In late August, while most of us are soaking up the last days of summer, migratory breeding birds of the Arctic and the Boreal Forest within Canada are mobilizing to return to southern wintering grounds. For many of the shorebirds, waterbirds, and waterfowl that breed in the far north, this journey will include stops along the shorelines of Hudson and James Bays. Extensive coastal marshes, wide tidal flats, and eelgrass beds make it one of the most important stopover and staging areas for migratory birds in North America. These vast interconnected waterbodies form the world’s largest inland sea and provide critical food resources for migrating birds necessary for sustaining the next leg of their trip—which for species like the Hudsonian Godwit, may be a five-day, non-stop, 4,000-mile flight to Venezuela! For larger, more heavy-bodied birds, like loons and geese, that make shorter flights and require more frequent stops to rest and refuel, the region provides the last available resources to fuel overland flights to the next major waterbody.
A recent satellite-tracking study of Red-throated Loons that breed in the Canadian Arctic and winter offshore of the U.S. mid-Atlantic coastline* found that most of the tagged birds relied on the waters of southern Hudson and James Bays for one-quarter to one-third of their annual cycle. And, while the study found that Hudson and James Bays provided important stopover habitat during the autumn migration, it was also identified as an important movement corridor during both the spring and autumn migration periods. Movement corridors facilitate connectivity for migratory animals across their range by acting as a bridge between distant sites in the network. For Red-throated Loons in the Atlantic Flyway, Hudson and James Bays provide not only their final food resources before embarking on non-stop flights of more than 1,000 km across Ontario and Quebec, it is also critical for linking the birds to other sites within their migratory network, such as the Lower Great Lakes, the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and the southern New England Atlantic Coast. Approximately 80% of the 36 loons the research team tracked followed migration routes that moved through Hudson and James Bays making it a potential bottleneck in the network for this population of Red-throated Loons.
Areas considered “population bottlenecks” for migratory birds are often conservation priorities because the negative effects of habitat degradation, such as reduced breeding success or survival, can be highly concentrated when a large proportion of the population relies on a site, particularly if nearby alternatives do not exist. At least 175 species of birds rely on Hudson and James Bays at some point in their annual cycle, but it is not only known for its bird habitat. Coastal marshes and the adjacent peatlands of the Hudson Bay Lowlands—the second largest peatland complex in the world—help mitigate climate change by removing carbon from the atmosphere and storing it in plants and soils. Nutrient input from the multitude of rivers and streams that flow into Hudson Bay creates conditions that support an array of biodiversity. And the unique position of the place, with its extreme southern extent of Arctic marine water, allows it to support Arctic and subarctic species further south than anywhere in North America. This includes marine mammals, such as polar bears and belugas, as well as ringed seals and even small numbers of Atlantic walrus, along with approximately 60 species of fish that use the area for all or part of the year.
Western James Bay is also part of the traditional territories of four coastal First Nations: Attawapiskat, Fort Albany, Kashechewan, and Moose Cree. Together, with three other inland First Nations (Chapleau Cree, Missanabie Cree and Taykwa Tagamou, they comprise the Mushkegowuk Council, whom, along with the Weenusk and Fort Severn First Nations that reside further north along the shores of southwestern Hudson Bay, have put forth a proposal for a 91,000 km2 Mushkegowuk National Marine Conservation Area extending from southwestern Hudson Bay to western James Bay. Indigenous-led conservation initiatives, like this one, are critical for advancing reconciliation between Indigenous and Canadian governments and meeting Canada’s commitment to preserve 30 percent of marine and coastal areas by 2030. Feasibility studies are currently underway and, pending approval and development of a management plan by 2025, the site will become the sixth National Marine Conservation Area within Canada, protecting this highly productive ecosystem and its cultural heritage for generations to come. It also has the potential to create employment opportunities for the Indigenous nations in the form of Guardians. Indigenous Guardians are trained experts who manage protected areas and act as the “eyes and ears” on the land (or in this case, the water). As one of their many future management activities, the Guardians may choose to undertake important eelgrass restoration work that would not only conserve more carbon to help mitigate climate change but also create additional bird habitat.
Indigenous Nations have proposed some of the biggest, most ambitious plans for protecting and stewarding lands in the country. In recognition, the Government of Canada announced in August, 2021 of $340 million dollars in new funding over five years for Indigenous Guardians programs and Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas. This marks a key initial investment in moving Indigenous-led conservation proposals forward like the one in Hudson-James Bay. Continued support of federal, provincial, and territorial governments in Indigenous Guardians programs and Indigenous-led protected and conserved area proposals will be critical to solving the world’s twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss.
The silvery-backed Red-throated Loons bobbing in the cold ocean waters off the Atlantic Coast this winter may not know it, but the work of Indigenous communities to establish the Mushkegowuk Marine Conservation Area will be key in deciding the fate of future generations of their kin. For these birds and so many more, let’s make sure we are supporting visionary and inspiring Indigenous-led conservation efforts like these.
*The study referenced is "A network approach shows movement bottlenecks and alternative migratory routes despite total lack of migratory connectivity for an arctic seabird" by Carrie E. Gray and Brian J. Olsen. This study was recently submitted for publication. We will provide more infromation on the study once it has been published.