WSRS 2017 Silver Fox winner Magnus Robb
In 2016 I traveled to Cambridge Bay on Victoria Island, Nunavut, Canada, to make sound recordings for The Sound Approach collection with Thor Veen, a Dutch biologist friend who lives in Canada. Top prioirity was to try to record the Yellow-billed Loon Gavia adamsii (which also goes by the name of White-billed Diver, or a combination of the two names). This is a species that occurs in Europe in small numbers, around ten being seen off the Scottish coast each year for example. But it only breeds in the very far north, beyond the limits of the Western Palearctic region in both Siberia and Canada. In Europe it is virtually silent. Victoria Island has a healthy population of these beautiful birds, nesting on islands in the larger lakes that dot the flat Arctic tundra.
Yellow-billed Loons on an Arctic Lake [Class 2 W] Magnus Robb MKH20 SASS/SD722. Victoria Is, Nunavut, Canada
On the first 'night' (bear in mind this was an Arctic summer night, so not dark), we carried a telescope to the top of the only promontory in the surroundings, a table-top mountain giving good views in all directions. Scanning all round, we eventually spotted a Yellow-billed Loon on a lake about 2 km away, which swam towards a small island and went ashore. Bingo! We had a good look at how we might get there, past other lakes and rivers, and imprinted a map in our memories. About two hours later we had found the spot, having been back to the car for recording gear, chest-height waders to cross rivers, etc. We approached the lake very quietly, setting up a small tent, which was to serve as our hide, on the short about 200m from the island. We noted Glaucous Gulls nesting on the same island, which would not think twice about stealing a loon's egg given half a chance. We were going to have to be extremely careful. That night I set my SASS with Sennheiser MKH-20s and a Sound Devices 722 as quick as possible, and we left to minimise disturbance. The battery would give me about 10 hours recording time. From earlier experience in the Arctic I knew that even with 24 hour daylight the morning and evening would be the best times of day for action. On other nights I stayed in the tent, listening to the sounds of the tundra. Amazingly, we had arrived during a week with very little wind; a week before we would not even have made it to Cambridge Bay since gales caused all flights to be cancelled.
It took several nights before I got the loon recordings I wanted. In my favourite, the Silver Fox winner, there are actually three Yellow-billed Loons and a Pacific Loon. The first to call is a Yellow-billed about 2 km away, which is immediately answered by a similarly distant Pacific Loon. Then from 0:09 a much closer male, probably around 200m away, answers the other two. The exchange continues for quite some time, to the accompaniment of several distant Lapland Longspurs and a Buff-bellied Pipit. After a minute, the prominent splash on the right is ice crumbling from the edges of a 'lens' still covering the middle of the lake. At 1:28 the female, incubating on the nest, starts a series of low moans. Distant Baird's Sandpipers and Cackling Geese make a brief appearance. Shortly before the end, a pair of Sandhill Cranes gives a 'unison call', and then the rules of the competition mean that we have to stop.
I am very grateful to The Sound Approach for making this journey possible and for supporting my work for the last 19 years. The prize is also theirs. I would also like to say thanks to Thor Veen for his great company and invaluable help on this journey. The photograph that he took shows the nearby male featured in the recording. I'm happy to be able to tell you that its mate was still incubating when we took down the tent on the last morning.