One of the really great things about living in the Arctic, and loving to watch and photograph birds, is that you can bird in the middle of the night if you so desire. I know you can bird in dark in New York and Newcastle, Weyburn and Walla Walla. But I’m not talking about owling, or listening for rails, or even pointing a microphone skyward to collect flight calls of migrants. I’m talking about full on, need sunglasses, no need for high ISO, birding.
We’re about 3 days past midway through three months of 24 hour sun. Should the desire take me, I can go out a midnight, and watch birds go about their daily business. Which these days involves a frenzy to breed and raise a brood.
Last week Leah and I were playing a couple of hands of cards before bed at 1:30 am when the phone rang. My friend on the end of the line got right to the point: “What does a Kingfisher look like?” As I started describing them he added “Do they look like they’re having a bad hair day and have a pointy beak?” and I started thinking “Holy poop a Kingfisher here? “ He then asked if the male and female were different, and said there was a pair. But when I was explaining the difference between a male and female Kingfisher he asked “Are they the about the size of a loon?” It was then I realized that the birds he saw were mergansers, the waterfowl that have bad hair days. If fact one of the Inuktitut names for a merganser translates loosely to “looks to have hair.”
But it would be an unusual sighting here, the north end of their range would be the far south end of Baffin Island. He told me where he’d found them, and we hung up and I went back to my card game. But apparently I was rather distracted and looking out the window a lot, because Leah finally said “Why don’t you just go, you know you want to.” And so I found myself heading out the door shortly before 2:00 am on a twitch for some mergansers.
Longer story short, I didn’t find them. I discovered that one of the Pacific Loons was back, and the first breeding plumaged Purple SandpiperI’ve seen (having only seen them on fall migration), and Arctic Hare cavorting in their changing coats. I was back home a little after 3:00 am, and before drifting off to sleep I set my alarm for 6:30 so I could head out for a look before work.
Things happen quickly up here. The first migrants arrive in a trickle and then in June everything seems to appear. In the last couple of weeks I’ve seen over 20 new species. Birds arrive, and immediately start the business of breeding, so they can raise a family and be gone before winter arrives. Everywhere I step these days there is a nest, or bird song, or displays. I’m out a couple of times a day to take it all in, and I can’t keep up with the photos.
And this year has been notable for several birds that wouldn’t normally be found here. Birds like American Coots and Long-eared Owls in Arviat, to Bald Eagles in Whale Cove. A few days before my friend found the mergansers another friend contacted me with a photo of a pair of Northern Pintail in Pond Inlet, a breeding record would be a new northerly record. The next day, I was looking at a pair of the same handsome ducks in Arctic Bay, last night there were four in my patch. And now mergansers.
My 7:00 am twitch for the “bad hair day” ducks resulted in no sightings either, but the second Pacific Loon had arrived, and FOY Pectoral Sandpipers. I despaired that they had moved on, but that evening on a drive I saw two birds sneaking along some rocks in the open water at the edge of the lake. There was the pair of Red-breasted Mergansers.They spooked quickly, thwarting my attempt to get a decent photo.
Later that night, at 1:30 am, I finished up my fourth trip to my favourite birding spot here in 24 hours. I added six species to my year list, including a first (for me) observation of Sanderlingsin Nunavut and in breeding colours. It didn’t register in my sleep addled brain what they were, so different from their light plumage I last saw them in.
Its the Spring flood of migrants in full swing, full of life and purposeful frenzy. The birds rarely seem to sleep and, with so many things to see before winters cloak settles once again, there is little time for me to as well.