prey relationship in action while out at sea.

Dovekie in breeding plumage. Note the swollen throat – known as a gular sac – in which it carries phytoplankton from the ocean back to its young at the nest site. Note the boulders, they like to create nests in holes in scree fields. -LJ

When danger approaches – usually the ship I’m on – Dovekies do one of two things: they may dive to escape or they may take flight. When they do what you see is a short patter and then super-rapid wingbeats pulling the little bird up into the air and then, picking up speed, taking off in a direction away from the ship. Taking flight is MUCH easier if there’s a wind blowing as it provides extra lift without any increase in physical exertion.

But it’s at this critical point – lift off and the beginning of forward flight – that the bird is most vulnerable to the gulls. Glaucous Gulls will travel with the ship all day long, effortlessly riding the updrafts created by the ship moving through the air. I’ve watched them do this mile after mile – it’s easy: they’re either right over my head or right beside me. But when we get into Dovekie country (the little birds will concentrate in rich waters) the gulls begin to move away from the ship…on the hunt. They’re searching for a dovekie that chooses flight over diving in response to the ship. If the Dovekie tries to get airborne the gull will swoop in, trying to catch the bird from behind when it’s airborne but has little forward progress. If successful, it’s a quick gulp and it’s all over for the Dovekie and the gull resumes its place over the ship – with an extended crop. But I haven’t seen that many successful hunts. Many times, especially if the Dovekies become aware of the gulls, they will dive. At other times I’ve seen Glaucous Gulls grab a wing but then lose the little bird as it struggles to free itself. When it does, as soon as it hits the water it dives and the gull goes without. But it’s not always easy to see the result as many times the gulls will wander off a considerable distance and I can’t see what happens (although the bulging crop when it returns is a pretty good indicator).

Glaucous Gull

I’ve been amongst nesting dovekies in the massive scree fields at the base of cliffs in parts of Svalbard. They’re sociable little guys and many will often hang out together, sunning themselves on good days, hunkering down out of the wind on others. But….if a Glaucous Gull comes into view, even a long way off, they will either deke into their rocky nest burrows or, as a group, take to the sky.

They’re very sociable birds. They nest in large assemblies (colonies totalling 1 M birds are reported from the Thule area in NW Greenland) and I saw migrating groups in Hudson Strait of several hundred at a time.

Although their population is estimated to be in the millions (one study suggested that there were up to 7 M at the east end of Lancaster sound/NW Baffin Bay during the Spring migration), they do not nest in Canada – in nearby Greenland but not Arctic Canada. The food they require just isn’t found in Canadian waters (or doesn’t show up until too late in the breeding cycle). But a huge number of Greenland birds spend the winter at the ice edge off Canada’s east coast.

Sitting in boulders in a scree field – but always vigilant – searching the sky for marauding Glaucous Gulls. -LJ


October 29th – Snow Buntings On The Way!

A migratory flight of Snow Buntings in Lanark County. -LB

The icebreaker Admunsen got back into its home part of Quebec city on Monday, the 26th. We had been gone for 33 days on a trip that had taken us as far as 72 degrees north along the Bellot Strait and as far west as Cambridge Bay. On the return trip from Cambridge Bay, south of Baffin Island, we ran into small flocks of migrating Snow Buntings (see the recent post below). At times it was hard going: headwinds and snow squalls but these tough little birds found a way to carry on through it all (or most of them did – I’m sure some perished).

Halfway between southern Baffin Island and northern Labrador, a lone Snow Bunting hunkers down on the forward deck of the NGCC Icebreaker Admunsen to escape snow squalls and a buffeting headwind.

Marg picked me up on the 27th and we headed home spending a night in Brockville (and if you’ve never been there I would highly recommend it!). In the early afternoon of the 28th we were driving along the 401 near Port Hope when I looked up at a flock of about 30 birds crossing the highway. I couldn’t believe it: Snow Buntings!! Ironically, when I got home and had a chance to check my emails I found a note from long-time Snow Bunting aficionado, Lise Balthazar, informing me that she had just seen some Snow Buntings in Lanark County…and here were the pictures to prove it. I wonder where those Lanark County birds came from……

Snow Buntings in flight. -LB

Snow Buntings coming in for a landing. -LB

Looking for grit and seeds. -LB


Two Big Surprises!

We had just spent several days in the vicinity of Resolution Island – the largest of several islands just south of Baffin Island and Frobisher Bay. Frobisher Bay is renowned for its high tides – rivalling (some would even claim surpassing) those of the Bay of Funday. This massive flow of water has to move into the Bay and out again at just over 6-hour intervals. I witnessed its flow when we steamed through Annapolis Strait – a large channel between Baffin Island’s SW Meta Incognita Peninsula and Lower Savage Island. It was like watching a huge river – like Ontario’s Moose River – in flood. The surface was alive, with wind, blowing against the flow, pushing up waves and upwellings, caused by the current deep down running over a rise and being pushed to the top. The captain told me that, at times, the tide runs at up to 5 knots!

This water turbulence is rich in plankton and, because of this, draws a throng of predators right up the food chain: small fish, larger fish, seabirds, seals. I saw hordes of Northern Fulmars, Dovekies (in the middle of their southward migration from Greenland), Black-legged Kittiwakes, and Thick-billed Murres in this area as well as seals.

