Chapter 4. Churchill
(Bert) The first light of morning wakes me. Though frequently roused from deep sleep by the sway of the train and the constant changes in acceleration and deceleration for frost heaves, I have slept well. I dress quickly and head to the observation car. A pink spot glows on a gray horizon, the first indication of the sun. The time is 4:28 AM. Cobwebs of fog tether runt Black Spruce that poke like dark spikes above a soft pale green blanket of reindeer moss. Silver mirrors reflect the gray skies in a plethora of near circular pothole lakes, enlarged through time from cascading permafrost. Tamaracks are still leafless here where spring is just beginning to make an appearance. A few scattered snow drifts have resisted the long sunlit hours by hiding in shaded crevices and beneath tree shadows. I sit alone in the observation car and although I hear the clicked-clack of steel wheels rolling over rail gaps, the world outside appears silent and still. At 5 AM I see my first bird, a Tree Swallow flying alone.
Dale shows up with a cup of coffee. I ask if the dining room is open. He says no, but the coffee pot was hot. We see very little and I try moving to the front of the train, then return for breakfast. We hear that the train will not arrive at its scheduled 8 AM time, but will probably run four to five hours late, due to the poor condition of the tracks. That turns out to be good news for us birders. By 7 AM the birding picks up and soon we are seeing as many birds as we would if we were Churchill rolling slowly along at 10-15 mph. In fact, we see many birds I have not seen from the train on prior trips: White-winged Scoter, Black Scoter, Hooded Merganser (a rarity this far north), Rough-legged Hawk, Pectoral Sandpiper, Red-necked Phalarope, Parasitic Jaeger, Lapland Longspur, and even a flying Smith’s Longspur identified by head and tail markings. More Rusty Blackbirds are a good sighting and all the birders are excited to see our first Willow Ptarmigans. The three males are almost completely white, in winter plumage, and only their heads are red, the start of their summer plumage.
I remember our last arrival in Churchill. Even with my many layers of sweaters and jackets and high-topped hiking shoes, I was chilled by the blasts of strong winds, stinging sleet and freezing temperatures. This afternoon I am wearing light SAS shoes, a turtle-neck shirt and light fleece wool jacket, plenty warm for the mild weather.
Our rental bus is waiting at the station and after checking into the hotel and lunch at Gypsy’s we begin our birding at the granary ponds. So many new birds confront us that questions come faster than I can answer them. I call a halt and systematically identify the birds right to left, pausing to point out the identification features, especially for Arctic Tern and Greater Scaup. Nearer the tall granary buildings, accessed by the railroad on one side and the Churchill River on another, we see flocks of brightly colored Ruddy Turnstones, Lapland Longspurs and Snow Buntings. Among the ice floe on the river are dozens of Common Eiders. The first few hours of birding Churchill never fails to be exciting.
We circle the granary, moving toward the iced-in boat dock and I stop the bus when Kay says she sees a fox. What a fantastic show we watch! The adult Red Fox stands outside the entrance of a hillside den and four kits emerge, skip and trot to a snow drift and then playfully romp in the snow, energetically tumbling and pouncing. Even after 15 min. it is hard to pull ourselves away from the entertainment.
From the high ground at Cape Merry we get our best view of Hudson Bay and the Churchill River. Much of the ice in the bay has melted, but remnant icebergs float to shore and in and out of the river with the tides. We see many more Common Eiders, scoters and a couple of Parasitic Jaegers. Best of all is a Long-tailed Jaeger patrolling the juncture of river and bay.
