Did You Ever Get to See Your Bird?

Have you ever sought a bird that always seems to elude you? Award-winning author Steve Burrows discusses his quest to see a particular bird on his upcoming trip to the High Arctic. Read on to discover the connection between the birds from his literary works and the extraordinary avian species living in Greenland and Arctic Canada, where he hopes to find his nemesis bird.
Steve Burrows

Award-winning author, Steve Burrows

At the end of the radio interview last week to discuss the launch of my latest book, A Nye of Pheasants, the anticipated question arrived. It’s the one the interviewer has finished off with every time we’ve met to discuss the launch of a new Birder Murder Mystery, so it was no surprise when it came again this time. The answer to the question: “Did you ever get to see your bird?” was “no,” as it has always been. But I’m hopeful that this might soon change. In August of this year, I will be joining Adventure Canada on board as a naturalist and author on their Greenland and Arctic Canada: High Arctic Explorer expeditions. And that is where my nemesis bird lives.

To be accurate, nemesis bird is a term that birders use for a species they have sought but has eluded them, one that drops in somewhere just after the birder has left, perhaps, or departs just before its pursuer arrives. In my case, I’ve never even come close to seeing my bird. When I introduced it in my first book, it was chosen simply as some rare and highly prized sighting, which would have been true either in southern Ontario, where I live, or in the quiet seaside village on the east coast of Britain, where the books are set. Only later did my repeated failure to see this bird in real life become a refrain in radio interviews.

Northern fulmar North Atlantic Europe

© Dennis Minty

Northern fulmar

Quite unintentionally, an interesting relationship has developed between the species featured in the Birder Murder Mysteries and those we might expect to encounter on a trip to the High Arctic. It veers from one extreme to the other. It would be pretty surprising, for example, if either a pheasant from my most recent book, or a dove (Book 2) showed up there. And it would be frankly astonishing if we recorded a hummingbird (Book 4) in the chilly northern climes. But Book 7 features petrels, and on the journey across the Davis Strait from Greenland to Canada, there is certainly a chance we might encounter a member of that family. The northern fulmar belongs to an order of birds known as tubenoses, also comprising petrels and shearwaters. Their peregrinations take them all over the Arctic oceans, and they are not averse to following ships. If we are on deck and we see a gull-like bird using decidedly ungull-like stiff wingbeats, we could be in business. If we note a particularly thick-necked look and robust build, the odds improve still more. And if we see distinctive tube-like structures on top of the bill, I believe we would have what birders call a definitive ID of a northern fulmar.

White gyrafalcon

© Steven Rose

White gyrfalcon—the world’s largest falcon and one of the fastest birds able to reach speeds over 200 kilometres per hour.

While we’re less likely to see raptors over the open ocean, once we get to Tallurutiup Imanga (Lancaster Sound) our chances of seeing another bird featured in one of the books improves greatly. Gyrfalcons (Book 3) have a reputation as consummate hunters and are therefore prized among falconers. The gyrfalcons in the plot of my book are captive birds, but seeing a wild one in its native habitat would be a thrill not soon forgotten. They have certainly called this place home for a long time. Carbon dating of guano suggests some gyrfalcon nests have been used more or less continuously for over two thousand years. This fact, incidentally, is one among many that the birder-detective protagonist of my novels shares with his colleagues, whether they are interested in bird lore or not (mostly not, if I’m being honest, which makes me think we should get them on an Adventure Canada expedition as soon as possible!). Unusually for birds of prey, gyrfalcons like to rest at ground level between hunting forays, so we will be scouring any rocky granite outcrops on the low tundra landscape in the hopes of seeing this magnificent bird.

Black legged kittiwakes sea ice Nunavut

© Dennis Minty

Black-legged kittiwakes perched on sea ice in Nunavut, Canada

One bird I can guarantee we won’t be seeing on the trip is a seagull. This is because, as birders will be happy to inform you (usually with red faces, bulging eyes, and wild gesticulations), THERE IS NO SUCH BIRD! They are gulls and they are coastal! That said, I’d expect us to encounter the gull most deserving of the name sea gull. Black-legged kittiwakes nest in huge colonies on the towering sandstone cliffs of Bylot Island, but when they leave, they venture further out to sea than any other species of gull. This fact, too, is related by the books’ protagonist, this time to his long-suffering, non-birding partner. (Though without the histrionics, it must be said—he’s a pretty low-key guy!)

Ivory gull

© Dennis Minty

The ivory gull, Burrows’ nemesis bird

But it’s a different species of gull that I’ll be hoping to see. The High Arctic is home to the ivory gull, a stunning pure white bird with black legs and a yellow-tipped bill, and once we’re in its territory, you can be sure I’ll be spending a lot of time looking for it. Okay, there may be the occasional polar bear, beluga, or narwhal to focus on, but as soon as these minor distractions are over (!), it’ll be back on ivory gull vigil. In fact, seeing a polar bear might be a good sign, since the birds have been known to track bears to feed on the remnants of a kill. Finding an ivory gull will be a challenge, to put it mildly. But with plenty of extra pairs of eyes out on deck to help, I’d say we might just have a shot at seeing one. And if we do, I am already imagining how the conversation might go when I sit down with the radio interviewer next spring, to discuss the release of the ninth Birder Murder Mystery.

“And finally Steve, tell me, did you ever get to see your bird?"

"Ah, I’m so glad you asked. Because last August I was on an Adventure Canada expedition cruise to the High Arctic, and as a matter of fact…”

About the Author

Steve Burrows

Steve Burrows


Steve first began exploring nature in the urban parks of his childhood home in Birmingham, United Kingdom. After a career as a travel and environmental journalist in Asia, Steve moved to Canada where he decided to turn his hand to fiction.

Merging his love of birding and detective stories, he created the award-winning Birder Murder Mystery series. Though his speaking engagements and research trips now take him all over the world, Steve's home base is Oshawa, Ontario, where he lives with his wife and muse, Resa.