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Meet the Birder Who Runs a Christmas Bird Count 500 Miles North of the Arctic Circle

Clare Kines feels lucky anytime he gets more than one species for the count he organizes during high winter in the High Arctic—but it's all worth it, he says.

By Marc Devokaitis
Rock Ptarmigan nest as far north as there is land in the world. Photo by Clare Kines.

Clare Kines feels lucky anytime he gets more than one species for the count he organizes during high winter in the High Arctic—but it's all worth it, he says.

From the Winter 2022 issue of Living Bird magazine. Subscribe now.

Many birders get up at the crack of dawn to begin tallying birds for Audubon’s annual Christmas Bird Count. But not Clare Kines. In fact, on Kines’s CBC route, there is no dawn.

A typical CBC for Kines begins midmorning around 10:00 a.m. as he drives his SUV along the hardpacked snowy roads of Arctic Bay, Nunavut, Canada—located nearly 500 miles north of the Arctic Circle.

“It’s twilight [during the middle of the day],” Kines says, explaining that there’s an advantage to waiting until later in the morning to find birds during winter in the High Arctic. “Think of the sky after sunset. Our twilight lasts longer as the sun skims by below the horizon. Light enough you don’t need headlights to drive.”

Clare Kines has been coordinating the Arctic Bay Christmas Bird Count for more than a dozen years. Here he builds an ice shelter. Photo by Clare Kines.
Clare Kines has been coordinating the Arctic Bay Christmas Bird Count for more than a dozen years. Photo by Clare Kines.

Kines’s first stop on his CBC rounds is a check-in where the locals’ sled dogs are parked, eight or nine teams of dogs tethered out on the midwinter sea ice. The flat, vegetation-free frozen expanse—still months from breakup—makes it easy enough to find any birds that are around.

“The dogs are getting fed,” says Kines. “And that attracts the ravens.”

Kines’s count circle is centered around his hometown of Arctic Bay, a village of 800 people. Arctic Bay is the third-most-northerly community in North America, and the CBC Kines conducts represents the northernmost count circle in the world. In many years, Common Raven is the only species he tallies.

“The raven count [on the CBC] goes up and down, but it’s mostly about the conditions. They’re harder to find after storminess,” he says. According to Kines, Arctic Bay and the surrounding lands host a healthy winter population of around 300 ravens, a cluster of corvids taking advantage of the only human settlement for more than 100 miles.

map of the Arctic Corcle. Illustration by Jillian Ditner.
The hamlet of Arctic Bay is located on the northern reaches of Baffin Island, about 500 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Above the Arctic Circle, there is at least one day in the winter when the sun does not rise; in an Arctic Bay winter, the sun disappears on November 5 and reappears on February 6. But it’s not totally dark when Clare Kines heads out to count birds for his CBC route in early January. It’s “twilight,” Kines says, “as the sun skims by below the horizon. Light enough you don’t need headlights to drive.” Map by Jillian Ditner.

The hamlet of Arctic Bay is centered on a south-facing rocky beach on the northern reaches of Baffin Island, an area occupied by Inuit people on and off for at least 4,500 years. The Inuit call it Ikpiarjuk, which translates into “bag” or “pocket”—a reference to the sheltered location of the community, surrounded on three sides by high hills and cliffs. Vegetation is almost entirely at ground level—the closest place with trees is nearly 1,000 miles to the southwest.

Kines was stationed in Arctic Bay in 1999 as a Mountie with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. He fell in love with the landscape—and with a local resident, his now-wife Leah Ejangiaq—so he stayed. A birder since childhood, Kines began coordinating the Arctic Bay Christmas Bird Count in 2008, though most years he is just coordinating one participant: himself.

“My son [Travis, now 19] did it with me a few years,” Kines says. “But lately he’s more interested in girls than birds.”

After checking the dog teams Kines will often head to the town dump to count more ravens, and then along the Marcil River in hopes of picking up Rock Ptarmigan. In some years, Kines has snowmobiled farther afield in hopes of adding a wandering Gyrfalcon to the count. But after several misses, he has recently stuck to his in-town spots.

“There is evidence [Gyrfalcons] winter here. They’ve been spotted in town in December and January,” says Kines. “But I’ve never had them on the count.”

Snow Bunting nest in the cracks of an Arctic rock. Photo by Clare Kines.

In 2003 Kines retired as a Mountie. In the years that followed he and his wife opened a bed and breakfast, and Kines continued to work for the Canadian government as the economic development officer for Arctic Bay. In 2018, he took a position with Parks Canada, and he’s now helping to establish the Tallurutiup Imanga National Marine Conservation Area—more than 40,000 square miles of Arctic Ocean (including the waters around Arctic Bay) that is rich in biodiversity and has been used by the Inuit since time immemorial.

“Tallurutiup Imanga is ecologically important for the entire Arctic ecosystem. The way the water currents and winds interact means there’s more open water here than in many other parts of the Arctic, and it’s full of plankton, copepods, and other nutrients for fish, marine mammals, and birds,” Kines says. “It’s also important for Inuit food production.”

