Chapter 4. Churchill
(Shari) Awakened with a jerk and a sway, I peer out my “cubbie” window into the darkness. My gosh! Is that snow I see on the ground? Yup! My clock reads 3 AM, but I cannot get back to sleep. The train really seems to sway from side to side and as soon as I nod off, I am awakened again with a jerk. I wonder if it is the 60-80 kph winds, but when the train moves slowly I feel fine. At 4 AM I put on my shoes, go to the bathroom and then take a book to the dining car. It is already daylight but the sway of the car and the coldness in the room make reading impossible so I return to my warm cubbie. I try to fall asleep, I try to read, I try to look out the window.
(Bert) I’m up at 5 AM and ten minutes later I see the sign for Kellett and mile sign 418, telling me the train traveled 182 miles north since I went to sleep 7 hr. ago. Scenery has changed to tundra that appears as a flat plain when viewed from a distance, yet is an uneven assembly of countless soft mounds and holes, painstakingly difficult to traverse from my previous experiences. Clusters of stunted spruce poke darkly through blankets of pale yellow-green reindeer moss. Dozens of thaw lakes and cave-in lakes, formed by periglacial activity, look like shiny dime to silver dollar coins scattered on a velvet carpet. Tripod poles crisscross to form permafrost stable telegraph poles, now devoid of connecting wires, an artifact of days past. Conductor Gary tells us when he started working the trains 37 yr. ago the telegraph was still in use and the trains were pulled by steam engines.
I see my first Willow Ptarmigan at 5:35 in O’Day and a Great Gray Owl at 6:12, winging away from the train with long wings on a dark body, flying 15 ft. above the ground in a straight line. Four minutes later a caribou escapes the moving train, looking back briefly when it first feels a safe distance away. An hour later a pair of stiffened pink flamingoes humorously propped in the tundra belies the drop in temperature. While I feel warm in the train, wind tilts the stubby trees and pushes scratch marks across the pools of water, sometimes even propelling ripples on the small periglacial lakes.
(Shari) I look at my watch at 4:45, 5:00, 5:15, and finally decide to get up again. Back at the dining car I find Jack, Pam, Trevor and Verna to talk with. Still cold, I go to my bed and sleep an hour before meeting Bert already eating fried eggs, hash browns, sausage and toast in the dining car. I order the same. Shortly before our arrival in Churchill, three couples have already solved the murder mystery. As we get off the train we are greeted with a wintry blast of cold snowy wet and windy air. The wind literally pushes us onto the bus. Lodge owner Wally gives us a short tour of the town before dropping us off at the lodge. The warm wood-burning stove is a welcome sight and we huddle around it until we are issued our room keys. At noon we pile into the bus that we are to use for birding, but something is not right. Three people are left standing. Seems we have a 20-passenger bus for 24 people. We drop the group off at the restaurant and go back to exchange buses with the one we originally reserved.
(Bert) At 9:50 the conductor announces “One mile from Churchill,” but the train takes many minutes to coast into the station. Bundled in oversized jackets and lugging our carry-on bags, we step down from the train and are blasted with strong winds, stinging sleet and freezing temperatures. Welcome to Churchill!
After checking into the lodge and finishing lunch at Gypsy’s I drive our rental bus loaded with eager birders to the granary dock where I especially want to find the migrants that will soon head farther north. We are not disappointed, as dozens of Snow Buntings and hundreds of Lapland Longspurs, feed on spilt grain along the railroad tracks. In the mix are hundreds of Ruddy Turnstones, dressed in fresh harlequin patterns of rusty red, black and white, and as many Sanderlings that have escaped their dull gray winter plumage and brightened their heads and chests with rufous and showing the start of a similar transformation in the back feathering. In the Churchill River, swimming near shore are Harbor Seals, poking whiskered noses above the surface, then somersaulting gray bodies for a surface dive. Angularly headed Common Eiders in black-and-white tuxedoes rest on the gravel shore; grayish backed Arctic Terns skillfully perform flight maneuvers, adjusting speed with long-trailing forked tails as they hunt for fish in the icy waters.
(Shari) We are now ready for our first bird outing in Churchill. It doesn’t take long before Bert spies Lapland Longspurs. Soon people are looking in all directions shouting “What is that? Look at this? Is that a Snow Bunting?” Questions for Bert come faster than he can answer them. Too bad the weather is so crummy that we are confined to the bus. It is hard for those on the right side of the bus to see the birds on the left side. To make matters worse, the windows on the right side steam up. A few hearty souls brave the cold and wind and get out and look at the wonderful flocks of birds pecking in the gravel, but they do not stay out long. Even with long underwear, turtle neck, vest, sweatshirt, boots, hat, and a warm parka with hood and mittens, I am cold. Bert cancels tonight’s bird outing because of the cold and the bad solenoid that makes the bus difficult to start. He gives a talk on gulls instead. Hopefully tomorrow the weather will be better.
