Looking through melting ice out onto the Hudson Bay in Churchill. Great White Bear Tours photo.
Beluga whales are returning to the Churchill River and the birds are plentiful in the region these days. The short but rejuvenating Churchill summer season is one of the hidden treasures of the north country on the Hudson Bay. Until you’ve experienced all the wonders of this season in Churchill, you cannot appreciate the endless beauty and discoveries to be made each day..which are “literally endless” in the heart of summer.
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.
The most elusive Arctic bird for bird watchers in Churchill has returned to the region. Well, at least that’s what Parc’s Canada is claiming on their website and twitter accounts. Of course the bird really hasn’t resurfaced until you see it if you’re the one in quest of the life – lister. There have been some reports of sightings and word is getting around that in fact the “Ross” is here and waiting to be checked off your life list. Come try and see this elusive gull this treasure packed Churchill Arctic summer!
Ross’ gull along the rocky Churchill shore. Brian Small photo.
Ross’s gull in flight. Bruce Mactavish photo.
Churchill in summertime is a magical sub – Arctic paradise! Three short or long months, depending on how you look at it, pack in a vast and diverse pallet of nature. The tundra and Hudson Bay come alive as tributary rivers ignite with life and small boats of eager travelers seeking the vibe of the beluga whale pods. The “Arctic Riviera” is shelter for belugas to nurture young, molt their old skin or just enjoy the “warm” waters of the southern Hudson Bay.
Beluga whale underwater in th Churchill River. Alex De Vries -Magnifico photo.
As a guide returning to Churchill each year, I was drawn naturally like a migrating animal and the annual sojourn just became instinctual. Each spring I would start to feel the pull of belugas out on the Churchill River and Hudson Bay. After trolling among the pods, kayaking and snorkeling on a daily basis for over 10 years, the feeling takes root in one’s psyche. The draw to migrate for whatever reason is real. The belugas are the main attraction here for sure!
Although belugas, birds and sometimes polar bears are the main draw for the summer season, there are some lesser known features or entities in and around Churchill that have been hidden jewels over the years. Here are some that I really was drawn to.
- -Boreal Chorus Frog – One of the jewels of the north and so much fun to search for around the edges of an Arctic pond.2.- Jellyfish– There are a number of jellyfish that thrive in the cold water of the north. On clear water days the sight of them suspended around beluga whales is ethereal.
Aurelia, a jellyfish found in the Churchill River. G. Young, Photo copyright.
3. Sandhill Cranes – Over the years these birds are usually spotted along the railroad tracks where grain drops from rail cars.
Two Sandhill cranes mixed in with Canada geese in Churchill. Rhonda Reid photo.
4.- Orca whales – A rare sight indeed in the Churchill area. Though, over the last few years they have been seen more often.
Orca’s in the Hudson Bay. Dwight Allen photo.
5. – Pack Ice on the Hudson Bay– If you visit Churchill early enough in the Spring there’s a good chance there will still be some pack-ice in the bay and even in the Churchill River. The ice draws wildlife to it such as bears, whales and birds.
- 6.- Polar Bear Seal kill – The shorter ice season has produced more seal kills in both summer and fall. These kills will often draw up to 10 polar bears to the scene. This is a kill from later in the polar bear season.
Polar bear and ravens scavenge a seal kill carcass in Churchill Wildlife Management Area. Brad Josephs photo.
7. – Ross’s Gull – A true incredible check on the life-list if this beautiful bird unveils itself along the Churchill River. Another fun treasure hunt!
Ross’ gull along the gravelly shore. Brian Small photo.
8. Orchids – One wouldn’t think these delicate plants could survive the harsh Arctic weather though these flowers are opportunistic and make the most of their northern environment.
Round – leaved orchid in Churchill. Steve Selden photo.
When I was guiding Churchill Arctic Summer trips for Natural Habitat Adventures with local birding expert Bonnie Chartier, one common goal we always strived for was spotting the elusive and rare Ross’s gull.
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.