Posts from the ‘birding’ Category

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).

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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!