TRAVELLING NATURALIST TRIP REPORT
Friday 18 - Monday 28 October 2002
Jamie McMillan , Dorset
Jim Irwin, Riding Mountain
David Hatch, Churchill
After our afternoon flight from Toronto to Winnipeg we met Jim Irwin in fading light. Winnipeg was overcast with flakes of snow falling. After an hour or so we drove through Portage Le Prairie where Crescent Lakes held a variety of ducks and amazing flights of Canada Geese roosting in their thousands and we quickly added Lesser Scaup, Merganser and American Wigeon and Redhead to our list. Then onto a 'diner' for a quick meal; then we dozed in the darkness arriving at Riding Mountain Lodge at 11.00 pm: for some of us, 25 hours after leaving home. There had been heavy snowfall recently and we drove some of the guests to the outlying cottage and cabin through a winter wonderland of sparkling snow.
Up for an eight o' clock breakfast and there were many birds at the feeder including fabulous Blue Jays. Black-capped Chickadees were common and we also had Hairy Woodpecker, but perhaps the best bird of all was Evening Grosbeak, an absolutely stunning finch; a flock of twenty of these were in the trees around.
After a lovely breakfast we were off with Jim into the park stopping at Beaver lodges to check for the last signs of these animals before they headed down below the ice for hibernation. Then to the Bison enclosure. Here we had fantastic views of them all round our vehicles. One of them even came to lick our back window for us! We watched these huge beasts of the Prairie with their steaming breaths and patches of snow in their nostrils as they foraged amongst the dead vegetation.
Just a little further along the road Jim stopped - a bear! We had splendid views of this brown youngster as it ate hawthorn berries, standing up to pull down branches. What a start to our stay!
We then headed along to Lake Audy where it was windy and cold. However there were plenty of Redheads and we had our first view of Bald Eagle. The Grey Jays here were very tame and Jim attracted them down to feed from the hand; then along to the dam stopping to inspect both Wolf and Coyote footprints. Here there were many wildfowl including Tundra Swan, Hooded Merganser, Goosander and Red-necked Grebe. We headed back to the ranch for an excellent lunch.
The ranch overlooks a lake and it was still as yet unfrozen. Here there were big flocks of Lesser Scaup but also Bufflehead and Ring-necked Duck. In the afternoon we headed around to the other side of the lake. There were more Bufflehead including excellent males and an adult Bald Eagle perched in a conifer. During the afternoon we headed round more lakes gleaming with sparkling snow in the sunshine. There were plenty more ducks and our first Muskrats just coming out on the edge of the ice. Late in the afternoon dark clouds built up and there was snow, and we drove through the forest looking at Beaver lodges, eventually getting superb views of two of these animals carrying logs into their dam and diving. In the evening we headed back looking for Moose, sadly without success, and arrived back at the lodge in the dark.
We were up at six in a very clear starry crisp morning. The thermometer in the vehicle read minus 16 º C ! As we drove over to the main lodge huge ice crystals glistened from the trees and bushes around.
After breakfast we visited Lake Clear, where in the mist and the purple light of dawn the incredibly evocative calls of Common Loons echoed across the lake. We then headed up towards Lake Moon for another try for Moose. It was a superb sunrise with yellow light and we drove up and down the road peering into the trees, but sadly Moose-less.
Moon Lake was pretty well frozen and some Common Loons were swimming round in a small patch of water in the middle of the ice. The sunshine was well out for our mid-morning potter along Boreal Walk in snowy conditions. There were not many birds here but it was nice to see the trails in the sunshine. We saw a good set of Bear tracks and Red Squirrels called in the trees around. Back at the car park a small Woodpecker flew across. It was a rare Black-backed Woodpecker giving us brief but good views in one of the spruces. Then we headed onto Grayling Lake where there were several more ducks and Greater Yellowlegs, also a superb Bald Eagle perched in a tall black spruce. On the road back we stopped and Jim led us to a disused Bear den under a fall tree.