(Bert) We stop briefly at the granary ponds, checking out the many ducks. I’m most pleased to see a Greater Yellowlegs, a rare spring migrant to Churchill according to Jehl (2004). Another good find is a single Red Knot. Continuing on to the end of the peninsula at Cape Merry, most stay huddled in the bus while I venture outside, but I find it too cold, too windy and the sleet too unbearable to stay more than a few minutes. Instead, I drive inland to get out of the sleet that frosts the windshield, stopping briefly for Doug to insert a windshield wiper on the driver’s side, an omission he hadn’t noticed when he turned the bus over to me.
I head to Goose Creek Road where we can watch birds from inside the bus. The highly diked gravel road offers us a vantage point for observing Hudsonian Godwit, Baird’s Sandpipers, Black Scoters and, best of all, a single Red Phalarope spinning in circles close to the bus. Almost all of the birders have trouble identifying an American Pipit and even I take a second look at the ochre yellowish bird that looks so different from the winter plumage I see in Texas.
The winds blow fiercely over the confluence of Goose Creek with the Churchill River and most stay in the bus at the boat launch where I find a Hooded Merganser, completing the trio of merganser species we see this afternoon. Returning to the lodge for a bathroom break, my intention is then to chauffeur the group to dinner, but when I turn the ignition key nothing happens. The bus will not start. Shari calls Doug and he brings the smaller bus for me to cart people to dinner.
In the evening I give a presentation on large gull identification, totally bewildering most of the birders, especially when they discover that the most common species, Herring Gull, is a 4-year gull with two major plumage changes per year, many intermediate forms and even several subspecies to further beguile beginning and intermediate birders. Most decide to stick to the easier species and let the tougher ones up to me.
(Bert) If yesterday was winter, today certainly is spring. I drive on a paved road simply called The Highway and connecting Churchill to the airport. We see a Sandhill Crane near the railroad tracks, then turn on Goose Creek Road. Lined on both sides by spruce trees, I notice a bird atop one of them and Chris is quick to call “Northern Shrike,” a good find and a life bird for many in the group.
The habitat changes to wetlands and we find a tardy Snow Goose, most of them having flown farther north by now, and we clean up on ducks, seeing 13 species in the morning including Surf Scoter and Black Scoter. In this good weather we quickly add to our Churchill bird list with Black-bellied Plovers, our first Hudsonian Godwits, flocks of Baird’s Sandpipers and again see two Red Phalaropes. A delightful surprise is a Short-eared Owl that hunts over the marsh and gives the photographers many opportunities for good photos.
When we reach the place where Goose Creek crosses under the road, heading toward the boat launch and the Churchill River, I stop the bus so, through the windows, we can watch the many gulls feeding along the creek. Most of the gulls are Bonaparte’s, but a couple show black underwings and white upperwings, an oddity that makes one think the bird is flying upside down. These are Little Gulls and a life bird for almost everyone. Suddenly, Chris shouts “Ross’s Gull” and Jack H. is on it too. I excitedly ask, “Where?” I’m looking far along the creek where the Little Gulls are flying, but they tell me the Ross’s is close to the bus. The bus’s side mirrors block my view and by the time I move to get around the obstacle the gull is gone. At least five others saw the rare gull, but not me. We exit the bus and try to relocate the gull. Steve thinks he has it in the distance and we align scopes on the area, not seeing it again though. After 10 min. standing in the cold draft moving along the creek, Trevor takes the bus and passengers to the boat launch and bathrooms. Steve and I persist, he for a confirming look and me for a chance to see the only life bird I hope to get on this Manitoba trip. We finally give up and walk toward the bus.
At the marina I’m surprised to see a single Snow Bunting poking around the gravel. The real rarity, however, is a Clay-colored Sparrow I find a few minutes later on Hydro Road while we head toward the pump house. We meet Bonnie heading the opposite direction and she tells me they briefly just saw two Ross’s Gulls on the river beyond where the road ends. I accelerate and soon reach the pump house. In spite of pleasant weather elsewhere, the wind chill along the river is biting and we find a better viewpoint behind a stand of willows. Here we have can look upriver toward a shallow area where the gulls gather to feed. Again, it’s mostly Bonaparte’s, but also a couple Little Gulls and our first view of two to three Sabine’s Gulls. Nevertheless, we find no Ross’s Gull by the time we need to head back to Churchill for lunch!
