Wheatears, kestrels make summer stopovers in Iqaluit

Warmer Baffin lures rare avian visitors


Tundra Valley resident and climate change activist Sheila Watt-Cloutier said she was shocked when she saw an unfamiliar bird hovering outside her home last month.

The medium-sized brownish bird definitely wasn't a hummingbird, but the bird hovered in the air, rapidly flapping its wings, just like a hummingbird, before it flew away.

The bird that Watt-Cloutier spotted is likely an American kestrel – a falcon-like bird whose range extends into the Yukon and the Northwest Territories, but not usually into Baffin Island.

A hummingbird was also reportedly seen in south Baffin couple of years ago – but this bird may also have been an American kestrel with a case of mistaken identity.

If the American kestrel's range now includes south Baffin, that's probably due to a warming climate and increased vegetation.

The American kestrel, a raptor related to the larger peregrine falcon, generally nests in holes made in tree trunks. So, it's not normally found north of the tree line, said David Bird from the Avian Science and Conservation Centre at McGill University.

However, kestrels are already known to breed in Nunavik, where one pair used a nest box put up by Peter May at the end the Kuujjuaq airstrip.

May, a wildlife technician at the Nunavik Research Centre, said he first saw kestrels in Kuujjuaq about 20 years ago. May said kestrels returned for many years where they nested in the box by the airstrip and also under the eaves of a local warehouse.

May said he's seen kestrels around Kuujjuaq this summer, although he's not sure where they are nesting.

In his opinion, Watt-Cloutier's mystery bird is likely a kestrel.

"If it hovers, it's probably a kestrel because they hover in the air when they're hunting."

Like all falcons, American kestrels are speedy fliers and can dive at speeds of up to 105 km/hr. The favourite foods of kestrels include lemmings, smaller birds and even house cats.

May said this year's early and warm summer in Kuujjuaq may explain why the well-fed kestrels continued to fly on 600 kilometres north before nesting.

When the winter comes, the kestrels, powerful fliers, will migrate south.

Northern wheatears appear to be plentiful around Iqaluit this summer, although local birdwatcher Dave Boileau, who snapped a photo of one, wasn't sure exactly what he'd seen.

Wheatears are known, like snow buntings, as qupanuat in Inuktitut. But the bird's name in English has nothing to do with wheat­ears, but is a form of "white-arse," which refers to its white rump.

Wheatears, which eat insects and berries, breed on the tundra near dwarf shrubs. Foraging mostly on the ground, they run short distances and then stop to pick up food. They've been known to fly out to catch insects in midair.

Wheatears from eastern Canada generally migrate east via Greenland and Europe to winter in Africa. Now, they're apparently stopping off in Nunavut.

Have you seen any unfamiliar birds around Nunavut or Nunavik? If you have, try to take a photo of them and send it to us at editor@nunatsiaq.com.

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