IBA Seal River Estuary
Churchill, Manitoba
Site Summary
MB013 Latitude
59.063° N
94.782° W
0 - 5 m
358.30 km²
coniferous forest (boreal/alpine), scrub/shrub, tundra, rivers/streams, tidal rivers/estuaries, mud or sand flats (saline), open sea, inlets/coastal features (marine), coastal cliffs/rocky shores (marine)
Land Use:
Hunting, Tourism/recreation
Potential or ongoing Threats:
IBA Criteria: Globally Significant: Congregatory Species
Conservation status: Heritage River (national)
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Site Description
The Seal River Estuary site is located at the mouth of the Seal River, where it empties into the west coast of Hudson Bay. To the southeast is the town of Churchill while the Manitoba-Nunavut border is just to the north. This estuary is mostly rocky with some coniferous forest, willows, tundra and, due to the 4-metre tides, mud and sand flats. The Seal River Estuary is along the migration route of Caribou, and Timber Wolves use the area for breeding. Polar Bear are also present in the IBA during the spring, summer and fall. On peak days, the estuary can contain a few thousand Beluga Whales and many of them are present in summer for breeding, calving and staging for migration.
The Seal River Estuary is important for migrating Black Scoters, with 3,000 or more (just under 1% of the global population) being seen on peak days in spring. White-winged and Surf Scoters are also seen in good numbers, with 1,000 and 250+ respectively recorded on peak days in spring. Tundra Swans peak at over 250 per day in spring while two species of loons migrate past the site: Pacific Loon (200 or more on peak days) and Red-throated Loon (80 or more on peak days). Arctic Terns also breed here, over 300 being recorded on a single day in July 2013.

The Seal River Estuary also acts as a significant staging post for High Arctic shorebirds during fall migration. 1,831 shorebirds were observed on a single day in late August 2013. Given that many of the birds counted during this survey were juveniles and that High Arctic and Hudson Bay breeding shorebirds are often encountered in large numbers in southern Manitoba in early August, this probably represents a low count. Other shorebirds present in notable numbers on single days include: Pectoral Sandpiper (921); Semipalmated Plover (176); Hudsonian Godwit (375); Semipalmated Sandpiper (545); White-rumped Sandpiper (171); Baird’s Sandpiper (403); Buff-breasted Sandpiper (53) and; Dunlin (322).

The Seal River Estuary also provides staging habitat for waterfowl and tundra-breeding passerines. In August 2013 high counts included: Canada Goose (9,150); Snow Goose (2,500); Ross’s Goose (1,200); Brant (87); American Black Duck (575); Common Eider (112) and; Lapland Longspur (885) were noted on single days. Other notable species rarely seen in Manitoba but occasionally recorded here include Dovekie, Black Guillemot, Iceland Gull, Long-tailed Jaegar and Pomarine Jaeger.

IBA Criteria
SpeciesT | A | I Links Date Season Number G C N
Black Scoter 2013 SU 3,000
Buff-breasted Sandpiper 2013 FA 53
Pectoral Sandpiper 2013 FA 495 - 921
Note: species shown in bold indicate that the maximum number exceeds at least one of the IBA thresholds (sub-regional, regional or global). The site may still not qualify for that level of IBA if the maximum number reflects an exceptional or historical occurrence.
Conservation Issues
The Seal River Estuary is a fairly remote site so the only land uses are indigenous fur-bearing mammal trapping and small amounts of ecotourism. The Seal River is officially designated as a national heritage river. An ecotourism facility is at the mouth of the river within the Seal River Estuary site. There is the potential for conflicts to occur between the operators of this facility and local indigenous communities.

A new all-season highway linking Churchill to remote communities in Nunavut has been proposed at times over the years. It is likely that any such road would pass through this IBA and a crossing over the estuary would be necessary. If approved and built, such a road would be the source of multiple threats to this area, including direct loss of habitat, disturbance to migratory and nesting birds, increased tourism leading to additional infrastructure, pollution and potentially increased mineral exploration, mining and hydroelectric development.

The IBA Program is an international conservation initiative coordinated by BirdLife International. The Canadian co-partners for the IBA Program are Birds Canada and Nature Canada.
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