The glorious James Bay saltwater coastline is a birdwatcher’s paradise and critical way station for long-distance fliers. But as the northern landscape hovers on the cusp of transformation, how much longer can this magical part of the province withstand the dual threats of climate change and development?
By Ray Ford
With binoculars swinging from their sweat-stained collars and tripods and scopes slung over their shoulders, Mark Peck and Doug McRae splash across kilometres of tidal flats. The sun is hot and high. The sky is azure. Extended expanses of wave-rippled sand give the scene a tropical feel, heightened by McRae’s French Foreign Legion-style hat. “It’s dorky,” he admits, “but it keeps the flies away.”
On a warm day like this, the horseflies are never far away – squadrons of them, droning overhead like Lancaster bombers. They are a reminder that we’re in northern Ontario, a distant and magical margin of the province, on James Bay, Ontario’s saltwater coast. Dark clouds of shorebirds and waves of waterfowl congregate here, offering a glimpse of what this continent must have been like before the loss of the passenger pigeon or the taming of the buffalo.
Peck, an ornithologist with the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), and McRae, a ROM volunteer, are here with a team of government biologists and crack birders to witness the natural spectacle of shorebird migration. More specifically, they’re tracking one of the greatest of its long-distance participants, the red knot. Even though it’s little bigger than a robin, the knot’s 29,000-kilometre journey stretches from Canada’s Arctic archipelago, through James Bay as far south as the southern tip of South America, and back again. One banded knot had flown at least 480,000 kilometres when it was last checked – far enough to reach the moon and start back.
Despite that stamina, the knot has landed on Canada’s endangered species list. Numbers of the rufa subspecies, have fallen at least 80 percent since the 1980s, from some 150,000 birds to just 30,000, maybe fewer. As Peck notes, the little bird with the terra cotta-coloured breast has become “the poster child for shorebird conservation.”
That’s where James Bay comes in. “This is one of the most important staging areas for shorebirds in eastern Canada,” Peck says. At least a quarter of the world’s rufa knots stop on the bay during their southward migration.
“James Bay and the breeding grounds are the last intact regions where these birds haven’t faced much in the way of human disturbance,” Peck adds. “With the opening up of the boreal forest and the lowlands, all that can change.”
And change, in the form of a planet hungry for minerals, is on the way.
Few Ontarians have seen a red knot. Perhaps fewer still have seen James Bay. You might get lucky and spot knots on a stormy day near Presqu’ile on the Lake Ontario shore, when foul weather interrupts their migration. But to see the bay, you need to travel more than 1,000 kilometres from Toronto by car, train and helicopter before reaching this 67,000-square-kilometre extension of the Arctic Ocean. James and Hudson bays form a vast tidal shore that funnels migrating birds southward. Despite James Bay’s reputation as a cold and inhospitable place, on a midsummer day the coast is alive with birds and wildlife – an increasingly rare sight in a world where shores are filling with condos, oil rigs and beach volleyball courts.
Indeed, the birds and animals have the place pretty much to themselves. Survey the beach at high tide and on some days you will see hundreds, sometimes thousands of shorebirds along the water’s edge. Flocks of Hudsonian godwits use their long bills to jackhammer through the sediment, readying for a non-stop flight to Brazil. Arctic terns flex their wings for a globe-trotting migration that will take some to the coast of Africa and south toward the Antarctic. Flocks of white-rumped sandpipers, their voices tinkling like wind chimes, will soon sweep toward the southernmost tip of South America.
“I just love working out in the field,” Peck says as he strides over the rust-coloured kelp that piles up on the shore like autumn leaves. “Getting out to places like this is what really makes the job great.”
Loping through sedges and flats on his long legs, Peck is a bit of a shorebird himself. The son of George Peck, an Oakville veterinarian and amateur ornithologist who volunteered as a research associate at the ROM, the younger Peck got hooked on birds as a kid. Family vacations centred on finding nests of yellow-bellied flycatchers in Quetico Provincial Park or spotting cactus wrens in Big Bend National Park in Texas.
