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.
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:
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!