Snowy Owl Expands Range

This past polar bear season provided a plethora of snowy owl sightings across the tundra in the Churchill region. Daily guide accounts from Natural Habitat Adventure trips in October and November reported many more encounters with the iconic Arctic bird than the last few years. Now, that abundance is revealing itself in the United States as far south as Colorado. In Boulder county, where I live and Natural Habitat Adventures is based, only two documented sightings are on record. This year, numerous sightings have been called in. One snowy was even sighted at the Honolulu airport in Hawaii..the first on record ever in that state. What is happening?

Snowy owl in flight.

Colby Brokvist photo.

Arctic animals flourish with one basic necessity…food, and of course availability of that particular staple. Polar bears rely predominantly on ringed seals out on the ice surface, arctic fox tend to forage on hares and lemmings and snowy owls also bag the occasional arctic hare, though ..a higher percentage of their diet comes from lemmings. This past Summer, Churchill had a explosion in the lemming population which carried over into the Fall bear season. And since it’s utterly difficult and surely frustrating for polar bears to sneak up on those tiny lemmings, the snowy owl population increased as well. This has not happened for about five years. The last time was quite noticeable in Churchill…I can remember driving along the launch road just outside of town limits and seeing a snowy on just about every other hydro pole. Amazing.

Predators like the red fox have been forced to expand their hunting grounds.-Brad Josephs photo.

There have been years when Arctic fox have dominated the hunting grounds also…seemingly pushing out the red fox and the snowy owls at once. Red foxes have been spotted far out on the Hudson Bay ice floes in recent years adverse to their natural hunting grounds. Expanding their diet via leftover seal -kills has been a necessity for survival. There seems to be a natural process of selection in which lemming predators take precedence from season to season. This year clearly favors the snowy owl however and now that population is migrating farther South than ever before in search of lemming-like food. This “irruption” as the overwhelming presence of a species is known, is allowing “southerners” to view the majestic owl without heading all the way to the Arctic. Montana, Colorado, Hawaii…even Boston Massachusetts, where 21 owls have been documented near Logan International Airport have all become new territory for the endangered snowy owl. I actually have seen a couple over the years on Cape Cod, MA in the marshes but the press rarely covers that rural location.


These areas all make sense. The openness of the prairies and grasslands out West and the marshes and  lakes of the coastal locations all tend to make the snowy owl feel right at home in a tundra -like  landscape. Getting there is another issue. With higher temperatures and long flying distances, the birds arrive to the new feeding grounds very stressed and depleted of energy. If you do happen upon a snowy be cautious not to harass the bird by getting too close. Use a spotting scope or good binoculars to check it off your life list.If you are in Colorado use this link,, to keep up with the latest sightings and bird information. Other states have similar links that are easy to find with a little research. Good luck spotting one of the most beautiful birds in the air….and on the ground…hunting lemmings and possibly prairie dogs.

Hudson Bay Quest Preview

With Churchill caught in a deep freeze, some things are just heating up in the sub -Arctic town along the Hudson Bay.

The minus 30 degree C days and nights of January have not dissuaded dog mushers from entering the 2012 Hudson Bay Quest which will run the 220 miles from Gillam to Churchill. This route has been modified from the original course, celebrating the rich trapper history of the region. All mushers are self -sufficient carrying all the supplies they need for themselves and their dogs to make it to the finish. The course generally takes from two to three days to complete depending largely on weather. the original course largely traced the coast of the Hudson Bay and quite often was incredibly challenging when storms hit the region. Logistical complications and a need to streamline the race lead to the new, though still challenging event. Below is a list of racers entered so far for this year’s quest.

Hudson Bay Quest 2012 – Racers Registered

  1. Ed ‘The Sled’ Obrecht – Otter Lake, Quebec
  2. David Daley – Churchill, Manitoba
  3. Dan DiMuzio – Churchill, Manitoba
  4. Troy Groenweld – Two Harbours, Minnesota
  5. Charlie Lundie – Churchill, Manitoba
  6. Stefaan De Marie – Christopher Lake, Saskatchewan
  7. Peter McClelland – Ely, Minnesota
  8. Ernest Azure – Churchill, Manitoba
  9. Burton Penner – Vermillion Bay, Ontario
  10. Shawn McCarty – Ely, Minnesota
  11. John Makayak Hickes – Rankin Inlet, Nunavut
  12. Jesse Terry – Sioux Lookout, Ontario
  13. Barney Kalluak – Arviat, Nunavut

The Hudson Bay Quest’s official website sponsored by Calm air states that only 15 racers will be allowed to run their dogs so hurry up and get your application in! Future blogs will give more information as the race draws closer and updates from the race with results will be available when the mushers leave Gillam in March. Gee…Haw! Dave Daley, local Churchill musher will be running his dogs again this year and hoping to be the second consecutive champion from Churchill. Charlie Lundie won top prize last year.a first for any Churchill entrant.

