September 20, 2011

New Breeding Records for Iqaluit

Tonight I'm making a short presentation to the Brodie Club, a naturalists' club that meets once a month to hear an invited speaker and observations made by its members. The September meeting is traditionally given over entirely to short presentations by the members about things they've seen over the summer (field-work season for many professional biologists).

Over the course of three days in July 2011, while doing field work for David Hussell, I observed and photographed three species of birds feeding their young near Iqaluit, all well to the north of their standard breeding range. None of the three species have breeding records near Iqaluit.

(All the presentation's images in a single album).

White-crowned Sparrow (WCSP), Zonotrichia leucophrys:
WCSP near Iqaluit, 2011/07/23
WCSP range map, with Iqaluit marked
WCSP chick in Iqaluit, 2010/07/08
WCSP and fledgling, 2010/07/28

I saw adults feeding young in 2011 as well, but didn't get a photograph of the young that year.

Savannah Sparrow (SAVS), Passerculus sandwichensis:
SAVS near Iqaluit, 2011/07/21
SAVS range map, with Iqaluit marked
SAVS chick near Iqaluit, 2011/07/21

The adult was feeding that young. The chick is just hiding in a hollow in the tundra; that isn't the nest.

Dark-eyed Junco (DEJU), Junco hyemalis:
DEJU near Iqaluit, 2011/07/22
DEJU range map, with Iqaluit marked
DEJU with food, near Iqaluit, 2011/07/22

Again, I saw the young, and the adults feeding the young, but was unable to get a photograph of a young Junco.

Breeding records for all three species are being prepared for submission to the NWT/Nunavut Bird Checklist Survey, and may eventually be published in The Canadian Field-Naturalist.

August 24, 2011

Remote Outpost

Nunavut has an area of two million square kilometers. If it were a country, it would rank 14th largest in the world, just ahead of Mexico and Indonesia. Yet it has a population of only 33 thousand. Iqaluit, the capitol of and largest population center in Nunavut, has a permanent population of less than 7 thousand.

In places that are more connected to civilization we take a lot of things for granted, like access to a variety of foods, clothing, and other consumer goods, infrastructure like roads, highways, the power grid, and running water, and an abundance of services and specialists who can be hired to do just about anything. In Iqaluit, it's quite difficult to take any of these things for granted.

During the summer, when Frobisher Bay is ice-free, cargo ships bring in everything from toys to heavy machinery. Iqaluit doesn't have a deep-water harbor, so the ships anchor off-shore and the cargo is brought in by barges to the dock. More cargo, mostly food, comes in on year-round daily flights landing on Iqaluit's WWII military-grade runway. Prices for anything not available locally tends to be somewhere between double and triple what you'd expect in the south, and the only things available locally are fish (Arctic Char, yummy!) and stone (there's a quarry for gravel, dirt, and other building materials which can be used in road-beds, and a small industry of stone-carvers creating figurines to sell to tourists).

Another thing the ships bring in is fuel: there's a pipeline leading from the shore nearest the anchorage to a group of storage tanks, then through town to the power plant. The power plant is right next to the water-treatment plant, just below a dam that creates the town's reservoir of drinking water. Water pipes are also visible throughout the town, since they're often above ground. (I got a nice photo of a pipe-bridge. The footbridge on top was just an afterthought. A little scary.)

Despite having a population of 7 thousand, Iqaluit has all the services you'd expect in a capitol, and then some. There's an RCMP building, a judiciary building, the Nunavut Legislative Assembly building, separate men's and women's prisons, a campus of the Nunavut Arctic College (including dorms), a museum, a library, a cathedral and several churches, schools, a hospital, a sports arena, banks, hotels, and various government offices scattered throughout. Yet there are only two supermarkets in town, the Northern Store and Arctic Ventures.

The roads in Iqaluit are paved using local materials, if they're paved at all, and have branches extending about a kilometer from town in various directions (to a nearby park, to a quarry, etc.). The taxi service does the bulk of its business during the summer, when snowmobiles aren't the dominant form of transportation. Many taxi drivers are temporary residents hired from the south for one summer at a time.

