Northwest Territories

Canada Jay Perisoreus canadensis ©Dubi Shapiro Website

The Northwest Territories is a federal territory of Canada. With a land area of c.1,144,000 km2 (442,000 square miles) and a population of just c.45,000 people it is the second-largest and the most populous of the three territories in Northern Canada. Yellowknife (pop. C.20,000) is the capital, most populous community, and only city in the territory. It is a portion of the old North-Western Territory, which has been divided four times to create new provinces and territories or enlarge existing ones. Its current borders date from 1999, when the territory’s size was decreased by the creation of a new territory of Nunavut to the east. While Nunavut is mostly Arctic tundra, the Northwest Territories has a slightly warmer climate and is both boreal forest (taiga) and tundra, and its most northern regions form part of the Arctic Archipelago. About half of the territory is above the tree line. There are not many trees in most of the eastern areas of the territory, or in the north islands.

 It is bordered by the territories of Nunavut to the east and Yukon to the west, and by the provinces of British Columbia, Alberta, and Saskatchewan to the south; it also touches Manitoba to the southeast at a quadripoint that includes Nunavut and Saskatchewan. The land area of the Northwest Territories is roughly equal to that of France, Portugal and Spain combined, although its overall area is even larger because of its vast lakes. Geographical features include Great Bear Lake, the largest lake entirely within Canada, and Great Slave Lake, the deepest body of water in North America at over 600 m as well as the Mackenzie River and the canyons of the Nahanni National Park Reserve, a national park and UNESCO World Heritage Site. Territorial islands in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago include Banks Island, Borden Island, Prince Patrick Island, and parts of Victoria Island and Melville Island. Its highest point is Mount Nirvana near the border with Yukon at an elevation of 2,773 m (9,098 ft).

Northwest Territories Tundra ©Dr Peter Schmidt, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The Northwest Territories extends for more than 1,300,000 km2 and has a large climate variant from south to north. The southern part of the territory (most of the mainland portion) has a subarctic climate, while the islands and northern coast have a polar climate. Summers in the north are short and cool, featuring daytime highs of 14–17 °C and lows of 1–5 °C. Winters are long and harsh, with daytime highs −20 to −25 °C and lows −30 to −35 °C. The coldest nights typically reach −40 to −45 °C each year.

Birding Northwest Territories

The territory features pristine habitats of cordilleran, boreal, subarctic and arctic regions, including forests, tundra, polar deserts, ice-fields, rivers, estuaries, wetlands, ponds, lakes, tidal flats, cliffs, coastal and offshore marine waters and sea ice. Diverse habitats support diverse species from Swans, American Dipper, and Grey-crowned Rosy-Finch near the South Nahanni River; American White Pelican, Whooping Crane and Pileated Woodpecker near the Slave River; Rough-legged Hawk, Semipalmated Plover and Harris’ Sparrow along the Thelon River; Snowy Owl, Snow Goose and Thick-billed Murre on Bylot Island; and Black Guillemot, Ivory Gull and Red Knot on Ellesmere Island.

Only a few species like Common Raven, Red-throated Diver, Arctic Tern, and Peregrine Falcon occur throughout the territory. Around 30 species may occur year-round where habitat and food resources allow. Such as Canada Jay, Gyrfalcon, Three-toed Woodpecker, Rock Ptarmigan, Black Guillemot, Common Eider, Ivory Gull, Common Merganser and American Dipper.

Most birds are migratory and present when conditions are snow-free and ice-free. Some winter further south in North America such as Bald Eagle, others in Central America like Yellow Warbler, and many others in South America such as Hudsonian Godwit. Some species move to Pacific and Atlantic coastal waters like Common Eider or far offshore such as Northern Fulmar. Arctic Terns migrate to waters off South America, Africa and Antarctica. Brant and Common Ringed Plovers that nest in the High-Arctic, winter in western Europe and Africa. Northern Wheatears and Yellow Wagtails that nest in and near the Richardson Mountains may winter in China, or elsewhere in southeastern Asia.

Millions of birds breed in the territory each year. However, little is known about the abundance of non-colonial species that occur in the vast forest, tundra, or among the myriad ponds and lakes away from human habitation. However, several colonies of seabirds, geese and ducks are relatively well-known. For example, 800,000 Thick-billed Murres on Akpatok Island, Ungava Bay, and 200,000 Northern Fulmars at Cape Searle, east of Broughton Island. Approximately 60,000 Black-legged Kittiwakes nest on Coburg Island, east of Grise Fiord, with 320,000 Thick-billed Murres and 6,000 Northern Fulmars. Nearly 500,000 Snow Geese nest in the Great Plain of the Koukdjuak on Baffin Island, and in the McConnell River area on the west coast of Hudson Bay. Approximately 200,000 Snow Geese nest in the Egg River area on Banks Island, and in the Boas River area on Southampton Island. In the Queen Maud Gulf Migratory Bird Sanctuary, southeast of Cambridge Bay, there are nearly 60 goose colonies comprising approximately 280,000 Snow Geese and 190,000 Ross’ Geese. Over 10,000 Common Eiders breed in northeastern Ungava Bay on the Sleepers Islands in Hudson Bay, and at East Bay on Southampton Island.

