Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Interview with Clare Kines of Arctic Bay, Nunavut

I live in Maine. It's cold. Clare Kines lives in Arctic Bay, Nunavut, Canada. It's very cold. Arctic Bay makes Maine look like Ecuador. But, Arctic Bay's got birds.

And you can go to Clare Kines on your way to find them. In addition to being the author of The House blog, Clare and his wife run a bed and breakfast from which you can launch tours into the bird-laced tundra.

Clare and I talked about life above the Arctic Circle, the wonderful assortment of birds to be found near Arctic Bay and, sadly, Clare's first-hand account of global warming.

Map of Nunavut

On the map above, look at the northwest tip of Baffin Island for the town of Arctic Bay.

Where exactly are you located, and how long have you been leading birding tours there?

I live at the north end of Baffin Island, in Canada's High Arctic, in a beautiful little hamlet called Arctic Bay. It's about 700 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle at 73 degrees north. Truly one of the magical places in the world. I've lived up here for going on 9 years. I'm a retired member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and I was posted here for the last four years of my service. I met my wife here, and love is as good a reason as any to settle in a place.

I don't really lead bird tours per se. Leah and I own and operate Kiggavik Bed and Breakfast. I'm "the bird guy" around town and so I end up facilitating people who are interested in birds or birding. Originally we intended on offering some package tours to the Floe Edge, and a Wildflower/Cultural tour but the B&B has taken more of our energies than we anticipated. There haven't been a lot of visitors up here specifically seeking birds but when there are, we provide advice, point them in the right directions or take them to good locations, and make arrangements for guides to the Floe Edge in the right season. In general those that have come up here for birds have been professional cinematographers or photographers.

What birds are those pros looking for?

It depends. Some people come up looking for Arctic Gulls, some just general Arctic fauna/scenery.

Arctic gulls like Sabine's and Arctic Terns? What others can be seen up there?

Sorry, havn't had my coffee yet. IVORY GULLS not Arctic Gulls.

Ha I see. Sorry, I forgot that you're a couple hours behind the US east coast. How easy is it to find Ivory Gulls on the north of Baffin Island?

Ivory Gulls are a pretty rare bird, but they can usually be found in the spring on the ice. The numbers vary from year to year. Three springs ago a group that spent a lot of time on the sea ice reported seeing many birds, and had as many as 12 at their camp at once. The following year they only saw three the entire season. They are a bird of the sea ice though and I've only ever seen one from land, about a week after a film crew trying to find them left after failing to. They are a very curious bird and will usually come check you out when you are out on the land.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that their numbers are dropping. About fifteen years ago people would see them often in town here at Arctic Bay and at the dump. That never happens now. A search for a known large nesting colony on the Brodeur Penisula about five years ago failed to find any birds.

Do most of the birders come looking for nesters in the spring/summer? What other unusual birds can be found in the north of Baffin Island?

I don't think most are looking for nesters. There is quite a range of Arctic species up here. Depending on the location and the time of year. Out at the Floe Edge one could typically encounter, Ivory Gulls, Black-legged Kittiwakes, Common Eider, King Eider, three species of Jaeger with Pomerine Jaegers being less common, Brant Geese, Glaucous Gulls, Iceland Gulls (I've yet to see a Sabine's Gull here but they are a possibility as they nest not too far from here near Pond Inlet), Thayers Gulls, Guillmots and Thick-billed Murres. Shorebirds include Red Knot.

In Sirmilik National Park on the cliffs north of here there is a very large nesting colony of Northern Fulmer. Closer to home there are the small passerines such as Snow Bunting, Lapland Longspur, Horned Lark, American Pipet, and Northern Wheatear. We of course have Raven up here. We see both Gyrfalcon and Peregrine Falcons here, both nest in the vicinity of Arctic Bay. Rough-legged Hawks can also be found here.

Hmm what else? Red-throated Loon are common here, Yellow-billed Loons farther south, near the base of Admiralty Inlet. Long-Tailed Ducks are common. Ringed Plover are pretty easy to find. Vagrants have included Barn Swallows and White-throated Sparrows. Farther afield one can find Snowy Owls. One can also see Snow Geese and Sandhill Cranes here.

Ivory Gull

Wow I read that list and my mouth starts to water! It is easy to travel to see birds? Is there permanent snow and ice?

No, it just seems that way at times... eight months of winter and four months of poor snowmobiling. We generally lose our snow late May, early June. Sea ice break up starts around mid-july until the first week of August, although it has started happening sooner of late. We can expect the snow to arrive and stay anywhere from the end of August to the beginning of October. Freeze up of the ocean begins around mid-October, although again the last couple of seasons its been happening later and later.

Travel to birds all depends on species and time of year. Earlier trips to the floe edge are easier as there are less and smaller cracks to cross. We have about 40 kms of roads here and there are great spots for some species that have very easy access.

Some species, like Yellow-billed Loon would require travel by boat, or late season travelling by snowmobile which can be very adventurous.

So you've noticed later freezes and earlier thaws. Am I correct in assuming that these are related to global warming? How, in your estimation, has this warming already effected birds in your area?

I'm assuming that the later freezes and earlier thaws are related to climate change. I suppose that the biggest effect that climate change has been with Ivory Gulls. At least some scientists blame part of their decline to a reduction in multiyear ice, something they are closely allied to.

We've seen some unusual birds, but that happens everywhere, and it would be folly to say that that is the effect of climate change. I mean it might be, but it could just be another lost bird. Elsewhere in Nunavut, such as Baker Lake, they are seeing species, such as magpies, that they've not seen before.

Is the warming having an effect on other non-birding aspects of life Arctic Bay?

Well, people are having to wait longer to get out on the ice for hunting and travel, and leave the ice earlier in the spring. Elders say that they can no longer predict what the ice is going to do. There is the risk of the loss of permafrost, and the resultant shifting of the land, along with the houses on it (That hasn't occurred here, but it has in the western arctic I understand).

And if the loss of ice cover continues, the Northwest Passage becomes a viable trade route, which will have a profound effect on the north.

If I were to come on a birding trip to your neck of the woods, what would a day in the field look like?

That would depend greatly on what time of the year it was and what the target species were. A trip in late April, early May, for instance, would probably be a trip by snowmobile about 10 kms from Arctic Bay to 600 foot vertical red cliffs (The St. George Society Cliffs to look for Gyrfalcon, then a further snowmobile ride out into Admiralty Inlet in the hopes of finding Ivory Gulls. It would be cold, but bright, as we would have 24 hour light (24 hour sun arrives around the 7th of May). There wouldn't be a lot of species found at that time of the year. Later on, say late June early July, a trip to the Floe Edge would have to be an overnight trip, it would be an extremely long tiring day trip. Depending on conditions and how far out the Floe Edge would be it would involve a 6-8 hour snowmobile/komatik ride to the Floe Edge. Along the way we'd stop at the nesting colony of Northern Fulmars (something in the neighbourhood of 30,000 to 50,000 pairs). We'd spend time along the Floe Edge, common species would be King Eider, Black-legged Kittiwakes, Glaucous Gulls, Raven, Thick-billed Murres, Black Guillemots, Ivory Gulls (not common but likely), amongst others. Hopefully there would also be Polar Bear and Narwhal.

In mid July land trips would involve driving to some prime areas, (there is an abundance of wildflowers then), nesting Red-throated Loons, Ringed Plover, the smaller passerines. A day hike out to pre-contact Inuit dwellings and above the cliffs would net most of the small passerines, probably Rough-legged Hawk and others. ΓΈ


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