But, interestingly, the area (Frobisher Bay south along the east side of Resolution Island) seemed to be the boundary between rich feeding grounds and poor ones – at least at this time of year. On the 8th we began to steam West through Hudson Strait to eventually rendezvous with a cargo ship that would be approaching Victoria Island and would need help getting through the ice in that area (there is none here yet – except for the odd isolated berg). As we moved West through Hudson Strait, leaving Resolution Island behind, bird numbers began to dwindle and then plummet. Fulmars, which had been very difficult to count somewhat accurately because there were so many, were widely spaced and then nearly disappeared. Counting became very boring indeed.

But then, as we were steaming by Salisbury Island, I caught sight of a large white bird winging its way directly at the ship from the island, right at the height of the bridge. And it just kept coming….at the last moment, within 10 feet of the wheelhouse (and my wondering face), it veered to the left and floated by the front of the bridge, right at viewing height. It was a white phase Gyrfalcon! What a marvellous bird!! As it drifted by, just a little way in front of me, it seemed to catch sight of me and its predator eyes caught mine….and it stared into my soul. It circled the bridge twice before winging its way back toward Salisbury Island. I think that earlier in the year when ships move through the area they attract a retinue of followers – gulls and fulmars. This bird was big (likely a female) and could take a fulmar and, certainly, a kittiwake. I’m not sure about the larger gulls, especially Glaucous Gulls. This time it was disappointed as we brought no followers. The neat thing about it was that, for me, it was a “lifer” – the first time I’d ever seen one.

Late in the afternoon, when we were just making the turn north from Hudson Strait into the Foxe Channel, I noticed another white bird flapping and gliding its way from the direction of Southampton Island in the west and heading toward Foxe Peninsula. It was large but had a very unusual “jizz” for a Glaucous Gull which is the only thing that sprang to mind. But as it got closer and I could see its flat face and heavy spotting, I recognized it as a female Snowy Owl! Wow! I’m aware that they can (and will) make long distance water crossings but this bird had to have travelled a minimum of 77 Nautical miles to have reached the ship from Southampton Island and still had another 16 to go.

So….one slow day….and two terrific birds.

A dovekie had fallen into this cage and couldn’t get out.

Dovekie up close

How Do They Do It!?

It had been a day of tough weather conditions: 25+ knot winds out of the SE were pushing up 3.5 metre waves, blowing the white foaming crests off. All day we pounded through the waves on the icebreaker Amundsen, mapping the sea floor of lower Frobisher Bay….and waiting for a commercial freighter to rendezvous with us so we could assist it through the Northwest Passage – or a version of it. My job on the ship was to count the seabirds I encountered and, thanks to nearby shrimp-fishing vessels, there were lots of them, especially Northern Fulmars. These enterprising birds have come to learn that fishing vessels can be a good source of food and will flock to them as soon as they see them. Unfortunately (or fortunately depending on your point of view) they confused our ship as just another fishing boat – a much bigger one….so maybe more scraps? There were thousands.

But they weren’t the exciting things. A couple of times during the day individual Snow Buntings flew up to the ship, checked it out, and kept going – generally SW. Now we’re about 10-20 miles off the SE end of Resolution Island and there’s a lot of very cold, inhospitable ocean if they miss it. The next land is northern Quebec/Ungava. I’m not sure where these birds would have come from. Eastern Baffin Island? Maybe even Greenland? (We get Greenland buntings in southern Ontario and several that have been banded in southern Ontario – one by us – have been recovered on the west coast of Greenland.) It’s possible.

One young male landed on the ship to get out of the snow but eventually took off again. It’s a good thing; this boat is a death trap to passerines. There’s no food to sustain them and eventually they succumb to hypothermia if they stay. On this trip, on the ship, I’ve seen several White-throated Sparrows, a couple of Common Redpolls, a Savannah Sparrow, and an American Pipit. None of them made it to my knowledge. I found the Savannah Sparrow lying dead on the upper deck; it had simply run out of energy in the 1 degree temperatures and windy conditions.

Late in the afternoon though I was amazed to see a small flock of male Snow Buntings winging their way, obviously on migration. How could they do it?! In these conditions? Well… seems they can make the conditions work for them. The wind was blowing hard from the SE so the swell it was pushing up was running NE to SW and moving to the NW. If it helps, get a pencil and paper. Draw a line across the page and mark NE at one end and SW at the other. This line represents the wave and the trough that the birds were sheltering in. They would be moving from the NE to the SW end. Now the wind is pushing that line/wave/trough toward the NW – represented by the top of the page. The resulting direction of movement for the birds is W(est). Get it? Following this strategy those birds would have reached Resolution Island in about half an hour. There they could hunker down and feed – get ready for the next leg – or just keep going until the next major landfall. These birds knew what they were doing and weren’t in that much trouble. Their major concern would be getting spotted by a hungry Glaucous Gull or a Peregrine Falcon – the former are pretty common in the vicinity of the ship and I’ve seen 2 falcons, both well offshore….and hunting.

It’s small wonder I like these small birds so much. They’re survivors.

Snow Bunting on deck

Snow Bunting on Deck

Glaucous Gull

Northern Fulmar