March 29th – Labrador diary #2 – Time Warp

This sign separates two time zones. -DOL

Time is an issue here in southern Labrador. We’re staying in Blanc-Sablon just inside the Quebec border but our “work” takes us into Labrador. At the above sign, when I’m heading East I lose one and a half hours; when I come back by this sign I gain one and a half hours – how time flies. So let’s say it’s 8:00 AM when I’m standing right in front of it. When I walk 5 meters ahead it’s suddenly 9:30 AM. Where did that time go!?

Ice in the bay. A closer look would reveal a large number of seals – the prime reason for all the bear sightings. -DOL

Two bears in sea ice in Red Bay. -SSP

Our main task is to band Snow Buntings that are beginning to migrate through there on their way to the Canadian Arctic and Greenland. Our secondary task is to teach local interested “bird people” how to do it so that they can continue in the years to come. One of these people is Vernon Buckle whose family has lived in the area since the late 1790’s. Vernon is one of the pre-eminent birders in the province. We spent the morning and most of the afternoon with him at his house where he has established a couple of bait sites. There were not a lot of Snow Buntings about but we did manage to band 4 (all males). We also caught and banded 5 Common Redpolls. As well as the usual aluminum band, we are putting on a distinctive yellow plastic band to identify this as a bird that has been banded in southern Labrador. Hopefully these birds will be picked up in other communities as they continue their journey north.

Vernon Buckle with his first banded Snow Bunting. -DOL

In the late afternoon we made a sojourn to Red Bay which is about a 45 minute drive to the east. There has been a good bait site established there (it’s amazing how many regular citizens in Labrador are interested in Snow Buntings and put out feed for them). At this site we watched as a flock of 30 buntings whirled around the feed area. We decided we would come back tomorrow and try to catch and band some of them. While we were there, Mary (who has established the bait site) came running out of her house to report that there were 2 Polar Bears seen just about a kilometer away on the pack ice (see above picture). What a thrill to see them lolling about – one laid down to go to sleep using a block of ice as a pillow. In the open water closer to shore there were Black Guillemots (in basic plumage) and Thick-billed Murres.

The scenery between Red Bay and Forteau is very reminiscent of the area around Iqaluit (except for the trees). -DOL


March 28th – Labrador Diary #1 – Polar Bears!

Polar Bear directing traffic a couple of days ago in St. Lewis. -E. Luther

Heads up, a polar bear was spotted in Blanc-Sablon yesterday so be aware of your surroundings everyone. -Sara…Labrador Wildlife Biologist
I started banding Snow Buntings in a serious way around 2010. Initially I though “my” birds just headed north in the Spring to the Canadian Arctic. So I was surprised to find that not only did they tend to migrate NE along the St. Lawrence but they then turned north to move along the Labrador coast and, thence, to Greenland! We think….at least that’s what the banding recoveries would suggest. One of the first recoveries of a bird I banded was by Eva Luther from St. Lewis, a little town at the SE corner of Labrador. Well….actually the whole bird wasn’t recovered, rather it was a leg with a band on it, predator unknown. Another of my birds was recovered (whole – a fellow was able to photograph the leg of a bird at his feeder enough times to ascertain the number) just outside of Nuuk Greenland. And then Cheryl Davis came up with the great idea of starting a Facebook page – Canadian Snow Bunting Project – for people in Labrador to announce birds in their area (and give them something constructive to do during the Covid years). Over time this has become a wonderful source of information on the movement of Snow Buntings through the province.

With this background information I developed a strong desire to head to Labrador to try to recapture banded birds from southern Canada, band new ones moving through, and, most importantly, teach local interested people how to band them so that the birds could be consistently monitored along the way in years to come. Well, the opportunity has finally come and I flew into Happy Valley-Goose Bay last night with a small team from the University of Windsor to start the project.

8 traps that Vernon whipped up lickety-split. -DOL

Along the south coast Vernon Buckle, in Forteau, a wonderful birder and photographer, is VERY keen to learn. He’s built 8 traps so far (in just a couple of days) and started putting down cut corn bait about a week ago. Almost right away he had Snow Buntings coming to the piles – tantalizingly, one of them was banded. Today we’re going to head down to Blanc-Sablon, just west of Forteau, and will spend the next week or so banding and teaching – WISH US LUCK!.

[I also contacted Eva to see if she was getting any buntings in her area yet. She replied that they hadn’t shown up yet but….they had seen plenty of polar bears; in fact 22 have been sighted so far this Winter. And as the above quote from Sara indicates, it’s possible to see them all along the south coast of Labrador. This will add a whole new dimension to bunting banding that we don’t get in southern Ontario!]

March 24th – Many Hands Make Light Work

Mark McCormack’s (far right) Wilderness Trail Blazers class did en enormous amount of work clearing brush and planting dogwoods in preparation for the banding season. -DOL

Several days ago we attacked the buckthorn and walnuts that were taking over the site. We did a lot of cutting but were left with a huge amount of slash that I figured would take weeks to clear. But then Mark McCormack from Dunnville High School contacted me to ask if his class, Wilderness Trail Blazers, could come out to the site and….”was there anything we can do to help?” Hmmmm….as a matter of fact there is. There were two things I wanted to get done: 1) move the cut trees, branches, vines out to the edge of the field so that they could be chipped later and 2) replant some dogwoods from the edges of the road to the freshly cleared areas – we’ve found that migrants use the dogwoods a great deal, in fact the most effective net is in the middle of a dogwood patch.

Helenia (left) and Kassandra replanting gray dogwoods into one of the cleared areas. -DOL

The students worked hard and cleared ALL the slash while others dug up dogwoods next to the road (that would have been cut down by County Maintenance staff) and moved them into the cleared areas. If they take (and they should) and the rabbits and deer don’t nibble too many, the west end of the site will be an even better site for birding/banding. I figured that it would have taken a couple of weeks for me to do this. So I’m way ahead!

If all these dogwood plants take, this will be a rich birding area. -DOL


March 22nd – Ramping Up

I saw the first Tree Swallows of the year today as they sallied after (likely) midges. -RC

All in all it’s been kind of a miserable Winter: not much snow and no prolonged cold spells – the kind of conditions that sort of define us as Canadians. And, of course, with those conditions there wasn’t much opportunity to ski and there were very few Snow Buntings to band – the two things that make Winter fun…right?

But it’s Spring now! And every day brings signs that warm weather and migrating birds are on the way, to say nothing of the early migrants that are already here and passing through. While working at the Hurkmans Farm today a flock of Tundra Swans flew over; there’s been lots of these but they never fail to amaze as they power themselves through the Great Lakes on to the Northwest Territories. But I had a couple of “new” birds today: a couple of Tree Swallows, probably chasing midges that the 10-degree temperatures were bringing out, and a solitary Eastern Meadowlark that called a couple of times and then flew right overhead. These sort of things get the blood flowing.

Elizabeth and Bill Hurkmans were hard at work piling slash into piles for later chipping. -DOL

But there’s a lot of work to do at the Farm as our long term project is to enhance the spot as a good place for migrants to be. We’ve been working hard at clearing out the buckthorn that has greatly diminished the plant mix along the edges. Once this is done, we’ll plant a mix of native trees and shrubs – especially dogwoods which we’ve found to be the favourite of migrants: a source of insects and shelter from avian predators in the Spring and a source of lipid-rich fruit in the Fall, so necessary for long-distance flights.

Cathy Blott is a lumberjack…and she’s ok! -DOL

I’m not expecting that this project will be done quickly; it’s a “work in progress”. But we’re making headway and in a couple of years….