Kevin Shackleton, Vice President of Ontario Nature, recently visited the remote and rugged region around Fort Severn, Ontario, the most northern community in the province as a part of his Big Year. Although few trees exist in this northern boreal forest region, it’s a great place to see many waterfowl and shorebirds. It’s also adjacent to the largest single block of intact forest left on earth. Here’s his report from the trip:
Dr. Hart Brasche and I thought we would try our luck in a relatively un-birded part of the province as I sought more species for my big year. The range map indicated the presence of Willow Ptarmigan and our guide did agree that they could be found and a local couple told us they had seen them on August 23, but we were unsuccessful in our searches in that area north of the Fort Severn Airport along one of the many ridges parallel to the shores of the bay but well inland from it on August 24. We also sought them on the east bank of the Severn River near an old goose hunting camp in the mid-afternoon of August 23 without success.
Fort Severn was started as a fur trading post by the Hudson’s Bay Company in the late 17th Century. As such it is one of the oldest settlements in Ontario. One local put the population at about 300 with half of them employed with various government agencies and businesses. There is a reasonable road network through the village out to the airport and to the shores of Hudson Bay. The area rests on glacial sand and gravel deposits so there is no shortage of road building material. One of the key economic activities is the hunting of Lesser Snow Geese in the spring and fall.
For the last 5 years there have been no American goose hunters for the fall hunt, likely as a result of the C$ reaching near parity with the US$ in 2007 and the financial crisis which was full blown in 2008 and has not really subsided. I mention this as our guide, Tommy Miles and his brother Tim would like to develop a new income stream guiding birders to the birds of the boreal forest.
One moves about by ATV and aluminum boat. There was a lot of rain earlier this year and again before we arrived on August 21 so we could not cross one of the swollen rivers to the second camp we were supposed to visit. One needs wellingtons in case one has to get off the ATV to push it out of the many boggy areas that need to be crossed to move from one viewing area to the next. We spent 3 days in Goose Camp about 5Km from Fort Severn. There is no running water. The cabin was heated by a wood stove. Cooking was on a propane gas range and we brought our own food.
We were supposed to arrive on the 20th, but low cloud meant the pilot could not line up the runway in time for landing so we had an unscheduled night in Sioux Lookout. Our next flights, in and out, were uneventful.
What did we see?
-August 21 late afternoon:
We walked along the west bank of the Severn and saw numerous Sandhill Cranes. There were many ducks in the river, most were Common Goldeneye, but we had one White-winged Scoter, Mallards, Black Ducks, Lesser Scaup and Red-breasted Mergansers. Most of the Cree do not like the taste of duck preferring the spring Snow Geese. We saw both American Kestrel and Merlin in the area.
-August 21 evening:
Many shorebirds on the west bank of the Severn at its mouth, Black-bellied Plovers, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Semipalmated Plovers and many peeps. Snow Geese flew in skeins west along the coast or landed on the grass. Bald Eagles abound! Northern Harriers are plentiful.
-August 22 morning, Owen Miles as guide:
We drove our ATVS into the boggy area northeast of town toward the Pepwatin River. We found 33 Whimbrel, 15 American Golden Plover, Black-bellied Plover, Ruddy Turnstone, the dark race of Savannah Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, American Robin, Boreal Chickadee and Gray Jay.
-August 22 afternoon, Tommy Miles as guide:
We took an aluminium boat along the west channel of the Severn out to the west tip of Partridge Island, the largest island in the Severn tidal delta. We found many Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Black-bellied Plovers, a late Arctic Tern and a Glaucous Gull with a flock of Herring Gulls. Tommy also took us to a small sandbar at the mouth of the river where we found about 100 Red Knots, roughly half adults, and 40 Sanderlings and 2 Ruddy Turnstones in winter plumage.
-August 23 morning to mid-afternoon with Tim Miles as our guide:
We left from the village and proceeded up the east channel of the Severn making four stops. The first one on the east bank of the river produced Canada Geese and Sandhill Cranes and our only Spotted Sandpiper in the area. Our second, on the east side of Partridge Island was a shorebird mecca. We had many Least Sandpipers, Pectoral Sandpipers, Short-billed Dowitchers and a flock of 8 Hudsonian Godwits. These all allowed for relatively close viewing. Our third stop was at a gravel shore on the east bank where we found another 25 Hudsonian Godwits. Our fourth stop was again on the east shore at an abandoned goose hunting camp. It was very warm by this time. We found a large mixed flock of Common Redpolls and Pine Siskins. Boreal Chickadees and Gray Jays were also present as was our lone Green-winged Teal for the trip.
-August 24 morning, Tommy and Owen Miles as guides:
We followed the road north past the airport in search of Willow Ptarmigan as mentioned earlier. I believe we were too late in the morning for them. We did see Gray Jay, Black-backed Woodpecker, Pine Siskins and Common Redpolls and heard a Blackpoll Warbler.
We had 57 species in total.
Wasaya Air flies between many of the northern communities. The flight from Thunder Bay via Sioux Lookout cost $900. There is a hotel in Fort Severn which charges $235 a night. I can’t speak to the quality. There is a Northern Store there and prices are about double here in the south. Three 500ml bottles of pop were almost $15.00.
The locals are not birders. We left our field guides in hopes that they might be able to say where we or the next birders to visit might find more species. I hope to return in the not too distant future.
Vice President, Ontario Nature