When I stop the bus at the lodge, I can’t restart it. Shari calls Doug who brings the other bus to transport the people to Gypsy’s for lunch. With no time now to fix the problem properly, Doug strings a copper wire from the solenoid and dangles the free end above the battery. Henceforth, Trevor or Bent or I start the bus by touching the wire to the battery post while the key is left in the on position. The temporary hotwire solution is so successful that it becomes the permanent solution during our Churchill stay and adds comic relief to our adventure with everyone wanting to take a photograph of one of us holding the wire while the bus hood stands open.
Anxious for another crack at the Ross’s Gull, in the afternoon I head back out Goose Creek Road. We stop first at a well-known house with bird feeders and see Boreal Chickadee (unusual), Pine Grosbeak (5+), Red Fox Sparrow (subspecies zaboria) and the ubiquitous White-crowned Sparrows. We see a second year Bald Eagle again, this time along road, not at the pump house. Shorebirds are again in good numbers, including Stilt, Baird’s, Pectoral, Spotted, Sanderling, Short-billed Dowitchers.
At the pump station we find a warm spot from which to view the feeding gulls and this time a Sabine’s Gull is on the shoreline just in front of us, easily positioned for photos. While I’m snapping photos, I see a perched sparrow and take several shots. Though the lens it looks like a Song Sparrow, matching the song I’m hearing and as my photos later confirm. Jehl (2004) considers Song Sparrow to be very rare and local to Hydro Road – where we stand – with only 1-2 heard each year. I also hear and later see White-throated Sparrow and many of us photograph an unusually cooperative Yellow Warbler.
Giving up again on seeing the Ross’s Gull, I head back along Hydro Road and nearing the boat launch I hear Bonnie on my portable 2-way radio. She says we should rush to Cape Merry where she has discovered several drake King Eiders resting on the shoreline near the fort. It’s a long distance from where we are, but I heed the call and reach the point about a half hour later. Even with spotting scopes the opposite side of Churchill River is distant and blurred by heat waves. How did she ever see those eiders? A diligent search turns up nothing, nor do the other birders summoned to the cape find the eiders either.
In the evening we return to Cape Merry, stopping first at the granary where three Lapland Longspurs still linger. Using the peninsula as a guideline, flocks of Canada Geese stretch in long “V’s” over Hudson Bay, following the curvature of Cape Merry point and heading northward. At the mouth of the river now jammed with floating icebergs, Pacific and Red-throated loons are in good numbers, but distant, identifiable by profile. Parasitic Jaegers rest on icebergs. The peaceful evening stands in stark contrast to the arctic winter that threatened this promontory last night.
(Shari) On my wish list for Churchill is to see a beluga whale. In previous years we have been too early and the ice-clogged bay and river made it impossible for the whales to come in. I have heard conflicting reports about whale sightings this year. Some say they are here, some say they are not. Since yesterday was so cold and the river ice-clogged, I assume I am going another year without a whale. The only way I am going to see one I assume is to watch a video about them. Carol and I do just that after eating our continental breakfast of tea, juice, toast, fruit and cinnamon roll. After lunch I join the birders on their hunt for the Ross’s Gull. A few had spotted the gull this morning and I want my shot at it too. No gull, but something better. After hearing reports of King Eiders at Cape Merry we drive to that location. We see not one but two beluga whales cavorting at the mouth of the river. How neat! Just like white beach balls they come up or blow before going down again. My trip has been a success. We return to the lodge for dinner. The food is good but the service is slow and Bert is impatient to get back out birding.
(Shari) Bert picks up our picnic lunch and off we go. I have been watching the weather report and it looks like today is the best bet to take a picnic to Twin Lakes. This is an outing I enjoy and travel along with the group. Before boarding the bus, Verna and I put cards on the window by each seat. One side has the ace to 6 of spades and the other side has the ace to 6 of diamonds. Each couple then picks a card that matches and that is where they sit until noon when we will change again. I am in seat three. The lunches are in seat 6. We do not get very far out of town when we spot a Short-eared Owl. Then another and then another. Some trips we are hard pressed to find one and now I guess these were number 3, 4 and 5. It is becoming a trash bird but Bert says it’s a lifer for me. Paul is great at spotting rock birds and robins and gets the title of robin expert. The most photogenic bird of the day is Willow Ptarmigan and by 9 AM Steve says he has added three birds to his life list and it is okay to go home now.
(Bert) One day of winter, one of spring, today is summer. Shari and others have been monitoring the weather reports and last night they decided that today would be perfect conditions for a day trip to Twin Lakes. And it certainly is ideal!
We are barely out of Churchill when I stop the bus on The Highway near a shallow pond where an Arctic Tern sits on a grass tuft surrounded by water. While cameras are focused on the tern, I notice the marshy area is replete in good birds: a Snow Goose and a Tundra Swan in flight, four Little Gulls feeding over the water, Long-tailed Ducks and a Pacific Loon swimming.
