Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Churchill: Polar Bear Capital of the World

For a long time, I have wanted to go to Churchill for birds. Between the prospect of seeing Ross' Gulls, and all the nesting shorebirds, Churchill always seemed to me a place where the tundra was accessible place than say, Alaska (probably due to my east coast bias). But while this place has been on my radar for its birds, Churchill is perhaps far more famous for it other wildlife. Enter the big mammals (particularly the big white mammals).

Caribou. While not abundant around Churchill, if you spend enough time, you will see some.

Starting in June, when the mouth of the Churchill River opens up, hundreds of Beluga Whales arrive. The whales move into the river not only to feed, but to breed. It is a spectacular sight, seeing that many whales in one place. The whales stay around the mouth of the river until late August or so, when they disperse and head farther north. During this time, a lot of people come to Churchill to see the whales. Tour companies take boats out to see the whales, and you can even kayak with them.

That white blotch out there in the water is a Beluga. That's about as good a photo as I got of a living one. I did get better looks at them though.

Dead Beluga on the beach.

Of course, the respective stars of the show are the Polar Bears. Churchill is known the world over as being one of the most accessible and reliable places to see Polar Bears. Part of the reason Churchill is such a good place to see bears is because of the geography of the region, and Hudson Bay itself. All of the bears that live on Hudson Bay come ashore in the summer because the Bay completely melts (in other parts of the world, bears will stay on the ice all year long). Bears that come ashore typically don't eat, and so they depend on their fat reserves to get them through the summer. As it gets colder and colder in October and November, bears congregate around Churchill because it is the first place on Hudson Bay that ice forms. As soon as the ice forms, the bears leave the land and go out so they can hunt seals.

During October and November, Churchill is truly bustling with tourists. People come from all over the world to see the many Polar Bears that gather around Churchill, which are waiting for the ice to form on Hudson Bay. Many people who travel to Churchill to see bears ride around in Tundra Buggies, which are enormous bus-like structures that ride around on the tundra to get up close and personal with the bears.

The Tundra Buggies

My first Polar Bear!

We watched this large male Polar Bear on the ice as it was eating a seal it had just caught. After it finished its meal, it meandered across the ice toward shore. Since the ice was so chunky, he often fell into the water, and would have to climb out.

A young male bear just wandering around and resting.

Two large male bears during a brief disagreement. They shortly went on their way and went to sleep in the rocks

While the Polar Bears that we saw were awesome, their presence around Churchill meant that we had to be particularly careful when doing field work. We always had to be vigilant, and carry a shotgun around with us for protection. At the study center, we kept track of all the Polar Bear sightings around the area, so that people doing field work would know whether a bear was spotted in their study area, and can be extra vigilant.

The white board: where we sign out when we leave the Study Centre each day, and where Polar Bear sightings are posted

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Babies, Everywhere!*

*Be warned… this blog post contains pictures of extraordinary cuteness.

The title of this post says it all, but, by far, the best part about the field work in Churchill this past summer were all of the chicks (shorebird chicks) we found. In addition to the godwit chicks that we would band and place radio transmitters on for Nate’s study, we also found the chicks of most of the other shorebirds, and many other birds. For this post, I will let the pictures do the talking.

Short-billed Dowitcher - the very first chick we found of the summer, it gave us some hope that our godwits would hatch their eggs too.

Hudsonian Godwit chicks! They are quite cute, and fluffy, and they have ridiculously big feet. When godwit nests hatched, we would band chicks and take data on them, and place a radio transmitter on one chick per brood to track them through their growth. The transmitters would fall off once contour feathers began to grow in.
Dunlin chick

Least Sandpiper - one of the cuter chicks that we found, and so tiny (as would be expected)

Stilt Sandpiper chick - sorry this shot is so oddly exposed, my camera was misbehaving this day, but you get the idea... it was cute

One day, we happened upon a hatched nest of American Golden Plovers - mom was nearby, and after taking some pictures, she gathered her babies and brooded them

Willow Ptarmigan chick - I particularly like the ptarmigan chick, because, as with the adults, the babies also have feathered feet!

