There are few places in the world more magical than the floe edge. Landfast ice meets open ocean under 24-hour sun. Ice chunks drift by freely on one side, frozen in on the other. Narwhal, beluga and bowhead whales, seals, walruses and polar bears congregate there. And so do birds. Thousands of them.
As you stand on the edge of ice, the depth of the ocean beneath you, huge flocks of gaudily coloured eider (king and common) fly by, mere metres away. Thousands of thick-billed murres bob in the waters, lifting and landing before you. Black guillemot delight with their gentle whistles, black and white plumage and the startling scarlet on their feet and in their mouths. A visit of one of the Arctic’s rare birds, the delicate ivory gull, isn’t guaranteed, but it is likely. Other gulls, Thayer’s, glaucous, the beautiful black-legged kittiwake stream by, and if you’re lucky a flock of Sabine’s gulls will visit. Jaegers, geese and migrating shorebirds also enrich the view. They are all there. It is breath-taking.
While all you really need to go birding is a sense of wonder and a curiosity about the natural world, there are some things that make birding easier. The two basic items are a decent pair of binoculars—8X are brighter and easier to hold steady while 10X bring details closer—and a good field guide. Beyond that, a good spotting scope and tripod will allow you to see birds well from a greater distance. A camera, for recording what you see, is nice to have. And it is essential to wear clothing and footwear appropriate for where you are birding.
Most of my own birding takes place right around my home in Arctic Bay, Nunavut. It is graced with a number of habitats in a small space: lake, river, dry tundra, wet tundra, gravel beds and ocean shore. For a brief time, beginning in May and continuing on until September, the area is resplendent with birds that have journeyed here from around the world to breed and raise the next generations of their species, taking advantage of long hours of daylight, abundant insect life, and relatively few predators. Some nest here, some stop to fuel up before going on to their nesting grounds, and some are just passing through.
The journeys those species take to get here are amazing. They come from southern Canada, right down to the very tip of South America. They come from Europe and even Africa. Many of us know stories of long-distance migrants such as the Arctic tern—it travels the length of the globe, from polar region to polar region twice every year—but few know of a tiny songbird called the northern wheatear, weighing only about 25 grams (less than an ounce), that travels every spring from Sub-Saharan Africa, through Europe and Greenland to breed here in the High Arctic. Every fall, with young barely a month old, they make the return journey, across oceans and continents.
Black-legged kittiwake: Black-legged kittiwakes (Rissa tridactyla) is a delicately beautiful small gull, common in many parts of the High Arctic. It breeds in large colonies; the colony on the cliffs of Prince Leopold Island contain some 30,000 pairs. In fact, some 300,000 pairs of seabirds (kittiwake, northern fulmar, thick-billed murre, and black guillemot) combined nest on Prince Leopold. It also spends its winters out to sea, widespread throughout the northern oceans.
Common raven: The raven (Corvus corax) is the most visible of our wintering birds. Other birds such as ptarmigan and the tiny redpoll winter here, but ravens are in constant view, especially around communities. Smart and playful, their black plumage can be a challenge to photograph, but in the right light is colourfully glossy. They are our earliest nesting bird, laying beautiful blue-green eggs in March, when temperatures are still in the -30s C.
Common ringed plover: A small shorebird, the common ringed plover (Charadrius hiaticula) is almost identical to another small plover nesting here, the semipalmated plover. The reliable way to tell the two apart? The common ringed plover has a small bit of webbing between all three front toes, semipalmated only between two of them. The chicks are walking and active shortly after hatching, although the adults still brood them for a few days, like this female, pictured above, is doing: count the legs under her. Common ringed plovers also winter in Europe, whereas our semipalmated plovers head south to the coasts of the southern United States, the Caribbean, and South America.