(Shari) Oh my, this is too early. According to the 5-day weather forecast, today is the best day of the five we are here. So we choose it as our picnic day at Twin Lakes. That means another early day for me. I am up at 6 AM, but I am not a happy camper. I try to be civil and quietly say good morning to all as we meet in the dining room for breakfast. Luckily, I am able to sit and eat alone at a table while everyone is busy eating or getting e-mail on their computers. When on the bus, Bert tells all that it is best to leave me alone for an hour or two. Unfortunately, Fred from Gypsy’s does not hear that. He wants to ride out to Twin Lakes with us and jog the 27 miles back home. Wow! He must be a morning person as he talks and talks and shows me pictures on his phone of his new rental house. Luckily, Dale helps me out and engages him in some conversation too. I just cannot get with it today. I try to nap a bit at each of the birding stops. I eat my granola bar. I eat my apple. Getting up at 6, makes me hungry too.
(Bert) Weather reports indicate today will be the best weather of the week, so we’ve decided to make the long trip to Twin Lakes – not long in miles (about 40), but in travel time (about 2 hr.). I stop at the start of Launch Road to point out the 100+ black dots on the floating ice. With binoculars we see sleeping Ringed Seals, stretched out on the ice: black dots on white ice.
On one of dozens of small ponds along Launch Road I spot a pair of Pacific Loons, stop the engine and open the bus door. We can hear the loons emit a moaning call like babies, a sound not remotely like Common Loons. I judge these as the prettiest of loons, with smooth gray heads that seem to reflect light and feathers so dense the surface appears as shiny metal.
Next stop is Tundra Swans, a flock of five floating gracefully on a mirrored pond. In answer to a question, I point out the ways to separate this species from Trumpeter. We can see the erect neck posture and, through his spotting scope, Doug can make out the yellow spot and the outline of the black bill against the white head. We study a shorebird in even greater detail, quickly narrow our choices to Baird’s or White-rumped Sandpiper and settle on Baird’s because of its white sides.
Now on Twin Lakes Road, the terrain has changed from treeless tundra and barren boulders to thin trees and spongy sphagnum. A thrush catches my eye and Dale and I note the pale face and obvious white eye ring, naming it a Swainson’s Thrush. Later when the two of us study another thrush, I am convinced it is Gray-cheeked Thrush and recant our first identification. While bouncing across the rolling reindeer moss, trying to retain balance, circumventing the short spruce and leafless tamarack, I hear both Blackpoll Warbler and American Tree Sparrow. Most have not seen the sparrow before and some have not gotten a good look at the warbler, so we persist in finding them. I imitate the sparrow, whistling a mimic of what I hear it sing. To my surprise, it responds and comes closer to investigate, adjusting its position until we see all of its field marks, including the black spot on its breast. I keep moving in the direction of the warbler and soon we have it in view too as it continues to sing its high pitched song that is beyond the hearing range of some humans, especially in later years.
The landscape transitions to a vast marsh, pots of water filling gaps between short mounds of grasses. Here we find a good set of birds: feeding Hudsonian Godwits, a single Dunlin clearly showing its black belly, a flying Whimbrel that eludes us when it lands but fortunately takes flight again after our 15 min. vigil. The godwit is an attractively large bird with a stout two-tone probing bill. Nesting in Arctic and near Arctic it is a long distance migrant, flying non-stop for 5000 mi. from here to southern Argentina. While studying the godwit we see a few smaller sparrows flit in and out of the grasses. I notice one is not the common White-crowned and Savannahs and get my scope focused on this specialty. It is the most sought-after bird in this habitat and I am delighted to have found one. We enjoy a good study of a Smith’s Longspur that has not quite come into its colorful breeding plumage.
(Shari) Bert missed the turn to our lunch stop and the group is starved too, so we eat right where we are parked in the bus. I pass out the sandwiches, fruit, and drink and tell the group that cookies come later. We stopped at the snow bank that also stopped us in our tracks four years ago. I remember having a snowball fight at this location. Today we eat before Bert turns the bus around and we bounce back the way we came, scrapping the sides of the bus with tree branches on the narrow road. We stop to look for grouse, finding none. We stop for woodpeckers, finding none. We stop for Smith’s Longspur, success. I spot some unusual bird that they tell me is a good find, some kind of godwit. Bert does not remember how in past years we got to the lunch stop and at 3 PM, I tell him I am done exploring and want him to turn the bus around. He walks down the road and lo and behold it is the abandoned cottage where we usually eat lunch.
