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!
Churchill in summertime is a magical sub – Arctic paradise! Three short or long months, depending on how you look at it, pack in a vast and diverse pallet of nature. The tundra and Hudson Bay come alive as tributary rivers ignite with life and small boats of eager travelers seeking the vibe of the beluga whale pods. The “Arctic Riviera” is shelter for belugas to nurture young, molt their old skin or just enjoy the “warm” waters of the southern Hudson Bay.
Beluga whale underwater in th Churchill River. Alex De Vries -Magnifico photo.
As a guide returning to Churchill each year, I was drawn naturally like a migrating animal and the annual sojourn just became instinctual. Each spring I would start to feel the pull of belugas out on the Churchill River and Hudson Bay. After trolling among the pods, kayaking and snorkeling on a daily basis for over 10 years, the feeling takes root in one’s psyche. The draw to migrate for whatever reason is real. The belugas are the main attraction here for sure!
Although belugas, birds and sometimes polar bears are the main draw for the summer season, there are some lesser known features or entities in and around Churchill that have been hidden jewels over the years. Here are some that I really was drawn to.
-Boreal Chorus Frog – One of the jewels of the north and so much fun to search for around the edges of an Arctic pond.2.- Jellyfish– There are a number of jellyfish that thrive in the cold water of the north. On clear water days the sight of them suspended around beluga whales is ethereal.
Aurelia, a jellyfish found in the Churchill River. G. Young, Photo copyright.
3. Sandhill Cranes – Over the years these birds are usually spotted along the railroad tracks where grain drops from rail cars.
Two Sandhill cranes mixed in with Canada geese in Churchill. Rhonda Reid photo.
4.- Orca whales – A rare sight indeed in the Churchill area. Though, over the last few years they have been seen more often.
Orca’s in the Hudson Bay. Dwight Allen photo.
5. – Pack Ice on the Hudson Bay– If you visit Churchill early enough in the Spring there’s a good chance there will still be some pack-ice in the bay and even in the Churchill River. The ice draws wildlife to it such as bears, whales and birds.
6.- Polar Bear Seal kill – The shorter ice season has produced more seal kills in both summer and fall. These kills will often draw up to 10 polar bears to the scene. This is a kill from later in the polar bear season.
Polar bear and ravens scavenge a seal kill carcass in Churchill Wildlife Management Area. Brad Josephs photo.
7. – Ross’s Gull – A true incredible check on the life-list if this beautiful bird unveils itself along the Churchill River. Another fun treasure hunt!
Ross’ gull along the gravelly shore. Brian Small photo.
8. Orchids – One wouldn’t think these delicate plants could survive the harsh Arctic weather though these flowers are opportunistic and make the most of their northern environment.
Round – leaved orchid in Churchill. Steve Selden photo.
This photograph by Parcs Canada is an amazing discovery of a common crane. The bird is rarely seen in North America and Churchill has been lucky enough to be the landing spot for this particular crane. Mixed in with a group of sandhill cranes, this common crane seems to be on the lam from somewhere. The cranes were spotted at the grain ponds by the Port of Churchill. Birdwatchers are keeping eyes open for other rare bird species in Churchill!
Common crane spotted in Churchill mixed in with sandhill cranes. Parcs Canada photo.
This photo of sandhill cranes and a Canada geese by Rhonda Reid is another sign that Churchill’s Arctic summer is just around the corner. Birds are arriving in Churchill and wildflowers will start flowering over the next few months. beluga whales will start arriving in the Hudson Bay and Churchill River and maybe even a few bears. Enjoy the spring and this cool photo!
Sandhill cranes and Canada geese. Rhonda Reid photo.