Burntpoint Shorebirds and Tundra Wetlands Studies

Hudson Bay in Polar Bear Provincial Park, Ontario


Below are four reports posted to Ontbirds and Shorebirds listservs by Ron Pittaway


Burntpoint Report #1

Posted 30 June 2012

This is Jean Iron's first report by satellite phone for the period 22 - 29 June 2012 from Burntpoint Creek Research Station on the Ontario coast of Hudson Bay in Polar Bear Provincial Park. Burntpoint is operated by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (OMNR) under the direction of Ken Abraham, Waterfowl and Wetlands Scientist. The camp is about 1334 km (834 mi) north of Toronto, Ontario and about 74 km (46 mi) east of Peawanuck and 131 km (81 mi) west of Cape Henrietta Maria. The base camp is about 3 km from the coast. See map link below. At this time of year there are almost 2 hours more daylight than in Toronto. Burntpoint also is situated on the most southerly tundra zone at sea level in the world. This narrow tundra fringe stretches east along the coast to Cape Henrietta Maria at the corner of Hudson and James Bays. Tundra conditions are maintained by continuous permafrost and sea ice which remains very late off the Ontario/Manitoba coast until mid-summer preventing the warming of the waters of Hudson Bay combined with prevailing cold north/northwest winds. The Burntpoint crew comprises Julie Belliveau (OMNR), Matt Birarda (OMNR), Jean Iron (OFO volunteer) and Jim Sauer (volunteer). They stay until July 20.

The following is Ken Abraham's report for the first crew who departed on June 22. They recorded 85 species of birds on the 21 square km study area. Canada Goose, 242 nests. Ken also did an aerial survey of the Lesser Snow Goose colony at Cape Henrietta Maria, the first since 2007. He reported that "the colony area appears similar to 2007, but with lower densities of birds. It was a good breeding year from a habitat/snow cover point of view, so this might reflect a decline in colony size. One highlight is a small colony of Ross's Geese within the larger colony estimated to be a couple of hundred pairs (we have photos to analyze). We also found a few small groups of breeding Common Eiders." Good numbers of Caribou were seen on the aerial survey. Shorebird nests found in the study area include Whimbrel (10 nests), Least Sandpiper (9 nests), Semipalmated Sandpiper (8 nests) and Dunlin (7 nests). New species added to the study area list were Wilson's Phalarope (pair on coastal brackish pond) and Nelson's Sparrow, which arrived rather late (June 17) but began singing around the camp pond. Brown Thrasher (1) which has become a fairly regular occurrence at Burntpoint, although only one individual each year. Other highlights include an American Golden-Plover nest and a Rusty Blackbird nest, each the first nest of the species found since studies began in 2001. Voles apparently are at a low point in their usual 3-4 year cycle, as few were seen, winter nest counts were low, none were live-trapped and the corresponding predatory birds that would usually be present in a high year were absent (e.g., we saw no Short-eared Owls, only 1 Rough-legged Hawk, and few Northern Harriers). Predation on nests was relatively high but at this point is only quantified for Canada Goose (which experienced 55% nest failure.

SHOREBIRD RESEARCH: Ken reports that two intensive shorebird plots (400 x 400 m) were established this June by the first crew for long term monitoring of shorebirds using the Arctic Shorebird Demographic Network protocols. In connection to the shorebird research, Ken reports that "We also began monitoring 9 wetlands for aquatic invertebrate species composition, abundance and biomass over the season. We are also monitoring terrestrial invertebrates at 15 stations." This data will help in understanding breeding shorebirds such as Hudsonian Godwit and Whimbrel. Many Arctic shorebirds are declining according to the newly released "The State of Canada's Birds". Climate change may be reducing their breeding success and northern habitats could change faster than some species can adapt.

BIRDS: The following paragraphs are Jean's report for the second crew. Mallards outnumber American Black Ducks (2 on 29th). Lesser Scaup. Common Goldeneye, 10 molting males on bay. Red-breasted Merganser. Common Loon, 1 on bay on 29th. Red-throated Loon, nest with two eggs near camp. Several other pairs nearby. Willow Ptarmigan are frequent around camp and often heard calling in early morning. Several nests found. Two pairs are almost camp pets. Bald Eagles (2-4/day) are now regular in summer presumably taking nesting and molting geese. Northern Harrier, 5 on 26th was a high count considering a low vole year, however, harriers are adept at taking young birds and this is hatching time. Arctic Tern. A non-vocal Lesser Yellowlegs on a tundra pond on 23rd was likely a migrant. Some Least Sandpipers and Dunlins have just hatched fluffy young. Both adult Dunlins were attending young chicks. A female Red-necked Phalarope on pond near coast on 29th may be a local breeder. Parasitic Jaeger regularly hunt over the tundra including flock of 4 on 27th. Jaegers are chased by Whimbrels and Hudsonian Godwits when they fly near their territories. Tennessee Warbler on 28th. Juvenile Horned Larks are flying. Smith's Longspur, 10 near coast on 29th, males singing from rocks and low shrubs. White-crowned Sparrows are common. Rusty Blackbird, male and female on 28th. White-winged Crossbill, two seen on 27th picking at last year's brown cones on a white spruce. This crossbill typically moves at this time of year seeking new cone crops. Common Redpolls are nesting. A flock of 12 redpolls on 28th on the ground under spruces was perhaps eating seeds dropped from last year's abundant cone crop.

