The Boreal forest blankets a vast area of bedrock across Canada and into Alaska. In the Lower 48, the Boreal forest dips down into Minnesota, Wisconsin and the UP of Michigan and northern New England. If you include the vast boreal forests of Siberia, the Boreal biome is the largest “intact” forest in the world…even larger than the tropical rain forests that ring the equator. It is a MAJOR carbon sink for the planet. But the Boreal forest peters out as it transitions to tundra in colder climes. Churchill area on Hudson Bay is a transition zone from Boreal forest to treeless Tundra.

Characteristic trees of the Boreal forest include White Spruce, Black Spruce and Tamarack…and all three survive around Churchill (White Spruce on the drier ridges and Black Spruce in the wet bogs). Since I’m from northern Minnesota, the birds in this biome are pretty familiar to me, and so the tundra birds of Churchill were a much higher photographic target. BUT…there are several nesting species that I really wanted to digitally capture. Blackpoll Warblers and Orange-crowned Warblers only pass through Minnesota in migration. They are two of the eastern warbler species that do not breed in Minnesota’s vast North Woods. Fortunately they do breed in Ontario and Manitoba and I had good luck finding them in the Churchill area.

Best roads for Boreal forest in the Churchill area are the Twin Lakes Road and the Old Dene Village loop at the start of Goose Creek Road. If someone blindfolded me and parachuted me in to some of these spots, I wouldn’t have known if I was in Minnesota or the U.P. of Michigan or Maine or Siberia! But the staccato songs of the Blackpoll Warbler and Orange-crowned Warbler would have given it away, as this pair of species do not breed in any of the aforementioned locations.

Blackpoll Warbler Goose Creek Road Churchill Manitoba Canada-2
Blackpoll Warbler (Churchill, Manitoba on Hudson Bay; Canada)

After I learned the song of the Blackpoll Warbler (they do not sing while migrating through northern Minnesota in spring), I found them in many stands of Black Spruce trees.

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 L IS II USM lens; at 400mm; 1/800 at f5.6; ISO 320; +0.66 ev; hand held]

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Boreal forest along the Twin Lakes Road (note Bonaparte’s Gull in tip top of spruce). Spruces and Tamarack (not yet “needled” out in foreground)

Blackpoll Warbler Goose Creek Road Churchill Manitoba Canada-3
Blackpoll Warbler (Churchill, Manitoba on Hudson Bay; Canada)

The orange feet and legs of the Blackpoll Warbler are distinctive…and shockingly bright.

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 L IS II USM lens; at 400mm; 1/800 at f5.6; ISO 320; +0.66 ev; hand held]

Blackpoll Warbler Goose Creek Road Churchill Manitoba Canada
Blackpoll Warbler male (Churchill, Manitoba on Hudson Bay; Canada)

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 L IS II USM lens; at 400mm; 1/640 at f5.6; ISO 320; +0.66 ev; hand held]

Blackpoll Warbler Twin Lakes Road Churchill Manitoba Canada-3
Blackpoll Warbler plucking an ant off a willow catkin. (Churchill, Manitoba on Hudson Bay; Canada)

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 L IS II USM lens; at 400mm; 1/1000 at f5.6; ISO 320; +0.66 ev; hand held]

Blackpoll Warbler Twin Lakes Road Churchill Manitoba Canada
Blackpoll Warbler (Churchill, Manitoba on Hudson Bay; Canada)

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 L IS II USM lens; at 400mm; 1/800 at f5.6; ISO 320; +0.66 ev; hand held]

Blackpoll Warbler Twin Lakes Road Churchill Manitoba Canada-2

Blackpoll Warbler (Churchill, Manitoba on Hudson Bay; Canada)

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 L IS II USM lens; at 371mm; 1/800 at f5.6; ISO 320; +0.66 ev; hand held]

Bonaparte's Gull Twin Lakes Road Churchill Manitoba Canada-2
Bonaparte’s Gull (Churchill, Manitoba on Hudson Bay; Canada)

A gull that nests in trees?! Yes, absolutely. The Bonaparte’s Gull is a true denizen of the Boreal forest, a mixed up place where flycatchers nest on the ground and gulls nest in the trees! Of course, not all flycatchers nest on the ground and not all gulls nest in trees (Herring Gulls build their nests directly on top of tiny rock islands on larger lakes), but the Bonaparte’s has really taken to “skyscraper living.” Andy why not? A lofty location affords protection from egg and nestling predators of the four-legged kind (fox especially)

[Sony A6500 with Metabones adapter and Canon 400mm f5.6 L lens; 1/250 at f8; ISO 100; hand held]

Bonaparte's Gull Twin Lakes Road Churchill Manitoba Canada
Bonaparte’s Gull (Churchill, Manitoba on Hudson Bay; Canada)

One of my photo goals was to get a nice shot of a Bonaparte’s perched in the tip top of a spruce…and I think I did it! I will share some video later.

