Dorota Walkoski of Great White Bear Tours captured this harbinger of spring image in Churchill. Caribou, snow geese and Canada geese fill the landscape and feed on the bounty which the north provides this time of year! Bountiful Churchill summer will be upon us soon and avid explorers will flock to town for birding excursions, beluga whale charters and tundra exploring in search of fox, polar bears, Arctic hare and even wolves. This summer on the Hudson Bay is shaping up to be one of the most exciting in recent years. Stay posted for all the news and photos from the north!
A Field Report by Natural Habitat AdventuresExpedition Leader: Moira Le Patourel
We walked across the Churchill Airport tarmac towards the waiting plane, heading back to Winnipeg. The most incredible Churchill summer experience had played out for our little band of Natural Habitat Adventurer’s over the past five days. I have been travelling to Churchill with tour groups and enjoying the sub-Arctic wonders of this area for the past three years, but I had never had an experience quite like this one.
Snorkeling with the beluga whales in theCHurchill River. Moira la Patourel photo.
Our trip started off with an early morning flight from Winnipeg to Churchill in the sunshine. Over the next five days, our group enjoyed absolutely incredible encounters with belugas; in zodiacs, the Sea North II (a larger jet-drive vessel), in kayaks and even through a snorkel mask! We were able to watch belugas exhibiting playful behavior, feeding behavior, calm-day and stormy-day activities and listen in on their incredibly active social lives in the Churchill River and the Hudson’s Bay.
Beluga whales in the Churchill River.Moira LaPatourel photo.
We were also extremely lucky to spot not one but FOUR polar bears on our five-day adventure as well! Two lone individuals, one resting on Eskimo Point and one swimming about a mile off shore in Button Bay, and one mother and cub-of-the-year onshore. I couldn’t believe our luck! The wildflowers were bursting with colour all across the landscape, with more purples and creams than I have ever seen before; it was quite a sight to behold. The bird life was also out in full force; we enjoyed sightings of Sandhill Cranes, Tundra Swans, Arctic Terns, Parasitic Jaegers, Pacific Loons with young, Snow Geese and an American Golden-Plover, to name a few.
Polar bears on the rocks at Eskimo point. Moira LaPatourel photo.
As we were headed to the airport for our departure, we were lucky enough to receive a tip from a local that the Polar Bear Holding Facility was open for tours for the next couple of hours. We only had 15 minutes to squeak in a look at the inside of the Holding Facility, but what a view it was! The Polar Bear Holding Facility has an open-house once a year, and we were just lucky enough to be there at just the right time!
As the Churchill River and the Hudson’s Bay faded out of view from the airplane windows, obscured by cloud, I looked around and could see the broad smiles on the faces of my travelling companions. This had truly been the trip of a lifetime in Churchill for all of us!
The thousands of snow geese that make Churchill home every summer have descended on the frontier northern town once again. This image by Rhonda Reid shows the snow geese lighting on the tundra ready to forage on the marsh grasses of the Hudson Bay coastline.
Snow geese arrive in Churchill. Rhonda Reid photo.
Anyone that has worked in Churchill over the years has heard of Nestor 2 goose camp. And, if you’ve traveled to Churchill to see the incredible wildlife within the last 20 years you have seen and most likely heard the plight of the snow geese population. Snow geese have been prevalent out on the tundra and mostly out east near Cape Churchill at La Perouse Bay for decades.
Map showing the Hudson Bay coastline around Churchill and location of La Perouse Bay. United States Geological Survey image.
About 40km down east from Churchill on an island in the Mast River lies a few rustic cabin structures with wire fencing around them known as Nestor 2. The iconic 40 year-old bird research camp also known over the years as Camp Finney, Queens University Tundra Biology Station and the Snow Goose Camp has a storied history that continues to this day.
In 1968 Fred Cooke and Ken Ross journeyed to Churchill with a grant from the Canadian Wildlife Service to study a newly discovered snow goose colony around La Perouse Bay and decided this location would be ideal for long term research of the birds.
Researchers at Nestor 2 round up snow geese for banding in 2005. Left to right: E. Horrigan (graduate student), G. Jackman, Rocky Rockwell. Parks Canada photo.
An initial cabin dwelling some distance from the study area at Knight’s Hill Esker was abandoned and graduate student George Finney, project supervisor, decided a camp nearer the study site was needed. With tremendous assistance from Dave Yetman and Lindy Lee at the Fort Churchill Rocket Range, two trailers and a prefabricated cabin were dragged along the ice on a track vehicle in May before the break-up occurred.
Original Camp Finney building and trailors being moved to La Perouse Bay. George Finney photo.
“Camp Finney” now became the research station for the prolific snow goose camp. A typical season to this day has workers arriving in late April and staying through late July to band numerous flightless geese. Extended daylight hours enable researchers to work long days.
Camp “Finney” as it stood in 1976. Parks Canada photo.
By the mid 1970’s and 1980’s Nestor 2 had expanded in scope and studies of other sub-Arctic bird species was becoming internationally respected in the science world. Films by CBC, BBC, and Television Francaise focused on the work being done there. The snow geese research was cited internationally as the largest avian population study and garnered many awards.
Focus of the camp has transitioned immensely since those early days of a rare snow goose outpost. With annual geese numbers rising steadily between 5% and 10%, environmental damage began to occur. The salt marsh area known as La Perouse Bay became ravaged by the geese which then had repercussions on other wildlife species in the area. Research soon became more focused on the plight of the destruction zone and how snow geese should be managed. Professor Bob Jefferies from the University of Toronto led this new path in research until he passed away in 2010. Dr. Rocky Rockwell from the American Museum of Natural History, who had taken over for Fred Cooke in 1992, took over complete leadership at that point. Focus has shifted even more these days with the inclusion of the affects of global climate change on the interaction of species.
Snow geese culls over the last decade or so have done little to reduce the population numbers. However, Churchill numbers around La Perouse Bay are down considerably since vegetation essential to gosling rearing is gone. Wapusk National Park still hosts large snow geese colonies today.
This 1999 photo of Dr. Rocky Rockwell with a vegetation exclosure that protects from feeding snow geese. The problem was in the early stages then. Grand Forks Herald photo.
For more in depth study of the La Perouse Snow Geese research you can read,“The Snow Geese of La Perouse Bay: Natural Selection in the Wild by Rocky Rockwell, Fred Cooke and David B. Lank.