A Field Report by Natural Habitat AdventuresExpedition Leader: Moira Le Patourel
We walked across the Churchill Airport tarmac towards the waiting plane, heading back to Winnipeg. The most incredible Churchill summer experience had played out for our little band of Natural Habitat Adventurer’s over the past five days. I have been travelling to Churchill with tour groups and enjoying the sub-Arctic wonders of this area for the past three years, but I had never had an experience quite like this one.
Snorkeling with the beluga whales in theCHurchill River. Moira la Patourel photo.
Our trip started off with an early morning flight from Winnipeg to Churchill in the sunshine. Over the next five days, our group enjoyed absolutely incredible encounters with belugas; in zodiacs, the Sea North II (a larger jet-drive vessel), in kayaks and even through a snorkel mask! We were able to watch belugas exhibiting playful behavior, feeding behavior, calm-day and stormy-day activities and listen in on their incredibly active social lives in the Churchill River and the Hudson’s Bay.
Beluga whales in the Churchill River.Moira LaPatourel photo.
We were also extremely lucky to spot not one but FOUR polar bears on our five-day adventure as well! Two lone individuals, one resting on Eskimo Point and one swimming about a mile off shore in Button Bay, and one mother and cub-of-the-year onshore. I couldn’t believe our luck! The wildflowers were bursting with colour all across the landscape, with more purples and creams than I have ever seen before; it was quite a sight to behold. The bird life was also out in full force; we enjoyed sightings of Sandhill Cranes, Tundra Swans, Arctic Terns, Parasitic Jaegers, Pacific Loons with young, Snow Geese and an American Golden-Plover, to name a few.
Polar bears on the rocks at Eskimo point. Moira LaPatourel photo.
As we were headed to the airport for our departure, we were lucky enough to receive a tip from a local that the Polar Bear Holding Facility was open for tours for the next couple of hours. We only had 15 minutes to squeak in a look at the inside of the Holding Facility, but what a view it was! The Polar Bear Holding Facility has an open-house once a year, and we were just lucky enough to be there at just the right time!
As the Churchill River and the Hudson’s Bay faded out of view from the airplane windows, obscured by cloud, I looked around and could see the broad smiles on the faces of my travelling companions. This had truly been the trip of a lifetime in Churchill for all of us!
The Parasitic Jaegers employ a tactic known as kleptoparasitism as the birds chase down auks or gulls or in many cases above the Churchill River, Arctic terns. Jaegers harass the birds after they have procured a fish, usually capelin, until the frantic bird is so distressed that it drops its bounty toward the water in order to escape. The jaeger swiftly eats the bounty by catching it mid-air as the initial captor flies away.
Parasitic Jaeger with a capelin in mouth. Michel Windle photo.
The talented jaeger is able to maneuver with great speed in pursuit of its prey. The British Fleet Air Arms first naval dive – bomber, the Blackburn Skua was modeled and named after the parasitic jaeger. The bird can fly aptly into high winds by rapidly beating its wings and continuously shifting for buffeting purposes.The diet of the jaeger also includes small rodents and birds, eggs, insects and berries of the tundra. But hands down the most prosperous “prey” is the stolen one from other birds over the water. I witnessed many such incredible thefts as beluga whales churned up thousands of capelin over the Churchill River and Arctic terns plucked them from the water only to have them snatched by the jaegers.
The parasitic jaeger arrives in the north to breed in April or May and settles in loosely defined colonies. The female jaeger attracts a male through elaborate flying displays and some may mate together yearly while others choose new partners each season. Eggs are laid by June in the nests on the tundra and breeding pairs alternate nest watch. They protect the nest and young from predators by diving at the intruders at high speeds. As the juvenile jaegers are born, they leave the breeding grounds soon after in July. Breeding adults and fledglings remain through September at the latest.
Parasitic Jaeger over the tundra. Bill Coster photo.
When the time comes to fly south, they follow the coastline seemingly mimicing the paths of Arctic terns before heading farther out to sea. Most of this species winters near the South American coast or that of western Africa. The majority of immature jaegers will spend two years in the winter grounds before heading north to the bountiful northern habitats.