Sometimes things are just perfect and you get to thinking: “this is the way it will always be”. But then, whammo!, reality sets in and you’re left scratching your head.
My first two introductions to Snow Bunting banding on their Arctic breeding ground spoiled me. They were perfect. The first venue was the Cape Vera area of northwest Devon Island with Ellesmere Island just across the strait – Hell’s Gate. The large scree/boulder fields at the base of the extensive 300 m cliffs (home to 9,000+ pairs of nesting Northern Fulmars) was full of holes and caves and crevasses that could safely hold nests and on the flats between cliffs and ocean were numerous ponds which produced HUGE swarms of midges right around the time the chicks were hatching – a bounteous food source.
The second was East Bay Island, a tiny (~0.3 sq km) island in East Bay (go figure), an inlet on the northeast end of Southampton Island. It too had lots of boulder piles for safe nesting sites and ponds that produced lots of insects (although not nearly so many as Cape Vera).
The nesting density was high at both sites and we figured that the 31 nesting pairs at East Bay in 2006 resulted in the highest density reported in the literature by anyone. To catch Snow Buntings all you had to do was put out and bait a ground trap and you were soon pulling birds out. At these spots the birds came to you. Perfect.
Whammo! Here I am in Iqaluit….looking for Snow Buntings to band. Today I walked between 12 and 15 km looking for possible trapping sites and came up with….maybe 5 possible pairs spread over that distance. Now, mind you, I probably missed at least a few (probably more) because it was just 2 degrees and the north wind was blowing like stink causing my eyes to tear up but….still…..here the birds are NOT concentrated and I definitely will be taking the baited traps to the birds, not the other way around.
A major factor here is the lack of good nesting sites. These birds like deep tunnels into/under big rocks which provide protection from predators like ravens and foxes. In the Iqaluit area these are hard to come by and the ones that do exist tend to be spread out. Further, although the land is running with water now from the melting snow, often the possible nest sites aren’t in proximity to good food sources like midge-producing ponds.
So the bottom line is that I will be doing a lot of walking and a lot of (not so) patient waiting (for the birds to find and then enter the traps) in order to band and put geolocators on 24 breeding adult birds.
I did see some interesting birds though in the course of my travels:
Red-throated Loons (displaying)
Black-bellied Plovers (hanging out by the sewage lagoon)
Semipalmated Plovers (their display flight is very reminiscent of Common Nighthawks)
Dunlin (in orange breeding plumage)
Northern Wheatear (all the way from sub-Saharan Africa!!!!)