Numerous good birdwatching sites are accessible from all-season roads in the southwestern and northwestern parts of the territory. In the south the Mackenzie, Hay River, Liard, Fort Smith and Yellowknife highways, and the Ingraham Trail, pass through the boreal forests. In the north, the Dempster Highway passes through Mackenzie cordilleran-subarctic and high-subarctic forest and tundra. The countless lakes, rivers and wetlands near these roads are best explored by kayak, canoe or small motorboat. Nearly all communities not connected by road can be reached through commercial, scheduled flights. It is often best to charter a boat, snowmobile or an aircraft and visit nearby wild sites. As a rule, it is easier, safer, and cheaper to venture out with a group led by a recognised outfitter who specialises in naturalist tours. There are several outfitters and naturalist lodges to choose from.

Number of Species
  • Number of bird species: 296

    (As at April 2024)

    Provincial Bird - Gyrfalcon Falco rusticolus

  • Avibase

    PDF Checklist
    Free to birders everywhere
  • Wikipedia

    Annotated List
    Of the 296 species on the list, 61 are accidental and four were introduced to North America. One species is extinct and another probably is.
  • Birding NWT

    Facebook Page
  • CPAWS Northwest Territories Chapter

    The Northwest Territories Chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS-NWT) is part of a national non-profit conservation organization dedicated to protecting Canada's wilderness. Our work is based on the principles of conservation science, and grounded in collaborative work with communities across the NWT.
  • Nature Conservancy in Northwest Territories

    TNC Canada is helping First Nation leaders blend cutting-edge conservation science with traditional knowledge to create one of the largest protected areas in the country.

Abbreviations Key

  • MBS Anderson River Delta

    WebpageSatellite View
    The Anderson River Delta MBS supports a wide diversity of bird species. A total of 104 species, including 76 breeding species, use the sanctuary for different seasonal activities. The delta offers extensive feeding grounds to sandpipers, plovers, phalaropes and other shorebirds during the summer months. The presence of trees attracts species--such as warblers, thrushes, swallows and sparrows--that are at the northern limit of their range in North America. During the spring and fall, the shallow waters of Wood Bay offer feeding habitat for several thousand staging scaups, Long-tailed Ducks, White-winged Scoters and Red-breasted Mergansers.
  • MBS Banks Island

    WebpageSatellite View
    Each spring, up to 500 000 Lesser Snow Geese of the Western Arctic population wintering in California, New Mexico and Mexico fly to the lowlands of the eastern Beaufort Sea region. As many as 450 000 geese return to nest in the Big and Egg river valleys of Banks Island No. 1, representing approximately 95% of the Western Arctic population and about 15% of the Canadian population of Lesser Snow Geese. In spring, 3 000 Black Brants from as far south as Mexico migrate along the west coast and Alaska to breed on Banks Island No. 1. They congregate in the sanctuary’s deltas, small lakes and ponds to nest and to feed on the abundant sedges and grasses. In addition, about 25 000 King Eiders, several thousand Long-tailed Ducks and lesser numbers of Tundra Swans, Ross’s Geese and Sandhill Cranes nest in the sanctuary. Other birds known or believed to nest in the area include Yellow-billed, Arctic and Red-throated Loons; Semipalmated and Black-bellied Plovers; American Golden-Plovers; Ruddy Turnstones; White-rumped, Baird’s and Semipalmated Sandpipers; Sanderlings; Red Phalaropes; Pomarine and Long-tailed Jaegers; Glaucous and Sabine’s Gulls; Arctic Terns; Peregrine Falcons; Snowy Owls; Willow and Rock Ptarmigans; and Horned Larks.
  • MBS Kendall Island

    InformationSatellite View
    The Kendall Island Migratory Bird Sanctuary (KIBS) is a migratory bird sanctuary in the Northwest Territories, Canada. It is located on Kendall Island and its surrounding area in Mackenzie Bay. KIBS is frequented from May through October by more than 90 bird species, including many migrating waterfowl. Compared to other Key Habitat Sites in Northern Canada, particularly high densities of Arctic tern, greater white-fronted goose, loon, northern pintail, and sandhill crane frequent the area. Tundra swan concentrate around the outer section of the MBS. A colony of approximately 3000 lesser snow geese have been identified at KIBS, as well as nationally significant numbers of Hudsonian godwit and whimbrel. The short-eared owl, a Species at Risk Act-listed bird, has been records at KIBS, as well as grizzly bear, polar bear and wolverine, which are listed species by Canada's Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife, and the highly endangered Eskimo curlew.
  • NP Aulavik

