Report from Churchill: November 14, 2010

Weather-wise it was an awesome day in the Churchill region as cool light breeze pervaded under dark luminous clouds. The Hudson Bay seemed ominous under gunmetal gray calm water as Fall seems perched firmly on Winter’s icy doorstep.

Churchill polar bear.

Photo: Paul Brown

With the sun setting about 4 pm now not much light remained for guide Amy and her travelers’ night rover tour to the tundra. However, the silhouettes of three bears crossing a frozen thermakarst just a half hour from launch was enough to heighten the group’s excitement for the coming days. Unable to capture the animals with photographs due to lack of light, binoculars were the next best thing….freezing the images in the mind forever. Then, one of the bears caught sight or maybe smell of the rover and diverted from the others and headed directly toward the machine.  In about seven minutes he was under the back deck greeting the newly arrived  guests…all eyes looking  down at him through the grated platform and he sniffing curiously at boots. He seemed content to stay until the rover started up and moved away to give the two other rovers behind a chance for similar interactions.

Out around the lodge for an evening meal and drinks, there were polar bears all around  the lodge area….Amy’s group counted at least ten. The highlight of the night was a big male approaching their rover and hopping up to take a closer look through a window and the guest looking back out the window into the bear’s big, black eyes. Not a bad start to the trip.

Red fox.

Photo: Paul Brown

Guide Karen and travelers arrived in Churchill and on the way from the airport back into town they took the coast road. A great view of a red fox and  a jet black fox in the rocks framing the Hudson Bay behind was quite a start to their adventure.

On the evening tour of the tundra in the CWMA,  Karen’s rover was third in line waiting to get closer to the aforementioned polar bear that was under Amy’s rover. When the next rover pulled up, the bear seemed to really take a liking to that one. As the second rover pulled off, the bear began loping after it with its’ legs swinging out slightly as he ran for a good several hundred yards…… keeping up a very good pace following the back of the rover. Pretty unusual behavior…must have smelled something pretty good on that machine.  Finally, the bruin stopped and headed under the back deck of their machine. The entire group of ten was out on the back deck in a circle  all watching the bear through the grate in the middle. Then he followed their rover for a good distance as well as they headed in the direction of the tundra lodge.

At the lodge, there around seven bears of which a couple were quite large. Numerous  interactions were observed between bears under the lodge kitchen and as they moved in and out of the area some came quite close to their rover in the darkening twilight. Some of the guests were lucky to catch a fleeting look a at an arctic fox scurrying off into the willows and another few   heard bears growling as they were competing for positions around the lodge. Ample energy in a small area.

Seal in inter tidal zone in Churchill.

Photo: Paul Brown

Aside from a good day of diverse bear interactions, Guide Eric and his enthusiastic photo group were quite fortunate to be out at Halfway Point and see six polar bears around a seal kill by the Hudson Bay. With very good light to highlight the scene, shutters clicked at fever pace to record a rare meal shared by the bears at this time of year. This seal was spotted last night in the tidal zone by Guide Paul and group as they came into the area. Dubious thoughts regarding the seal’s survival were passed on to Eric and sure enough the omen proved true. What the bears didn’t get was picked at and carried off by a group of opportunistic ravens.

Later on the enduring incredible light continued as the group found an arctic fox at close range. A good part of the remainder of the day was spent with a sow and coy which also presented some fantastic chances for unique photographs and family interaction observation.

Report from Churchill: November 13, 2010

On a beautiful clear day in the Churchill region, a few scattered clouds drifted across the Hudson Bay. Temperatures remained below freezing providing ultimate weather for arctic wildlife movement on the tundra. The shore ice is just starting to form, about five feet off the coast, and polar bears continue to anticipate a freeze that may not come too soon. Churchill polar beas.

Guides Bonnie and Colby arrived in Churchill with the new tundra lodge group and before they traveled just five minutes down the trail, they were seeing at least five polar bears including a sow with two cubs off in a snow-blown willow stand, a very large male patrolling the tundra perhaps looking to scrap with another male, and another couple of smaller males wandering the land. As the group settled in at the lodge they were witnesses to more sparring and some bears off along the coast inspecting the meager ice formation. The waiting is the hardest part.

Guide Sue was also out on the land yesterday with her group of travelers and before they even got to launch they were lucky to catch a fleeting glimpse of a snowy owl up on the rise near the old radar domes halfway between town and launch. One of the only sightings this season came as the sun rose above the frosty tundra to the East illuminating the coastal rises with hues of pinkish red.

Aboard their rover the group made way out to Halfway Point. About halfway to Half way Point,…would that be Quarter Point?…they encountered a pretty unique sighting. Two young, sub – adult bears were close to the coast and sharing the remains of what appeared to be a beluga whale skeletal carcass. This area of beach has always been  a prime area for beluga carcass finds. Over my dozen years of guiding Churchill Summer groups, we would make frequent treks along this beach area to search out a beluga skeletal carcass nestled in the tall sea grasses and almost always find one. These two bruins were enjoying gnawing on any remaining meat and most likely getting a little calcium nourishment as well. Very cool sighting.

