Breeding Birds of Daring Lake: Herring Gull

The Herring Gull is the only gull that calls Daring Lake home during the breeding season.  I believe there are at least nine pairs of nesting gulls that live within boating distance of the Daring Lake camp. I don’t seem to see Herring Gulls as often as I’d like to in Ottawa, so it has been a treat to observe the local pairs that surround camp.

Typically the gulls of Daring Lake choose to nest on the small islands scattered throughout the lake, or even on large boulders exposed from the water, such as the one pictured below.  Egg laying took place sometime around June 14th,  and the gulls have been busy minding and protecting their nests since.  When not on the nest, the pair nesting on the pictured rock can been seen each evening on the beach of Daring Lake at the mouth of a adjacent stream fishing for invertebrates.

The boulder in the forefront of this image contains the nest of a Daring Lake Herring Gull.

The boulder in the forefront of this image contains the nest of a Daring Lake Herring Gull (the white dot on the boulder is in fact one of the resident gulls).

The gulls that have attempted to nest on Yamba Lake, the larger lake to the north-east of Daring Lake,  have been less successful. As of July 1st the Yamba still had at least 50% ice cover with the only open water around its margins.  When the winds pick up, which happens here quite often, the ice is pushed towards shore and buts up against the boulder islands that the Herring Gulls preferentially choose for nesting.  At least one Yamba Herring Gull nest has been abandoned due to the ice intrusion.

Last week an ornithologist from Yellowknife came to Daring Lake for a short stay.  His main work for the week was to collect eggs from the local Herring Gull nests.  Six eggs were collected from unique nests on Daring Lake.  The eggs are being sent to Environment Canada in Ottawa for a series of contaminant analyses.  I’m always grateful to be included in the work of the other researchers and northern government officials that visit Daring Lake.  The learning opportunities here are amazing!

 

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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.