Female Arctic Fox, summer coat © David Hemmings
This year’s trip to Cambridge Bay, Nunavut will be one to remember for many reasons.
Upon my arrival in Cambridge Bay four days before my guests arrived for the workshop, it was raining cats and dogs and the thermometer was hovering around 38 degrees Fahrenheit. So I ask one of the locals “is this unusual weather for this time of year”? His reply was, “sure is, we almost never see rain in June and July up here’. So the trip starts.
The idea of me getting there early with our guide was to scout bird locations for photography. One of the primary goals of the workshop was to find and photograph nesting Snowy Owls. There are basically three different roads to traverse by vehicle in Cambridge Bay. The one that was most likely to lead to the Snowy Owls was closed off due to a damaged bridge that had been rampaged by severe ice melt off and fast flowing water. When we made this discovery on the second day of scouting, we went as quickly as possible to the town hall to try and find out what, if any, were the plans for getting the bridge open. After all, this was the road that leads to one of the biggest attractions in Cambridge Bay, Mount Pelly. We were informed that they had called in an engineer to assess the situation and see what, if anything could be done quickly to get the bridge back open. We crossed our fingers and went about the task of scouting the tundra from the only two other roads open to vehicular traffic.
At this time of year the weather should be clear, reasonably warm for the high arctic and smooth sailing. Instead we found ourselves walking and scanning the tundra in pouring rain, drizzle, hail and even a snowstorm! We had no choice, we had a job to do so scout we did. For the next two days it continued with the rain and drizzle but we did manage to see and mark some wonderful spots for photo opportunities.
Long-tailed Jaeger © David Hemmings
On the morning of the fifth day my guide and I headed out for some last minute scouting before our guests were to arrive at 1:30 that afternoon. We trekked about in the damp tundra managing to find a few birds of interest in places that would be possible good shooting locations. We saw very few Lemmings anywhere which did not bode well for the possibility of nesting Snowy Owls. We scanned every rocky rise and point on the horizon for that nest we wanted to find oh so badly, but no luck. Mother Nature, can’t live with her, can’t live without her!
So a quick lunch and it was off to the airport to meet the participants in the workshop. I was fortunate enough on this trip to have guests who have travelled with me before on previous NPA workshops. So when I showed up at the airport covered in mud and dirt from head to toe, the general response was “that’s what we like to see, someone who has been out in the bad weather finding us birds to photograph!” After a few hugs and handshakes it was time to get everyone checked into the hotel.
The road back from the airport managed quite nicely to coat everyone’s luggage with some mud spatters. By the time everyone was checked in it was still raining and the sky was showing no signs of improvement, an ominous start to the trip.
Although the workshop did not officially start until the following day, I asked our guests if they were interested in coming out to scout that evening after dinner. Almost everyone was eager to get out and see what was what, wonderful I thought.
As a vehicle for a group of 8 of us, we were supposed to have an 11 passenger van. Last minute we found out that the vehicle we had reserved had transmission trouble and was not available. Luckily a local gentleman named Wild McDonald had 2 extended cab diesel pickup trucks available for us to use. If it were not for that I don’t know what we would have done, perhaps a lot of walking! As it turned out, having two separate vehicles with easy in and out access was much better than having one panel van. Sometimes things just work out for the best.
Well, we were out for 4 or 5 hours in the drizzle that evening but the weather report was showing improvement over the coming days of the trip. It is amazing to me the different moods and atmospheres between the group that can be created by having bad weather or sunshine. Bring on the sun........
Our first day of photography turned out to be pretty decent. For the most part the rain held off and everyone managed to get some good initial images of some Bonaparte’s Gulls, King Eiders and some Lapland Longspurs. We spotted a few other species such as Horned Larks, Snow Buntings, Ruddy Turnstones and a Sabine’s gull nest that we put in the GPS for the coming days.