At Halfway point, the elusive blue phase arctic fox kept the groups string of luck going strong. Winding through the snowy tundra the blueish tint of the coat definitely catches one’s eye as the fox is focused on trying to catch lemmings.Churchill polar bears sparring.

With all these early sightings under their belt, Sue then had her rover positioned near the tundra lodge where “huge” interactions were occurring in multiple directions. Just 200 yards from the lodge to the Southwest,  two sub-adults-about four to six years of age- were rolling in the snow and play-fighting with one another. The snow surely provides a comfortable, cushioning blanket for the two to enjoy the scrap. A curious arctic fox wandered nearby unwilling to join the fray.

Overall there seemed to be groups of four or five sub-adult male bears interacting with two bears confronting each other while the others observed. And, about a quarter mile from the lodge, a sow with two cubs walked together across the icy lake surface. The family seemed to be mom with a male cub that was a little larger than his sister trailing behind. A nice way to conclude a satisfying day in the North.

Report from Churchill: November 12, 2010

With the snow finished for the time being, the light changed again to softer, more photo friendly conditions. With heavy winds accompanying the snow, the tundra still shows some of it’s undercoat that just refuses to surrender to Winter. Soon enough all will be white, gray and blue blending together as an arctic backdrop for spectacular Winter aurora displays.

Churchill polar bear.

Photo: Eric Rock

Guide Eric and group, on a rover excursion, ventured as far as the tundra lodge and was one of many groups recently to see a blue phase arctic fox; unusual to these parts in recent history. As long as Eric has been guiding in Churchill, this was only his second spotting of the animal.

Another high point of the trip came prior to this sighting as the rover covered the trail to the lodge. After encountering two sub-adults close to the trail early on, the group then viewed a sow and cub out on a partially frozen lake in the distance. Because part of this lake thawed earlier in the week, the cub was using it to demonstrate the original “polar bear dip”.  As mom dozed contently on the more solid surface, the cub dived under completely at times then reappeared up on the ice, rolling and crawling near mom. Very unusual for this time of the season there normally is almost no open water by this point. Very cool!

Churchill polar bears.

Photo: Eric Rock

A unique sighting of a rusty blackbird near the lodge rounded out a full journey as this bird, listed in 2007 as vulnerable do to it’s roughly 85% decline in the last 40 years, showed itself against the white snow. Bonnie would be jealous.

Guide Sue and her group arrived in Churchill and headed out on a night rover experience. Darkness comes early now as a result of daylight savings though a night on the tundra is still a memorable experience. On the way out , in the soft evening light, a sow and cub had buried themselves comfortably in a snow drift…setting in for a warm rest. The group then came across a couple of males play-fighting in the lodge vicinity…napping in between sessions. Later two bears approached the rover and sniffed boots under the back deck. Sue noted that the huffing and chuffing of the bears breathing as they sniffed the foreign odors was pretty incredible. With such sensitive olfactory senses, these bears probably experience some sense of  overload when experiencing completely unique odors.

Finally an arctic fox and some ptarmigan rounded out the full evening in the CWMA…a night to remember.

Guide Brad and travelers had nice sightings of a gyrfalcon at Halfway Point and a ptarmigan flock near, fittingly, bird cove.

Later two young females, maybe sisters about four years old, played with their rover for over an hour, took baths in the new snow, and then sparred just to complete the trifecta. One of the bears ripped a piece of metal off the rover and played “bear ice hockey” with it on the ice for while.
The new, heavily drifted snow and cool temperatures allowed for extra active bears as several sparring bears were watched intently near the tundra lodge. The snow always seems to invigorate these animals as if they know the seal -feeding season is not too long off.

Back in town, at the hotel, the fun didn’t stop…two red foxes kept the group entertained for a long time while approaching guests at a range of only about eight feet.

Report from Churchill: November 11, 2010

Winter returned to Churchill with a vengeance as heavy snow careened sideways all day.. covering the tundra once again. This time I think Winter is here for the long haul……I know..heard that before. Well, this time of year the odds are the temperatures will stay low for now and get much lower believe me.Churchill polar bears.

In the morning, on the way to launch,  Guide Karen and travelers recounted last night’s experience of happening upon a polar bear in the middle of the road, by Camp Nanuq, as they returned from from the tundra. A traffic jam of shuttle buses waited and watched while the bear stood its’ ground. Nobody would ever complain about this delay.I’ve always found it a little extra exciting encountering a bear outside

Once on the tundra in the CWMA, the group headed toward the tundra lodge encountering numerous bears all along the trail as the snow blasted the open space and swirled over frozen thermakarsts. As the rover crossed through the broken, open water channel in one thermakarst, a male polar bear lay on the adjacent ice with his head almost touching the water…thirsty? He seemed fairly unfazed as the large machine moved on. Closer to the lodge, three bears jockeyed for space under the rover smelling through the grate as travelers looked down into their black eyes. One bear especially enjoyed rolling on his back and some others did the classic polar bear yoga pose with front feet and head stretched out forward near the ground and furry butt up in the air. Apparently they are delighted with the fresh snow.Churchill polar bears.