(Bert) After a couple of hours on pot-holed, rolling and washboard gravel roads we have reached Twin Lakes, a boreal forest surrounding two large lakes. A Pine Grosbeak flies past just as we exit the bus. Fortunately, we see a few perched ones later, as this is an attractive orange (female) or red (male) bird. The lakes are frozen over, becoming slush at the edges and a few pools of open water. A pair of Surf Scoters is diving repeatedly in one of the pools near shore and, hiding behind a cluster of spruce, I take close-up photos. Overhead, in a straight line, a flock of a dozen male Common Mergansers cross the lake.
I continue driving on narrow gravel roads until a snowdrift blocks the road at the same spot we were forced to stop a previous year. We break for lunch, then continue birding, mostly uneventfully, missing Spruce Grouse, Black-backed Woodpecker and Bohemian Waxwing, specialties of the locality. Although we have seen some good birds, these are notable misses. We could not even find a Willow Ptarmigan today.
(Shari) On the way back to Churchill, I ask if anyone got lifers today. Many faces light up as they tell me about the new birds they saw. On Sundays, my favorite restaurant in town is closed so that means we have to go to another. The alternative restaurant has changed in the last four years and the dining room is cozy. The food is adequate but again we are hung up on the service. It takes way too long to get our bill and pay. Good thing the caravan group is such good company. You would think by now that we would have nothing to talk about, but as I mentioned before, this group is a social one. We talk and talk as long-time friends.
(Bert) Trying something a bit different, last night I suggested a sunrise start for birding this morning and now, at 3:30 AM, I am surprised that Dale, Beverly, Kay and Georgia are ready and waiting when I enter the lodge lobby. Although I’ve tried some early starts on past caravans, I think this beats the record by a half hour. The day is already light enough to drive without headlights, but I put the bus lights on anyway, just for safety, though we meet no one else at this cock-crowing hour.
Dozens of Canada Geese are wandering the fields and closer ones take flight, creating a wake of gray wings and white-banded black tails as we pass by. We turn on to Goose Creek Road and the first bird of interest is a dowitcher close enough to see feather details. Seeking an answer to yesterday’s question about another dowitcher sighting, we continue the debate on Short-billed versus Long-billed. The answer focuses on the color of the light edging of the dark back feathers, cream versus white, and we agree on Short-billed.
After turning into the short dead end road through Goose Creek Subdivision, we stop and walk in the area where a Churchill-rare Brown Thrasher had been reported a few days ago. It is still only about 4 AM when Georgia spots a Spruce Grouse at eye level in a roadside spruce. As is typical, the grouse is well camouflaged in the dark spruce. Looking with binoculars between the boughs, I can make out the black head and a dark eye watching me in dim predawn light. Only its bright red eyebrow gives away its location.
(Shari) I hear the door close about 3:30 AM and I turn over to go back to sleep. The five musketeers (Kay, Georgia, Bev, Dale and Bert) are doing an early morning bird trip. I hear the door open again at 8:30 and if I want to get breakfast, I had better get dressed. The birders leave again until noon and I have a nice leisurely morning catching up on e-mails in the warm lobby in front of the fire.
(Bert) After breakfast, we start birding again at 8 AM with a larger group. A deeply rust-colored Sandhill Crane is in between the railroad rails, feeding on spilt grain, probably dropped from the filled railcars transporting Manitoba and Saskatchewan grain to the ocean going ships that port at Churchill and travel through Hudson Bay when the ice disappears in July and August.
