A majestic beluga signals the season is upon us. Alex De Vries – Magnifico photo.
Bird species begin arriving in spring and then continue filtering in and out throughout the summer. Over 200 species, including the ultra-rare Ross’s gull named after the British Arctic explorer James Clark Ross converge on this majestic feeding and breeding ground. This elusive gull can be sighted sometimes down by the flats on the Churchill River just south of the Port of Churchill. Famous Churchill birder, Natural Habitat Adventures guide and former Churchill Summer co-guide of mine Bonnie Chartier lead a group to a spot on the river once where we discovered the pinkish – bellied bird.
Ross’s Gull in the shallows near Churchill. Wikimedia Commons photo.
A gorgeous ice-floe rests on the sea bed in Churchill, Manitoba. Great White Bear Tours photo.
The photo opportunities this time of year constantly unveil themselves daily. My favorite time of year is when the ice breaks up and these floes scatter the marine landscape. The colors of the water, rocks and ice all below a brilliant Arctic sky bring new hope and inspiration to Churchillians and those lucky to travel to this wondrous land.
These field notes are from Natural Habitat Adventures guide Eddy Savage from Churchill where he is enjoying guiding travelers around town and primarily out on the tundra of the Churchill Wildlife Management Area. The Tundra Lodge is an amazing place to observe polar bears and other Arctic wildlife while becoming immersed in the tranquil feeling of the open tundra of the north! This first-hand description of the Lodge’s welcoming warmth is spot on. The wildlife details as well are quite incredible with activity all over the land!
“This was my first visit of 2017 to the Tundra Lodge. It was great to connect with the fantastic chefs Shayne and Shelley. These two make a seriously incredible team. They have an air of calm and professionalism and quickly make our guests feel at home with their delicious food choices. Sinking your teeth into one of Shelley’s fresh baked cookies, or sipping on Shayne’s miraculous yam soup, you will forget you are miles from a town and sitting in the middle of a rugged and beautiful landscape. They make you feel at home in their dining room. It’s a great feeling.
A polar bear basks in the cold with visions of ice on the Hudson Bay. Bonnie Chartier photo.
Krys, the Tundra Lodge Manager is on top of every problem and really assures our groups that they are his most important priority. Every detail is looked after and he keeps a sharp eye for wildlife around the lodge as well. On more than one occasion this season he has been the first to alert our group of approaching polar bears. A serious asset!
Jason is our talented rover driver. Moving our groups on and off the tundra every morning and afternoon. He has over 16 years experience driving rovers and has memorized the shape and shades of the land. His eye is sharp and often spots hard to see animals like snowy owls, ptarmigan, or Arctic hare far before any of us can see it. You can tell he loves being out in the rover with the groups as he is often ecstatic when we have a good wildlife encounter!
The team at the lodge is remarkable and they really give more than expected on a daily basis. As an expedition leader, working alongside Shayne, Shelley, Krys, and Jason is as good as it gets.
We have had a wide variety of sightings this year. As posted by Colby Brokvist, we had an incredible encounter with what we suspect to be two young Arctic Fox. Chasing each other too and fro across piles of kelp tossed ashore by humongous Hudson Bay seas, our entire Tundra Lodge group was privy to what was certainly a world class moment. Bonnie Chartier, a founder of eco-tourism in Churchill and Natural Habitat Adventures Expedition Leader said that was something she had never seen before. That really says something about the experience.
There seems to be a real abundance of lemmings around this year and sightings of snowy owls, red fox, and Arctic fox are high. Many groups have seen fox hunting for lemmings. Zig-zagging across the tundra listening and watching for movement. When they hone in on a lemming they leap fully into the air and land square on top of them. They are catching more then they can eat and caching them for later access.
When we look at our polar bear sightings, well it is hard to offer an all-encompassing description. Sightings have been great. We seemed to have “dinner bears” regularly. We had two nights where as soon as all of the group was served their entrees, a polar bear would come by and visit the lodge. They would peer into the lodge, seemingly curious about all of the shuffling and lights. It is important to note that these bears are not coming to the lodge to eat food, but instead, intrigued by the interesting sounds, lights, and smells, have come by out of curiosity. We do not feed the bears and will not tolerate that behavior. Our guests were ecstatic. There are few better ways to be interrupted during a meal than to have a polar bear sitting 10 feet below you. Cool.
Polar bear by the tundra lodge. Eddy Savage photo.
On our second night at the lodge, the aurora borealis came out for us. It was partly cloudy but it still managed to be strong enough to see. Just another cool thing our guests got to see!
Our days on the rover were exciting too. We had ample polar bear sightings with many coming right past the rovers. On top of that, the other arctic wildlife in the area was out in force. During our day rovers on the tundra, our groups saw a silver fox, cross fox, and arctic fox hunting for lemmings. We had a few up close visits from the cross fox where one even cached a lemming about 40 feet from the rover. So amazing. All of our guests saw multiple snowy owls and had a great sighting where one sat close to the polar rover trail and allowed our group take some incredible images.
A cross fox seems content after catching a lemming. Konan Wendt photo.
After our few days out exploring the tundra and enjoying the comforts of the unique Tundra Lodge, we had to fly back to Winnipeg. On our last morning, we set off at 7 am and maybe 50 feet away in the headlights was a snowy owl perched on top of a tree. An awesome farewell to an incredible trip.
When in Churchill, we went dog sledding with the founder of the Hudson Bay Quest, Dave Daley. Everyone had a blast!”
The bird, named after the famed Arctic explorer James Clark Ross, has a signature black – necklaced stripe around its’ neck and would randomly appear out of the mist on the Churchill River along the flats to the east of the grain port. This was a nesting ground confirmed by researchers since around 1980. In fact I cannot remember ever seeing the prized bird anywhere else in Churchill. Northern Siberia still exists as the gull’s predominant breeding grounds with seasonal homesteading along the Arctic Ocean’s ice pack.
Ross’s gull along the gravelly shore. Brian Small photo.
Bonnie Chartier is world renowned for being an expert on the birds of the Churchill region and has a published guidebook (out of print at present) called A Birders Guide to Churchill. We would bring the entire group down to the Churchill River banks by the port and have all looking through binoculars, scanning the water and gravelly flats for smaller gulls with that distinct black stripe around the neck. Another distinguishing mark we always looked for was a rosy – washed colored underbelly.
Ross’s gull in flight. Bruce Mactavish photo.
A funny occurrence at the outset of a trip happened just along the stretch of road near the port and flats. Our group of 10 or so was searching the shallows and distant Churchill River for the gull when a independent couple just next to us had a set up a tripod with a spotting scope. They had in their possession a copy of Bonnie’s book and were in dire need of finding this prized bird for their “lifelist”. They began asking Bonnie if she knew anything about the bird and it’s whereabouts in Churchill when she subtly revealed whom she was and that the book they had was written by her. Needless to say we all had a good laugh and although no Ross’ gulls were spotted that day, the couple left with a signed copy and we all departed with a funny memory and story.