Northern Shoveler - even at a few days old, the babies have already developed the big spatulate bill

Friday, March 12, 2010

Churchill in Bloom

The tundra is a truly beautiful place when it is in flower. Adding to the spectacular show are orchids, tiny shrubs, and an assortment of other wildflowers. While it took a while for everything to start blooming this particular summer because of prolonged cold, once things popped, it was truly breathtaking.

One of my favorite plants around Churchill was the Lapland Rosebay (Rhododendron lapponicum), a relative of the large Rhododendron bushes that are planted in gardens across the U.S. This plant is everywhere, and, when it blooms, it covers the ground with its purple blossoms, and fills the air with a wonderful fragrance.

Detail of Rhododendron lapponicum.

Tundra full of blooming Rhododendron. All the purple is flower.

Botanically, Churchill is probably best known for its beautiful orchids. There are many species that can be found there, some only in the boggy boreal forest, some on the tundra, and others in edge habitat. I think I only missed one major orchid while I was there.

Small Northern Bog Orchid (Platanthera obtusata) - there are at least two species of Platanthera that look very similar, with differences including general height, and the presence of leaves on the stem. The two Platanthera species were the two most common orchids around Churchill.

Northern Coralroot (Corallorhiza trifida) - two different individuals. This orchid is neat because it is saprophytic, which means that it does not produce its own food, and instead sucks its nutrients from the roots of other nearby plants

Northern Twayblade (Listera borealis) - a very rare plant in Churchill, and only known from one location

Round-leafed Orchid (Amerorchis rotundifolia) - one of the more common orchid species around Churchill

Franklin's (or Sparrow-Egg) Lady Slipper (Cypripedium passerinum) - one of the larger and showier orchids of Churchill, this species is particularly interesting because it commonly self-fertalizes, which is rare among orchids, many of which have developed elaborate methods to attract pollinators and prevent self-pollinzation.

In addition to the orchids, there were many other neat plants around Churchill, some of which became very familiar after habitat surveys and vegetation plots that we completed.

Purple Saxifrage (Saxifraga oppositifolia) - usually the first flower to open on the tundra in the spring

Alpine Azalea (Loiseleuria procumbens) - not an actual azalea, this very tiny but beautiful flower was uncommon on the tundra, and had a sweet fragrance

Andromeda (Andromeda poliofolia) - very common, and was in almost every veg. plot we did

Dwarf Labrador Tea (Ledum decumbens)

Common Butterwort (Pinguicula vulgaris) - one of two carnivorous plants in Churchill (the other also a butterwort). Bugs get stuck to the leaves, and in some cases, the leaves will curl around the insect, and digest them

Bog Laurel (Kalmia polifolia) - a tiny relative of the much larger shrub, Mountain Laurel, which grows in deciduous forests of the eastern U.S.

Snow Willow (Salix nivalis) - a full grown willow at an inch high

Mountain Avens (Dryas integrifolia) - a very common plant, often formed thick mats, which, when blooming, were beautiful, with many of these small, white, daisy-like flowers

Northern Bilberry (Vaccinium uliginosum)

Flame-colored Lousewort (Pedicularis flammea)

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Nest Searching

By June 15th or so, the snow finally melted enough to allow godwits to begin nesting. Now, I don’t know what anyone knows of nest searching, but let me tell you, it is not easy. Nest searching for any species requires a lot of time and patience, but searching for godwit nests take this to a whole new level. While most shorebird species flush from their nest while you are still quite a distance away, godwits will not flush from their nest until you are on top of them. And, it is almost impossible to find a godwit on a nest without flushing it. They are extremely cryptic, and their nests are well hidden in the sedge. Sure, you would know that a godwit is nesting nearby, due to a territorial male, and sure, that male will watch you and yell at you, and sure, you can walk transects back and forth for hours, and still not find the nest, unless you walk within less than 5 meters of the nest (some won’t flush until you are ~1 meter away). That being said, finding godwit nests is an exhilarating experience, because you trudge through the sedge marsh for hours, and suddenly this bird explodes into flight at your feet, and begins yelling at you, and lo, there is a nest! The first nest I found, it scared the crap out of me, because I was not expecting that there would actually be a nest near me. I wish I could say that subsequent nests I found did not surprise me as much, but, no, every nest I found, every time that female exploded from the ground at my feet, it scared the crap out of me.