We reach the intersection with Launch Road and stop to scan the erratic jumble of icebergs wedged on Hudson Bay. Black dots and dashes, some moving, contrast with the white ice and I tell the group that we are watching seals sunbathing on the icebergs. I swing my binoculars across the broad expanse and count 250 Bearded Seals. Farther on Launch Road I stop for a single Tundra Swan swimming on a small pond next to the road, a good opportunity to use the bus as a bird blind for close-up photos. We see two more well-separated Short-eared Owls hunting and then a Whimbrel, a Pectoral Sandpiper and a Tree Swallow.
Now we are on the Twin Lakes road, entering the boreal forest, and we see our first Willow Ptarmigan since the train trip and a bird that many have been waiting to see close up. I’m surprised it took us this long as they are usually quite common in the Churchill area. The male with its rufous summer head and white winter body is soon joined by the all brown female who has completed the plumage change. They put on a good show, mostly ignoring our bus parked only a few feet from them.
In a marshland opening in the boreal forest we see a large plover and are quick to suppose it is yet another Black-bellied, but I tell the group to look closer at the completely black undersides and the golden feathers on the upper side, marking this as an American Golden-Plover. This is the area where we hope to find Smith’s Longspur and while we are watching and listening for one, I make note of the many American Tree Sparrows inhabiting the same habitat. We’ve been playing leapfrog with a birding group from the San Francisco area. When they pass us again they ask if we’ve found Smith’s Longspurs yet. I answer negatively and suggest they stop beside us since I’ve found them at this spot before and I’ll try playing a recording. They do and I do and one of their group sights a responsive bird in the distance. For the next 20 min. we see the bird at several perches, always keeping its distance from us, but staying at one spot just long enough for us to align spotting scopes and getting two or three observers to get a good view before it moves on to another perch.
(Shari) We see a golden-plover and wonder about it being male or female. Jack D. says it is a female because it is indecisive about which way to go. He gets a lot of female ribbing about that remark. Again Bert is successful in calling up a Smith’s Longspur and we get good looks through the scope at it perched on numerous small trees. While the group looks at a Spruce Grouse, Verna, Peggy and I walk the road looking for a turnaround for the van. I never find it so Bert drives the van all the way to the lake. We eat our lunch at the shore in the nice warm sunshine. Everything tastes so good, probably because we are very hungry.
(Bert) We enter the Twin Lakes area and get our best looks at Common Redpolls and a surprising number of Bohemian Waxwings that must total 15-20 in the next few hours. We again cross paths with Bonnie and she tells us they just saw a Spruce Grouse ahead and gave directions to the San Francisco group. We stop when we find their parked van and join in the hunt, both groups splitting up and canvassing the wooded area. I find the grouse within a few minutes and signal Chris to the spot, then ask her to keep watch while I gather the rest of our group and then the other group. Eventually all of us are gathered around the grouse, surrounding the poor bird with 35+ binoculars and almost as many cameras. It stays partially hidden in the dark shadows of a willow, turning slowly so we can see the warm brown band on its black fanned tail and catch a glimpse of its bold red eye combs.
When both groups stop for picnic lunches at the dilapidated shack beside one of the lakes, one of the birders in the other group asks me if I’m the one writing the journals about our Manitoba birding. He has been reading them as they have been traveling. Birding is good at the lake and we find many Pine Grosbeaks, begging Gray Jays, at least four Boreal Chickadees and, surprisingly, a pair of Common Loons on the lake.
We move on to the burn area and spread out. While I’m studying a White-winged Crossbill and trying to show Steve and Nancy its location, I hear Jack H. shouting and then Curt repeating the call with great enthusiasm. Jack has found a Black-backed Woodpecker and Curt is attempting to photograph it. Within a minute we coalesce on the spot just as the woodpecker flies to another dead spruce closer to the edge of the burn area. We lock step to the new location and get an eyeful of the special, much sought after, woodpecker. After we have had our fill, the San Francisco group shows up and then Bonnie also. We’ve lost track of where the woodpecker went and give them our best guess of the direction it headed. I don’t think they refound the bird this day.
Still in the Twin Lakes area, I drive the bus down a narrow road, stopping when I come to deep water-filled ruts. I dismount to inspect for pass ability and hear a Blackpoll Warbler. Summoning the others to turn off the bus engine and join me, I follow the song and soon find the bird. Several comment on how I was able to hear the distant song over the roar of the diesel engine, when they cannot even hear the high-pitched call in a silent forest with the bird directly above them. Pam, in high-top rubber boots, wades through the ruts until the water reaches boot tops. The gravel base seems firm, so I decide to drive through the water. Enthusiastic cheers come from the back of the bus when I reach dry land, only to convert to groans of “Oh, no!” when my passengers see the 15-ft. snow drift blocking the road. We disembark and Bailey and Jack start a snowball fight with Nancy and Connie. I find a way to make a Y-turn and we head out of the boreal forest.