In truth, Iqaluit wouldn't have ever developed beyond a small fishing community with a Hudson's Bay trading outpost if it hadn't been for the airport runway, which was built in 1942 as part of a route for the US to fly aircraft to the UK.

August 18, 2011

Iqaluit Signage

The North-West Territories introduced a unique bear-shaped license plate in 1970. When Nunavut split off in 1999, both territories opted to keep the design. Recently, the NWT announced that the machinery used to manufacture the plates needs to be replaced, so both territories are taking the opportunity to update their designs. The bear-shape is popular, so it seems likely that at least one of the territories will keep it.

The flag of Nunavut is quite unusual, from a vexillological point of view. (Vexillology: the study of flags. New word!) Flags in former British colonies (including Canada) tend to follow heraldic rules, and this one doesn't at all. In particular, having white and yellow as adjacent parts of the background and having a black border around the inukshuk are quite unusual. The position of the star has also been criticized, since it tends to be concealed when a flag is hanging (the original design had it on the other side, by the flag-pole). On flags that have been outdoors for some time, sometimes one only sees the inukshuk on a light background, with the other colors faded.

Until 2003, Iqaluit had no street names. Every building in Iqaluit has a unique number, rather than the same numbers being reused on every street. The newest buildings are in the 5200s. Most streets and neighborhoods have sequential numbers; for example, the 3000s are all in Apex, the downtown core is all in the lower 1000s, and particular blocks of 100 are usually used for adjacent buildings on one or two streets. There's a city-wide taxi service (phone from anywhere, and a taxi will arrive in under 5 minutes), whose drivers are trained to memorize the locations of all the building numbers. Many of the larger buildings have a unique name as well (some in Inuktituk, some in English), so one can say "Take me to Long View, please." or "I'm going to 517A.", and no street name is needed. (Or understood: giving the street name will just get you a blank look.) Nonetheless, in 2003 street names were assigned, and street signs put up. All the street signs, including stop signs, use both the Roman alphabet and the Inuktitut syllabary. (Image) There's one road called (accurately) 'The Road to Nowhere'. Unfortunately, the sign has already been stolen, so I don't have a picture for you.

Signs in the Sylvia Grinnell park use figures dressed in traditional clothing to convey messages such as "Don't litter", "Beware, bears", and "Stay on the path". Wish I'd taken a picture of the Beware of Bears one.

Random amusing sign.

August 07, 2011

Architectural Quirks

Many of the buildings in Iqaluit, especially the newer houses and apartments, are built on raised foundations, which allows the bottom of the house to be insulated and out of contact with the permafrost, and is easier than digging a foundation in extremely rocky ground.

Many of the buildings are also painted in bright and cheery colors. The school in Apex. A colorful house. I'm not quite sure why this is done. The older buildings aren't quite so colorful. Possibly to help counteract winter depression?

Also, although I don't have a picture of one, many buildings have blizzard lights near the doorways: low-power red lights, running continuously even during the summer. I've been told the red light is easiest to spot during white-out conditions (or in fog).

The entrance-ways in homes are set up like an airlock. There's the outer door, a small room where you can take off your boots and hang up your coat, almost always with a heater or hot-air vent running full blast, and an inner door leading to the rest of the house. I saw one which had a slightly sloped floor with a drain in the lowest part, presumably to deal with melting snow shaken off of clothing or pooling under the boot rack.

August 04, 2011

Northern Wheatear

Here's a banded male Northern Wheatear, posing nicely in front of some tidal flats. Normally it's more difficult to spot them: they look like this before you get binoculars on them, and like this afterwards. It's a good thing they make loud alarm calls as soon as they spot you, or we'd hardly spot any.

August 02, 2011

Windy = Good, sometimes

There were rainy windy days (bad), rainy calm days (not so bad), sunny windy days (good), and sunny calm days (mosquitos!).

August 01, 2011

Iqaluit Quarry

Just to show that my trips to Iqaluit aren't always sparkling weather and stunning vistas, here's a photo of Iqaluit's quarry, junkyard, and industrial zone, on an overcast day. You can see the airport runway in the background. Taken June 25th, 2010.

