An Expedition to the Hudson Bay Lowlands


An Expedition to the Hudson Bay Lowlands
Photo Essay by Ron Ridout
Special Report by Jon McCracken
e got the call late last winter. Don
Sutherland, zoologist for the
Ontario Ministry of Natural
Resources' Natural Heritage Information
Centre (OMNR-NHIC) was assembling a
six-person crew of volunteers to spend two
weeks this summer on the Hudson Bay
lowlands, gathering information for the
Ontario Breeding Bird Atlas. It was an
exceptional opportunity, and Ron Ridout
and I (both of Bird Studies Canada) jumped
at the chance, as did Marty Obbard
(OMNR's provincial bear biologist), Colin
Jones (NHIC biologist), and Peter Burke
(free-lance biologist and wildlife artist).
Our destination was as far north as you
can get in Ontario – the Pen Islands region,
tucked into the province's extreme
northwestern corner on Hudson Bay, right
next to the Manitoba border. The nearest
community is Fort Severn, about 100
kilometres to the southeast.
A large colony of about 8000 pairs of
Snow Geese, and exceptional numbers of
migrating Black Scoters, Hudsonian
Godwits, and Red Knots, help make the
region a globally Important Bird Area.
Relatively little is known about the region's
summer bird life, however, so our mission
was to survey a land area that encompassed
some 200 square kilometres. No problem.
After months of careful planning, the
team rendezvoused on 21 June in
Peterborough, ON, before driving 9 hours
north to Timmins. The next morning, we
loaded about 550 kilograms of gear into an
OMNR Twin Otter and flew north to
Moosonee on the James Bay coast. From
there, we flew northwest to Peawanuck for
refuelling. Before long, we were over the
Pen Islands region. Down below, Hudson
Bay was still almost completely frozen
over. The pilot quickly sized things up and
American Golden-Plover/Pluvier bronzé
expertly plunked us down on a suitable
gravel ridge about 7 kilometres from the
coast and about the same distance to the tree
line. Perfect!
Home Sweet Home
We were greeted by sweeping, open
vistas filled with life and adventure as far as
the eye and imagination could see. Before
nightfall, we had established base camp on
one of the many long, narrow ridges that run
through the coastal region. Only a metre or
so high, these ancient beach ridges are firm
and dry, and carpeted with a thin layer of
lichens, moss, and rhododendron. More
expansive wet, sedge-grass meadows,
ponds, and small lakes lay between the
ridges. A few narrow creeks wound through
One of the very few Stilt Sandpiper nests ever documented in Ontario.
Un des très rares nids de Bécasseau à échasses trouvé en Ontario.
the area. Small pockets of stunted spruce
trees, seldom standing more than 4 metres
high, were scattered along the edges of the
ridges. Somewhat taller trees were
concentrated along creek margins and back
in the tree line. About 2 kilometres from
camp, a massive boulder – a relic from the
last Ice Age – towered 4 metres high in the
otherwise featureless landscape.
Photo: Marty Obbard
An Expedition to the Hudson Bay Lowlands
flannel shirt, thermal t-shirt, jeans, long
johns (sometimes two pairs), two pairs of
socks, insulated hiking boots, and a toque.
Humour also helps warm the spirit. There
was a lot of laughter in our camp.
In wide, open spaces like this, your
sense of perspective becomes distorted.
Things were either much farther away
than they appeared, or vice versa. Mirages
were also common. From camp, small
pressure ridges of ice out on Hudson Bay
often looked like huge, snow-swept
mountain ranges.
At this latitude, the sun set at about
11:30 p.m. and was up again before 4:30
a.m. An eerie twilight gave way to true
darkness for only about an hour each
Field Work and Play
From the moment we touched down,
we felt like modern day explorers. Fuelled
by a constant stream of new discoveries
and situations, every day found us giddy
powered a laptop computer and battery
A shallow latrine was dug outside the
perimeter and fitted with a bucket (and
seat!). A three-sided tarp wall provided
privacy and acted as a welcome windbreak.
