Breeding Birds of Daring Lake: Least Sandpiper and Semipalmated Sandpiper

In the fens of Daring Lake, Least Sandpipers are busy watching their nests.  Breeding season seemed to reach a climax in the middle of this month.  The males could be heard calling to the females while performing aerial displays of short bursts of flight followed by a glide back to the ground.  Now there are eggs to be watching.  In particular there is one Least Sandpiper nest that was built quite close to the boardwalks of our fen research station.  There is a clutch of four eggs nestled snugly in the grass atop a large hummock. A single puff of Cottongrass marks the nest that is otherwise difficult to see.  I would never have found this nest if it wasn’t for the protective parent attempting to distract me and lead me away.  Similar to the “broken wing act” of the Killdeers back home, the Least Sandpiper adult (not sure whether it’s the male and/or female that watches the eggs) attempts to remove me from the nest area by puffing up their feathers and calling while walking in the opposite direction of the nest location, hoping I’ll follow.  One of the sounds made by the Sandpiper during this behaviour sounds quite similar to a sneeze.  I feel quite guilty when this scenario occurs because I know I’m causing the sandpiper a lot of stress.  Now that I know where the nest is located, I try to spend as little time in that area as possible.  It is my goal to live harmoniously with the local wildlife.

The Least Sandpiper looks very similar to the Semipalmated Sandpiper which also calls Daring Lake home during breeding season.  The Least Sandpiper is smaller than the Semipalmated Sandpiper, in fact the Least Sandpiper is the world’s smallest sandpiper, but size relative and difficult to discern when the two birds are not next to each other.  An easier feature to use to ID  is the colour of the birds legs.  The Least Sandpiper has yellow-ish legs, while the Semipalmated Sandpiper has black legs.  As well, the bill of the Semipalmated Sandpiper is slightly shorter and heavier than the Least Sandpiper, and it’s feathers tend to be more greyish and less brown.  Interestingly, the term semipalmated refers to the structure of their feet.  Palmated means webbed, so in the case of the Semipalmated Sandpiper, the feet are partially webbed.  I have not yet been close enough to check their feet out for myself. I have only seen  Semipalmated Sandpiper in the evenings while they are foraging along the beaches of Daring Lake.  It is not uncommon for me to find both the Least Sandpiper and Semipalmated Sandpiper foraging in mixed groups along with the Semipalmated Plover.

The only other bird from the sandpiper family Scolopacidae that I have seen in the area is the Ruddy Turnstone.  The Ruddy Turnstone doesn’t breed in the area, and I was told that my sighting is only the second time they have been seen at Daring Lake in the spring.

Ruddy Turnstone

Ruddy Turnstone

Breeding Birds of Daring Lake: Lapland Longspur

The Lapland Longspur is currently, in my estimate, the most abundant breeding bird at Daring Lake.  A day in Research Valley isn’t complete without the constant song of the Longspur.  Typically, the valley is where I find these birds.  They do not seem very numerous within our camp boundary or on the eskers.   The females I mostly see hopping amongst the hummocks, only flying when I get too close.  On the other hand, the males are typically seen performing their breeding display;  flying up into the air and then gliding back to the ground with their tails fanned and their wings held out in a V position.  While they glide, the males sing their flutey tune that reminds me of either the beeps and whistles of Star Wars’ R2D2, or of an alien space saucer coming in for landing.

I suspect that once the young have left the nest, the adults are quick to leave the region.  I say this because last year I have few recorded observations of any Lapland Longspurs after my early July arrival.  However this could also be a product of my extreme newness to birding last summer, or the terrible weather that hung over us for the first half of July.  I will try to keep good record this year of my daily sightings to track their migration away from Daring to their wintering grounds in southern Canada and the USA.

Where humans and wildlife intersect, there will always be interesting stories of our interactions.  At one of the research sites in Research Valley there are a series of plots that contain cranberry shoots individually marked with twist-ties.  These specific cranberry shoots are being monitored weekly for the timing of specific phenological (life cycle) events.  Recently when we’ve been arriving at these plots to find some of the twist-ties removed from the shoots and casually thrown aside.    Blame has been placed on the Longspurs who perch on out plot posts and watch us cheekily (anthropomorphizing a bit).  Birds against plant science. Though perhaps it is the American Tree Sparrows or the Savannah Sparrows that also occupy the valley who deserve the blame.

Tundra Wildfires

Each morning when I emerge from the sleep tent the weather is a surprise.  The closest weather station to Daring Lake is a good 50 km away at the Ekati Diamond Mine.  The weather predictions for Ekati are sometimes half accurate for Daring Lake, but it’s typical for them to miss big weather events, including the freak thunderstorm on Monday (that was not fun).