Behind the lodge in the willows, some of the usual sparring was playing out as some of the big bruins were getting in some good whacks at each other..though without the sustained consistency as prior days. A sow with two yearling’s moved off one side of the rover about 50 feet away. They raised their noses sniffing the air as a large male appeared from the direction of the lodge. They then ran out to the sanctuary of the open,icy surface of the nearest lake. The two cubs were right on their mom’s tail as she lead them out to the ice. The male followed to the edge, paused and gave up the chase, lying down by the willows lining the water’s edge. As this all unfolded, two other males popped up out of the willows and showed earnest intent to chase the family though must have sensed her unnerved attentiveness and thought twice. All this before the morning coffee break!

Guide Brent and his photo group were thoroughly excited with the fresh, falling snow as it provided exciting image potential in every unfolding scene. One scene came right away as four male bears out on some pond ice were getting a little rough with each other…not actually sparring full on, though popping each other with a paw and then walking off. This behavior continued as they they shifted positions from ice to willows and then two went back to the ice. Quite a display…fairly unusual for four bears to interact together like this. The peculiar season continues on.

Toward the end of the day, an young arctic fox with a little gray in his coat, patrolled along the snowy tundra visibly weary of the nearby bears. Constantly sniffing the ground, he weaved along away from the lodge over to another rover. Brent’s group actually saw a lemming..what this fox would love to find..out near Halfway Point. Darker on top and white fur on his stomach, he was also working the fast freezing tundra with increased intensity as the shock of Winter snapped at his complacency. Time to burrow down before the freeze.

Earlier in the afternoon Brent guided his rover out to Christmas Lake esker to view the edge of the boreal forest and capture some incredible snow-blown scenes of spruce plastered with drifting snow. These trees near the Hudson Bay are some of the Northernmost trees on the planet. Photographers played with the changing light as the deep gray clouds with their weight of heavy snow moved overhead.

As the rover turned back and headed toward launch, the group noticed the now frozen bear tracks on a nearby frozen lake. The tracks were slushy indentations yesterday but now appeared as molds filled with fresh powder encased by slightly grayish blue ridges  where the paw had pushed up the semi-frozen slush. Sometimes just the trace of such an incredible animal is more thrilling than the real thing. Churchill polar bear tracks.

Amazing how a day in the arctic can change the entire feel and surrounding environment. Yesterday the popping greens and oranges of lichens mixed with the golden browns and reds of the tundra and willows blending with a splotchy blue sky. Today is as if the world is a black and white photograph…steel blues and gray encompass the land while changing  shades from darkening clouds filter light. Dramatic difference.

Report from Churchill: November 10, 2010

Cloudy skies and warmer though cooling  temperatures signaled the possibility of snow moving into the region carried on Northern winds and high air pressure. Though this season has been unusually scarce of snow, normalcy can return in an instant.

Churchill polar bear.

Photo: Colby Brokvist

Guide Amy and her travelers enjoyed a day on the tundra near the lodge viewing over 20 different polar bears. A good number were lounging though there also was the normal younger and older males sparring throughout the day. After fulfilling their satisfaction quota , they headed out near first tower in the East and came across a sow with her two coy’s walking over land stopping periodically to keep a watchful eye on a lone male paralleling their paths making mom a little uncomfortable. Finally the family stopped and a ten minute stare-down by mom seemed to convey her frustration with him. He moved away crossing over the trail and away from the area. It’s interesting to wonder what a male is looking for in order to pursue more intently..maybe a mom who cannot continue to shelter the cubs due to her own lack of energy perhaps.

Guide Elise and group also had an amazing day…trekking out to the lodge vicinity in the CWMA where numerous bears were milling about. A polar bear lingered under the back deck  of their vehicle for over an hour…pressing it’s nose against the grate accompanied by numerous deep breaths. Having sufficiently sniffed at boots from all over North America, the animal stood up and leaned on the side of the vehicle a few times inspecting the beings within those boots. Definitely not seals.
Leaving there and en route to first tower out East the group observed two bears lying next to each other and decided to have lunch nearby them. Turns out it was a sow and yearling. This realization that the slightly smaller one was a yearling (a cub going into her second year) came once they stirred and the yearling began to nurse!!! An ” awesome” experience for all… the bears then moved around, walked across a nearby frozen pond, which with the warm weather had some melt water on surface. The glassy surface of the water reflected their majestic bodies as they wandered over to the edge of the pond and curled up again together. Periodically at times the cub would stretch and at one point he was extended fully with one fore paw resting under mama’s chin.

Further down the trail, near first tower, they found a sow with  two coy’s…noticing the vast size difference between cubs of year and the yearling sighted earlier (which was almost the size of mom). These bears had an increased anxiety level as a male polar bear wandered into the area.Churchill polar bear.

Highlights for travelers with Guide Melissa included a snow white gyrfalcon sitting high atop first tower for considerable time! What an eye-full! Throughout the day sightings of four sets of moms with cubs including timing it just right to see one pair in nursing mode. Capping off their tundra tour they spied an  arctic fox hunting out on Gordon and out of the rocks and along the plant life dusted white with snow.. a fine day!

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