[Sony A6500 with Metabones adapter and Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; 1/3200 at f5.6; ISO 400; hand held]

Bonaparte's Gull Goose Creek Road Churchill Manitoba Canada-2
Bonaparte’s Gull yawning(?) as it loafs on a tiny island in the backwaters of the Churchill River (near the observation platform on Goose Creek Road) (Churchill, Manitoba on Hudson Bay; Canada)

[Sony A6500 with Metabones adapter and Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 L IS II USM lens; at 371mm; 1/60 at f18; ISO 100; hand held] **NOTE that I had just switched over from shooting video (at the required 1/60 second) and that explains the TERRIBLE settings for this shot. I only got lucky that this is sharp.

Bonaparte's Gull Goose Creek Road Churchill Manitoba Canada
Bonaparte’s Gull plucking insects off the surface of a lake along Twin Lakes Road (Churchill, Manitoba on Hudson Bay; Canada)

The Bonaparte’s Gull is named, not for Napoleon Bonaparte (you probably could have figured that out!), but for his nephew Charles Lucien Bonaparte, who made important contributions to American ornithology while an active member of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia during the 1820s. This Bonaparte was a contemporary of John James Audubon.

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 L IS II USM lens; at 400mm; 1/1600 at f5.6; ISO 320; +0.66 ev; hand held]

 

 

Gray Jay juvenile Goose Creek Road Churchill Manitoba Canada
Juvenile Gray Jay along the Old Dene Village loop (Churchill, Manitoba on Hudson Bay; Canada)

The proposed “National Bird” of Canada! …the Gray Jay (or “Canada Jay”…and I guess I should spell Gray, “Grey”). This is a juvenile as denoted by its very dark gray plumage and pink gape (corner of the mouth). There was a whole family group…2 adults and 2, possibly 3, juveniles…that I “squeeked” in by sucking on the palm of my hand. These are VERY curious birds, and any disturbance in “their” woods, and they will investigate.

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 L IS II USM lens; at 400mm; 1/640 at f5.6; ISO 400; +0.66 ev; hand held]

Orange-crowned Warbler Goose Creek Road Churchill Manitoba Canada
Orange-crowned Warbler along Old Dene Village Loop (Churchill, Manitoba on Hudson Bay; Canada)

Trust me…they do have an orange crown! But it is mainly visible when they erect their head feathers when agitated.

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 L IS II USM lens; at 400mm; 1/800 at f5.6; ISO 400; +0.66 ev; hand held]

Orange-crowned Warbler Launch Road Churchill Manitoba Canada-2
Orange-crowned Warbler along Launch Road (Churchill, Manitoba on Hudson Bay; Canada)

[Sony A6500 with Metabones adapter and Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 L IS II USM lens; at 400mm; 1/500 at f5.6; ISO 250; hand held]

Orange-crowned Warbler Launch Road Churchill Manitoba Canada-3
Orange-crowned Warbler along Launch Road (Churchill, Manitoba on Hudson Bay; Canada)

If you click on this photo to enlarge it, you can probably see the “orange crown” for which this mostly drab warbler is named. Its preferred habitat (around Churchill) is wet willowy areas, especially with spruce forest nearby.

[Sony A6500 with Metabones adapter and Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 L IS II USM lens; at 400mm; 1/2000 at f5.6; ISO 250; hand held]

American Tree Sparrow Goose Creek Road Churchill Manitoba Canada-2
American Tree Sparrow along Goose Creek Road (Churchill, Manitoba on Hudson Bay; Canada)

This is another species that only passes through northern Minnesota in migration. The American Tree Sparrow breeds mostly in Canada and Alaska and winters almost entirely in the Lower 48 (but not northern Minnesota…too cold I guess). Note the rusty red cap and eye line, gray face and single spot on the unstreaked breast.