Just after lunch Jamie went for a walk down the track away from the lodge and the dogs followed, flushing a Ruffed Grouse, seen well by several of the group as we gathered after lunch. Near the lodge in a corner of a paddock languished an old yellow bus; it turned out to be a 'Bear Blind', so wrapped up warm we went in and watched. Red Squirrels were constantly feeding and bickering outside. We had Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers close in on the trees in front of us. It got colder and we passed around more blankets as the afternoon turned to evening. Was that sound a Bear, or was it Ian snoring? We continued to wait.
At about 6.20 Jim whispered "Bear, don't move" and a splendid Black Bear lumbered into view inspecting the logs for the peanut butter Jim had smeared earlier. We had views down to a few feet of this magnificent three-year old female. She stayed until we left over half an hour later.
Just after it arrived the bear suddenly looked round, and a movement in the scrub turned out to be a Coyote, timidly running back and forth, staring at the Bear with its ear's pricked. We headed back in a state of great excitement for a super roast dinner and Jim's "wow" factor slides still to come.
It was much milder and overcast this morning and we had cooked breakfast and bade our farewells having taken polaroid snaps to go into Jim and Candy's visitor's book. We had been made fabulously welcome at their superb home, a wonderful introduction to Canadian hospitality. Back to Moon Lake and unfortunately no Moose again but at Clear Lake there were many Loons and Goosander. We had a nice walk here along the lakeshore seeing Chipping Sparrow.
We were heading back to Winnipeg via the east end of the park, Whirlpool Creek and the Boreal forest in that area. Suddenly Jim stopped the vehicle, and a Coyote was walking along the road towards us giving us amazing views of this normally shy predator before it headed into the forest and vanished. A little further on we stopped again when Jim saw a Great Grey Owl flying across the road. Sadly we had no luck in locating this magnificent bird.
Slowly we drove east down the escarpment and the stands of hardwood and High Bush Cranberry and then onto the Prairies leaving the snow suddenly. Back to the same diner for a quick lunch and then onto Delta Marsh, a huge area of reedbeds and pools just on the southern edge of Lake Manitoba. Several Northern Harriers were here and new ducks included Gadwall and Pintail and a good gathering of Tundra Swans. Then to the actual shore of the Lake which stretched endlessly into the distance. Here there were Buffleheads and lots of Hooded Mergansers. Offshore were Bonaparte's Gull and five superb Western Grebes. Along to the campsite we saw Hudsonian Godwit, Grey Plover and Great Blue Heron as well as Lincoln's Sparrow. Back in the dark to Winnipeg where we checked into the plush Fort Garry Hotel and went for supper across the road. It was late but we were due for a lie in tomorrow before our afternoon flight to Churchill.
Up late (some later than others!) for a huge breakfast and then to the Forks Market for lunch with a choice of Italian, Chinese or American food for all, and after a quick look at the Manitoba tourism displays we headed back to the hotel to meet the coach for the airport. The two-hour flight to Churchill in a small plane went quickly. We landed in overcast conditions and light snow, but at 'only' minus two degrees centigrade, it felt really mild compared with the cold of Winnipeg and Riding Mountain. As we checked into our hotel a dog sled went past to make us feel that we were really in the Arctic. David Hatch who had met us at the airport gave us a briefing after dinner.
We rose early to overcast and gloomy conditions with light snow and boarded our coach that took us out to the Tundra Buggy area. At 8.15 we were on the buggy and already watching Willow Ptarmigan, white birds against the white snow not being easy to pick out. We saw them pecking the buds of the many species of willow just by the trackside.
It was less than two hours before we saw our first Polar Bear trotting across the road along the shore of Hudson Bay. There was another bear in the distance but we didn't know quite where to look as a dark-phase Gyr Falcon perched on a watchtower giving superb close views. On out to the hotel area. Here there were many more bears including one playing with willow branches - we had superb views of these in action and then both bears lay down and dozed. In fact they were to be like this for most of the rest of the day!