The two-year-old field camp at Longridge Point, 60 kilometres north of Moosonee, is a rough-and-ready continuation of those early adventures – exploration for big kids. “We didn’t know much about this area of northern Ontario before, but by being here, we can better learn how shorebirds are using the area,” says Peck. “We’re collecting information about the routes the birds are taking, and how long they’re staying in place.”
Tracking birds along 11 kilometres of coast means a lot of walking – some days, 15 kilometres or more – on terrain that is rarely firm and dry. The sedges hide boggy holes deep enough to swamp a rubber boot. Nearshore tidal areas are a mix of clay-bottomed pools and spongy hummocks. Walking in them is like using a StairMaster in quicksand. At night, legs ache or cramp from a day spent wrenching boots out of the mud. Crew members become experts at treating blisters with a combination of Band-Aids, moleskin and duct tape.
But they slog through it all, burdened by scopes and binoculars and backpacks containing extra clothes and rain gear. “A lot of people have no idea how physically hard you have to work to do this,” says McRae. “I mean, the endurance, the walking, the bugs – it’s hard. But it’s a really good hard. This is the best office in the world.”
Like other camp members, McRae developed a near-obsessive interest in birds and nature at a tender age and, as he says, “almost by osmosis.” As a child, during visits to his grandmother’s cottage, he slept in a boathouse filled with glassy-eyed stuffed birds – specimens that a client of his lawyer grandfather collected around Peterborough early in the last century and handed over to cover a bill during the Depression. “The story is, he brought the case of birds home and my grandmother said, ‘Oh, Tom, why did you get that?’” McRae explains. “My grandfather said, ‘Well, I could have had the case of stuffed mammals.’”
Longridge Point is a six-kilometre finger of boulders, pebbles and sand, crowned with a grove of pretty white spruce that seem to float above the aquamarine waters like a mirage. Tidal flats stretch for kilometres on either side of the point, punctuated by smaller spits the ROM crew nicknamed Bear Point (home to a shaggy black bear tagged Scruffles) and Beluga Point, so named because it’s a good spot to see the curving white backs of foraging whales.
For shorebirds, the tide sets the table and establishes the menu. Even the knot’s scientific name, Calidris canutus, hints at the tide’s importance. The bird is named in tribute to King Canute, the 11th-century monarch best known for his attempt to forbid the tide’s advance. The Viking king claimed to be illustrating the limited power of even the mightiest mortal.
If that was his intent, knots have taken the lesson to heart. When the tide flows in around Longridge, unfurling fronds of stranded kelp, linking tidal pools and pushing a white line of foam and feathers across the flats, the birds go with it. Equipped with a sort of wet-sand sonar, the knot creates waves of water pressure by probing the flats with its bill. The waves bounce off submerged clams and worms and register in the sensitive nerve endings of the bill, allowing the knot to home in on its prey.
While most shorebirds look streamlined and elegant, a well-fed knot is akin to a small football with wings. During its layover on James Bay, it nearly doubles its weight, packing on fat that is crucial for surviving migration. The bird also undergoes physiological changes that seem fantastic to us land dwellers. Readying for the long flight, the bird’s digestive organs shrink (the knot does not eat while in the air) while its heart and flight muscles expand. When the knot arrives at its destination, it shunts energy the other way, bulking up its legs, gut and reproductive organs, and deflating its heart and wings.
The result is a bird that can fly as high as 3,600 metres, cruise at 50 kilometres an hour or more, and cover hundreds, even thousands of kilometres non-stop. Scientists are able to track the bird because 10 percent of the world’s endangered rufa knots bear tiny plastic “flags” on their legs, colour-coded to denote the country where they were banded and bearing an individual two- or three-digit code. A handful also wear “geolocators,” tiny yellow knapsacks strapped to their upper right legs. Equipped with two-year batteries, the geolocators record sunset and sunrise times as the bird flies, allowing a glimpse into its daily movements. The results are astounding: one bird flew 5,100 kilometres, non-stop, in an eight-day marathon from Hudson Bay to the Caribbean.