    InformationSatellite View
    The park has the highest concentration of muskoxen on earth, with estimates of 68,000 to 80,000 animals on the island, approximately 20% of which are thought to reside in the park. It is also home to the endangered Peary caribou as well as the more common barren-ground caribou. Ptarmigan and ravens are considered the only year-round birds in the park, although 43 different species make seasonal use of the area. The park is completely treeless, and Arctic foxes, brown and northern collared lemmings, Arctic hares and wolves roam the rugged terrain. Marine mammals along the north coast include polar bears, ringed seals, bearded seals, beluga whales and bowhead whales. Birds of prey in the park include snowy owls, rough-legged hawks, gyrfalcons, and peregrine falcons, who feed on the lemmings.
  • NP Tukut Nogait

    InformationSatellite View
    The landscape and wildlife of the 18,890 sq km national park is seen by those privileged few willing to travel 170 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle. The landscape features rolling hills, three major rivers, steep canyons, waterfalls, rare Bluenose west caribou and the continent’s fiercest predators.
  • NP Wood Buffalo

    InformationSatellite View
    Wood Buffalo National Park is the largest National Park of Canada at 44,807 km2 (17,300 sq mi). It is located in northeastern Alberta and the southern Northwest Territories. Larger in area than Switzerland, it is the second-largest national park in the world. Wood Buffalo National Park contains a large variety of wildlife species, such as moose, bison, great grey owls, black bears, hawks, spotted owls, timber wolves, lynxes, beavers, snowy owls, marmots, bald eagles, martens, wolverines, peregrine falcons, whooping cranes, snowshoe hares, sandhill cranes, ruffed grouses, and the world's northernmost population of red-sided garter snakes, which form communal dens within the park. Wood Buffalo Park contains the only natural nesting habitat for the endangered whooping crane. Known as Whooping Crane Summer Range, it is classified as a Ramsar site. It was identified through the International Biological Program. The range is a complex of contiguous water bodies, primarily lakes and various wetlands, such as marshes and bogs, but also includes streams and ponds.
  • NPR Nahanni

    InformationSatellite View
    Nahanni National Park Reserve in the Dehcho Region of the Northwest Territories, Canada, approximately 500 km (311 mi) west of Yellowknife, protects a portion of the Mackenzie Mountains Natural Region. According to Parks Canada there are 42 mammal, 180 bird, 16 fish and a few amphibian species found in the park.
  • NPR Nááts'įhch'oh

    InformationSatellite View
    Nááts'įhch'oh National Park Reserve is named after Nááts'įhch'oh the mountain – a powerful place for the people of the Sahtu. Near the Yukon-Northwest Territories border, the park is in the traditional lands of the Shúhtaot'ine (Mountain Dene), and home to grizzly bear, Dall’s sheep, mountain goats, and woodland caribou.
  • WS Thelon

    InformationSatellite View
    Covering an area of approximately 26,000 sq. miles, the Thelon Wildlife Sanctuary, straddling the boundary of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut in Canada's mainland Arctic, is the largest and most remote wildlife refuge on the North America continent.
Guides & Tour Operators
  • Eagle-Eye Tours

    Tour Operator
    Visit three wonderfully unique and diverse ecoregions - the high Arctic, boreal forest and aspen parkland and potholes
  • Nahanni River Tours

    Tour Operator
    For nearly two decades Neil Hartling and Barry Beales of Nahanni River Adventures and Whitewolf Expeditions have fine tuned the most extensive offerings of the best of the north. In 1997 the two companies joined together to capitalise on the strengths of each outfit. The resulting selection has been referred to as the life list of northern rivers - all must do`s.
Trip Reports
  • 2001 [06 June] - Paul Jones

    The following is an account of a two week trip to the Yukon, north-eastern British Columbia and the Northwest Territories. During the first week (June 9 to June 14) I intensively birded the southern Yukon, north-eastern British Columbia and south-western Northwest Territories. At the beginning of the second week I met family members in Whitehorse. From June 15 to June 24 we traveled at a slower pace north to Inuvik and back to Whitehorse…
  • 2022 [07 July] - Ken Wright

    ...Our first stop was Elk Island National Park where despite the rain we got our first views of exciting but common birds for the area like Franklin’s Gulls, Black Terns and displaying Wilson’s Snipes. Not just birds, but some seriously big and fantastic mammals too. We were treated to wonderfully close views of several Plains Bisons that continued to feed in the wet pastures. We also got good looks at a LeConte’s Sparrow and many Clay-coloured Saprrows...
Other Links
  • Birding NWT

    Facebook Page
    This group is for those who enjoy birds and birding in the NWT, for the exchange of information and discussion of birds.
  • Northwest Territories Hotspots

    Northwest Territories Hotspots, photos, reports etc
  • eBird

    eBird Canada is a collaborative project managed by Birds Canada.

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