The weather was improving though: the wind was calming and the sun was coming out. We had lunch with the bears while Glaucous and Herring Gulls flew over. After tea we moved round to the hotel area itself where one large bear with scars on its face seemed to be interested in what was going on inside. Then a remarkable thing happened. Neil spotted an Arctic Fox, a beautiful silvery white against the pure white snow, trotting up. It eventually came to within feet of the bear - just out of swatting distance - before trotting off, an astonishing moment.
We had a long journey bouncing back along the Tundra. It had been an exhilarating day but it wasn't yet over. After getting a bonus view of a Polar Bear from the coach we headed for town and supper, during which David rushed in telling us that that the sky was clear and there was an aurora visible. We finished our meal, dressed up and walked out across the railway tracks and away from the street lights to where an awesome ethereal display of auroral green curtains was taking place all over the sky. With the moon low to the east, it made an amazing finale to an incomparable day in the Arctic.
We were out at 9.30 in glorious sunshine for a tour of the Churchill area. We headed first for the grain silos in the docks. The Churchill River seemed to have frozen up overnight and there was much ice, but there were still Eider and White-winged Scoter as well as Long-tailed Duck at Cape Merry. We saw one of the many Polar Bear traps around the town and then headed to the south of the town via the Polar Bear 'gaol' seeing a raptor, a Northern Goshawk, in the trees here.
Along to the dump, an excellent bird watching site with Glaucous and Herring Gulls, Lapland Bunting and Horned Lark, which looked totally different to Shore Larks in Europe. David went around looking for Arctic Hare without success. However, back at the Polar Bear gaol he found one, pure white with beady black eyes, just sitting under a box, giving us superb views before it loped off across the Tundra. The compound itself was roped off. There was to be a 'bear lift' in the afternoon!
We headed back to Gypsy's for lunch, and as soon as we got out we saw a helicopter flying away with two bears suspended underneath. Had we missed the lift? No, this was to continue all afternoon. We got to the bear gaol to see three sedated Polar Bears ready for the lift, and at 2.30 the helicopter arrived. The bears were slung in nets in a chain and, although the helicopter seemed to have some trouble in lifting off with this load, it was soon airborne and they were on their way to the open tundra: an incredible sight.
Just as we were recovering from the excitement and dusting off the snow blown from the helicopter take-off, David raced up and pointed at one of the telegraph poles. There was a Snowy Owl perched on the top in full sun, less than 100 yards away. It remained there giving everyone (including several people that weren't in our group!) time to have telescope views before ghosting off over the snow. What a day!
It was mild and calm again as we headed for the buggy, and we were more relaxed too, as we had seen just about everything Churchill had to offer - we thought. The dawn broke on a lovely sunny morning.
We passed two bears fighting, but sadly in an inaccessible area, and we just had distant views. Further along another bear was walking, then running towards a mother and a cub. It was fascinating to see the mother protect the second-year cub, and they both ran off across the frozen lake. The male gave up and lay down and we watched the mother and cub for a little time. Further along another bear walked towards us and gave us breathtaking views as it walked just feet away from the buggy. We looked down at it from the platform and he looked up at us.
We then headed out to the hotel point for coffee and more bears and an early lunch. It was still sunny as another Arctic Fox trotted up. On the way back we saw an Arctic Fox chase an Arctic Hare, the latter being larger and heavier, an amazing sight. The fox gave up and the hare bounded away. Further still a young Arctic Fox was disturbed from a bush right under the wheels of the Tundra Buggy.
We had tea at Governor's Point where the weather deteriorated. In a blizzard we saw a helicopter land and take some people from a buggy for their rather gloomy flight across the Tundra. We then headed back to Gypsy's for a final meal and off to our flight, but as we got above the cloud the sky lit up to our left. It was the Northern Lights again, curtains of green on the port side of the aircraft.
An overcast and mild day in Winnipeg again. Over lunch at the Fort some of us went to see some Double-crested Cormorants that Daphne had found in the river.
