These past few days have been stellar out on the tundra of the Churchill Wildlife Management Area (CWMA). Although the snow has not arrived yet, the wildlife sightings have been magnificent. Some of the sightings have actually been aided by the lack of snow…exposing the whiteness of the camouflage fitted for Winter. While this coming week may finally bring the inevitable storms from the North, travelers are quite happy with what they have been seeing.
Brad Josephs photo
Natural Habitat guide Brad Josephs, who also guides brown bear trips in Alaska, had “the best day of the year” just two days ago. On their initial night in Churchill, the group headed out to the CWMA and were greeted almost immediately by a incredibly curious red fox. They received the same greeting from an Arctic fox the next morning as they ventured out for a full day on the tundra. Arriving at the tundra lodge that morning, the driver situated the rover in the front of the lodge. Soon the action began….two sets of sparring polar bears on either side of the vehicle battled through a heavy snow-shower into subsequent sunlight. Both conditions provided excellent atmosphere to capture the drama on film. Slaps and growls ignited in the chilly Arctic air as the mock fighting became intense and sustained throughout the morning. Brad commented that the sparring was “intense as I’ve ever seen.” And Brad has seen plenty throughout the years around bears.
Brad Josephs photo.
Birders in the group were quite pleased with sightings of both willow and rock ptarmigan, surf scoters and rare harlequin sightings. A dark -phase gyrfalcon also mesmerized the guests out on and above the stark landscape.
An estimated count of about 28 bears were spotted for the day including a nice surprise on the way back to launch when most travelers aboard the rover thought the day was complete. A sow with a two-year old cub seemed posed next to the trail as the rover rumbled home. A super send-off for the excited guests.
Guide Sandra Elvin also was enjoying exposing her group to the escalating bear numbers the past few days. on their night-rover trip the group had eight polar bears up close and personal around their machine. When just getting out to the magnificent tundra to enjoy the landscape is usually the main attraction, these bears surely made for an even more fulfilling journey.
The next morning also brought amazing encounters. An Arctic fox greeted the group in the pre -dawn glow just as moved away from the launch. Two sets of bears sparring out near the lodge kept them around there for a good part of the morning. This was definitely the highlight of about 21 polar bear sightings this incredible day. Though just like Brad’s group’s surprise, Sandra and guests spotted a sow and cub on the way back into town from their shuttle bus. Between the airport and the “Town of Churchill” sign, the two animals wandered methodically in the town’s direction…hopefully knowing enough to stay on the outskirts and not end up in the compound that evening. Of course if they have friends up North, it’s an easy way to go visit.
Colby Brokvist photo.
Their next excursion out to the tundra the following day brought 25 bear encounters or sightings. Nine of those polar bears were at the lodge displaying various modes of behavior. Two of those spent time sleeping on top of each other before rising up and sparring together for some time. Two gyrfalcons were also in the area….one between Gordon Point and the lodge flying in the up-drafts and another landing on the rocky shoreline of the spit extending north from the lodge. A few of the bears had quite notable behavioral characteristics. One was very skiddish and reluctant to approach any of the rovers. Another was quite big though quite skinny as well. We have been seeing a few bears of this nature this season..most likely linked to the shorter ice season. And finally a bear nicknamed “Muddy Butt” by the group, as his paws and rear were unusually covered.
Guide Colby Brokvist and group experienced an “awesome” day Friday on the land. At one point there were 3 pairs of sparring bears going at it simultaneously. The final one began with a bear lying just off the rover’s front nose. As another bear came out of the willows and roused him, they then both walked to the side of the machine- about 50 feet from us- and began sparring intensely. About 15 minutes of this brought heightened excitement amongst the travelers as they reeled off photo’s from digital cameras. The following day an arctic hare at bird cove nestled in the rocks as the group was still just adjusting to the morning light. Later a white gyrfalcon flew right by the windows of the machine as the group pulled off along Christmas Lake esker. Almost immediately after spotting the white gyr, a large gray morph flew by, this time only inches from the windows of the machine. What a rush! The folks were excited and Colby could hardly contain himself. An incredible Arctic fly-by!
The notable change these past few days has been the fact that many bears were out moving good distances on the tundra. They were many in between the spits for the first time as well as bears moving between the coast and inland a bit. Not many polar bears have been spotted between the two lodges East a bit though farther East toward Cape Churchill, high numbers are being reported from helicopter charters. As you can see numbers in general are escalating and should continue as the season goes on.
