Pei lay sheesh kow (ON157)
Altitude 0 - 5m
The Pei lay sheesh kow IBA - "an area that abounds with birds" - is an extensive area in southwestern James Bay that follows the coast from the Quebec border in the east to just past Longridge Point in the northwest. The IBA extends inland to the shrub line and approximately ten kilometres offshore; it includes portions of the Harricana and Moose Rivers. This part of James Bay is characterized by shallow water and gently sloping bottoms, creating extensive mudflats at low tide that extend two kilometres from the high tide mark. The area also includes significant amounts of brackish and intertidal salt marsh, fen, bog and inland freshwater marsh.
Pei lay sheesh kow is an amalgamation of seven former IBAs that have been combined on the basis of shared populations of birds: Longridge Point & Associated Coastline, Big Piskwanish Point, North Point, Moose River Estuary, Netitishi Point, Hannah Bay, and East Point.
Significant Species - Southwestern James Bay is one of the most important sites in Canada for congregatory birds due to the funnelling effect of its geography and its strategic location as a stopover point between the Arctic Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean. It is studied extensively by scientists but is mostly inaccessible to, and therefore poorly known by, the general public. At least 268 species have been recorded within the IBA, a remarkable number for a location so far north. Of these, at least fifteen species regularly occur at global or continental levels of significance.
Chief among these are shorebird species that congregate in globally significant numbers on the mudflats during late summer and fall to feed on invertebrates and re-fuel for the journey south. These include the endangered rufa subspecies of Red Knot, with counts of up to 5000 individuals (about 15-20% of the global population) made in some years; Hudsonian Godwit, with single-day counts of up to 2,400 individuals (about 3.5%); White-rumped Sandpiper (35,000 or 3%); Pectoral Sandpiper (1,200 or 1.9%); Greater Yellowlegs (1,700 or 1.7%); Semipalmated Sandpiper (23,000 or 1.2%). Black-bellied Plover and Dunlin have been observed at numbers exceeding 1% of their respective North American populations. While certainly impressive, these single-day counts vastly underestimate the significance of the IBA. IBA-wide censuses and work with Motus transmitters will help to improve our understanding of bird populations and movements within the area.
Many waterbird species use the IBA for staging in spring and fall migration while moving to or from the Arctic Ocean or Atlantic Ocean. Brant is a good example: up to 100,000 individuals (almost 20% of the global population) have been recorded here in fall. Lesser Snow Geese previously used the IBA in very large numbers (as many as 300,000 or 20% of the population in the 1970s) but their migration patterns have shifted and they now largely avoid the IBA. Long-tailed Ducks also funnel through the IBA each fall with counts of up to 34,000 (about 3.5% of the continental population). Red-throated Loons also use the IBA, as suggested by a one-time count of 555 (about 1.5% of the continental population) during the fall of 2010. Black Scoter, and perhaps several other species of duck, also regularly occur here in globally significant numbers. Recent summer surveys have found close to 50,000 Black Scoters (mostly males) in the near shore waters of this IBA where they undergo flight feather moult. This represents about 2% of the global population.
Other Species of Conservation Interest - Most notable of these is Yellow Rail, which is found in relatively high density in the freshwater marshes (and perhaps brackish marshes) during wet years. Short-eared Owl also breeds within the IBA. The extensive salt marshes attract a number of species otherwise characteristic of the prairies, e.g., disjunct populations of Wilson’s Phalarope, Marbled Godwit, Nelson’s and LeConte’s Sparrows, Gadwall, and Blue-winged Teal. Little Gulls may breed within the IBA, or perhaps more likely at wetlands inland from the coast. Small numbers of up to 6 individuals, including recently fledged juveniles (indicating nearby breeding) are detected each year, which is about 3% of the estimated North American population.Amazingly, a Henslow’s Sparrow maintained a territory at Longridge Point in July 2009.
The IBA remains relatively intact and free from most development pressures due to its remote location. Nevertheless, there are several ongoing and potential threats to watch. These include:
- Roads. An all-season road to the area has been proposed. Roads inevitably bring increased pressure from commercial and industrial development, as well as recreation and tourism.
- Hydroelectric projects on major rivers feeding into the area. The effects of these on the functioning of the IBA's estuary ecosystem are unknown, but are assumed to be negative.
- Off-shore industrial wind projects. These could have severe, negative impacts on migratory birds present in southwestern James Bay.
- Hunting. There has always been a significant traditional hunt within the IBA by the Moose Cree (for geese, and to a lesser extent shorebirds). Changes to the size and/or duration of this hunt could have negative impacts on the populations of these species.
The significance of the area has been recognized by a number of designations and conservation measures. Much of the IBA is part of the Southern James Bay Ramsar site, and is a potential future site within the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network. There are two federal Migratory Bird Sanctuaries within the IBA: Hannah Bay and Moose River. In addition, Tidewater Provincial Park is completely within the IBA and Kesagami Provincial Park borders its southern edge.
Since the 1970s, Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS) and Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (OMNRF) staff have conducted ongoing bird population surveys within the IBA focussed on waterfowl and shorebirds; vegetation, habitat, and fisheries studies have also been undertaken. Interest in birding tourism began in the early 1980s and has grown steadily. Recently, CWS and OMNRF initiated a joint project monitoring southbound shorebirds in collaboration with the Royal Ontario Museum, Bird Studies Canada (BSC), Moose Cree First Nation, and Nature Canada, called the James Bay Shorebird Project. In 2015, this project was responsible for erecting several Motus towers within the IBA, and volunteers and staff began deploying Motus transmitters on a variety of shorebird species.
The IBA is completely within the Moose Cree First Nation (MCFN) homelands. The MCFN is responsible for the growth of Cree culture and traditions and is working to ensure cultural integrity within its traditional territory through sustainable economic development. During the past several years, the MCFN has become increasingly involved in stewardship of birds and habitat within the IBA, and its continued involvement is critical to ensure a comprehensive conservation solution for the IBA.
Potential or Ongoing Threats