Birdwatching at Churchill on Hudson Bay, Manitoba, Canada
Seven places to find loons and other great birds
at Churchill, Manitoba
Published: February 17, 2006
|The female Pacific Loon hunkered down in its island nest. I moved slowly toward the water to get within camera range. As I took pictures, a male loon, dazzling in its black, white, and silky gray breeding plumage, landed in the pond with a splash and swam toward the nest, passing through a channel between its mate and me. I snapped photo after photo as the bird glided by.|
Soon the female stood up and covered its eggs with vegetation, then she slipped off the nest to join the male for a swim. I took the hint and vacated the area without disturbing the pair, satisfied that I had documented from a safe distance my first close encounter with breeding Pacific Loons.
Back home in California, I get to see loons only in drab winter plumage. But now I was on the southwestern coast of Hudson Bay, 833 miles north of Duluth, Minnesota. I was in Churchill, Manitoba.
The town is known far and wide as the polar-bear capital of the world because of the great white beasts that congregate there each October and November. But now a sign on the edge of town advertises birds, beluga whales, and the aurora borealis as well as bears. The white whales swim into the Churchill River to feed and give birth each June, and the Northern Lights are of high interest each winter. Each year, 10,000-12,000 eco-tourists visit, about 400-500 of whom are birders.
Roads radiate from the town, but no highway connects it to the rest of Manitoba. To get there, travelers have to take the train or fly. Churchill demands an investment of time and some expense, but it richly repays birdwatchers for their effort.
A juxtaposition of forest and tundra produces breeding birds decked out in colorful plumage as well as an annual profusion of Arctic species. Add in the marine habitats of the Churchill River and Hudson Bay, and you have some of the best birding in the far north.
Birders have recorded more than 270 species within a 25-mile radius of Churchill. Plus, more than 100 birds - including Parasitic Jaeger, Smith's Longspur, Stilt Sandpiper, and Harris's Sparrow - nest there. "Churchill," says tour guide Bonnie Chartier, author of A Birder's Guide to Churchill (American Birding Association, 1994), "is one of those places where you never know what's going to show up."
I went to Churchill twice last year: once in early June to photograph migrants and again in late June and early July for nesting birds. Here are my seven favorite sites in the area.
|Traveling to Churchill|
By air: Calm Air, (800) 839-2256 or (204) 778-6471, and Kivalliq Air, (877) 855-1500, fly daily from Winnipeg. Round-trip prices start at $900 (Canadian).
By rail: VIA-Rail, (888) 842-7245, makes three trips per week from Winnipeg. Each way takes 36 hours. Round-trip fares start at $321 (Canadian). You can also drive to Thompson, Manitoba, and board the train there (15 hours, $110).
Weather: Pack layers of clothing. A dry day with highs of 70 degrees F may be followed by a snowy, 28-degree day.
Vehicle rentals and lodging: Tamarack Rentals (204-675-2192), Churchill Chamber of Commerce, (888) 389-2327.
What to bring: Waterproof boots, long underwear, gloves, rain gear, insect repellent, and a bug jacket. Mosquitoes can be ferocious after mid-June. Bring a spotting scope.
For more information: A Birder's Guide to Churchill by Bonnie Chartier (American Birding Association, 1994). Out of print, but used copies can be found. I found mine at Churchill's Eskimo Museum.
|1. The Granary Ponds|
A few hundred yards from town lie wetlands with scattered rocks and grassy margins known as the Granary Ponds. The pools are on Kelsey Boulevard, in the shadow of Churchill's most prominent landmarks, the grain elevators. Here during migration, you can study gulls, terns, shorebirds, and waterfowl at close range.
I stopped at the first pond one day and spotted several Arctic Terns within seconds. Scanning, I saw a pair of Long-tailed Ducks diving for food and pairs of Greater Scaup and Green-winged Teal. Seconds later, I noticed two Red-necked Phalaropes that were so close to shore I almost overlooked them. They spun in circles to draw food to the surface and didn't see me slip out of my vehicle. While I photographed them, a pair of Red Phalaropes, birds that nest in the high Arctic and stop in Churchill during their migration, landed nearby.
