Sunday 8 January 2017

Netitishi Point - Days 17 and 18

Weather: 6 to 8 to 8 degrees C, wind SW 10-20 km/h, nearly calm by dusk, overcast, light rain in evening
15 species

Our last full day on the coast had finally arrived. The conditions were beautiful at dawn, even though the wind was once again out of the southwest. But it was relatively calm and sunny on this day, with a light dusting of snow that melted as the temperature climbed towards the high single digits. We even experienced a brief rainbow, which I thought would make a good photo with the Motus tower in the foreground.

Motus tower - Netitishi Point, Cochrane District

For those who aren't aware, Motus is a wildlife tracking system that claims to be the world's most ambitious bird tracking initiative. It is a program of Bird Studies Canada in partnership with Acadia University and in collaboration with various researchers and organizations. Several hundred of these towers have been erected along shorelines and other areas that concentrate migrating birds across North America and beyond, though most towers are located in eastern North America. These towers can pick up frequencies emitted by radio transmitters affixed to particular individual birds. This way they are able to track the exact spatial and temporal data of migrating birds passing the towers. I would encourage anyone to who is interested in this to check out some of the interactive maps found here - it is pretty interesting stuff.

Around mid-morning, Todd and I were sitting in the sea-watching shelter, hoping and praying for a bird to go by. It was that slow! It was during this lull that an interesting finch call made us pay close attention. It was an Evening Grosbeak calling from back towards the cabins! We quickly jumped up and went off in search of the grosbeak. I had never seen one at Netitishi, and my only sightings for this part of the world were a few that I have seen in Moosonee on occasion - southern James Bay is right around the northern limit of this species in Ontario. Despite triangulating the calls to a particular clump of spruce trees and listening to the bird call frequently, we never did get a visual!

Speaking of finches, a good number of individuals were flying around the camp today, and we totaled approximately 25 Pine Grosbeaks, 10 White-winged Crossbills and 20 redpolls. Watching the bay on the other hand was quite slow. We observed ten ducks on the day; not ten species, but ten individuals! Gulls were also quite scarce and only a few Herring and Ring-billed Gulls lazily floated on by.

Two Snowy Owls provided a bit of excitement during the morning. Both eventually flew off down the coast - one heading east and one heading west.

As the day came to an end our bird list had stalled at 15 species for the day. But it had been a great day for walking around in the cool northern air, and we were treated to a beautiful sunset in the evening, likely the best one of the trip. I am going to miss this place...

Sunset at Netitishi Point, Cochrane District

Sunset at Netitishi Point, Cochrane District

November 14, 2016
Weather: -2 to 0 degrees C, wind W 20 km/h, sun and clouds, trace of snow
15 species

During our final morning on the coast we were up early so that we could take care of most of the chores while it was still too early to bird. Our helicopter was scheduled to arrive by 10:00 AM to take us back to civilization.

After carrying all our gear to the coast, and setting our last garbage fire, Todd and I packed up and boarded up the cabins. We had about an hour and a half left to scan the bay. The winds had shifted slightly so that they were coming straight out of the west, and a few birds were taking advantage of the conditions. Most notable were the Red-throated Loons - at least 300 birds flew by, though they were all extremely distant, so much so that they looked like barely more than tiny black flecks in our spotting scopes. It was one of those situations where the identification is based more on how the structure of the flock looks as opposed to seeing actual field marks. Red-throated Loons will migrate in big flocks with the individuals maintaining a great deal of distance between them, so that a flock of a hundred or more birds could be spread over a vast portion of the sky. Cold, clear days in November sure seem to get the Red-throated Loons moving past southern James Bay. Todd was finally happy to get on these birds, as the distance had made it very difficult for him to get on previous flocks of Red-throated Loons I had seen earlier in the trip.