Before the use of the flag bands, one of the main ways to track shorebirds was to wait until the tide concentrated them in the inshore area, fire a net over them and look for banded birds. Now, the precision optics of spotting scopes make it possible – though not easy – for researchers to creep within 100 metres of the bird and read the bands.
Trudging back from Bear Point, Peck and McRae spot about 130 knots waddling and drilling the sediment. Peck slips away on the right flank. McRae creeps forward with the exaggerated caution of a hunter, his olive-coloured boots making a sucking sound in the mud. Eighty metres from the flock, he splays the tripod, drops to his knees and hunches over the eyepiece. The codes on the tags are only half a centimetre tall, so to read them researchers need a good scope, decent lighting and luck. The three don’t always coincide.
For McRae, so far, so good. Most of the knots are foraging for food, some shoving their heads completely beneath the water. Others are roosting, standing with one foot up, head tucked behind a wing and feathers fluffed in a position that usually hides the flag. McRae is motionless, checking each knot leg, straining to see colours, numbers and letters. Minutes go by.
Then he yanks a yellow notebook out of his vest. Drawing a pencil from the duct-tape pocket plastered on the notebook’s cover, he scribbles a flag colour and code: Lime HEV. Knots banded in the United States wear lime-coloured flags, and this bird, it turns out, was first banded in Mispillion Harbor, Delaware, back in 2005. Since then, it has been sighted more than 40 times in Delaware and New Jersey. This is the first James Bay sighting.
Next, McRae spots Orange AK, a bird banded in Río Grande, Argentina, in 2003, and sighted every year since then. A few minutes later, Lime MT5 turns, revealing a flag applied in Florida in 2007. The ROM crew sights bird MT5 another nine times over 13 days. (Sightings are tracked on the Shorebird Banding and Resighting Data Management website, http://report.bandedbirds.org.)
Now on a roll, McRae hoists the tripod and creeps forward. Three metres. Then two. Then two more. A few knots watch; most snooze or dig for food. McRae kneels and focuses the scope.
Down at the other end of the flock, a knot twitches, looks around and leaps into the air. Its neighbour follows suit. Then the next and the next, until the entire flock peels off like airborne dominoes. As the flock retreats, McRae rises and stands, hands on hips. He glances at Peck with a thin-lipped look of exasperation. Finally, the two shrug and pick up their tripods.
“All you need is one to go, and they all follow,” McRae sighs. “Still, it’s a nice way to make a living.”
“You’re not under the misconception you’re getting paid?”
Peck shoots back. They slog across the hummocks, grinning and trading barbs.
Despite the bugs and blisters and a pantry that ran out of anything sweet (and almost ran out of coffee), the work on the James Bay surveys is proving its worth. Among the findings, Peck says, is the critical role the bay plays in maintaining shorebird populations throughout the western hemisphere. Because the shore is clean, relatively undeveloped, and provides abundant food, knots settle for days or weeks to bulk up. By getting their migration off to a strong start, the bay improves the odds the birds will arrive in Florida, Brazil, Argentina or Chile.
Places like James Bay are becoming the exception rather than the rule. “Most shorebird species are declining, and that’s almost a worldwide phenomenon,” Peck notes. “A lot of it has to do with human use of the waterfront.”
The classic example is Delaware Bay, off the New Jersey and Delaware coasts. In the early 1980s, up to 100,000 knots filled the strand, plucking the lime-green eggs of spawning horseshoe crabs off the flats almost as fast as the crabs could lay them. That changed in a little over a decade. A 20-fold increase in the commercial crab fishery led to a collapse in crab roe (because there were fewer crab to lay the eggs), which in turn decimated the knot population, because the birds had fewer eggs to eat at this key stage in their migration. For a knot – or any other migratory bird exhausted by a long flight – going without a meal can make the difference between nesting successfully and failing to produce eggs, or between completing the migration and falling along the way.