As polar bear season moves into November, the Churchill Wildlife Management Area (CWMA) is still not so Arctic -like when it comes to snow cover. Wildlife viewing out on the land, however, has been very active as the animals wait for the cold and snow to inevitably arrive. Even with slightly warmer temperatures above freezing at times, polar bears have been displaying various active behavior styles. Snow is forecast most of next week with temperatures dipping into the -15C range. Bears should be on the move.
Paul Brown photo.
Natural Habitat guide Lynette and band of travelers started out their day this past week at Bird Cove but found it pretty inactive. The views across the cove back towards Churchill in the distance were beautiful and coastal precambrian shield rocks inspired all before the rover moved along the coast to Halfway Point. A resident gyrfalcon guided the machine along the trail dipping in and out of the updrafts gusting in from the Hudson Bay. While enjoying morning coffee and snacks the group spent almost two hours at Halfway Point watching a juvenile snowy owl through a spotting scope. Oh..and yes there were some polar bears. A younger male came from a good distance inland as guests watched intently with binoculars. At about the same time, another bear was spotted off the coast a bit swimming in the bay…just bobbing and playing. Constantly turning in the icy water as if trying to stay warm, he would periodically dive under and come up. At one point what appeared to be a floating log was discovered and he continued to play with the object for quite awhile. A pretty amazing site!
The “water” bear finally emerged from the bay and headed towards the rover and began investigating the look and smells of the vehicle. At times, while the group was enjoying hot soup and sandwiches for lunch, the big male bruin perched its’ paws almost on the top rail of the deck. Lynette’s travelers seemed quite content to spend most of the afternoon observing the bear up close. He took breaks to sit in the willows nearby and roll and roll about in the brush and slight snow cover built up along the fringe of the vegetation. As the group moved about the area toward the end of the day they counted eight or so polar bears within view ..all of them being fairly inactive. For some reason this bear was intrigued by their presence and gave them memories for a lifetime. The others were conserving energy in the relatively warm of the day.
Guide Karen Walker and her Natural Habitat group arrived in town from the airport, had a deli lunch at Gypsy’s and then followed a tip from their shuttle driver about a polar bear just outside of town by the old plane wreck dubbed “miss piggy”. As they followed the coastal road out of the back end of town, they came upon, not a single bear,but a mother and cub just 200 yards West of the plane. Quite a nice welcome to the high North country. I, personally, have always felt more in tune with the region when coming upon polar bears unexpectedly. This was surely a surprise to many of these first timers to Churchill. Another bear was spotted walking North just on the other side of the gravel pit between the road and the Hudson Bay.
The groups’ luck continued the following day as they were just 10 minutes from launch when a bear in the distance at about 100 yards caught their attention. Not even ten minutes from then, a group of ptarmigan swaggered along the trail into and out of willows as the rover moved past. Good start to this day as well.
Karen and her driver conferred and decided to head straight out to the lodge in hopes of being the first rover to arrive on the site. They were indeed and found a couple of young sub-adults underneath the North end of the structure. They soon walked over and were up on the rover peering inside while sniffing the air. All were awed by the encounter. The two then settled down just about 15 feet off the back observation deck. Another bear emerged from the willows and began wrestling with one of the sub-adults just off the back of the rover. the pair moved all the around the area and both the guests on the rover and the tundra lodge were thrilled with the show.
Paul Brown photo.
A short time later, Karen and group moved out a little toward Halfway Point when another polar bear walked out of the willows. The two bears continued sparring and this new bear would interact and wrestle with the two from time to time. As the action simmered down and the group sipped on coffee, the clock showed it was only 11 Am. Quite an amazing morning on the land. The action continued however as two more bears traveled in from the rocky spit that juts into the bay Northward. Another came out of the willows between the lodge and the bay. All in all, in a panoramic setting, there were seven polar bears in view at once. Some were sparring and wrestling throughout the late morning and early afternoon until things finally began to calm down around 2;00pm. About 15 sightings of bears on an amazing day. Another scene complimenting the afternoon was seeing fresh, clean bear paw prints on the ponds. Some of the tracks also had fox prints mixed in with them. The soft clear light made the prints stand out nicely from the glare of the ice.