We park at Akudlik Lake and hike around a pond bordering the lake. An information sign tells us about nesting Pacific Loons and, in fact, we see five of them on the lake. Two Parasitic Jaegers pass overhead as light rain wets my glasses before we finish the loop at the bus. Thus far, the bus has been an improvement over the one we used on our last Churchill trip. Yes, the odometer and speedometer do not operate. And, yes, outside lights have lost their amber covers and the battery cabinet has lost its door and the headlight switch has fallen from its socket, so that I have to reach behind the dash to turn it off. Also, the running lights won’t extinguish no matter how much I fidget with the switch. I have trouble deciding which gear I am in because the gear shift for the automatic transmission is misaligned and I thought I was in D for drive, but was actually in 2. Starting the engine necessitates P or N, but it is hard to judge where exactly they are. Yet, it has been better than last trip when we had to jumpstart it every time by crossing two wires. Or so it was until now. I cannot start the bus engine. I swing the shift handle as far left as I can, expecting that must be Park. Won’t start. I try Neutral. Won’t start. I open and close the doors, suspecting a safety lock. Won’t start. I let it rest and try again. Won’t start. Just then I notice a city worker finishing up a visit to the pump station and I quickly hustle to his truck before he leaves. He obliges my request for a ride into Churchill and he knows where the owner of the rental bus company lives. I find the owner still in his pajamas and his assistant driving up in her car. She will bring another bus after she fills the fuel tank. A half hour later we are back to birding, traveling in a newer though smaller bus that apparently has everything in working order. We will see.
Stopping at the metal dump, we search for a rare gull reported there. We only find the more common Ring-billed and Herring Gulls, including one with a drooping and injured wing. While chasing down the identity of the gull as it walks quickly away I see a Killdeer which turns out to be the only one we find in Churchill.
At Goose Creek Subdivision, a curiosity at the feeders at Bill’s house is a
sparrow with a white head. By its jizz and the features of its body I recognize
the species, but other birders are puzzled. Bill tells others that the
White-crowned Sparrow has visited several years and becomes progressively
leucistic with each molt. I get great close-up photos of a pair of Lapland
Longspurs at a spot where we are trying, unsuccessfully, to locate a singing Fox
Sparrow. As we leave the area, most of the group is already on the bus when
Dale, Bev and Marilyn turn to join them and just at that moment the Fox Sparrow
appears. I get a good look at the red form of this sparrow, but only Dale turns
around fast enough to get a glimpse of the bird, our only sighting of this
In the afternoon we visit the weir in search of Little Gulls. It is beginning to seem that at each search for a rarity, we miss first prize, but get other worthwhile consolation prizes. This time, after hiking the weir to its end at Churchill River, we watch a Northern River Otter catch and swallow a fish. In the background, some 35 Common Mergansers float with six Tundra Swans and a Bufflehead, our third sighting of this presumably rare to uncommon duck this far north. The next treat is two American Bitterns flying over the river before diving into willows and disappearing from sight.
We continue to the end of the road and the pump house, again looking for rare gulls following the Churchill River, but we settle for a small flock of Common Goldeneyes instead. On the return we get our best view of a Rusty Blackbird which we have seen a number of times already, but only at a distance. Surveys conducted this past winter in Texas raise concerns for the survival of this species, so it has been rewarding to have seen this now on several occasions.
(Shari) I go out in the afternoon to uneventful birding with more Canada Geese found than I have ever seen in a lifetime. They seem to be overrunning the place. I am amazed to see no ice on the river at all. Other years we see ice and sometimes the river is still frozen but this year, the ice is gone, the snow is gone and it is really warm. I do not even wear a jacket this afternoon, let alone the long underwear I brought in my suitcase.
We go to my favorite restaurant for dinner but are disappointed with the service. Poor Don is so hungry and after 50 min. I hear grumbles. Don never grumbles. He is such an easy going guy so I know he must be famished. I get up to buy him a sausage roll to tide him over. I complain to the owner’s son about the time it is taking. Finally after another 25 minutes, the food starts to appear. I think I may look for an alternative eating establishment but I do not have high hopes of finding one. One of the restaurants that we have visited in the past is closed so unless another is open that leaves us with only two choices. I heard that business is off 40% due to the poor economy worldwide. I am last to pay my bill and I again express my disappointment in the service to the owners. They offer some excuses and just shrug their shoulders. The group is large, it is the supper hour, there were a lot of take-outs, etc. But other years we had larger groups during the supper hour. Something is off this year. Maybe they are trying to do with less help since business is off 40%. Doug and Kay wait to walk me back to the lodge. One on either side of me, they say they want to protect me from the polar bears that may come along. They must have done a good job, since we see no polar bears on our walk back.