A constant influx of birds from May to mid-June makes the ponds worth checking daily. On one stop, I saw many species of waterfowl but not a single shorebird. A few days later, I tallied a pair of Hudsonian Godwits, a flock of Short-billed Dowitchers, and Lesser Yellowlegs.
Sabine's, Little, Bonaparte's, and Thayer's Gulls appear here, as does Ross's Gull, the most sought-after bird in Churchill. Its small size, white face, black neck ring, and pink-hued breast distinguish it from other gulls. Most sightings are near the Churchill River docks and riverfront or at the Granary Ponds.
|2. Churchill River Docks |
The road near the last granary pond leads to privately owned docks and the grain elevators. The docks and riverfront offer great perches to look out over the Churchill River for waterfowl, gulls, and terns. In early June, I sat for hours watching hundreds if not thousands of Common Eider, Red-breasted Merganser, Long-tailed Duck, Herring, Ring-billed, and Bonaparte's Gulls, Arctic Tern, and Pacific and Red-throated Loons. The waterfowl and gulls were feeding and loafing among icebergs that had floated into the river at high tide.
This was also where I found one of Churchill's rarer species: a male King Eider, spectacular with its orange frontal shield, pink bill, and powder-blue crown. Seeing it was a highlight of my trip. For safety reasons, the docks are closed to birders when shipping operations start up in June.
|3. Cape Merry|
The rocky point known as Cape Merry overlooks the mouth of the Churchill River northwest of town. Birders here look for many of the species found at the docks, as well as Black and Surf Scoter and possibly White-winged Scoter, Common Goldeneye, Parasitic Jaeger, and if they're lucky, King Eider, Harlequin Duck (close to the shoreline rocks), Long-tailed Jaeger, and Common Tern.
|4. Akudlik Marsh |
The marsh at the intersection of the Highway (Kelsey Boulevard) and Goose Creek Road, southeast of town, earned a place in ornithological history when Ross's Gulls nested there in 1980, making it the first North American breeding site for the species. The gulls no longer breed at Akudlik, but young Ross's are spotted regularly, suggesting that they continue to nest near Churchill, though no one knows where. Little Gull and Rock Wren have also bred here.
Akudlik Marsh, the site of an abandoned village, is closed to vehicles, but birdwatchers are welcome to walk along its dikes in search of Pacific Loon, Semipalmated Plover, Red-necked Phalarope, Arctic Tern, and shorebirds. A rare-bird-alert sign is located at Akudlik.
|5. Goose Creek and Hydro Roads |
Goose Creek Road leads south from the village of Akudlik and in just 10 miles passes through tundra, willow thickets, wetlands, rivers, and spruce forest. The habitats make it an exceptional birding area. I traveled the road several times during my visits and found a tremendous change in only three weeks. Patches of snow along the road in early June were gone late in the month. The area was good for waterfowl, Lapland Longspur, Snow Bunting, Lesser Yellowlegs, and Least and Stilt Sandpipers. By late June, I saw fewer waterfowl but more shorebirds, including Hudsonian Godwit, Short-billed Dowitcher, Dunlin, and Semipalmated Sandpiper. A Ruff was seen here once, so visiting birdwatchers always keep their eyes open for the unexpected.
A few homes along the road have bird feeders. One is located about 2.5 miles from Akudlik, just across from Kennedy Park Road. The yard is open to birders, and a box is provided for donations to maintain the feeders. Harris's Sparrow, Common Redpoll, Pine Grosbeak, White-crowned Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, and Gray Jay are usually in residence.
