By Jesse Shirton
Spring is right around the corner in Churchill – well, it’s coming eventually at least. With spring comes a huge influx of wings, as Churchill is a major stopping ground for migratory birds. Almost 250 species have been recorded in Churchill, which is officially recognized as an Important Bird Area. In the winter, the variety of birds is notably less. However, these birds are nonetheless extremely impressive for the long, cold conditions they face. Here is a look at the hardy few feathered friends who call Churchill home year-round.
- Willow Ptarmigan
Notable for their dramatic change in attire, these birds are almost completely white in the winter and a mottled brown in the summer, making them difficult to spot year-round. In addition to being very round and therefore cute, these birds are an important resource for hunters. Ptarmigan could be seen as bold creatures, and their general lack of fear towards humans makes them an accessible and hearty food source for humans and animal hunters alike.
The naturally round Ptarmigan are the perfect shape to maximize heat retention.
- Common Raven
A ubiquitous site in the town limits, but almost never spotted far from human infrastructure. These birds are my favorite to watch in town. They hang out in small groups and get into all kinds of shenanigans such as squabbling over who gets the best roosting spot or messing with the local dogs. The ravens know exactly how close they can stand to the dog before it is stopped by its leash. One will taunt the dog and stand firm when it gets charged by a 100lb German Shepherd, completely confident in its gauge of the length of the line. Meanwhile, its friends swoop in on the unprotected treats. It’s amazing to watch such smart creatures who have found a way to exploit human resources to help them live here year-round.
Here Torque looks to be pondering why this raven is trying to eat snow. Torque, an especailly friendly dog, mostly tolerates the ravens, so long as they mind their manners.
- Hoary Redpoll (or Arctic Redpoll)
For me, these birds are the most impressive to see thriving in such chilly conditions. They are extremely petite, and I often spot them while out doing field work far from human settlement. On a clear day, no matter the temperature, you can always hear them happily chirping away which cannot help but put a smile behind my ski mask. When I see these birds, I am always completely bundled, and completely confounded by how they manage to keep warm with just their feathers.
Perhaps they got the name for their affintity for hoarfrost.
- Gray Jay (AKA Canada Jay, Whiskey Jack, Camp Robber, etc…)
Always playful, it is a real treat for me to see these birds while we are out doing our field work. They are extremely inquisitive here in Churchill and seem to check us out just for the spectacle rather than to try and steal a meal. This makes them a joy to photograph as they come to me for a change!
An especially round example; either maximizing heat retention or just trying to look cute for the photo.
- The infamous House Sparrow
Love them or hate them, their success seems to know no bounds. Not even the frigid winters have stopped this European species from reaching Churchill. Like the Raven however, they seem to be restricted to the town limits. While they and the ravens dominate the human shaped environment, the natural surroundings still belong to the Redpolls and Gray Jays.
House Sparrows do have impacts on native birds, but here on the edge of many bird’s range, they seem to have little impact on native birds outside of town and are mainly piggy-backing off human structures and resources to thrive in a human created niche.This is a very different dynamic than in urban areas, as here in Churchill the line between natural and human-dominated areas is much more clear.
This ambitious male has created a bird house out of a human house.
There are other species that have been reported to reside in Churchill year-round, although these are the only 5 that I have managed to spot over the past few months. The only other species I have personally spotted was a Gyrfalcon, no doubt preying on the flock of ptarmigan that frequent the CNSC. These are a rare sight in the south and these Arctic birds usually only visit Churchill in the winter months. Spotting one in winter plumage, even at a huge distance away, was a sight I will never forget. Though I have thoroughly enjoyed spotting all these birds over the winter, I am extremely excited to see all the wings spring brings.
This individual is an example of a white or winter morph. The top of the Aerobee Launcher at the Churchill Rocket Range makes an excellent perch to spot prey from.