Yesterday morning when I rolled out of the sleep tent, I was greeted with conditions I hadn’t yet experienced this year.  Thick smoke coated the air and obscured the distant eskers and cliffs.  Now I should mention for my family’s sake that I am in no imminent danger .  The closest wildfires to Daring Lake are a couple hundred kilometres to the south (wildfire maps: http://www.nwtfire.com/). The winds today were very strong and also happened to be coming from the south.  With them they brought the smoke.  Based on my experience from last summer, I suspect I’ll wake to some smoky conditions at least a couple more times this season.  It smells like a delicious campfire!

In other news, the mosquitoes are back.

 

Smoke1

Smoke settles over the tundra.

Foxes of Daring Lake

One of the greatest things about spending my summers at Daring Lake is the various wildlife I enjoy everyday.   There is no shortage of animals to keep us company up here in the north.  Perhaps one of the sightings I most enjoy belongs to the family of Red Foxes that den on the esker(glacially formed ridges of stratified gravel and sands) that runs behind Research Valley (the large valley where most of our research sites are located).  These foxes have seemingly adapted to the constant invasion of researchers hiking through their territory and successfully raised a litter of kits in 2013.  Hopefully we will see kits again this summer!

So far this June I have made sightings of both the female and male fox coming and going from the den.  The female has a beautiful rusty brown coat, with a black face and a bright white tail-tip.  The male is a lovely mottled orange.  I was quite lucky to come across the male casually watching over his territory the other evening as I was making my way back to camp.  He seemed unmoved by my presence, so I stopped for couple minutes to take a few pictures.

 

Since I first learned of Daring Lake, I have been most excited at the prospect of seeing one of the most secretive and fierce animals in the north, the wolverine!  It didn’t happen for me last year, but I went into this field season with high hopes.  A few days ago I was working at one my research sites when Mr. Fox came jogging past me.  I was surprised that he approached me so closely.  He seemed distracted and not at all fazed be my nearness.  Unfortunately I didn’t have my camera on me, so I watched him for a few minutes before heading back to work.  No more than 5 minutes later I heard a call on my radio from our camp manager that a wolverine had just run by him.  Determined to not miss this opportunity, I ran across the hummocks and heath to find our camp manager and locate the wolverine.   In the distance I could make out a blond creature bounding with ease across the tundra.  But most surprisingly, the wolverine was being pursued closely by the fox!  I never thought my first wolverine sighting would be so dramatic! I watched the pair effortlessly navigate a small wetland before running up the still snowy esker slope and disappear over top of the ridge.  I managed to get a picture of the pair, albeit a blurry one.  The whole affair definitely made my afternoon more exciting.

The chase!

The chase!

Short Stop in Yellowknife

On the way to Daring Lake we have to stop over in Yellowknife to wait for our chartered flight.  Typically we use our time in Yellowknife to make any last minute preparations for our upcoming stay. This year I arrived in the city around 2pm on a Friday and had quite the list of things to accomplish before various stores closed for the evening.  My two travelling companions and I decided that the best way to get things done was to hire a taxi to chauffeur us around from place to place. I can only imagine how our driver felt when he realized he had the honour of accompanying 3 young women on a long-winded shopping trip, but I certainly had fun.

After our shopping journey we were all quite hungry as we were still operating on Ontario time.  It was still a bit early for dinner, so we decided to venture to a lookout called The Rock.  Located at the top of an exposed bedrock outcrop, this particular lookout provides an excellent view of the section of Yellowknife called Oldtown. Dinner consisted of the most deliciously pan-fried Lake Trout at the renowned Bullocks Bistro.

 

On Saturday morning I woke up quite early to go birding before my flight to Daring Lake.  I started my walk near city hall and headed southwest along the path that follows the shore of frame lake.  I was surprised about how many runners were out at 6:30 in the morning.  Yellowknife strikes me as a very active city. I was also surprised at how many new birds I added to my year list for such a short walk.

Finally, after an early breakfast we headed to the airport to catch our flight with Summit Air.  We flew in a Turbo Beaver (hailing from the 1960’s).  In Yellowknife we took off from the paved runways.  At Daring, we landed on the lake ice that was still 5 feet thick (as of May 31st).  The flight was smooth and mostly clear of clouds, so the views were great.  There was a draft near my seat, and despite dressing in many layers I was quite cold.  However, when our pilot noticed that I was shivering, he took off his jacket and handed it back to me.  Quite the gentleman!  After landing safely and unloading a ridiculous amount of gear, I began my Daring Lake adventure!

The Turbo Beaver and our gentleman pilot.

The Turbo Beaver and our gentleman pilot.

Welcome to my blog!

My summer in the Canadian Low Arctic has officially begun. I’m back living at the Daring Lake Tundra Ecosystem Research Station at Daring Lake, NWT, and this summer I’ve decided to record my experiences in a central location for all of my family and friends to read.  Before I post any official update I thought it would be best to add a disclaimer that I will be writing at night most likely after a day of field work and an evening of data processing.  I pre-apologize for any weird spelling/grammar or overly excited posts about birds. Thanks for reading!

Claire

The view from the front of camp. Daring Lake, NWT.

The view from the front of camp. Daring Lake, NWT.