August 10th – Return From The Northwest Passage

Like something out of a Group of 7 painting – the north shore of Bylot Island.

On July 16th I hopped on board a U.S. Air Force C-17 with a group of students and scientists to make the flight to Thule Greenland. There we boarded the RVIB Oden, a Swedish ice breaker touted as “probably the best ice breaker in the world”. (And after the trip I would have no qualms making the claim that it is the best in the world.) Ffor the next 18 days we would travel through parts of the Northwest Passage exposing the students to the science required to study the Arctic and broadcasting (live) back to the rest of the world….or at least part of it….what we were seeing and doing. My role as co-science lead for the Birds and Marine Mammal team – BAMM! – was to teach students about seabirds and their ecology as well as expose them to observational and data recording techniques that are used by the CWS seabird observers.

The “crew” getting ready to board a C-17 at Newburgh Air Force Base. -H.Morin

Ice breaker Oden – probably the best ice breaker in the world.

My “work” area on the port side of the bridge – perched 35 metres above the sea in a glass-encased lookout.

The original plan was audacious: sail right through the Passage as far as Melville Sound doing oceanographic surveys as we went (seabird counts would be continuous and ongoing) and then return sampling different parts on the way back. This plan was built around ice conditions found in 2015 when ice left the Passage very early. This proved to be a different sort of year….we began to run into heavy ice around the SW end of Devon Island and this got thicker and more dense as we moved west. We got about as far as the western end of Cornwallis Island, where we began to encounter thicker, multi-year ice. The fact that it still exists is a VERY good thing but an impediment to travel.

Forging deep into the ice just west of Cornwallie Island.

The Oden surging through metre-thick ice.

Leaving behind a trail of broken ice and open water – a favourite foraging area for Northern Fulmars and Black-legged Kittiwakes.

Every morning at 7, there was a science team meeting on the bridge and at this point the captain, Matthias Peterson, said that the ship was capable of continuing west but it would be slow going and to get as far as planned and get back to Thule within our time lines would preclude doing any science. So… was decided to end our westward trek and start heading back but doing science along the way. A very good choice. This gave us time to poke into a variety of bays and sounds and check out a number of historical sites (e.g., Beechey Island where Franklin spent his first winter – marked by three graves of some of his crew).

A CTD rosette – a basic oceanographic piece of equipment. -NIK

About seabirds in the Northwest Passage: there are a LOT but very few species. We saw three species and great numbers (“The Big 3”):

Thick-billed Murre

Northern Fulmar. -LJ

Black-legged Kittiwake. -LJ

Fulmars were with us pretty well anywhere we went and they were joined by kittiwakes when we were breaking through ice in fact, usually outnumbered by kittiwakes when we were breaking a passage through ice. The reason was simple: they were after the tidbits churned up by the Oden’s propellers and exposed in the open water wake. The rear of the ship was a good place to search as Jaegers (we saw all 3 species) often made kleptoparasitizing forays and occasionally we were rewarded with an uncommon gull – Thayer’s Gull on a couple of occasions and a single Sabine’s Gull on another. Thick-billed Murres stayed away from this melee, preferring more open water.

Prince Leopold Island – the most important seabird breeding site in the high Arctic.

See if you can find the two observation blinds used to monitor the Thick-billed Murres nesting on these cliffs.

On the return we were able to spend some time around Prince Leopold Island – the most important seabird nesting site in the high Arctic. Most seabird colonies host only one or, at best, two species but PLI is home to large numbers of Thick-billed Murres (68,000+ breeding pairs), Northern Fulmar (16,000 breeding pairs), Black-legged Kittiwakes (29,000 breeding pairs), Black Guillemots (2,000+ breeding pairs), Glaucous Gulls (~100 breeding pairs).

A Thick-billed Murre photo bombs a picture of Prince Leopold Island.

Although one of the largest breeding colonies of Dovekies is purported to be in Thule we didn’t see any in the Northwest Passage. We did run into huge numbers though in the northern part of the Greenland Sea. The many flocks I saw were all flying SE and, in that area were 96 NM from the closest part of Canada and 65 NM from Greenland. I would love to know what they were up to and where they had come from (or were going to).

Devon Island with just one of many glaciers flowing down from its giant ice cap.

Croker Bay, southern Devon Island.

Bylot Island under a threatening sky.

So how is the Arctic doing? Well… July Greenland went through a heat wave and lost an enormous amount of ice (it was 54 degrees in Thule when we arrive in July); most of the glaciers that I could see draining the icecaps on Devon Island and Bylot Island had all receded measurably; it was gratifying to find some multi-year ice but we had to go a long way west to do so. High Arctic seabirds at the moment seem to be holding their own but the influx of warmer water from the south (“Atlantification”) will have an impact. For example, in Hudson’s Bay Thick-billed Murres have switched from Arctic Cod (a fish associated with ice) to Capelin (a more southern boreal species); early studies suggested the murres don’t do as well on Capelin so we’ll have to wait and see.

Polar Bears always brought a rush of excitement to the bridge.

We saw 17 Polar Bears. Given the distance we travelled and the amount of ice we went through this didn’t seem like many. And a couple of Arctic veterans that were with us thought this number was low.

Polar Bear on the hunt.

The most disturbing thing for me was the finding or microplastics – filaments and beads – in the multi-year ice that was cored. No one knows what the impact of these microscopic bits of plastic can/will do to an organism – fish, bird, or man…..

Male Snow Bunting enjoying the sunshine in Pond Inlet.

I was able to spend some time on shore in Pond Inlet at the north end of Baffin Island. What a treat to find Snow Buntings, Horned Larks and Lapland Longspurs – alas, none of them banded.

Horned Lark in Pond Inlet.

Pond Inlet is a long way from anywhere.

But…..that trip is over. If you have any questions, feel free to contact me. Time to move on. We’re starting to gear up for the Fall migration monitoring season: net lanes to clear, nets to be replaced, fledging birds to be banded.
August 9th; Banded 6:
1 Eastern Phoebe
4 Blue Jays
1 White-breasted Nuthatch

August 10th; Banded 15:
1 Downy Woodpecker
1 Blue Jay
3 Black-capped Chickadees
3 Eastern Bluebirds
1 Common Yellowthroat
3 Rose-breasted Grosbeak
2 Song Sparrows
1 Red-winged Blackbird

I will be out Monday and Tuesday morning if you have nothing to do and are looking for something….

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