Chapter 4.  Churchill

© Bert & Shari Frenz, 2005 All rights reserved.

Day 14 – June 3 –Thompson to Churchill

(Bert) We try a bit of Thompson area birding this morning, but with limited success. A severe wind chill cuts short our visit at the Burntwood River, a muddy road abbreviates our attempt to reach Joey Lake and heavy rain keeps us in our cars at Paint Lake. Leaving our muddy cars part way along Joey Lake Road, we hike in farther. Each step seems to increase our height until we’ve grown two inches with the layers of mud on our shoes. But there is a benefit to the mud as well. We clearly follow the footprints of a wolf that earlier took this same path. I photograph the big prints with a 5-in. pen lying beside the track to show perspective. camera.GIF (1399 bytes) Nearby is a beaver hut, close enough to examine its construction. We return to the campground early, anxious to pack for the train, but then find ourselves waiting for hours in anticipation of our departure. Meanwhile, Leon shows up in his car, having driven all the way from Arkansas to join us for the Churchill portion of our journey. We all gather at the train station and then wait again for the late-arriving train. Finally aboard, I can sense the excitement of our group as the train rolls out from the station. We unload our belongings in the small sleeping compartments and them meet in the dining car. Boisterous conversation weaves a happy scene while enjoying a delicious meal as we watch the northern Manitoba scenery evolve out the wide windows of the moving train. Most of us retire early to our compartments, but I suspect we will be early to rise also.

(Shari) Since announcing last night that the Canadian Mounties want our help in solving a murder, I have gotten more information. Apparently a Great Gray Owl has been killed somewhere in Manitoba and the perpetrator is going to be riding the train to Churchill today. Since the police are so strapped for money, they need our help to discover whom, how and where the owl was killed. Monty from the Mounted Police came by our rig to give me a sheet of clues to be handed out to our caravan participants. He also left me with a thank you gift basket containing Canadian maple syrup, maple cream cookies, a Canadian maple wind sock, flavored olive oil, Belizean jellies from Marie Sharp and two snack bag closure pins just to name a few items, to be given to the first couple that solves the crime. An hour before the scheduled train departure, Colleen and her family drive us to the station in five vehicles. There, I hand out the clues along with each person’s tickets. The hour wait turns into 90 min. before the train is spotted coming toward the station. We board on the far end of the train and the porter shows us to each of our 2-person bedroom compartments. These small 8x5-ft. rooms are sitting rooms by day and sleepers by night. The couch turns into a bed and another bed drops down out of the wall. The bathroom is a tiny closet just big enough for a toilet. Even here space is conserved, since the sink drops out of the wall above the toilet and folds back in when not in use. Most of us choose to sit in the dining car or a private observation car that has been set aside for our use. Bert and I sit with Jim and Betty but are in earshot of many others. The scenery is simply gorgeous as the train makes its way north, crossing bridges over rivers, cruising beside serene lakes surrounded by spruces and, of course, frequent peaks at birds and other wildlife. Many of the group have started on the mystery and have completed some of the tasks necessary to obtain more clues. The conductor has a clue, a clue is in an envelope pasted on the wall between cars, mentioning the provincial flower or tree of Manitoba will obtain a clue as will telling Bert the difference between a Willow and Rock ptarmigan. Bill and Bob are really into the “game” and I think they have set up a small competition between them. Bert and I just sit back and enjoy it all handing out clues as needed. By 9 PM all my little chicks are neatly tucked into their cubicles for the night, including me. I am soon lulled to sleep by the clickity-clack of the train wheels on the track.

Day 15 – June 4 – Churchill

(Bert) I’m up at 4:30 AM and when I walk into the dining car I see that Ginny is already at a table with an outstretched map of Manitoba. She’s tracking our route north and marking the few train stops and the identifying signs: Thibaudeau, Herchmer, Kellett, McClintock, etc. Most are just a few shacks: ghost towns that were perhaps camps used during railway construction, but now abandoned and slowly eroding from the penetrating winds and periglacial effects. With the exception of one or two small villages, no one seems to live within eyeshot of the train tracks. Outside our panoramic windows the unending Black Spruce forest looks healthy, now greening out and absent of the dried black stick look of winter. Most of the spindly trees are 6-15 ft. high, about eye-level from our sitting position in the dining car. A rolling carpet of soft pale lime green reindeer moss covers the land. camera.GIF (1399 bytes) Rounded pools of still water – another periglacial effect – pock the terrain. Some are still covered by a thin sheet of ice. Five-thirty – a small patch of snow shaded by short trees; 5:45 a sign marking McClintock, and Ron says, “We can say we’ve been here,” as if anyone would know where this is. Six AM, the bird sightings increase just as more birders pile into dining car chairs. We see our first Willow Ptarmigan, an event much anticipated by the group after my campfire talk on ptarmigan behavior and identification. Each birder is eager to find another ptarmigan and I begin to count the sightings, finally reaching 26. Almost all are males with rufous heads and necks, but snow white below. Most easily seen when in low flight over the tundra, or scurrying chicken-like on the bumpy soft ground, when at rest they blend into the background and later, when completely transitioned into summer plumage, they will dissolve completely as do the females at this time. We record a variety of ducks, including two new duck species for the list – Surf and Black scoters – as well as our first Rusty Blackbird. Shari spots our first caribou about the time the taiga transitions to tundra. camera.GIF (1399 bytes) Now we can see miles to the horizon: flat and devoid of trees. Except for the train, the only evidence of man is the tall electrical utility supports that branch into a V-shape conveniently providing a nesting site for ravens.