(Shari) After lunch Jack spots a rare Black-backed Woodpecker and Curt gratefully announces the location to the rest of us. Celeste is delighted since that was one of her target birds. Bert takes a new road and stops in front of water. Pam goes out in her Wellington boots and confirms the water is not deep but the bottom is soft. After viewing a warbler of some kind, Bert decides to go through the water. I close my eyes until I hear hurrahs from the group that Bert made it through. The hurrahs are not even finished yet when looming ahead is a 20-ft. snow drift blocking the road. Now what do we do? We pile out and look for a turnaround. Steve, Jack H., Nancy, Bailey and Connie have a snowball fight while others bird. With the help of at least six men, Bert moves front and back, back and forth inching his way around a 180º turn. Back through the water and we are on our way home. This trip was supposed to be an easy one with no adventures. At dinner we relieve our experiences of the day and I must say I had fun. This is a fun group to go out with and jokes abound. They don’t even mind that every time to start the bus someone has to open the hood, turn on the key and touch some wire somewhere. Even my Bert has become adept at doing it. Maybe he can be a Tailgunner yet! You think? Bonnie joins the group after dinner but I have had enough bird fun for one day and call it an early night.
(Bert) Back at the Smith’s Longspur marsh, we find another longspur, but this one is a Lapland. And we watch a Northern Harrier being harassed by a Lesser Yellowlegs. A half hour later on Launch Road a truck passes us and immediately thereafter we see a Merlin floundering on the gravel road. Some suspect the Merlin was injured by the truck as it continues to spread its feathers, flop in the dirt and attempt to right itself. I creep closer to the Merlin and it suddenly takes flight, apparently unharmed. Instead of mayhem, the raptor was merely taking a dust bath.
The day is getting long and so is this journal, but I’m not done telling stories. Churchill enjoys long hours of sunlight and offers so many great birding experiences that it’s hard to put an end to birding. And we don’t.
In the early evening Bonnie stops by our lodge and she joins us for birding on Goose Creek Road. I still hope to see the Ross’s Gull, as do the others that have missed it. I drive toward the pump house, stopping half way when we reach the rock cairn marking the spot where others have seen Northern Hawk-Owl. We meet Dave from New York, walking the road, carrying his backpack, binoculars and scope. We’ve seen him before here in Churchill and even gave him a ride a few times, as he is on foot, spending nights outside in a sleeping bag and intends to spend the summer birding the area. While we scan the tops of spruce for a perched owl, Dave shouts from behind us just as the hawk-owl flies in our direction and then disappears. We wait for a few minutes, then my impatience to see the Ross’s Gull kicks in and we continue to road’s end, taking Dave with us. Only a few feeding gulls are on the Churchill River, including a single Little Gull. Bonnie notes that the water level has dropped considerably and tells us that the gull nesting areas are now exposed. The Ross’s Gulls will begin setting up nests and exchange sitting on eggs during which time we have little chance of seeing the birds. Later when the eggs have hatched, the adults will seek out the best fishing spots and it will again be possible to see them. That doesn’t sound good for my chances of seeing a Ross’s Gull during our limited stay. Now we see 48 Tundra Swans migrating along Churchill River and also a Parasitic Jaeger, but no special gulls. We stop once more for the hawk-owl as the sun sets, the Boreal Chorus Frogs usher in the darkness, and winnowing snipes fill in the silence of the night sky. No owl tonight. No Ross’s Gull either.
(Bert) At the granary ponds the Canada Geese are raising a raucous. Even with the bus doors closed to keep out the rain, I can imagine the noise they are making with necks stretched skyward, bills split, bodies vibrating: silent trumpets. Two ravens alternately dance around them and awkwardly flap just above their heads, being careful to avoid the attacks of the Ring-billed Gull from above. Then with a quick dash forward, one of the ravens snatches an egg from a nest and summarily takes flight, escaping to the other side of the marsh. We follow its movement with our binoculars and see a white egg wedged between the raven’s outstretched mandibles. At first we think it must be a stolen goose’s egg, yet we wonder if a raven could carry an egg that large. It must be an egg belonging to the Ring-billed. Hidden in the tall grass, we cannot see the raven eat the egg, yet in a minute it jumps up and heads to the nesting area for a second course. Again, one of the ravens snatches an egg and a few minutes later gets a third as well. The gull seems utterly defenseless against the marauding ravens, even with the vigilante support of the goose flock.
