Polar Bears High and Low in Churchill

Churchill is in full swing with polar bears “high and low” as you can see from these recent field image submissions from the region. Moira Le Patourel leading a group of Natural Habitat Adventures travelers had a spectacular time in Churchill. The snow covered tundra provides an Arctic background for the incredible wildlife sightings in the Churchill Wildlife Management Area (CWMA). What a trip for this fortunate group.

Polar bears scattered on the tundra of the CWMA were the highlight for sure though a bear lift at the holding compound was an event that is hit or miss for travelers to Churchill. It truly is spectacular to watch polar bears be flown northwest along the coast to a safe haven and released to the wild again. Timing is everything in order to catch one of these awesome spectacles! An incredible, unique experience if you can see it.

 

polar rover in Churchill

Group photo with guide Moira in front of a polar rover! Moira Le Patourel photo.

 

polar bear and polar rovers Churchill

A polar bear wandering between a couple of polar rovers. Moira Le Patourel photo.

 

polar bear in Churchill

Magnificent polar bear in the snow. Moira Le Patourel photo.

 

polar bears in Churchill

Polar bear family walking a trail in the CWMA. Moira Le Patourel photo.

 

polar bear in Churchill, Manitoba

Polar bear sniffing at the falling snow. Moira Le Patourel photo.

 

polar bear familly in Churchill

Polar bear family posing for a group shot. Moira Le Patourel photo.

 

polar bear lift at the polar bear holding facility churchill, manitoba

Lift off at the Polar Bear Holding Facility. Moira Le Patourel photo.

 

polar bear lift in Churchill, Manitoba

Up, up and away in the cargo nets for polar bear family. Moira Le Patourel photo.

While the polar bears on the land and in th air were exciting for all travelers, there was other wildlife to see as well. A regal red fox appeared from the willows to catch the eyes and camera lenses of the group. Ptarmigan as well made an appearance seemingly from out of nowhere. Both species reveal the secrets of the sub – Arctic to all those lucky enough to spot them. Magic seems to happen in Churchill especially during polar bear season!

 

Red fox in Churchill

Red fox emerging from the willows. Moira Le Patourel photo.

 

Ptarmigan in Churchill, Manitoba

Willow ptarmigan on the rover trail in the CWMA. moira Le Patourel photo.

Beluga Whales Still in Churchill

The exciting news from Churchill is polar bears have been spotted out at the Tundra Lodge in the Churchill Wildlife Management Area (CWMA) and they are becoming more active as the season begins here. The first Natural Habitat Adventures group at the lodge guided by Colby and Eric came quite close to a big male bear out by first tower as their group explored away from the base lodge on a rover. A few others lounged around the lodge moving about the willows.

Pol;ar bear Churchill, Manitoba

Majestic polar bear resting in Churchill. Katie DeMeulles photo.

More exciting news from polar bear season Churchill is there are still at least 30 – 40 beluga whales still lingering around the mouth of the Churchill River and along the coast in the Hudson Bay. Some travelers took a helicopter journey and spotted the beluga pods below..what a sight for this late in the fall! I imagine there will be some more time for beluga’s here though soon they will depart for the Hudson Straits up north.

Moose in Churchill

Moose on the tundra in Churchill. Madison Stevens/PBI photo.

Other sightings by our friends at Polar Bears International (PBI) included numerous black foxes- a color morph of the red fox –  as well as traditional colored red foxes. A couple of Arctic fox have been spotted as well. Ptarmigan, Arctic hares and numerous bird species have also filled out the wildlife sightings for travelers over the past week. PBI travelers also were surprised by a large moose galloping along the tundra between ponds out in the CWMA!

Northern lights made an appearance on a couple of nights and were some of the best since last aurora season in February. Greens and pinks shimmered across the tundra in the darkened sky of the CWMA.

northern lights in Churchill, Manitoba

Intense northern lights in Churchill. Drew Hamilton photo.

Perhaps the most incredible sighting was also by the PBI group. They witnessed a Peregrine falcon feeding on a gull on the fringe of the willows. They observed the web of nature and the life-cycles of these hearty creatures firsthand!

peregrine-falcon-and-gull-madison-stevens-pbi

Peregrine falcon feasting on prey of a gull. Madison Stevens/PBI photo.

