Ravens of Iqualuit

Ravens own Iqaluit.  There is a raven somewhere in view or calling at every stop throughout town.  Even in my dreams last night, window open, ravens were gurgling, croaking, or contact calling throughout the gray period of “night.”  The source of this impressive abundance of these large black birds is the small mountain of garbage that is the Iqaluit dump.  The birds travel from the dump to all other destinations around town.  They sit on air vents, walk through the grass of roadsides, peer over the eves of roof tops, and sit on the tallest flag poles contemplating the streets and people below.  The social equation for these immensely intelligent birds must be very complex with so many of them in one setting.  They are pulled together by the hundreds with this year-around steady abundance of food at the open Iqaluit dump.  Ravens are one of the toughest birds on the planet when it comes to cold winter weather.  They are frequently one of the only birds, along with snowy owls and Hoary Redpolls that are found on winter bird counts in far northern towns like Barrow Alaska.  Bernt Heinrich, the famous behavioral ecologist and author of “Ravens In Winter” would have a lifetime of material in this town.

We have been in Iqaluit for two days, and despite some serious searching, have not seen a single shorebird yet.  There are patches of open tundra at the edges of town, and even on wetland edges of streams and a small pond in town, we have not seen a single sandpiper or plover.  There are pairs of Snow Buntings, Cackling Canada Geese flying over, and periodically the song of the most abundant tundra singer of all, when male Lapland Longspurs find a telephone line above their territories as very convenient singing sites.  Perhaps this part of Baffin Island is a fly-though area with little breeding activity, and we could have missed the birds altogether.

We look forward to arriving on Coats Island tomorrow and getting to work searching the tundra wetlands for Semipalmated Sandpipers, White-rumped Sandpipers, Dunlin, American Golden Plovers, and witnessing a short two-week window of life on an immensely wild low arctic landscape.

Launching Our Expedition

Iqaluit, Nunavut, Canada

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This was our first glimpse of Frobisher Bay, the bay on Baffin Island where Iqaluit is located. After a normal June in Massachusetts Baffin Island looks like a winter wonderland of ice, rock, and snow.

 

After many months of planning, we have finally arrived at the jumping off point for our expedition, which is the small town of Iqaluit, Nunavut, on Baffin Island in Canada. The town was originally called Frobisher Bay, and had a U.S. Air Force Base established in 1942. The town of about 7000 people is now the capital of Nunavut, a Territory that was officially established in 1999. We are excited to be learning a little about the town, its inhabitants, and its history as we work on getting ready for our field expedition. Iqaluit means “many fishes”, and the name was chosen in honor of the excellent fishing in Frobisher Bay. Everywhere we go native craftspeople show us handcrafted wares made of local wildlife, from caribou antlers to whale baleen.

As we taxied into the Iqaluit airport, we caught sight of Ken Borek Air, the flight service that will be taking us by Twin Otter to Coats Island on June 17th.

As we taxied into the Iqaluit airport, we caught sight of Ken Borek Air, the flight service that will be taking us by Twin Otter to Coats Island on June 17th.

 

There are several different definitions of the arctic. The one most people think of is the area north of the Arctic Circle, the line where the summer sun does not set on the summer solstice, and we are not quite that far north here in Iqaluit. But there are several other definitions of the arctic used by biologists. One is the line where the average summer temperature does not rise above 50 degrees Farenheit, and another is the treeline. Both of these lines sweep well south in the cold interior of northern Canada, and cross the middle of Hudson Bay well south of us. Our first views of Frobisher Bay as we descended through the clouds on our flight in certainly looked like the arctic landscape we are familiar with from our work in northern Alaska!

Brad, Sage, and Metta on the tarmac entering the Iqaluit airport, happy to finally be starting our next adventure.

Sage, Metta and Brad on the tarmac entering the Iqaluit airport, happy to finally be starting our next adventure.

 

This expedition is uncharted territory for our crew from Manomet. For most of us this is our first trip to the Canadian arctic. Brad Winn worked on Southampton Island with Larry Niles on a Red Knot project, so he has the best idea of what habitats we are headed for. Paul Smith is a shorebird biologist with Environment Canada, and he and his colleague Grant Gilchrist are hosting us here in Iqaluit. It is amazingly helpful to be working with people who know the place, how to navigate the many bureaucratic challenges like permits that are necessary, and even where to find replacement parts for our equipment on a Saturday afternoon. We are very grateful for all their collaboration and support of this project, which is like most that we get involved in, impossible for us to conceive of doing alone. We’re excited to be reestablishing the close working relationship that Manomet had with Environment Canada many years ago when Brian Harrington and Trevor Lloyd-Evans regularly worked with Canadian biologists on field projects.

