Sunday, 14 September 2014

Arctic Canada - wildlife

I'm just back from Arctic Canada where I spent five weeks on the good ship Ioffe as one of the naturalists, trying to spot distant Polar Bears and whales so that our passengers could enjoy views like this. Here is a mother with her two well-fed second-year cubs, in the sea north of Baffin Island. There were plenty of Bearded and (their favourite) Ringed Seals for their meals. The yellowish tinge of the fur (compared with the ice) is a good indication of a possible bear at two miles distance (thanks to my Swarovski scope). 

We were lucky to have great views of Narwhal, a rare and elusive Arctic whale with a unique tusk (in adult males). This was the origin of the myth of the unicorn, propagated by traders who would not reveal the source of this spirally-carved ivory (click on the image for a larger view). They show little of themselves above the water, but the whitish mottled skin is distinctive. The name is Norse for 'corpse whale.' Growing up to 4.5m in length, they are sociable animals, swimming in loose groups of over a hundred. In theory they are protected from over-hunting by a quota system.  

A much more widespread cetacean is the Orca, not a whale but the world's largest dolphin. We were surprised to find this pod at 70 degrees north. Up here their diet is mostly fish, but seals and even Narwhal should be wary of them. Narwhal usually find safety under ice, where the long-finned Orca cannot go. But in mid-summer when ice has melted, Narwhal seek refuge from their predators in shallow bays. 

One of our most memorable bird encounters was watching the fledging of the half-grown chicks of the Brunnich's Guillemots, known in America as Thick-billed Murre. At two weeks old, the chick makes an almighty leap from its nesting ledge with its father: perhaps as high as 800m above the sea. Though its wings are useless for flying, they can glide and help the chick to head out to sea, avoiding the Glaucous Gulls waiting on the rocks below. They can dive immediately to avoid danger. Now they swim together towards Greenland, learning to fish and fly as they go. At this time the parent moults his feathers and becomes flightless for a few days. These auks are truly pelagic, spending all their time out at sea except when they have to return to land to nest. 

 The Gyrfalcon is the largest falcon in the world, much prized throughout the ages by royalty and more recently by Arab sheikhs both for hunting and as a status symbol. My staff colleague David took this photo as it fed on a Kittiwake on Devon Island, north of Baffin Island. It allowed a surprisingly close approach, not only to David but also to a group of passengers who chose to hike up to the hilltop where it was busy feeding. 

The Long-tailed Skua (or Jaeger in America) is one of three skua species we met on my three Arctic voyages. They nest inland on the tundra, where they feed on lemmings. In early August we met several on the sea-ice, but by the end of the month they had all gone, heading south and dispersing out to sea. They completely change their diet, and spend the rest of the year harrying seabirds such as kittiwakes and terns, forcing them to disgorge their fish meals. 

 Finally, another staff colleague came across these Snowy Owls on the point of fledging. Thanks Nate! We had been watching the pure-white male up on a distant ridge, where he found a lemming and brought it over to the chicks. It has been a good year for Snowy Owls on Baffin Island, with several appearing on the shores as we steamed past. My next blog will feature some Arctic landscapes, seascapes, residents, and Northern Lights! Many thanks to fellow passengers for letting me share their photos. 

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