(Shari) Awakened periodically throughout the night by the many stops of the train, I notice night time is short, maybe 3 hr. Bert is up at 4:30 and I follow at 6. The whole group is not far behind, meeting in the dining car for breakfast, looking for wildlife and birds, and still solving clues. I must say, Mickey has been a great disappointment as an S.O.B. (spouse-of-birder). She is the first one to spot a ptarmigan - even before her husband, Ron, who is a good birder. After she sees that first one, we see gobs of them, plus some caribou thrown in as icing on the cake. After a breakfast of oatmeal and muffins washed down with lots of coffee, we go back to our rooms to pack. Soon we get our first glimpse of Churchill, a town that can be seen out of one train window without turning your head. Situated on the Hudson Bay, the only way to get here is by plane or train (or ship in mid-summer), so it is remote and we wonder who would want to live here. An enormous purple bus waits in the parking lot and Bert and I look at each other, hoping that is not the bus we are to use for birding. On arriving, bus owner Doug tells us the big buss is more convenient for passengers and luggage and that a smaller bus awaits us at the lodge. He gives us a tour of the town and even circling it three times, he is done in 15 min. Dawn and her staff are organized and waiting for us and quickly dispense with the details of room assignments and keys. Clay has me watch as he ceremoniously advances his watch one hour. Finally his time agrees with the rest of us: it only took him two weeks to get in the swing of things ;). At 10:30 every last one of us board the bus for our first bird outing in Churchill. The bus travels the speed of a centipede and stops not a mile from the lodge. The sun peeks out and tries to burn off the fog but holds little warmth. People are calling out birds left and right: Snow buntings, Pacific Loon, Long-tailed Duck, to name a few. This is as excited as I have ever seen our group of birders. There goes Mickey again trying to pretend she is not a birder yet deciphering the difference in eiders. In a way the excitement is infectious and non-birders Marlene and Larry are looking through their binoculars too. Many brave the cold biting wind and step outside to get better looks. The river has broken up and big “icebergs” float by only to get stuck on land or stopped by the still ice-covered Hudson Bay. Greg had told us if the wind shifts, the ice would travel out to sea. After lunch, a good-sized group goes out again, but I nap until 4:30. The group comes back for dinner and out again before returning for the night at 9:30. So goes our first day in Churchill. I overhear Leon jokingly say he can go home now, since this first day was so good for him.

(Bert) In our first few hours at Churchill, the birds come fast and furious. It seems every species is new and collectively we are looking in so many directions simultaneously that pronouncements of names is confusing. The granary ponds and the nearby view of the Churchill River give us Greater Scaup, Common Eider camera.GIF (1399 bytes), Black Scoter and Long-tailed Duck camera.GIF (1399 bytes) and Common and Red-breasted mergansers as well as five other duck species. Pacific Loons are numerous and some of us find Red-throated Loons, but these dive too quickly to make spotting scopes useful. Above the ice floes on the river the sky is swarming with acrobatic terns and we note the darker color, longer tails and smaller heads of the dozens of Arctic Terns churning airspace.

Perhaps the most fascinating is a gull standing alone on the ice near the edge of the river at high tide. Its dark bill is followed by an almost black face covering the eyes and extending through its crown, but foreshortened on the hind neck much like a Bonaparte’s Gull. The neck, throat, breast and belly are off-white on the resting gull and its back and wings and tail are a uniform dusty gray brown. I sketch the bird and mark its coloration while others flip through their bird guides. We eliminate most everything just as the bird takes flight and instantly most of us recognize it as a jaeger with pointed wings and long tail and to add conviction to the identification, the jaeger attacks several gulls that have the misfortune of flying across its flight path. It only takes a minute to narrow our decision to Parasitic Jaeger, the jaeger I’ve seen least often in my travels.