I turn the corner and head to the granary railroad tracks to see if any birds are still gorging on the grain spills. It’s now down to one Snow Bunting, one Lapland Longspur, and a few dozen turnstones. Along the Churchill River, we photograph eiders grayed by overcast skies. Having had winter, spring and summer, today must be a rainy fall day. Trevor suggests I drive to the boat marina. I don’t think I’ve ever taken that road around the granary buildings, as it has been covered by snow on previous years. Littering the gravelly shore are marooned never-sail-again boats and nearer the water a few awaiting the melting of the last icebergs. A forlorn Snow Bunting pokes through the flotsam pushed ashore and a pair of goldeneyes ride the canal connecting granary to river.
Stopping at the lodge for a bathroom break, I hear that Jack H. missed the bus this morning – we start punctually on the minute – and headed out of town along The Highway in search of the Short-eared Owl that hunts over the marshes there. A half mile out of town, I pick up Jack who seems appreciative of escaping the light wind and rain. Another mile down the road, Carol suggests I stop momentarily at an interesting land formation on our left. A landfall severs the tundra, giving us a 4 ft. high cross section of the permafrost. The lowest level is an open water pool, beyond and above which is a layer of ice and topped by a thin layer of dark ground and then a dried grass mat overhanging the break. Continuing our scenic tour, we pass the road to the recycling plant and see an Arctic Hare, a giant compared to the white rabbits it resembles.
Although we’ve seen many ducks thus far in our trip, many birders have been asking for American Black Duck. So when I separate a female Black Duck from a group of Mallards, it is with excitement that our birders add this new species to their lists. The rain dampens enthusiasm for venturing from the bus, so I continue a tour along the Coastal Road, stopping to watch the beautiful Huskies chained to their outdoor homes and eager for attention, and then a stop at the Bear Jail to look at the traps used to capture delinquent Polar Bears in another season.
The rain changes this afternoon’s schedule and most take advantage of the free time to visit the Inuvik artifact museum and the tourist shops. I use the opportunity to review our Churchill bird sightings and determine where we can find the missing species.
The skies clear in late afternoon and some of us head out for birding again in the evening, finding the same ducks at the granary ponds, still a Snow Bunting fortunately in good position and lighting for photographs, and now four Lapland Longspurs at the granary dock. At Cape Merry we find two Parasitic Jaegers, a White-winged Scoter, and three more American Black Ducks this time in flight.
(Shari) It does not seem like the group is birded out yet. I am alone at the lodge today and spend my time reading only to join the group for lunch and dinner and an evening bird trip to Cape Merry. Birder that I am (not!), I forget my binoculars and the group says I have 90 sec. to go back to get them. Out the bus, up the stairs, down the hall, into the room, untangle binocs, out the door, back down the hall, down the stairs and into the bus: 91 sec. according to Jack D. Impressive for an ol’ lady – don’t tell anyone I am huffing and puffing.
I want to see the whales again but have no luck. I notice the bus consistently does not start with the turn of a key. Many are reminded of the old-time cars that had to be cranked. Bert is getting pretty good at turning on the key, opening the hood and touching some wire onto some post to turn over the engine. Bent and Trevor help with that task as well. Unfortunately Bert has no idea where the wire comes from and probably could not transfer the procedure to another vehicle. The weather at the cape is quite nice: no wind and relatively warm. I scan with the scope looking for whales but to no avail. I tell Bert when I see something that looks rare to me and I find him a loon and a Common Eider. Soon Bert is packing up the scope and heading towards the bus. The time went by so quickly, fulfilling the adage, “Time flies when you are having fun.” It is 10 PM when we return to the lodge for the night. I say “night” but it is still light outside and will be until at least midnight.
(Bert) From beyond the horizon, Beluga whales are chirping and whistling when I step outside the lodge at 6:15 AM. Fellow birders aren’t up yet to hear the whales, but most have gathered within the next half hour. Those still in their rooms are summoned when a frightfully loud fire alarm sounds in the hallway, apparently set off by burnt toast rising from the electric toaster. I go back to my room to see Shari and find her fast asleep with ear plugs that effectively muffle more than my snoring.
Overcast skies and threatening rain, but withheld, it is good birding weather. While others are still priming themselves with coffee and toast, Bent and I check out the backyard of the lodge. A sparrow haven, we see Swamp, White-crowned, Savannah, Lincoln’s, House and I hear Nelson’s Sharp-tailed from beyond the small pond.
Everyone now on the bus again, I take a side road to the Churchill River. A handful of Blue Geese mix with whites in a flock of 300 Snow Geese by Jack’s count. We see another pair of American Black Ducks, a species that was absent earlier and now seems to be showing up everywhere we bird.
