September 20th – Recounting A Sea Voyage

I have been away for 35 days on a research vessel which was studying the bottom of Baffin Bay. My “job” was simply to count seabirds following a strict protocol. Since things have been pretty slow at Ruthven (e.g., we banded only 7 birds today), I’ve decided to give you a glimpse of another migration that I ran into in the far north.
(Photo Gallery below)

[September 10th] – When Things Go Bad
We just started the last leg of the journey. One week to go on a 5-week trip into some of Canada’s most scenic – but least known and appreciated – country: the east side of Baffin Island. I’m on a coast guard/research vessel with scientists intent on studying the deep-water geology and biology of Baffin Bay. I’m just an add-on, an afterthought if you will, whose job is to systematically count seabirds as the ship is underway. I have the best seat in the house: the lefthand side of the bridge with big windows in front and on the portside. Unless spray from pounding waves or sleet and snow cover these windows (and I’ve had my share this trip), I can look out on the sea through a sweeping 180 degrees. Magnificent.

When I got to the bridge at first light this morning, we had already been steaming for 18 hours, heading due south and about 80 nautical miles out from the nearest point of land on east Baffin Island (Cape Dyer which is the west side boundary of Davis Strait). Today it was Northern Fulmars. Everywhere you looked that’s all you could take in. You see…it was windy – 25 to 30 knots howling out of the north – and fulmars are true wind birds. Like their cousins the albatrosses, they ride it effortlessly in their perpetual search for food, their eye trained on the surface for tidbits and on their conspecifics in case one should hit a jackpot that all could get a piece of. And while fulmars are wonderfully interesting (the first thousand anyway), they weren’t what I was on the lookout for.

From banding studies, we know that many Snow Buntings, that spend their Winters in southern Canada, nest in Greenland. Well, the breeding season is well over and these birds should be making their way back to Canada. To do that they have to cross Baffin Bay or the North Atlantic south of Davis Strait. And this is the time, with the temperatures dropping precipitously and snow falling, that they should be on the move. So I was on the lookout.

From my perch on the bridge, looking south, here’s what I was seeing: heavy overcast skies blanketing a sea, also gray, gone wild – 4 meter waves with a 30-knot north wind blowing the spray off the many whitecaps. Shortly before 7:00 I saw my first passerines: a pair of American Pipits; they flew around the front of the ship and, I think, took refuge on it although I couldn’t find them. At this point we were a little more than 80 nautical miles off Cape Murchison. These birds had come from the East! It’s just not Snow Buntings that nest in Greenland and spend their winters in North America! An hour later another 3 passerines went by – couldn’t get my binoculars on them fast enough but I think they were also pipits. And then, in about another hour, two male Snow Buntings and a pipit went by! They paid no attention to the ship but just kept on heading west. Of course with a north wind their actual course would be southwest, making their landfall even further away. At about 11:00 a small flock, made up of 9 Snow Buntings and 2 American Pipits, went winging by. I had picked this flock up early and was able to watch them for awhile. They were moving from the east and headed due west. They were low down to the sea, taking shelter from the wind as they worked their way, powerfully, along the trough, a mere few feet about the surface. By the most optimistic reckoning they still had 200 kilometers to go; they had already come an estimated 500 kilometers!! At 30 km/hour they would have left 16 hours before – around 7:00 PM, just as it was starting to get dark on the rugged, barren Greenland coast.

We continued to push south and as we did something changed…for the worse: the wind backed into the northwest and picked up a couple of knots. Now it would be more in the face of migrants heading west.

I watched a pipit trying to make its way west. It was flying hard but wasn’t making headway to the west; instead it was moving sideways – essentially south – at the same speed as the ship, 13 knots. A fulmar saw its struggles and decided to investigate. Now the bird had two problems. To evade being eaten it swung around the front of the ship and, I think, found shelter somewhere on it.

One of the reasons passerines migrate at night is to avoid avian predators. This would be especially important travelling over water – there’s absolutely nowhere to hide! I saw this played out. Flying seemingly lazily, a young Pomarine Jaeger appeared way off to my left. Usually when I’ve seen these kleptoparasites they’ve been harassing kittiwakes, trying to make them regurgitate a meal that they will drop down and scoop off the sea surface. But there weren’t any kittiwakes around. Suddenly the jaeger reverted from its easy back and forth searching to a focused direct flight picking up speed with each wingbeat. It was on the hunt. But for what? I couldn’t see anything. And then it swooped and, four hundred meters ahead of me, I saw a small flock of passerines, that had been down in a trough, fly up high and scatter with the jaeger giving chase to a particular individual. I never saw the outcome but I don’t think it went well for the passerine. And the others? Probably reassembled, got down in a trough, and kept pushing, pushing….there was no alternative.

The last passerine I saw was a female Snow Bunting. I don’t know where she had come from – I hadn’t seen a flock go by – but there she was taking some shelter from the ship, evading the interest of a fulmar. I never saw what happened, whether she hunkered down on the boat or, when the fulmar had been fooled, headed out again. At this point we were east of Resolution Island, which is between Baffin Island and Cape Chidley, at the north tip of Labrador. For this little bird it would be 220 kilometers to the island and 270 to the cape – 7 to 9 hours yet to go. So many miles, so many predators, such a strong wind….such a cold, unrelenting sea. I could only hope.

I don’t think I’ll ever be able to look at a Snow Bunting again without thinking of that little flock, hunkered down in a 4-meter trough, heading west. Everything gambled on the single toss of the dice.

Leave a Reply