This might be the one time of the year -October and November- when just about everyone in Churchill, including the local Churchillians hope for snow and cold. The rest of winter nobody really needs to hope since both come in ample portions. However, polar bear season really needs both. Polar bears just seem so much more…well, uh..polar when they are surrounded by the white stuff. And colder temperatures allow their heavy, fur insulated bodies to just let loose and move around without heating up and feeling lethargic. In fact most of the wildlife in the region tends to perk up a little whenever the “winter” feel arrives. This past week, the weather has changed dramatically with temperatures in the 20’s F and snow has arrived brought in by both northerly and easterly winds.
Inukshuk overlooking the Hudson Bay greets the north winds of winter. Shot in darkness with moonlight. Brad Josephs photo.
Natural Habitat guide Lynette and her group came face to face with Dancer, long time polar bear czar of the CWMA, behind their rover near the lodge. Indifferent to the travelers as he has been around so many over the years, he made a cameo appearance under the grated back deck to give thrills to people never imagining to get this near a polar bear. His foggy breath wafted up through the ironwork and settled on guests sorrels. Soon after the willows beckoned and off he went. A few other bears were lounging around just starting to get some energy from the cooling winds.
Polar bear coming face to face with avid travelers. Brad Josephs photo.
“We headed out toward Gordon Point and were face to face with a snowy owl seeking some shelter from the howling wind. Even though the wind was blowing, the sun was really shining…it was a gorgeous afternoon and we even saw a double rainbow. we all proceeded to do our best “double rainbow” impression. Hilarious. A whole rover of people yelling double rainbow. Maybe you had to be there?” reported Lynnette. The magic of the tundra and the north!
“We also saw an arctic hare doing what they do, hunched up against a rock, pretending that they can’t be seen. The funny thing was that this hare was only a few feet from the lapping waters of the bay. The tide was going out, but still….it was a strange sight. I think Elise’s group saw it first and gave us the head’s up about it.” continued Lynnette. the Arctic reveals all kinds of surprises if you give it enough time. Perhaps the hare was contemplating a swim….on the cusp of an evolutionary discovery.
Guide Brad Josephs and his Natural Habitat photography group was at Gordon Point the following day and discovered a white gyrfalcon guarding the coastal lowlands. Then a young curious, female bear spent some quality time quite close to the rover and allowed photographers ample views and opportunities for great shots. She then cruised along the coast while stopping to eat kelp along the way. Later, further out on the land..more inland .. a beautiful male snowy appeared near first tower atop a black dwarfed spruce tree then down on the land.
Gyr falcon surveys the tundra looking for prey. Brad Josephs photo.
Later on the group came upon a large, scarred up male crossing the newly frozen ponds, walking with a wide stance in areas of thin ice. Apparently some sparring became a little intense. Some bears take this ritual to another level and blood is drawn. Luckily this guys scars were able to heal up without causing much harm.
Back in town off the tundra, Brad led his guests down by the port along the Churchill River just in time to photograph an amazing sunset. As the sun sank across river an awesome beam of orange shot upward into the sky. Ice crystals suspended in the air are a common cause of these strange sunlight effects in the north.
Amazing sunset across the Churchill River. Brad Josephs Photo.
Not to be outdone, as darkness descended, a moody full moon rose through a purple sky above the shadowy curving outline of the precambrian shield beyond the vast Hudson Bay. A red fox weaving its’ way along the bluffs checked out the group to put a cap on an amazing day. As an encore everyone went behind the town complex and photographed the immense stone inukshuk in the moonlight overlooking the bay.
Bonnie’s Bird Report
“The birds are leaving. The past four days we saw, lots of Rock Ptarmigan, a snowy owl, a white phase and a grey gyrfalcon, black-bellied plovers, a white-rumped sandpiper, a few dunlin, there are still some snow buntings around.Cheers,Bonnie”
When Natural Habitat guide Karen Walker and group arrived in Churchill this past week they found clear blue skies, no wind and calm waters. That scenario is changing as this post is being published. For all the polar bear watchers out there that is good news. As many travelers do upon arriving in Churchill, the group followed the coast road out around the inlet across from Miss Piggy taking in the amazing Hudson Bay vastness. Arriving back in town they stopped at the large Inukshuk on the beach behind the town complex for another view out over the calm bay slapping waves against the shore. After lunch ,desserts and a taste of local flavor at Gypsy’s, they checked into the hotel and headed over to Parcs Canada Visitor Center for an orientation to the polar bear world and regional geographic and cultural features. Karen added her orientation thoughts to a fantastic presentation by well-known Raymond’s from Parcs presentation. Peter and Mary rounded out a full afternoon of northern exposure!