Next excursion is Landing Lake Road and the Farnsworth loop, where we encounter many Common Redpolls. The search is on now for Hoary Redpoll and it doesn’t take long before Celeste announces seeing one from her bus window. We pile outside to find the bird and soon focus binoculars and scopes on a rather white and unstreaked redpoll with a pale rosy breast. Those using the NGS field guides are a bit perplexed by the faint rosy color, thrown off by the lack of a spring plumage shown in the drawings. Jack gets his copy of Sibley and we see a drawing that matches the bird in our scopes.
Nearby I find an Orange-crowned Warbler, a special request from Connie, and at the same time a Swamp Sparrow is at an adjacent perch. Yet another Black Duck and two Tundra Swans use the same pond where we see four inland Common Eiders. And, we witness a pair of Hudsonian Godwits in the brief act of mating. We reach Landing Lake in fog, just barely diffuse enough to make out Common Goldeneyes, White-winged Scoters and Long-tailed Ducks propelled as ghost ships in and out of the mist. On the way back we see an adult Red-tailed Hawk, a good find for Churchill. In front of the bus we constantly are herding Canada Goose families: the adults flapping wings wildly, trying to distract us from their tiny chicks, and the rounded black-and-yellow fluffs of natal feathers comically running behind their parents as fast as their little legs can rotate, then stumbling, tumbling and rolling in the gravel, only to quickly pick themselves up and continue the chase until they finally realize the grassy roadsides are a safer haven then the open road.
During lunch at Gypsy’s we hear that a Polar Bear was in town this morning, scared away by a firecracker, a sound we heard just as we left town. In afternoon birding along Goose Creek Road we check out the feeders again, getting the usual Pine Grosbeaks and the lone White-throated Sparrow, but the best is a Northern Shrike perched on a high tree across the driveway. I head to the weir, on the lookout for American Bittern which has eluded us thus far. While scanning the willow wetlands I count eight Yellow Warblers prominently perched and suspect numerous others from the singing I hear. I’m slow in walking the dike, the others far ahead of me as they head toward the Churchill River. In the pleasant weather I contemplate taking off my turtleneck pullover just about the moment a fast moving cold front comes in. Instead, I retreat to the bus and pull on my heavy coat and my gloves. While others turn back from the front and head to the bus, I continue on foot. Across the open water we can see the rainstorm discharging its load in acute sheets. I feel the power of the storm and the windchill factor accentuates the temperature drop. Surprisingly, the rain does not reach the weir and I remain dry. So also, a lonely Snow Bunting pecks undisturbed among the rocks reinforcing the weir. I brief stop at the boat launch yields our first Northern Waterthrushes for Churchill.
Trying our luck again for seeing Northern Hawk-Owl, I pull to the side of the creek road and get out of the bus. The group is starting to separate into the aggressive birders and the ones that stay in the bus awaiting news valuable enough to warrant getting out. Chris is game for any birding adventure and Nancy, usually joined by Steve, is in the aggressive group as well, often joined by Connie, Bent, Marie, both Jack’s and Pam. This time it’s only about five of us. We scan the treetops for the hawk-owl and I listen for its call, playing a recording to remind me of the notes and cadence. For minutes nothing happens. Then I hear a faint call in the distance and align my body to the sound. The others hear nothing, but I hear it again faintly and step a few paces in its direction. Now the call is much louder and Steve and Nancy hear it as well. We move yet closer to the sound, but still limited to a tangential movement by the road bordering the impenetrable wetlands. I use my portable radio to call the birders from the bus. No one moves upon information of a bird call, the bait not strong enough to entice the birders from the warmth of the bus. After another ten minutes we still have not located the calling owl. It’s not on the spruce tree tops, so I suggest we must look lower. Hesitantly, Nancy tells me she might have it and explains where she sees the dark spot about 5 ft. from the tree top. One glance through my binoculars tells me she’s found the hawk-owl and I quickly head to the bus to tell the others and to retrieve my spotting scope. Returning with the rushing group, we see the hawk nearby and Bailey points his camera in the direction of a tall spruce immediately beside the road. The owl takes flight again, swoops down and escapes between adjacent trees. When we reach Steve and Nancy we find out the owl is still on its perch and the one we just saw must have been its mate. The first bird does not move and we now have ample time to study it through multiple scopes, a most rewarding find and a fitting climax to another great birding day in Churchill.
(Bert) Where have all the shorebirds gone? None are behind the lodge in an early morning search. Yesterday’s reported White-rumped Sandpipers are not at the granary and the number of Ruddy Turnstones and Sanderlings are dramatically reduced. Two Lapland Longspurs persist but no Snow Buntings.
