Kayakers surrounded by beluga whales in the Hudson Bay. Sea North Tours photo.
Summer in Churchill usually involves wearing a fleece jacket, long pants, hat and sometimes gloves. It also can be the “hotspot” of Manitoba with temperatures pushing 90F. These fluctuations make Churchill …well..Churchill. As a guide, I always enjoyed the cooler temperatures in the summer far away from the hot sun of Colorado. The fresh salt air from the Hudson Bay invigorates the soul. Out on the water interacting with beluga whales and seabirds hovering above and feeding off the capelin at the surface, refreshes anyone searching for nature’s freedom.The theme here is that everything is unpredictable and new adventures are around every corner in Churchill!
Arctic tern with a capelin in mouth. David Hemmings photo.
Yes, the thousands of beluga whales are the marquee attraction in summertime in Churchill. However, the tundra’s micro ecosystems of plants and lichen as well as the various birds that migrate to the area for the short season are all part of the magical experience. And, we surely know there’s always a chance to see a polar bear or two in the “off- season”!
A polar bear rolling in fireweed. A summer treasure in Churchill. Dennis Fast photo.
The best part of an Churchill Arctic summer adventure is that it changes from day to day in the northern frontier town on the Hudson Bay. Guiding ten years in Churchill allowed me to see almost everything, yet I feel as if I only scratched the surface of the tundra when it comes to deciphering the mystery of the region. The land is constantly changing, literally, with isostatic rebound of the Precambrian shield. Walking across this ancient land stirs so many emotions deep within the soul. The quietness leads one to thoughts of how we used to live and how we still can live in some remote places like Churchill. Solitude is rare these days.
The colors of the tundra as summer wanes. Ed Bouvier photo.
Incredible cumulus cloud over the Hudson Bay in Churchill. Alex De Vries – Magnifico photo.
Beluga whales in the Churchill river. Alex De Vries – Magnifico photo.
This photograph of a beluga whale pod feeding on capelin in the Churchill River illustrates how focused these mammals are when taking on a task. When they feed they will ignore any whale watching boats. However when they have had their fill the whales will become extremely focused on the zodiacs and bigger boats and become very curious. Biding time on the water while the beluga’s get their fill is certainly worth the wait!
Beluga whales concentrating on getting capelin. Alex De Vries-Magnifico photo.
The main food source in Churchill and surrounding estuaries in the Arctic summer is capelin. What is capelin you might ask? A small fish slightly larger in size though similar in appearance to smelt. Capelin will amass in schools of thousands and move through the water in a massive wave. Beluga whales periodically feed during the capelin run and will focus solely on the process until they are sufficiently sated. When belugas are feeding as a pod they will be completely synchronized in the water and oblivious to any whale watching vessels. Birds such as Arctic terns and Bonaparte gulls are tell tale harbingers of beluga feeding sessions as they hover overhead and dive to capture the fish pushed to the water’s surface. Once feeding time is over belugas will typically return to their curious, gregarious ways and approach boats or kayaks on the water.
Capelin schools are the most plentiful food source that belugas can feed on. The whales also scavenge mollusks and singular organisms in the water but to survive the energy constraints of frigid Arctic waters and stress of navigating ice and shoals, the mass feedings on thousands of capelin ease the strain of the harsh northern conditions.
Beluga whales feeding on capelin in the clear, cold water of the mouth of the Churchill River. Steve Selden photo.
Capelin spawn on the gravelly bottoms of shoreline and rivers close to tide-lines and many typically end up stranded along coastal beaches. During the apex of the fish run beaches can be covered with the small species.
Birds love Churchill in the summer months when the Arctic food chain grows exponentially to take advantage of the short warm season. The tidal pools and coastlines are teeming with plankton, krill, capelin and many other food sources unmatched by any other region in the world. The pure number of birds migrating to Churchill in the spring certainly is a testimony to the bounty of the Arctic.
Hudsonian Godwit in flight. A. J. Hand photo.