As the heart of polar bear season in Churchill nears closer, the tundra is still surprising all who venture out every day. Although intense colder temperatures have not settled in as of yet, wildlife encounters are still impressing travelers exploring the tundra each day. The slightly warmer temperatures have not kept polar bears in the region inactive at all. Although some are content to lounge and sleep in the willows or rocks, many are up and about engaging in sparring bouts and investigating rovers….sniffing boots.. that sort of thing.
Colby Brokvist photo.
A good morning on tundra for Colby Brokvist and group gave way to warming temperatures in the afternoon with not too much happening in wildlife viewing. In the morning at Halfway Point things got started with a snowy owl chasing snow buntings along the rocky border between the tundra and the Hudson Bay. A juvenile snowy.. he perched near the rover and then twice flew directly at the vehicle with his yellow piercing stare. Lemmings in rocks below the rover scurried to take cover from an arctic fox running along the shore looking for some sustenance. Guests were exposed to great photo opportunities as three polar bears were in the area. A very old and skinny adult spotted at bird cove last week lounged near the rocks. Seemingly on the brink of death, his ribs, pelvis and shoulder bones were apparent through his white coat. Two other bears were walking and somewhat active. Easily the highlight of the morning was when one of the bruins decided to take a swim for almost half an hour just offshore in the calm bay… playing in the kelp, diving under the surface, emerging and rolling around on his back like a sea otter. Once ashore, he shook off the icy water before spending some time with Colby’s as well as a couple of other rovers nearby. Very “cool” experience…especially for the bear! The warmer afternoon was spent near the tundra lodge where three or so bears were lounging lazily around on the edge of the willows.
Guide Sandra Elvin’s group experienced a fantastic week highlighted by two separate bear lifts. The first involved scrambling on arrival day in Churchill and getting out of the airport just in time to see two bears removed from the compound, netted and evacuated to the North. Exciting start to the Northern experience. Then, on the group’s helicopter and museum-touring day, travelers were fortunate to view a sow and two cubs moved from the compound as well. Two of these in a trip is quite rare.
Paul Brown photo.
The group’s polar bear viewing out on the tundra was exciting also. On day one in the CWMA , a polar bear was observed up close while a few others were viewed crossing the landscape slowly at a distance. A few others asleep in the willows rounded out the afternoon. The second day started slowly in the morning though afternoon brought bears around the lodge challenging each other without full-on sparring. A group devoid of avid birders calmly observed a magnificent gyrfalcon soaring the wind currents above. An arctic fox near the rover launch and a red fox at Bird’s Cove filled out a palette of Arctic wildlife.
Helicopter journeys to a former bear denning area were hampered by fog. After the den visit, the group returned back to the base in town and re-booked flight time for the end of the trip. Flying over a controversial “sled-dog” compound East of town raised serious questions regarding the morality and legality of the site. Polar bears intermingle freely with chained dogs there and quite often share food left for the canines. Should wild animals be exposed to this setting? On the later rescheduled flight, the group flew directly to Cape Churchill and returned over the boreal forest. A large number of bears at the cape and scattered moose on the fringes of the forest were awesome sights.
The aurora borealis cooperated with Halloween by unveiling itself for the holiday..Guide Elise’s group as well as some others viewed the Arctic spectacle behind the town complex at the giant stone inukshuk guarding the Hudson Bay. One of “the best displays I’ve ever seen here”, is how Elise characterized the show….dancing, swirling lights of green…pulsing with faint glimpses of red. Maybe a slight tinge of orange in there as well. Happy Halloween to all!
Paul Brown photo.
Guide Rinnie reports “resident” bears around the lodge. There are constantly four to five males around ….including a couple of “big guys”. A single female and a mother with a coy visited the area much to the delight of travelers on board. A few “buddy” males sparring frequently very close to the lodge thrill the photographers as well as casual guests. Away from the lodge two adult golden eagles soared pass the rover while out along the coast road. Snowy owls have been seen almost daily as well as Arctic fox. On the last lodge trip, northern lights appeared twice on the darker tundra of the CWMA….an easier place to spot the phenomena for sure. Food being served by gourmet chefs at the lodge is fantastic while the group hopes for colder temperatures to arrive. Hopes for some more mothers with cubs to move in to the area are top of the wish list.