Posts from the ‘Bird Photography’ Category

Churchill on Hudson Bay 2017: Parasitic Jaegers at Home

Though jaegers look superficially like a species of gull, they have a quite different lifestyle (can birds have lifestyles?). “Jaeger” is the German word for “hunter” and that is exactly how the Parasitic Jaeger makes its living on the tundra.

I found this active pair (*June 18, 2017) on a stretch of open tundra near a large pool of open water south of Launch Road. They were very curious about me…buzzing me once, but not in an aggressive manner (so I assumed they had not yet nested). But they constantly came and “visited me,” by landing nearby even as I moved away from them. This one landed very close to me on several occasions. She would then pose…as if to say, take another picture of me already!

Parasitic Jaeger yawning or trying to cough up a pellet. Churchill, Manitoba, June 2017

Since the Parasitic Jaeger diet is mostly birds and some small rodents, they do need to cough up pellets of indigestible bones and fur. Maybe that is what this one is getting ready to do. Or maybe it was just a stretch or yawn. It was NOT screeching at me! No vocalization at all.

[Sony A6500 with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 L IS II USM lens at 330mm; 1/500 second at f5.6; ISO 100; braced on moss hummock]

Parasitic Jaeger landing on tundra hummock. Churchill, Manitoba, June 2017

The tundra here was bordered by a small stand of Black Spruces. The jaegers only flew over the tundra and ponds.

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f5.6 USM lens; 1/3200 second at f5.6; ISO 250; +0.66 ev; handheld]

Parasitic Jaeger in flight over tundra. Churchill, Manitoba, June 2017

They are not totally dependent on lemmings and voles as are many arctic predators, including their cousins the Long-tailed Jaeger and Pomarine Jaeger; this allows them to survive and thrive even during times of low lemming populations. Small songbirds, shorebirds, lemmings, voles, ducks, ptarmigan, fish, insects, carrion and eggs of many species are all on the menu.

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f5.6 USM lens; 1/2000 second at f5.6; ISO 250; +0.66 ev; handheld]

 

Parasitic Jaeger Launch Road Churchill Manitoba Canada IMG_2019Parasitic Jaeger pair nuzzling on tundra hummock. Churchill, Manitoba, June 2017

This behavior shown in the above two photos could be related to nest site selection…An article on birdsna.org (Birds of North America online) says this….

“Usually male initiates choice of a nest site by walking or flying toward a suitable site and uttering the Nest Call. At the site, both birds produce Squeaking. Male usually has neck withdrawn and beak pointing downward; female lowers her neck and pecks at male’s beak (sometimes male pecks at female’s beak). Meanwhile nesting-building movements occur mostly by the female (Scraping, Sideways Building; Perdeck 1963).”

If so, the female is doing the nuzzling and pecking at his beak in order to confirm that this is an acceptable nest site.

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f5.6 USM lens; 1/800 second at f5.6; ISO 250; +0.66 ev; handheld]

Songbirds are the main course for most nesting Parasitic Jaegers on the tundra. Studies have shown the percentage of passerines in their diet ranges from 75 to 93 percent!

If vole or lemming numbers are high, then they will eat proportionately more small rodents.

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f5.6 USM lens; 1/2000 second at f5.6; ISO 320; +0.66 ev; handheld]


Breeding range of the Parasitic Jaeger matches the range of its preferred habitat…tundra. Churchill is at the southern edge of the tundra in North America. Being circumpolar species, they also breed in Norway, Greenland, Scotland, Iceland and Siberia.

In winter, they mostly range over the oceans from southern coasts of U.S., Mexico south to both offshore coasts of South America.  Feeds by forcing gulls to disgorge their last meal in flight and swooping down to catch the regurgitated mass.

Parasitic Jaeger in flight over tundra. Churchill, Manitoba, June 2017

Parasitics will hunt cooperatively, with pairs working in tandem to find and kill prey. For accessing goose and loon eggs, one bird may harass the adult off the nest and keep her distracted while the other swoops in and steals an egg.

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f5.6 USM lens; 1/2500 second at f5.6; ISO 320; +0.66 ev; handheld]

Parasitic Jaeger in flight over tundra pond. Churchill, Manitoba, June 2017

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f5.6 USM lens; 1/1000 second at f5.6; ISO 320; +0.66 ev; handheld]

Parasitic Jaeger in flight over tundra pond. Churchill, Manitoba, June 2017

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f5.6 USM lens; 1/1000 second at f5.6; ISO 320; +0.66 ev; handheld]

Parasitic Jaeger alighting on hummock. Churchill, Manitoba, June 2017

Another case where this pair seemed genuinely curious about me…and not mad or aggressive. This one landed only a short distance away. They occasionally made low flights over my head.

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f5.6 USM lens; 1/1000 second at f5.6; ISO 320; +0.66 ev; handheld]

Parasitic Jaeger in flight over tundra. Churchill, Manitoba, June 2017

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f5.6 USM lens; 1/6400 second at f5.6; ISO 250; -1.33 ev; handheld]

Parasitic Jaeger in flight over tundra. Churchill, Manitoba, June 2017

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f5.6 USM lens; 1/8000 second at f5.6; ISO 250; -1.33 ev; handheld]

Parasitic Jaeger in flight over tundra. Churchill, Manitoba, June 2017

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f5.6 USM lens; 1/5000 second at f5.6; ISO 250; -1.33 ev; handheld]

Parasitic Jaeger rests on tundra hummock. Churchill, Manitoba, June 2017

Female Parasitic Jaegers are 15 to 20% larger than males. This is true for many hawks, falcons, eagles and owls too.

[Sony A6500 with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 L IS II USM lens; 1/1000 second at f5.6; ISO 200; braced on moss hummock]

Parasitic Jaeger rests on tundra hummock. Churchill, Manitoba, June 2017

[Sony A6500 with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 L IS II USM lens at 340mm; 1/1250 second at f5.6; ISO 200; braced on moss hummock]

Parasitic Jaeger rests on tundra hummock. Churchill, Manitoba, June 2017

[Sony A6500 with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 L IS II USM lens at 340mm; 1/1250 second at f5.6; ISO 200; braced on moss hummock]

 

Parasitic Jaeger rests on tundra hummock. Churchill, Manitoba, June 2017

[Sony A6500 with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 L IS II USM lens at 349mm; 1/320 second at f7.1; ISO 200; braced on moss hummock]

 

Parasitic Jaeger rests on tundra hummock with the Ithica ship wreck on Hudson Bay in background.

