Extreme birding in Canada’s north: Battling the elements to bring about the “bible” of Nunavut’s birds
By Joel Wittnebel/Active Senior’s Digest
Extreme and bird watching are two words generally not lumped into the same category, as the latter usually invokes images of khaki-clad individuals with Tilley hats and binoculars tromping gingerly through the woods.
However, the sweeping generalization breaks down when one meets Jim Richards.
I met him at his home in Orono, Ontario, where the two of us sat in his wood-panelled office on a pair of old arm chairs, surrounded by walls of books and pictures of his past exploits in the outdoors. The 76-year-old, award-winning conservationist is kind and knowledgeable, with a sharp desire to share his intellect, gathered over seven decades in the field of birding. He was wearing a Tilley hat too.
Yet, on the open plains of Nunavut, one is more likely to see Richards with a shotgun slung over his shoulder and camera in hand.
You see, birding in Canada’s north is no walk in the woods, and Richards knows it better than most, as he has more than a few dangerous stories to share, and even some from his time working on documenting the birds of Nunavut for his upcoming book.
Due out in 2018, the Birds of Nunavut will be one of the first in-depth reference books dedicated to the subject.
The birth of a birding hobby
If one were to ask Richards what came first, the chicken or the egg, he’ll probably answer the egg.
For him, that’s where his obsession with birds began, and even today, his friends still joke about his ongoing love for birds eggs.
“The story is, years ago, when we were shooting film, if I had one frame left and had the rarest bird in the world (before me), and then down here was the bird’s nest with four eggs, what would Jim photograph? The eggs,” he says with a hearty laugh.
Around the age of 10, Richards began hunting for birds eggs while on fishing trips with his father. On these trips, when his curiosity with the rod and reel eventually gave way, his father would drop him off on an island to explore.
“I’d trawl around looking for birds nests,” Richards recalls. “I don’t know why, I was just fascinated with it.”
That practice eventually bloomed into a healthy collection of eggs, organized on cloth in a small case.
The obsession grew out of that small case and eventually flourished into an award-winning career as a naturalist and conservationist. While spending the large part of his career as the manager of the McLaughlin Bay Wildlife Reserve for General Motors of Canada, Richards was also the founder and executive director of the Friends of Second Marsh for 27 years before his retirement in 1997.
Among his more than 40 prestigious awards for his environmental and conservation efforts are the Conservation Trophy from the Federation of Ontario Naturalists, the Ontario Bicentennial Medal from the Province of Ontario, the Environmental Citizenship Award from Environment Canada, the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal from the Province of Ontario, the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Durham Region Field Naturalists, and the Distinguished Ornithologist Award from the Ontario Field Naturalists.
It was a resume more than fitting for the task of completing a book on the birds of one of Canada’s most desolate landscapes. And when you ask him why he did it, the answer is simple.
It needed to be done.
Richards says that there’s a bird “bible” for every province/territory, except Nunavut.
Despite the summers having full-days of sunshine, things in the fields of Nunavut can turn dark really quick if you’re not ready.
“You’ve got to be prepared, the weather can change in 20 minutes,” Richards says. “The wind changes and starts blowing wind off the pack ice or something and 20 minutes later it could be 10 below zero.”
The elements can be unforgiving, and Richards knows it better than most.
He recalls one incident where he and a friend were stranded, unable to find their way back through a dense fog.
Earlier that day, Richards had spotted a location he wanted to photograph some birds. It was a pond, perhaps a six or seven mile hike from where they’d need to leave the truck on the roadside.
They made the trek and set up to take pictures. However, as they were finishing up, the temperature was plummeting, and the wind suddenly shifted, which is never a good thing.
The fog set in. Thick as soup and creating total blindness in all directions. Richards and his colleague, without a GPS, were essentially stranded.
“We just sort of sat there on a rock and waited and waited and waited and nothing was happening, the wind died down and the fog had just settled in,” he recalls, and it showed no sign of dissipating.
“We ended up spending the night, just having to sleep between the rocks out there. It wasn’t much fun,” he says.
It’s not only the elements one needs to contend with either, but the animal company, and the possibility of coming face to face with a Grizzly bear.
That’s what the shotgun is for.
With that said, Richards continues to return, he’s been 15 times in fact, and jokes that if his wife agreed, he’d move to the territory in a heartbeat. It’s quite a statement, especially coming from a man who has seen some of the world’s most attractive birding locations, including spots in the United States, Central and South America, Africa and the Galapagos Islands.
“I like open space, I guess that’s what it is,” he says. “I like the birds up there, I like the people up there, I like everything about it. Except for the mosquitoes.”
When it comes down to it, a lot of the birds that travel to the far reaches of Canada to breed, can be seen in other, more habitable places for birders. Richards notes that perhaps there is only one species of bird that can only be seen in Nunavut.
However, what intrigues Richards the most, are the birds that show up in the northern reaches unexpectedly, flying perhaps a little bit out of their normal range, like a traveller lost on vacation.
Richards recalls one particular article, relating to a black-throated blue warbler, a colourful songbird, who had somehow found its way to Nunavut. A spectacular feat when you consider the northern range of the bird is typically around Lake Superior and central Quebec regions.
“That sort of became my interest in Arctic birds, sort of the occurrence and distribution of these extra-limital species,” he says.
Now, the new book, slated to be published in 2018 by the University of British Columbia Press, will include 145 “true” Arctic breeding species and 147 extra-limital species of birds.
This is also not Richards’s first foray into the publishing world. In 1974, alongside close friend and Algonquin Park naturalist Ron Tozer, the pair wrote the Birds of the Oshawa-Lake Scugog Region. Since then, Richards has also written and co-authored five books, several book chapters, journal notes and magazine articles dealing mainly with birds.
And while a lot of the writing and over half of the images in the Birds of Nunavut will have been shot from Richards’s camera, he’s also enlisted the help of a collection of freelancers to provide images for particularly hard to spot species.
The project is also completely not-for-profit, with all of the money raised being put back into conservation efforts and birding programs in Nunavut.
“One of my stipulations with all of my co-authors was that we’re not doing this for the money,” Richards says.
With that said, the project has received monetary support from a collection of agencies including Bird Studies Canada, the Nature Conservancy of Canada, the World Wildlife Fund, the Government of Nunavut, and the Canada Wildlife Service.
It’s safe to say that the Birds of Nunavut is a passion project for Richards. A galley proof of the book’s cover already hangs on the wall of his office.
As we wrap up the interview, he shows me around the space. There’s books, there’s pictures of Richards in the field, there’s a pile of camera gear by the door and there’s shelves and shelves and shelves of binders filled with slides. By Richards’s approximation, there’s over 100,000 slides, photographs he’s been amassing for decades. And while it’s no longer a wooden case with small eggs on cloth, many of the photos are of birds eggs.
“I never stopped collecting,” Richards says.