Roaming polar bear on the tundra. Melissa Scott photo.
Polar bear season is coming to a close but the superb photos keep arriving from Natural Habitat guides in Churchill, Manitoba. These four pictures from longtime guide Melissa Scott represent an amazing season that started fast and has continued strong. The Hudson Bay is starting to freeze up and polar bears are testing the ice. In another two weeks most bears will be on the ice hunting seals and the aurora borealis season will start in Churchill. If it’s anything like this fall polar bear season, it will be a great one!
Sparring polar bears in Churchill Wildlife Management Area. Melissa Scott photo.
Polar bear in the Churchill Wildlife Management Area. Melissa Scott photo.
Polar bears emerging from the willows in the CWMA. Melissa Scott photo.
A magnificent silver fox by the navy building on the way to the launch “wowed” the group led by Natural Habitat guide Elise Lockton. “such a beautiful color phase of the red fox”, explained Elise. While the arctic foxes are dominating the scene this year the cross and silver fox are adding splashes of color to the tundra’s ever increasing whiteness.
“Heading out to Gordon Point this morning…we came across Sparring bears just past first- tower followed by curious young bears near Ptramigan Alley…standing up on vehicles, under the grate…all around.” reported Elise just this past week. The bear quota for the CWMA is certainly filling up now.
Arctic fox combing the tundra. Brad Josephs photo.
Other sightings included a red breasted merganser in an open creek past the tundra lodge…a little late to be hanging around the north country. As it flew away the group noticed the duck had only one leg. Maybe a sign of it’s delayed migration to the south. Another thrill was spotted by a traveler as the group rumbled over the tundra trail in their rover. A mink running across a frozen pond surprised everyone, even the local Churchillian driving the machine. A rare sighting for sure!
Sow and cub polar bear walk along a frozen tundra pond. Brad Josephs photo.
All in all the season has been extremely full of amazing sightings…both polar bears and all the other amazing species that reside in the region in the winter.
Natural Habitat guide Sean Beckett returned to Winnipeg from a great week in Churchill with his group of hearty travelers! The action started just moments after landing in Churchill, when they came across conservation officers airlifting a 400-lb bear from the polar bear compound. What an amazing start..even though the group as there to see polar bears not watch them being flown away.
Polar bear airlift from compound. Sean Beckett photo.
Closer to town, various red foxes were strolling along the road as they made their way to the hotel. All this before even getting their keys to their rooms! “We kept the great momentum up with a great bout of sparring by two younger males near the lodge during our first rover day, and a handful of bears walking the coast between town and the launch site.”, reported Sean. Not bad for his first year in Churchill. “Our second rover day was complete with a wonderful encounter with a sow and her cub relaxing on a coastal pond.”, he added.
Big polar bear along the Hudson Bay coast. Sean Beckett photo.
After a long day on the tundra, the northern lights provided a spectacular show, so the group rallied to photograph the aurora at the edge of town by the inukshuk. An arctic fox scampered by tripods to add the cherry on top of a busy day.
Northern lights over the Hudson Bay behind the Inukshuk in Churchill. Sean Beckett photo.
On the last morning traveling to the airport, just when Sean and his entourage had thought they had seen their last bear of the trip, they discovered a huge male sleeping in the junk yard next to the naval base. Polar Bear Alert was quick on the scene to “cracker-shell” him over to the coast and away from town. Hopefully he’ll stayed out of trouble…and out of jail. “The bear forecast looks favorable next week, and I’m looking forward to getting back up north with another group tomorrow!” extolled Sean.
Natural habitat photography guide Colby Brokvist had polar bear action right out of the gate for his avid group of image takers. A sow with her coy were found out on the coast road ambling along the magnificent Hudson Bay. Cameras heated as shutters fired away at the majestic pair amidst frosty conditions.
The following three days on the tundra of the Churchill Wildlife Management Area (CWMA) were nearly perfect wildlife and weather-wise. The travelers, aboard their polar rover spent their entire first day near the lodge with several polar bears. Highlighting the afternoon were some big males sparring in the snow.
Polar bear near the Tundra Lodge. Colby Brokvist photo.
The following day was “awesome”, according to Colby. The group reached Gordon Point by early morning and quickly spotted two fairly fresh seal kills attended to by four voracious polar bears. The bears finished their meal before low tide, though blood stains were spotted on the ice and photographs were made of glaucous gulls, ravens and arctic foxes cleaning up leftovers . Some close encounters further along the trail road with a couple of other bears and then a very photogenic arctic fox rounded off the day and provided some great moments for classic shots.
Historic building by the Hudson Bay. Colby Brokvist photo.
The third day out in the CWMA was equally exciting as the group headed back to the lodge. Colby received a tip that a new, larger bear had taken up residence out there. Upon arriving and finding six polar bears the group had more than enough interactions to satisfy their passion. Three bears engaged in heated sparring with “unbelievable light”. stated Colby. “I don’t recall ever seeing sparring and sunshine at the same time …making this even more special.” Something new every day out in bear territory.
Inukshuk group photo with aurora over the bay. Colby Brokvist photo.
The group finished off the day with a long session of aurora photography at the huge, stone inukshuk behind the town complex facing the Hudson Bay. Rounding out an amazing day, the ethereal lights were perfect for the photo trip. Mild conditions added a key ingredient for a productive shoot.
Gorgeous red fox on the tundra. Colby Brokvist photo.
