Sunday, January 8, 2017

Crazy crazy idea - looking for associates !

I'm just throwing this out there, with absolutely no idea what type of response I might get... Here it is:

Aerial Survey (via helicopter) of coastal James Bay in Winter!

Sounds like fun, right? Here's the skinny:

Off the SW tip of Akimiski island in winter is a feature called a polynya -  one that occurs year after year - an area of open water surrounded by sea ice. Beyond that, most of James Bay doesn't actually freeze solid - meaning there will be cracks or leads within the ice. It's hard to find a graphic that illustrates this, but I've done my best:

Red = where we would expect to find the reliable polynya

Yellow = where (weather permitting) we would find leads/cracks in the ice

What would we expect to see? Well I'm glad you asked... In general - not a whole lot, but I think the experience alone may be worth it... At a minimum I'd like to think we'd see Common Eider and Black Guillemot - two species that ALWAYS overwinter on James Bay and presumably rely on the polynya... Where those two species are hanging out, I'd also expect to see King Eider and Long-tailed Duck. Anything beyond that may well be gravy, but I wouldn't be shocked to see Glaucous Gull, Snowy Owl and/or Gyrfalcon.

A major natural history bonus would be the possibility of seeing Beluga, Polar Bear or Bearded/Ringed Seals.

IF we were to see something "rare" - I'd place my money on Ivory Gull... Unexpected but no-less appreciated birds would be scoters (White-winged?), other gulls (Iceland, Herring or perhaps Kittiwake)... IF we saw a Dovekie, Thick-billed Murre or a Fulmar, I'd be darn happy - but I'm not getting my hopes up...

But WAIT! There's more!

(What is this, an infomercial?)

There's an additional major selling point to this little adventure... We will DRIVE to Attawapiskat. That's right... In recent years a WINTER ROAD has been maintained from Cochrane to Moosonee to Attawapiskat... So we'll drive the whole way, presumably scoring ALL of the northern goodies from Spruce Grouse to Sharp-tailed Grouse to Pine Grosbeak to Hoary Redpoll flocks to Great Gray Owl to Northern Hawk Owl and perhaps more.

And by more I mean WILLOW PTARMIGAN IN WINTER. Hopefully. I can only hope that somewhere on that lonely road from Moosonee to Attawapiskat we'll come across one of these white beauties... I have it on good authority that the winter road should be open in the next 7-10 days!!!

SO - here comes the hard part...

Helicopters are EXPENSIVE... And there are several variables depending on who wants to go and how much each individual is willing to pay.... For example:

IF we wait for the Helicopter company to ALREADY be in Moosonee or Attawapiskat, we could save a lot of money... However we would lose all ability to plan the dates of the trip, tailor it to weather, or there could even be the possibility that the dates don't work out and the trip doesn't happen at all...

IF we pay for what we want, it's more expensive, but then we can ensure we're up there for optimal weather (or optimal dates for your personal life) and more freedom in general...

SO -

My bare minimum estimate is $2500 ... and the more we're willing to get into the $4000-$4500 range, the more freedom we will have.

IF you're interested - please e-mail me!!! - I'll send you my cell number and we can go over additional details together... I can't really sort out a more accurate estimate until I know who wants to go and how many of us there are.....



I meant to put this in, I should have put this in, and I didn't put it in originally! Thanks to Josh & Adam for pointing this out.

I tend to follow the "Ontario" border from google, which shows that most of the way from Moosonee to Fort Albany would be in Ontario, From Fort Albany to Attawapiskat we would probably be on the border somewhere (likely in Ontario earlier in the winter, possibly Nunavut later in the winter as the fast ice builds)... And then the polynya would most likely fall in Nunavut (however it's possible to be very close to the border or even in Ontario depending on ice conditions - but probably Nunavut)...

From a "list" standpoint, or birding in general, I think we will be venturing into a realm totally unknown when in the helicopter... It is very hard to say if there will be massive flocks of eiders (as our anon. poster highlights from an amazing adventure in the first comment) as the eastern shore (or the Belcher Islands) may be quite different than the western shore... As far as I know, the results of what we see may be the first of their kind to be presented to the wide world (web, print etc).

For me, I don't really expect to see anything I couldn't see otherwise in Ontario (even the possible mega rares like Fulmar, Dovekie, Murres, Ivory Gull etc). It's all about the "experience" of flying over a frozen James Bay birding in a place where we would have no idea what to expect. The possiblity of beluga, seals or polar bears are (nearly) as exciting as the birds... Plus  - I expect to see great birds regardless on the drive in the form of Grouse, Finches, Owls etc!

