I thought I’d take you along on an early spring quick birding trip in the high Arctic.
Having already blown a deadline, and disappointed in the half baked post I had prepared, I decided to chuck it all and go look for some birds this evening. So after supper I threw on some outdoor clothes and fired up the snowmobile, telling Leah I’d be back shortly.
My plan was to just go around the corner past Uluksa Point to see the Snow Buntings that had been hanging out there. Yes the Snow Buntings are back, early. They’ve been back for at least a week now, but I’d not seen them yet. Last Monday, after I’d caught the nearby Gyrfalcon pair in flagrante delicto a friend of mine went out to see them. They, of course, were no where to be found, but on the way back he found a flock of Snow Buntings hanging around on some dark shale that was free of snow in the sun. He photographed them, and returned a few more times, finding them in the same area each time.
I, for various reasons including a trip south to Iqaluit with my daughter, hadn’t been out to see them yet. We did get to see some in Iqaluit, but that is 1200 kms south of here. So tonight would mark the first day that I’d get to see Snow Buntings in the High Arctic this year.
This time of the year the Sun gives off a warmth that belies the air temperature. At least in the late morning and afternoon. Although still a long way before setting it had lost some its strength in the afternoon, and the -20 C (-4F) felt colder than the same temperature earlier in the day. It no longer gets dark now, and we are only about a week and a half from the Sun not setting at all. It will remain, circling in the sky, for the next three months.
I headed out down past the half dozen homes left at the edge of town and out onto the sea ice, ducking below the windshield as I accelerated out to the point. Skirting the shore as I neared the spot the Snow Buntings had been seen I crossed and recrossed small tidal cracks, around huge hummocks thrown up by the effects of the tides and ice on shallow boulders.
When I stopped I was just around the corner from town, but I might have been a hundred miles away. As the sound of the engine faded the silence closed in. Nearby in the cliffs a Raven sang (yes sang) and high over head a pair of them soared, wing tip to wing tip. But I searched and searched for the Snow Buntings. In vain.
Now I have no problem writing about the bird not seen, but this after all is 10,000 Birds and the readers expect more. So I restarted the Skidoo and headed further down the coast, along the 600 foot high St. George’s Society Cliffs, to the Gyrfalcon aerie.
One of the falcons was on a whitewashed perch, a little above the aerie, and shortly after the silence returned the other revealed itself by calling, hidden from view in the cave that makes their nest. I sat and watched the one for awhile, taking a few obligatory record shots. Ravens wheeled high above the cliff tops, a half dozen of them, separated in pairs, slicing across the deep blue of the Arctic sky.
After watching the Gyrfalcon for awhile, the silence punctuated only by the occasional moan and crack of the sea ice, stretched by the tide, and the soft low call of the bird at the aerie, I remembered to turn around. I scanned the frozen ocean, after all this is Polar Bear country. And while many people’s image of the bears have been softened by soft drink commercials and Disney films, they are an apex predator. Vigilance keeps one safe here.
When I returned my gaze to the cliffs the Gyrfalcon had moved off its perch. It took some searching to find it again, farther down the cliff. Beyond it a large rock tumbled down the face of the cliff, clacking as it fell, leaving a dust trail backlit by the Sun. This time of year rock falls are frequent, and as the cliffs were falling into shadow the temperature changes would pry more rocks from the cliff. As it neared the bottom it struck a ledge and was flung far out on to the ice, reaching farther than I was parked. I started the machine and turned back for home, strangely disappointed for having to settle for Gyrfalcon when I wanted Snow Buntings.
As I rounded the corner and sped up, home in sight, I felt the stab of cold on my face. I put my hand to my cheek too late, another patch of frost bite to add to the collection. The small area of lost skin would be well worth the exhilaration of being out in the wild of the High Arctic.