Nearly 250 bird species appear in Churchill over the course of the year. Most of those are “summer” migratory species while some reside in the region year-round. Personally, I feel the ones that come and go tend to be more intriguing.
Today’s focus is on the Hudsonian Godwit, a large shorebird with a long, upturned bill. This bird breeds in the Arctic and winters in southern South America. Because of its remote breeding and wintering grounds the godwit is one of the more obscure American shorebirds.
Fall migration routes for Hudsonian godwits Kendall and Sig. Significant staging areas were documented along Hudson/James Bay and within Colombia, Venezuela, Brazil, and Bolivia. Map by CCB.
Nesting on the mixed tundra and wetlands of northern Canada and Alaska, the godwit travels across the great plains of the United States in the spring then returns south along the Atlantic coast to South America in the winter. Reported nonstop flights of several thousand miles between these sites are not uncommon. At times, in the fall, “touch-downs” on the Atlantic coast are necessitated by northeasterly winds.
The long upward bill of the godwit digs in muddy, rocky or sandy shorelines as well as marshes, mudflats and flooded tundra or fields. The length of the bill allows it to search deep in the earth to acquire insects or organisms unreachable by other foragers. The Hudsonian, however, is the smallest of the four godwit species. In my guiding days I would associate the upturned bill with “god”, (heaven generally thought of as above in the sky) in order to help identify the bird from a distance or while mixed in with other shorebirds. Whimbrels have similar long bills, though slightly curving downwards, and dowitchers have more straight, dagger-like bills. All three are found on the shores of Churchill in the spring and summertime. Due to their similar feather markings and size, the bills are quick and easy identifying symbols.
Hudsonian Godwit in breeding plumage. Seth Kellog photo. The Allen Bird Club website can be found at massbird.org/allen Seth Kellogg can be reached at email@example.com
Once thought of as one of North America’s rarest birds it now is know to be more prolific. Vulnerability for the species remains quite high as the population is confined to only a few locales geographically.
When found in groups, godwits are generally collectively known as an “omniscience”, “pantheon” or “prayer”. A “prayer of godwits” fits quite nicely with my bill reference for identification. These birds truly are incredible in all facets of their lives.
If you have the urge to track the summer life cycle of the Hudsonian Godwit, come to Churchill with Natural Habitat Adventures! Visit nathab.com for details.
Here are some landscape photo’s with Natural Habitat travelers enjoying the solitude of summer in the sub Arctic. Churchill, at the south end of the Hudson Bay is an accessible place to experience the wonders of a world that remains secluded to an ever growing shrinking planet. Development continues to erode our most iconic and beautiful, natural environments…though the Arctic remains a place where the mind can be free and open to endless possibilities of the unexplored natural world.
Natural Habitat travelers enjoying the Hudson Bay coast. Stephanie Fernandez photo.
The coastline around Churchill has been developing over millions of years. The precambrian sheild that frames the bay is some of the oldest rock on the planet and continues to emerge from the land. Isostatic rebound is the process of the land rising up from the enormous weight of the past ice age. Even though the weight of the ice is long gone, the land or sheild, continues to rise up from the event. Incredible when you think of the slow process.
Photographing the rocks from a past era. Stephanie Fernandez photo.
With thousands of beluga whales migrating to the Churchill River estuary in the summer, the opportunities abound to experience wildlife in a pristine environment. A short zodiac excursion on the river presents pods of whales feeding on capelin and often curious enough to approach the boats at arms length.
Zodiac excursion onto the Churchill River in search of beluga whales. Stephanie Fernandez photo.
Polar bear season in the fall is one of the most scintillating experiences on Earth…a dramatic encounter with one of the most fascinating creatures to live. The mystery of the north adds to their beauty by capturing the imagination of an unexplored world. Seeing bears in the summer is an even more singular event defined by a feeling of isolation.
Polar bears on Eskimo Point. Stephanie Fernandez photo.
Enjoying a BBQ on a journey to the coast via polar rover. Stephanie Fernandez.