We drive a bit farther, and circumnavigate the granary shipping dock, intent on finding Snow Buntings that haven’t yet left for northern breeding grounds. I’ve timed our Churchill days to catch late departing wintering species and early arriving nesting species, so we want to find the buntings on our first day. From a distance we examine an overhanging ice cliff and think we see the buntings in the darkened hollow, but when we move closer we are disappointed to discover they are only House Sparrows. Then on the backside of the granary towers I see a flock on ice. I drive closer and soon all of us see dozens and then hundreds of the cute white and black birds. Even more are lined up at the very top of the buildings. For those who have not birded in northern climes, the Snow Buntings are life birds and an exciting find.

Day 16 – June 5 – Churchill

(Bert) Today we’ve got Bonnie as our guide, unanimously known locally by her first name only, much like a rock star. Bonnie wrote a popular book on finding birds in Churchill and today she’s going to check out her favorite bird haunts at Twin Lakes. But first we stop alongside Launch Road to see some tiny flowers named Purple Saxifrage, one of the first spring flowers to add color, however minute, to this drab brown tundra scene. We see Whimbrels, large inland grazing shorebirds, and then hear their call that can best be described as “whimbrely.” Not much farther down the road we encounter seven Barren Ground Caribou crossing ahead of us and later we see four more separately. Their hides still look in good condition, not ragged, as they soon will be this summer. They mostly ignore us, allowing ample opportunity to observe their browsing habits. Wildlife is good to us because soon a Red Fox scampers across the road and into the tundra and low willows. Our first glimpses we think will be our last, but just then the fox turns around and heads directly toward the bus. I’ve already jumped out of the bus and am standing at the front bumper when the fox crosses right in front of me, offering fantastic photographing opportunities. When we enter the wooded area of Twin Lakes a pintail springs from its nest. camera.GIF (1399 bytes) I take a photo of the nest, but Bonnie warns not to get too close because foxes may also find the nest and steal the eggs. As Bonnie predicted, birds are far and few between at Twin Lakes, but the ones we see are good ones. Walking along the dirt road – perhaps “path” would be a more appropriate word – I hear the very high-pitched 3-note trill of a Blackpoll Warbler, but apparently no one else hears what I hear. Later, when we double back on the path, the others get ahead of me and find a Blackpoll at the very same spot where I heard it earlier. Hoping to find a Spruce Grouse, we spread apart and walk into the spruce forest, reluctantly stepping on the soft cushion of crisp Reindeer Moss. I upstart a Pine Grosbeak, later reaching a count of five birds, and we all get very satisfying looks at the reddish males and orangish females. We find a few other good birds, but only a few see each and then with only fleeting glances, but nonetheless we record Boreal Chickadee, Bohemian Waxwing, Fox Sparrow (heard only) and Black-backed Woodpecker. After a picnic lunch beside the ice-covered lake, somewhat warmer than the frigid air near Hudson Bay, we move to another wooded location near the Twin Lakes. Bonnie shows us a vacated Northern Goshawk nest, but no bird, and we search for an hour in an area known previously as Northern Shrike habitat, to no avail. We have better luck finding White-winged Scoters on a small woodland lake and Horned Grebes on another. After our long hike we return to our parked bus where Hoss, Shari and Mickey have been waiting. I see motioning waves and eager faces as I approach and soon hear that Mickey has made a great discovery. Her patient method of birding – moving little, waiting long – has enabled her to recognize a Spruce Grouse dusting itself in a sand drift. We all get excellent looks of this dark chicken-like bird, the more elusive of the Manitoba grouse. For the most part it ignores our presence, but when Bruce, Joyce and I approach to take closer photos it leisurely moves beyond reach of our camera lens.

On the way back from the wooded areas we pass through a marsh known as breeding grounds for Smith’s Longspurs, but Bonnie isn’t confident the birds have yet arrived. We stop at a promising spot and I play a recording from my iPod. Much to everyone’s surprise we get an instant response. I turn off my recording, but the Smith’s circles our location, singing from marked perches defining its territory. We get incredibly sharp views of this large ochre yellow sparrow with its harlequin black-and-white face.

We make the long journey, not in distance but in time spent on bumpy roads, back to town for dinner. Later we meet again for evening birding and head to Cape Merry. Now 10-15 Pacific Loons float on the river and I see two Red-throated Loons, but still can’t keep either in the scope long enough to share the view with others. In my travels, Black Scoters are hardest of the three scoters to find, but here at Churchill they are numerous. I estimate at least 150 floating and flying where the river meets the bay. At the cape we see two Arctic Hares, one mostly white but showing signs of darker summer fur, the other with dark head and back, white below. These giant hares are big jumpers, preferring the treeless boulder-surfaced coast of the Hudson Bay. camera.GIF (1399 bytes)