Thanks again gents for pointing this out! If anyone has any questions, comment, email etc. and I'll do my best to answer...


  1. In 1977, I spent four months on Mactavish Island on the eastern shore of Hudson Bay working on the polar continental shelf project. We were providing on shore navigation for helicopters landing on the bay doing gravitation studies. They told me the leads were full of thousands of eiders and 'other ducks'. At one point we had a massive storm with 80-100 mph winds for twenty four hours and an lead opened up just to the west of our island for a few hours. There were no eiders but I did see a small flock of Thick-billed Murres! The only other birds I saw that month were Common Raven, Snowy Owl, Willow and Rock Ptarmigan. Mactavish Island is the northernmost of the string of islands ne of the Belcher Islands along the eastern shore of the bay.

    1. That sounds like a really amazing adventure! Amazing too that the Murres were still out there. I suspect there are a LOT of cracks in the ice depending on the wind/weather (well offshore) so it's possible a number of birds do quite well for themselves out there. Neat that you had Raven's out there as well.


  2. Brandon, really cool idea and I hope it comes together with you and whoever else is interested!!

    One minor question though - wouldn't the majority of the polynya fall within Nunavut waters?

    1. Yes sir - I've updated the text - and thanks! I've got my fingers crossed & there are a few parties interested thus far.

  3. Those were my thoughts exactly Josh - if the main idea is to see birds in Ontario waters. Looks like the leads near Moosonee would be clearly in Ontario if they were open, but probably not as interesting?.. Any way to get a recent satellite image of the Polynya to try and map the borders? Price was per person or total?

    1. Main goal (for me) is to explore in general, although I know that many will be keen on their Ontario list. I should (again) update the text, but the main goal of sticking near the fast ice is to exclude some safety requirements that would increase costs if we were to fly out over open water. (open water + small aircraft = more gov regulations)...

      The price is per person... It's $1600/hour to rent a helicopter at this time of year... (Unless someone has Heli-connections and wants to hook us up)... If we want total freedom, we'd have to pay for the heli to fly in from Cochrane - which is the "high end" of the price range... Hoping & waiting with fingers crossed that some other group/company books a Heli in Moosonee or Attawapiskat is the cheaper option - but then we would have to tailor our dates to exactly match their schedule... One bit of good news is that we aren't charged whenever we land on the ice & power down, so we should be able to spend some time enjoying the bliss of the ice/water & whatever birds we see without racking up the bill!

      Wanna come? :)

  4. I know this area pretty well, and I have done quite a bit of surveying for seabirds in the early spring in the High Arctic, and I seriously doubt you are going to see anything worth the expense. All of the ice in James Bay is going to be first year ice, and I would be pretty surprised to hear of a pilot willing to land a machine on first year ice close to a lead. Even if you did find such a pilot, you would pretty much guarantee yourself the best look yove ever had of a flock of birds flying away as fast as they could from a loud helicopter.
    From a birding point of view, every species you could reasonably expect is probably see-able elsewhere in the province with a lot of luck, but way less money.
    If you want to see lots of birds in the ice, just suck it up and pay the absurd cost to fly to Sanikiluaq and then rent a skidoo. You'll be warm (at night) and you will see more birds than you can imagine.

    1. Thanks for the insight Mark - I certainly hope to make no promises regarding the waterbird viewing but hope it's a bit better than your prediction ;)

      In talking with the heli company they (seem) to be OK with landing on the fast ice, which given the shallow nature of the ON coast - could well be sitting on the ground rather than floating... IF we could get enough people (two more?) we could tailor our trip on specific winds that would (hopefully) create leads along the edge of the fast & 9/10 first year ice in order to ensure open water along this edge while still ensuring the safety of our group/machine.

      I also thought our ability to land on the ice would increase our viewing while saving some $$ - and would probably target habitat rather than specific birds (I agree, they'll fly away if we try to land near them)... Instead do a "wait and see" approach near a perceived hotspot for a longer period of time (eg,/ 30-45 minutes) in hopes of having something fly past rather than chasing down specific birds we encounter...

      I very much agree we probably won’t see anything that a birder/lister wouldn’t get elsewhere. I’m really pumped for the experience as a whole, and exploring somewhere that has rarely been explored (compared to the Belcher Islands) is worth it to see less. Give me a shout if you have any concerns or thoughts on how to make it better (if we can find enough people to go!)


  5. This sounds like a blast. Good luck, hope you can go, and looking forward to hearing the results.