We are only in the first full week of polar bear season and already are witnessing surprises from every area out on the tundra!

Snowy Owls and Lemmings

The snowy owl is the largest owl – by weight- and certainly the most photogenic with its’ regal white feathers and stunning yellow eyes. Birders and travelers from around the world venture north to the Arctic to catch a glimpse, and sometimes more in heavily populated years. Summers are spent deep in the Arctic to take advantage of the 24 hour sunlight that enhances chances to gather more prey such as lemmings and ptarmigan. In bountiful years when the lemming population is prolific, snowy owls can rear twice or three times the number of young. The two species are intertwined.

JBM1tX snowy owl

Snowy owl flying right into view of a traffic camera in Montreal, Quebec. transport Quebec photo.

Snowy owls are prevalent in Churchill during polar bear season in October and November. Last season, high numbers of sightings across the tundra drew the awe of people whom had ventured to the polar bear capital of the world mainly to see the bears. However, the magnificent owl always seems to create a lasting impression on the groups. Though the seasonal fluctuations are sometimes frustrating to travelers and in particular birders that journey to Churchill to see the species, there is a pretty basic explanation for the changes year to year. Why do we have these vastly different numbers in various seasons?

Lemmings in particular are a unique prey species for snowy owls. Lemmings prey upon tundra mosses and will remain in an area until their food supply has been exhausted. Unlike voles that eat grasses which replenish naturally fairly quickly, the mosses that lemmings eat take years to regrow. Therefore they move to another region and the predators such as snowy owls follow. The lemming population crashes after reaching a peak density and the owls emigrate to greener pastures or, at least those with healthy moss populations. There they will usually find lemming populations…and the cycle continues. The theories that lemming populations decrease due to predators such as foxes, owls and other raptors in a region is simply not true. The available vegetation is the key to the cycle.

snowy owl in Montreal, Quebec

Arctic Birds With Cold Feet

Let’s face it, “cold” is what the Arctic does best….especially to those living below this amazing region of our planet Earth. So, other than the hearty mammals, particularly the mighty polar bear and humans, very few birds overwinter at high latitudes. Less than 10% of all birds that venture to Arctic and sub-Arctic regions unpack their bags and set up a permanent home there.

Churchill polar bear.

Polar bears are the king of the Arctic. Photo: Paul Brown

Birds that do either have some hearty DNA or have developed some unique ways to cope with cold temperatures that can dip to -55 Celsius. Most of you know the raven can subsist just about anywhere on the planet and the intelligence and intuitiveness of this creature has been well documented. He is truly the sentinel of true survival…especially as his shining black defiantly glares out against the snowy north.

Rock and willow ptarmigan can be seen in Churchill as the fall arrives and throughout the winter, changing to their winter’s best camouflage white. Ivory and the illusive and highly prized Ross’s gull also stay put for the winter. I’ve spotted the Ross three times in over a decade of guiding Natural Habitat Churchill summer trip. All three times the sightings were facilitated by Churchill birding master and legend Bonnie Chartier when we worked together up north.

The Common and hoary redpoll, Brunnich’s Guillemot, Little Auk and Black Guillemot also inhabit the Arctic full-time. Snow buntings and gray jays are quite friendly species that call Churchill home all year. Higher up in Greenland the birds tend to shelter in utility tunnels known as utilidors.

Boreal chickadees and occasionally boreal owls and great horned owls inhabit the boreal forest. And, the mighty gyrfalcon, the fourth fastest bird on the planet…er off the planet, can be seen sporadically hunting or soaring from point to point. I have seen this bird dart across the Churchill tundra and even through town.

Gyrfalcon in Churchill,MB

Gyrfalcon on the tundra in Churchill,MB.Paul Brown photo.

The most intuitive behavior exhibited for warmth and survival is how ptarmigan and common hoary redpolls take shelter in snowdrifts and endure the frigid cold by utilizing the snow as insulation. Ptarmigan and Snowy Owls grow leg and feet feathers to keep them warm throughout the winter months. They also change plumage from dark to white in order to stay camouflaged and safe from predators.

Snowy owl on the tundra near Churchill, MB.

Snowy owl greets virgin travelers to the north. Colby Brokvist photo.