I'm going to try to post a photo every day for a while, along with a couple of longer posts explaining what I was doing in Iqaluit.

July 28, 2011

Iqaluit Panorama

I've been sorting my pictures from Iqaluit, and experimenting with Hugin (open-source software for stitching together photographs into panoramas). I present to you the first result of my efforts: Iqaluit Panorama #1. Taken July 18th, 2011 (a day with really nice weather), from the end of the point on the other side of Koojesse inlet from Iqaluit proper.

July 25, 2011

First Impressions of Iqaluit

I've just returned from a week and a half in Iqaluit, Baffin Island, Nunavut, Canada. It's the capital of Canada's territory of Nunavut, with a population of only 8 thousand. It's below the arctic circle, barely, at about the same latitude as Reykjavík, Iceland. While I was there, there was continuous light from 2am to midnight every day, temperatures ranged from 5 to 20 °C (41 to 68 °F), and there were still patches of snow and ice at the bottom of north-facing cliffs.

The first thing a southerner notices when stepping out onto the tundra is the complete lack of trees, bushes, or any other sort of vegetation more than 10cm high. This is not to say that the terrain is flat or uninteresting. Baffin Island is a rocky and rugged place, with boulders, bedrock outcrops, hills, and cliffs everywhere you look. The melting snow during the spring and summer causes streams and lakes to form almost everywhere, and wherever there's water, there's tundra vegetation. Despite all the plants hugging the ground, there's an incredible profusion of vegetation forming the tundra: lichens, mosses, grasses, dozens of flowering plants, dwarf shrubs and trees, and even mushrooms, all woven together into a thick, spongy mat that covers every low spot on the ground, from the valley bottoms to small hollows on bare rock. In places, the stuff is meters thick, and has completely overgrown sizable waterways, concealing them so well that one can walk across some of them without seeing anything.

Away from town, it was incredibly quiet. I could easily hear those concealed streams burbling away beneath the tundra, and on several occasions I heard a faint swishing sound, looked around, and saw a raven gliding by. I had been hearing the sound of the air ruffling the feathers at the tips of their wings.

July 30, 2010

Saying no

Paul Graham's essay The Acceleration of Addictiveness points out that the internet, when used to procrastinate, is a waste of time enjoyable enough and dangerous enough to be compared to addictive drugs like heroin or cocaine.

What should you avoid doing, because it feels good despite having no tangible benefit? The obvious ones are easy: drugs like methamphetamine, heroin, and cocaine, which directly mess with your brain chemistry to make you feel good. Similar problem substances include opium, LSD, MDMA, alcohol, nicotine, marijuana, and caffeine. You may disagree about some of the milder ones, but they're all mind-altering drugs in some way, and all of them cause dependency problems and health issues, and provide minimal (if any) benefit.

Less obvious are things in the too-much-of-a-good-thing category, like over-eating. Food is an absolute necessity, but, as Graham mentions, our relatively recent ability to grow and produce highly nutritious and calorie-rich food has led to a need for us to actively suppress our food cravings.

The waste-of-time category overlaps quite a bit with the too-much-of-a-good-thing category. It includes such things as stories and fictional entertainment of all sorts (books, television, movies, comics, theater), games (board games, card games, and, especially, computer games), and music (including attending concerts as well as listening to your MP3 collection). Opera combines music and theater. Watching sports, as distinguished from playing sports, is a waste of time. Pornography is a real waste of time that could better be spent trying to get the real thing.

Reading stories and news on the internet can teach you things (much like reading fiction), but unless you're extremely selective in your choice of what to read, there are much more efficient ways to learn things. Daily news doesn't give reporters enough time to go into the depth needed to really learn anything about any one area before the story has to be written, so very little "news" actually contains anything new. Like entertainment, the news often focuses on things that cause strong emotional reactions, rather than things which have a tangible effect on your life. (News stories are often about things which have a tangible effect on someone's life, just not yours.)

I suppose all that makes me sound like a guy who never has any fun. But all I'm really trying to say is that some types of fun are bad for you.