Saturday, June 8, 2019

    Godwits in flight in fog on the Fen, showing their striking black-and-white

Blog 12B: Second Churchill Blog – Godwit city!

     Churchill Wildlife Management sign 

I am based in a Wildlife Management Area managed by the Province of Manitoba. The Churchill Northern Studies Centre, where I am staying, is situated within the WMA, which gives it special access to nature.

    Polar Bear road sign

Polar Bear safety is on everybody’s minds… When I go out to the Fen the last two days of my trip, I have Dave Allcorn with me as a watcher and body guard and local expert and naturalist. It is great to be out on the Fen with Dave, because this means I will not get lost and also that I will learn a lot. It is easy to become disoriented, especially when the ice fog settles in over the tundra. 

It is unlikely we will encounter a bear because the ice remains continuous across Hudson Bay, and when the ice is there, the bears are out on the ice, hunting for seals.

    Centre Sign

The Fen, about 5 miles south of the Centre, is the high point of my field trip, a mix of tundra, wetland, and boreal conifer woodland. Godwit researcher Nathan Senner worked on nesting godwits here about a decade ago. This is a beautiful piece of habitat with all sorts of interesting birds in it at this time…American Golden-Plovers, various sandpiper species, and godwits, of course.

    American Golden-Plover in mists of the Fen. This is nesting habitat for this special bird.

Dave, my watcher, knows his subarctic tundra plants and points the various dwarf recumbent species out to me—rhododendrons, blueberries, other ericoids, and lichens…

    Dave Allcorn on the tundra

We are able to walk right up on dowitchers, phalaropes, peeps, yellowlegs…this is where they will be raising their young, once the weather improves. They all seem quite confiding here…

    Short-billed Dowitcher in tree

The first morning in the Fen is cold but clear, whereas the second is socked in with ice fog. Every bit of vegetation is encrusted with ice. The birds are not nearly as obvious on day two…. But both days were filled with close encounters, featured in the photographs here.

     Raindeer Lichen on a high part of the tundra

A botanist or plant ecologist would be mesmerized by the various microhabitats present out on the Fen, with “upland” and “wetland” just a matter of a few centimeters of elevation.

    Tundra ericoids

The highlight of the Fen is its breeding Hudsonian Godwits. We watch them do display flights overhead, racing about at high speed, sometimes just a male and at other times in pairs. They really are like fighter jets as they swoop and bank and race about. 

Here on the breeding habitat the various breeding shorebirds like to perch in the conifers, which is a change from Goose Creek, where they are in the water all the time. We photograph a godwit with color bands on its legs. This is a bird Nathan Senner banded 10 years ago. This bird has, therefore, traveled between Churchill and southern Chile at least 19 times (southbound then northbound), a remarkable feat of pioneering navigation!

    a color banded adult Hudsonian Godwit (aluminum band to left, color band to right)

I wrap up with a series of evocative images….

    Godwit overhead, vocalizing as part of its courtship routine (note open beak)

    Godwit on the move

    Close-up of female godwit on the tundra

    Godwit landing in a larch, which has yet to leaf out (note ice fog in background)

    Larch with ice encrustation

    Least Sandpiper making courtship sounds on its territory on the tundra

    Stilt Sandpiper, foraging on the Fen

    Red-necked Phalarope bobbing in a roadside ditch in the Fen

    Sandhill Crane, one of a pair, on territory in the Fen

    Snow Geese west of the Centre, in another patch of tundra

    A frozen lake, northwest of the Centre

My godwit blog will resume in the late summer, when I head to James Bay, the Eastern Maritimes, and New England, to trace the godwit’s post-breeding travels southward. Stay tuned!

    An adult male Hudsonian Godwit perched in a White Spruce

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Blog #12 – Churchill, Manitoba!

    Snow Geese (with individuals of white morph and the blue morph) are abundant in late May

This is my first visit to Churchill, Manitoba, the Polar Bear Capital of the World. I do not expect to see Polar Bears (it’s the wrong season) but I hope to get a feel for the subarctic and to spend some time with breeding Hudsonian Godwits, and their relatives.

