It was 112° as I drove to a late afternoon appointment Thursday. This is withering heat. I suppose I shouldn’t anthropomorphize but as I look at this photograph, the female bushtit on the left seems to be reacting to the male as if he just told her how hot it was. So, I put words in her mouth…her reaction to the fact that it was 112° and it is my reaction as well.
One afternoon on the way to Twin Lakes outside of Churchill, we encountered a Spruce Grouse on the road. This male was displaying in hopes of attracting a mate but he wasn’t successful in attracting any females.
It’s hot here. 108° Tuesday; 107° expected Wednesday; 110° predicted Thursday. The Bathing Bushies decided to start cooling off early. The little male peering at me from the crush of bushtit bodies behind the bubble doesn’t seem concerned about being squeezed so close to the cooling water.
Most of the nests that we saw while in Churchill were nothing more than scrapes. The tundra provides a soft place for the birds to nestle but they don’t seem to add much other material to the nests. One day we were very lucky to find the hummock upon which an American Golden-plover had nested. We approached the nest one by one, one step at a time: lift tripod; move it forward a couple of feet; take two steps; pause; watch the bird. If the bird doesn’t seem to notice the slow advance, then, repeat. If she notices, she will likely leave the nest and run away pretending she has an injured wing. If this happens, freeze in place and wait several minutes for her to return to the nest. Try again. We were careful not to stress the bird because if she left the nest for too long a period, the eggs would get too cold. Four of us advancing toward the nest singly, two steps at a time, took about half an hour. If we had stressed her too much, we would have abandoned our approach. Lucky for us she was very cooperative and did not appear stressed.
This series of photographs shows her on the nest, standing by the nest, getting ready to settle onto the eggs, and back on the nest. If you look closely, the eggs are hiding in plain sight. The large spotted eggs are visible in the second and third photographs. I counted three eggs but there may have been more. They blend in so well with the reindeer moss.
Arctic tundra is fascinating. It is considered the world’s coldest biome, and despite the snow, there is relatively little water; it is like a cold desert that supports unique flora and fauna. One afternoon as I used my 18-35mm lens on the D500 to take close up photographs of the mosses, lichens, and a few wild flowers, I suddenly realized that the pink flowers I was drawn to were azaleas…stunted versions of the azaleas with which we are so familiar. They grow very low to the ground and the flowers are barely an inch across when fully open. In some places, there were just a few plants sprinkled across vast swaths of moss showing a pop of pink here and there. In other places, there were lots of azaleas that gave a bright, cheerful look to the tundra. I saw only one color of azalea there. It happens to be my favorite color of azalea and at home, a row of larger versions of these magenta flowers decorates my front yard.
Lots of birds and mammals in the Arctic change color in summer. During the winter months when snow covers everything here, their plumage or fur is white so they blend into the snow. When the snow melts, all white feathers and fur are no longer useful as camouflage so they molt their plumage or fur so they once again blend into their surroundings. This Arctic Hare is an example of this drastic change in appearance. We photographed it at sunset one evening. Most of its white fur has molted and only a few clumps remain. Instead of stark white, the Arctic Hare is now more of a brownish gray color to help it better blend into the tundra. But, the camouflage can’t work all the time. The rabbit shadows on the rock give away its location.
What’s interesting about the shore birds in Churchill, Canada is that they’re sporting their breeding plumage. Over the years, I’ve seen lots of shorebirds, mostly on my annual January visits to Port Aransas on the Gulf of Mexico. Because I see these birds in winter, on their southern most stop on their winter migration, their feathers are gray and their plumage is rathe drab. Not so the shore birds on Hudson Bay. They are in fine feather so to speak, like this Long-billed Dowitcher, posing one evening on a rock in the Granary Pond at the Port in Churchill.
There’s only one kind of tern in Churchill—the Arctic Tern. Here a single Arctic Tern lands on a rock in the Granary Pond in early evening.
We spent some time near Hudson Bay exploring the tundra habitat with its clear, shallow ponds, arctic azaleas, mosses, and the ubiquitous orange lichen. The lichen covers the glacier-flattened rocks in great blotches of yellows, whites, and blacks, but the brilliant orange seems to be the dominant lichen. It is quite a spectacular sight. To me it is a kind of arctic drop cloth covered with splotches of paint. This shot looks a little like reminds me of a scrunched up drop cloth, ready to be carried to the next paint job.
Despite seeing eighteen species of birds on our first afternoon in Churchill, Canada, we were able to photograph only a single bird that day. But that bird, a Greater Yellow Legs, gave me my first opportunity to put my new hip boots to use. We wear them every day, all day, when we go out and we only put on our regular hiking boots when we plan to shoot in a location where there is no tundra, a very rare thing in this arctic region. The tundra is comprised primarily of moss, lichen, and low shrubs and in the summer, the topmost layer of the permafrost melts so the tundra becomes spongy and if you’re not used to it, it’s weird to walk on. With my first steps onto the tundra, I thought I was going to sink in too deep but some areas don’t give at all and others bounce a little. I’m still getting my “tundra legs” and it is a challenge to carry my camera rig over the tundra but I’m determined to “make it work” as Tim Gunn says.
To photograph this Greater Yellow Legs as it foraged in a clear, shallow pond, we walked right into the pond which was several inches deep. We managed to walk fairly close to the bird because our hip boots allowed us to walk into the water without worrying about getting wet. We photographed this bird for almost an hour and at the end of that time, it finally walked out of the water and onto a mound of tundra so we were able to capture the bird, in full breeding plumage, in its breeding habitat.