Charlton Island shorebird expedition, 2016 (click here to see part 1 of account on Nature Canada blog<http://naturecanada.ca/news/blog/charlton-island-shorebird-expedition-2016-part-1/>)
Ted Cheskey, Nature Canada
A joint project of Nature Canada, Environment Canada, the Cree Nation Government, the Waskaganish Cree Trappers' Association, the Cree Nation of Waskaganish, and Eeyou Marine Region Wildlife Board
On July 26, the day after delivering a community workshop in Waskaganish Quebec on shorebird identification and conservation, seven of us headed out into Rupert Bay and James Bay in `local sea-worthy boats for the 80 plus kilometre trip to Charlton Island. Our late departure (about 8 pm), had us arriving just as it was getting dark, around 10:30, but our drivers were experts, and not only knew the route by heart but also knew how to dodge two storms converging on either side of us.
A second crew of five, who were slightly delayedž didn't fare as well and were forced to seek refuge from the storm in a camp less than half way to their destination, Boatswain Bay. Unfortunately their shorter expedition was compromised by rough seas and rain the following two days and they returned to Waskaganish on July 29 without seeing Boatswain Bay.
One of the project's goals is to determine through daily counts, populations of bird species, with a focus on shorebird species, on Charlton, Carey, Danby, and the Strutton Islands, and their surrounding waters. The outcome of this project could support nomination of one or more new Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBA) and possibly an extension to a proposed Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network site for Southern James Bay.
Community Engagement is a priority
A second project goal is engage local community members of the Cree Nation of Waskaganish directly in research, monitoring and conservation of bird populations, particularly shorebirds and species at risk. Five of the seven expedition participants were local, from the Cree Nation of Waskaganish.
Over the course of the following nine days, we surveyed the perimeter of Charlton Island, which stretches about 40 kilometres in length from south-west to north-east, about 35 kilometres beyond the mouth of Rupert Bay at 52 degrees latitude, and 79 degrees longitude, as well as some of the other nearby islands including Danby and Carey, a few kilometres off the south-eastern coast, and another cluster about 20 kilometres to the north-east, called the Strutton Islands. The islands have sandy soils underlain by fossil-rich sedimentary rock. Charlton is an impressive dune system that rises to about 30 metres above sea level at its highest location. The interior is a vast network of spruce forest, dunes, beaver lakes, and other wetland habitats. Contrary to the information in Wikipedia, which describes Charlton as uninhabited, the Cree have seasonally lived on the islands since long before European contact, and currently a few families from Waskaganish have family camps on Charlton primarily. Charlton Island served as a depot for the Hudson Bay Company and the North West Company, as it was the only deep water harbour from which large ships could unload goods and collect furs from the trading posts at Fort Rupert, Moose Factory, and East Main where access by large ships was impossible. Barges would make the trip from the trading posts to Charlton Island.
Ted Cheskey of Nature Canada organized the expedition and was joined by skilled field ornithologist Marc-Antoine Montpetit from Mont Laurier, our kind host, boat pilot and local guide, elder Bill Jolly, boat pilot and local guide Clayton Jolly, local project coordinator Garry Salt, and field assistants Jeremy Stevens and Jordan Rabbitskin.
July 27 and 28 were cool, damp with intermittent rain, and temperatures between 5 degrees Celsius at night to 15°C during the day. July 30 was warmer, breaking 20°C during that day, and from July 31 to August 4 the temperature was over 30°C each day with slight south winds and no precipitation.
We frequently observed Polar Bear tracks in the mud flats and along the beaches. Montpetit, B. Jolly, G. Salt and J. Stevens had a peaceful encounter with a Polar Bear. We also observed frequent signs of Caribou and observed Caribou on three different occasions. Beluga sightings were nearly daily in the strait between Charlton and Danby Islands. We also observed Ringed Seals off the coast of Charlton.
Over the course of nine days, we observed 18,204 individual birds of 101 species. Included in this total were five federally recognized species at risk including the Endangered Red Knot (Calidris canutus rufa) (551), the Threatened Olive-sided Flycatcher (Contopus cooperi) (2), and the Special Concern Yellow Rail (Coturnicops noveboracensis) (4), Rusty Blackbird (Euphagus carolinus) (76) and Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus) (1). In addition, impressive numbers of waterfowl were observed, particularly diving ducks off the coast of Charlton Island where rich mussel beds provide a stable source of food, and the geography of the island provides refuge from stormy seas and predators for moulting birds. Black Scoter topped the list of duck species with 4742 individuals observed, followed by Common Goldeneye with 1669 and Surf Scoter with 980.
Seventeen species of shorebirds were observed, most in "adult" plumage. We encountered several flocks of Red Knot on Charlton, Danby, Carey and the Strutton Islands. The largest single group was 148 (all adults), and the summed total from maximums observed at different location was 551 individuals with 8 marked birds that included 3 captured in Canada, 4 from the USA, and one from Argentina.
Species Corrected total **
Black-bellied Plover 68
Semipalmated Plover 153
Hudsonian Godwit 213
Ruddy Turnstone 762
Red Knot 551
Least Sandpiper 194
White-rumped Sandpiper 460
Pectoral Sandpiper 1
Semipalmated Sandpiper 2027
Wilson's Snipe 17
Spotted Sandpiper 112
Solitary Sandpiper 4
Greater Yellowlegs 491
Lesser Yellowlegs 456
**We visited some areas on multiple occasions, while other areas were visited only once. The corrected total is the sum total of all of the areas visited once, plus the single maximum number of individuals observed from the same location visited multiple times. For example, to test whether Red Knot numbers represent different groups of birds or possibly the same group of birds displacing itself multiple times, we revisited one area where we had observed the largest flock, about three kilometres from base camp, twice. On both occasions separated by 7 days, we counted the largest number of individuals recorded of any flock of Knots in our field work (128 on first visit, and 148 on second visit). We used the larger number of 148 in calculating the corrected total (and discarded the 128 number). We also used this observation as a test of our confidence that Knots recorded in different areas are different birds (and not the same ones moving between sites). To answer the question of birds moving between different sites, we hope to use the MOTUS system
Other species of conservation interest
Marc Antoine Montpetit located two active nests (with young) of Horned Grebe, and one active nest of Red-necked Grebe. Both species are hundreds of kilometres outside of their published breeding range. In fact the nearest published Quebec breeding location for this species is on les Iles de la Madeleine, a few thousand kilometres to the east, and in Ontario on the Manitoba-Ontario border, about a thousand kilometres to the west (Ontario Breeding Bird Atlas, 2001-2005.
On July 30, we installed a MOTUS wildlife tracking antennae on Charlton Island. Prior to commencing our trip, a team from Bird Studies Canada installed MOTUS antennae at the Waskaganish CTA offices, and trained local coordinator Garry Salt. MOTUS antennae are designed to capture transmissions from tiny nanotags that are attached to birds in many locations across Canada and elsewhere in the Americas. For more information about MOTUS, click here.
Return and acknowledgements
We arrived back at Waskaganish in late afternoon on August 4rth, just in time to unpack and transfer equipment to the CTA office and my vehicle. A few hours later, a massive cold front slammed through Waskaganish with 100 plus kilometre per hour gusts, driving rain and intense lightning. The storm associated with the front lingered on through the night into the next day.
Nature Canada is grateful for the interest and support of the Cree Nation of Waskaganish for this project. This expedition was undertaken with the financial support of Government of Canada's Habitat Stewardship program (HSP), the Aboriginal Fund for Species At Risk (AFSAR), and support from the Eeyou Marine Region Board (EMR).