    An adult male Common Redpoll is showing his stuff. He does lots of display flights over the spruces

Churchill is famous because the tundra meets the taiga (boreal spruce forest) there…this is quite far south, a product of the last frozen Hudson Bay just to the east… The line between the tundra and the spruce forest, of course, is not sharp here, but quite patchy, based on the topography, drainage, soil, underlying rock, and exposure to the cold winds of Hudson Bay.

    Looking out over the icy-cover Hudson Bay, a giant inland sea ice-covered most of the year

Approaching Churchill, the low cloud obscures the landscape. When the 737 drops below the last layer of gray cloud I am in for a shock. I see nothing but a deep winter landscape.

    Here's a patch of White Spruce up on the rocky Canadian shield

The entirety of Hudson Bay is covered by white ice. The Churchill River, a mighty stream, is encased in white ice. The landscape is mainly brown and gray, with patches of dark green indicating the presence of spruce stands. Large swathes of snow cover this wintery landscape.

    This Pacific Loon is OK floating in an ice-covered lake

So… the godwits are rushing to get up to this?

    Male Hudsonian Godwit, having just arrived from south, is fattening up on the mudflats of Goose Creek

Morgan Dobroski, a staffer from the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, picks me up at the airport and points out landmarks as we drive the 20 kilometers east to the Centre, which is situated within the Churchill Wildlife Management Area, just west of Wapusk National Park. I will be staying at this superb research center for 5 nights, using their facilities and benefiting from their expertise. It is a wonderful facility, and the staff and volunteers make every visitor welcome.

    Yes, scaup, male and female, but which species?

Months earlier, long-time godwit researcher Nathan Senner introduced me to the Centre’s research director, LeeAnn Fishback, who has made it possible for me to base out of the Center in order to search for nesting godwits in the environs.

    Here is a female Hudsonian Godwit at Goose Creek, she's a bit paler ventrally than the males...

For my first several days the temperature hangs around the freezing mark, and snow flurries are encountered daily (but no rain, thankfully).

    One day, more than 50 flocks of Snow Geese passed by the Centre, heading north

Here is a surprise for me: Hudson Bay remains ice-covered for most of the year. It is ice-free only from August to October. So, today, 3 June, the view north from the Centre is of continuous ice cover on this great inland sea (it is salty).

    White-crowned Sparrow, the most common sparrow in Churchill

Most of the many lakes that dot the landscape remain ice-covered, or mainly ice covered. One sees Pacific Loons foraging in the small water openings surrounded by ice. On my first evening I see a pair of these northern loons displaying and vocalizing. It’s that time of the year, in spite of the wintery weather…

    A male Willow Ptarmigan--this time of year the males are in display mode

But it is not too early for the northward-migrating Hudsonian Godwits. I find them on my very first afternoon here, when I drive west toward Churchill town and then south towards Goose Creek, a tributary of the Churchill River.

    A single godwit with many Stilt Sandpipers and a few Dunlins.

Here there are abundant wetlands that attract arriving shorebirds. The first day I find large flocks of Stilt Sandpipers, Lesser Yellowlegs, Short-billed Dowitchers, and, yes, six Hudsonian Godwits, resting and feeding voraciously to gain weight after their long travels north from Chile. This site is a favored loafing site, not a breeding site. And I visit here several times over the next few days to count and photograph godwits and other birds.

    Another female godwit, not quite molted into its breeding plumage

One of the research limitations relates to Polar Bear safety. I am OK when I am near my vehicle, but Centre rules on safety prevent me from wandering cross country in search of birds and wildlife (even during the “off season” for Polar Bears, when they remain out on the sea ice, feeding on seals). Better to be safe.

    An Arctic Hare, transitioning to the darker summer pelage

This first Churchill blog is all based on observations made very close to the Centre building and near the two main roads, where I could stay next to my car. The next blog will feature my subsequent wanderings out into the tundra in search of breeding shorebirds, during which time I am accompanied by a field partner, carrying a small shotgun, and keeping a sharp eye out for bears.

