There are certain challenges to putting on a Christmas Bird Count in the High Arctic. Most people would think that the big challenge is the cold, and while it can make things challenging, it really doesn’t distinguish our counts from, say those in Saskatchewan or Manitoba, or many of the northern States.
I’ve often maintained that it is no colder up here than the Prairies, its just colder longer. For the most part our weather (which typically hovers around -30 this time of year) is fairly benign. We’re used to the cold, we know how to dress for it. People have lived up here for an awful long time and think nothing about being out of doors this time of year.
My in-laws, for example, can be found out on the land most weekends, spending the weekend in a tent, hunting or fishing. No, its not the cold.
The biggest challenge up here is the light. We have just passed the Solstice, which means it will be about 6 weeks before the Sun peaks above the horizon. And while we get a varying amount of twilight every day, this time of year it isn’t much. So we don’t get a lot of light to find, and count our birds.
I try and schedule our CBC for the last Sunday of the count period, this year falling on the 2nd of January. That maximizes the amount of light we get, but even then we’ll have about two hours to find as many birds and species as we can.
Historically, that would be one species. The Raven (Corvus corax) is by far our most common winter bird. In fact, up until a couple of years ago, when I found some Rock Ptarmigan during the count it was the only species of bird ever counted on a CBC north of 70 degrees. I estimate our winter population of Ravens here to be in the neighbourhood of three hundred individuals. Our peak count has been about half of that.
This year, we are hoping to break that two species record. There are Rock Ptarmigan around, somewhere. And this year has been a spectacularly good one for redpolls. Hoary Redpolls can be found wintering up here, and with some luck I’ll come across at least one of the small flocks.
The other record that we’re poised to break is for the number participants. For the first year in the most northerly of active counts it might not be only me. It has been lonely counting birds in the dark.
PS. Seeing as I’m writing this in the wee hours of the 25th of December when I should be wrapping gifts, I’d like to wish you all a Merry Christmas. Or best wishes for however you celebrate this season and time of year. I wish you all Peace in the New Year, surrounded by those you love, or wrapped in their memories. And crippling views of every bird that finds its way into your patch.