In Search Of Mystery Birds

On the matter of tramping through the forests in the snow, I had a rather good excursion some days ago, with one of the volunteers. Someone had said that the had seen a gyrfalcon in the rocket range, and another in the woods near the quinzhee, so we took up our cameras and went out walking.

I have always loved raptors, and the gyrfalcon seems emblematic of the north. They are graceful and hardy birds, remarkably fast and agile like the rest of their kind. The Inuktitut word is kiggavik or kiggaviarjuk. They are found around the Arctic regions of the world, and into the southern latitudes as far as the US, though I do not know how often they are seen. Around here, they are apparently year-round residents, and this is a promising notion for the prospect of seeing one eventually.

We spent only an hour out in the woods, but it was a fine ramble, mostly spent in the woods and the snow — it is deeper in the forest, of course! There is a frozen lake or swamp between the Centre and the woods, but this is much more exciting than it sounds, as it is only about two feet deep when thawed. Still, it makes for better walking than the forest, being smoother and hard ice rather than inconsistent snow which by all rights requires snowshoes.

Bringing snowshoes might have been wise, but we did not. There is a snowmobile trail through the forest, and we strayed only a little, until we could stand waist-deep in the snow and look around, mostly immobilised. The forced patience was likely a good thing, for I have never been much of a birder due to an unruly restless nature. After a few minutes in the snow, we would move on to the next stop, and so we continued for some time. We saw nothing of falcons, gyr or otherwise, but there were a great many ptarmigan tracks which we found on our way back to the Centre and which were all crossing one another in the snow as if not too long before we arrived there had been some bustle of activity among the birds. They did not show themselves, but the tracks were so clear that the forest must have been full of them earlier that afternoon.

Interestingly, a few days later when some of the Earth Watch team went out on the ice, the same volunteer joined them, and she told me that they had found a feather, and blood on the snow — the feather having belonged to a gyrfalcon. Whether it had been hunting or fighting they could not say, as it was a large feather and not one that it would normally lose in a hunt, according to Science (or the one science staff member there!).

I wonder what happened to it, and where the rocket range bird lives. More than a polar bear, I want to see one of these. Whether or not I can capture a photograph.

Trapped By Snow

The second blizzard since I came here ended yesterday. In fact, it nearly prevented a group from leaving, as no one was sure whether or not the flights would leave, and even if they did, there was a definite risk the roads would be blocked by drifts of snow! The drive to town is ordinarily only half an hour, but in such weather as we have had, it takes an hour at least, and so we had a very tense time of it while waiting to hear whether the bus would finally be able to get through.

It is strange — I spend far more time outdoors in the city than I do here. There are rules surrounding going out, due to the dangers involved and the fact that it is, to me, unknown territory. I must not go alone, and I must bring a radio in case of trouble. Then there is the clothing. I am a lover of comfort, and no clothing is more uncomfortable than boots that weigh three pounds each, snow pants that turn one’s legs into a single rustling column, and mittens which reduce the motion of a hand to nearly nothing. Vanity must be forgotten, and easy movement forgone. The great consolation, however, is that there is no need to wear a net, nor insect repellent, and this is fortunate!

Still, the cold keeps us inside for much of the time. An hour outside is enough to freeze the face — on a windy day walking one way is comfortable, the other, unbearable. It makes any chance to go outside seem special — an event. Today, I ventured out near sunset, and walked on the frozen lakes. There was snow so hard-packed that it feels like solid ground, and snow in the forest so deep-piled that I sank past my knees. The wind had made ridges and curves and rivulets of snow, and I have no doubt it changes its character with every blizzard, rubbing out paths and scouring any clearings. I am sure I saw some ptarmigan tracks, but these were almost obscured.

The only exception to the warmth-and-comfort rule, so far, has been auroras. We are all quick to dash out at the sign of the northern lights, and the cold can be written off as a mere pleasant discomfort.

Travels With A Donkey

My rule, when travelling, is simple. I need two things, and the rest are optional, the things in question being a map and a companion. I would of course prefer a human companion — ideally, one who will make the plans and accept the occasional deviation, as well as making good conversation — but, in practical matters, it seems a donkey will do.

