There are not many places in the world with such a dense concentration of nesting seabirds as East Digges Island. On this rocky outcrop protruding from the waters where Hudson Strait meets Hudson Bay, at the northwestern tip of the Ungava Peninsula in Quebec, thick-billed murre breeding pairs are too numerous to count, though estimates hover around 300,000. These birds, along with a colony on the adjacent Quebec mainland, constitute the largest aggregation of thick-billed murres in Canada, and one of the largest concentrations of seabirds in the country.
Scientists from Environment Canada have been studying these murres — whose eggs are part of the traditional Inuit diet in the region — for the past two decades. Originally, Environment Canada conducted research on murres largely to ensure that their harvest in Eastern Canada and West Greenland was sustainable. Now Grant Gilchrist, a research scientist with the organization, leads multidisciplinary research programs to provide insights into Arctic seabird ecology. Knowledge of foraging, reproduction, migration and winter distribution will help meet aboriginal needs in the North and aid government conservation decisions.
While the annual Inuit harvest remains a central aspect of the research carried out by Gilchrist and the Environment Canada team, it is unlikely that it poses any threat to the sustainability of thick-billed murre populations.
The more important challenges for the murres come from issues such as climate change and, more recently, the prospect of increased mining activity in the Eastern Arctic. “Our goal,” Gilchrist says, “is to estimate the distribution and abundance patterns of marine birds and identify their use of key habitat areas within the Hudson Strait region that may soon be influenced by increasing levels of shipping traffic.”
One project involves the Mary River iron ore deposit at the northern end of Baffin Island, which is described as one of the largest and richest undeveloped deposits in the world. If it is developed, there will be more vessels using the Hudson Strait, possibly impacting the murres and other marine life.
Innovative technology is advancing Environment Canada’s conservation work. “With the small size of GPS devices now, we are able to obtain detailed information on the movement patterns and habitat use of individual murres,” says Michael Janssen, a wildlife technician with Environment Canada. The response of murres to climatic shifts can indicate that other seabirds could be affected by warming, too.
Neil Ever Osbourne is an associate member of the International League of Conservation Photographers and a contributing editor and photographer for Canadian Wildlife. To see more of his work, visit neileverosborne.com.