Long-tailed Ducks were also on the move today with 600+ counted, yet we only observed three individual scoters. We did see a lone Brant migrate past, the last individual of the trip. As the minutes ticked down towards 10:00 AM, the ratio of time spent looking through my eyepiece vs looking elsewhere increased. While no 11th hour rarity appeared, we did have one last great sighting, only 10-15 minutes before the distant whirr of the helicopter appeared. A bright white object appeared in my scope and I quickly directed Todd to the location - a Beluga! Todd quickly got on the whale, then we both struggled to get more than fleeting glimpses as it surfaced between the waves close to the water line.

Belugas are the only whale species to regularly enter James Bay,  as their more advances sonar allows them to more confidently navigate shallow waters. Often they will hunt very close to shore, hunting fish trapped in shallower areas.

It is still quite difficult to spot a Beluga from shore in Ontario unless one puts in a lot of time and effort sea-watching. Not because they are difficult to identify (though its surprisingly easy to confuse a distant white-cap with one!), but because there are relatively few of them over James Bay, a pretty big place. This was my fourth observation of Beluga in Ontario, and second observation at Netitishi. Of course, each time the cetaceans were too distant for good photos.

scanning the bay at Netitishi Point, Cochrane District

The helicopter arrived right on time (within 30 seconds of 10:00 on the dot!) and we quickly loaded our gear. A couple of the Cree guys whose families run the camp had arrived on the helicopter - they were planning on staying there until Christmas, trapping Pine Marten. It was nice to meet them as well.

The helicopter ride was pretty eventful as Todd pointed out a raptor to me that had passed very close to us - a young Northern Goshawk! This was likely a migrant bird, as it was moving fairly high up and along the shoreline.

Despite feeling a world away, Netitishi Point is a  mere 20 minutes from Moosonee via helicopter and we had a distant view of the town only a couple of minutes into the flight. Just like that, another trip had ended and we were back in civilization.

With about six hours to kill before our train departed for the south, we decided to have a good old fashioned diner breakfast at the Sky Ranch, the main restaurant in Moosonee. After stuffing ourselves, a walk was in order. We stashed all of our gear at the restaurant in a back room, then left on foot to check out some of the feeders in town as well as the sewage lagoons. For some reason I had decided to do the walk without my camera - after all, it was going to be a long walk carrying the thing and we weren't really expecting anything rare, given the late date.

As we were passing a small cemetery located just northeast of the lagoons, we stopped suddenly as we noticed a small bird alight on one of the headstones. A look through binoculars confirmed that it was a female Mountain Bluebird! Todd and I based in its glory and watched it for about 10 minutes as it perched, hovered, and seemingly caught various morsels in the grasses. Eventually it sat in a poplar for a few minutes, than took off over the tree line towards the sewage lagoons.

searching for the Mountain Bluebird - Moosonee, ON

Wanting to document the bird, we began the long walk back to town to fetch our cameras. Fortunately, we came across a healing lodge, located only a few minutes away. Here we were able to inquire with one of the ladies whether she could call us a taxi - she obliged, and ten minutes later the taxi rolled up. While Todd walked to the cemetery and lagoons to try to re-find the bluebird I hopped in the taxi, rode back to town, picked up my camera and returned an hour or so later. Unfortunately we could not re-find it despite spending the rest of the afternoon looking, and soon enough we had to get moving if we wanted to make our train.

This very late Greater Yellowlegs was the only shorebird at the lagoons. This is likely a record late date for southern James Bay, but I'm not certain.  With that, we completed the long walk back to town, grabbed all our gear, then walked it to the train station. Along the way an off-duty police offer saw us struggling carrying all our gear so gave us a ride to the station - thank you! By 5:00 PM the train was rolling, and another trip had concluded. Till next time...

Greater Yellowlegs - Moosonee sewage lagoons


Unknown said...

Great posts and summary of the trip. I can't wait to get back up there!

Josh Vandermeulen said...

Thanks Kory - me too!

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed reading this, thanks for posting!


Josh Vandermeulen said...

Many thanks, Tony!