    The ptarmigan's red "eyebrows" have been erected and make him more attractive

There are things to see right by the Centre. A male Willow Ptarmigan gives its hilarious Donald Duck (or “Mel White”) call, often accompanied by a display flight, ending with the bird prominently perched in a spruce or on a rock on the ground.

    A fine Peregrine, one of best of shorebird hunters

The ptarmigans are quite confiding, allowing close approach.

In the spruces behind the Centre one finds noisily courting Common Redpolls, White-crowned Sparrows, American Tree Sparrows, American Robins, and Yellow-rumped Warblers.

I have seen no caribou or bears, but it is interesting to note that Polar, Black, and Grizzly Bears can all be found in the vicinity. I have to be satisfied with various color morphs of Red Fox (the blackish “Silver Fox” is my favorite—I see one of these at the end of the Goose Creek Road).

Also Arctic Hares are here, and in the process of molting to their summer pelage.

    The Peregrine, heading off in search of feathered prey

On my first day watching godwits down on Goose Creek, a fine adult Peregrine Falcon swooped over the shorebirds several times, sending them exploding off the flats…Peregrines love shorebirds…
Snow Geese are abundant here now, many are on their way further north, but some apparently nest here.

The final blog, from Churchill, will feature nesting godwits out on the Fen… 

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Blog #11 – Manitoba!

     Marbled Godwit flying over the prairie landscape of Manitoba

It’s only a 20-minute drive from Lake Metigoshe State Park (in North Dakota) 
to the Canadian border crossing. My early morning transit goes without incident, 
happily, and I am now in Manitoba—another first for me.

     Marbled Godwit  out in its breeding habitat

As I pass north of the Turtle Mountains (which stretch east-west along the international border) I find more farm country with minimal relief—much like North Dakota. Lots of lonely straight two-lane roads and big agricultural fields without hedgerows.

     Upland Sandpipers have been surprisingly uncommon in the prairies

After crossing the border I drive mucky gravel roads to Whitewater Lake wildlife management area, where Hudsonian Godwits have been reported earlier in the week. No luck on that front but I find 6 Marbled Godwits, which here are on their breeding territory. Here I have my first experience with the profusion of Fish Flies that swarm up out of the grass when I walk. Billions of them in the air. From the order Ephemeroptera, they are known as Mayflies in the US. Happily, they do not bite.

     If there is a prairie lake around (like Whitewater) then there will be American White Pelicans)

I then make my way to Spruce Woods Provincial Park, 5,000 hectares of hilly sandy outwash country transected by the Assinboine River. This area was formerly submerged in Lake Agassiz (a Pleistocene lake), which left the vast sand deposits. 

     Wilson's Snipe are busy doing their aerial displays this season (I hear them every morning)

This park is famous for its stands of White Spruce and its sand dunes, which top 100 feet In places. In fact, the park is mainly a mix of open country, wetlands, and aspen groves, with small rather stands of spruce. It is very pretty, and the facilities are excellent for the camper.

     Spruce Woods Provincial Park is home to a friendly population of Red Squirrels

Just to the south is the town of Glenboro, home of Lorelie Mitchell, retired field biologist. I am introduced to Lorelei by a helpful park staffer. On a terrible cold and rainy day, Lorelie, very knowledgeable of her birds, shows me the local birding hotspots of Glenboro. The highlight is Glenboro Marsh, just south of town.

     If I get too close, the Marbled Godwit will complain loudly before flying off

I visit this marsh over four consecutive mornings, and it is very productive at this peak season of spring.

     Glenboro Marsh hosted hundreds of singing Marsh Wrens at this time

Just north of the marsh is a traditional “booming ground” (or lek) of the Sharp-tailed Grouse, set on a patch of remnant prairie. Males are attending the lek, and from my car I can see males scooting about on the ground with their tails held high and their wings spread wide, like non-airborne fighter planes taxiing for take-off. They are doing their courtship displays in anticipation of the arrival of females wishing to mate.

