Arctic Wings and Wind
Posted on: July 1, 2013
Author: Brad Winn
Winds ripping out of the northwest are cutting across the tundra now, bringing air from the icy blanket of high Arctic Canada. They sweep over the Boothia Peninsula, Ungava Bay, mainland Nunavut, and just to our north, kicking up sands from the crushed rock eskers of Southampton Island. Before finally blasting our tents and rolling our loose gear through camp here on Coats Island, the wind had a moment to chill again as it crossed the Bay of God’s Mercy where coastal ice still clings to the land of Belle Peninsula.
A Parasitic Jaeger seems to thrive in this gale. It lifts and sails and lifts again just to the north of us, using the wind to glide over the wetlands and dry tundra landscape, hunting for unguarded loon eggs or a stray shorebird blown from the safety of the wet hummock rims below. A slight shift of its ruddering tail swings the bird into a successful tail-chase, killing a small sandpiper with a bill designed for aerial snagging. Jaegers cruise the high seas most of the year, using this exact undulating flight pattern to drop into troughs and rise over waves for hours with scarcely a wing beat. This very bird could have spent the last nine months off of Massachusetts on the waters of Nantucket Sound.
Like most birds here, and for us too, Jaegers are mere visitors to these open lands, drawn to the arctic to nest and reproduce. The shorebirds that we are studying are here for the same reason, a very brief but intense number of weeks to make more of their kind. The insect-rich environment of the arctic, combined with twenty-four hours of light for constant feeding, creates an environment that produces robust chicks, ready to fly by the middle of August. Shorebird eggs, sitting low in small cup nests dug into the tundra sod, are sheltered from the wind by the adult bird incubating them. After hatching, the chicks too stay low, using the subtle contours of their land to stay sheltered while feeding on insects and their larvae.
A Black-bellied Plover winging an aerial display in the wind over its mate may have spent the winter on the beaches of Maryland or Georgia. It feeds now on hardy black wolf spiders that prowl the tundra, waiting for the insect blooms to emerge in the coming days. A Dunlin, hidden so well on its nest that all an observer sees is the sparkle of light from its pearly black eye, may have spent most of the year on a strip of sand called Lenark Reef on the Florida Panhandle.
Then there are the extreme flyers, the birds that absolutely amaze us with their abilities to cover the Hemisphere in migration flight. A White-rumped Sandpiper on a nest less than a mile from camp is here from its winter home at the edge of a sheep farm in southern Patagonia. With the White-rumps from the far south have come Red Knots, now incubating eggs on dinner plate sized patches of lichen and moss scattered along the higher interior gravel ridges of this island. The Red Knots have come from the beaches and tidal flats of Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of South America. They have flown in a series of long hops to get here, stopping at critical feeding areas along the way to replenish lost muscle and spent fat reserves. Their chicks will hatch in the first week of July and their down will be so close in gray color and stippled pattern that they meld into their surroundings with the cryptic finesse of a chameleon.
The offspring of all of these birds will leave here by the end of August, perhaps using the Arctic winds to carry them south over Hudson Bay, James Bay and to the coasts of the Atlantic. They will leave weeks after the parent birds have headed south. We will have a chance to see them as they make their way on new wings to the beaches of New England to feed and rest before the pushing south again over the Atlantic to Suriname, French Guiana, and Brazil.