Then on to Oak Hammock Marsh with many geese in fields on the way. At the excellent centre we saw a good range of wildfowl including Ruddy Duck, Shoveler and a single Black Duck, all new for the trip. A sweep of the marsh from the roof of the centre revealed twenty-six Bald Eagles perched or flying. We had excellent views of several in flight. While some went to see the video and slide presentation others went to the north end of the marsh where several Northern Harriers were flying. Here there were many ducks and geese in flight including hundreds of Mallard in flocks - not a sight we are used to in Britain. The huge scale of the marsh was apparent, as we could not see the centre way off to the south. Several small birds were American Tree Sparrows, again new for the trip. Back to the centre for the expected arrival of the geese. As we watched flocks of Starlings flew into roost and with them a few Red-winged Blackbirds and a single White-throated Sparrow. Not until 6.30 did we get a few flocks of Snow and Canada Geese over but huge numbers could be seen way over to the south, unlucky perhaps for the first time on the trip. Back to Winnipeg for a celebratory dinner at Brannigans and a relaxing evening.
In the morning we visited the wonderfully designed Museum of Man and Nature gaining a real appreciation of the history and the ecology of all we had seen. Then it was time for our last lunch at the Fort before saying good-bye to Corinne from Great Canadian, and to Canada and the flight home. Many thanks to Jim and Candy Irwin at Riding Mountain, to David Hatch in Churchill and to Corinne for organising a superb trip, and a wonderful introduction to Canada for many of us.
Pacific Diver Gavia pacifica
Common Loon (Great Northern Diver) Gavia immer Up to 10 daily at Riding Mountain. Evocative calls echoing from the mist at dawn on 20th at Lake Clear.
Pied-billed Grebe Podilymbus podiceps One at Portage, 18th. One Lake Manitoba, 21st
Red-necked Grebe Podiceps grisegena C10 on Lake Clear, Riding Mountain, 19th
Western Grebe Aechmophorus occidentalis Five Lake Manitoba, 21st
Double-crested Cormorant Phalacrocorax auritus Three at the Forks, Winnipeg, 26th
HERONS & BITTERNS Ardeidae
Great Blue Heron Ardea herodias One, Lake Manitoba, 21st. One over the Forks, Winnipeg, 26th
Tundra Swan Cygnus columbianus Up to 20 daily at Riding Mountain. 30 at Delta Marsh, 21st. Three at Oak Hammock, 26th
Ruddy Duck Oxyura jamaicensis Two females at Oak Hammock
Snow Goose Anser caerulescens Four, Portage, 18th. One Delta Marsh, 21st. Thousands at Oak Hammock Marsh, 26th
Canada Goose Branta canadensis Thousands at Portage, 18th and Red River and Oak Hammock, 26th. Also at Riding Mountain, with three at Churchill, 24th
American Wigeon Anas americana C20 on 19th at Riding Mountain. Up to C10 at Portage, 18th & 21st
Gadwall Anas strepera Eight , Delta Marsh, 21st
Green-winged Teal Anas crecca One on 19th, Riding Mountain. Two, 21st, Delta Marsh
Mallard Anas platyrhynchos Up to 50 seen daily at Riding Mountain, with thousands at Oak Hammock, 26th
American Black Duck Anas rubripes Drake at Oak Hammock
Northern Pintail Anas acuta One at Riding Mountain, 19th. Two, Delta Marsh, 21st. 30 at Oak Hammock, 26th including wings of a corpse probably freshly killed by a Bald Eagle there
Northern Shoveler Anas clypeata Eight at Oak Hammock
Canvasback Aythya valisineria One on 19th, Riding Mountain. One, Delta Marsh, 21st
Redhead Aythya americana Hundreds at Lake Audy, Riding Mountain, 19th. Hundreds at Portage, 21st
Ring-necked Duck Aythya collaris Up to 10 seen on 19th & 20th, Riding Mountain. One at Oak Hammock, 26th
Lesser Scaup Aythya affinis Hundreds at Riding Mountain - the commonest duck there. Up to 100 at Oak Hammock
Common Eider Somateria mollissima Up to 20 seen daily at Churchill