By 2007, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was warning that knots could be extinct within a decade. Delaware and New Jersey restricted the commercial crab fishery and asked people to stay off the beach during the migration to allow shorebirds to forage in peace. But horseshoe crabs don’t mature until they’re eight or nine, so a crab recovery – the precursor to a knot recovery – will be a slow process.
Still, Peck sees reason for optimism in the findings from the summer’s surveys. When the 2010 camp wound up in mid-August, juvenile knots were just beginning to arrive, and as many as 8 percent of the flocks were young red knots born on the tundra this past summer. After cold weather produced a disastrous nesting season in 2009, the 2010 hatch could be a good one.
If a knot recovery is coming, the first hints may well be glimpsed during an evening ritual at Longridge called The List. After the supper dishes are cleared away and the cabin lit by candles, the crew gathers to tally sightings. On this night, the team includes Don Sutherland and Mike McMurtry, biologists from the Ministry of Natural Resource’s Natural Heritage Information Centre; veteran birders Jean Iron and
McRae; and Lisa Pollock, a Trent University graduate student doing shorebird work for her thesis. Together with Peck, they represent 187 years of collective birding experience.
Iron – her black-rimmed glasses perched on the end of her nose – calls the crew to attention. The List runs through almost 159 species of birds (including 27 shorebirds), along with dragonflies and butterflies, assorted beetles, toads and frogs, tracks, scat and mammals. It demands a long attention span. When the crew goes off on tangents about the Eskimo curlew or the renaming of the sharp-tailed sparrow, Iron steps in. “Let’s do The List, and we can talk about taxonomy later,” she says, as if promising her pupils a sweet as soon as they complete their long division.
“Killdeer?” she resumes.
Answers sound from around the table.
“I counted one on the corner, and then seven by the creek.”
“Two additional on the flats.”
“We had two, Jean.”
“So that makes 12,” says Peck, who usually does the math. The List makes it clear that Longridge is a hot spot of diversity, an important foraging area for dozens of species besides knots, including pectoral, semi-palmated and white-rumped sandpipers, and Hudsonian godwits. Some days, 2,000 or more knots are on this small section of the coast – incredible when you realize that is at least 7 percent of the entire endangered population.
Shorebirds are only part of the story. In high summer, the coast is awash with wildlife. Almost as soon as the crew left camp in the morning, its members would be greeted by Le Conte’s and Nelson’s sparrows whirring and buzzing in the marsh, and secretive yellow rails drumming in the sedge. On sunny days, the shorebird survey was sometimes interrupted by waves of bright white pelicans. Team members would pause to watch ospreys hunt or hundreds of birds leap into the air and swirl upward when a peregrine falcon streaked overhead.
One night, while the crew loiters outside the cabins, a shadow flits through the clearing. A long-eared owl dips and glides among the spruce. McMurtry and McRae try coaxing the owl to reappear with their own calls. Peck plays recorded owl calls on his cell phone. The shadow returns and circles until a second, then a third and, a little later, a fourth owl joins it, the last rays of the sun illuminating their tawny feathers. It’s a magical and privileged moment. Even if the forest is full of owls, it’s rare to see so many of these reclusive, silent, and nocturnal flyers for so long. The crew stands beneath the night sky, transfixed by the spectacle.
But this sort of magic is common on the coast. Iron, Pollock and Sutherand see a caribou. Black bears and bald eagles are near-daily occurrences. On a trip to the tip of Longridge, McRae spots a fat ringed seal, puffed up like a balloon, lounging on the rocks. It’s these moments that make reminders of civilization – the frayed plastic shopping bags, the twisted orange flagging tape, the car anti-freeze reservoir that washes up on the beach – that much more jarring.
