These field notes are from Natural Habitat Adventures guide Eddy Savage from Churchill where he is enjoying guiding travelers around town and primarily out on the tundra of the Churchill Wildlife Management Area. The Tundra Lodge is an amazing place to observe polar bears and other Arctic wildlife while becoming immersed in the tranquil feeling of the open tundra of the north! This first-hand description of the Lodge’s welcoming warmth is spot on. The wildlife details as well are quite incredible with activity all over the land!
“This was my first visit of 2017 to the Tundra Lodge. It was great to connect with the fantastic chefs Shayne and Shelley. These two make a seriously incredible team. They have an air of calm and professionalism and quickly make our guests feel at home with their delicious food choices. Sinking your teeth into one of Shelley’s fresh baked cookies, or sipping on Shayne’s miraculous yam soup, you will forget you are miles from a town and sitting in the middle of a rugged and beautiful landscape. They make you feel at home in their dining room. It’s a great feeling.
A polar bear basks in the cold with visions of ice on the Hudson Bay. Bonnie Chartier photo.
Krys, the Tundra Lodge Manager is on top of every problem and really assures our groups that they are his most important priority. Every detail is looked after and he keeps a sharp eye for wildlife around the lodge as well. On more than one occasion this season he has been the first to alert our group of approaching polar bears. A serious asset!
Jason is our talented rover driver. Moving our groups on and off the tundra every morning and afternoon. He has over 16 years experience driving rovers and has memorized the shape and shades of the land. His eye is sharp and often spots hard to see animals like snowy owls, ptarmigan, or Arctic hare far before any of us can see it. You can tell he loves being out in the rover with the groups as he is often ecstatic when we have a good wildlife encounter!
The team at the lodge is remarkable and they really give more than expected on a daily basis. As an expedition leader, working alongside Shayne, Shelley, Krys, and Jason is as good as it gets.
We have had a wide variety of sightings this year. As posted by Colby Brokvist, we had an incredible encounter with what we suspect to be two young Arctic Fox. Chasing each other too and fro across piles of kelp tossed ashore by humongous Hudson Bay seas, our entire Tundra Lodge group was privy to what was certainly a world class moment. Bonnie Chartier, a founder of eco-tourism in Churchill and Natural Habitat Adventures Expedition Leader said that was something she had never seen before. That really says something about the experience.
There seems to be a real abundance of lemmings around this year and sightings of snowy owls, red fox, and Arctic fox are high. Many groups have seen fox hunting for lemmings. Zig-zagging across the tundra listening and watching for movement. When they hone in on a lemming they leap fully into the air and land square on top of them. They are catching more then they can eat and caching them for later access.
When we look at our polar bear sightings, well it is hard to offer an all-encompassing description. Sightings have been great. We seemed to have “dinner bears” regularly. We had two nights where as soon as all of the group was served their entrees, a polar bear would come by and visit the lodge. They would peer into the lodge, seemingly curious about all of the shuffling and lights. It is important to note that these bears are not coming to the lodge to eat food, but instead, intrigued by the interesting sounds, lights, and smells, have come by out of curiosity. We do not feed the bears and will not tolerate that behavior. Our guests were ecstatic. There are few better ways to be interrupted during a meal than to have a polar bear sitting 10 feet below you. Cool.
Polar bear by the tundra lodge. Eddy Savage photo.
On our second night at the lodge, the aurora borealis came out for us. It was partly cloudy but it still managed to be strong enough to see. Just another cool thing our guests got to see!
Our days on the rover were exciting too. We had ample polar bear sightings with many coming right past the rovers. On top of that, the other arctic wildlife in the area was out in force. During our day rovers on the tundra, our groups saw a silver fox, cross fox, and arctic fox hunting for lemmings. We had a few up close visits from the cross fox where one even cached a lemming about 40 feet from the rover. So amazing. All of our guests saw multiple snowy owls and had a great sighting where one sat close to the polar rover trail and allowed our group take some incredible images.
A cross fox seems content after catching a lemming. Konan Wendt photo.
After our few days out exploring the tundra and enjoying the comforts of the unique Tundra Lodge, we had to fly back to Winnipeg. On our last morning, we set off at 7 am and maybe 50 feet away in the headlights was a snowy owl perched on top of a tree. An awesome farewell to an incredible trip.
When in Churchill, we went dog sledding with the founder of the Hudson Bay Quest, Dave Daley. Everyone had a blast!”
Natural Habitat Adventures guide Brad Josephs and his band of travelers enjoyed an exciting start to the polar bear season with good bear sightings along with some other fantastic wildlife encounters. The group also witnessed an iconic landmark coming to the ground out in the Churchill Wildlife Management Area.
Polar bear with a dirty snout. Brad Josephs photo.
Veteran guide Brad reported warmer than average temperatures for this time of year though that didn’t deter polar bears from revealing themselves on the tundra. A pair of snowy owls perched on Precambrian rocks searching for lemmings or Arctic hares made for prime viewing and photo ops. A small group of willow ptarmigan made their way from the willows, imagine that, into sight of the excited group. A good look at an iconic northern species.