Long-tailed Duck Clangula hyemalis Two at Cape Merry, 24th Churchill
Black Scoter Melanitta nigra Seven at Cape Merry, 24th
Velvet (White-winged) Scoter Melanitta fusca Over 10 in Churchill River on 24th
Bufflehead Bucephala albeola Up to 20 daily at Riding Mountain and Delta Marsh. Two at Oak Hammock
Common Goldeneye Bucephala clangula Up to 100 per day at Riding Mountain
Hooded Merganser Lophodytes cucullatus Up to 10 daily at Riding Mountain, 19th. Hundreds at Portage, 21st
Common Merganser/Goosander Mergus merganser Four on 19th at Riding Mountain, with 20 at Lake Clear on 21st
Bald Eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus Up to 6 daily at Riding Mountain. Over 30 at Oak Hammock, 26th
Northern Harrier Circus cyaneus Five at Delta Marsh. Eight at Oak Hammock
Northern Goshawk Accipiter gentilis One imm. near the Bear Trail, Churchill on 24th was an excellent find
Red-tailed Hawk Buteo jamaicensis One at Riding Mountain, 19th
Rough-legged Buzzard Buteo lagopus One at Riding Mountain, 20th
American Kestrel Falco sparverius Two at Toronto Airport, 18th
Merlin Falco columbarius One at Delta Marsh, 21st
Gyrfalcon Falco rusticolus A well seen dark phase on a tower at Churchill, and a flyover grey-phase there, both on 23rd
Ruffed Grouse Bonasa umbellus A glimpse at Riding Mountain on 19th followed by superb views of one flushed by Jim & Candy's dogs and perching in a tree, 20th
Willow Ptarmigan Lagopus lagopus C30 seen from Tundra Buggy, 23rd
RAILS & COOTS Rallidae
American Coot Fulica americana Over 100 at Portage on 18th and 21st. Best views at Oak Hammock, where at least 40 seen
Grey (Black-bellied) Plover Pluvialis squatarola One at Lake Manitoba, 21st
Hudsonian Godwit Limosa haemastica One at Lake Manitoba, 21st
Greater Yellowlegs Tringa melanoleuca Up to 5 per day at Riding Mountain. Six at Oak Hammock, with odd sightings at the Forks
Common Snipe Gallinago gallinago Two at Riding Mountain, 19th
Dunlin Calidris alpina One from the Tundra Buggy, 25th
Glaucous Gull Larus hyperboreus Up to five each day at Churchill
Ring-billed Gull Larus delawarensis Hundreds roosting at Portage. Seen daily at Riding Mountain and Winnipeg. A few at Oak Hammond
Herring Gull Larus argentatus Up to 10 daily at Churchill - 15 at Oak Hammock
Bonaparte's Gull Larus philadelphia Up to 20 per day at Riding Mountain
PIGEONS & DOVES Columbidae
Rock Dove (Feral Pigeon) Columba livia Seen daily in and around Winnipeg
TYPICAL OWLS Strigidae
Great Horned Owl Bubo virginianus Heard at night, Riding Mountain
Snowy Owl Nyctea scandiaca One by the Bear Trail, 24th - a superb finale to the 'Bear Lift'
Great Grey Owl Strix nebulosa Glimpsed flying across the road, Riding Mountain, 21st
Downy Woodpecker Picoides pubescens Seen daily at Riding Mountain with excellent views from the Bear Blind, and on the feeder
Hairy Woodpecker Picoides villosus Up to 5 seen daily at Riding Mountain with a least a pair often round the feeder
Black-backed Woodpecker Picoides arcticus One in the Boreal Trail car park, Riding Mountain, 20th
Shore (Horned) Lark Eremophila alpestris An imm. At the dump, Churchill, 24th
Marsh Wren Cistothorus palustris One, Boreal Trail, Riding Mountain
TITS & CHICKADEES Paridae
Black-capped Chickadee Parus atricapillus Up to 10 daily at Riding Mountain - constantly present on the feeders. A few in Churchill, including one from the Tundra Buggy
Red-breasted Nuthatch Sitta canadensis
White-breasted Nuthatch Sitta carolinensis On the feeder at Riding Mountain - also at the Forks, Winnipeg
JAYS & CROWS Corvidae
Blue Jay Cyanocitta cristata Seen daily at Riding Mountain, including on the feeder
(Black-billed) Magpie Pica pica Seen daily at Riding Mountain. Also c10 at Oak Hammock
Gray Jay Perisoreus canadensis Seen daily at Riding Mountain, including on the feeder - and on Jim's hands!