Two polar bears spar in front of a pond, Brad Josephs photo,
After dinner, stars were in the northern sky so the avid bunch headed out behind the complex once again to find a faint arch or northern lights fairly low on the horizon. It was a nice evening along the shores of Hudson Bay. About 45 minutes later, the arch brightened significantly and began to form a swirling motion seemingly mimicking the counter-clockwise currents of the tumultuous Hudson Bay. Nothing can match the experience of these lights of the north! As morning came the group headed to the tundra and immediately spotted a pair of ptarmigan in the willows heading out to the lodge. Four bears were in the area and soon after arrival some sparring ensued just off the tail end of the rover. “We had a bear come up to our rover. Then we headed out the point a ways and watched a couple of bears wander off into the willows along the ponds.” reported guide Karen. ” I gave an intro to polar bears, then suddenly one, no two bears, appeared from the willows & headed right toward us. We were visited by the bears & had them under the deck. They never stood up on our rover or sniffed the deck, but it was still awesome to look them in the eye.” Another unforgettable memory.
Once the two polar bears headed off, lunch was served. just as most had finished, they appeared again. Perfect timing! With beautiful views of the colorful yellow and red tundra the bears lingered near the rover during the morning as big snow flakes started to fly … some even found their way into the rover when the windows were down. A preview of the imminent snow in the forecast. On the trip back to launch-site, a offshoot voyage to Halfway Point provided an amazing view of a puffy, white snowy owl. What a way to complete an incredible day in the CWMA.
Snowy owl checking out the humans. Candice Gaukel Andrews photo.
The group staying on the tundra lodge with guide Rinnie had incredible sparring after some docile, napping bears the first couple of days. The sunlight accentuated the movement as the bears grappled right next to viewing platforms. Later as the rover ventured away from the lodge, a sow with two yearlings – first sightings of the season- came right up to the machine two different times. With no other rover in sight, this encounter made the trip for many of the guests. Back at the lodge in the evening…stellar aurora borealis graced the skies above…a perfect day and night on the tundra lodge.
Guide Elise and her travelers were near the lodge most of that same day as the wind blew snow squalls sideways. Sparring bears continued to battle while taking rests and then resuming nearly all day. One bear had an injured claw and spewed blood on white fur adding to the drama. Exciting action as the snow moves in across the region.
EARLY SEASON BIRD REPORT
Bonnie Chartier spends most of polar bear season out at the tundra lodge with travelers eager to get amazing round the clock views of polar bears. However, Bonnie also is one of the premier experts on Arctic birdlife. She has literally written a book called “A Birders Guide to Churchill ” and continues her research on the numerous species that call Churchill home for all or part of the year. Here’s her report of sightings out in the Churchill Wildlife Management Area (CWMA). Some of these species have most likely made their way south by now..but for the birders in the crowd here’s the skinny:
“In the past few days we had at least 6 different Snowy Owls. Also well photographed was a single white Gyrfalcon. Rock Ptarmigan are being seen in good size flocks. Shore birds include Pectoral Sandpipers, Dunlin, Black-bellied Plovers. Snow buntings are still around in good numbers. There are Canada Geese, Common Eider, Long-tailed Ducks and a few Red-breasted Mergansers still hanging about. I saw only one greater Yellowlegs. “
If there are any species still out on the tundra Bonnie will find them. Stay tuned for another mid-season update!
Sometimes Churchill can seem a million miles away. Weather in Winnipeg and Churchill this time of year …any time of the year for that matter….can be an adventure in its’ own right. Unpredictable at the very least. For Natural Habitat Adventures guide Karen Walker and group it surely felt like that as they were delayed leaving Winnipeg for a few hours before finally arriving in Churchill. After arriving in the polar bear capital, the group had a relaxing meal and then witnessed the amazing drum dance with Peter and Mary …a unique Inuit cultural experience in an intimate setting inside a upik..or tee-pee structure. A perfect way to ease into “tundra time” as we call the slow, relaxing pace of the north.
polar bear aware of a rover. Colby Brokvist photo.
