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.
Churchill is known as the polar bear capital of the world. With 800 or so year – round residents and up to 3,000 in the high polar bear season, the town changes complexion quite a bit during the year. One thing that doesn’t change however is the need for fire fighting equipment in this wild and often harsh environment.
Since fires seem to often occur at most inopportune times, the need for the most up – to – date equipment is of the utmost necessity. Fires in the winter, which is longer in Churchill than many other towns, seems to be the most catastrophic. With frigid temperatures and fierce high winds, fires can rage out of control and destroy wood framed buildings at an incredible pace. In the last decade alone Churchill has lost some valuable and iconic structures. Just this past year Metis Heritage Hall was lost from fire. The 22 volunteers which comprise the total fire fighting force in Churchill need all the help they can get!
Northern Nights hotel burning down in Churchill 2011. Katie de Meulles photo.
What they are in most critical need of at this time in history is a new water pumper truck. With nearly a 50 year – old 1969 GMC pumper, older than 21 of the 22 department volunteers, repairing the truck at this point is not an option. Costs of labor for many of the repairs alone would outweigh the benefit of trying to squeeze a few more years of service from the relic.
With new pumpers costing an estimated $400,000 – $1,000,000, the town has resorted to locating a very reliable used vehicle for $100,000. Upgrading to a “newer” truck will provide tremendous support for the volunteers. Immediate and reliable response is what matters and this newer truck will help provide such.
With the goal of raising $50,000 toward the purchase the town has set up a gound me page to assist in reaching the plateau within the year. If you have been to Churchill or have a place in your heart for this incredibly unique place on our small planet please go and fund a truly worthy cause. Every little bit helps and we thank you in advance from Churchill Fire Department!
Polar bear on the outside trying to get into the ship. Kyrakos Kaziras/Rex photo.
Wildlife photographer, Kyriakos Kaziras aboard an adventure cruise near Spitsbergen,Norway received some thrills when a polar bear approached and then attempted to board his ship cruising through the sea ice in the Arctic Ocean. His passion for capturing images of wildlife became slightly risky when this particular bear reached in through the grated port hole and swiped his paw at Kaziras. Quite the thrill. In my extensive time in Churchill I have experienced similar situations while attempting to photograph the wiley polar bears of the polar bear capital.It is thrilling and terrifying in the same moment!
Curious polar bear near Spitsbergen on the Arctic Ocean pack ice observing the ship. Kyriakos Kaziras/Rex photo.
It’s somewhat routine for polar bears to approach passenger ships in the area when they spot the large vessels from afar. They venture toward them to investigate and even smells from the ships may also draw the bears nearer. Most polar bears stay a safe distance from the slow moving ships however this one had no hesitancy at getting as close as possible.
Polar bear approaching the ship at close range.
Kyriakos Kaziras/Rex photo.
Polar bear against the ship as it crawls through the ice of the Arctic Ocean. Kyriakos Kaziras/Rex photo.
For more than two hours this bruin attempted to find a way to get aboard the boat. At one point he climbed atop a large pressure ridge in the ice and was level with the open deck of the vessel. “Eventually the bear managed to climb on a small iceberg, and ended up next to us, at the same height. At that moment he could have easily jumped into the boat. It took all the experience of our captain and an emergency maneuver to get us out of this mess and away from the bear.” If the bear had found a way to board the ship the exciting adventure might have ended tragically for passengers or the bear!
Polar bear climbing a pressure ridge in attempt to board the boat. Kyriakos Kaziras/Rex photo.
Polar bear literally “chomping at the bit” to get aboard the ship. Kyriakos Kaziras/Rex photo
This is not the typical Facebook chat most people in the North America engage in. However, I thought it was so descriptive of what it’s like to live in Churchill, the polar bear capital of the world. We tend to take for granted what is most beautiful yet somewhat scary and dangerous in Churchill. Pretty cool to think about!
RR- Bear in my back yard, they’ve got it headed toward the complex.
PSK- Down by the beach now.
TK- In my backyard right now–the neighbors’ trash cans. Gusty winds.
LC- Too close for me, I know you are careful.
RR- Watch the show from my kitchen window.
Polar bear nose. Drew Hamilton photo.
Polar bear in Churchill. drew Hamilton photo.