Perhaps not that particular donkey, admitteedly. Despite the assurances of Monasterians that he would soon love Modestine like a dog, Stevenson admits to having a heart ‘as cold as a potato’ towards her, and she appears quite indifferent towards him — ambling slowly along without either affection or dislike.

The journey follows him through the Cevennes, musing on nature, travel, strangers and skies, spending days at a monastery followed by a tramp through the heart of the Camisard country. One of the things I love about the writing is how differences of religion are set down with humour, observation and wit — from the dinner-table conversation with fellow boarders, to brief studies of the Protestant-Catholic clashes that had happened there only a little over a century before.

There is no pretense in his writing — no invented danger, and almost indeed the reverse, as he dismisses the perceived danger of the outside world. It is a landscape lovingly described, and by one who evidently took pains to observe it, to learn it step by step even in such a short time. Danger is present in the form of mischievious children giving poor directions, and though the country where he spent a chapter getting hopelessly lost had been home to a legendary child-eating beast, that beast had long since been found to be a wolf, and promptly killed (by the chapter’s end, when he has wandered aimlessly in a bog, been sent off by an old man who will not help him because ‘il fait noir,’ and not found the village where he hoped to spend the night, thanks to this child’s directions, he feels distinctly more sympathetic towards the wolf).

I like the way Stevenson packs. A few loaves of bread (white for him, black for Modestine), chocolate, sausage, a bottle of wine, some brandy and some water, and he can travel. His bed is a sleeping bag. I have never found camping to be a particularly comfortable activity, but in his words about sleeping ‘à la belle étoile,’ I found myself longing to be there as well. ‘The outer world, from which we cower into our houses, seemed after all a gentle and habitable place; and night after night a man’s bed, it seemed, was laid and waiting for him in the fields, where God keeps an open house.’

In the end I suppose all one can ask of an account of any journey is to feel that one has been there also. I had a fine ramble with the wandering Scot, and will often think of his words.

Green Sky At Night

Churchill stands on the edge of Hudson Bay, between the boreal forest and the Arctic tundra, and at the end of the train line running from Winnipeg northward. This train takes two days in getting to Churchill, largely because of the great detour it takes through the towns and remote villages of northern Manitoba, and a little bit of Saskatchewan, but it is a very pleasant ride. The view is fine. In winter, when the sun rises late, it happens to do so just as the train pulls in at the Churchill station. I have always enjoyed train journeys, and no doubt some people would find forty-three hours to be far too long and dull, but I would unhesitatingly recommend it to anyone who wishes a short escape from society and a bit of time to think (barring the chance of talkative seatmates).

It is probably the polar bear that brings the name Churchill to most people in southern Canada. They are as elephants or lions are, in places where there are elephants or lions — large, dangerous, endangered and oddly endearing. They are also absent at this time of year, and I am almost grateful for it.

Fascinating as the sight (at a distance) would be, I am to see Churchill, and the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, without its most iconic figure, and so far it has proven educational indeed. There are buildings full of old scrap metal and abandoned hard hats, all part of a former research rocket range and now looking as though some terrible disaster caused their desertion: everything that could not be sold was kept due to the expense of transportation, leaving it all eerily intact. Though there is little visible wildlife, we see tracks in the snow, of fox or hare or sometimes wolf — though for the latter I have had to take another’s word. The wind and snow are such that the drifts could bury a person up to the neck, not to say that I have tried it, and besides, they are generally too firmly packed for sinking.

Above all — in a literal sense — there are the northern lights, which are the reason for my presence here. The Churchill Northern Studies Centre runs and hosts programmes revolving around this stunning phenomenon, and I am here to work with them, as top tourist-herder in this snowy windblown patch of rock.

I hope I will have the discipline to keep this blog in a decently regular way, complete with observations on wildlife, weather, people, and other such interesting topics, but I promise nothing. At the moment I can only say my intentions are earnest!