(Bert) The early birders are out of the lodge for a 5 AM start. Our principal targets now are the uncommon to rare gulls, a few of which have been reported by other birders, but always to seem to be hit and miss sightings in that a gull floating away on drifting ice is hardly reliable for a second sighting a half day later. I drive to Cape Merry. Common Eiders are indeed common this early morning and we see 40-50 flying, floating or passengers on drifting ice. Surprisingly, even a Common Raven is an iceberg passenger. Our best sighting is a silent flock of thirty Brant overhead, flying in a disjointed string across the river to Eskimo Point and historic Fort Churchill.
We check the Churchill River from the granary viewpoint and find a first-year and a third-year Herring Gull, but none more unusual. The granary ponds are inundated with over a hundred Canada Geese. The one surprise is a single fly-by European Starling, the first we’ve seen in Churchill.
Back at the lodge for a quick break, I set up my spotting scope and align it across the highway to a transmission tower where a family of Common Ravens has taken residency. The adults find perches on adjacent supporting rods. Four mostly grown juveniles show pink gaps as they tussle in the oversized nest and stretch their gray and black feathered wings. It won’t be long before these anxious young birds take their first flight.
I’ve billed our mid-morning excursion as visiting popular sites on the outskirts of Churchill and our first stop is the Husky camp. The attractive dogs, heavily furred in a variety of luxurious colors, pose for us. Tethered separately by long chains, each dog has a large circular territory. One dog, an attack dog should a bear present trouble, is unchained. Following the road past the Husky camp, I spot a single American Coot on a small pond. Hardly noteworthy farther south, it is a good find here in Churchill.
Next on our tour is the Polar Bear Jail, a large metal building housing troublesome bears especially during winter. Almost a thousand Polar Bears live in the western Hudson Bay area. Their chief food source is Ringed Seal, which they hunt from the ice from mid-November to the end of July. In July when the ice breaks up, the bears are forced to come to shore. Pregnant females go to dens in early October and give birth to twin cubs in November, returning to the ice in late February. The others roam the land in search of alternate food sources. Troublemakers in residential areas of Churchill are captured in large tubular traps by being attracted to bait, triggering the latch, and slamming the door behind them. Then they are housed in the Polar Bear Jail until they can be released again when the sea ice freezes over.
At “Miss Piggy” we see the large silvered cargo plane rest on boulders, right where it crash landed decades ago after attempting to return to the airport when engine trouble was detected. It looks damaged, yet the crew walked away unharmed. Next, it is off to the dump, or what used to be the open pit dump and a good location for gulls. Now it is cleaned up and grassed over. But just beyond that spot is a granary dump: hills of spent hulls and remnant seeds cleaned from the grain storage facilities. The food source attracts 100+ Canada Geese, 6 Snow Geese, 200+ Sandhill Cranes, 7 Horned Larks, 30 Snow Buntings, 50-75 Lapland Longspurs and a Savannah Sparrow.
