I had great intentions this weekend to take one for the team. Really I did.
My intent for this post was to head out for a little High Arctic mid-winter birding, and write about the difficulties of it, but I thought better of it. The Canadian Arctic for much of this winter has seen unprecedented warm temperatures. On the South Baffin, some 1100 kms south of me, the sea ice is only now freezing up. It has rained in Iqaluit this winter in both December and January. Heck, we’ve had freezing drizzle here in December. The nearest place with climate data from me, Pond Inlet, saw a December that averaged 4 degrees warmer than normal.
But this week saw our temperatures return to normal. This past weekend the temperature here hung around -40C (or for that matter -40F). Now I’m found of telling people that we are no colder here than the Canadian Prairies, we’re just colder longer. Normally we can expect temperatures in the mid -20s to the -30s from November through to March. And normally we only see about a week of temps in the -40s. In fact I don’t even think we made it to -40 last winter. Surprisingly our coldest month comes with the return of the Sun.
The Sun is about two weeks away from re-emerging from below the horizon, but this weekend was COLD! It probably felt colder than other years, simply because we aren’t used to it yet. As Saturday and Sunday slipped away, I looked out at the ice fog and convinced myself that a snowmobile trip that likely wouldn’t garner any other species but the one I am guaranteed of seeing in town just wasn’t going to happen. Even to give me a break from the house renovations I’m in the midst of.
So instead I thought I’d give you a taste of the bird that is my constant companion, Winter and Summer. The bird that is always there for me, and has grown into my favourite bird. The Raven (Corvus corax).
It is hard to imagine an Arctic Bird more resilient than the Raven. They not only live year round up here, they thrive. Mid winter I estimate there are around 300 in the immediate area, and my counts regularly find well over 200. They are more far flung once early spring arrives. Human habitation concentrates them. Our scraps and garbage make it easier for them to survive.
But they do live up here all year long despite us, and they have for a long time. Out away from town they’d spend much of their winter following Polar Bears or Wolves, and cleaning up their kills for them. They are a most resourceful bird.
The are dark, sleek, beautiful birds. Their feathers at time seem to suck light into them like some Black Hole, and at other times reflect that light, breaking it into a myriad of colours and hues. I love to watch them fly. They seem to make solid the wind, playing, weaving, and soaring in it like we do the ground. It is child’s play for them to hang motionless in the strongest blizzard, hanging in one small box of space, until tiring of that spot they’ll peel away and soar high into the air, riding the wind to another place.
They are the smartest amongst the smartest family of birds, the Corvids. Problem solvers, everyone who has lived amongst them has marveled, or cursed, their resourcefulness at thwarting our keeping tasty morsels away from them. I have watched one of them dance in front of a chained up dog, the dog straining at its leash. While it keeps the dogs attention more Ravens descend on the bowl of dog food. I marveled, when I lived in Thompson Manitoba, over two Ravens bouncing up and down on the lid of my neighbour’s plastic garbage bin, until they popped the catches on it. The lid now off, they eagerly ripped into the bags, scattering the non edible garbage to the wind as they dined.
Their voices intrigue me. Every now and then, at least once a year. I’ll hear them utter a sound that I’ve not heard before, something exotic to mix with the croaks, the falling water, the boinks, and other sounds. They are marvelous creatures, and I can see them anytime I want, just by stepping out my front door. No snowmobile ride in -40 necessary.