Natural Habitat Adventures guide Brad Josephs and his band of travelers enjoyed an exciting start to the polar bear season with good bear sightings along with some other fantastic wildlife encounters. The group also witnessed an iconic landmark coming to the ground out in the Churchill Wildlife Management Area.
Polar bear with a dirty snout. Brad Josephs photo.
Veteran guide Brad reported warmer than average temperatures for this time of year though that didn’t deter polar bears from revealing themselves on the tundra. A pair of snowy owls perched on Precambrian rocks searching for lemmings or Arctic hares made for prime viewing and photo ops. A small group of willow ptarmigan made their way from the willows, imagine that, into sight of the excited group. A good look at an iconic northern species.
Arctic hare stoic ly waiting for the protection of snow. Brad Josephs photo.
Brad described the falling of an iconic landmark out in the CWMA.; “A strange thing happened while we were on the tundra. We drove by an old military observation towerbuilt in the early 1950’s for cold weather training, and when we drove by it again a few hours later it had collapsed in the high winds.” The landmark was dubbed “first tower” since there were two of these structures built for military training observation in the 1950’s and this one is the first one that polar rovers encounter while searching the tundra for wildlife. It’s quite a ways out on the trail and served as a landmark for rover drivers, especially in snowy conditions. Sad to see it go!
The demise of first tower in the CWMA. Brad Josephs photo.
While exploring the tundra out near the fallen tower, the group had an amazing encounter with a red fox carrying its ptarmigan prey in his mouth. Surprised by being “caught in the act” , the fox paused to take in the curious onlookers gazing at him in wonderment of the laws of nature and the survival chain of life in the Arctic wild. What an exciting start to the 2016 polar bear season in Churchill!
A red fox with a tasty meal of willow ptarmigan. Brad Josephs photo.
National Geographic wildlife photographer Nansen Weber has been going to Cunningham Inlet by Canada’s Somerset Island in the high Arctic with his cameras for 16 years. Every summer thousands of beluga whales join him for an amazing spectacle in the shallow inlet. For about a month, the beluga whales gather for what is a very social time as well as molting period and nursery time for newborns. The Cunningham River is a northerly version of the Churchill and surrounding estuaries in the southern Hudson Bay in that its’ temperatures average eight degrees F warmer than the surrounding ocean waters. The warmer water is a welcome respite for the whales and facilitates the behavior mentioned.
Weber and the whales seem to coexist in the inlet with the belugas approaching him closely as if they remember him from the year before. The drone footage of the whales, polar bears, and the incredible rugged landscape lends perspective to the massive wild region that is largely unspoiled.
That notion could be changing however with climate change and federal policy allowing research and transport throughout the Arctic. Shipping channels around the Northwest Passage are becoming more accessible with ice reduction due to warming temperatures. This will allow large ships in the region and they, with all the noise they produce, will undoubtedly have an affect on the animals echolocation faculties.
“This might be the only place on Earth you can enjoy the beluga whales like this that is still wild like it’s been for the last 500 years, but maybe it’s going to be changing. Just in my lifetime of being in the Arctic for 20 years, I’ve seen climate change. There’s new birds that are migrating up north that I haven’t seen before, there’s mosquitoes now where there shouldn’t be mosquitoes, the ice patterns and weather patterns are all weird. It’s kind of a dilemma that’s always there in the back of your head while you’re enjoying the beluga whale spectacle in front of you,” Weber says.
Weber’s videos and photos shed light on how ship traffic and resulting noise pollution may alter the beluga whale population’s migratory routes. “There has been scientific evidence that the ship traffic—the sonar—affects the communication between the belugas, so that could definitely be a problem for the future for our belugas in Cunningham Inlet.”
All of the Arctic region and all of its inhabitants will be affected with changing climate. “It’s not only about the beluga whales. I mean, we have polar bears, there’s narwhals and bowheads along the Northwest Passage, arctic char that run in the rivers. Inland you have the musk ox, the caribou that graze, all the migratory birds that fly up every summer to enjoy the short arctic summer, the snowy owls, the falcons. It’s just a huge ecosystem that’s all tied together,” states Weber.
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.
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.
With so much happening in Churchill we are posting more amazing photos that Natural Habitat Adventures guides have submitted from some pretty spectacular trips! Aggressive polar bear sparring seems to be the theme thus far as the 2015 polar bear season settles in. Aurora borealis has also been more visible in the northern sky in vivid reds and greens. A recent Tundra Lodge group viewed shimmering ribbons across the ink black sky deep in the CWMA. Last week my son and I experienced the northern lights with a few Natural Habitat groups by the inukshuk behind the town complex. My son’s eyes lit up with wonder as he viewed them over the placid and glimmering Hudson Bay. Priceless memories for sure.
Natural Habitat travelers on the tundra lodge under amazing northern lights. Drew Hamilton photo.
The tundra lodge has enjoyed abundant bear population from the start of the season. Sparring in and out of the willows surrounding the lodge has kept travelers in awe throughout the day. This will be hard to sustain though some new exciting phenomena out in the Churchill Wildlife Management Area (CWMA) will surely arise. Every year a new and interesting behavior emerges from the polar bear population in Churchill. A cycle of other species seems to revolve from year to year as well. This season numerous snowy owls have been sighted all over the area. Last season red foxes were all over the tundra and the previous year the Arctic fox population was prolific.Every year is a new adventure!
Polar bears engaging in mock fighting on the tundra in Churchill. Drew Hamilton photo.
Snowy owls have been prolific this polar bear season. Colby Brokvist photo.
Polar bears engaged in some pre sparring jawing. Drew Hamilton photo.
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.