MAMMALS: Small mammal numbers are low this summer which means that predators (foxes, weasels, jaegers, gulls, ravens, etc.) will take more birds, especially the young. High vole populations greatly reduce the predation pressure on birds. Northern Harriers and Short-eared Owl numbers are very low because vole populations are very low. 15 Caribou (groups of 7 and 8) near camp on June 23. Caribou and the Reindeer of Eurasia are the same species. Sea ice is currently about 1 km offshore with a south wind. Polar Bears are still on the sea ice hunting mainly Ringed Seals. They will come ashore over the next few weeks. Black Bears are rare along the coast. There are no records of Grizzly Bears in Ontario, but in recent years a few barren-ground Grizzlies have been seen in northeastern Manitoba about 300 km from Ontario. The eastward spread of Grizzlies from mainland Nunavut may be linked to increased food supplies provided by the now abundant Snow and Canada Goose populations along the coast. It seems a matter of time until a Grizzly is found in Ontario.  

BUTTERFLIES: Old World Swallowtail (June 26); Painted Lady; Red Admiral (4 very worn on 28th); Bog Fritillary; Jutta Arctic (20 on 28th); Giant Sulphur on 27th; Azure species and unidentified skippers.

WILDFLOWERS: Prominent species in bloom this week are Lapland Rosebay; Purple Rattle; Dry-Ground Cranberry (famous lingonberry of Scandinavia) and White Mountain-Avens (territorial flower of Northwest Territories).

2 maps and 1 photo show location of Burntpoint www.jeaniron.ca/Burntpoint/camp.htm

Snow Ice Map - note extensive ice in Hudson Bay off Ontario coast www.natice.noaa.gov/pub/ims/ims_gif/DATA/cursnow_usa.gif

Next report will be posted in about a week.

Ron Pittaway, Minden, Ontario


Burntpoint Report #2

Posted 7 July 2012

This is Jean Iron's second report by satellite phone for the period 30 June to 6 July 2012 from Burntpoint Creek Research Station on the Ontario coast of Hudson Bay. Burntpoint is operated by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (OMNR).  See map link below. The Burntpoint crew comprises Julie Belliveau (OMNR and Trent University), Matt Birarda (OMNR), Jean Iron (OFO volunteer) and Jim Sauer (volunteer). The recent daily weather has been variable ranging from 5 to 25 Celsius affected by wind direction and the camp's close proximity to Hudson Bay. The coast is 3.5 km from camp and regular visits while monitoring plots are made to the coast. The sea ice is now not visible from shore, but there is a lot of floating ice.

WATERBIRD/INVERTEBRATE STUDY: Julie Belliveau is conducting a Trent undergraduate thesis research project with assistance from the crew. Ken Abraham reports that Julie's project title is "Waterbirds and invertebrates of tundra wetlands in Ontario". It is a baseline study. Her goal is to determine the aquatic invertebrate species in three different wetland types and determine waterbird-wetland associations. Specific objectives include: to determine the species composition of aquatic invertebrates in tundra wetlands, to determine the relative and seasonal abundance and biomass of the invertebrate species, and to determine a preliminary idea of the relative use of different wetland types by waterbirds. Julie is supervised by Ken Abraham and David Beresford (Trent).

SHOREBIRDS: Crew is monitoring nests. American Golden-Plover nest with eggs on July 6. Presumed migrant shorebirds moving southeast along coast included 20 Dunlin, 3 Least Sandpipers, 5 Greater Yellowlegs, 6 Hudsonian Godwits and high flying Whimbrel. Some of these birds such as Dunlin and godwits are likely going to productive staging areas in James Bay. Whimbrels are probably going directly to the Atlantic Coast or farther.

