East Bay, 2013, early season shorebirds

The camp located on East Bay Island was established as a camp to study the common eider duck. But, to be honest when you arrive on East Bay Island in late May/early June you may find this hard to believe.  In early June the island is a small area of exposed rock in a sea of snow. The water surrounding the island in solid ice, and the mainland of Southampton Island off in the distance is covered in snow. While everything around the East Bay Island is thick, white, never-ending snow, the rocks and melting pools of the Island provide a type of oasis. As a result, this little rock sticking up out of the ocean provides a resting spot and fueling up zone for thousands of shorebirds they make their journey north. And if you are lucky enough to get to East Bay Island during this window between when the melt has started on the island, but before the melt has really started in the surrounding areas you are convinced that this place must be a shorebird camp, and not an eider colony.

On East Bay Island when these early shorebird migrants are moving through one of the daily tasks are morning and evening shorebird walks. Because East Bay Island is also a potential stopping over spot for polar bears the two most important tools we have on our walks is not only the spotting scope for the birds, but also a shotgun for bear defense.

Shore bird walk

Once out near the many ponds the crew works together to scan the rocks and water for shorebirds. This can be challenging as many species are designed to be camouflaged, but with practice even seabird biologists like me, who are use to working with birds that are more likely to dive bomb you then hide, can learn to find even the most elusive birds on the island.

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One of the most common birds on the island this year were Dunlin. Although quite drab outside of the breeding season these birds have a lovely reddish colour on their backs and a black patch on the abdomen in the breeding season. They are one of the first birds you learn to recognize quickly as they dart among the rocks, going from melt pond to melt pong eating as many emerging insects as they can.

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White-rumped sandpipers are also a common visitor to the Island. They are a bit harder to tell apart from some of the other species when standing in the water like this one, but if they take flight they have a very distinctive white rump.

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We also get some more rare and flashy visitors to the Island. There are three species in the picture below that made some big appearances this year, although are not as common as Dunlin and white-rumped sandpipers. The most obvious in the photo below are the golden plovers. These are the three birds along the tops of the rocks that have golden backs, black faces and what looks like a white scarf on. They are large birds and seemingly stand still for hours as they rest after their long migration from Central and South America.

A migratory companion of the golden plover is also in the picture below, though more difficult to see. Red knots are a plump shorebird that are known to migrate with golden plovers, and on this particular evening on the Island were found foraging in and around the plovers. They have brown backs and red bellies, and can be seen foraging in the grass below the rocks where the plovers are standing.

Last but not least there is one more small shorebird in and amongst the red knots. Semipalmated sandpipers are the very small looking whiteish birds on the grass below the rocks where the red knots are. You can see they are quite small beside the plovers and red knots. They have brown backs and white bellies, and like the plovers and knots, are only on the Island for a short time before they continue on their journey towards their breeding grounds.

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All of the shorebird observations are just one part of the science done at East Bay each year. The crew works hard to make sure all the data is collected and entered so that it can be used  to answer a variety of research questions.  This means that even when the sun has set, which is quite late at East Bay, we make sure to enter the days sightings and events. Here Frankie diligently enters the days data and log while she gets ready for bed. Just another day at East Bay Island, though I am still not convinced this is a eider camp ;).

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