Churchill, Manitoba, June 2017[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f5.6 USM lens; 1/250 second at f22; ISO 1000; +0.66 ev; handheld]

Parasitic Jaeger in flight. Churchill, Manitoba, June 2017

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f5.6 USM lens; 1/1250 second at f5.6; ISO 160; +0.66 ev; handheld]

Parasitic Jaeger Launch Road Churchill Manitoba Canada IMG_1880Parasitic Jaeger Launch Road Churchill Manitoba Canada DSC01314Parasitic Jaeger Launch Road Churchill Manitoba Canada DSC01267Parasitic Jaeger Launch Road Churchill Manitoba Canada IMG_2139Parasitic Jaeger Launch Road Churchill Manitoba Canada IMG_2108Parasitic Jaeger Launch Road Churchill Manitoba Canada IMG_2021

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Churchill on Hudson Bay 2017: Loons, Ducks & Swans on Tundra Ponds

The vast tundra of Canada and Alaska is the preferred breeding grounds for several species of waterfowl that we see only in migration in Minnesota. Long-tailed Ducks winter on Lake Superior and we see them occasionally close to Duluth; Pacific Loons are rare  (or rarely seen?) visitors to the North Shore of Lake Superior in spring and fall; Tundra Swans migrate through Minnesota in April and October with large flocks congregating along the Mississippi River, St. Louis River and on northern rice paddies. But In Churchill I got to see all three in their breeding splendor…and closer than my normal scope-views of birds on Lake Superior.

Pacific Loon Launch Road Churchill Manitoba Canada-7Pacific Loon pair on an inland tundra pond near Churchill, Manitoba

In the field guides, the Pacific Loon looks very similar to the Common Loon, but when you see them in person, the Pacific Loon is quite different and stunning with a silvery sheen to their velvety head.

[Sony A6500 with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 L IS II USM lens at 400mm; 1/125 seconds at f10; ISO 100; hand-held while laying down on belly in brush at edge of pond]

Pacific Loon Launch Road Churchill Manitoba Canada-6Pacific Loon pair on an inland tundra pond near Churchill, Manitoba

When I started birding in the late 1970s, this species was known as the “Arctic Loon,” a name that I wish it retained as in my mind it IS a bird of the Arctic. The species was split into two full species in 1985; the Arctic Loon is now the species that breeds in Eurasia including Siberia and western Alaska.

[Sony A6500 with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 L IS II USM lens at 400mm; 1/400 seconds at f5.6; ISO 100; hand-held while laying down on belly in brush at edge of pond]

 

pacific_loon_range

The Pacific Loon breeds in the Arctic but winters along the west coast of the U.S and Canada on the Pacific Ocean. A few can be seen each year inland, especially on Lake Superior at Duluth.

Pacific Loon Launch Road Churchill Manitoba Canada-8Pacific Loon on an inland tundra pond near Churchill, Manitoba

[Sony A6500 with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 L IS II USM lens at 400mm; 1/1000 seconds at f5.6; ISO 250; hand-held while laying down on belly in brush at edge of pond]

Pacific Loon Launch Road Churchill Manitoba Canada-5Pacific Loon pair on an inland tundra pond near Churchill, Manitoba

[Sony A6500 with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 L IS II USM lens at 400mm; 1/400 seconds at f5.6; ISO 100; hand-held while laying down on belly in brush at edge of pond]

Pacific Loon Launch Road Churchill Manitoba Canada-3Pacific Loon on an inland tundra pond near Churchill, Manitoba

[Sony A6500 with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 L IS II USM lens at 400mm; 1/1000 seconds at f5.6; ISO 250; hand-held while laying down on belly in brush at edge of pond]

Pacific Loon Launch Road Churchill Manitoba CanadaPacific Loon on an inland tundra pond near Churchill, Manitoba

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 L IS II USM lens at 400mm; 1/800 seconds at f5.6; ISO 250; hand-held while laying down on belly in brush at edge of pond]

Pacific Loon Launch Road Churchill Manitoba Canada-4Pacific Loon pair on an inland tundra pond near Churchill, Manitoba

[Sony A6500 with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 L IS II USM lens at 400mm; 1/400 seconds at f5.6; ISO 100; hand-held while laying down on belly in brush at edge of pond]

Pacific Loon Launch Road Churchill Manitoba Canada-2Pacific Loon on an inland tundra pond near Churchill, Manitoba

[Sony A6500 with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 L IS II USM lens at 400mm; 1/1000 seconds at f5.6; ISO 250; hand-held while laying down on belly in brush at edge of pond]

Pacific Loon Launch Road Churchill Manitoba Canada-9Pacific Loon pair on an inland tundra pond near Churchill, Manitoba

[Sony A6500 with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 L IS II USM lens at 400mm; 1/1000 seconds at f5.6; ISO 250; hand-held while laying down on belly in brush at edge of pond]

Pacific Loon Launch Road Churchill Manitoba Canada-10Pacific Loon pair on an inland tundra pond near Churchill, Manitoba

[Sony A6500 with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 L IS II USM lens at 400mm; 1/1000 seconds at f5.6; ISO 250; hand-held while laying down on belly in brush at edge of pond]

Canada Goose Launch Road Churchill Manitoba CanadaCanada Goose takes off from a tundra pond near Churchill, Manitoba

The ubiquitous waterfowl on the tundra and taiga was the Canada Goose. Notice that I did not say “tundra and taiga ponds” as I saw few actually on the water. Most were foraging on the tundra or on nests (as in photo below). This one did not care for my attention and took off in a hurry. I intentionally slowed down the shutter speed to show some motion.

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 L IS II USM lens at 400mm; 1/200 seconds at f5.6; ISO 100; +1.33 ev; hand-held]

Canada Goose nest nesting Churchill Manitoba CanadaCanada Goose on nest near Churchill, Manitoba

Canada Goose nest with eggs Launch Road Churchill Manitoba CanadaCanada Goose nest on the shore of a tundra pond near Churchill, Manitoba

Long-tailed Duck Twin Lakes Road Churchill Manitoba Canada DSC00617Long-tailed Duck male on a tundra pond near Churchill, Manitoba

One of my photo goals was a decent portrait of a Long-tailed Duck drake…and I got it! But I was nervous at the start as my first attempts at sneaking up on this species were complete failures….They saw me coming and quickly paddled across to the other side of the pone. But one afternoon I got lucky….This male was very intent on pursuing the female pictured farther down this blog. There were low shrubs lining the pond so I crouched low and moved when they dove. When they came up, I froze. A couple rounds of this and I was to the edge of the pond and shot through an opening in the shrubs.