     Two male Sharp-tailed Grouse in a low level display on their booming ground

The males also do a short display flight, presumably to attract the attention of females in the area. The phenomenon is not terribly unlike what I have seen with some of the birds of paradise.

     A pre-dawn display flight by one of the grouse on the booming ground

The marsh itself is mostly cattails and is very large, and filled with noisome birdsong, especially of Marsh Wrens, Yellow-headed and Red-winged Blackbirds, Soras, and Virginia Rails. The sound is cacophonous about half an hour after sunrise… The sprightly little wrens are calling from every direction.

     The first morning I visited the booming ground, I found the grass encrusted with a thick frost...

Around the fields there are vocal Western Meadowlarks, who are the local heralds of this landscape.
Of course, godwits are here (Marbled Godwits), foraging in the early morning in small wetland patches, and later in the day out in the lush grasslands. No, they are not Hudsonian’s, but still…
The Marbled, a bit larger than the Hudsonian, and paler colored, likes to pose and be photographed.
I searched several sites in the area for Hudsonians, but to no avail. Southern Manitoba, as with North Dakota, refused to provide me with sightings of this species first hand…

     See in a later section a discussion of Delta Beach marsh....

I am told that Riding Mountain National Park, 90 minutes to the north, is a beautiful green space, so I drove up there late one morning. The park gateway town of Wasagaming, situated beautifully on Clear Lake, is lovely, with an old fashioned, rustic, and welcoming. This indeed would be a happy location for an idyllic summer vacation, with the park’s natural delights in every direction. Poor Medora, in North Dakota, cannot hold a candle to Wasagaming. I have a delicious lunch of spicy pork tacos at the Lake House Inn—no doubt the top meal of my travels.  

     I found this Blue-headed Vireo in a spruce at Lake Katherine, in Riding Mountain National Park

After lunch, I drive the rough gravel Route 19 east across the park to take a look at the boreal conifer forest and perhaps see some birds (this offers a 20 mile transect through habitat).

     Route 19 cut across the park's interior and gave access to fine stands of White Spruce

My timing is poor and the bluebird weather adds to the quietude of the landscape. But I found a singing Common Loon on Lake Katherine (reminiscent of the Adirondacks) and a Boreal Chickadee that foraged around me in a patch of White Spruce for more than 10 minutes. It was entirely confiding and atypical of the species, which usually comes to take a peek and then disappears.

     This handsome male Purple Martin was attending a nest box at Oak Hammock reserve

Toward the end of my driving transect I come across a yearling Black Bear sitting on the graveled road. As I approach, he modestly withdraws behind a curtain of brush.

     A yearling Black Bear watches me from the safety of a thicket

After packing up my camp at Spruce Woods Provincial Park, I head north and east to Delta Beach marsh, on the southern terminus of giant Lake Manitoba. Of course, I am hunting for more Hudsonian Godwits…

     Here is a Sanderling in its unfamiliar right rusty breeding plumage

I also visited Delta Beach itself, a small resort town. Its beach environs are swarming with Fish Flies as well as flocks of Ruddy Turnstones and other shorebirds (but no Hudsonians).

     How often do you see Ruddy Turnstones foraging on a mowed lawn of somebody's back yard? (at Delta Beach)

From there I drive to Oak Hammock Wildlife Management Area, which features a substantial interpretive center that serves as the national office for Ducks Unlimited Canada. Here I found some lovely marsh trails and boardwalks and in my late afternoon ramble I encounter a single Marbled Godwit, a single Red-necked Phalarope, and a single American Golden-Plover, as well as a number of more common wetland species.

     A lone American Golden Plover at Oak Hammock reserve. It stayed away from the group of similar Black-bellied Plovers

From Oak Hammock I retreated south to Winnipeg city to spend the night in anticipation of my early morning flight the next day to Churchill, Manitoba, on the edge of the tundra two hours by plane to the north. I am headed to Churchill because this is one of the breeding habitats of Hudsonian Godwits…

     Loafing Caspian Terns on the shore of Lake Manitoba at Delta Beach (with the red bills)