(Shari) Just because I spend 12 hr. birding does not make me a birder! We get up this morning at 5:30 to meet our guide. The whole group joins her on the trip to the far end of Churchill. I want to see a Polar Bear. Others want to see birds. I see lots of caribou and a Red Fox. They see lots of birds including sought after ones like the Smith’s Longspur. I really enjoy the people more than the birds. To see their excitement at a new species is well worth the trip to me. I still say Mickey is a birder though. She sits quietly near the bus and spots the most. Again she gets a Spruce Grouse and shows it to the group. We have a very long look at it taking a dust bath, seemingly oblivious to us invading its privacy as we peer at it. We see lots of ptarmigans and joke that dividing the cost of the trip by the shear numbers makes the trip not so expensive. The same can be said of the Snow Bunting. In fact, what was yesterday’s prize bird is today’s trash one. Luckily the day is sunny and warm by Churchill standards. Eating our picnic lunch on the deck of an abandoned cottage, we enjoy the loons on the water, as well as each other’s company. We even find a bathroom of sorts, which the women especially very much appreciate. Towards 3 PM or even before, I think the S.O.B.’s are about done with birding. I know I want to put blinders on the binoculars so that we can head home. However, birders never quit and they have to find just one more. Luckily we have to make it back for a 6 PM dinner or they still may be looking for that last hawk-owl or whatever. Our dinner is here at the lodge and Bert orders caribou steak and I order musk ox over rice. Both are tasty.

Day 17 – June 6 – Churchill

(Bert) A bright crisp 7 AM morning, the frigid breeze crosses the narrow spit of tundra separating the Churchill River from Hudson Bay. We face the river scanning for wildlife and in the far distance I see swans, many swans. In fact, on the barren shoreline 27 Tundra Swans are white dots looking like remnant chunks of pallid ice. We continue, turning down Goose Creek Road and in the watery marshland we see a pair of Short-billed Dowitchers so brilliantly rufous red that at first I question their identity. The transformation from the dull winter plumages I see in Texas to the vivid colors of breeding northland birds is so dramatic it appears as a new species. We walk along the weir, or at least some of us do. The rest stay in the bus, not wanting to endure the arctic wind blowing fiercely across the icy river. At the point, near where the frigid water tumbles over a rocky dam, we watch for rare gulls. Fortunately, our wait is short. Cynthia asks me what gull is all dark below and all light above. I immediately think Little Gull and ask her, “Where?” She points to the sky and there floats this petite rarity, a lifer for all but me.

In the afternoon we drive Launch Road and rounding the bend at its start I scan the ice-covered Hudson Bay. About a mile from shore I find three curious black dots on the white ice and study them carefully until I see one move and then disappear below the ice. Thinking seals, I align my spotting scope and soon discover over a dozen seals hauled out on the ice, stretched full length and rarely raising their heads. At this distance it’s hard to find identifying marks, but later we meet Bonnie who tells us they are Ringed Seals. Next stop is the Churchill dump where we find ducks and hundreds of geese on the entranceway ponds. We advance to the dump itself, piles of rubbish, some burning. My eyes immediately focus on a whitish gull, somewhat darkened by fuzzy mottling, but most noticeable to me is the absence of darker wing tips. I think, and announce, Glaucous Gull but comment that it seems too small in comparison to the adjacent Herring Gulls. Others now study the bird and Clay points out that the bill is completely dark, thus ruling out Glaucous and supporting the alternative Iceland Gull. Now the pieces are fitting together and we become convinced this is a first-year Iceland. camera.GIF (1399 bytes) When we return to the dump a couple of hours later we see the gull again and this time another Iceland, but a year or two older. While trying to specify the location of various gulls, our carefully followed system of using a clock to define directions from a tree’s position falls into disarray. Instead I hear “just to the right of the bed spring,” and “next to the water heater,” and “behind the white plastic bags.”

Continuing along Launch Road, we take a spur toward the bay. I stop when I see a nearby male Willow Ptarmigan. When I approach the bird for photographs, I discover a nearby female. Ptarmigan’s defense strategy from predators is to remain still, hoping to blend into the background. Only when I get very close does the male begin calling, a rollick-laughing roll of clucks and gargling. The female remains silent and stationary and it seems I could step on her before she would have moved. camera.GIF (1399 bytes) On the opposite side of the road, Bruce has found an Arctic Hare lounging on a rock in the late afternoon sun. He has crept close to the hare for photographs. When I see he gets to within a dozen feet of the passive hare I hike over the tundra to photograph it as well. camera.GIF (1399 bytes) Soon Joyce does the same. camera.GIF (1399 bytes) When we pass the spot 20 min. later the sleepy hare still lies there. Surrounding a small pond, chains retain a team of sled dogs first lounging and then eagerly prancing in front of our slowly moving vehicles. None of them bark but their large size keeps us at bay. Their luxuriant fur coats come in a variety of patterned black, white and brown, and they must be well fed because each of the magnificent Huskies looks quite healthy.