[Sony A6500 with Canon 400mm f5.6 L lens; 1/1250 seconds at f5.6; ISO 250; hand-held while laying down on belly in brush at edge of pond]

Long-tailed Duck Twin Lakes Road Churchill Manitoba Canada DSC00606Long-tailed Duck male on a tundra pond near Churchill, Manitoba

[Sony A6500 with Canon 400mm f5.6 L lens; 1/1250 seconds at f5.6; ISO 250; hand-held]

Long-tailed Duck Twin Lakes Road Churchill Manitoba Canada DSC00605Long-tailed Duck male on a tundra pond near Churchill, Manitoba

This male is transitioning from its winter white feathers to the black breeding plumage. Note that the top of the head is still whitish and when in full breeding plumage it will be black on top as in photo below.

[Sony A6500 with Canon 400mm f5.6 L lens; 1/1250 seconds at f5.6; ISO 250; hand-held]

Long-tailed Duck pair Launch Road Churchill Manitoba Canada IMG_0744Long-tailed Duck pair on a tundra pond near Churchill, Manitoba

Male and female Long-tailed Ducks on a tundra pond.

Long-tailed Duck Twin Lakes Road Churchill Manitoba Canada-3Long-tailed Duck female on a taiga pond along Twin Lakes Road; Churchill, Manitoba

[Sony A6500 with Canon 400mm f5.6 L lens; 1/1250 seconds at f5.6; ISO 320; hand-held]

Long-tailed Duck Twin Lakes Road Churchill Manitoba Canada-4Long-tailed Duck female on a taiga pond along Twin Lakes Road; Churchill, Manitoba

[Sony A6500 with Canon 400mm f5.6 L lens; 1/1250 seconds at f5.6; ISO 320; hand-held]

Long-tailed Duck Twin Lakes Road Churchill Manitoba CanadaLong-tailed Duck female on a taiga pond along Twin Lakes Road; Churchill, Manitoba

[Sony A6500 with Canon 400mm f5.6 L lens; 1/1250 seconds at f5.6; ISO 250; hand-held]

LTDUrange_300_3x5

You can see from this map that you won’t be seeing any Long-tailed Ducks in the Lower 48 during the summer. The closest breeding to Minnesota is the Hudson Bay Lowlands which includes the area around Churchill, Manitoba.

Long-tailed Duck pair Launch Road Churchill Manitoba Canada-2Long-tailed Duck pair (female in front) flying over a taiga pond near Churchill, Manitoba

What do you do when you have drab light due to heavy overcast conditions? What you don’t do is give up and head back to the motel. You have to get creative! By slowing the shutter to 1/250 second and panning with the flying Long-tailed Ducks I got a nice series of motion blur photos.

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 L IS II USM lens at 400mm; 1/250 seconds at f5.6; ISO 100; +1.33 ev; hand-held]

Long-tailed Duck pair Launch Road Churchill Manitoba CanadaLong-tailed Duck pair (female in front) flying over a taiga pond near Churchill, Manitoba

The male (right) displays his namesake long tail. They were formerly called “oldsquaw” because their odd chattering reminded some early explorer of native women talking.

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 L IS II USM lens at 400mm; 1/250 seconds at f5.6; ISO 100; +1.33 ev; hand-held]

Northern Shoveler female Goose Creek Road Churchill Manitoba Canada-2Northern Shoveler rests on a taiga pond along Goose Creek Road near Churchill, Manitoba

The Northern Shoveler should maybe be called the “Northern Sifter” or “Northern Strainer” as it really doesn’t “shovel” through the muck with its oversized bill. Between the upper bill and lower you can see the lamellae that strain insects from pondwater.

[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 L lens; 1/1250 seconds at f5.6; ISO 250; +0.33 ev; hand-held]

Northern Shoveler female Goose Creek Road Churchill Manitoba CanadaNorthern Shoveler rests on a taiga pond along Goose Creek Road near Churchill, Manitoba

The female is quite drab compared to the gaudy chestnut, white and iridescent green of the male, but her out-of-proportion bill makes her easily identifiable.

[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 L lens; 1/1250 seconds at f5.6; ISO 250; +0.33 ev; hand-held]

Tundra Swan Halfway Point Road Churchill Manitoba Canada-3Tundra Swan and Hudson Bay along Halfway Point Road near Churchill, Manitoba

The name fits! Tundra Swans nest on the tundra of Canada and Alaska. When I started birding in the 1970s these birds were known as “Whistling Swans” due to their song.

“Lewis and Clark provided the first written description of the Tundra Swan during their expedition to the West, where the birds’ whistle-like calls prompted Meriwether Lewis to dub them “whistling swans.” [from http://www.allaboutbirds.com]

I am so used to seeing Trumpeter Swans on almost every backwoods pond in Minnesota that at first I assumed these were Trumpeters too. But a close look revealed the yellow “tear” patch on their face that confirmed that these were breeding Tundra Swans.

[Sony A6500 with Canon 400mm f5.6 L lens; 1/1250 seconds at f7.1; ISO 200; hand-held]

tundra_swan_range

There are really TWO populations of Tundra Swans….the population that breeds in the eastern Arctic, including Churchill, winter on the eastern seaboard of the U.S mainly in Chesapeake Bay where they feed on clams….and the western Arctic breeding grounds population that winter in the western U.S.

Tundra Swan Halfway Point Road Churchill Manitoba Canada-2Tundra Swan pair and Hudson Bay along Halfway Point Road near Churchill, Manitoba

Halfway Point Road is a great (but rough) road that accesses some very nice dry tundra. A couple ponds held breeding pairs of Tundra Swans, Herring Gulls and Long-tailed Ducks.

[Sony A6500 with Canon 400mm f5.6 L lens; 1/1000 seconds at f7.1; ISO 200; hand-held]

Tundra Swan Halfway Point Road Churchill Manitoba CanadaTundra Swan pair and Hudson Bay along Halfway Point Road near Churchill, Manitoba

Click on the image to make it full size in order to really see the yellow patch near the eye that most Tundra Swans possess. Trumpeters never show this spot of color.

[Sony A6500 with Canon 400mm f5.6 L lens; 1/1000 seconds at f7.1; ISO 200; hand-held]

Churchill on Hudson Bay 2017: Shorebirds in trees!

Shorebirds and Gulls in trees?! On my 1987 trip, I remember how amazed and surprised I was that shorebirds and gulls would perch in the tip tops of stunted spruces on the taiga/tundra. And the Bonaparte’s Gulls nest in spruces…Craaazy!