First step, getting our personal camping gear to the warehouse.  Paul Smith, our partner from Environment Canada, flew up with us and has been taking excellent care of us, and has gone to fetch a truck to transport the gear.

First step, getting our personal camping gear to the warehouse. Paul Smith, our partner from Environment Canada, flew up with us and has been taking excellent care of us, and has gone to fetch a truck to transport the gear.

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We used an Environment Canada warehouse to tackle the job of sorting and testing all the field gear, then spent an afternoon shopping for food and packing that as well. Everything has to be weighed and the total must be under the amount the pilots can carry in the airplane.

 

All the gear we need to live in the wilderness and to carry out our research has to come here by air. Every time we fly long distances to reach these remote breeding areas in the arctic, I am amazed that the birds come bringing only themselves. What remarkable survivors they are, to be able to travel from our coastal areas in New England, already well into summer this time of year, on their way north to a still frozen arctic where it is like a New England March. We take months to plan, days to transport ourselves and all our gear, while they arrive and immediately set up territories and begin breeding.

Our first step in preparing for any arctic expedition is to collect all the various piles of gear that have been shipped by various modes of transport.  This gear was shipped up from Ottawa by Environment Canada for us to use in the field.  Transporting gear is one of the most logistically challenging and expensive aspects of working in the remote arctic.

Our first step in preparing for any arctic expedition is to collect all the various piles of gear that have been shipped by various modes of transport. This gear was shipped up from Ottawa by Environment Canada for us to use in the field. Transporting gear is one of the most logistically challenging and expensive aspects of working in the remote arctic.

 

Tomorrow we head out for the unknown, and we are very excited to see the first glimpses of Coats Island. We will send back updates as often as our work allows, and look forward to sharing the journey with you.

Our first pause to enjoy the surroundings came late in the evening, overlooking the town of Iqaluit from a hill above, with the long arctic evening light stretching across the distant hills, where we will soon be headed.

Our first pause to enjoy the surroundings came late in the evening, overlooking the town of Iqaluit from a hill above, with the long arctic evening light stretching across the distant hills, where we will soon be headed.

We are flying out to Coats Island in a Twin Otter, a huge workhorse of a bush plane that has way more capacity than the smaller planes we are used to working with.  It will accommodate five people and all our gear in one load!

We are flying out to Coats Island in a Twin Otter, a huge workhorse of a bush plane that has way more capacity than the smaller planes we are used to working with. It will accommodate five people and all our gear in one load!

 

Upcoming Research on Coats Island

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The vast Canadian Arctic is home to millions of shorebirds, but much of the area had never been surveyed until the last decade.

Manomet scientists worked closely with scientists from the Canadian Wildlife Service to help design surveys that would show the areas most important for breeding shorebirds.

This year, from June 13th to July 3rd, Stephen Brown, Brad Winn, Metta McGarvey, and Sage Dunn are leading the effort on Coats Island, a critical site in northern Hudson Bay.  One of the most common shorebirds, the Semipalmated Sandpiper, may be declining dramatically in the core of its wintering areas in South America. At the same time, populations at some Arctic breeding sites appear stable.  What’s going on?

We need to determine whether the declines in the wintering areas affect the whole species or only regional populations.  We also need to know whether the surveys in the wintering grounds include all of the different breeding populations, or whether there are some birds wintering at other locations.  Manomet organized a research project using cutting edge technology with partners Stephen Yezerinac from Mount Allison University, Rick Lanctot from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and other partners from across the Arctic Shorebird Demographics Network, to help understand what is happening with this species.

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Stephen Yezerinac, of Mount Allison University prepares geolocators for this field season. Stephen is handling all of the geolocator assembly, and will eventually lead the data downloading and analysis.

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Close-up of the geolocators.

We will be trapping the birds at Coats Island and attaching tiny geolocators while our colleagues do the same at seven other field sites in Alaska and Canada.  These units measure daylight, and from the length of the day and the time of sunrise and sunset we can tell where the unit is anywhere in the world.  Next summer we will return to the same sites, hoping to find the birds again, remove the geolocators, and learn where the birds have spent the past year.  Follow our progress as we attempt to launch a new era of understanding of where these birds are going and what we need to do to protect their declining populations.

Below are several maps at different scales showing the location of the research camp on Coats Island:

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