Bears waiting for ice

Well, the changes in the weather in Churchill have truly made polar bear season feel more real…or at least what most people envision when thinking of polar bears and the north. It’s pretty much like clockwork…when Halloween comes, so does the cold and snow. Spending 12 seasons in Churchill gives one a sort of internal feel for the weather and its’ nuances. Most of October is fairly calm with temperatures consistently around freezing and as the month turns anything goes ..and it usually does.

This past week Karen and her Natural Habitat group arrived in Churchill to find beautiful blue sky. It was cold with a calm wind and a light layer of new snow crystals on the ground that shimmered in the sunshine appearing like diamonds across the land.

Sleeping polar bear on the tundra.

Sleeping bear on the tundra in the CWMA. Brad Josephs photo.

Before even reaching town excitement flooded the bus with some news from another guide. “We heard about some “pizzas” (code words for polar bears used over radio communication between staff) near Miss Piggy, so we took the Coast Road on our way into town. It turned out to be a sow and her two one and a half year- old cubs laying in the Canadian Shield rocky formation.”, reported Karen. They lifted their heads up and gave glances toward the thrilled travelers.. What start to the trip to the north.

A view across the calm Hudson Bay from the stone inukshuk behind the complex allowed the group to get their bearings before an orientation by Karen on polar bear biology and the Churchill area.

Polar bear walks along rocks.

A polar bear walks along the rocks in Churchill.

The following day it was off to the Churchill Wildlife Management Area to take in the landscape and hopefully some wildlife activity including some polar bears. Within just fifteen minutes from launch a bear was spotted sleeping near the willows. As the rover moved closer the bear raised its’ nose to sniff the scent  several times. Three brilliant white ptarmigan  were running along the tundra in the same area and the Arctic was revealing itself to the new guests.

Out at Gordon Point the group was enjoying  morning coffee  and tea and a rock near the coast turned into a sleeping bear…caffeine will do that every time! Since the edge of the bay is beginning to freeze, bears will rest close to the forming ice almost as if they are willing the water to freeze faster. This particular animal rolled around on the ice and snow seemingly quite content to see at least some progress.

Continuing along the rugged coast with red and gold seaweed strewn between ice covered rocks, a couple of bears were foraging the kelp beds….possibly hoping to find some morsels of some kind washed ashore in last week’s storm. “Their noses were all brown from rummaging in the seaweed. One of them came over to visit us under the back deck.” Travelers took turns having their feet inches from a polar bears nose. Just one of the things to do out on the tundra.  After lunch, not far from that location, another bear came over for a visit and also sniffed some boots from under the back observation platform. Some great encounters that will be remembered always.
That night in town the group was treated to a special concert by the Fiddlestix band. A teacher in the school, Joanne Stover, started teaching herself and some kids how to play the fiddle six years ago. They travel to a couple of jamborees throughout the year to learn more about fiddling. The concert was held by the large wooden polar bear slide inside the town complex. Four kids (ages 14-17) performed, along with Joanne, and they were accompanied by a guitar player. “They played fun jigs and reels, so it was entertaining to listen to. It was also great to meet the kids & learn more about the music program in a remote community.” stated Karen.  Many of the guests also went down the polar bear slide, then toured the complex to see the hockey rink, swimming pool, playground and library.A nice exposure to the activity center for this remote, frontier town on the Hudson Bay.

Churchill polar bear season on the move

As this year’s polar bear season starts to gain in momentum in and around the Churchill Wildlife Management Area (CWMA), the action out on the land is starting to heat up. Wildlife activity is building as it tends to this time of year while the early season aurora borealis opening act has only acted as a prelude to what is looking like some amazing encounters ahead.

Polar bear enjoying the tundra.

Playful polar bear on the tundra.

Natural habitat guide Lynette and her travelers were out near the tundra lodge when they pulled up their rover near to a male laying still in the willows. There were two other bears visible around the wheels of the lodge,one, a big male, and one more larger male laying about 50 feet north of the lodge.  The large male was “great to watch as he would roll over, stretch out about every two minutes”. ,according to Lynnette. ” He was positioned so that we had a nice look at the bottom of his heavily furred paws. We had a perfect view of the male closest to us and he had about a three-inch scar running down the length of his nose.” Could this be the infamous Dancer? I think it might be. While he rested, the two bears by the lodge began to interact and nuzzle each other.  Finally, one of the nuzzlers …love that description…walked over to the large male laying away from the lodge and encouraged him to join in the fun.  Scar-nose, or Dancer, did not want to be left out, so he stretched, yawned and walked under the front of the rover see what was happening. Once he saw how much bigger those two bears were however, he meandered over toward the lodge instead. Those two kind of rolled around near each other for a while with one continually trying to get a rise out of the other one. Finally, one bear took the bait and the two large males began a spirited sparring match that lasted off and on for about 20 minutes.

Red fox in Churchill, MB.

Red fox on the tundra. Brad Josephs photo.

During all this scintillating action on the tundra, the sun came out and the bright light was shining down on the bears making even their somewhat muddied coats gleam. “It was beautiful!”, Lynnette summed up.  Those two bears then moved on into the willows down in a little draw out of sight of the rover. Dancer and one of the other bears settled in over by the lodge for the afternoon.Quite the scene to witness first hand!

Some excellent willow ptarmigan sightings and a more distant view of a snowy owl perched on a lower spruce branch rounded out the amazing experience of the day in the CWMA.

Meanwhile long -time guide and naturalist Brad Josephs had his Natural Habitat group out the previous night for an evening rover excursion. Rumbling along close to the tundra lodge, the travelers were greeted by five large male polar bears. Continuous sparring ..with three bears going at it at once…provided steady excitement for the guests as well as guide and rover driver. This kind of behavior is always a thrill ..even if you’ve seen it before. Following the action one big male sauntered up to the machine giving everyone an up-close encounter in the eerie darkness.

Snowy owl on the tundra.

Snowy owl resting on the tundra. Brad josephs photo.

The following day out on the land in the CWMA, the group was afforded clear, close views of two snowy owls out around Gordon point. One was just 30 yards from the rover sitting on a lichen – crusted stone along the esker. Ecstatic guests were then treated to a third, more distant “snowy” on the rocky beach to the east. Moving back along the coastal trail, sightings of dunlin and white-rumped sandpipers were all gravy for avid birders.

Foxes also darted across the tundra…a red fox was seen running along the coast. He stopped once the rover came into view and then an Arctic fox came along from the opposite direction…skittering right past the rover at close distance providing fine views for all. Brad described the Arctic fox as a one -year old just starting to acquire the beautiful, white fur. Later, down the trail the group caught up with the red fox and noticed he had located a goose wing in the mud. He  chewed it up right in front of them, going for the cartilage at the feather bases, as well as the little meat on the wings. Awesome views!

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