On their first day out on the land a distant snowy owl greeted the group out at Gordon Point aboard their polar rover. Travelers got last glimpses of reddish tinted seaweed and golden tundra along the coast before becoming buried for the winter and morphed with the rest of the landscape into whites and grays. Later, along willow and spruce sheltered Ptarmigan Alley, a large male rested and stretched periodically. Lifting his head to size up the rover and guests gave everyone a nice taste of the polar bear’s life…nice way to start the trip. Another bear at the lodge walked out north towards the point while three others lounged around near the lodge. Every so often they would roll, stretch and become a little playful. very cool.
Sentinel snowy owl on the tundra near Churchill. Photo Colby Brokvist.
The following day another darker, juvenile snowy owl greeted the group as well. Seems to be quite a few “snowy’s” around this year..maybe this is their cycle year…such majestic animals. A half dozen bruins…a hockey team…were spread out around the area near the lodge. Mostly resting and stretching until some sparring started up…gloves off. The display started under the lodge then moved to the front where all travelers had great views. Ptarmigan scurried…or waddled..off into the willows bringing smiles to all.
A final day trip to the Eskimo museum gave all an excellent background on the intermingled cultures of local tribes as well as Thule, Dorset and Pre-Dorset history. All of these peoples played major roles in forming the feel and infrastructure of this incredible region. Some are ghosts..some are still with us…continuing to form the Arctic.
A polar bear leans against a rover.
A trip up to Cape Merry gave people a chance to observe the tundra up close and search the water of the Churchill River for beluga whales that some folks had spotted within the past week. It’s a bit late and I have not heard of whales staying south this long for a good while now. Most years belugas head north to the Hudson Straits area in the northeast by mid-September in order to beat any ice formation in the Hudson Bay. If the whales can’t make it back to the open -water polynas of the straits they will perish by being trapped under the ice. the Straits have open water due to currents that do not allow ice formation. Whales use these polynas to breath in the winter. As the group was leaving the cape, a beautiful, glimmering silver fox came right up to the bus….looking right into everyone’s eyes. He then hopped up on the boardwalk and greeted another group at very close range. The polar bear holding facility has a live -set trap right by the informational panels. Kind of a strange spot for such a thing. No travelers have been captured yet. It’s only a matter of time I’m sure…probably a photographer.
A final night out on the tundra produced inquisitive polar bears at the lodge. Three different groups were graced with bears coming right up to the machines and sniffing under the grated back deck or leaning up on the side of the rover. Natural Habitat guides Colby and Sue both had bears greeting their guests and then a big male came to Karens’ rover and sat next to the group for a good 15 minutes and then walked under the deck ….never standing to sniff boots but still thrilling for all the guests to have the animal separated by only a half inch of steel. As the wine and cheese was broken out and darkness set in, one polar bear did stand up and leaned against the window giving some guests another amazing thrill of a lifetime. Sparring and bears coming and going in the shadows made for a most memorable experience for all.
Guide Colby Brokvist has had some great bear activity on the land for his group of travelers to marvel over. Most recently as they ventured out in their rover, they made their way to Christmas Lake Esker where unfortunately not much was happening in the wildlife realm. Fortunes turned however as other guides radioed over to Colby’s driver that aa sow with two yearling cubs were way out toward second tower. They made swift pace over to the area and were rewarded with the sightings and then the cubs sparring playfully at perfect distance for photo’s and general viewing all while eating a nice lunch. An immature snowy owl out by the old Inuit stone kayak racks and five or so black bellied plovers splashed around in the tidal flats on the coast. Seeing all the Arctic wildlife together enhances the experience..you can get a better sense of the survival urgency when observing multiple life forms moving around in this environment at the same time.
Currently the polar bear holding facility…Jail to locals…has seven polar bears.
18 bears have been reported as threats during that past week.
A total of 95 bears have been reported to date this year.
No bears have been officially flown out though polarbearalley.com has reported that Animal Planet may have arranged and paid for an evacuation flight.
As this year’s polar bear season starts to gain in momentum in and around the Churchill Wildlife Management Area (CWMA), the action out on the land is starting to heat up. Wildlife activity is building as it tends to this time of year while the early season aurora borealis opening act has only acted as a prelude to what is looking like some amazing encounters ahead.
Playful polar bear on the tundra.