I must confess that on this trip I didn’t see as many shorebirds in trees, but did get photos of Hudsonian Godwit and Lesser Yellowlegs in the treetops.

Why are shorebirds found in trees on their breeding grounds? After all, they nest on the ground and would want to remain unnoticed. I imagine for the males it is a convenient and conspicuous post from which to watch over your territory and your mate.

 

 


Hudsonian Godwit is aptly named for the bulk of the population breeds in a relatively small area along the south shore of Hudson Bay.

Map of the migration route (yellow) and breeding range (red) of the Hudsonian Godwit. Churchill is located along Hudson Bay in northern Manitoba.


I spotted this Hudsonian Godwit in a tree from about a quarter mile away, so off I trudged onto the very wet and uneven Hudsonian Lowlands (i.e. wet tundra). I approached slowly and stopped a ways away and got some “insurance shots.” After sitting quietly for a few minutes, I’d approach another 1o yards. I repeated this process til I got quite close. Turns out he was watching over a nesting female who sat quietly on a ground nest on the tundra.

Hudsonian Godwit pair fly over tundra along Twin Lakes Road, Churchill, Manitoba.


Lesser Yellowlegs can be identified by their….wait for it….their yellow legs! But to complicate things a bit, they have a larger cousin called the Greater Yellowlegs. But note the Lesser’s thin bill that is only as long as its head; Greater’s bill is longer than its head and more stout.


Lesser Yellowlegs landing on tundra pond.


Red-necked Phalaropes just pass through the Churchill area in late May to mid June; They are on their way to breeding grounds in Nunavut, Northwest Territories, Yukon and Alaska.

They have a very unique way of feeding…they spin around in circles picking insects off the surface of the water.

[Sony A6500 with Metabones adapter and Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; 1/1000 sec at f5.6; ISO 200; Tripod]


Semipalmated Plovers make their shallow scraped depression of a nest on rocky flats such as this. There could have been a nest here with the female sitting quietly but I was too busy following this one around.

[Sony A6500 with Metabones adapter and Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; 1/1250 sec at f5.6; ISO 200; hand-held while laying on the ground]


Semipalmated Plover

Crawling on ground covered in smallish sharp rocks is no fun…but it is essential to getting eye-level shots of shorebirds. And eye-level is where its at with shorebirds; a photo taken while standing of a subject on the ground is just not very engaging.

[Sony A6500 with Metabones adapter and Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; 1/800 sec at f5.6; ISO 200; hand-held while laying on the ground]


I was constantly trying to position myself so that I could get the tundra birds in front of, or adjacent to, the arctic wildflowers, especially the pinks of Lapland Rosebay. I did not have much luck, but did manage a background of the flowers in this shot of a Semipalmated Plover.

[Sony A6500 with Metabones adapter and Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; 1/800 sec at f5.6; ISO 200; hand-held while laying on the ground]


Semipalmated Plovers superficially resemble Killdeer (also a plover), but they are much smaller, have a two-toned black and orange bill, and only have one black “necklace.”

[Sony A6500 with Metabones adapter and Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; 1/1600 sec at f5.6; ISO 200; hand-held while laying on the ground]


American Golden Plover is at home on the tundra. This gorgeous shorebird is in full breeding plumage. When we see them in Minnesota, it is in migration and they are often already molting into their blaah non-breeding plumage.

Churchill is the extreme south outpost of the breeding range of the American Golden Plover. Most nest in the vast arctic of Alaska, Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavat.

Unfortunately, this is as close as I got to this species on this trip…Next time!

“Short-billed” Dowitcher? Yes, that is their official common name even though they have a very long bill. What gives? Well, everything is relative, and their cousin, you guessed it, the Long-billed Dowitcher, has an even longer bill! The Long-billed nests even farther north than Hudson Bay, breeding along the Arctic Ocean coast in Alaska, Yukon and Northwest Territories.

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4-5.6 L IS II USM lens at 400mm; 1/500 sec at f5.6; ISO 320; +0.66 ev; hand-held]


The last rays of the days sunlight spotlight a single Short-billed Dowitcher, his companions already in the lengthening shadows. I really like this unique shot, but I will frame it differently next time so as not to have the bird right in the middle of the image.

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4-5.6 L IS II USM lens at 400mm; 1/1250 sec at f5.6; ISO 320; +0.66 ev; hand-held]


Three populations of Short-billed Dowitcher inhabit North America; the Pacific and Atlantic populations are not as bright orange and show more neck, breast and flank spotting. The Churchill/Hudson Bay population is of the “prairie” population that extends west to the prairie provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan. Also found in the southern parts of the Northwest Territories and Nunavit.

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


The Short-billed Dowitcher is THE dowitcher nesting on the tundra along Hudson Bay. It is a stocky and colorful shorebird that sometimes allows close approach. This one was with a mixed flock of shorebirds foraging along Goose Creek Road, Churchill, Manitoba, Canada.

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

 


Short-billed Dowitcher along Goose Creek Road, Churchill, Manitoba

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4-5.6 L IS II USM lens at 400mm; 1/1250 sec at f5.6; ISO 320; +0.66 ev; hand-held while laying on the ground]


The Solitary Sandpiper has a unique place in Minnesota’s avifauna…It is one of the only species of bird that is only known to breed in the Lower 48 in Minnesota. My friend Karl Bardon discovered one of the most recent confirmed Minnesota breeding records when several years ago he found a couple young Solitaries scrambling across a remote dirt road in the far northern part of the state just south of the Canadian border.


Least Sandpipers are one of North America’s “peeps;” a group of small sometimes-difficult-to-identify shorebirds. Leasts can be told by their very small size and greenish-yellow legs. Like most of North America’s peeps, they breed on the tundra of the Far North.

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4-5.6 L IS II USM lens at 400mm; 1/2000 sec at f5.6; ISO 400; +0.66 ev; hand-held]


Whimbrels are big and bulky birds….but they are still considered shorebirds. Always a treat for me to see, as I only see them every few years in Minnesota…and usually just a glimpse. My last Minnesota sighting was along Duluth’s Park Point on Lake Superior when a flock of seven appeared out of the fog and landed on the sandy beach. This was in May and they were just stopping over to rest on their way to the tundra to breed…Who knows…maybe even on their way to the Churchill area!


I did not find any shorebird nests while in Churchill, but I was a bit early. This pair had set up territory on the tundra though.


