Sanikiluaq 2012, polynyas

At the end of of March 2012 I traveled to Sanikiluaq, Nunavut with Mike and Joel to do some winter work. Sanikiluaq is a small community of about 1000 people located on the Belcher Islands in southern Hudson Bay. To get to Sanikiluaq we traveled from Ottawa to Montreal, and then on a small Air Inuit flight that services a number of communities in Nunavik (Northern Quebec) and Sanikiluaq, Nunavut.

View March 2012 Field Work in a larger map

Joel and Grant have been working in this community for more than 10 years, but this is mine and Mike’s first visit here. Even with the sea ice and snow covering the land you can see the long fingers of the islands reaching into the distance. The Belchers may only be at 55 degrees north, but the Belcher’s are the home of winter sea ice as far as the eye can see, polar bears, Arctic foxes, and a subpopulation of non-migratory common eider ducks (Somateria mollissima sedentaria). Which is why the bird biologists come here when most Arctic field researchers are still at home planning for the coming field season.

We have come to do some work in the community, but we have also come of course to study the birds! Part of my research involves working with local hunters to collect eider ducks in order to study their health and parasites. This involves suiting up and heading out with the hunters, which in the north is no small feat.  In order to stay warm we use the best of new and old technologies.  On the bottom the amazingly warm and comfy Canada Goose down filled pants, on the top traditional Sanikiluaq style down parkas with fur lined hoods that go over your winter outer wear.

These parkas are for keeping warm while at -40°C. We wear them for traveling, and then usually take them off when we stop and are working. Your worst enemy in the cold is getting too warm and sweaty, so far all the layers we work hard at keeping an even temperature, because once you get even a little damp the cold really sets in which can be dangerous out on the land.

From the town of Sanikiluaq most of the polynays, and where the hunters usually take eider ducks, are a few hours south. We travel in small groups on snow machines (snowmobiles) across the frozen tundra and sea ice, stopping and stretching every once and a while to keep the blood flowing. And of course check some seal breathing holes out along the way.

Around the Belcher Islands the eiders use the open water habitats to feed and rest on throughout the winter months. The birds use both floe edges, areas between land fast ice and the floating sea ice, and polynyas, areas of open water kept open by fast moving currents, to feed at. At the southern tip of the islands, near where the Environment Canada cabin is built, when the winds blow from the south and close the floe edges the birds search for open water and arrive at the polynyas by the thousands. This is what we have come for! There is a permanent cabin that has been built here to help facilitate our research in the area.  The main cabin is for sleeping and for cooking we have a weatherhaven tent that we put up that is warm and cozy, even in the winter winds (especially with bannock warming inside).

After opening up the camp, getting things set up and making sure the cabin has survived another season on the exposed southern tip of the islands we got on the snowmachines a couple of hours before sunset and went to see where we could find some open water. When we first arrived at the polynyas only a few were open, and the one polynya that had birds on it had only about 700 eiders on it.

But we could also see more coming in in small numbers to the west of us, but the winds were not blowing very strong so we were unsure if large numbers would come. Puasie, one of the hunters we worked with positioned himself to be in line with the where the eiders were coming from, and crossed our fingers that more would come.

And waited.  Some small groups came in, but they came in a different route that was too far from the hunters. While we waited we snuck down to the edge of the polynya to get a closer look. We can see the males (the white and black ones) and the females (all brown) resting on the the ice edges (pictured below). A snowy owl was also perched nearby, keeping an eye out for any meal that might present itself. Small groups of long-tailed ducks could also be seen flying into the polynya.  They also spend the winter months here, though not in as large numbers as the eiders.

And then we looked up and a huge groups of eiders appeared on the horizon heading towards the polynya.  And they just kept coming…

And coming….

And coming….

And then coming from the other side as well!

Unfortunately, the birds came right by where Puasie, one of hunters, had first set up, but nowhere near where he had re-positioned after watching the other eiders coming in. We did get one female duck from the evening, but after the large group of about 5000 birds came in the bird traffic slowed right down, so we headed back to camp for a late dinner and bed.A lot of work in the north involves a lot of planning, waiting, trying and sometimes trying again later when things as subtle as the winds change. So although we had great success with finding the eiders on the open water areas, another day will be needed to hunt the birds needed for our collections.

As we left the polynya we could hear, but not see, the almost 8000 birds humming on the water, and flying from one end where the currents pushed them, to the other every 25 minutes or so.


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