When Ontario’s Far North Science Advisory Panel released its Science for a Changing Far North report last April, it read like The List writ large. The Hudson and James Bay lowlands comprise the planet’s third-largest wetland and the largest on this continent. Their deep layers of peat store 26 billion tonnes of carbon, which help to buffer climate change. “About a tenth of the globe’s cooling benefit from peatlands comes from Ontario’s Hudson Bay Lowland,” the report says. The 53 mammal species that migrated there since the last ice age remain today – something that probably cannot be said for any other region of Ontario. Even the story of the red knot “emphasizes Ontario’s global responsibility for protecting its coastal estuaries, marshes and mudflats.”
But the north appears on the cusp of transformation, starting with climate change that is gaining momentum like an unhitched freight car. Precipitation and temperature are already on the rise in this region, guaranteeing changes that the science panel report suggests are too complex to predict. Hudson Bay and James Bay are “among the globe’s southern-most ocean bodies to freeze over each winter,” the panel report notes. “Reduced ice cover in them may contribute to increased solar warming, also with unknown effects.”
Add to this the hunger for northern resources. The Victor diamond mine is already operating 90 kilometres west of Attawapiskat, and Ontario’s next great mining boom could centre on the Ring of Fire, a complex mix of nickel, copper, platinum, vanadium, titanium, gold and chromite deposits about 350 kilometres northwest of Longridge. The region’s potential wealth has triggered an old-style staking rush, and mining claims have nearly tripled in just three years.
Whether the ore comes out of an open pit or an underground mine, vast quantities of water will need to be removed to keep the mines dry, and roads and utility corridors will carve up the land. The most significant impacts will occur inland, but Peck worries that they will reverberate on the coast, as the combination of mining and the opening of the Northwest Passage bring more people and vehicles, more aircraft and shipping. The bay will become at least a little more like the crowded, polluted shores in other parts of the globe.
“I understand the need for development, but I hope they give careful consideration to the environment at the same time,” Peck says. “If you had something like a big oil spill out here, you could wipe out a large part of the feeding area.” Ontario’s Far North Act aims to protect half of the region, but until the act has an impact on the ground, there is little to protect the coast’s creatures and their habitat from development beyond Polar Bear Provincial Park in the northwest and some bird sanctuaries along the south shore. The prudent course of action, Peck says, would be stronger protection for the southwest coast, including Longridge. “That’s what I hope all this research is leading to: some form of protection for this area.”
One of the lessons in shorebird conservation is that preserving shorebirds requires preserving the shore. Back in 1631, Thomas James sailed into the bay that now bears his name, seeking a northwest passage to the Orient. “We set out to discover populous kingdoms and to take special notice of their magnificence, power and policies, to bring home samples of their riches and commodities and to pry into the mysteries of their trade and commerce,” he wrote later. Instead, he and his crew suffered through a long, cold winter of scurvy, a summer of horseflies and an “infinite abundance of blood-thirsty mosquitoes.” The “whole coast,” he said, is “most foul, littered with rocks and stones.”
But James, looking with the eye of a navigator and trader, was merely the first of a long line of come-from-aways who failed to recognize the true wealth of the coast: the quality of its habitat and the diversity of life it supports. While words such as “vast” and “expansive” are easy to apply to James Bay, the most important descriptive is “intact.” The bay is one of the world’s largest, most intact ecosystems, and that makes it an increasingly rare commodity. It is a region whose benefits – including the red knot – extend well beyond the coast to include the hemisphere’s wildlife and the globe’s climate. As McRae says, shedding his binoculars and hat after a long day of surveying shorebirds, “This is a place we haven’t screwed up yet.”
With the right decisions, maybe we can keep it that way.
Ray Ford is a writer based near North Bay, Ont., who has previously written about caribou, agriculture, and gravel pits for ON Nature.