A Bird’s Life

A guest post by Mark Mallory. Photo by Dennis Minty.

Forget the ubiquitous cell phones, the white noise of city streets, and even the passage of aircraft. When you get to the Arctic, what do you hear? Perhaps nothing. But, more likely, you hear the wind—either rolling gently over the tundra and shorelines, or swirling off glaciers and cliffs. And what do you hear on the wind? Birds.

The Canadian Arctic is full of birds, some fifty million of them! Nunavut along is home to over 260 species, and more than 150 of those have nested there. From the tiniest hoary redpoll to the giant sandhill crane, birds can be found everywhere from the verdant river deltas that drain the barren lands to the lunar landscape of glacial Devon Island. Some of their names evoke polar images: tundra swan, snow goose, snowy owl, snow bunting (unsurprisingly, all of these are white). The Arctic tern lives here: the animal that travels further annually than any other on earth.

When you sail along Arctic coastlines, it is often difficult to reconcile the stark, simple, and spartan surroundings with the abundance of life they support. How can five hundred thousand birds eke out lives on a single chunk of rock?

Leaning on the railing around the rear deck of the Ocean Endeavour, watching northern fulmars effortlessly wing along in the wake of the ship, their wingtips barely touching the cresting waves, one cannot help but marvel at these creatures. To me, birds are harbingers of good news. I think of how much joy those early explorers must have found in spying them after long months at sea. How thrilled Hudson’s crew must have been to see the bounty of food available to them at the murre colonies of Digges Sound. The wonder that Sverdrup’s men must have experienced seeing eiders and fulmars return to Hell’s Gate, despite the hundreds of kilometres of sea ice in every direction.

Perhaps at no other point in history has the contrast between life in the Arctic and life in the south been so dramatic. Southern society can be fast-paced, hyperconnected, and noisy. But step onto an Arctic coastline, and feel wonderfully slow. Removed. Silent. In that silence you will be welcomed.

Mark is a Canada Research Chair in Coastal Wetland Ecosystems at Acadia University, Nova Scotia, where he studies coastlines in the Canadian Maritimes and Arctic. He was appointed to the Royal Society of Canada in 2014 and has long been a member of the Adventure Canada Expedition Team.

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