(Shari) Doug thinks it is too cold to go geocaching but when I call him “Baby” he slams the door and says “Okay, I will go.” He comes outside, bundled from head to toe as if it was 50º below zero and joins John and me on our quest for geocaches in Churchill. Richard considered joining us, but he is not a true SOB (spouse-of-birder) anymore, since he left on the bus with the birders. Pat, our Tailgunner of that year, and I kicked him out of the group years ago. I thought we would give him a second chance, but he blew it again. So only the three of us walk the short distance to the train station and start looking among the rocks. Neither John nor I have a working iPhone to locate precisely the cache but we are in the neighborhood. We look for a good while and all of a sudden I see Doug talking to a nice looking gentleman. Soon he comes walking towards us chanting that he had a feeling about where the treasure is hidden. Like Johnny Carson’s Karnack, he “FEELS” that it is close by and after noodling around in the rocks, we find the plastic box with the code word written on it. Reciting the code word to the parks attendant gets us a small prize of our choice. I take a yo-yo for my grandson. It starts to rain, cutting our outing short and we head back to the lodge to await the return of the birders. They have had a good day and Bev makes a toast to their latest bird. All raise wine glasses aloft and say “Here, here”. Service at the restaurant is as I remember from other years and our food comes out promptly.
(Bert) For our 3 PM birding excursion we drive and walk Landing Lake Road. A target bird, especially for Dale, is Harris’s Sparrow. Not easy to find, I had hoped we would see one at residential feeders, but so far have not. So, I am delighted–as is Dale–when we see one in a nearby tree. A bit farther down the road I hear one sing and I point out to the others how its song seems like an abbreviated version of White-throated Sparrow’s song.
The afternoon continues with interesting observations of nature: a Hudsonian Godwit aerially combats an Arctic Tern that invaded its nesting territory, an American Bittern catches and swallows a small frog, and a Tundra Swan makes a graceful landing on Landing Lake. The best sighting of the day, however, is reserved for last. I drive back to town via the Metal Dump and we see the smoke rising from where they piled wood scraps yesterday. The smoke attracts gulls and just as we begin to scan for rarities, a birder in another car says it includes a Thayer’s Gull. I quickly spot the rarity and get everyone’s attention of the smaller, more delicate, gull. I take lots of photos of this cooperative bird with the muddy feet and as we are celebrating the find, Marilyn points out that the wingtips don’t match her book. Yes, of course, she is right. They are too white for Thayer’s. This is an Iceland Gull, an equally good find. So, we still celebrate the last bird of the day.
(Bert) Bev and I reviewed our Churchill bird list last night and I indicated where we might find the ones that have eluded us so far. Besides gulls that are best found nearer to Churchill, most of the others are at the boreal forest surrounding Twin Lakes. At 6:30 AM we check out Launch Road, but find nothing we haven’t seen before. On Twin Lakes Road we finally see our first Willow Ptarmigans of Churchill. Delightfully, it is a pair, the female so brown its plumage dissolves in the similar-colored grasses. The male is the first of four we see today. Where were they hiding on previous days?
We reach Twin Lakes under heavily overcast skies. From the bus window I hear and see nothing stirring, so I suggest we get out and walk. I relocate a prime spot to find Spruce Grouse–since most of the group was not with us when we found the one two days ago–and we split up to canvas the spruce woods, keeping just barely in sight of one another. After 15 min. and no one announcing they have located a grouse, I yell loudly for everyone to return to the road. I reach the road, but find no one else. For another 15 or 20 min., I pace up and down the road, not seeing anyone, nor hearing anyone when I whistle or shout. How will the headlines read? Birding guide loses group in dense spruce forest – Search party organized! I double back on the road one more time and then I see all of them walking together. They thought I was the one that was lost.
Meanwhile, other than one robin, I have not heard a single bird and since I identify and locate most birds by call, I have not seen a single bird either. The gray skies descend like a shroud, muffling the sounds of nature and steeling critters away into dark shadows. I suggest we walk to the abandoned cottage. On the lake we see a pair of Common Loons and over one bay a squadron of Arctic Terns churn airspace, executing sharp turns and spiraling dives. Still seeking forest birds–where are the Bohemian Waxwings and the Boreal Chickadees?–I lead the group on another forest road. Finally, we find a family of Gray Jays, the juveniles easily identified by their all dark steel blue feathers, lacking the whiter head and breast of the parents.
On our hike out of the boreal forest I stop to talk to the bird guide from VENT, mentioning our lack of success. He also noticed the absence of singing birds and, later in the day, when we meet up again, he says they couldn’t find the waxwings and other forest birds either, although they got the Spruce Grouse in the same patch we missed it. Then again, they missed our Ptarmigan sightings. I guess that is the hit and miss of birding.