Owing to a fibre-rich diet, there was often a
morning line up for the facilities.
Good food and lots of it are essential
for field camp morale. Colin prepared
exceptionally delicious and hearty dinners
nightly over the propane camp stove. We ate
well and we ate lots. Drinking water was
fetched from a nearby shallow pond in
canvas bags, and then hand-pumped
through a ceramic filter to remove all
potential pathogens. None of us got sick. As
for bathing and shaving – forget about it!
When we arrived, snowdrifts lay here
and there in sheltered areas, and many of the
lakes were still partially ice covered.
Likewise, plant life was very obviously
weeks behind the normal seasonal
progression. In fact, it was not until towards
the end of our stay that rhododendrons
finally started to bloom, and shrubs began to
leaf out. Summer was unusually late.
Our base camp was modest, but
efficient and comfortable. A large, canvas
“wall tent” (suspended from a wooden
frame that Marty expertly lashed together
with rope) served as the kitchen, dining
room, storage area, meeting room, and
office. We snored our nights away in
personal pup tents.
With the arrival of summer on the
Parasitic Jaeger/Labbe parasite
Our meeting tent also served as kitchen, dining room, and office. La tente où l’on tenait nos réunions
servait également de cuisine, de salle à manger et de bureau.
Weather, Weather Everywhere
Hudson Bay coast, we were keenly aware of
the safety concerns posed by marauding
polar bears. To provide warning, a delicate
trip-wire was strung around the camp
perimeter and hooked up to a loud alarm
system. A small, gas-powered generator
On a few balmy days, the thermometer hit
the plus side of 20 o C. However,
temperatures all too often refused to budge
beyond single digit values, and usually
dipped below freezing at night. The Hudson
Bay coast is a wind-swept region. Sustained
gales (60-80 kph) routinely tested the
endurance of our tents and our stamina in
the field. On more than one occasion, we
were, quite literally, very nearly blown
away by the experience. On the upside, the
cold winds kept rumoured onslaughts of
biting insects to a bare minimum.
Lacking any insulating layers of body
fat, I often found myself fashionably
decked out in a Mustang survival suit over
top a goose down parka, followed by a
goose down vest, wind breaker, sweater,
with excitement.
At night, we were lulled to sleep by
mournful wails of Common Loons, pitiful
sighs of Pacific Loons, the pumping of
distant bitterns, cackling parties of Snow
Geese, hee-haw braying of Stilt Sandpipers,
yodelling Tundra Swans and Sandhill
Cranes, whoo-ooshing Wilson's Snipe, and
ticking Yellow Rails. Rhythmic snoring
sounds, which droned from all six tents,
rounded out the symphony.
After enjoying a hearty breakfast each
morning, we donned heavy daypacks, broke
into pairs, and scattered in different
directions, aiming to cover as much territory
as possible. A typical day's outing entailed
hiking 10-20 kilometres, mostly slogging
through mucky expanses of shallow marsh,
either in hip waders or rubber boots. Peter
and Colin camped in the distant tree line one
night to better document species that weren't
FALL 2004, NUMBER 29
otherwise present on the tundra. Otherwise, over the camp daily on foraging forays
we normally returned to base camp each to the coast. A splendid adult Peregrine
Falcon sailed low overhead one
Safety was key. Personal GPS units afternoon. But the oddest bird of the trip
allowed us to pin-point our locations to was the Mourning Dove that Don found
within a few metres and efficiently navigate – hundreds of kilometres north of its
to and fro. For personal protection against known breeding range. There were
bears, one person in each crew lugged a some other oddball things, like a Yellow
shotgun loaded with “cracker shells,” Warbler nest that was almost entirely
which are fired into the air and explode made out of white ptarmigan feathers,
loudly. Everyone also carried a variety of and a robin nest that didn't contain any
other noisemakers. In the event of a truly mud.