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 L IS II USM lens; at 400mm; 1/1000 at f5.6; ISO 320; +0.66 ev; hand held]

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Fox Sparrow singing from spruce perch. (Churchill, Manitoba on Hudson Bay; Canada)

I only saw a couple of these gorgeous sparrows while in Churchill. They migrate through my land in northern Minnesota in spring, jumping back and forth in the leaf litter below my feeders, scratching up seeds. But alas, they do not breed in Minnesota and continue north to nest in the Boreal forests. Their reddish rusty plumage, velvety gray feathers, and bold breast spotting make them a visual treat. Now who said sparrows can’t be beautiful?!

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 L IS II USM lens; at 400mm; 1/1000 at f5.6; ISO 320; +0.66 ev; hand held]

Rusty Blackbird Launch Road Churchill Manitoba Canada-3
Rusty Blackbird (Churchill, Manitoba on Hudson Bay; Canada)

There are records of Rusty Blackbirds nesting in Minnesota…but only a handful and they were in very remote wooded swamps in the far northern reaches of the state.

[Sony A6500 with Metabones adapter and Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 L IS II USM lens; at 400mm; 1/1250 at f5.6; ISO 250; hand held]

Rusty Blackbird Launch Road Churchill Manitoba Canada-4
Rusty Blackbird female in spruce (Churchill, Manitoba on Hudson Bay; Canada)

[Sony A6500 with Metabones adapter and Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 L IS II USM lens; at 400mm; 1/2500 at f5.6; ISO 250; hand held]

Rusty Blackbird Launch Road Churchill Manitoba Canada
Rusty Blackbird male (Churchill, Manitoba on Hudson Bay; Canada)

“Rusty Blackbird is one of North America’s most rapidly declining species. The population has plunged an estimated 85-99 percent over the past forty years (Greenberg and Droege, 1999) and scientists are completely puzzled as to what is the cause. They are relatively uncommon denizens of wooded swamps, breeding in the boreal forest and wintering in the eastern U.S. ” [from http://www.allaboutbirds.org]

This fact really bewilders me…Like Cornell (owner of the website) says, the decline is puzzling since their habitat is remote wooded swamps of the vast Boreal forest…a habitat that is rarely touched by development (the swamp part, anyway).

What also is curious to me, is how they arrived at this amazing percentage of decline. As far as I can see, the data is from Breeding Bird Survey Routes (VERY FEW routes in their main breeding areas of boreal Canada) and winter Christmas Bird Count data (this data is probably better, but still not very comprehensive).

“Several hypotheses have been suggested to explain the decline.  Loss of wooded wetlands in southeastern wintering grounds is a likely contributor, as over 80% of this habitat has been converted to agriculture and other land uses.  Other possible factors on the wintering grounds include increased competition for food with other blackbird species – such as Red-winged Blackbirds and Common Grackles – as well as increased exposure to an unknown disease to which it has not developed strong immunity.” [from http://www.rustyblackbird.org]

HOW CAN YOU GET INVOLVED TO HELP SOLVE THIS MYSTERY? Participate in the March-April Rusty Blackbird Spring Blitz…Get details here

[Sony A6500 with Metabones adapter and Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 L IS II USM lens; at 400mm; 1/2500 at f5.6; ISO 250; hand held]

Spruce Grouse Twin Lakes Road at intersection with Cook Street Churchill Manitoba Canada-2
Spruce Grouse at intersection of “Cook Street” (just a 2 rut track) and Twin Lakes Road (narrow gravel road). (Churchill, Manitoba on Hudson Bay; Canada)

I’ve seen and photographed MANY Spruce Grouse in northern Minnesota, so I didn’t work too hard to get nice photos of this uncooperative guy. Sadly, a photo tour group that really wanted to see and photograph this species could not locate this highly desirable species even after trying for several days. That is the nature of birding…and wildlife photography.

[Sony A6500 with Metabones adapter and Canon 400mm f5.6 L lens; 1/100 at f8; ISO 400; hand held]

Spruce Grouse Twin Lakes Road at intersection with Cook Street Churchill Manitoba Canada
Male Spruce Grouse (Churchill, Manitoba on Hudson Bay; Canada)

[Sony A6500 with Metabones adapter and Canon 400mm f5.6 L lens; 1/100 at f8; ISO 400; hand held]

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