We make one more stop before leaving Twin Lakes Road and finally find a warbler, a Yellow-rumped. Richard and Marilyn, alone, get a quick view of a scampering, sleek weasel which, after examining the mammal book, turns out to be an Ermine.
When we slowly drive along the Tundra Buggy road, I photograph a Sandhill Crane appearing eerily in tendrils of wispy fog. At a pond flooding the road we get amazingly close views of a Horned Grebe gathering plant material for its nest. Although clearly the poorest birding day at Churchill, we did get a few species worth writing home about.
(Shari) Now this is the Churchill I remember: cold, damp, cold, damp. Doug, Barbara and Don join the SOB club today. We walk in the cold and damp air to the hospital, which I was told served a great inexpensive lunch. My informant was correct as the spaghetti, chicken Caesar wrap and soup are all delicious. Arriving before the crowds, we finish our meal before all the tables and chairs are taken by the locals. This must be the place to eat. Since the museum does not open until 1 PM, we visit the Anglican Church. There is supposed to be a geocache inside the church someplace but I do not find it since I do not have an accurate compass to pinpoint the location. I will have to try again tomorrow. Maybe John will be able to find it. I drop my group of three off at the museum and since I have seen the displays numerous times, I walk back alone to the lodge. Our group leaves early to dinner but tonight we have a long wait again. I think we are being ignored for locals or returning groups as we see people again being served who came in later than we did. My Arctic Char is wonderful as is Bert’s Greek salad. At least tonight we are not as starved as we were the other night and we have great conversations going.
(Bert) We are on the hunt again for gulls in what must be our tenth visit to
the Churchill River at the granary stop. Finally, success! Near the railroad
tracks a nearly all-white second-year Glaucous Gull gives us standing and flying
views. On the river, while watching Harbor Seals, I notice another unusual gull
resting on an ice floe. Dale retrieves his spotting scope while I take photos
and write field notes. Later, when comparing my photos with the gull book, I
deduce the bird is a late first-winter Kumlein’s Iceland Gull.
We park at a different viewpoint of the granary ponds, a spot where a mound of spilt grain attracts two dozen Lapland Longspurs, and scan the 300+ geese and ducks, finding 10 species, including an impressive number of 30 Northern Pintails.
(Shari) Bert brings the bus back at 7 and we all eat breakfast before heading to Cape Merry for our last search for whales. Before reaching the point, however, Bert spots a gull, and of course we have to stop and discuss just what kind of gull it is. It is eating something bloody and Bert and Kay brave the cold morning to see just what it is eating. When he reaches the spot, Bert picks up a duck carcass. Kay tells me not to let him touch me until he washes his hands. NO KIDDING! Less than a mile later, we stop again to determine the species of goose that is sitting on the far shore. We stop at the fox den but no cute foxes playing today.
We finally get to the point and are greeted by two rangers on Polar Bear patrol. One of them has great stories to tell and we are fascinated by his knowledge of the bears and the Beluga whales. I have come to the point to geocache and walk some distance from the group. All of a sudden I hear shouting and arms waving for me to come back. Now the group must be seeing something as all binoculars are pointed in the same direction. As I hurry back, I think to myself that they had better not be calling me back to look at another gull. They know better and have called me for the four Beluga whales playing in the river. This is a great view of them and they look like white porpoises swimming up the shore towards the frozen mouth of the bay. I have never gotten such a good look as I do today. I do not get a cache as the rangers tell me the caches have not been put out yet for the summer season but I am a happy camper as I got to see the Belugas. Neat-O! As Georgia mentions, you might see them at Seaworld but nothing is like seeing them in the wild. She’s got that right. Dale tells us of the time last summer he got to swim with them here in Churchill. Now that must have been something.