Arctic hare stoic ly waiting for the protection of snow. Brad Josephs photo.
Brad described the falling of an iconic landmark out in the CWMA.; “A strange thing happened while we were on the tundra. We drove by an old military observation towerbuilt in the early 1950’s for cold weather training, and when we drove by it again a few hours later it had collapsed in the high winds.” The landmark was dubbed “first tower” since there were two of these structures built for military training observation in the 1950’s and this one is the first one that polar rovers encounter while searching the tundra for wildlife. It’s quite a ways out on the trail and served as a landmark for rover drivers, especially in snowy conditions. Sad to see it go!
The demise of first tower in the CWMA. Brad Josephs photo.
While exploring the tundra out near the fallen tower, the group had an amazing encounter with a red fox carrying its ptarmigan prey in his mouth. Surprised by being “caught in the act” , the fox paused to take in the curious onlookers gazing at him in wonderment of the laws of nature and the survival chain of life in the Arctic wild. What an exciting start to the 2016 polar bear season in Churchill!
A red fox with a tasty meal of willow ptarmigan. Brad Josephs photo.
National Geographic wildlife photographer Nansen Weber has been going to Cunningham Inlet by Canada’s Somerset Island in the high Arctic with his cameras for 16 years. Every summer thousands of beluga whales join him for an amazing spectacle in the shallow inlet. For about a month, the beluga whales gather for what is a very social time as well as molting period and nursery time for newborns. The Cunningham River is a northerly version of the Churchill and surrounding estuaries in the southern Hudson Bay in that its’ temperatures average eight degrees F warmer than the surrounding ocean waters. The warmer water is a welcome respite for the whales and facilitates the behavior mentioned.
Weber and the whales seem to coexist in the inlet with the belugas approaching him closely as if they remember him from the year before. The drone footage of the whales, polar bears, and the incredible rugged landscape lends perspective to the massive wild region that is largely unspoiled.
That notion could be changing however with climate change and federal policy allowing research and transport throughout the Arctic. Shipping channels around the Northwest Passage are becoming more accessible with ice reduction due to warming temperatures. This will allow large ships in the region and they, with all the noise they produce, will undoubtedly have an affect on the animals echolocation faculties.
“This might be the only place on Earth you can enjoy the beluga whales like this that is still wild like it’s been for the last 500 years, but maybe it’s going to be changing. Just in my lifetime of being in the Arctic for 20 years, I’ve seen climate change. There’s new birds that are migrating up north that I haven’t seen before, there’s mosquitoes now where there shouldn’t be mosquitoes, the ice patterns and weather patterns are all weird. It’s kind of a dilemma that’s always there in the back of your head while you’re enjoying the beluga whale spectacle in front of you,” Weber says.
Weber’s videos and photos shed light on how ship traffic and resulting noise pollution may alter the beluga whale population’s migratory routes. “There has been scientific evidence that the ship traffic—the sonar—affects the communication between the belugas, so that could definitely be a problem for the future for our belugas in Cunningham Inlet.”
All of the Arctic region and all of its inhabitants will be affected with changing climate. “It’s not only about the beluga whales. I mean, we have polar bears, there’s narwhals and bowheads along the Northwest Passage, arctic char that run in the rivers. Inland you have the musk ox, the caribou that graze, all the migratory birds that fly up every summer to enjoy the short arctic summer, the snowy owls, the falcons. It’s just a huge ecosystem that’s all tied together,” states Weber.
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.
With so much happening in Churchill we are posting more amazing photos that Natural Habitat Adventures guides have submitted from some pretty spectacular trips! Aggressive polar bear sparring seems to be the theme thus far as the 2015 polar bear season settles in. Aurora borealis has also been more visible in the northern sky in vivid reds and greens. A recent Tundra Lodge group viewed shimmering ribbons across the ink black sky deep in the CWMA. Last week my son and I experienced the northern lights with a few Natural Habitat groups by the inukshuk behind the town complex. My son’s eyes lit up with wonder as he viewed them over the placid and glimmering Hudson Bay. Priceless memories for sure.
Natural Habitat travelers on the tundra lodge under amazing northern lights. Drew Hamilton photo.
The tundra lodge has enjoyed abundant bear population from the start of the season. Sparring in and out of the willows surrounding the lodge has kept travelers in awe throughout the day. This will be hard to sustain though some new exciting phenomena out in the Churchill Wildlife Management Area (CWMA) will surely arise. Every year a new and interesting behavior emerges from the polar bear population in Churchill. A cycle of other species seems to revolve from year to year as well. This season numerous snowy owls have been sighted all over the area. Last season red foxes were all over the tundra and the previous year the Arctic fox population was prolific.Every year is a new adventure!
Polar bears engaging in mock fighting on the tundra in Churchill. Drew Hamilton photo.
Snowy owls have been prolific this polar bear season. Colby Brokvist photo.
Polar bears engaged in some pre sparring jawing. Drew Hamilton photo.