Polar Bears of Churchill Oct 29—Nov 04, 2007

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 premier site in the world for watching and photographing polar bears lies just outside the frontier town of Churchill, Manitoba. The autumn gathering of the immense white bears along the Hudson Bay coastline ranks as one of the top wildlife spectacles anywhere. Here, in just a few days, one can see scores of polar bears, the largest of all land carnivores, at very close range.

Hudson Bay's bears, which are the world's southernmost population of polar bears, gather outside Churchill to await the mid-autumn arrival of the pack ice. The "bay" is actually an inland sea, large enough in area to hold five each of Alaska and Texas, with plenty of space left over. As October gives way to November and the freeze-up becomes imminent, polar bears pace the shoreline, sniffing the air. Once back on the ice the bears may once again hunt seals, their primary prey.

VENT schedules its Polar Bears of Churchill tour in conjunction with the maximum concentrations of bears near Hudson Bay. On our 2007 tour, we saw 25 to 30 bears on each of the three full days we toured the shoreline region in a Tundra Buggy, for a total of over 80 polar bear sightings. We marveled at a mother bear with twin cubs. The two small bears, less than a year old, walked literally in their mother's footsteps across a frozen tundra pond. The watchful mother bear ultimately brought her young charges right alongside our Tundra Buggy, and all camera shutters clicked at full speed as the cubs peered curiously toward the humans inside the big white vehicle. The very same day we watched a bout of playful sparring between two sub-adult male bears, each 600—700 pounds. After a moment of circling one another, each sizing the other up, the huge bears stood face to face, shoving one another with their massive front paws. More shoves led to upright wrestling, almost a waltz, then hearty bear-hugs, and finally wrestling on the ground. As one bear lay on its back, the other playfully pounced, only to be bounced backwards off the other's upright legs. One ten-minute round of sparring led to a long break, as each bear sidled off and lay belly down on the ice. Even in the 15°F air, they needed to cool down before the next round.

Although polar bears typically don't feed much until the sea ice forms, one duo got lucky, and we were there to watch the aftermath. A woodland caribou had apparently wandered out along the shoreline and broken through the icy surface of the bay. By the time we reached the spot, two hungry male bears were negotiating over the now dead caribou. As one ate, the other watched and waited nearby, with its back turned. The wait was too much, and at last the second bear edged in for a share. Now, as each bear's jaws clamped down on either end of the carcass, a polar bear tug-of-war began. Finally, the bear that had been watching at last made off with a caribou haunch, and lay down to consume its hard-won portion.

Polar bears are certainly the top wildlife attraction of the season at Churchill, but we also enjoyed other fine encounters with wildlife. A fluffy, snowy white Arctic fox trotted close by our buggy, nibbling tiny fish out of the icy surface of a pond. A superbly camouflaged Arctic hare, all white except for black ear tips, peered out from a thicket of low willows. And we saw some terrific birds! We scoped a Gyrfalcon perched along the shoreline, and then watched the big falcon hunt ptarmigan, hovering over their willow thicket hideout until they flushed into the open. Our shuttle driver put us on to an unexpected treat: a Northern Hawk Owl, which perched atop small spruces for scope study between bouts of rapid hunting flight low over the ground. The snowy landscape hosted flocks of Snow Buntings and coveys of Willow Ptarmigan. One group of ptarmigan walked out from the willows to right next to the tundra buggy, where their winter "snowshoe" feathered feet were clearly visible. Feeding near the shoreline were migrating Purple Sandpipers, while Common Eiders and other sea ducks dove in the bay and Hoary Redpolls bounded through willow thickets.

One final wonder helped make this an even more memorable tour. Our second night in Churchill brought a cool, clear sky—and with it the much hoped-for Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights. Broad arcs of greenish lights hung low on the dark horizon, then swirled upward in ever-changing patterns of clouds and flares and wispy strands. A magical moment on an exceptional tour.