I learned to look for Blackpoll, Orange-crowned, Yellow-rumped, and Yellow Warblers anywhere I saw willows, and to watch for Swamp Sparrow, Rusty Blackbird, Northern Waterthrush, and American Bittern in marshes mixed with willows. Stands of black spruce provided the best location to see Spruce Grouse, Northern Flicker, American Three-toed Woodpecker, Bohemian Waxwing, and White-winged Crossbill.
Goose Creek Road eventually jogs to the left, becomes Hydro Road, and ends at a pumping station. The marshes along the road are almost always productive for waterfowl and shorebirds. Birders here also search for Yellow Rail, Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow, Little Gull, American Tree Sparrow, Northern Shrike, Short-eared Owl, and Northern Harrier.
|6. Launch Road|
Habitats along Launch Road, which runs east of town along the coast of Hudson Bay, include wetlands, lakes, expanses of tundra, and stunted spruce forest. Rocky ridges offer excellent views of lakes, ponds, and the coastline.
About eight miles from town, I turned onto bumpy Bird Cove Road and drove to the shoreline to look for Ruddy Turnstone, Stilt Sandpiper, Black-bellied Plover, and Sanderling. I came upon a pair of Lesser Snow Geese that momentarily stopped feeding, then ignored me. I also came to appreciate the power of Hudson Bay storms when I saw the wreck of the Ithica, a ship that ran aground in 1961 at the mouth of Bird Cove.
Farther east on Launch Road, I looked for Smith's Longspur and Hoary Redpoll. Pacific Loon nests here, as do geese and ducks. I spotted a Willow Ptarmigan sitting on top of a stunted spruce tree. As I approached, the bird held its ground and started calling. Soon I realized it was defending territory; a cryptically colored female was feeding nearby. Just as I was returning to my vehicle, a second male showed up, and in a flash the first bird flew from its perch and chased the intruder away. I also found a Bonaparte's Gull nesting in a spruce tree and saw Whimbrel, Tundra Swan, and nesting American Golden- and Semipalmated Plovers.
|7. Twin Lakes Road|
Launch Road ends at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre. Formerly a rocket-launching site, it is now home base for scientists studying birds, bears, archeology, plants, and much more. Twin Lakes Road leads south from the centre and passes through 11 miles of tundra, wetlands, and spruce forest. Birdwatchers who drive it look first for Willow Ptarmigan and Rough-legged Hawk and watch for Northern Hawk Owl and various warblers as they continue on. Pullouts along the road are often good for Smith's Longspur. Spruce Grouse, Boreal Chickadee, Bohemian Waxwing, and Gray Jay can be found on trails in adjacent forests. Goldeneye, mergansers, and scoters nest on lakes near the road's end.
Gary Kramer is a writer and photographer. His previous articles for Birder's World include profiles of Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge (December 1990) and Yellowstone National Park (August 1994).
|The trouble with Snow Geese|
Based partly on 30 years of research at La Perouse Bay in Wapusk National Park 35 miles east of Churchill, scientists reported in the mid-1990s that Snow Geese were damaging their Arctic nesting habitat.
In recent years, up to 40,000 pairs of Snow Geese have nested at La Perouse Bay, a significant increase from the 2,000 pairs that nested in 1970. The geese have eaten so much vegetation that the area is becoming saline.
In healthy ecosystems, Snow Geese lead their gosling to feeding areas up to two miles from their nest sites, often closer. At La Perouse Bay, goslings have been observed more than 25 miles from their nests. The movements result in gosling mortality, lower gosling growth rates, small adult body size, and ultimately reduced reproductive potential.
Other birds already have suffered due to the destruction of habitat. The Yellow Rail was once common near the bay but is no longer present. Short-billed Dowitcher, Hudsonian Godwit, Whimbrel, and some waterfowl are significantly less abundant.
Conservationists say that reducing the goose population should save the habitat and its birds. Increased goose hunting in winter is the most efficient method of control. Longer seasons, larger or no bag limits, and the use of electronic calls have more than doubled the annual goose harvest since 1999, giving hope for the ecosystem. - Gary Kramer