Kines is one of three eBird reviewers for the entire province of Nunavut, which encompasses north-central mainland Canada and spills north across hundreds of Arctic and sub-Arctic islands. Nunavut contains a full 20% of Canada’s land area (about the same size as Mexico), but has a population of only 37,000 people. Kines was one of the earliest eBird users in Nunavut. He was tapped to be a reviewer based on his regular checklist contributions.

“Up here especially there is a dearth of data. Much of what we know [about birds in the region] is from personal observations and extrapolation,” he says. “eBird caught my imagination because it was a way of contributing to data that can be used meaningfully. For me, then and now, it is about experiencing the birds, the joy of watching them—and eBird helps give birding a purpose beyond my own enjoyment.”

More Arctic Birds

Kines traces his love of birds back to his childhood in rural Manitoba, when he was particularly fascinated with bugs. His love of birds bloomed when his grandfather gave him a Peterson field guide at around age 7. He got his first camera when he was 12, and photography turned into a lifelong hobby that provided an additional way to enrich his natural curiosity.

It’s that curiosity that leads Kines, today at age 63, to explore the Arctic landscape throughout the year. In summer he says that he sees species regularly that “most southern birders only dream of,” such as Ivory Gull and King Eider. He sees three birds (Common Ringed Plover, Northern Wheatear, and the European subspecies of Red Knot) that breed around Arctic Bay but migrate southeast to cross the Atlantic Ocean and spend the winter in Europe or Africa.

Kines’s regular birding patch—the outflow from Marcil Lake, just south of town—has registered a modest 42 species on eBird. But he says that what the spot lacks in quantity, it makes up for in quality. Northern specialties such as Lapland Longspur, Snow Bunting, and Iceland Gull are common during the breeding season, which is generally limited to June and July.

The area that really gets his birding juices flowing is the “floe edge”—the area where land-fast ice meets the open ocean—during the spring melt. Kines calls the floe edge “a magical place.”

“It’s a magnet for wildlife, especially in the 24-hour-a-day light of the Arctic spring and summer,” he says. Kines recalls his first time visiting the floe edge in 1999 and spotting beluga, walrus, seal, and thousands of seabirds, such as Thick-billed Murres, Black Guillemots, and Black-legged Kittiwakes, all gathering to feed at the edge of the ice where fish and other aquatic prey concentrated. Nearby, a Northern Fulmar colony teems with tens of thousands of pairs nesting on stark oceanside cliffs.

A young Baird’s Sandpiper by Clare Kines.

Kines says he has seen some changes in the way ice melts and refreezes over his 20-plus years in the High Arctic.

“Spring breakup [of the ice] has changed,” he says. “It used to break up piece by piece, now the inlet [Admiralty Inlet] seems to go all at once.”

Kines also says he’s seen changes in precipitation: “It’s a lot wetter than it used to be. Historically we get less than 9 inches of precipitation a year, but recently more and more of it is falling as rain instead of snow.”

An adult Baird's Sandpiper. Photo by Clare Kines.
Baird's Sandpipers were one of the most common breeding birds in the region during summer, but Hines has seen numbers fall over the years. Photo by Clare Kines.

In terms of birds, the biggest change Kines has noted is that the number of shorebirds he sees breeding around Marcil Lake has dropped significantly. When he first moved to the area, he recalls seeing dozens of pairs of Baird’s Sandpipers, one of the most common breeding birds in the region during summer. A checklist from as recently as June 2013 shows he counted 48 Baird’s Sandpipers on one morning. These days he sees maybe four or five nesting pairs, and checklists from more recent Junes consistently show fewer than 10 Baird’s Sandpipers.

Kines won’t see any shorebirds when he heads out for his 14th Arctic Bay Christmas Bird Count during the first week of January, but he will be hoping for another banner day like his 2020 CBC tally, when he set a new record for most species tallied in the Arctic Bay count: four.

“Common Raven, Rock Ptarmigan, and both redpolls [common and hoary],” recounts Kines. “The redpolls were quite a surprise—we don’t usually see them in wintertime, but when they are here they manage to feed on stalks of grass seeds and sedge seeds that pop up through the snow.”

Coincidentally, those are also the only four species that have ever been counted for the Arctic Bay CBC. But regardless of whether he counts four bird species, or just ravens, Kines says his spirits won’t be diminished looking for birds in the middle of the High Arctic winter:

“It’s not hard at all. I quite like the dark season, and I like birds. There is a certain cachet to taking part in the most northerly count,” he says. “And more than that, I think the data matters.”

Update: Kines let us know that on his 2021 Christmas Bird Count (held on Jan. 4, 2022), they tallied 2 total species: 253 Common Ravens and 3 Hoary Redpolls. Kines described the day as “fairly nice weather, –26°C” [–15°F]. He conducted the count with his 15-year-old daughter, Hilary.

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