Arctic Birds With Cold Feet

Let’s face it, “cold” is what the Arctic does best….especially to those living below this amazing region of our planet Earth. So, other than the hearty mammals, particularly the mighty polar bear and humans, very few birds overwinter at high latitudes. Less than 10% of all birds that venture to Arctic and sub-Arctic regions unpack their bags and set up a permanent home there.

Churchill polar bear.

Polar bears are the king of the Arctic. Photo: Paul Brown

Birds that do either have some hearty DNA or have developed some unique ways to cope with cold temperatures that can dip to -55 Celsius. Most of you know the raven can subsist just about anywhere on the planet and the intelligence and intuitiveness of this creature has been well documented. He is truly the sentinel of true survival…especially as his shining black defiantly glares out against the snowy north.

Rock and willow ptarmigan can be seen in Churchill as the fall arrives and throughout the winter, changing to their winter’s best camouflage white. Ivory and the illusive and highly prized Ross’s gull also stay put for the winter. I’ve spotted the Ross three times in over a decade of guiding Natural Habitat Churchill summer trip. All three times the sightings were facilitated by Churchill birding master and legend Bonnie Chartier when we worked together up north.

The Common and hoary redpoll, Brunnich’s Guillemot, Little Auk and Black Guillemot also inhabit the Arctic full-time. Snow buntings and gray jays are quite friendly species that call Churchill home all year. Higher up in Greenland the birds tend to shelter in utility tunnels known as utilidors.

Boreal chickadees and occasionally boreal owls and great horned owls inhabit the boreal forest. And, the mighty gyrfalcon, the fourth fastest bird on the planet…er off the planet, can be seen sporadically hunting or soaring from point to point. I have seen this bird dart across the Churchill tundra and even through town.

Gyrfalcon in Churchill,MB

Gyrfalcon on the tundra in Churchill,MB.Paul Brown photo.

The most intuitive behavior exhibited for warmth and survival is how ptarmigan and common hoary redpolls take shelter in snowdrifts and endure the frigid cold by utilizing the snow as insulation. Ptarmigan and Snowy Owls grow leg and feet feathers to keep them warm throughout the winter months. They also change plumage from dark to white in order to stay camouflaged and safe from predators.

Snowy owl on the tundra near Churchill, MB.

Snowy owl greets virgin travelers to the north. Colby Brokvist photo.

The summer months are reminiscent to a beach-side resort with the bird population ballooning by more than 200 additional migrant species arriving in early spring. These are birds that cannot survive the harsh conditions of winter in the far north though return each year to take advantage of the bounty of food sources thriving in the Arctic summer. The most incredible journey is clearly that of the Arctic tern…making the pole to pole round trip of nearly 45,000 miles.

Arctic tern above the Hudson Bay in Churchill,Manitoba.

Arctic tern hovering above the nesting grounds. Rhonda Reid photo.

Many of these species arrive early and set up nests for the short but productive breeding season. With snow cover still prevalent, these hearty nurturing parents live off their stored fat reserves for energy. The majority of the Arctic and sub-Arctic species are wetland feeders such as various ducks, swans and geese. Waders and shorebirds also scour the marshes and shoreline plucking all the organisms they can from the Earth.

Patchwork Quilt Of Polar Bears

Churchill has no shortage of polar bears at the moment. In fact, the 2014 season has started with a “bang”…literally. Conservation officers and the Polar Bear Alert squad have been busy patrolling the area. With 10-12 bears currently in the polar bear holding facility, formerly known as the polar bear jail, there’s a clear indication that this could be one of the most frenetic seasons in a long time.

Natural Habitat guide Karen Walker has been leading a group of quilters from the states around the Churchill area and they have had great fortune in sightings so far.

Polar bear by a pond in Churchill, Manitoba.

A lone polar bear skirts a pond in Churchill. Eric Rock photo.

“I’ve got a group of quilters on this trip.  Luana Rubin is the organizer of the group.  She came on Justin’s polar bear trip last year and this year she brought a group of quilters up with her. You can check out Luana’s website at”  reported Karen. The group has been connecting with local quilting groups and enthusiasts in both Winnipeg and Churchill.

After exploring Winnipeg for a day, the travelers enjoyed a mostly clear flight up to Churchill, allowing vivid views of the post-glacial – thermokarst ponds and rivers covering the land along the way.  Crossing over Gillam to the south allowed a view of  the hydro dam. After lunch at gypsy’s in Churchill the group experienced an orientation of the area through a visit to the Parcs Canada visitor center and a look at a polar bear den exhibit followed by some time at the revered Eskimo museum to take in the rich history of the region.

A polar bear lurking in the willows around Churchill, Manitoba.

Polar bear in the willows in Churchill. Eric Rock photo.