(Bert) After breakfast we again return to the granary area and this time find what at first appears to be another Glaucous Gull with wingtips almost the same pale white coloring as wings. It is dining on a much mutilated carcass of a Common Eider, which I hold up by its bill for those on the bus to see. Kay, who accompanied me to the kill, returns to the bus with a warning–in a voice that somehow combines sweetness with sternness–to Shari not to let me touch her with hands that held the decaying eider. After studying my gull photos, I decide it is a heavily worn late first-winter Herring Gull. Gull identification is not easy.
We stop at another pond and I am surprised to see yet another pair of Snow Geese, which usually have continued northward by now. This is an odd couple, a snow-white Snow Goose and a very dark blue, all blue, Blue Goose. Across the road, the Red Fox we saw a few days ago is not in sight near its den and the snow drift where the kits romped has melted.
We continue to the tip of Cape Merry, hoping to see Belugas now that the river is no longer blocked with ice. Fortunately, a park ranger is present and relates the natural history of the Belugas. He is the first to spot six Belugas swimming below the surface, with just a pale outline to pinpoint their location, strongly resembling elongated torpedoes. They surface in undulating arches, smooth almost-white backs lacking dorsal fins. Their bulbous heads splash a wake, their tails remain submerged, so it is just the rise and fall of a moving arch that we use to follow their path.
In the afternoon we bird again along Goose Creek Road, finding good numbers but all the same species as prior days. Georgia, who has borne the brunt of continuous jokes about her perchance for finding Red-tailed Hawks, finds one again–our first for Churchill–and we suspect this will be our last new bird for Churchill as the train will be leaving shortly. Being species #90, it has a nice round-number sound to it.
Our luggage is packed and ready to go, we’ve done a final bird count and now have a bit of time to spare because the train departure has been delayed. I suggest we drive out to Cape Merry one more time and everyone, except Shari, piles into the bus. At the overlook the air is pleasantly calm and the river is smooth as silk. The sun is approaching the western horizon, causing a warm soft glow on ice and a brilliant reflectance on water. Floating rafts of ice move in both directions, an apparent contradiction, yet explainable as the river is flowing north at the same time the tide is pushing south. Viewed through binoculars, I feel dizzy watching the intersection of currents. Harbor Seals frolic on their way to the bay. Beluga whales again make an appearance. This time we notice the much larger and browner females compared to the white males, and we watch many more whales as they swim toward Hudson Bay. A few times I see their wedge-shaped tails, but mostly it is a constant humping action showing finless backs. I wish Shari was here to see their performance.
(Shari) We all go back to our rooms for a nap before our last dinner in Churchill. Bert takes everyone but me to the point for a last look around. I really missed it as they come back telling me of the Belugas that they all saw. The train is late and we diddle around until 8:45 before heading to the station. We know the drill by now and all pack ourselves into the small rooms. Bert sees a Short-eared Owl as we put our things away and yells to tell the others. Unfortunately, no one heard him and they missed it. Soon I head to bed. It seems this train is rocking and rolling much more than it did on the way north. Sometimes I am sure we are going to tip right over on our side.
(Bert) Not to be late for the train, I hustle back, load luggage and take the first group to the train station. Rhonda comes with another vehicle and together we take the rest of the group to the station. There will be another delay in departure, giving us enough time to see the historical exhibits at the train station. Soon we are on board and into our private compartments. It is now 9:30 PM, several hours beyond the original scheduled departure time. While waiting for the train to leave the station, I see a Short-eared Owl hunting over the grassy fields. Shari sees it too and we call to the others and then head to the viewing chairs where many are gathered. All of the others missed the owl, being too engrossed in conversation and not watching outside. It is species #91 for our Churchill trip.
While the train moves slowly south from Churchill, I see almost no birds: just a few Canada Geese. The sunset is a watercolor painting in shades of red, penetrated by dark opaque outlines of spruce arrowheads. I watch until it is too dark to see anything but shadows and then retire to our sleeping compartment. Shari is already soundly asleep.