Whimbrel

Churchill on Hudson Bay 2017: Willow Ptarmigan

I can’t really even remember my Lifer Willow Ptarmigan any more…I looked back in my journal from my Churchill trip in June 1987 for the details. It was a glimpse of a male along the railroad tracks near a remote Cree village in Manitoba as I rode the rickety rails of the “Muskeg Express”…a 36 hour one-way train ride from Winnipeg to Churchill. Not much of a look for such a gorgeous bird.

Because of this most unsatisfying sighting, the “chicken of the tundra” was high on my “Most Wanted” list. But several 16 hour days passed and I still had not spotted one. A photo group I ran into seemed to consider them commonplace. I was nervous. But finally, late in the day, late in my trip, along Twin Lakes Road, I finally found my first male…A gorgeous male in transitional plumage from winter’s white to summers reddish brown.

 

Willow Ptarmigan male in courtship plumage near Churchill Manitoba Canada

This male’s plumage is actually called the “courtship plumage” and it will soon change to breeding plumage…The male’s white back feathers will turn the same reddish brown as the head and chest. By late fall, they will be entirely white except for the black outer tail feathers.

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 400mm; 1/160 at f5.6; ISO 400; +0.66 ev; handheld]

Willow Ptarmigan near Churchill Manitoba on summer tundra

One of my goals for my bird photography on this trip was to get images of different species with tundra wildflowers in the frame…and late in the trip I was finally successful with this ptarmigan. The flowers are Lapland Rosebay.

The Willow Ptarmigan is a circumpolar species and can also be found in Scandinavia and Siberia. It is known as “Willow Grouse” in Europe…A subspecies that lives in Great Britain is called “Red Grouse” and doesn’t turn white in winter.

Amazingly, there was an irruption of Willow Ptarmigan into Minnesota in the winter of 1933-34! Several showed up in the remote country of northwest Minnesota near Roseau, hundreds of miles from their normal winter range. The first record of this species for Minnesota was a bird shot on April 20, 1914 in Lake of the Woods County on the Canadian border. Another bird found its way south to this same county in 1964.


Willow Ptarmigan male in courtship plumage near Churchill Manitoba Canada

Willow Ptarmigan are about the same size as our Ruffed Grouse (and Spruce Grouse). Average length is 15 inches with a wingspan of about 2 feet. They weigh a little over a pound.

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 271mm; 1/640 at f5.6; ISO 640; handheld]

The call of the Willow Ptarmigan is craaaazy! I love it! Listen for yourself.


Willow Ptarmigan male in courtship plumage near Churchill Manitoba Canada

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 278mm; 1/320 at f5.6; ISO 640; handheld]


Willow Ptarmigan male in courtship plumage near Churchill Manitoba Canada

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 124mm; 1/500 at f5; ISO 800; handheld]


Willow Ptarmigan male in courtship plumage near Churchill Manitoba Canada

“The Willow Ptarmigan is the only grouse in the world in which the male is regularly involved in parental care. Pairs remain together from the beginning of the breeding season until their chicks are independent.” from Cornell’s http://www.allaboutbirds.com

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 400mm; 1/500 at f5.6; ISO 800; handheld]

Summer Willow Ptarmigan on tundra near Churchill Manitoba Canada

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 400mm; 1/250 at f5.6; ISO 400; +0.66 ev; handheld]

 


Willow Ptarmigan male in courtship plumage near Churchill Manitoba Canada

 

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 170mm; 1/640 at f5; ISO 800; handheld]


Willow Ptarmigan male in courtship plumage near Churchill Manitoba Canada

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 170mm; 1/1250 at f5; ISO 800; handheld]


Willow Ptarmigan male in courtship plumage near Churchill Manitoba Canada

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 164mm; 1/500 at f5; ISO 800; handheld]


Willow Ptarmigan near Churchill Manitoba Canada

This is one of the first photos I got of Willow Ptarmigan. I was hoping he would jump up on that rock behind him, but no luck. I sloooowly stalked this guy and he eventually walked through the Lapland Rosebay flowers patches.

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 400mm; 1/160 at f11; ISO 400; handheld]


Willow Ptarmigan near Churchill Manitoba Canada

Like its cousin the Spruce Grouse, the Willow Ptarmigan sports sexy red “eyebrows,” which it can erect.

[Sony A6500 with Metabones adapter and Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; 1/320 sec at f6.3; ISO 200; handheld, laying on the ground]


Willow Ptarmigan male in near breeding plumage near Churchill Manitoba Canada

Here is another male I found along Twin Lakes Road…Note that this one’s plumage is more advanced towards breeding plumage than the male in the previous photos. His back feathers are turning from white to red.

[Sony A6500 with Metabones adapter and Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; 1/640 sec at f6.3; ISO 200; handheld, laying on the ground]


Willow Ptarmigan near Churchill Manitoba Canada

Often times, laying dead flat on the ground (road, beach, lawn) can give you the best angle on a subject…It puts you actually a bit below eye-level which is ideal for intimate and engaging portraits.

[Sony A6500 with Metabones adapter and Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; 1/640 sec at f6.3; ISO 200; handheld, laying on the ground]


Willow Ptarmigan near Churchill Manitoba Canada

[Sony A6500 with Metabones adapter and Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; 1/500 sec at f6.3; ISO 200; handheld, laying on the ground]


Willow and Willow Ptarmigan near Churchill Manitoba Canada

As their name implies, willow is the primary food of this grouse species. One source says that Arctic Willow catkins and buds are the primary food. Will also eat berries…and twigs and spruce/pine needles in winter

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 234mm; 1/500 at f5.6; ISO 800; +0.66 ev; handheld]


Willow Ptarmigan near Churchill Manitoba Canada

I really wanted to get some “bird in the landscape” photos on this trip. I did get a few, and I do like this one but I wish the bird stood out a bit more from the surrounding greenery.

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 234mm; 1/640 at f5.6; ISO 800; +0.66 ev; handheld]


Willow Ptarmigan near Churchill Manitoba Canada

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


Willow Ptarmigan near Churchill Manitoba Canada

The female is understandable more cryptically colored than the male. She needs to be very inconspicuous when on the ground nest. She really blends in to her surroundings. In fact, I would not have seen her at all if not for the antics of the male that alerted me that he was trying to impress someone.

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


Willow Ptarmigan near Churchill Manitoba Canada

Red “eyebrows” can be erected when in courtship mode.

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 400mm; 1/500 at f5.6; ISO 320; +0.66 ev; handheld; laying on ground]

 


Willow Ptarmigan near Churchill Manitoba Canada

I saw several ptarmigan along this stretch of Twin Lakes Road.