American Crow Corvus brachyrhynchos Seen mainly in and around Winnipeg, with a few at Riding Mountain
Common Raven Corvus corax Up to 20 seen daily both Riding Mountain and Churchill
Common (European) Starling Sturnus vulgaris Seen mainly in and around Winnipeg, but also 6 on the dump, Churchill, 24th. Hundreds going to roost at Oak Hammock
TRUE BUNTINGS Emberizidae - Emberizinae
Lapland Longspur Calcarius lapponicus Three at the dump, Churchill
Snow Bunting Plectrophenax nivalis Three at Riding Mountain 21st. Up to 100 seen daily at Churchill. 10 at Oak Hammock
Lincoln's Sparrow Melospiza lincolnii One near the cottage, Riding Mountain on 20th, with C6 at Lake Manitoba 21st
Harris' s Sparrow Zonotrichia querula One on a bog. Riding Mountain, 20th
White-throated Sparrow Zonotrichia albicollis One at Oak Hammock, 26th
Dark-eyed Junco Junco hyemalis At least 50 seen daily, Riding Mountain. One at Oak Hammock
American Tree Sparrow Spizella arborea Four from North Observation round, Oak Hammock
Chipping Sparrow Spizella passerina One at lodge, Riding Mountain, 19th with several in Boreal Forest there on 21st
Evening Grosbeak Coccothraustes vespertinus Up to 20 seen around the feeder at Riding Mountain
House Sparrow Passer domesticus Three at Lake Manitoba, 21st, then seen daily in Winnipeg and Churchill
NEW WORLD ORIOLES Icteridae
Red-winged Blackbird Agelaius phoeniceus Three perched at the dump, Churchill
Rusty Blackbird Euphagus carolinus Singles on 19th & 20th at Riding Mountain.
Masked Shrew Sorex cinereus What might have been this species was seen running across a path at Oak Hammock by Neil
Coyote Canis latrans One by the bear hide at Riding Mountain, surpassed by a great view of one trotting towards us on the road the next day
Arctic Fox Alopex lagopus One on 23rd from the buggy going very close to a bear, then three on 25th, including one chasing an Arctic Hare.
Black Bear Ursus americanus A'cinnamon'- coloured youngster at Riding Mountain, with a superb black 3rd-year from the bear hide.
Polar Bear Ursus maritimus The main focus of the trip - and we were not disappointed. 10 sightings on the first day on the buggy, with 21 on the second.
Canadian Elk Cervus canadensis A single and a group of three at Riding Mountain
White-tailed Deer Odocoileus virginianus Four seen on 19th with 8 on 21st at Riding Mountain.
American Bison Bison bison Splendid and nearly-too-close-for comfort views of c30 in the enclosure at Riding Mountain
Richardson Ground Squirrel Citellus richardsoni At least three seen at Oak Hammock.
American Red Squirrel Tamiasciurus hudsonicus Seen daily at Riding Mountain, and also at portage and Winnipeg
American Beaver Castor canadensis Six seen at Riding Mountain on 19th, with excellent views of two carrying logs into their lodge.
Muskrat Ondatra zibethicus Many seen at both Riding Mountain and Oak Hammock.
Arctic Hare Lepus arcticus One on 24th at Churchill by the bear gaol, with another from the buggy on 25th.