After dinner, some of us return to the Churchill River at the granary dock. Fire on ice, diamonds floating on water, the setting sun sparkles ice crystals of the floating bergs. Stillness settles upon the scene, chilled but calm air adds a refreshing crispness to the early evening. The sun’s acute angle to the horizon throws brilliant yellow light on the floating loons camera.GIF (1399 bytes) and the resting eiders. camera.GIF (1399 bytes) Hundreds of Ruddy Turnstones, interspersed with a few Dunlins, fly in tight flocks, coming to rest on a flat sheet of floating ice, only to be scared up again when a harrier swoops across the ice floe. Loons seem to be everywhere. I aim my spotting scope upriver and swing 180 deg. downriver toward the bay, counting loons in the scan: 82 Pacific Loons, 2 Red-throated Loons, and 1 Common Loon. We linger much longer than planned. None of us want to leave this tranquil and incredibly beautiful scene, trying to bottle up these images as unfading memories to be recalled another time.

(Shari) While the group is out chasing down a rare bird or two, I prepare to walk the town. The Hudson Bay breeze billows the flag outside my window, warning me to put on layers of long underwear, sweater, down vest and jacket. Pulling my wool cap over my ears, donning my mittens and strapping on my backpack, I may look like a beach ball with a hump, but I am ready for the cold. I walk down the main street of Churchill, stopping at a gift store (it is closed), the visitor’s information building (it is closed), a restaurant (it is closed), another gift store (in luck here), another restaurant (also open), the liquor store (it is closed), and the museum (it is closed). I make arrangements for a group dinner this evening, buy a T-shirt with an imprinted Ross’s Gull, and write down the hours of operation of the museum and liquor store before heading back to the lodge. After lunch I join the birders at the town dump. Unless you are a birder you cannot fathom the thrill a local dump can be. I don’t often enjoy bird watching, but I enjoy people watching birds. This afternoon the group fixates on gulls, looking for different wing patterns and bill colors. I bet a lot of you readers did not know that there even exist different kinds of gulls. Well, there are lots of them and Cynthia finds a rare one for the group to look at. We also see Ringed Seals on the ice in the bay and a mating dance of the ptarmigan. Bruce “stalks” an Arctic Hare that unbelievably does not move an inch as Bruce gets closer and closer to take pictures. We open the windows hoping to hear the “I want to get …” call of the ptarmigan with “Don’t you dare” response, but the wind interferes and all we hear is each other’s laughter. Later in the warmth of the dining room, Bert explains gull identification. At dinner, the restaurant I visited this morning has misunderstood the reservation of our group and half leave to eat at another restaurant. Those of us that stay, enjoy our meal, get a free drink, but agree that the service is slow. Two hours later we pay our bills and head back to the lodge.

Day 18 – June 7 – Churchill

(Bert) From the Pump House, through my spotting scope I see a jaeger flying downriver in the direction of Hudson Bay and I immediately call it to the attention of others. It’s an adult, light-morph, first identified as Pomarine by the very black (rather than grayish) colors, sharp demarcation between black and white, significant white windows on top and bottom of primaries, and longish tail. As you read later in this journal, I subsequently have doubts about the id. On one of the countless ponds beside Goose Creek Road, we again see scaup. Bonnie had told us earlier of an identification point I had not heard before. She says the eyes of Greater Scaup are positioned high on their heads whereas the eyes are more centered on the heads of Lesser Scaup. Since then we’ve been studying scaup heads and now we have the perfect opportunity: a male Lesser is side-by-side with a male and a female Greater. The scaup with the centrally positioned eyes shows other markings that support Lesser: faint dark lines through the sides, head peaked – not rounded – behind the eye, smaller bill.

Having heard that Little Gulls were being seen at the weir, we head out to that part of the Churchill River. What a difference it is this afternoon – warm, sunny and relatively calm – compared to yesterday when the bitter icy wind kept many inside the bus and the rest of us made the walk down the weir a quick one. We wait for rare gulls, meanwhile entertaining ourselves with cheery waterthrushes singing from exposed willow perches in the marsh below the dike. Suddenly the first Little Gull appears and soon we see more, eventually counting nine in the air, on the water and resting on gravel bars. We see them easily through binoculars and two spotting scopes, giving us satisfying looks.

camera.GIF (1399 bytes)  In the evening at Cape Merry, a jaeger heads upriver from the cape. I miss the first, but see a second one and Sally and I have a long look as it passes over our heads, harasses an Arctic Tern and continues upriver. I see all of the same field marks as before, but this time I add the black crown and black band separating the yellow head from the white throat and breast. The white on the wings is a bold patch on the palms of the undersides and a much fainter whitening near the base of the primaries when viewed from above. Later we see another or the same jaeger far in the distance, flying over the river. The jaeger is quite the acrobat, as agile as a Peregrine it changes directions on a whim, sometimes chasing a gull, then spirally higher above the horizon, then swooping down to rest on a floating iceberg or the icy water. The jaeger seems so small among the hundreds of icebergs that we easily loose sight of it. But when it takes off again it dominates airspace: long pointed wings, a draconian black profile, a pace that easily exceeds the slow laborious flight of gulls and creeping movement of icebergs. In chilled still air, warmed by the soft yellow setting sun, from the cape’s promontory view of the breaking river, the dance of the jaeger is exquisite entertainment in an idyllic ice world.