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 255mm; 1/1250 at f5; ISO 320; +0.66 ev; handheld]


Willow Ptarmigan near Churchill Manitoba Canada

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 400mm; 1/1600 at f5.6; ISO 320; +0.66 ev; handheld; laying on ground]
A calling male Willow Ptarmigan (see video above to hear their hilarious call).

Churchill on Hudson Bay 2017: Northern edge of the Boreal Forest

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]

Journey to Churchill Manitoba on Hudson Bay: Bird Photography

June 17-21, 2017

In this first installment about my trip to Churchill Manitoba on Hudson Bay this June, I want to share a bit about the journey to Churchill, logistics of traveling in the Churchill area (lodging, rental vehicle, food, etc), a tour of the town, and the state of the town (due to some recent unfortunate circumstances which I highlight later in this post).

I was also in Churchill in 1987…30 years ago! Hard to believe. Here are the links to those posts:

Churchill 1987: Part 1

Churchill 1987: Part 2


The Tundra on approach to Churchill. Note Hudson Bay in background.

I’ve wanted to get back to Churchill for a LONG time…I love it there. It’s been 30 years, and the itch wasn’t getting scratched. The North is where my heart is…I loved Costa Rica and Mexico and Baja but I’m feel a much stronger pull towards the poles. My trips to Alaska, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland really connected with me. And Churchill is the closest, most easily accessible tundra/arctic to me in northern Minnesota. For several reasons, I had a strong desire to photograph and video the arctic species of birds and mammals. The first trip in ’87 was to see the rare and elusive Ross’s Gull. I succeeded in that, but my photos were not great…two words…film days. This time, bird photography was my goal, The Ross’s Gulls no longer nest here but My “Most Wanted” list was still long! (see photo below)

My “Most Wanted” list of species/subjects to photograph and video. A very long list for 4 nights/5 days trip!

High priorities for me were: tundra birds with wildflowers in the background, Willow Ptarmigan, Bonaparte’s Gulls nesting in spruces, shorebirds perched in trees, close up jaegers, sea birds in flight (Common Eiders, Red-throated Loons), Arctic Hare and Arctic Fox, bog landscapes and Pacific Loons at eye level.


Even though it was June 17, patches of snow still dotted the landscape.

Since the railroad isn’t running right now, the airline (Calm Air) has added flights. I’m not sure if this is the reason, but the price for my round trip airfare from Winnipeg was ONLY $400 US…This is $400 to $800 cheaper than it has been in recent years! I jumped at the opportunity.


I haven’t had a FREE hot meal on a plane (domestic flight) for many years! This was First Air’s breakfast meal on the 1 1/2 hour flight. Great breakfast sandwich. We also were given hot face towels! Luxury!


Chatted with this young Inuit man from Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, Canada on the flight. He told me stories of fishing salmon, Musk Ox, a white Grizzly Bear that his uncle “caught” (the word they use in the North for “shot”) and showed me how to write his name in the Inuit language. He was doing some training in Winnipeg and was heading back to Nunavut. The flight to Churchill would continue on to Rankin Inlet.


Churchill is the southern edge of the tundra…and the northern edge of the boreal forest.

The view flying in to Churchill


Potholes of the tundra south of Churchill. Note ice on Hudson Bay in background.


The flight from Winnipeg to Churchill was on a 737. Each of the fleet has a different arctic species on the tail; in this case, a Golden Eagle. A front-end loader is the luggage buggy!

I flew out at the 8am flight and returned via the 8pm flight…That way I had two full days of shooting on my “flying days.” But that meant another 2 nights of lodging in Winnipeg, which is fairly expensive.


A sign that is mainly meant for late fall/winter visitors. Few, if any, Polar Bears hang around town in summer. On my visit there were 2 bears around…but I never saw them.


One of the few new buildings in Churchill is the airport.


Welcome to the Polar Bear capital of the World! (Not in summer)


Polar Bear crossing….a winter phenomenon. A section of “the highway” in the background. The only paved road goes from town to the airport. The other 40 miles of road are all dirt or worse.


Main Street of Churchill Manitoba


Home, Sweet Home…Polar Inn

I would highly recommend the Polar Inn. Small and clean and with an amazing breakfast! I stayed 4 nights and the price was reasonable (about $100 US per night)…especially with not having to buy breakfast!

Note the warning adhered to my rental truck…The door hinges were already sprung from someone opening the doors and letting the wind yank them out of the car frame.


Breakfast buffet at the Polar Inn was VERY good! I would shoot from 5:30am to 9am and then come back and get some breakfast…egg mcmuffins, boiled eggs, yogurt parfaits, cereal, waffles and good coffee!


When I was in Churchill in 1987, the “store” in town was The Hudson’s Bay Company store. It has now been replaced by the very generic and boring Northern Store…a mini Walmart.


With the train not running, food stuffs were in low supply at the Northern Store (the only place to get groceries in town) …and more costly due to the expense of flying everything in. Milk shot up to $16 per gallon right after the train got washed out…but has since dropped to $7 per gallon. The bread shelves at the Northern Store were quite bare.


Inukshuk sculpture on the waterfront of Churchill


Sparky at the Churchill waterfront with Hudson Bay and a giant inukshuk (Inuit spelling: inuksuk) in the background.


You can’t rent a car in Churchill…but you can rent a beater truck for exorbitant prices (about $800 CDN for a week). But you don’t need luxury to get around on Churchill’s 60 miles of roads…15 miles paved and the rest various degrees of dirt and two-wheel track. This beauty had both door hinges sprung due so you had to be careful when opening the door on a windy day.


On my last two days, I noticed murals getting painted all over town. Turns out I just happened to be in town for the one week when artists from all over the world were painting their art on buildings. It was part of a grant program called Sea Wall: Artists for Oceans. Sea Walls Festival, is a public art program that promotes ocean conservation globally.

The murals explore the history of Manitoba and highlight some of the issues affecting its unique ecoregions: Tundra, Taiga, Boreal Forest, and the Arctic Ocean.

Seventeen artists from Canada, U.S., Brazil, New Zealand, Germany, U.K., Spain, Australia, and Japan as well as 2 Winnipeggers  made up the 30-member mural team.

And the weather was beautiful for painting…Lows in the 40s and highs around 70! Perfect. Lots of energy about town.


I saw this gentleman painting this mural and wanted to know more so I flagged him down and chatted. Turns out he is from Brazil! Arlin Graff is part of the 30-member team of muralists.


Here is Arlin from Brazil’s nearly completed geometric Polar Bear mural.


Another mural…This one of the Northern Lights by Charlie Johnston of Winnipeg.


Another mural in town is in progress


Local boys and the start of another mural.


