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NUNAVUT BIRDING, WILDLIFE AND WHALE WATCHING

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We were awe-struck by 800,000 thick-billed murres nesting on Digges Island, at the eastern entrance to Hudson Bay, in Nunavut. A blizzard of pudgy black and white birds spilled from the 285-metre cliffs.

Bird watching
Bird watching
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Black feet spread like rudders, they clumsily splash-landed on their bellies around us. Thousands of the thick-billed murres jostled on rocky ledges for the best spots to protect their aquamarine eggs from hungry glaucous gulls.

We approached Digges Island on Zodiacs (motorized rubber rafts) during our Arctic cruise of Nunavut. About 45 per cent of Nunavut is on mainland Canada. The remainder of the eastern Arctic territory is an archipelago of hundreds of islands.

Birding tours

Besides thick-billed murres, we spotted falcons, gulls, terns, geese, loons and other Nunavut birds. We focused our binoculars on twittering snow buntings and their chicks, a rough-legged hawk swirling above the cliffs and common ravens scavenging a caribou carcass.

There are 250 bird species in Nunavut, including gyrfalcons, Arctic loons, golden eagles and snowy owls. Nearly 95 percent of the world's population of Ross's geese nest in the Queen Maud Gulf Migratory Bird Sanctuary.

More than 320,000 thick billed murres nest on Bylot Island. Coats Island has two huge colonies of thick-billed murres. Coburg Island (located between Ellesmere Island and Devon Island) has a colony of 500,000 seabirds.

Migratory birds arrive in late May and early June. They nest and raise their young until mid-August, when they start flying south.

Good times for birding are mid-May through August. Outfitters offer special birdwatching trips.

Bird watchers see migratory sandhill cranes performing courtship displays, peregrine falcons defending their territories with aerial dogfights and massive seabird colonies feeding in migratory bird sanctuaries, like Prince Leopold, near Resolute Bay.

Man examines walrus vertebrae.
Man examines walrus vertebrae.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Arctic wildlife

Marine mammals, such as narwhals, orcas, bowhead and beluga whales, seals, polar bears and walruses are best seen on guided boat tours. Walrus Island, for example, is a rocky outcrop at the western mouth of Hudson Bay.

Its gently sloping edges are worn smooth from the hundreds of walruses that haul their massive bodies (adult walruses can weigh up to 1,400 kilos) up on shore to bask in the sun. On a good day, you'll see more than 200 walruses snuggled together, to keep warm.

Rousing occasionally, they swivel their flippers to scratch their wrinkled bodies. We drifted close enough to photograph the walruses without disturbing them.

Polar bear
Polar bear
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Polar bear watching

Although eager to see polar bears, we soon learned that the largest land carnivores in Nunavut must be treated with respect. When our ship's scouts spotted a polar bear loping along Coats Island, the captain aborted his scheduled landing.

Our admiration for the strength and endurance of the white predator grew further, as we watched a polar bear swimming off the port side of the ship, more than 145 kilometers away from Qikiqtarjuaq (formerly Broughton Island), a good place for polar bear watching.

Wildlife sanctuaries

Nunavut has four national parks (Auyuittuq, Sirmilik, Quttinirpaaq and Ukkusiksalik), 14 territorial parks and 20 existing and proposed migratory bird sanctuaries, game sanctuaries and national wildlife areas.

The population of Nunavut is 32,800. Caribou outnumber residents by more than 25 to one. The best way to see caribou, as well as musk oxen, grizzly bears, wolves, foxes, moose, hares and other land mammals is on nature tours, led by biologists, who understand animal behavior.

On Shaftsbury Inlet, we noticed a caribou on the horizon. Soon, three, then eight caribou trotted by us in a tawny tide. Like apparitions, they vanished over the hills, leaving only tulip-shaped tracks in their wake.

Hiking in Nunavut
Hiking in Nunavut
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Binoculars for bird watching

Sometimes we observed the presence of musk ox, caribou, Arctic fox, hares and lemmings by clues they left behind: tufts of fur caught on branches, fallen antlers, burrows and dens, piles of scat, footprints and even carcasses and skeletons.

On and off the ship, we kept our cameras and binoculars ready for spotting birds and animals. If the captain announced: "Seals at 3 o'clock!" we dashed to the upper deck to watch the marine mammals pop their inquisitive whiskered heads above the water line.

Whale watching trips

In the Canadian Arctic, the most common whale species are bowheads, belugas, orcas (killer whales) and narwhals. The spiraled ivory tusk of the narwhal is longer than a human male. In the 19th-century, whalers thought narwhal tusks belonged to unicorns. You can find narwhals in Lancaster Sound, around Bylot Island and along the eastern coast of Baffin Island.

On our more southerly route, we saw no narwhals, orcas or bowheads, but we did see pods of white belugas near Whale Cove, Hudson Bay. These friendly and curious mammals make strange and complicated sounds, earning them the nickname: canaries of the sea.

Woman observes Hudson Strait.
Woman observes Hudson Strait.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

In Nunavut, whale watching months are May to September. You will never forget the sound of a 100-ton bowhead whale, exhaling through its blow spouts, only metres away. Nunavut Tourism provides lists of prime viewing areas, as well as outfitters for nature and photography tours.

Arctic tundra

From a distance, Arctic tundra looks devoid of life. Up close, however, it abounds with miniature plants. We discovered this Lilliputian garden by looking down, on our knees and bellies.

There are more than 200 species of flowering plants in the Baffin (Qikiqtaaluk) Region alone. Within the area covered by a broad-brimmed hat, you can find 12 to 13 species.

Purple saxifrage
Purple saxifrage
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Botanists point out unique flower species, like the silky white blossoms of Arctic cotton and the parabolic-shaped flowers of yellow Arctic poppies.

Brilliant pinky-purple splotches attracted us to clumps of fireweed. The young shoots make a delicious salad. Cooked, they taste like asparagus.

It was a privilege to glimpse the plant, mammal and bird life in this pristine and harshly beautiful Canadian territory. We look forward to returning to Nunavut, where the latitude lines converge, the summer sun never sets and the sea canaries sing.


TRAVEL INFORMATION

Nunavut Tourism: www.NunavutTourism.com

Adventure Canada: www.adventurecanada.com

More things to see and do in Nunavut:

Nunavut - What to See and Do on Arctic Vacations

Inuit Culture, Games and Tools

Lonely Planet Greenland and Arctic