Presumably because they so
life-threatening encounter, 12-gauge slugs
could be brought into play. Miniature seldom encounter people, we were
walkie-talkies, with an effective range of struck by the relative fearlessness of
about 5 kilometres, allowed us to maintain many animals. Willow Ptarmigan were
contact with one another in the field. A especially “tame.” The contents of one
satellite phone provided scheduled daily Hudsonian Godwit's nest couldn't be
communications with
OMNR staff in
By far the most
common bird on the open
tundra was Savannah
Sparrow, which nested
abundantly in the wet
meadows. Horned Lark
and Lapland and Smith's
longspurs were also
common in open areas.
Among the trees and
shrubs, Common
Redpoll, White-crowned
Sparrow, and American
Tr e e S p a r r o w w e r e
common. Pine Grosbeak,
White-winged Crossbill,
Ruby-crowned Kinglet,
Boreal Chickadee, Gray Hudsonian Godwit/Barge hudsonienne
Jay, and a smattering of boreal warblers documented without very carefully lifting
could be found farther back in the tree line. the female off her eggs.
On the shorebird side, Dunlin, Least
Attesting to the harsh living conditions
Sandpiper, Stilt Sandpiper, and Wilson's that birds face in the north, the immense
Snipe seemed to be everywhere. American Snow Goose colony failed completely this
Golden-Plover, Whimbrel, and Hudsonian summer. Thousands of geese built nests and
Godwit were scattered here and there. In laid partial clutches, only to abandon them
addition to lots of Canada Geese, Snow because of the wintry summer. Predators
Geese, and Tundra Swans, ponds were and scavengers, which would normally
occupied by good numbers of Green- have feasted on a rich harvest of goose eggs
winged Teal, Northern Pintail, Northern and goslings, were left with slim pickings.
Shoveler, Long-tailed Duck, and Greater
Scaup. A small colony of Common Eiders
Other Brutes Big
nested out on the Pen Islands themselves.
and Small
Definite highlights of our expedition
included Ontario's first documented
nestings for Hoary Redpoll, along with
Among other things, the Pen Islands
some of the province's few nests ever region is noted for being the calving
recorded for Stilt Sandpiper, Hudsonian grounds for several thousand woodland
Godwit, American Golden-Plover, Red- caribou. When summer temperatures
necked Phalarope, and Parasitic Jaeger. We climb, the herd normally treks out to the
also added an exceptional number of nest coastal tundra in order to calve and enjoy
records for Dunlin, Least Sandpiper, and the cool winds that keep biting insect
Savannah Sparrow.
populations down to a tolerable level.
Though they probably don't nest in the However, this summer's unusual cold kept
immediate region, several Bald Eagles flew most of the herd well inland, and we saw
A glint of sunlight in her eye was all that alerted Jon
McCracken to this nesting Hudsonian Godwit.
Un reflet dans l’oeil de cette Barge hudsonienne a permis
à Jon McCracken de la découvrir sur son nid.
only a few towards the end of the
The region is also normally an
exceptional summering area for up to
200 polar bears, one of the highest
densities in the world. But because of
the late break up of the ice pack, the
bears very agreeably remained far out
on Hudson Bay, happily hunting seals.
At this time of year, black bears with
any sense would normally remain well back
in the tree line, to avoid fatal conflicts with
their much larger, more powerful, and more
aggressive cousins. But this wasn't a normal
year, and so a large male black bear took
advantage of the situation, swaggering in
the vicinity of our camp for the duration.
All muscle and fat, “Brutus” was in topnotch condition. Like us, he found the
smells wafting from our cook tent
irresistible. After somehow tip-toeing over
our elaborate alarm system one night and
lumbering off with one of our precious food
chests, he became a routine nuisance
thereafter. Luckily, we had decades of
Marty's bear experience to draw upon, and
there were no more successful break-ins.
Still, we had to be on guard against Brutus
day and night, which meant that someone
always had to remain in camp to baby-sit the
food. Hungry, bold, and determined, Brutus
had to be scared off at close quarters on more
than a dozen occasions.
Arctic foxes were quite common,
feasting on whatever bird nests that Brutus
missed. Red foxes, skunks, voles, muskrats,
and snowshoe hares also shared the area.