Heading out to the tundra of the Churchill Wildlife Management Area, along the Launch Road, travelers spotted their first polar bear.  The male bear “was a little ways away, but it was still quite exciting for the group” according to Karen.  After a quiet, relaxing evening on the tundra, enhanced by a wine and cheese offering, the group was afforded a nice view of an arctic hare on the drive back to the launch.

A planned trip out east the following day, took a turn a short way down the trail with the appearance of two bears near the Tundra Lodge, so the polar rover meandered over in that direction. A couple of other groups on rovers were in the area so one polar bear seemed a bit skittish with the crowd. As the first two rovers headed to the lodge, Karen’s rover settled in and remained near the pond and observed the adult female. Slowly becoming more comfortable, her curiosity peaked and she approached the rover. Pausing at around 30 feet of the back deck, she watched tentatively for a long while,  grooming herself and then napping while the group took in the scene for over an hour. The rover then proceeded over by and just past the lodge and they settled in to watch a couple of “teenage” sub adult bears spar a bit. After exhausting their energy, they settled into the willows for a rest. “We were a little ways from them, but it was still amazing to see” Karen reported.

Polar bears sparring near the Tundra lodge in the Churchill Wildlife Managemnent Area.

Two polar bears sparring near the tundra Lodge. Eric Rock photo.

On the other side of the lodge was an adult male that was napping in the open. This bear made stilted moves at rising but only lifted his head and then returned to resting. After a couple of travelers and Karen headed across Christmas Lake Esker and up to Halfway Point.  Coveys of ptarmigan along the way, mostly already suited in their winter camouflage white, scurried ahead of the rover winding between willow stands.

“The weather and soft lighting was beautiful today.  We had snow showers several times and some sunny breaks, and everything in between.  It changed about every twenty minutes or so. Quite the majestic day on the tundra…tomorrow we’re back on the tundra.  We’ll try to get out east this time” stated Karen, fulfilled from an amazing day.

Polar rovers …looking at the past week


Natural Habitat guide Elise’s group headed to the tundra on a morning that was a bit breezy but slowly calmed throughout the day..”As the tundra turns the bears actually shook off their hypnotic-like state and started dancing.” Elise stated.

Churchill polar bears.The majority of the day was time out around the lodge. Two polar bears slumbered in the willows near the bay while two other bears cautiously investigated the underside of the lodge once the water delivery vehicle departed for the day. “The stars aligned and two bears started sparring on the other side of the lodge”. reported Elise. Three large polar bears then staked out an area by the south end of the lodge and gave quite a show for onlooking travelers in both Elise’s and fellow Natural Habitat guide Paul Brown’s Rover. Another bear dozed, seemingly unaware beneath the lodge’s propane tanks the entire time..probably the older bear who’s been idle and present for the majority of the last two weeks..

Out around Christmas Lake Esker, the group observed numerous trails of fox and ptarmigan area…followed by a flock of “cryptic ptarmigan” concealed in the willows by fresh snow.
Guide Karen Walker’s group had some tough luck with the wind kicking up to nearly 70 knots. Helicopter journey’s were cancelled and a bear lift out at the compound was also nixed. The group listenedto some northern stories from their driver and then toured the town complex….Churchill’s self contained recreation center and library, school and many other forms of activity all in one building. Watching the waves crash down on the bay from the panoramic windows was soothing and relaxing. Then it was off to the Anglican Church to see the lady Franklin stained glass window aside the altar. The travelers then braved the windy,  snowy conditions and ventured down to the Inukshuk below the complex and out to the polar bear compound by the airport in whiteout weather.
Tundra around Churchill. Megan Koelemay Photo.

Tundra around Churchill. Megan Koelemay Photo.

Later in the day Karen and group enjoyed dog sledding with Kelly at Churchill River Mushing and heard the details of the polar bear break in at his tent compound the previous week. The rides were chilly though the wind had subsided some and the shelter from the boreal forest  Luckily both places were vacant at the time. This weeks incident in town didn’t have as fortunate of an outcome. The bears are restless and moving with the cold.
Dogsledding in Churchill with Kelly Turcotte. Emily Deemer photo.

Dogsledding in Churchill with Kelly Turcotte. John and Becky McKay photo.

The following day out in the Churchill Wildlife Management Area Karen and travelers were greeted by a large male bear walking right by their rover as they headed out east. Several polar bear sightings later they were at the coast and two adolescent males were sleeping along the kelp beds. One awoke, picked a fight with the other, and the two bears sparred for a good time just 50 feet from the rover. They then returned to their slumber and sparred again later just inside the willow stands a bit farther out. At lunch another male joined the trio and spareed intermittently just off the back observation deck. A “three bear lunch”, as described by karen. The “best and closest sparring I have ever seen”, added Karen.
Two separate excellent viewings of ptarmigan along the trail as well as a lone snow bunting in the willows rounded out the excursion. A fantastic tundra experience in the CWMA!

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