Local kids playing along the rocks of the “city beach”….Hudson Bay and ice floes in the background.


Sled dogs are common around town, especially at the start of the Goose Creek Road. This cute fella lived in town and greeted every single person that walked down “Main Street.”


An interesting building in Churchill. The population of the town is about 900.


Winter transportation in Churchill


Now that’s a truck! Tundra Buggy Polar Bear tours are big business in Churchill during November and December. One local told me that many of the big tour companies are owned by outsiders who only live here for a few months. And not much money trickles down to the local economy as the tours are self contained….The companies hire their own big charter plane, then the guests stay in mobile housing units out on the tundra, and all food is flown in on the charter. So the local hotels, restaurants, grocery stores, and tourist shops don’t benefit much. Most of the profits heads out of town with the owners in late December.


Cabin on Goose Creek Road

 


Monument on Cape Merry


I’m not sure what goes on at the Caribou Hall but it is a cool old building.


Churchill was formerly a port town where ocean-going vessels picked up wheat. The private company that owns the railroad, also owned the grain elevators (built in 1930) and port, but closed it over a year ago. No ships have come in or out for nearly 2 years.

Then another blow to the town in May: Several huge multi-day blizzards this winter led to a massive melt-off during spring thaw in May, washing out many stretches of the railroad tracks…The only way to get to Churchill overland is by rail…There is no road to Churchill. This was how I got to Churchill in 1987…36 hours ONE WAY by VIA Rail from Winnipeg. My friend Tyler and I sat up the whole way (no sleeper car) in a cloud of smoke from the Indians who were smoking up a cloud. More importantly, this is how supplies, food, cars, equipment get to Churchill…not to mention the small Indian villages along the route. It’s a big deal. I found the locals in good spirits though…and optimistic. Many jobs have been lost due to the Port of Churchill grain elevators closing…and now the railroad jobs are in jeapordy. Surprisingly, very few locals had left for “the South” for other jobs so far.


The renovated Churchill railroad depot now sits abandoned (until further notice!)


No trains have run since mid May (UPDATE: As of August 2017, the tracks have still not been repaired, and there is no plan to fix them.)


Trains sit idle at the Churchill depot…No one has been coming in to, or leaving from Churchill by rail for months.

 


The only gas station in town…and NOT open 24-7.

The only gas pump in town…and I didn’t even bother calculating what the cost per gallon in the conversion from liters…too depressing!


Churchill Weather Station….Evidently a tornado just came through! 🙂


The Eskimo Museum in Churchill is basically unchanged since my last visit in 1987…and that is good. This unique museum tells the story of Arctic Inuit life through carvings made by the people themselves. Carvings of greenstone, Walrus tusk, ivory, whale bone and antler.

Each cabinet has a phone that you pick up and it begins telling you about a specific carving and what is means to Inuit everyday life. A very clever way to interpret the carvings. Most carvings were done between the 1940s and present in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut in Arctic Canada.

 


A really unique set of carvings (made out of walrus tusk) of Pope Pius XII from the 1940s. Catholic missionaries had influence in many remote villages at this time. The green glasses were made of a plastic hair comb.


Another favorite sculpture/carving. This one shows an elder Inuit telling his son (?) stories about the Northern Lights/aurora borealis (cleverly depicted by the tines of a caribou antler.


All the carvings tell a story of Inuit life. Many date to the mid 1900s. This one tells the tale of a curious Polar Bear and a hunter with only a bow and arrow and his dogs for protection.


A creative carving of an Inuit hunter (ivory) spearing a seal below the ice (bone section)


The only “real” Polar Bear I saw while in Churchill was this stuffed mount in the Eskimo Museum. Evidently there were a couple live ones still hanging around east of town. I never saw one (good thing when on foot) but was hoping to see one while I was in the safety of my truck. No such luck. I did have a bell attached to my pack any time I was walking along the shore of Hudson Bay in areas of brush or rock jumbles.


Some old traditions have just morphed to modern versions….Inuit women carried their children in the hoods of their fur parkas…This is a modern summer version (Winnipeg airport on my way home)

NEXT POST: Churchill on Hudson Bay: Cape Merry Merriment!

Top Ten Bird Photos 2016

This is an exercise I do every January…Pick my favorite nature images from the previous year. And I obviously don’t limit it to 10 images…It’s just too painful. So here is my “Top Eighteen” bird images of 2016. I’m also going to do a “Top Ten” for my favorite Creative Wildlife Images and Mammals.
I’m not saying these are the images that YOU are going to like best…nor are they images that are technically perfect, but they are, for various reasons, my favorites. So here they are in no particular order…

northern-cardinal-male-in-flowering-crabapple-mom-and-dads-house-new-hope-mn-img_6658Northern Cardinal, New Hope, Minnesota.
Do red and pink compliment each other? …or clash? I don’t mind the color combo of the red Northern Cardinal and pink-flowered crabapple in this photo…but I do think the touch of blue sky helps.
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L; 1/400 at f5.6; ISO 320; handheld]

american-goldfinche-img_8038American Goldfinch, Skogstjarna, Carlton County, Minnesota.
Would you be surprised if I told you I took this from the comfort of a camp chair in my yard? Well, I was in a blind, and the “pond” is actually a pool made from a 4×8 sheet of plywood and some 2x4s….an infinity pool for birds! I love how the yellow of the sunflowers matches the Goldfinch’s plumage. I was hoping for a better pose and head position but I’ll take it.
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L; 1/200 at f5.6; ISO 320; tripod]

barred-owl-cr18-near-hebron-cemetery-aitkin-co-mn-img_1504Barred Owl, Aitkin County, Minnesota.
Okay, to be honest, I was looking for Great Gray Owls when this Barred Owl appeared along a remote stretch of road. And unlike usual encounters with Barred Owls, this guy stuck around…He was very intent on some unseen rodent below the roadside snow. So I sat and watched. He finally plunged down but was unable to get the vole, but he paused long enough to get his portrait in early morning light.
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L; 1/2000 at f5.6; ISO 800; handheld, braced on car window frame]

wild-turkey-in-snow-skogstjarna-carlton-co-mn-img_2148Wild Turkey, Skogstjarna, Carlton County, Minnesota.
I never dreamed that I’d have Wild Turkeys in my woods in northeast Minnesota. In fact, I had to go to the extreme SE corner of the state in the 1980s just to add one to my state list…That’s about 300 miles south! But 30 years later, I have upwards of 30 that stop by my feeding station to load up on cracked corn. This guy seems to be wondering what that white stuff is falling from the sky.
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L; 1/50 at f7.1; ISO 500; handheld, and taken through living room window]