One day, a river otter loped along the ridge
opposite the camp. On another, Don had the
supreme fortune to peak around the side of
the kitchen tent to see a wolverine sniffing
at our doorstep. On our flight back to
civilization, several pods of beluga whales
elegantly cruised the bay in tight formation.
and confident that some of the mysteries of
the region had been unravelled.
The Hudson Bay coast was socked in
by heavy fog when we awoke on 7 July, our
scheduled date of departure. It looked like
we'd be stranded for a while. But the wind
shifted to the south, just a little, clearing the
skies by noon. Marty radioed the pilot, who
was standing by in Moosonee, to give him
the thumb's up. We pulled camp in record
time and all too suddenly departed.
Although the prospect of a comfortable
bed, hot shower, and a cold beer was more
than a little appealing, an unmistakable
sense of “home” had also taken root. It was
sad to go.
Many Thanks
Arctic Foxes enjoyed many meals from ground nests.
Les renards arctiques se nourrissent régulièrement d’oeufs qu’ils
trouvent dans les nids d’oiseaux nichant au sol.
This expedition, which was one of
several to Ontario's north country this year,
was an exceptional privilege. We owe a
special thanks to the Ontario Ministry of
Natural Resources and the Natural Heritage
Information Centre for logistics and the
loan of equipment. The Canadian Wildlife
Service, Bird Studies Canada's James L.
Baillie Memorial Fund, and the Ontario
Trillium Foundation also provided
valuable support. Detailed information on
the Ontario Breeding Bird Atlas is available
on the web at
Dunlin/Bécasseau variable
Pacific Loons/Plongeons du Pacifique
Smith's Longspurs were a common sight.
Les Bruants de Smith étaient nombreux.
Parting Thoughts
Despite the exceptionally late summer,
we recorded 96 species of birds (plus 1
hybrid). Following standard Atlas
guidelines, breeding was “confirmed” for
30 species. We documented 109 nests of 29
species. Evidence for “probable” breeding
was obtained for 27 species; and 32 more
were documented as “possible” breeders
(most of which undoubtedly nest in the
region). Another 8 species were judged not
to nest within the immediate study area.
Over 250 field hours were logged, and we
conducted over 100 point counts in order to
document species abundance across a range
of sub-arctic habitats. We were “data rich”
The Crew (from left to right): back row - Colin Jones, Peter Burke, Jon McCracken, Ron Ridout; front row - Don Sutherland and
Marty Obbard
L’équipe (de gauche à droite) : derrière : Colin Jones, Peter Burke, Jon McCracken et Ron Ridout; devant : Don Sutherland et
Marty Obbard.
FALL 2004, NUMBER 29
Expédition à l'intérieur des basses-terres de la baie d'Hudson
La nouvelle nous est parvenue l'hiver
dernier. M. Don Sutherland, zoologiste
pour le Centre d'information sur le
patrimoine naturel (CIPN) du ministère
des Richesses naturelles de l'Ontario
(MRNO), était à la recherche de
bénévoles pour former une équipe de six
personnes qui aurait comme mission de
récolter des données à l'intérieur des
basses-terres de la baie d'Hudson pour le
compte de l'Atlas des oiseaux nicheurs
de l'Ontario. L'offre était trop belle pour
la laisser filer : Ron Ridout et moi-même,
tous deux à l'emploi d'Études d'Oiseaux
Canada, avons sauté sur l'occasion. Ont
fait de même, Marty Obbard, biologiste
au MRNO, Colin Jones, biologiste au
CIPN, et Peter Burke, biologiste et
peintre naturaliste.