SOME OTHER BIRDS: 15 Green-winged Teal on July 2. Tundra Swan on July 3. Two Pacific Loons on July 6. Three Northern Harriers are apparently preying on young birds because vole numbers are very low. Peregrine Falcon, 1 on 2nd was possibly a wandering introduced bird as most Tundra Peregrines are now in the High Arctic and Peregrines do not nest in the Hudson Bay Lowlands. Several broods of Willow Ptarmigan and one nest still with 8 eggs on July 6 near camp and several dust baths near camp. Ptarmigan eating the blossoms of White Mountain-Avens. Small colony of Arctic Terns on tundra ponds. The Parasitic Jaegers (all light morph birds) regularly hunting over the tundra are presumably taking mostly young birds. One Ruby-crowned Kinglet on July 1. Four Yellow-rumped Warblers on 5th. One Palm Warbler on 5th. One Tree Swallow on 5th. Two Barn Swallows on 4th. SPARROWS - 8 species in study area are American Tree Sparrow, Savannah, Nelson's (subspecies alter), 1 singing on July 1 and 2 singing on July 2, Fox, Lincoln's, Swamp, White-throated and Gambel's White-crowned Sparrow - although this area is described as the zone of intergradation between the nominate subspecies leucophrys and gambelii, all birds seen were like gambelii. 90% of White-crowneds in Churchill, Manitoba, are gambelii  (Jehl 2004 in Birdlife of Churchill Region). Ten male Smith's Longspurs near the coast were agitated presumably because females and nests were nearby. Common Redpolls are frequent including a few whiter probable Hoaries. Summer redpolls are worn and darker than winter birds making them more difficult to distinguish. Both Common and exilipes subspecies Hoary Redpolls breed in northern Ontario (Leckie and Pittaway in Ontario Breeding Bird Atlas 2007).

MAMMALS: Caribou - a large herd of about 3000 went through camp on July 2. The crew was surrounded by Caribou on both sides that were visible as far as they could see. There was a good number of calves in the herd. The Caribou movement upset Whimbrels and Hudsonian Godwits as it moved across their territories. Numbers down to 38 on 3rd and 1 on 6th. A Gray Wolf seen on July 2 was presumably following the Caribou. Taxonomically, all Caribou in Ontario are considered Woodland Caribou comprising two ecotypes: forest and tundra populations.

BUTTERFLIES: Brown Elfin is the one new species added since the last report. Jutta Arctic is the most frequently seen butterfly on the few sunny and warm days suitable for butterflies.

Maps and photo showing location of Burntpoint Camp


Snow Ice Cover Map shows extensive sea ice off the Ontario coast.


ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: Burntpoint camp is under the direction of Ken Abraham, Waterfowl and Wetlands Scientist (OMNR). Rod Brook (OMNR) and Sarah Hagey (OMNR) provide logistical support to the station.

Report #3 in about a week.

Ron Pittaway, Minden, Ontario


Burntpoint Report #3

Posted 14 July 2012

This is Jean Iron's third report by satellite phone for the period 7 - 13 July 2012 from Burntpoint Creek Research Station on Hudson Bay. Burntpoint is operated by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (OMNR). The crew comprises Julie Belliveau (OMNR), Matt Birarda (OMNR), Jean Iron (OFO volunteer) and Jim Sauer (volunteer).

CLIMATE CHANGE RESEARCH: Ken Abraham reports that "We started a new program of research on Ontario Tundra Ecosystems in 2012. The lack of information on this system and its vulnerability to an accelerated rate of climate change relative to other Ontario ecosystems have been highlighted in the Far North Science Panel report (2010) and the Hudson Plains Ecozone Status and Trends Report (2011). This new, planned as long term, program aims to fill gaps in knowledge of the components of the system and their functions and interconnections. This program builds on the long term work of the OMNR Wildlife Research and Development Section and the Hudson Bay Project."

BREEDING SHOREBIRDS: Whimbrel observed with young. Hudsonian Godwit, a very early flying juvenile with two attending adults on July 10. The earliest complete clutch of godwits is June 5 and the earliest hatching date is June 28 at Churchill, Manitoba (Jehl 2004). Nine Least Sandpipers territories still occupied. American Golden-Plover, young of the pair near camp hatched on July 6 and both adults still attending young on 12th. Jean said that it is easy to understand the breeding colours of the golden-plover. Its upper part feathers blend perfectly with tundra mosses and lichens.

MIGRATING SHOREBIRDS: Greater Yellowlegs, 74 adults moving east along coast on July 12. Whimbrel, 26 coastal migrants on July 8 going east while others still on local territories. Eight Whimbrels flew in from over Hudson Bay and continued southeast. Hudsonian Godwits are also moving east along coast while others are on territories. Sanderling, 207 adults migrating east along coast on July 13. Least and Semipalmated Sandpipers are also moving east along coast. Short-billed Dowitchers gathering on coastal pools: 7 on July 8, 25 on July 11 and 11 on 13th. The later flock of 11 dowitchers spiraled up before heading directly south from the coast. Most of the dowitchers were of the brightly coloured subspecies hendersoni.

