As you stand on the shore of a tundra island, a bit of movement catches your eye. A lone ptarmigan dashes among the tundra shrubs, losing in its haste the camouflage its brown-and-white summer plumage provides against the bush and flowers. Something has it spooked. As the ptarmigan flutters into the air, lands and runs, then flutters again, neither you nor it see the gyrfalcon until too late. The raptor, with its prey, returns to its nest, nestled into the face of a towering cliff that hangs overhead. You begin to notice that this land, which looked empty from afar, is not empty at all. You can tell by the sounds—the toy-like squawk of the black legged kittiwake, the coughing cackle of the northern fulmer, the guttural howls of the thick-billed murre. The gyrfalcon’s nest is not alone.
Nearly all of Nunavut’s more than 100 species of birds fly to the territory each summer, from May through to August, to breed. They come from all over the world. And if you want to see a land teeming with rare, beautiful, mysterious, and impressive birds, you’ll have to follow their lead.
A fantastic way to see the birds of Nunavut is by sea, as many roost by the water. Leagues of seabirds and waders come to the open Arctic water for the summer—the auk, which flies underwater as well as it does in air; the stocky puffin, emitting a rattling call through its distinctive, large beak; large cranes and wee snipes feed amongst each other, while the viewer may be advised to keep an eye out for the wily Arctic tern, which will dance beautifully through the sky but is easily given to bursts of territorial temper.
Local guides and outfitters can get you from a community to a nearby island — on which many of our bird sanctuaries sit — by boat, and take you to the best spots. Most Nunavut cruises, as well, hit some of the territory’s best birding spots as they tour the many wonders of the Arctic.
Inland birding is a different beast altogether. The ukpik (snowy owl) is active during the day throughout the summer, and if you hear their screech a siksik (ground squirrel) has likely met its end. (And if you’re looking for gifts to take home, few things are more iconic than the small souvenir ukpiks commonly made of wolf fur or sealskin.) In freshwater, you may spot the red-throated loon, its colours most striking in their summer breeding grounds; finches, sparrows, larks, plovers, wheateaters and pippits dart amongst the rocks, shrubs, and flowers of the tundra, competing for most enduring melody.
Our outfitters can take you to see these and more, not far from a given community — say, Cambridge Bay, where the yellow-billed loon breeds, and jaegers and rough-legged hawks join the snowy owl in its hunt; or by Rankin Inlet, where leagues of peregrine hawks make their nests on hilltops and cliffsides.
If you are heading through Nunavut in winter, do not despair. Nunavut’s most iconic birds remain: the snowy owl, the ptarmigan, and the raven. And no birds better fit the scenery—ptarmigan toddling out amongst the drifts, snowy owls taking flight through the long sunset, and ravens sitting upon rooftops around town like old men cracking jokes to each other and watching the town move by.