La région des îles Pen, où se sont
effectués les recensements au cours de
deux semaines, se situe à l'extrémité
nord-ouest de l'Ontario, tout à côté de la
frontière avec le Manitoba; en fait, il
n'existe aucun autre endroit situé plus au
nord à l'intérieur la province. Même si la
région a été désignée comme une Zone
importante pour la conservation des
oiseaux au niveau mondial, nous ne
possédons encore que très peu de
données sur la vie ornithologique qui s'y
déroule au cours de l'été. Notre mission
était de recenser les espèces qui se
trouvaient dans un secteur qui couvrait
près de 200 kilomètres carrés. Pas de
Une fois à destination, nous avons
tout de suite eu l'impression d'être des
explorateurs de l'ère moderne. Chaque
jour nous apportait de nouvelles
découvertes et situations. Nous étions
emplis d'excitation et fébriles de
connaître ce qui nous attendait. Le soir,
nous nous endormions en nous laissant
bercer par la plainte mélancolique des
Plongeons huards, en imaginant les
parades aériennes effectuées par le
Bécasseau à échasses et la Bécassine de
Wilson qui se déroulaient à côté et en
devinant les allées et venues discrètes du
Râle jaune.
Les données amassées sur le terrain
révèlent que le Bruant des prés était de
loin l'espèce la plus commune à
l'intérieur de la toundra, ce dernier
nichant en grand nombre dans les prés
humides. Parmi les autres espèces
communes en milieux ouverts, on
retrouvait l'Alouette hausse-col ainsi que
les Bruants lapon et de Smith. Durant notre
séjour, nous avons noté un grand nombre de
Sizerins flammés, de Bruants à couronne
blanche et de Bruants hudsoniens dans les
secteurs boisés ou arbustifs. Quant au
Durbec des sapins, au Bec-croisé bifascié,
au Roitelet à couronne rubis, à la Mésange à
tête brune, au Mésangeai du Canada et à un
petit nombre de parulines associées à la
forêt boréale, ils ont été observés dans les
milieux forestiers situés à l'intérieur des
terres. Du côté des oiseaux de rivage, nous
avons remarqué que la Bécassine de Wilson
ainsi que les Bécasseaux variable,
minuscule et à échasses étaient présents
presque partout alors que le Pluvier bronzé,
le Courlis corlieu et la Barge hudsonienne se
retrouvaient ici et là. Nous avons également
Le Lagopède des saules tolérait
facilement notre présence.
Willow Ptarmigan were particularly
tolerant of our company.
Jon et Marty devant un bloc erratique.
Jon and Marty pose in front of a large glacial erratic.
relevé un grand nombre de Bernaches du
Canada, d'Oies des neiges et de Cygnes
siffleurs ainsi qu'un bon nombre de
Sarcelles d'hiver, de Canards pilets, de
Canards souchets, d'Hareldes kakawis et
de Fuligules milouinans sur les étangs.
Une petite colonie d'Eider à duvet était
aussi présente sur les îles.
La première mention de nidification
de Sizerin blanchâtre en Ontario ainsi que
la découverte d'un des rares nids de
Bécasseau à échasses, de Barge
hudsonienne, de Pluvier bronzé, de
Phalarope à bec étroit et de Labbe
parasite à avoir été rapportés dans la
province figurent parmi les moments
forts de notre séjour. Nos recensements
ont également permis d'ajouter un
nombre exceptionnel de nids de
Bécasseau variable, de Bécasseau
minuscule et de Bruant des prés aux
données de l'atlas.
Malgré le fait que l'été ait été très
tardif, nous avons réussi à recenser 96
espèces d'oiseaux, sans compter un ur de
hybride. Nous avons également
rapporté 109 nids, lesquels ont été notés
chez 29 espèces différentes. Selon le
protocole utilisé pour l'atlas, la
nidification a été confirmée chez 30
espèces. Selon les indices, la
nidification a été qualifiée de
«probable» chez 27 autres espèces et de
«possible» chez 32 autres, la plupart
nichant sans contredit dans la région.
Enfin, 8 espèces ont été considérées
comme ne nichant pas à l'intérieur de
l'aire d'étude et dans la région
environnante. Nous avons consacré
plus de 250 heures à l'étude et effectué
des recensements à plus de 100 sites en
vue de recueillir des données
concernant l'abondance des espèces à
l'intérieur d'habitats spécifiques à la
région subarctique. Nous avons
accumulé un nombre impressionnant de
données et sommes confiants qu'elles
nous aideront à éclaircir certains
mystères associés à cette région.