Two different Hudsonian Godwit nests. The top nest is the first nest we found during the summer of 2009

Okay, now for a test. Where, in this picture, is the godwit sitting on her nest? (see bottom of the post for the answer)

A male Hudsonian Godwit sitting on his nest. He was a bit easier to see from a distance than most.

While godwit nests may be hard to find, thankfully, the same can't be said for some other species. Although we weren't specifically looking for other nests, the miles of walking we did in prime nesting real estate certainly turned up some pretty neat nests of many other species. Collectively, we found nests of all of the shorebirds that nest in Churchill (except Stilt Sandpiper and Wilson’s Snipe), which include Whimbrels (by far the most common nest we found), Short-billed Dowitcher, Lesser Yellowlegs, Dunlin, Least Sandpiper, Red-necked Phalarope, and American Golden Plover (Semipalmated Plovers also nest in Churchill, but they nest on the rocky beach areas, not near the sedge, so we didn't find those while looking for godwits).

Whimbrel nest. These were easy to find, partly because they were typically in very exposed locations, on the tops of the more barren hummocks.

Short-billed Dowitcher nest. These nests were typically in very similar places to godwit nests, hidden very well in at the base of a sedge tussock

Least Sandpiper nest. These were tiny (see my foot for reference)! These were a lot of fun to find, and were not usually as hidden as a godwit or a dowitcher, and on drier land. There was usually some overhanging cover.

Lesser Yellowlegs nest. We didn't find one of these until we went into the Boreal. This was in open boggy habitat. We found a second one later this day that was fairly exposed in a burn area

American Golden Plover nest. These were probably my favorite eggs, because of the pattern and contrast in the eggs. There was also quite a bit of variation between nests

This male American Golden Plover gave up trying to distract us from his nest and just plopped down right on his eggs. Same nest as above.

Red-necked Phalarope nest. This nest was fairly exposed, but what was neat here, is that the sedge the nest was built on was clearly woven into a shallow cup, unlike the other species, which just made a cup by clearing away material and stamping a nest site

Dunlin nest. We only ever found one of these, and it was hard to find. It was nestled very tightly into the top of a thick sedge tussock.

Now, don't get the impression that the only birds that nest in Churchill are shorebirds. While they may be some of the stars of the place, there are a lot of other cool birds that nest in the area. In addition to all the shorebird nests we found, we also found Savannah Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow, Common Redpoll, Canada Goose (lots), Northern Pintail, Long-tailed Duck, Common Eider, Pacific Loon, Willow Ptarmigan, and Arctic Tern nests.

Willow Ptarmigan nest. This nest was just started, and nests typically contain many more eggs than this. I never did see a nest with more eggs in it.

Arctic Tern nest. If anyone has been near a tern nest, you can imagine that this pair of terns was not happy with our presence.

Northern Pintail nest.

Long-tailed Duck nest. This nest was nested under a small spruce tree, and, compared to all the other waterfowl nests we saw, very well concealed.

Common Eider nest. These eggs were quite a bit bigger than I was expecting.

Parasitic Jaeger nest. I have a hard time calling this a "nest" since there is absolutely no attempt at even a depression in the ground. This egg was just plopped right atop a hummock. Jaegers have some incredible distraction displays, and frankly can be a bit frightening when you don't know they're there.

Common Redpoll nest. I liked this nest in particular because it was lined with Willow Ptarmigan feathers.

And now, for the answer to the quiz, here is a close view of the female godwit on her nest.

She was hiding behind the small twiggy bush in the lower right hand corner of the picture