Husky sled dogs.

Brad Josephs photo.

Although the Fall polar bear season did not allow for extensive sled training for the local mushers and their dogs, travelers still were able to get a feel for the energy that a team of these beautiful animals exudes. Many of the dedicated mushers in Churchill run seasonal businesses. These “off-season” ventures often are run with hopes to raise enough funds to cover extensive dog-food costs that easily reach tens of thousands of dollars. Local musher Kelly Turcotte -owner of Churchill River Mushing-utilized his custom built wheeled sled -carts to guide visitors over the landscape and through willows in order to give guests a feel for, not only dog racing, but dogsled touring. It truly is a unique way to enjoy the undulating tundra and taiga environment Even though Kelly does not enter the race himself, he does an excellent job of showcasing the total experience of dog mushing in the North. Daley and Lundie also cater to Churchill visitors by also giving their guests amazing insight into the exclusive world of the Northern mushers and the intricacies to raising premium Arctic sled dogs. It’s not as easy as one may think. Aside from all the discipline needed to train dogs under normal circumstances, the additional obstacle in Churchill is the weather. Current temperature in Churchill is -48 C…enough to make anyone howl!

Under The Ice

In the north, in the Arctic, survival can be perilous at best. Sure, the technological inventions of the past 20 years have made life easier for inhabitants up in the hinterlands however  many tasks cannot be aided by a cell phone, ipad,  or anything else besides perseverance. The attached video is just a snapshot of lives that still endure from strength of heart and good old fashioned will to survive. People in the North are hearty souls that need to constantly reinvent themselves to make it through harsh seasons…of course the harshest being winter. The current temperature in Churchill is -28 and -46 with the wind chill.

Churchill Bears On Ice

With the extended cold temperatures ranging in the -20’s and 30’s centigrade, solid sea ice has packed the Hudson Bay. The polar bear population in northern Manitoba is enjoying a cold Winter on ice with seals in their bellies. As usual the annual fears of late-season freeze-up were once again allayed around the third week of November when the Hudson Bay was solid enough for polar bears to venture off the land. A few bear sightings since then are most likely a result of Southerly winds that pushed ice out away from the coast while some bears came ashore and were temporarily landlocked.

polar bear image Churchill,MB

Polar bear on ice in Churchill,MB- Brad Josephs photo.

Overall, however, ice coverage in the bay is down again from recent years accumulation. This Environment Canada chart on historical ice accumulation in the Hudson Bay shows the overall ice decline in the past decade. While temperatures in Winter remain cold, the “bookend” seasons have compressed the high -ice Winter season into a smaller time-frame. Although extended time on land around Churchill is good for tourism via longer polar bear viewing seasons, less time on ice hunting seals means leaner bears and sometimes more irritated bears as discussed in my last blog post on problem bears in Churchill.

Currently the ice accumulation for this season is looking decent as seen detailed through this recent Environment Canada ice graph of the Hudson Bay. In this case, unlike ice in Eastern Canada where baby Harp seals are born, red ice as portrayed on the graph, is good ice. All the levels of ice thickness are at the high end of the spectrum and although median temperatures for Churchill are down by six degrees centigrade, surrounding communities along the Hudson Bay coastline have all measured normal, in range cold temperatures.

Hudson Bay ice off the coast of Wapusk National parc.

Hudson Bay ice off coast of Wapusk National Parc. -Steve Selden Photo.

While ten or fifteen years of downward trend in ice coverage of the Hudson Bay may surely signal a warming trend in the making, we cannot assume this trend will continue without more evidence. As the polar ice cap shrinks as it surely is, more open water for longer time spans will allow for more heat absorption and thus further melting. How the polar bear population will be affected is still an unfolding story. This USGS study on polar bear population of the Southern Hudson Bay is a somewhat more in – depth review on how polar bears are being affected by the shortened sea-ice season. There seems to be a higher risk associated with new born cubs as well as adolescents rather than a direct correlation to adults with less body fat due to less time on the ice.

Quite clearly the past few polar bear seasons (October/November) in Churchill have pointed toward adaptive bear behavior as bears have been seen attending to more seal kills along the coast for supplemental nourishment. Even through my recent Summer guiding experiences in Churchill we have seen more Beluga whale kills in the shallow inlets or on the coast. Although no scientific data can point to these trends as real behavioral change, the change seems to be real. If bears can adapt and find new food resources, maybe the population wil adjust in the future. As of now the population seems to be holding steady with some Northern Inuit communities reporting an increase n polar bears. Whether these perceived increases are actually larger bear numbers or just more bear sightings due to more bear frequency due to ice conditions remains to be seen and documented.



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