Polar Bears of Churchill Oct 29—Nov 04, 2006

Posted by Bob Sundstrom

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Bob Sundstrom

Bob Sundstrom has led VENT tours since 1989 to many destinations throughout North America, as well as Hawaii, Mexico, Belize, Trinidad & Tobago, Japan, Turkey, Iceland,...

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The autumn wildlife spectacle that awaits one in Churchill is unique and unforgettable. The forest edge and coastline just outside the frontier town of Churchill, Manitoba is the best place in the world to watch and photograph polar bears, the largest of all land carnivores.

Churchill sits at the southwest corner of Hudson Bay, which freezes over in the colder months and is home to many polar bears. Hudson Bay is really an inland sea, big enough in area to hold five of both Alaska and Texas, with lots of water left over. Hudson Bay's polar bear population is the southernmost and most accessible to viewing in the entire Arctic. And as October gives way to November and the bay shows signs of freeze-up, scores of polar bears begin to pace the shoreline, eager to get out on the pack ice. Once on the ice the bears will resume hunting their favorite prey, the ubiquitous ringed seal.

VENT's Polar Bears of Churchill tour is scheduled for viewing the maximum concentrations of bears near Hudson Bay. Our timing in 2006 was near optimum. In three days of traversing the best areas for bears in a Tundra Buggy, we thrilled to more than 80 polar bear sightings. Each day we watched and laughed and clicked camera shutters as huge, sub-adult male bears engaged in the amiable, comical play-fights known as sparring. Picture two 700-pound white bears, standing up facing one another, then shoving each other with their paws before engaging in a 9-foot-tall bear hug. Soon they are rolling around on top of each other, two behemoth puppies, legs sprawling in the air as they wrestle playfully.

For many visitors, the most prized sighting is a mother with cubs. Once again, our luck ran strong. We watched mothers with mid-sized two-year-old cubs, and mothers with smaller, adorable one-year-old cubs. The cubs played almost nonstop. One cub lay on its back and juggled a chunk of ice with its paws. Another cub swatted a piece of ice along the surface of a newly frozen pond, as if practicing for a hockey match. The ultimate and most unexpected sight was a mother nursing a single cub, an act rarely seen in the wild. As we watched the two bears, the mother sat up with her back against a line of low willows, and the cub put its nose to her belly and nursed for several minutes. Soon after, the mother and cub fell asleep in the snow, intertwined. We were astonished and grateful for this rare experience, as was our driver/guide, a veteran of 12 years on the Tundra Buggies.

Polar bears are the number one wildlife attraction of the season at Churchill, but we enjoyed other excellent studies of wildlife. On our first afternoon at Churchill as we ambled along a path at Cape Merry, we came face to face with a snow-white Arctic fox, which obligingly posed for many photos. Later the same afternoon as we drove along a low, lichen-painted rock formation, a handsome red fox appeared, and the results were wonderfully photogenic. On the tundra one day, we watched a "silver fox," a lovely dark-colored version of the red fox species. Sharp spotters picked out a few lanky Arctic hares, white northern hares the size of large jackrabbits, which blended in cryptically with the snow-mantled tundra.

Coveys of Willow Ptarmigan sat on the snowy ground, near the safe redoubt of dense willow scrub. Having just molted into their winter whites, the ptarmigan's feathers glistened with a pink blush. Flocks of Snow Buntings were on hand our first day on the Buggies, moving on as snow began to accumulate over the next days. We even drove up alongside a small flock of lingering shorebirds, a few Purple and White-rumped sandpipers on their way south. During a visit to our local driver's sled dog compound, and as we got acquainted with the friendly dogs, we watched a Northern Shrike chase a Hairy Woodpecker from perch to perch. Hoary Redpolls flocked at the edge of the boreal forest, flitting among the white spruce trees. Eiders and other sea ducks awaited the freeze-up, soon to head south just as the polar bears would begin to head north.