(Shari) A balmy 42 deg., I do not need my long underwear for this morning’s walk. I find another gift store open but nothing calls my name and I escape with my money intact. I visit another restaurant and ask for a menu to show the group later. I walk to a hotel to use their computer for Internet. By the time I return, the group is back and ready for lunch. Joining them for the afternoon, we visit Cape Merry. The day is clear and the icebergs are floating out towards the bay with the tide. Two Englishmen are focusing their cameras on the ground and I walk around below the fort to find out what they see. camera.GIF (1399 bytes) Hidden in the rocks and protected by a wooden plank is a Horned Lark’s nest and momma sits prettily for me to take a picture. camera.GIF (1399 bytes)  I return to the group and when I mention to them what I have found they do not seem impressed. But later Bert asks me where the nest is located and, of course, I cannot pin point it again. He seems perturbed with me that I did not take him to it, but I tried. We eventually do find the nest but momma is now off the nest wandering nearby. After dinner I again go out with a much smaller group to Cape Merry. Now the tide is on its way in and so are the icebergs. Glistening from the sun’s rays, all in various shapes and sizes, they make a pretty picture. We return by 9 PM and since I do not hear a peep from any of the rooms, I assume those that did not go out are already asleep. This birding is hard work.

Day 19 – June 8 – Churchill

(Bert) Sally reports seeing an ochre-faced sparrow in the marshy border of a small pond. That immediately has my attention as the possibilities almost certainly can be narrowed to Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrow. A sparrow escapes the location without our identification and playing a song recording has no effect. We continue to wait in the area and meanwhile hear a Sora calling, a good bird for Churchill. Almost a half hour later we still can’t find the sparrow – although distracted frequently by Savannah, White-crowned and American Tree sparrows – so I replay the recording at another nearby location. This time I get a verbal response and during our search, we hear a sharp-tailed calling from various positions. To me, the call sounds like Savannah Sparrow absent the preamble and postscript. I never do see the singer, but am confident and satisfied with the identification. We continue to walk along the Farnsworth loop, but are stopped by a huge water puddle blocking the road. Now Joyce’s story about not replacing her low cut slippers for hiking shoes takes effect. No way can she navigate this mud puddle. So we turn around and explore another area. In the air above us we see three Sandhill Cranes descend like parachutes, gracefully, with landing gear down, wings widespread, and touchdown with only a hop or two. Back on the road, we stop for photos of the Polar Bear Jail camera.GIF (1399 bytes) – where they hold belligerent bears for release in less touristy areas – and then round the curve on to Launch Road. Here someone spots a dead Short-eared Owl at the side of the road. I pick it up and show the well-preserved specimen to the group and Mickey makes note of the special feathers that enable soundless flight for owls. camera.GIF (1399 bytes) At dinner at Gypsy’s – where many birders seem to gather at least twice daily – I bump into Tom Hintz who just started leading a group of birders here today. He tells me of his success at finding a pair of King Eiders as well as a Snowy Owl at Cape Merry. Our evening plans change once again as we decide to try our luck at relocating the eiders. This is our third or fourth attempt at the cape, and again we are without success. I suspect we are trying at the wrong tide and now the birds are far and few between, among the many floating icebergs passing both directions at the mouth of the river. Nonetheless, the arctic scenery is again dramatic at sunset and the changes in the ice breakup are fascinating to observe: from almost completely blocked with ice the first night to a nearly open river and an iceberg clogged first mile of Hudson Bay by tonight. Earlier in the day we again saw Ringed Seals far out on the Hudson Bay ice. At one stop along Launch Road I counted 25 spread across the ice plain; at the next stop I counted another 20. Now in the evening, we drive to the community center for Churchill and see two Ringed Seals much closer to shore. An adult male is dark gray with light colored oval rings across its back. A juvenile is almost white, but has a cute black hood. At 9 PM I walk behind the lodge hoping to see the Least Sandpiper that Carl reported earlier. I miss that, but see a Eurasian Starling instead – not the most exciting find, but our first here in Churchill, and number 99 on the list for our visit to the area.

