Known by many names, Wînipâkw, Kangiqsualuk ilua, Tasiujarjuaq, and others, the Hudson Bay area is a veritable haven for birds and other wildlife and a rich cultural crossroads for the Dene, Eeyou/ Ililiwak/ Nehinawak, Inuit, and Red River Métis. Today, there are at least six proposed Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas (IPCA) seeking to safeguard the rich lands and waters around Hudson & James Bay:
- Seal River Watershed: proposed by Sayisi Dene First Nation (Tes-He-Olie-Twe), Northlands Denesuline First Nation (Nįh hots’į Dene, Dahlu T’ua), O-Pipon-Na-Piwin Cree Nation, Barren Lands First Nations (Kisipakamâhk), & Arviat Hunter & Trapper Organisation.
- Kitaskiinan Kawekanawaynichikatek: proposed by York Factory First Nation (Kischiwâskâhikan), Fox Lake Cree Nation (Mahkêsiw Sâkahikan), Tastaskweyak Cree Nation, War Lake First Nation (Môsokot) & Shamattawa First Nation (Kisêmâtâwa).
- Métis Protected and Conserved Area: proposed by the Manitoba Métis Federation, The National Government of the Red River Métis.
- Omashkeko okimâwiwin: proposed by the Mushkegowuk Council: Moose Cree First Nation (Môsoniyi Ililiwak), Attawapiskat First Nation (Âhtawâpiskatowi Ininiwak), Chapleau Cree First Nation, Fort Albany First Nation, Kashechewan Cree First Nation, Missanabie Cree First Nation, Taykwa Tagamou Nation & Weenusk First Nation (Wînâsko Ininiwak).
- Qikiqtait Belcher Islands Archipelago Protected & Conserved Area, proposed by the Arctic Eider Society & others
- Eeyou Istchee: proposed & supported by the Grand Council of the Crees, Cree Trappers Association, the Eeyou Marine Region Wildlife Board & others
The ecological and cultural value of these areas cannot be underestimated. In this blog post, we provide a brief contextual introduction and an overview of the birdlife of the Hudson Bay Lowlands, in particular the areas in Manitoba & southern Nunavut (the first 3 proposed IPCAs in the above list). The protection of these areas is especially important to future generations of the local Indigenous peoples. Canada has had a contentious relationship with Indigenous peoples, and this continues to harm the people and undermine the environment today, especially with industry, resource development, and the use of exploitative contracts to gain access to Indigenous reserves and traditional hunting grounds. Hydroelectric dams in this area supply most of Manitoba, parts of Ontario, and some of the mid-west U.S.A. The dams have flooded reserve land and vast areas of traditional hunting grounds. Despite Manitoba Hydro’s spectacular profits, most of the Indigenous people here live in substandard conditions, including Tataskweyak Cree Nation who are still under a water advisory. As an Indigenous person (James), it is sometimes difficult to celebrate conservation achievements when people on my own reserve continue to struggle with day-to-day basics, such as clean running drinking water; however, I understand the vital importance of these agreements and protecting the land for future generations of people and wildlife.
The land here is rich and well worth celebrating and protecting. The vast mosaic of wetlands and tundra ponds of the Hudson Bay lowlands, and their proximity to the marine environment, support a staggering abundance of waterbirds. Six species of geese nest or migrate through this area, sometimes the skeins of locally nesting Snow, Ross’s, Canada, and Cackling Geese fill the sky, sometimes joined by Greater White-fronted Geese or the Brant that migrate along the coast in fall. The magnificent goose migration here has long been a great gift; greeted by some First Nations with an annual “goose break”. The Indigenous people of the area have always been in tune with local birdlife, for example, many of the Cree months are named after events in birds’ lives: March is goose-returning month, May and June are egg-laying and egg-hatching months, July is molting month, August is flying-around month, October is migrating month, and February is eagle month. Tundra Swans are a frequent and welcome sight, and now there are more and more records of the recovering Trumpeter Swans. Seaducks such as Common Eider, Long-tailed Duck, and the three scoter species can be found in great numbers and they are joined by 14 or more species of diving and dabbling ducks. The waterfowl are joined by other nesting water birds such as three species of loon (Pacific, Red-throated & Common) and Horned Grebe. In the late summer, when downy young seem to be almost everywhere, usually under the watchful eye of protective adults, you can really appreciate how much of a nursery these productive lands are. There is always plenty of action on or above the water as well, including jaegers, gulls, and terns in exceptional numbers. Numerous gull species can be found here, including the highly enigmatic Ross’s Gull, once the star of Churchill though seemingly no longer nesting there... as best we know, for there are many remote wetlands where they may still occur. The common nesting tern species here is the Arctic Tern, celebrated for the exceptional annual migration from Arctic to Antarctic, though that does not stop them from constantly protesting at any who get too near their colonies. Other nesting bird species may benefit from the presence of the protective Arctic Terns as well.
In addition to the abundance on the water, the shorelines and vegetated wetlands are also teeming with life. The tides seem to repaint the landscape daily, revealing as much as a mile of rich intertidal mud on the lowest tides, sometimes carpeted with a diverse array of shorebirds. On high tides, thousands of shorebirds roost at creek mouths, where the freshwater world mingles with salt water. Fifteen shorebird species nest locally on the bountiful fens and peatlands and as many as 27 species regularly migrate through the area (even more in James Bay, which is a bit further south and has disjunct populations of certain species that may tell the story of the once linked waters of Lake Agassiz and Lake Ojibway). Watching shorebirds here is a rather different experience, since the local nesters often perch in stunted trees to make their territorial calls, or they display in flight above the tundra or yell at you to keep you away from their nests or babies. In migration season, the spectacle of the wheeling shorebird flocks can be simply breathtaking. We have recorded single species daily totals in excess of one thousand birds for some such as the Hudsonian Godwit (considered Threatened in Canada and with a small global population), and the daily totals can exceed several thousand in James Bay, due to the funnel effect as these birds migrate along the western coast of Hudson Bay into James Bay, from where some will fly to the Atlantic coast and sites such as the famous Bay of Fundy. This shorebird flyway is exceptionally important to a significant percentage of the populations in the Americas, enabling them to refuel and complete some of the world’s longest migrations (some will travel to southern South America).