The summer months are reminiscent to a beach-side resort with the bird population ballooning by more than 200 additional migrant species arriving in early spring. These are birds that cannot survive the harsh conditions of winter in the far north though return each year to take advantage of the bounty of food sources thriving in the Arctic summer. The most incredible journey is clearly that of the Arctic tern…making the pole to pole round trip of nearly 45,000 miles.

Arctic tern above the Hudson Bay in Churchill,Manitoba.

Arctic tern hovering above the nesting grounds. Rhonda Reid photo.

Many of these species arrive early and set up nests for the short but productive breeding season. With snow cover still prevalent, these hearty nurturing parents live off their stored fat reserves for energy. The majority of the Arctic and sub-Arctic species are wetland feeders such as various ducks, swans and geese. Waders and shorebirds also scour the marshes and shoreline plucking all the organisms they can from the Earth.

Patchwork Quilt Of Polar Bears

Churchill has no shortage of polar bears at the moment. In fact, the 2014 season has started with a “bang”…literally. Conservation officers and the Polar Bear Alert squad have been busy patrolling the area. With 10-12 bears currently in the polar bear holding facility, formerly known as the polar bear jail, there’s a clear indication that this could be one of the most frenetic seasons in a long time.

Natural Habitat guide Karen Walker has been leading a group of quilters from the states around the Churchill area and they have had great fortune in sightings so far.

Polar bear by a pond in Churchill, Manitoba.

A lone polar bear skirts a pond in Churchill. Eric Rock photo.

“I’ve got a group of quilters on this trip.  Luana Rubin is the organizer of the group.  She came on Justin’s polar bear trip last year and this year she brought a group of quilters up with her. You can check out Luana’s website at eQuilter.com”  reported Karen. The group has been connecting with local quilting groups and enthusiasts in both Winnipeg and Churchill.

After exploring Winnipeg for a day, the travelers enjoyed a mostly clear flight up to Churchill, allowing vivid views of the post-glacial – thermokarst ponds and rivers covering the land along the way.  Crossing over Gillam to the south allowed a view of  the hydro dam. After lunch at gypsy’s in Churchill the group experienced an orientation of the area through a visit to the Parcs Canada visitor center and a look at a polar bear den exhibit followed by some time at the revered Eskimo museum to take in the rich history of the region.

A polar bear lurking in the willows around Churchill, Manitoba.

Polar bear in the willows in Churchill. Eric Rock photo.

Heading out to the tundra of the Churchill Wildlife Management Area, along the Launch Road, travelers spotted their first polar bear.  The male bear “was a little ways away, but it was still quite exciting for the group” according to Karen.  After a quiet, relaxing evening on the tundra, enhanced by a wine and cheese offering, the group was afforded a nice view of an arctic hare on the drive back to the launch.

A planned trip out east the following day, took a turn a short way down the trail with the appearance of two bears near the Tundra Lodge, so the polar rover meandered over in that direction. A couple of other groups on rovers were in the area so one polar bear seemed a bit skittish with the crowd. As the first two rovers headed to the lodge, Karen’s rover settled in and remained near the pond and observed the adult female. Slowly becoming more comfortable, her curiosity peaked and she approached the rover. Pausing at around 30 feet of the back deck, she watched tentatively for a long while,  grooming herself and then napping while the group took in the scene for over an hour. The rover then proceeded over by and just past the lodge and they settled in to watch a couple of “teenage” sub adult bears spar a bit. After exhausting their energy, they settled into the willows for a rest. “We were a little ways from them, but it was still amazing to see” Karen reported.

Polar bears sparring near the Tundra lodge in the Churchill Wildlife Managemnent Area.

Two polar bears sparring near the tundra Lodge. Eric Rock photo.

On the other side of the lodge was an adult male that was napping in the open. This bear made stilted moves at rising but only lifted his head and then returned to resting. After a couple of travelers and Karen headed across Christmas Lake Esker and up to Halfway Point.  Coveys of ptarmigan along the way, mostly already suited in their winter camouflage white, scurried ahead of the rover winding between willow stands.

“The weather and soft lighting was beautiful today.  We had snow showers several times and some sunny breaks, and everything in between.  It changed about every twenty minutes or so. Quite the majestic day on the tundra…tomorrow we’re back on the tundra.  We’ll try to get out east this time” stated Karen, fulfilled from an amazing day.

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