Finishing up the trip strong, the group enjoyed their sightseeing shuttle covereing the area around town in search of smaller critters. An extremely charismatic red fox stole the show before the crew headed out to the polar bear holding facility where they finished off with a bear evacuation lift. Captured polar bears are airlifted by helicopter up north along the bay and released to keep them free from human contact for a period of time. Quite a sight to see the event as they take off from Churchill!
With the snow and ice filling the landscape and the amazing aurora filling the sky over Churchill, it’s time for some photo’s from the past week or so to recap all that’s been going on in the north recently. Incredible northern lights the past few nights have had even the local posting photo’s on the internet. Churchillians see these pretty regularly so you know they were exceptional when a local buzz occurs. This year we have seen incredible and more regular displays of sparring. Some of my favorite shots come from these mock fights. Keep watching for more as the next couple of weeks culminate with intense polar bear action on the tundra. To see northern lights in the heart of winter, check out these aurora adventures.
A polar bear rolls around on the snow. Rick Pepin photo.
A polar bear buries his head in the snow…six more months of winter. Sandra Elvin photo.
Two large polar bears waltz across the tundra in a sparring session. Eric Rock photo.
Polar bears move majestically across the tundra. Brad Josephs photo.
Local Churchillian Katie DeMeulles with aurora in the distance.
“One more photo and I will rip the heating unit off your rover..am I clear?” Brad Josephs photo.
With the snow on the ground and some early ice pans in the Hudson bay, the polar bear action in the Churchill Wildlife management Area is heating up. The past week has seen some of the best wildlife activity “in the past five years” according to Natural Habitat guide Sandra Elvin. Showing her group of avid travelers around the CWMA proved to unveil an amazing array of happenings that awed even the veteran wildlife naturalist.
Polar bears sparring in the willows. Colby Brokvist photo.
Right from the go Sandra and group were out around the tundra lodge and settled in for an incredible morning of about 15 bears sparring in every different direction. Polar bears spar in order to build up muscles and defense mechanisms for future encounters out on the Hudson Bay ice when the seal hunting season is in full swing. It’s also believed that sparring figures into mating behavior. All in all the practice is really phenomenal when you think about it. These massive animals undertake mock fighting bouts when they are under the stress of hunger and very little stored energy. They do this and most of the time come out unscathed…really cool under the circumstances.
Another couple of bears were under the back grated observation deck sniffing guests’ boots with hot breath steaming in the cold Arctic air. Shortly later, a bear off the front and one off the back of the rover kept the day rolling and the shutters clicking continuously. A red fox came along just for some variation.
A red fox gazes cautiously as a rover appears. Brad Josephs photo.
Later that afternoon a sow with two cubs were crossing a large, frozen pond in perfect, soft afternoon light just past the first creek area…what a way to finish off the day.
The next day brought on another incredible experience out on the land. Sandra focused the scope in on a ringed seal basking out on some chunk shore- ice just off to the west of Gordon Point near the polar bear resting point…not a good idea. Closer still to the spit land of the resting point was another seal…this one was in the process of becoming a polar bear’s dinner…quite the find…for both. After getting his fill, the polar bear decided to get in the bay for a swim. At the same time the seal that still had a pulse also went in the order. Quite a thrilling scene to watch through a scope. This seal better start making better decisions.
Other highlights of the day was a bear gnawing at the rover’s heating mechanism under the machine…a little jerk of the engine put an end to that. On the way back…with the heat fortunately still pumping…a snowy owl flew right in front of the rover, across a pond landing a short distance away on a hill. Another red fox strode by with an eye always on the rover. A couple of friendly polar bears at Halfway Point put the golden touch on another fine day in the Arctic.
The ride back to town from launch was a little interesting as just by the side of the road before the A-frame a polar bear was taking out some aggression on an old snowmobile. The polar bear won this sparring match!
A polar bear takes a disliking to a snowmobile. Sandra Elvin photo.
A polar bear gets serious about demoing a snowmobile. Sandra Elvin photo.
A visit up to cape Merry where the Hudson Bay flows into the Churchill River presented a rare first -hand viewing of a polar bear being “hazed” with cracker shells and pushed into the river so to displace him to the other side near the Fort prince of Wales. There has been more of this going on this season..so maybe the scene was not that rare…as Conservation seems to be trapping less bears and relying more on this hazing process. Very few traps have been noticed around town..even though a few have just been set recently. Maybe the budget for capturing bears is down but some rumors regarding not enough handling experience with regard to the polar bears by newbie conservation officers has yet to be confirmed. regardless, a more “cowboy” type approach of warding bears away from town has prevailed this year.
Another weird event took place a day later as a huge bear ..possibly pregnant female..was airlifted from the holding facility. Unlike most of the flight paths for relocation however, this bear was taken in a more easterly direction..possibly toward Wapusk National Parc. this would surely be a more apt spot for a pregnant sow. hard to get straight answers but I will try to confirm. Because the group had to rush out of Gypsy’s to catch the evacuation, a birthday cake for an unsuspecting guest was smuggled aboard the bus and the guest was thoroughly surprised. A bear lift was a once- in -lifetime gift from above!
A polar bear is lifted away from the holding compound in Churchill. Steve Selden photo.
The final night rover evening was a relaxing way to finish the trip. Near the Natural Habitat tundra lodge again, some sparring bears and another under the deck as well as one polar bear in the front of the machine gave all an excellent evening of bear watching while sipping on some wine or drink. Two more snowy owls..one after turning the corner from launch, and another in the spruce trees across the trail made a full house…get it.. three bears and two snowy owls…yeah..
A group of bears gathers to spar. Sandra Elvin photo.
As the rover rumbled quietly back through fresh blankets of soundless snow, the group reflected on a truly amazing adventure.