OTHER BIRDS: White-winged Scoter, 44 molting males along coast on July 11. Black Scoter, 70 molting males along coast on 11th. Long-tailed Duck, female with 8 young on tundra pond on July 12. Pacific Loon nest observed from a distance on July 9 and 12th. Red-throated Loon nesting on pond 300 metres from camp. A Red-throated Loon flew over while I was talking to Jean giving its loud kwuk-kwuk-kwuk flight call which I could hear clearly over the phone. Willow Ptarmigan are frequent around camp using dust baths. Adult Herring Gulls in wing molt since late June. Mourning Dove, 1 on July 11. Smith's Longspurs, 32 on July 8 with most on dry ridges near the coast. Males still singing.

MAMMALS: Two freighter canoes moving along the coast were presumably from the Peawanuk First Nation (Cree) community about 74 km (46 mi) to the west. A Gray Wolf was seen on the July 8 and 12th near the coast in the vicinity of Caribou. Two Bald Eagles and Common Ravens were near the wolf suggesting that they were scavenging a kill. No Polar Bears yet. The bears are apparently hunting seals on the remaining sea ice which stays the latest off Ontario because of currents. See snow/ice map link below. Marine mammals in Hudson Bay are changing. In recent summers a few pods of Killer Whales (Orcas) have been entering Hudson Bay because the sea ice is melting earlier and freeze up is coming later. Killer Whales are presumably hunting Belugas (White Whales) which were previously free of Orca predation in most of Hudson Bay. The Orca's tall dorsal fin restricts it to areas with little or no ice cover, but ice conditions are changing on Hudson Bay.

AMPHIBIANS: Wood Frogs are frequent. Western Chorus Frogs last heard singing on July 5. One sighting only of an American Toad on July 13.

BUTTERFLIES: No new species added since the last report but Jean has photos of blues and sulphurs which she can't identify. She'll send photos out for identification.

WILDFLOWERS: Currently the coast and dry tundra ridges are glowing a purplish red with a spectacular blooming of Northern Hedysarum.

 Maps and photo showing location of Burntpoint Camp


Snow Ice Cover Map shows extensive sea ice still off Ontario coast.


JAMES BAY SHOREBIRD SURVEY and Red Knots: Three survey camps on the Ontario coast of James Bay begin operation on July 15 (tomorrow) under the direction of Christian Friis of the Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS) and Mark Peck of the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM). This is a continuation and expansion of surveys of knots and other shorebirds over the past few years. This summer regular invertebrate sampling will be done to quantify and better understand the foods being eaten by shorebirds. Jean will be joining this survey on July 30 and we will post weekly updates from the field.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: Burntpoint camp is under direction of Ken Abraham (OMNR), Waterfowl and Wetlands Scientist. Rod Brook (OMNR), Kim Bennett (OMNR) and Sarah Hagey (OMNR) provide logistical support to the station.

Burntpoint surveys finish on July 18 and Jean returns to Toronto next Friday. We'll post report #4 and she'll put photos on her website before going to James Bay in late July.

Ron Pittaway, Minden, Ontario


Burntpoint Report #4

Posted 23 July 2012

This is the fourth and summary report for Burntpoint Creek Research Station on Hudson Bay operated by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (OMNR).

The camp closed on 18 July. The first Polar Bear arrived on the 16th as the sea ice was rapidly disappearing from Hudson Bay. New birds since the last report were 3 Caspian Terns (first record) and a juvenile Northern Shrike.

Commonest shorebird was the Sanderling with 407 adults migrating east along the coast on 16 July. Total species for the period 22 June - 18 July 2012 was 70 including 16 species of shorebirds.

See links below to my website photos and videos. 

5 pages of website photos


Video of Caribou herd


Video of male Willow Ptarmigan dusting


Video of female Willow Ptarmigan dusting


ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: I thank Ken Abraham (OMNR) for the opportunity to do fieldwork at Burntpoint. Rod Brook (OMNR), Kim Bennett (OMNR) and Sarah Hagey (OMNR) provided logistical support. I particularly thank Ron Pittaway for posting my reports. I owe my love of shorebirds and the north to Ron who has encouraged me to volunteer with OMNR.

JAMES BAY REPORTS UPCOMING: As a continuation of previous summers, I begin surveying Red Knots and other shorebirds on 30 July for the Canadian Wildlife Service and Royal Ontario Museum. Watch for weekly updates in August.

Jean Iron, Toronto, Ontario


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