Finally on the third day, the sun broke and everyone got a chance to see that amazing arctic midnight sun. It is almost indescribable if you have not witnessed it for yourself. The soft reddish orange glow imparts a warmness to the landscape and the birds that is second to nothing I have seen in my lifetime. Needless to say we stayed out until the wee hours of the morning photographing whatever we found. This happened to include some Ruddy Turnstones and a couple of beautiful Sabine’s gulls. We also found the nest of a Pacific Loon pair on a pond where we could try to set up blinds the next afternoon for a possible evening shoot of the loons.
Female King Eider © David Hemmings
The next morning, after another huge breakfast at the Arctic Inn we went off in search of some male King Eiders. We found a large pond with a fair number of the Kings but it was very large. We were lucky that there was still a lot of ice on this pond which restricted the area that the Eiders could swim away from us. Three of us set up on the edge of the pond and waited. When you first approach a pond with your intended quarry they will more often than not swim or fly away from you. Don’t leave! Sit down or better yet, lie down cover yourself with a portable blind blanket and wait quietly. Chances are you will be rewarded with some wonderful photo opps as the ducks start to return to their original spots. That is exactly what happened with the male King Eiders on this morning and we were all clicking madly when a few of them swam by us full frame! That evening I set up two participants in a blind by the Pacific Loon’s nest and left them there for a few hours. When I came back to pick them up there were ear to ear smiles as the loon had returned to the nest, tended to her eggs and quietly sat while the photographers recorded many high quality images and video footage. What a great day we all had!
One of the interesting and sometimes challenging things about photographing in the high arctic is that it is light out 24 hours a day. The sun never really sets. It gets low on the horizon but does not disappear.
It is very easy to lose track of time and wonder in at 2 or 3 in the morning. As bird photographers we all want to make good use of the soft light when we have the chance. Sleep tends to become a secondary consideration on these trips. Most of us would take an hour or two in the afternoon to nap while the sun was at its harshest and not great for photography. This system seemed to work well for all of us. Luckily, the hotel had some thick dark curtains to help mimic the night for sleeping.
On the next day, we were informed that the bridge to Mount Pelly had been repaired and was going to open at noon that day. We were all smiles at that news! The morning saw us find and photograph an unexpected surprise, the very hard to find and hard to photograph Yellow-billed Loon! Actually, it was three of us, I was not one of them that were very fortunate to be in the right place at the right time when a Yellow-billed Loon flew in and landed on the pond very close to where they were sitting and photographing eiders. The loon hung around for about a half an hour and then did a nice fly by which they all captured great!
After we all saw the great images of the loon, we headed out for the road to Mount Pelly to search for snowy Owl nests as well as Peregrine Falcons nesting. These were to be two top highlights of the trip for everyone. Across the bridge we went in search of our Snowy Owls and Peregrine Falcons! Wait though, not a mile down the gravel road we see people coming the other way, car after truck after atv. What is going on? As we stopped one vehicle to ask, they informed us that the road ahead over the hill was completely washed out and impossible to drive through to Mount Pelly. Great, just great. We continued ahead to see for ourselves that the road was indeed washed out and completely impassable. Now what? Somebody get me an aspirin, or a stiff drink!
We had to regroup and rethink what we were going to do for the remaining days of the trip. We really had no choice but to revisit the areas we had already been and search for new species and new photographic opportunities. As it turns out, not being able to travel the road to Mount Pelly was indeed a bit of a bummer but we did manage to do very well with all the other target species we wanted to see and photograph on the trip. These included more King Eiders and a female near her nest, Long-tailed Jaegers were seemingly everywhere, Buff-breasted Sandpiper on a nest, Snow Buntings feeding their young, Pectoral Sandpipers nesting, American Golden Plovers, and the icing on the cake, an Arctic Fox den with kits!
What started out as a somewhat frustrating and semi productive trip turned out great for all of us. As far as the Snowy Owls are concerned, well, there is always next year!
That is me with a Long-tailed Jaeger © David Hemmings
Written by: David Hemmings. David owns and operates Natures Photo Adventures and has been published by National Geographic and many other magazines and books.