Churchill's Finest Hour !
by Dave Hawkins
(All these images were taken by Dave using a Kowa TSN823 scope through a Nikon Coolpix990 with EagleEye accessories (click here for more information on digiscoping with EagleEye).
Manitoba Province lies in central Canada. From the rolling prairies of the south, through hardwood and mixed forests, all the way to the arctic tundra along Hudson Bay - Manitoba has long been a well-trod birding destination. Churchill, situated on the Hudson Bay provides birders with the thrill of a true north adventure at one of the most accessible points to the near arctic.
The habitat variety for the whole trip was excellent and we finished with no less than 29 species of wildfowl, 28 shorebirds, 21 Sparrows and 21 Warblers including excellent looks at those skulkers Connecticut and Mourning. On the shores of Lake Manitoba we found Eastern Bluebird, song-flighting Bobolinks, Yellow, Chestnut-sided, Tennessee and Blackpoll Warblers. An early start one morning saw us out birding one of the lakes in Riding Mountain National Park where in the light of the rising sun a Common Loon soon appeared through the dawn mist. We had good looks at Lark Sparrow and Eastern Bluebird and even closer looks at forty or more ticks crawling up my trouser legs! A mind-blowing close encounter with a Chestnut-collared Longspur was one of the highlights of the trip.
Thompson is a mining town in the boreal forest where our first bird of the day was a Merlin carrying prey right in the middle of town! The forests around Thompson were good for one of the sights I had really wanted to see...shorebirds perched in trees! At least 2 Greater Yellowlegs duly obliged, while all the time skeins of Canada Geese moved on northwards in weather more akin to Texas than this far flung northern outpost. The forests gave us good looks at Blackpoll, Yellow-rumped, Cape May Warbler, Bay-breasted, Tennessee and Nashville Warblers to name but six accompanied by the haunting songs of Swainson's and Hermit Thrushes and the non stop whistled song of Ruby-crowned Kinglets. Common Mergansers on the Pisew River showed all the characteristics which make them so different from our own Goosander.
At Churchill our first stop was only four hundred yards from the hotel, the famous Granary Ponds. Those first exciting impressions will stay with me for ever. On the water Red-necked Phalaropes pirouetted, Long-tailed Ducks, American Wigeon and both Greater and Lesser Scaup swam just a few yards away. On the shoreline Stilt Sandpipers, Short-billed Dowitchers, Lesser Yellowlegs, Least Sandpiper and Semi-palmated Plovers fed or roosted. In the surrounding scrub Savannah, White-crowned, and Lincoln's Sparrows sang accompanied by Yellow Warblers and all the time the air was filled with the cries of dive-bombing Arctic Terns. A Killdeer held territory almost under our feet and all this in the first five minutes!
The search for Ross' Gull took initial priority and we made several stops along the Churchill River looking for favoured feeding areas. Little Gull, Fox Sparrow, Surf, Black and White-winged Scoters and gulls were amongst the treats along the river as, initially at least, "Mr. Ross" proved hard to find. The good news was that a Ross's Gull had been seen occasionally since the start of June and we didn't have long to wait before we too were admiring this most beautiful and enigmatic of all the gulls.
Yet just a hundred yards further on was the Churchill River where Surf and White-winged Scoters cavorted and dived, Common Eiders cooed, accompanied by Common Loons, Common Goldeneye and Red-breasted Mergansers. The adjacent shoreline was full of roosting Bonaparte's, Herring and Ring-billed Gulls while further away Parasitic Jaegers could be seen relentlessly harrying the hapless Arctic Terns. On another visit to the Churchill River a first summer Glaucous Gull was added to the gull list and a single Franklin's Gull was evidently way north of its normal habitat. Two Thayer's Gulls also provided opportunity for study.
Spectacular views of Pacific Loon were had at Landing Lake while more distant views of the familiar (to us Brits) Red-throated Loon were had on the river at Churchill. American Bitterns also breed this far north and we had magnificent views one morning shortly after seeing another Churchill speciality, Harris' Sparrow. In the forests we soon had multiple sightings of Hudsonian Godwit and Short-billed Dowitchers on their breeding territories. Several 'fearless' Pine Grosbeaks were seen allowing incredibly close views. A nice red male allowed a good study. Flocks of Common Redpoll were not unusual both around the Granary Ponds and elsewhere around Churchill though the only 2 Hoary's of the trip were much more elusive. A Willow Ptarmigan approached us to within 15 feet in defense of his territory.
Manitoba is a superb birding venue from the flat expansive prairies of the south to the ice fringed shores of Hudson Bay it surely is one of the top birding venues in the world!
The trip was undertaken with the help of John Coons and Louis Bevier of Fieldguides Inc. My sincere thanks to them.
Dave Hawkins, EagleEye
If you want to see more photos by Dave from his trip to Churchill, just select from the list below. Enjoy !
Dave Hawkins, EagleEye