Natural habitat guide Lynette and her travelers were out near the tundra lodge when they pulled up their rover near to a male laying still in the willows. There were two other bears visible around the wheels of the lodge,one, a big male, and one more larger male laying about 50 feet north of the lodge. The large male was “great to watch as he would roll over, stretch out about every two minutes”. ,according to Lynnette. ” He was positioned so that we had a nice look at the bottom of his heavily furred paws. We had a perfect view of the male closest to us and he had about a three-inch scar running down the length of his nose.” Could this be the infamous Dancer? I think it might be. While he rested, the two bears by the lodge began to interact and nuzzle each other. Finally, one of the nuzzlers …love that description…walked over to the large male laying away from the lodge and encouraged him to join in the fun. Scar-nose, or Dancer, did not want to be left out, so he stretched, yawned and walked under the front of the rover see what was happening. Once he saw how much bigger those two bears were however, he meandered over toward the lodge instead. Those two kind of rolled around near each other for a while with one continually trying to get a rise out of the other one. Finally, one bear took the bait and the two large males began a spirited sparring match that lasted off and on for about 20 minutes.
Red fox on the tundra. Brad Josephs photo.
During all this scintillating action on the tundra, the sun came out and the bright light was shining down on the bears making even their somewhat muddied coats gleam. “It was beautiful!”, Lynnette summed up. Those two bears then moved on into the willows down in a little draw out of sight of the rover. Dancer and one of the other bears settled in over by the lodge for the afternoon.Quite the scene to witness first hand!
Some excellent willow ptarmigan sightings and a more distant view of a snowy owl perched on a lower spruce branch rounded out the amazing experience of the day in the CWMA.
Meanwhile long -time guide and naturalist Brad Josephs had his Natural Habitat group out the previous night for an evening rover excursion. Rumbling along close to the tundra lodge, the travelers were greeted by five large male polar bears. Continuous sparring ..with three bears going at it at once…provided steady excitement for the guests as well as guide and rover driver. This kind of behavior is always a thrill ..even if you’ve seen it before. Following the action one big male sauntered up to the machine giving everyone an up-close encounter in the eerie darkness.
Snowy owl resting on the tundra. Brad josephs photo.
The following day out on the land in the CWMA, the group was afforded clear, close views of two snowy owls out around Gordon point. One was just 30 yards from the rover sitting on a lichen – crusted stone along the esker. Ecstatic guests were then treated to a third, more distant “snowy” on the rocky beach to the east. Moving back along the coastal trail, sightings of dunlin and white-rumped sandpipers were all gravy for avid birders.
Foxes also darted across the tundra…a red fox was seen running along the coast. He stopped once the rover came into view and then an Arctic fox came along from the opposite direction…skittering right past the rover at close distance providing fine views for all. Brad described the Arctic fox as a one -year old just starting to acquire the beautiful, white fur. Later, down the trail the group caught up with the red fox and noticed he had located a goose wing in the mud. He chewed it up right in front of them, going for the cartilage at the feather bases, as well as the little meat on the wings. Awesome views!
Impressive aurora borealis displays have graced the skies over Churchill this past week with incredible waves of green reflecting off the foamy Hudson Bay below. While the polar bear season is just getting started, the northern lights are stealing the show like never before. This recent photo by Churchillian Katie DeMeulles gives one an idea of what has been appearing almost nightly here.
With temperatures in the freezing range, bears have been moving about the tundra in the Churchill Wildlife Management Area (CWMA). Polar rovers have been tracking nearly a half dozen bruins of the white variety along the coast and further inland. There have also been some polar bears in and around town in higher numbers than other years this early in the season. One 1000 lb. male tried to check himself in to the hospital by breaking through the ambulance entrance door. Conservation officers arrived on scene and darted him and transported him to the polar compound facility near the airport. Reportedly the bear was diagnosed with an eating disorder by the on-call hospital doctor….not an uncommon finding at this juncture.
Polar bear on the rocks along Hudson Bay. Jodi Grosbrink photo
A couple of bears have been seen with regularity out along the coast road near miss piggy…the old wreckage of a transport plane nestled in the rocks…as well as the waste transfer station further inland. This time of year can be incredibly dangerous for wayward travelers venturing out on their own. Because it’s not the heart of the season yet, some people get lulled into a sense of security that can be dangerous. The same effect happens in the Summer when a few polar bears arrive in the area. Because polar bears are not supposed to be around doesn’t mean they aren’t. I’m amazed there has not been any major incidental meetings in the last decade around the town and coastal area. Keep your fingers crossed.
With the week moving over the hill, we will see what comes with the other side. It’s always something new that captures one’s imagination in this northern region. For now, while bears and other wildlife are amassing, the sky is the limit….actually limitless…with scintillating light shows. Enjoy them while you can. And if you want to brave the cold of winter, come back for the Northern lights and Arctic Cultures trips offered by Natural Habitat Adventures in March.