IBA Caretakers on James Bay, Canada: Moose River Estuary by Brett Hare

Moosonee, Ontario is a small municipality located near the mouth of the Moose River on the south-west corner of James Bay in Northern Ontario.  Moosonee is only accessible by plane or train, as there is no permanent road access to the community.  The town itself rests within the Hudson Bay Lowlands, which comprises one of the largest wetlands on Earth.

Christina Nielsen has been a part of the Moosonee-Moose Factory community for over 15 years, and along with her husband Don Cheechoo, Vice Principal of the local high school in Moose Factory, have both become Caretakers for the Moose River Estuary IBA (Important Bird and Biodiversity Area). “We’re always on the river in the summertime,” explains Christina. “I was always interested in birding and the idea of conservation.”

The Moose River Estuary is part of the Moose Cree First Nation’s traditional territory which expands to the mouth of James Bay, covering hundreds of square kilometres of boreal forest and muskeg.  The IBA comprises both fresh and salt water bodies, blending land and water together to create a site that is beneficial for a wide range of migratory birds from shorebirds to waterfowl, by providing a natural environment that caters to a variety of ecological demands and niches.  Large congregations of geese during their spring and fall migration are a traditional staple in the diet of many Moose Cree families.   The seasons play a dramatic role on the accessibility of the site, from snowmobiling and snowshoeing in the winter across frozen rivers and lakes, to canoeing, boating, and traveling by helicopter or float plane during the summer months.

“The estuary really defines the area,” Christina explained. “It’s not all land and it’s not all sea, it’s constantly changing. The seasons are dramatic, in the spring we’re anxious to see when the ice will breakup and in the fall when the rivers will freeze.”

Since 2010, Nature Canada and the Moose Cree First Nations Lands and Resources Department have collaborated closely to raise awareness amongst the Moose Cree people of IBA’s and to engage the community in bird conservation.  The Moose Cree First Nation’s administrative offices are located just across the river from Moosonee on Moose Factory Island, though the traditional Moose Cree territory, also referred to as “homelands”, extends from Hearst, Ontario in the west to the Quebec border in the east, and from south of Highway 11 to points north of the Albany River, including much of the southern portion of James Bay.  Within this traditional territory are seven IBA’s, including the Moose River Estuary IBA.

Christina’s family has spent a great deal of time interacting with the natural bounty that nature has provided them through the Estuary. “It’s a part of our family’s life, every weekend in the summer we’re out on the river,” she declares.  “There are so many different species of birds including eight species that are part of a new project they are involved in called: Avian Species at Risk in the Moose Cree Homelands.” The project includes the following species at risk: Rusty Blackbird, Common Nighthawk, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Red Knot, Short-eared Owl, and Yellow Rail, and two additional species of concern, the Hudsonian Godwit and the Marbled Godwit.

One of the features that makes the site special for Christina and Don as Caretakers is the variety of birds they observe during the varying seasons.  The Moose River Estuary is part of a major migratory bird flyway, one of the key factors making this IBA an essential stopover site for many birds as they migrate north or south depending on the season.  Occasionally unexpected species turn up in their yard, which borders the Moose River.  Some of the most memorable for them include Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Mountain Bluebird, and Northern Cardinal, all well out of their normal ranges.

A Facebook group (Moose River Estuary – IBA ON138) was created for the IBA to encourage community involvement and to promote awareness, contributing to the overall well-being of the community’s natural environment.  “I’m very pleased with the success of the Facebook page,” Christina explained.  As IBA Caretakers Christina and Don have increased awareness of the various bird species by promoting activities such as the Great Backyard Bird Count and re-initiating the Christmas Bird Count in Moosonee and Moose Factory.  Another project that Christina took part in was the collective purchase of sunflower seeds for many winter bird feeders, “we purchased 500 pounds of seeds and had the palette shipped by train from Cochrane to Moosonee before the CBC,” she laughed.  “Our group also conducted a Common Nighthawk observation study last August in conjunction with Moose Cree First Nation – Lands and Resources and NatureCanada.”  This year’s plans for the IBA include a few more boat trips towards the mouth of the Moose River, promoting the ASAR to the youth of the communities, and conducting Year 2 of the Common Nighthawk survey.

Image of an iced road

Ice road in January between Moosonee and Moose Factory
Photo by Ted Cheskey

Image of Moose River Estuary

Aerial view of the Moose River Estuary. Photo by John M. Rickard.

Image of a Northern Hawk Owl

Northern Hawk Owl Photo by Ted Cheskey