Sunday, April 18, 2010

They're Back!

Here in the Arctic we like to think of the return of the Snow Buntings as the first sign of the awakening of spring.  While it will still be weeks before any flowers are in bloom, the little bird’s melody drifting on the wind lifts ones spirits with this sure  sign of the coming season.
Male Snow Bunting- Mid April
One Snow Bunting was seen on the 4th of April, which set a new record for seeing one in the spring here.  It made one circle around the lodge then was never seen again. So it seems it was an early bird that was traveling to some other destination.  Our first Snow Bunting that came into the feeder arrived on the 17th, which is the long term average arrival date.  The following morning a second male was seen at the feeder, and the two males were busy chasing each other around the yard. 
SNBU_TO_7499Take Off – Male Bunting 
The most recent male has taken to chasing the other one from the feeder every chance he gets.  They still haven’t completely changed into their complete  breeding plumage. Both still have brown caps, brown or black ring across the chest area, and lots of brown in their back feathers.  It will be a while before they have their clear white heads and glossy black backs.
Besides their chirping calls that they make most of the time, I have also heard them making their territorial call.  It sounds like this to me “ATVeeee, ATVeeee”, and is usually made from a high perch next to the area they have selected for nesting.  We have 20 nest boxes around the property for them to use and the males have plenty of time to make a selection as the females won’t start arriving for almost another two weeks.   I watched one male yesterday making his ATVeeee call from several locations, like he was trying out different areas to see where his voice carried the best.

Stepping outside and hearing the sweet melody of the Snow Bunting makes one almost forget that the ground is still 100% snow covered and some of the drifts are nine feet thick.

Checking Out Nest box
The Snow Buntings have been the first birds around the house this winter besides the ever present Raven.  One of the individuals has a wing tag from a study done several years ago by the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.
            Wing Tagged Raven.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Warm Sunny Day

What a difference a day makes as we went from -25F to a balmy +26F in about twenty-four hours.  The weather had been colder than normal for this time of year, so it was an extra special day to be so warm with bright sunshine.  With the added reflection off the snow, it was so bright out that it made me squint even with sunglasses on.  It also has been a snowy winter and we have a deeper snow cover than we would on average.  Even with all the wind storms to blow snow away, most of the tundra lies buried and this has likely contributed to the fact that we have very little bird life around the house yet. 
I had hoped to see a few willow ptarmigan around the local area by now, but with the deeper snow cover they seem to be late moving this far north.  They are most likely still further up-river where the willows grow tall enough to reach above the snow and provide willow buds and left-over leaves on which the ptarmigan can feed.  Down here by the house our willows are only inches tall and one variety, the snow willow, grows flat along the ground.  For this reason, it doesn’t take much snow cover to make feeding hard for the ptarmigan.
I decided to take advantage of the nice day and take a snow machine trip, going up river a few miles to  see if I could find some  ptarmigan to photograph.  In 38km of travel, the only bird I saw was a raven about 2km from home.   After about an hour of wandering about 14km around the delta and seeing only a snowy landscape, I reached the south end of a large island that we can Ptarmigan Island.  It is good habitat for ptarmigan most seasons but today there wasn’t even a track or any sign that any birds had been feeding in the area in recent times. 
No birds here but I did find one lone cow caribou in one of the vegetated sand dune areas.  She was lying down chewing her cud when I first spotted her, and she finally got up as I neared her location. 


She let me get within 100 meters, then started moving off, with me following along for a short spell, taking pictures as I went. 


          Resting Cow Caribou



When I stopped following her, she went on for another 400 meters or so and went back to feeding.

Caribou Watching Me Take Its Picture.

As I turned away from the caribou, I spotted a red fox watching me on down the island a ways.  I drove towards it to see if I could get close enough for pictures. 


It didn’t seem too frightened and let me get with 120 meters, and when I stopped the snow machine, it turned back and worked closer to check me out. 

   Red Fox on a Bright Sunny Day.

There were signs that a seismic company had been doing work earlier in the winter in this area, and some of the crew probably had been leaving food out for it. Thus she worked downwind to see if there was any food smells about. 












The Pair of Red Foxes, Female on Left, Male on Right.

After about 10 minutes she decided to continue on down the ridge, going in the general direction of the feeding caribou.  I continued on my way in the opposite direction and as I drove over the top of large dune there was another fox out in a flat area.  I headed over in its direction and stopped about 75 meters away.  It was following along one of the old track vehicle trails, sniffing here and there, perhaps getting a few old food smells.  

RFox-squinting_7294Sunglasses Needed!  Both Foxes and the Caribou Kept  Squinting in the Bright Light.

As it turns out, it was the male and he came within 20 meters of me, checking to see if I might have something of interest.  After taking several pictures we heard the female barking and he headed off in her direction.  I followed along hoping to get pictures of them together.  I did get a few long shots of them together but they kept moving rapidly along the ridge and finally separated, so I let them go their way and I continued on my travels to see what else I might find.


They were the last game seen on my travels this day, although I did see a lot of pretty country and it was great to just be outdoors enjoying such a bright day. 

I stopped on top of a Pingo* to survey the surrounding area, looking for game. All I saw there was a set of fresh white fox tracks, but never saw the fox.

*A pingo is a mound of earth-covered ice found in the Arctic and subarctic that can reach up to 70 metres (230 ft) in height and can only form in a permafrost environment. They are essentially formed by ground ice which develops during the winter months as temperatures fall and cause the ground to push up.



A Close-up of the Caribou’s Face Showing Her Reacting to the Bright Sunshine.

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Arctic Smoke Signals by James W. Helmericks is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.