There are also many other nesting water and wetland birds. There is water almost everywhere on the open peatlands and it can be hard to classify habitat as one thing or the other. Sandhill Cranes nest and flock here in considerable numbers. The raptor community includes Bald and Golden Eagle, Rough-legged Hawk, Northern Goshawk, Northern Harrier, Osprey, and migrants or winter visitors such as the Gyrfalcon and Peregrine Falcon. This is the southern nesting range of the Snowy Owl, though the Short-eared Owl is more common. In treed areas, Boreal Owl, Northern Hawk Owl, and others nest. The Willow Ptarmigan is the most common nesting grouse species in this area; the Rock Ptarmigan visits in winter; the Sharp-tailed Grouse is a year-round resident in certain areas (perhaps surprising to some) and Spruce Grouse is found in treed areas. The open habitats host many songbird species too: sparrows including White-crowned, American Tree, Savannah, Nelson’s, and even a few LeConte’s; Horned Larks, American Pipits, Lapland Longspurs, and Snow Bunting mostly in migration. Species such as Horned Lark, Nelson’s Sparrow, Northern Pintail, and others have a fascinating distribution with strong populations or subspecies nesting in the Hudson Bay lowlands and populations in the prairies, but not in the intervening boreal forest. All of the above good company means that even when standing in what seems like the middle of nowhere, you are surrounded by bird song and opportunities to observe fascinating behaviors. In the spring, it seems like there is a song coming from every bush or peat hummock, but the songbird abundance is arguably most understandable in late summer when there are begging juveniles all around. Though the passerine migration may seem less of a spectacle than the flocks of waterfowl and shorebirds, they are nonetheless abundant. Sometimes, the rocks or flooded flats see large flocks of longspurs, sparrows, larks, pipits, and even warblers alongside shorebirds and other birds, especially after the receding tide. Of course, they are joined by many other animals as well.
Depending on where you are, the treeline (in reality more of a gentle transition than a hard line) can be close to the Hudson Bay coast or well inland; for example, on the north bank of the Seal River, the treeline is approximately 3.2 km (2 miles) inland. Nonetheless, beyond the trees and shrubs that line the Caribou River, as you head north, it becomes clear you are leaving the trees. Near the Manitoba-Nunavut land border, the treeline is already well over 100 km inland and angling northwest. The vague transition from treed areas to open peatlands enhances the biodiversity of the Hudson Bay lowlands. Some species are quite specialized to the treeline area broadly speaking and the mosaic of open areas with scattered trees: Smith’s Longspur and Harris’s Sparrow are perhaps the two most famous examples, whose global breeding ranges broadly parallel the North American treeline, nesting nowhere else. In treed areas, one can experience the richness of the northern boreal forest, with so many species including woodpeckers such as the American Three-toed; Common Nighthawk, flycatchers such as Yellow-bellied Flycatcher; thrushes such as Gray-cheeked Thrush, Boreal Chickadee (and a few Black-capped); kinglets (especially Ruby-crowned); Northern Shrike; Bohemian Waxwing; warblers including Blackpoll, Palm, Yellow-rumped, Yellow and Northern Waterthrush; blackbirds such as Rusty Blackbird; and many finches including White-winged Crossbills, Pine Grosbeak and both redpoll species… and this is just a small selection of the many bird species that nest in the forests near the treeline!
Visiting this area can be a bit of a challenge but still ranks high on many people’s bucket lists. It is vast and thinly populated. Many of the areas mentioned, including some of the reserves, are fly-in only, accessible only by train or boat, or in the winter by a winter ice road. Much of the area is muskeg and building roads is not feasible. Churchill, on the shore of Hudson Bay, has become a well-known hotspot for birding and polar bear tours and is only accessible by train or air. Many tour companies lead birding tours in the Churchill area and independent travel is feasible. The experience of this rich area is well worth the extra effort to get there. Many of the Indigenous nations who are leading IPCA efforts also want to develop eco- and cultural tourism operations as a way of sharing this beauty with the world. Developing sustainable conservation-based economies—in place of high-impact industrial development—better supports the operations and maintenance of their IPCAs, their communities, and their people.
The magic of the Hudson Bay lowlands is thus a special combination of staggering abundance and unexpected diversity. It is a richness that is hard to comprehend until you experience it with all your senses… and it really does fill all your senses! The Indigenous peoples who have so long respected and immersed themselves in this world, are working tirelessly to safeguard these magical places and their dynamic web of life. The birds that fly from these lands and waters replenish ecosystems far away and grace the lives of people throughout the Americas with music and color. The proposed IPCAs and all the care that goes into them are a gift to the whole world, benefitting us all and deserving our full support!
*Sources: Nêhinawêwin words by James Fox & https://creedictionary.com; Dene words from Dëne Dédliné Yatié ʔerehtł’íscho (Chipweyan Dictionary); Inuktitut words from https://glosbe.com. Bird names are cited here in the singular form.