Prince Leopold Island, 2012, important bird area

To end the summer off I got to work on Prince Leopold Island (PLI) in the high Arctic. Although I have worked in a number of low Arctic regions, this is my first time to the high north. To reach camps in the far north you work with the Polar Continental Shelf Program (PCSP) based out of Resolute, Nunavut.

View Prince Leopold Island in a larger map

Once in Resolute, the team at PCSP works with you to get all your gear and equipment to the camp you are heading to. In our case, PLI. Some of my samples for my MSc work came from PLI, but I have never actually visited the site so I was pretty excited to get my first look at this pretty spectacular colony.

PLI is located at 74°N 90°W so in the summer time that means all day sunshine, that is if it is not cloudy or foggy, which it is known to do a bit on PLI. It is also a federally listed migratory bird sanctuary, designated as a Canadian Important Bird Area, and as a key migratory bird terrestrial habitat site. It is pretty much a large slab of rock sticking up 1000 feet above the ocean with steep cliffs on most sides, which is why PLI is home to large numbers of to a number of marine birds.

There are the thick-billed murres. These birds nest along the rocky cliffs and lay their eggs right on the rock, in their narrow little territory on the cliff. They look like they are just sitting around, but under neither those sitting birds are the single eggs or chicks that each pair works hard to incubate, feed and raise each year.

Mixed in among the groups of murres there are also large groups of black-legged kittiwakes. Kittiwakes are a type of small gull that call out kittiwake as they fly around the colony. They build nests on the ledges from moss and grass they collect from the top of the island so you can often see gangs of these birds in the green valleys as you are hiking around the island. Kittiwakes usually lay 1 to 2 eggs each year, again with both parents needed to raise the gray little chicks until they can fly away from the nest.

The kittiwakes and the murres fill the face of the cliffs where they nest on the ledges, but up at the top on the scree slopes is where the northern fulmars like to nest. The hang out mostly along the tops of the cliffs where they can make a small nest cup out of the rubble and rocks. Fulmars come in light and dark morphs, with lots of different shades of gray in between, making it difficult at times to see them on the rocky outcrops. Can you spot all nine in the picture below?

Above the rocky scree, way up on top where the biologists hang out, so do the glacous gulls. These large gulls make a living by patrolling the rest of the colony, and taking eggs and chicks from the other birds whenever they can. These birds have up to 3 eggs usually, and are quite protective of their nests, which means that when you get too close to them you can expect some gull dive bombs.

The cliffs where all four of these species nest are quite chaotic, but there is one more species that nests of PLI. Black guillemots like to nest in rocky crevices and can be found in the relatively quite areas where the cracks in the rocks are relatively close to the water and provide good perching areas. Their red feet and high pitch calls make them difficult to miss.

There are other birds nesting on the island as well, but in much smaller numbers as compared to the thousands and tens of thousands of the above species. After weeks of eider surveys, I was still excited to find a new eider nest on the south spit of PLI. No matter how many eider nests I run across, the hens still make me jump when they flush from the nest when I am within a few meters.

One of the most exciting surprise nests that we found was that of a parasitic jaeger. Jaegers also start to dive bomb if you get too close, and they will also do a broken wing dance to try and lead you away from their nest like the bird in the picture below is displaying.

All in all I believe that our species count for the summer was 13, which sounds small, but when you consider that this small island, way up in Lancaster Sound in the High Arctic, is closer to the North Pole than it is to Ottawa, and is the home to hundreds of thousands of birds, all in all it is a pretty amazing list.

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