black-backed-woodpecker-nest-norris-camp-beltrami-island-state-forest-lake-of-the-woods-co-mn-img_1405Black-backed Woodpecker nest, Norris Camp, Lake of the Woods County, Minnesota.
Note how Black-backed Woodpeckers peal all the bark from around their nest hole…this is NOT done by Hairy Woodpeckers or other 4-toed woodpeckers. They also prefer living conifers with heart rot. I watched these busy parents and constantly begging young for a couple hours.
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L; 1/320 at f5.6; ISO 320; fill flash; Manfrotto tripod with Whimberly Sidekick]

black-bellied-plover-break-wall-wisconsin-point-superior-wi-img_7314Black-bellied Plover, Wisconsin Point, Lake Superior.
Shorebirds hold a special attraction for me. Partly because of where I live…in the middle of the country, but close to the “inland sea” of Lake Superior. I often scour the sandy beaches of Duluth, Minnesota’s Park Point and Superior, Wisconsin’s Wisconsin Point. I found this breeding plumaged Black-bellied Plover on the orange-lichened boulders of the Wisconsin Point breakwall. I like the contrast of the black and white bird, orange lichens and blue sky.
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L; 1/1000 at f5.6; ISO 100; handheld, braced on rock]

broad-winged-hawk-nest-with-2-nestlings-welcome-center-owl-avenue-sax-zim-bog-mn-img_5139Broad-winged Hawk nestlings, Welcome Center, Sax-Zim Bog, Minnesota.
Jessica Dexter and I found this nest during our Friends of Sax-Zim Bog BioBlitz in July. What alerted us was a splash of whitewash on the shrubs along the path…We looked up and Bingo! They both fledged successfully and many folks got to watch them through a spotting scope from a safe distance.
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L with 1/4x teleconverter; 1/180 at f8; ISO 200; fill flash; Manfrotto tripod with Whimberly Sidekick]

calliope-hummingbird-male-park-point-duluth-mn-img_1964-1Calliope Hummingbird, Park Point, Duluth, Minnesota.
This was only the second Minnesota record of a Calliope Hummingbird…and the other was a late fall blah-plumaged bird. This male was in all his summer splendor! He flared his gorget when a “rival” Ruby-throated Hummingbird would come by. Many folks got to see this stunner over a couple days along a dune boardwalk at the Duluth shore of Lake Superior.
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L; 1/125 at f5.6; ISO 1600; fill flash; Manfrotto tripod with Whimberly Sidekick]

forsters-tern-agassiz-national-wildlife-refuge-nwr-marshall-co-mn-img_9758Forster’s Tern, Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge, Minnesota.
Several Forster’s Terns were making a circuit along this creek outflow. And the fishing must have been great, for they frequently plunged head-first into the water, and like this one, came up with beakfuls of small fish. I like the graceful swoop of the tern’s long tail.
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L; 1/1250 at f5.6; ISO 320; handheld, braced on car window frame]

gray-jay-family-owl-avenue-sax-zim-bog-mn-img_9304-1Gray Jay, Owl Avenue, Sax-Zim Bog, Minnesota.
Gray Jay taking flight from a small spruce.
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L; 1/1600 at f5.6; ISO 1000; Manfrotto tripod with Whimberly Sidekick]

great-gray-owl-admiral-road-sax-zim-bog-mn-img_8922Great Gray Owl, Admiral Road, Sax-Zim Bog, Minnesota.
I do have 100s of decent Great Gray Owl photos, but I like this one because it places the owl in its favored habitat…Black Spruce-Tamarack forest.
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L; 1/500 at f5.6; ISO 400; handheld]

mountain-bluebird-yellowstone-national-park-wy-img_4505Mountain Bluebird, Yellowstone National Park, Montana.
Boring pose but I love the merging of blues from Mountain Bluebird to sky…Someone famous once said (can’t remember who), “the bluebird carries the sky on its back.”
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L; 1/2500 at f6.3; ISO 200; Manfrotto tripod with Whimberly Sidekick]

northern-saw-whet-owl-near-burntside-lake-ely-mn-img_7214Northern Saw-whet Owl, near Ely, Minnesota.
My friend Bill Tefft found this nesting Northern Saw-whet Owl in an old Pileated Woodpecker cavity…and I jumped at the chance when he offered to escort me there. World’s cutest owl?
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L; 1/250 at f5.6; ISO 250; fill flash; Manfrotto tripod with Whimberly Sidekick]

northern-shrike-cranberry-road-lek-sax-zim-bog-mn-img_3277Northern Shrike, Sax-Zim Bog.
In early spring, the willows blush with bright red bark. A fantastic backdrop for this lingering Northern Shrike who will soon head north to its breeding grounds in northern Canada. The blue sky helps the shot as well.
[Canon 7D with Canon EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM at 400mm; 1/800 at f5.6; ISO 250; handheld]

pine-grosbeak-male-welcome-center-owl-avenue-sax-zim-bog-mn-img_9632Pine Grosbeak male, Welcome Center, Sax-Zim Bog, Minnesota.
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L; 1/320 at f5.6; ISO 800; Manfrotto tripod with Whimberly Sidekick]

ruffed-grouse-snow-carlton-co-mn-img_1106Ruffed Grouse, Carlton County, Minnesota.
Falling snow can be the bane or a boon to a wildlife photographer. The trick is to not use too fast a shutter speed. That will create distracting blobs of white. It is better to slow the shutter down a bit and get some motion in the falling flakes. Here I used 1/320 of a second.
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L; 1/320 at f5.6; ISO 500; braced on car window frame]

savannah-sparrow-at-my-pool-skogstjarna-carlton-co-mn-img_2465Savannah Sparrow, Skogstjarna, Carlton County, Minnesota.
Another visitor to my backyard bird pool set up. This Savannah Sparrow is enjoying a bath on a hot summer afternoon. I like the splashing water droplets.
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L; 1/320 at f5.6; ISO 500; Manfrotto tripod with Whimberly Sidekick]

spruce-grouse-male-spruce-road-superior-national-forest-lake-co-mn-img_0659Spruce Grouse male, Spruce Road, Lake County, Minnesota.
I was guiding a couple from England when we found this male Spruce Grouse in far northern Minnesota…It was a lifer for both of them…the only one we got that day. He posed for us for quite awhile. They are a grouse of the boreal forests of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Maine, Alaska and Canada.
[Canon 7D with Canon EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM at 400mm; 1/125 at f6.3; ISO 400; handheld]