Each spring, millions of birds flap to the Northwest Territories to feast, breed and rear their young. They join a handful of hearty, cold-adapted species that soar throughout the territory year-round. Together, these 280 breeds of birds turn our nightless skies into a symphony of honks, hoots, tweets and croaks. For the birders who flock here from all over the world, this is music to their ears. Out come the binoculars – bringing these species, especially, into focus.
Wood Buffalo National Park has a heckuva lot of bison, but its most prized denizen is this creature: the whooping crane. Driven nearly to extinction, “whoopers” have clung to survival thanks largely to their protected breeding grounds in the park. Named for its bellowing call, this is the tallest bird in North America, standing nearly five feet high – yet despite its size, it’s elusive. For years, park visitors had little hope of seeing one. Recently, however, a pair has been nesting at the Salt Plains, just east of Fort Smith.
The Northwest Territories’ official bird, the ghostly gyrfalcon is the world’s biggest, most magnificent falcon. Breeding on the Barrenlands and Arctic islands, and often wintering in the North, they are one of the few truly polar birds. Expert hunters, they subsist on ptarmigan, hares, ground squirrels and waterfowl, diving on their prey at terrifying speeds.
The best-loved bird in the Northwest Territories is the plodding, fuzzy-footed ptarmigan. These small game birds are sometimes called “chickens,” for their awkward flight and lack of intelligence. Herds of them can often be spotted trudging around Yellowknife, feasting on willows and birdseed. The male’s song is a loud “croak.” Snow white in winter, they turn brown in summer and vanish into the bush.
Each spring, hundreds of thousands of snow geese flock north to nest in the Mackenzie River Delta and Arctic Islands. Banks Island alone hosts colonies of nearly a quarter-million of the birds. Bright white with black wingtips, they’re nearly three feet tall with a five-foot wingspan.
Summering in the Cape Parry Migratory Bird Sanctuary, on the shores of the Northwest Passage just north of Paulatuk, this is the largest surviving member of the auk family. A seabird with colouration similar to penguins and puffins, they nest on steep shore-cliffs, laying a single egg. After the chick is a few weeks old it dives into the sea, joining its father to swim south to ice-free waters for the winter.
Among the prettiest birds you’ll ever see is this large, majestic sea duck. In breeding plumage, males boast a black body, creamy breast and a head that’s day-glo orange, lime-green and light blue. Vast flocks breed on the shores of the Northwest Passage, with 100,000 alone nesting on Banks Island. Called kingalik by the Inuvialuit of the Northwest Territories, the community of Ulukhaktok celebrates their arrival each spring with the Kingalik Jamboree.
With a wingspan of up to nine feet, a 15-inch-long bill, and a prodigious throat-pouch, this big white bird is one of the most striking inhabitants of the Northern sky. Adults gobble up more than four pounds of fish per day. The best place to see them is at the Slave River Rapids near Fort Smith. The birds nest by the hundreds on mid-stream islands, using the frothing current as both protection from predators and a hunting ground for succulent fish.
The North’s most iconic aerial predator, the haunting snowy owl, patrols the skies of the Northwest Territories year-round, gorging on unsuspecting lemmings, hares and even foxes. They nest on open tundra and, in summer, soar as far north as the highest-latitude Arctic islands. They are Canada’s biggest owl, with a wingspan of four-and-a-half feet, and are completely cloaked in bright white feathers from their foot-pads to their beaks.
The world’s largest tern has black legs, grey wings, a black cap and a bright, broad, pointy orange bill that looks, frankly, like a carrot. With that bill, it preys predominantly on fish. The global population of Caspian Terns is only 50,000, making it a prized sighting in the Northwest Territories. They can often be found nesting on islands in Great Slave Lake. Its call is a heron-like croak.
The largest of the world’s five loon species, this Arctic diver closely resembles the well-known common loon, but has a heavier build and an angular straw-yellow beak. Wintering offshore on northern oceans, it flocks to Canada’s Barrenlands each summer, feeding and breeding at tundra lakes. With only 10,000 yellow-billed loons in existence, sightings are very rare, making it a coveted species among birders visiting the Northwest Territories.
Once the most common shorebird in the Western Arctic, the Eskimo curlew is now exceedingly rare – indeed, likely extinct. With a mottled brown body, stilt-like legs and a long, downward-curving beak, it once bred by the tens of millions on the Barrens beyond Great Bear Lake. On its migration route over the United States, however, hunters targeted it relentlessly. In recent decades there have been a few possible sightings of Eskimo curlews in the Northwest Territories, but the most recent definitive sighting was in 1963.