Birding in the Arctic
We are specialists in Canadian Arctic land-based and ocean voyage tours, having offered trips to the “true north” for over twenty years. As such, we’ve developed very close relationships with our Inuit and other local operators, without whom our wildlife tours would not be possible. It is with immense appreciation that we continue to introduce guests to their land, which can feel as far away from the rest of Canada as any foreign country!
Nobody forgets their first encounter with a Polar Bear, Walrus or a Narwhal. These emblematic species are what many guests seek out, and one doesn’t have to be a marine biologist to appreciate them. In fact, a jovial guest once joined our floe edge wildlife tour for no other reason than that seeing a Narwhal was the closest she could get to a real-life unicorn! She was neither wrong nor disappointed. In reality, our guided arctic tours offer a chance to see many wildlife species, such as Narwhal and Polar Bears, not to mention seals, Bowhead and Beluga Whales, Walrus and of course a myriad of birds. For optimal wildlife-viewing, our assemblage of floe edge tours on Baffin Island provide the best up-close encounters, each venue offering a unique landscape, fauna and approach. Narwhal are present at all locations. Camping is mandatory while out in the field, using large personal tents and pads, with both kitchen and bathroom huts provided. “Glamping” is the modern term for this. The temperatures often hover around zero degrees Celsius, but can be colder. We spend one or two nights in a hotel, where Arctic Char is a popular menu item.
In Pond Inlet, guests can expect a several-hour approach via komatik, or large covered sledge, pulled behind a snowmobile. This is generally a comfortable form of transport. Out at the floe edge here we encounter Narwhal and Bowhead whales, and have a good chance for Polar Bears, Ivory Gull and seabirds. In Arctic Bay, we have less of a chance for Bowheads, but Belugas are more likely and the camping is more comfortable, with heated personal tents. Both of the above settings offer mountainous backdrops. In Naujaat, we camp on land instead of on the ice, and the landscape is flatter for a more wide-open feel. Nesting shorebirds are found in the tundra, and walrus is a more likely possibility here. On these floe edge trips, we travel from camp to the best viewing sites at the floe edge itself, perching ourselves on camp chairs only metres from the water’s edge, and wait for the magic to happen!
After traveling so far north, guests may want to try something else while in the area. Therefore, we have offered an extension to our floe edge tours for special viewing of Walrus out of Igloolik. On this trip, guests can expect to travel by boat and encounter Walrus at a congregation site, or possibly on ice floes. Some resilience to longer periods in a boat is a must.
More information about our selection of Arctic Cruises can be found here, but in general these are a comfortable way to explore a vast amount of northern territory. Be it in Labrador or Greenland, we visit historic sites, scan for seabirds and marine mammals, and experience informative presentations, all from the comfort of our relatively small vessels custom-built for arctic travel. Forays take place with smaller zodiac boats to see glaciers, to explore dry land or visit picturesque villages. Our voyages normally don’t depart until after mid-summer when ice-free passage is ensured. Due to this, birdwatching for nesting shorebirds and other avifauna is past peak season, however seabird viewing from the deck can be outstanding. Wildlife such as Polar Bear and Walrus often allow close approach and photographers can gain unique angles from the deck of the ship.
For birders and serious bird photographers, our High Arctic and Northwest Territories trip is the tour of choice. When we visit in late June or early July, the ocean is normally still capped with ice, but the snows have thawed on land and the lakes have mostly melted. Flowers and insects are by now doing their thing, which is the cue for the arrival of millions of shorebirds, songbirds and waterfowl. Many species have already begun nesting upon our arrival. Though the diversity is not as high as in southern locations, the quality of viewing is excellent. Nobody forgets seeing a Red Phalarope or King Eider in breeding plumage, only metres away! Sabines Gull, Tundra Swan, Lapland Longspur and Long-tailed Jaeger are cooperative and gaudy photo subjects. On this tour, we offer a day in Edmonton for boreal forest and prairie birds (Mourning Warbler, American Avocet, Marbled Godwit, etc.) and three days in Yellowknife to experience the riches of the Canadian Shield. Already in Yellowknife we have an arctic influence, including nesting Red-throated Loon, Sandhill Crane and Arctic Tern among others. Up on Nunavut’s Victoria Island, birds are everywhere but other wildlife can be somewhat scarce near the Cambridge Bay townsite. Further afield we usually encounter some interesting mammals such as Arctic Fox and Arctic Hare, and have seen Musk Ox and Grizzly Bear.
In general, the bird and mammal viewing on all of our arctic tours varies year-to-year in response to food resources, weather conditions and other factors. Some years, Snowy Owls are plentiful, and others they are not. We’ve seen exciting rarities such as Pomarine Jaeger, Ross’s Gull and Common Ringed Plover, and Belugas and Walrus in areas they are not normally found. No matter what, coupled with the culture, landscapes, and that feeling of being “out there,” the natural history of the arctic offers an other-worldly experience, and it’s all just waiting for you to discover it!