(Shari) I know I am birded out. Maybe some others are too because this afternoon a few are found at the museum while still others are resting and about half bird. Bob shares some wine with the group while Bert talks about jaegers before we head to dinner. A few go out to the Cape to try to find a reported Snowy Owl floating on an iceberg and a King Eider closer to shore, but I stay to watch TV, catch up on journals and read.

Day 20 – June 9 – Churchill

(Bert) Sometimes it pays to bird your own backyard. Up to now we’ve ignored the wet field separating the lodge from the railroad tracks. Those with bedroom windows facing the field have noted bird activity in the field, so I check it out before our mornings birding activities. Others soon join me and we see our first Gray-cheeked Thrush and get our first look at a Hoary Redpoll singing in flight above us. Later, while we are off on our morning trip, Sally stays behind and continues to watch the backyard. She sees a flock of 15-20 Snow Geese, the largest gathering we noted at Churchill. Then, incredibly, she finds another Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrow. This would be hard to top, but she does when she watches a Canada Warbler for several minutes as it feeds in the willows and also the short spruce. She later leaves me with a detailed write-up of her observations which I’ll send in to the regional editors for North American Birds, since this is a very rare sighting for Churchill and, according to the 2003 book The Birds of Manitoba, the only other record was a vagrant seen 13 June 1992. In the backyard, later in the day, we find the Gray-cheeked again and a half-dozen other good birds, including our first Tennessee Warbler and Swamp Sparrow of the Churchill trip.

Backing up to the early morning, we drive out again to Twin Lakes and bird there for several hours, mostly hiking in the warm weather. We see only a few birds, the best being a Boreal Chickadee, six Blackpoll Warblers, and a few Gray Jays that are anything but camera-shy. camera.GIF (1399 bytes) The distant Hermit Thrush that serenades us is the first we’ve listed for Churchill. On the way back we stop at the tundra buggy storage unit and photograph the enormous vehicles that dwarf our van and people standing nearby. camera.GIF (1399 bytes)  A Hoary Redpoll flies above us, easier to identify now that I’ve keyed in to its flight call.

Climbing the crest at the Auroral Observatory, I stop when I see a soaring Red-tailed Hawk and Ron reports seeing a second one. I climb out of the van and look up at the same spot, now seeing a crow harassing the raptor, but the crow is unexpected. Then I realize I'm looking at an immature Bald Eagle being attacked by a raven and now two immature eagles are present. Confused, I look in the sky closer to Hudson Bay and see the Red-tailed again. Two rare Red-tails, two uncommon eagles and a raven all sharing the same airspace - impressive! Later this evening I meet Bonnie and she says she saw the same aerial display two hours later than we.

(Shari) Deciding not to go out with the birders, I have a leisurely morning. I walk to one end of the town and to the museum at the other end. I pick up a few gifts and walk to the post office to get a polar bear cancellation on a post card. The birders come back ahead of schedule and I decide to go with them to Cape Merry. They still are searching for King Eiders and Snowy Owls. They spend a lot of time debating the size and shape of the birds on and around the icebergs and I get bored. Luckily I know this has to be a short trip, since we are having dinner at 5:15. We pile into the restaurant and are well fed, as usual, but are interrupted mid-course.

(Bert) Having missed the King Eider now on at least three visits to Cape Merry, we decide to try a different time of day and consequently a different tide. Hudson Bay is calm and the Churchill River is gently flowing toward it, transporting the last of the rivers icebergs. A careful scan by all eyes fails to turn up the King Eider. But we get quite a display of jaegers. In fact, I count nine jaegers flying downstream and into the bay. Pacific Loons are mostly heading the opposite direction. A long stretched out flock of thirty loons was preceded by dozens and followed my dozens more. We must be seeing 75+ Pacific Loons and a few Red-throated. Surprisingly, we find yet another Snow Bunting today. This one is resting on a huge iceberg, a 7-in. white bird on a coast-cutter-sized white block of floating ice.

We gather again for dinner at Gypsy’s and most, except Clay, have finished the main course. Suddenly, Bonnie bursts through the door loudly calling, “Ross’s Gull at the weir! See you there!” Just as quickly she exits and we all look at one another. Excitedly, I announce, “It’s a half hour to the weir and a half hour back. That gives us a half hour to find the gull before leaving for the train. Let’s go!” Gypsy’s rushes out the “surprise” dessert and, torn between savoring the delicious tort and escaping with our binoculars, we devour the food and make a swift exit. Clay stuffs his unfinished meal in a carry-out container and eats it on the bus as I race the vehicle to the weir. Bonnie is already there with her tour group and we learn that the Ross’s was reported by Kim Eckart, but has not been seen in the past few hours. The bay is swarming with gulls and terns. They are circling and careening and diving so fast it’s hard to get a fix on them or begin to count them, but most interestingly, they include at least 10 Little Gulls and two Black Terns, both rarities for the area. This last minute bird chasing certainly gets our adrenaline pumping and we are excited to see the gulls and add the Black Terns to the list, but we must leave the weir before the Ross’s Gull returns.

