In late fall, pre – winter, colors of the tundra and the species that roam the land come to a crossroads of earth tones. This pallet gradually transitions into a great white north we all think of when envisioning the forthcoming and exciting polar bear season. This time is short though one of the most beautiful in the Arctic and surrounding regions.
Multi colored red fox with the colors of the textured tundra behind. Katie deMeulles photo.
Each year during polar bear season in Churchill either red or Arctic foxes tend to be the more prevalent species for that particular season. In recent years there has been an influx of red foxes that have seemingly displaced the gorgeous, white coated Arctic fox population to some extent. Hunting, legal and illegal, has also played a role in lowering the Arctic fox numbers. Warming temperatures facilitate the red fox species to become more adaptive to the northern weather and even ice conditions in winter. The patchwork colors of the red fox in particular meld with the myriad of tundra color splashes.
The colors of the tundra deep into fall in Churchill. Ed Bouvier photo.
Early season photo of a sleepy polar bear. Paul Brown photo.
While snow is imminent in the Churchill region, polar bears will take this time to conserve energy by limiting movement as much as possible. Sleeping bears will soon be wandering restlessly as the snow falls and temperatures drop to freezing or lower by month’s end. Polar bears gazing toward the Hudson Bay in anticipation of a freeze over will become the norm as November marches on.
Lichen growing on rocks in Churchill. Steve Selden photo.
Silver fox scouring tundra for lemmings. Colby Brokvist photo.
The tundra will release the last fruits of its bounty to the scouring animals looking to nurture their bodies with berries, plants or lemmings before the winter hits hard. Changing appearances in foxes, hares and birds foretell the new season that will become a energetic forum of multiple species before the freeze leads to mass exodus lead especially by the king of the Arctic, the mighty polar bear.
Snowy owl on the tundra in the CWMA. Colby Brokvist photo.
A Gyrfalcon in the late fall in Churchill. Brad Josephs photo.
These four cool shots of this beautiful red fox were captured by Churchill wildlife photographer Alex De Vries – Magnifico. The foxes we have been seeing throughout this year have displayed wildly vibrant color in their coats. Arctic summer in Churchill provides incredible chances to view both red and Arctic foxes in their natural habitat. Summer wildlife in Churchill abounds out along the tundra and in the cool Hudson Bay waters and Churchill River.
Red fox relaxing on the Precambrian shield in Churchill. Alex De Vries Magnifico photo.
Red fox keeping out a weary eye for prey or predators in Churchill. Alex De Vries Magnifico photo.
Red fox on the watch. Alex De Vries Magnifico photo.
Stretching red fox with a Canada goose in the background. Alex De Vries Magnifico photo.
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.
Arctic and Red foxes compete for territory in Churchill and many seasons we see both on the tundra around town and out in the Churchill Wildlife Management Area. Often, alternating seasons of proliferation provides an abundance of one species or the other. More often than not, Arctic foxes are sighted with more regularity then red foxes in and around the Churchill region. Trapping and diseases such as rabies have limited the numbers in the past. Populations seem to rebound and both species can be seen and photographed throughout the year. Enjoy these images from Churchill!
Arctic fox on the Churchill tundra. Courtesy Natural Habitat Adventures.
Arctic fox sniffing the tundra for prey. Brad Josephs photo.
Red fox on the tundra. Natural Habitat Adventures photo.
Gorgeous red fox on the tundra. Colby Brokvist photo.
Arctic fox in gray morph phase. Paul Brown photo.
Red fox on the tundra. Brad Josephs photo.