King eider: The male king eider (Somarteria spectabilis) is a spectacularly showy sea duck, spending little of its time on land except in breeding season. The male's bright orange bill shield makes it instantly recognizable. It is easily found at our floe edge in the spring, in large flocks before forming pairs and dispersing to breed. Winter finds them on open water over a large geographical area, from polynyas to open ocean waters where they dive for molluscs, their primary food. Eider down is highly prized for its insulation qualities, and is collected from nests in communities such as Sanikiluaq.
Lapland longspur: The Lapland longspur (Calcarius lapponicus) is one of our earliest returning birds, a bird of open spaces. It winters in southern Canada and the northern United States, where it feeds in flocks, often with snow buntings, on the edge of winter. It can be quite nondescript until it returns North, where its handsome breeding plumage comes into its own. The male has a beautiful aerial display, climbing to heights and then singing as it parachutes down on fixed wings. Like almost all Arctic birds, it nests on the ground (no trees), in a grass-and feather-lined cup tucked into the earth.
Pacific loon: To my mind, few birds are as handsome as the Pacific loon (Gavia pacifica): its head seems to go from light grey to a shade that no light seems to escape from (depending on the angle), a checker board back, black neck stripes mirrored by more black stripes on its white breast. Add in a black throat, that in the right light appears purple, and a red eye, and you have a bird that just captures attention. Pacific loons are found over a wide swath of the North, from the boreal forest to the northern tip of Baffin Island. They winter along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.
Northern wheatear: Northern wheatears (Oenanthe oenanthe) are an Arctic breeding bird that eschews the common north-south migration. Sexually dimorphic (males and females look different), they breed in the Baffin region, migrate across the Atlantic and then down into Africa where they spend their winters. This makes them one of the most travelled songbirds on the planet. Their nests are often tucked into fissures in rock faces, offering a hiding space and a measure of protection against predators.
Peregrine falcon: One of two High Arctic breeding falcons (the other being the gyrfalcon), peregrine falcons (Falco peregrinus) annually make the journey from South America to their breeding ground here. Their populations are still rising after being decimated by DDT in the 60s, marking them one of the best success stories in wildlife management. They are primarily predators of birds, and this one is enjoying a young gull it brought down in a stream.
Red knot: Red knots (Calidris canutus) are travellers, and their population is declining rapidly. The American race travels from its wintering ground at the southern tip of South America to breed in Canada’s High Arctic. The European race—while it also breeds in the Canadian High Arctic, it winters in Scotland. One banded red knot, known as B95, is also known as the Moon Bird. Banded in 1995, its annual migration of about 32,000 kms, over the past 20 years, is almost equal to a trip to the moon and back.
Red-throated loon: The loon of the High Arctic, every pond seems to have a nesting pair of Red-throated loons (Gavia stellata). Striking with their eponymous bright throat, red eyes, and boldly striped neck, they seem to be everywhere in the summer. After raising their chicks, usually two, they head for the Pacific and Atlantic coasts where they winter off-shore, in more muted colours. Their white-spotted winter plumage give rise to their latin name, stellata, meaning "starred."
Red phalarope: Few birds are as fascinating as the phalaropes. Reversing what we normally think of for sex roles in birds, this female red phalarope (Phalaropus fulicarius) in the foreground is the more brightly coloured of the two sexes. She also is polyandrous, mating with a male and leaving him to tend the eggs in the nest he built, while she finds another, and another.
Only found ashore during the breeding season, red phalaropes spend the vast majority of their lives on the open ocean.
Rough-legged hawk: The rough-legged hawk (Buteo lagopus) is the only hawk to breed in the High Arctic. They feed primarily on lemmings, and so their populations wax and wane with the small rodent. In good lemming years they raise more young. Rough-legged hawks are one of only two North American hawks with feathered tarsus (legs), thought by some to be an adaptation for life in the Arctic. They winter mainly in the United States.
Share your observations: Because the North is so large with so few people, relatively little data gets collected on bird life here. You can help by entering your bird observations on eBird, an online database of bird data from around the world. It is simple to sign up and enter your observations, and it enables scientists to get a better picture of trends within the avian world. To sign up go to ebird.org/content/canada and follow the instructions.