The dearth of birds and the inclement weather persuades some to abandon the bus and seek the warmth of the lodge. Fortunately for the rest of us when we leave Churchill, the weather improves, raindrops cease and our bus windows clear of condensation. Taking The Highway out of town, we see a Short-eared Owl. The shortage of birdlife changes when we arrive at Bill’s feeders. We see 12 bird species in and around his yard, including a Rusty Blackbird that is easy to photograph. Across the road we see the first American Crow for our Churchill visit.
The lack of shorebirds continues on Goose Creek Road and the weir. However, ducks are still around, in smaller numbers, and we tally 14 species including two Surf Scoters floating at the end of the weir where the windchill across the river is ferocious. Also at the river on a tiny island a flock of 31 Common Mergansers gathers, plus one oddball Mallard. The best find, however, is on the pond held back by the dike. While we’ve surveyed hundreds of scaups and only found Greaters, this one qualifies as Lesser.
In the afternoon, we make a quick stop again at Bill’s place. He said he would add food to the feeders and perhaps that would entice the Harris’s Sparrow to come out of the woods. We still haven’t seen one this trip and today’s visit does not change the story. Connie, after exploring on her own, motions me toward her. I hear a complaining Merlin and I suspect she has found its perch. She did, and we put a scope on the bird. As we continue on Goose Creek Road, Connie, who was hesitant on identifying birds on her own earlier in the trip is now calling them off, correctly identifying Common Goldeneye, American Wigeon, Red-necked Phalarope and others. We encounter yet another Short-eared Owl before we turn back to The Highway. I wonder how many times we have seen Short-eareds on this trip! Two years ago we didn’t see a single one until the last day of the trip.
We head toward Launch Road. Before we get there we encounter a Red Fox running across The Highway. It’s a Silver Fox, black hair tipped with silver, and in its mouth it carries several yellow and black goslings. Perhaps it’s my imagination, but the fox behaves guiltily, casting embarrassed looks in our direction, running and then stopping to look back and finally disappearing to hide evidence of its theft.
After turning onto Launch Road, we see another fox, this one a Cross Fox, on the side of the road. It is intent on routing out some small prey from the bushes and pays us no attention. Then it perks its head in our direction, takes a lateral stance and poses as if it knew we had a half dozen long lens cameras waiting for action.
With little delay I head toward the Golf Balls road, turn toward the Husky camp and stop so that we can photograph the old rusty ship marooned in the ice. Across the bay a 100+ seals spread on the ice. On the way back we encounter yet another Cross Fox, this one carrying an egg in its mouth. It’s a good thing waterfowl lay multiple eggs because we sure have encountered predator threats that reduce that number.
Our last stop along Launch Road is at The Dump, which is no longer a dump. Now it’s a high mound of grass covered dirt surrounded by a thick swatch of large white rocks. Gone is the acrid smoke and putrid smell, but also gone is the hundreds of gulls that included a few rarities each visit. The Sandhill Cranes still populate the hills behind the dump and we see dozens standing in tall grass with just their necks and heads protruding. The day, which started out lousy for birds, turned into a good one after all and we’ve seen about as many species today as the other high count days.
We make one last visit to Cape Merry, tranquil at 5 PM. Sixteen Surf Scoters, a couple of jaegers floating on icebergs, mostly just a beautiful scene, standing at land’s end where it meets Hudson Bay is the perfect climax to a wonderful Churchill visit.
(Shari) I awake with a bad headache and amble down to breakfast. I am surprised how many are not going birding this morning. Maybe I am not surprised. The weather is lousy: rainy and cold. In fact, half of those that go out come back at 10 AM with reports of cold, steamy windows and no birds. I see a group playing Phase 10 near the wood stove. I return to my room, take some aspirin and lay down for a bit. Near noon we all meet at Gypsy’s for lunch with many having the chili special to take the chill out of their bones. This afternoon some walk the town, Verna tries to find the reported polar bear, and I join Bitsi, Benny, Sara Frances and Jack in a game of Phase 10. It is still cold but not rainy. I join the late afternoon group that goes to Cape Merry. I hope to see the polar bear and/or some whales but have no luck.
Dinner, retrieving luggage, and moving to the train station takes us the next two and a half hours. Saying goodbye to Churchill at 8 PM we board the train and find our cubbies before settling into reading, talking or sleeping. Bert and I play a challenging game of 500 with Steve and Nancy. Few people know how to play it and all four of us are delighted to find someone else that knows the game. It seems to be a Wisconsin game and Nancy is from Wisconsin. The women pair off against the men and the women win two out of three fun raucous games. I return to my cubbie at 11:30, shut out the lights at midnight noticing that it is finally dark outside. Soon I am asleep.
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