Churchill weather has been a mix of freezing temperatures, mostly cloudy with intermittent sun, occasional snow flurries and gusting wind. Polar bears were spotted all around the tundra out in the Churchill Wildlife Management Area. Travelers and guides have spotted some curious polar bears near the Tundra Lodge and among the tundra vehicles in the vicinity, particularly younger females. While some bears remained in the willows yesterday, travelers were able to enjoy some more active behavior. A polar bear was seen thermoregulating in the snow, and two large males neared sparring confrontation. Sightings of a snowy owl, rough-legged hawk, gyrfalcon and red fox out on the land spiced up the day’s experience!
Polar bear gnawing on a tasty treat. Jason Luoma photo.
Sun reflecting off a majestic polar bear in the Churchill Wildlife Management Area. Jason Luoma photo.
A polar bear in the Churchill Wildlife Management Area conducting morning Polar Rover inspection. Bill McPherson photo.
Polar bear walking along a Polar Rover trail in the Churchill Wildlife Management Area. @apalsson photo.
A lone polar bear approaching a Polar Rover in Churchill. Bill McPherson photo.
A polar bear inspects a Polar Rover in Churchill. Bill McPherson photo.
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.
Willow Ptarmigan displaying furry, insulated feet. Brad Josephs photo.
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 tower built 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.
Natural Habitat Adventures guide Drew Hamilton has documented some pretty cool polar bear interaction out at the Tundra Lodge in the Churchill Wildlife Management Area. The photos below show a small curious polar bear checking out the end of the Tundra lodge and then a larger male bear moving in and pushing the smaller polar bear off to the willows. The small bear then finally settled into a nice spot to chill and sleep. A very interesting interaction not witnessed very often. ” It was fascinating watching the larger bear assert his higher rank as he pushed on the younger bear to make sure the interloper knew who is the boss.” ,observed Drew. Just another awesome northern experience for travelers out on the tundra.
Juvenile polar bear inspects the Tundra lodge. Drew Hamilton photo.
Juvenile nervous about large male moving in. Drew Hamilton photo.
Large male polar bear arrives on scene. Drew Hamilton photo.
Large male bear chasing off small bear into the willows. Drew Hamilton photo.
Small polar bear glancing back towards Tundra lodge at large male. Drew Hamilton photo.
Small polar bear looking cautiously from the willows at the large male polar bear. Drew Hamilton photo.
Juvenile polar bear finally over the stress…no worries. Drew Hamilton photo.
Our northern ecosystems are changing and this time sea ice is not the suspect. International scientists headed up by the University of Edinburgh have results from a comprehensive study on vegetation comprising the Arctic tundra. Research was conducted on 37 sites in nine countries, monitoring shrub growth in the Arctic spanning 60 years. Curiously plant growth is not a good thing.
Arctic shrubs moving further north. Boundless.com photo.
Arctic shrubs, in most cases willows, are growing and moving north at fairly rapid rates. These tundra shrubs act as a barometer of the Arctic and their increased presence is “strong evidence” that climate change is happening. Focus on diminishing sea ice has been the headline for years and this is just auxiliary evidence that global warming is real.
The growth and spreading of these shrubs in itself is not the problem. What occurs and perpetuates increases in temperatures is the way these thicker stands of plant life fuel warming. Taller, thicker growth of shrubs prevents snow from reflecting sun back away from our planet, therefore warming the Earth’s surface. This process leads to soil temperature increase and thawing of permafrost.
Increased shrub stands change nutrient cycling and carbon levels in the soil and thus affect the decomposition rate and then the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere from thawing permafrost. Dr. Isla Myers-Smith was the study co-ordinator for this project and she cautioned on the increased shrub growth; “Arctic shrub growth in the tundra is one of the most significant examples on Earth of the effect that climate change is having on ecosystems.” ( Reported by Press Association July 6, 2015)
The research is documented comprehensively in Nature Climate Change and funded by the International Arctic Science Committee.