(Shari) Bonnie comes in to tell us a Ross’s Gull has been spotted at the weir. Poor Clay just received his dinner and the rest of us are to get a surprise dessert from Echo and Ken at the lodge. Bert reluctantly lets us stay a few minutes longer to gobble down our food before heading to the weir. On the way out to the weir, all I can think about is having a flat tire and missing the train. Luckily our tires hold out, but we find no Ross’s Gull and we have to return back to gather our luggage and head to the depot. We were told yesterday that the train tracks washed out and we only have 18 beds when we need 21. It never made sense to me until I am told that the tracks were washed out before Thompson and people are being bused from The Pas to Thompson to catch another train. So our sleeping cars are on the south side of the track break. We make do with what we have. Asking the group for volunteers to sleep in single rooms, I get more than I need. Some groups are just so generous and this is one of them. In spite of a crabby conductor, I make room assignments and everyone seems content. Marlene and Larry, Bert and I are forced to sleep on recliner chairs but we make do. The porter gives us blankets and pillows and the car is almost empty so we each are able to stretch out over four seats. Soon a good group of people joins us in our car and we enjoy a party atmosphere complete with a bit of scotch and rum.

(Bert) On the train, the short spruce forest is behind us now and we travel through vast tundra landscape. The hectic chase of our last day’s birding in Churchill has slowed to the snail pace of the grandfatherly train creaking over the tracks and swaying unsteadily. Over glasses of scotch, Bill and I have been talking for the past hour and when I look into the miles of empty tundra I comment, “Has anyone ever walked the tundra a few miles away from the railroad tracks?” I’m forever fascinated about walking where no one has ever traveled before and I wonder if this is one of those places. Bill and I talk until nearly 11 PM when he retires to his sleeping compartment. I stay in my recliner chair watching out the train window. I’d heard that a Golden Eagle resided at KM marker 455, so I’m determined to stay awake until then. But as the darkness shrouds the Black Spruce forest, the KM markers count down like counting sheep in reverse. I see 470 and 464 before sleep overtakes me.

Day 21 – June 10 – Thompson

(Shari) I awake many times during the night and look out the window, shift my body to another spot and try to fall back to sleep. The landscape is desolate and darkness only encompasses a short few hours. Finally it is 6:15 and I head to the dining car for some coffee and breakfast. Joyce and Sally are already there and soon we are joined by just about everyone. I order two eggs, ham, hash browns and toast with my coffee and the service manager informs us that all of our breakfasts are complimentary in consideration of our poor accommodations. Via Rail Canada did a good thing and turned a negative experience into a positive one. They did not want the train tracks to wash out any more than we did. After breakfast we watch the scenery pass our window but see few birds. I know we are reaching civilization about 30 min. before our scheduled arrival when I hear the train whistle. This is the first time in 14 hr. the engineer blows the whistle to alert crossing automobile traffic. I am ready to be home. Colleen is at the station waiting for us, and she shuttles us to our rigs. I put things away, start the wash and head for the grocery store before making a cake for tomorrow’s dessert party and studying the road log before our travel meeting. Gathering around the fire that Larry made to keep the mosquitoes at bay, I announce the winner of the mystery game and give Bob and Betty the gift basket. Bill and Jim get a runner up prize and everyone gets a thank you for being a good sport. I think I should sleep well tonight in my own bed.

(Bert) When I awaken, my watch tells me it is 4 AM, but the sky is already well illuminated. I’m surrounded by frilly tamarack and fully clothed Black Spruce. Rounded mirrors of silvered pools reflect the early morning light. No roads, no cottages, no people, but the pretty lakes bubble up wishes that I could stay awhile to soak up the ambience of the northern exposure. Forty-five minutes later we stop in Gillam, the only village of any size along the Thompson-Churchill train route. Our stop is so long I fall asleep again. When I awaken, we are crossing a broad river and I see an immature Bald Eagle winging river’s length. At 6:30 I meet others in the dining car for a hearty breakfast of bacon and eggs and hash browns. By 7:45 the landscape has introduced aspen, marking our movement south to warmer climes. At KM 256 we reach Pit Siding and the conductor allows smokers to disembark for a break. Although not a smoker, I take advantage and follow them outside, hearing a singing Alder Flycatcher and seeing a Common Loon. By KM 201, the trees are taller and more densely packed with more aspens and interspersed by more lakes and ponds. A climbing 10 AM sun warms the cloudless sky. Slowing at yet another ghost town, we pass a marshy area sprinkled with white puffs on thin green stalks – Cottongrass – and yellow dandelions stretching their composite flowers. An adult Bald Eagle and two ravens ride a thermal without a flap.

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