Polar Bears of Churchill Nov 03—09, 2008

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 mid-autumn gathering of polar bears along Hudson Bay near Churchill, Manitoba rates as one of the top wildlife spectacles in the world. The tundra frontier near Churchill is undeniably the premier site in the world for watching and photographing the immense white bears. In just a few days here one can see scores of polar bears, the largest of all land carnivores, and often at very close range. The experience is unforgettable.

Churchill's polar bears are the world's southernmost population, and by this season they have begun to concentrate along the Hudson Bay coastline outside Churchill, anticipating the mid-autumn arrival of the pack ice. The immense "bay," truly an inland sea, is home to nearly 1,000 polar bears. As early November arrives and the freeze-up becomes imminent, polar bears pace the shoreline, sniffing the air. 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. The timing for our 2008 tour was ideal; we saw 40 or more polar bears on each of the three full days we toured the shoreline region in a Tundra Buggy, for a total of 129 polar bear sightings, a new tour high. We watched several mother bears with pairs of two-year-old cubs, the cubs literally walking in their mothers' footsteps. One female with a small cub born just last winter lay in the snow not far from the vehicle, while we enjoyed our picnic lunch of hot soup and sandwiches. Several times we were fortunate to see large male bears sparring and wrestling, and other bears walked right up to our tundra buggy to check us out, offering incredible chances for photos.

On two different days we watched sub-adult males—each probably over 600 pounds—engage in playful bouts of sparring and wrestling. 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, a few lazy haymaker punches, then massive bear-hugs. Soon both bears flopped onto one another on the ground, rolling with paws in the air, playfully nipping at each other's dense, white fur. After five minutes of nonstop action, both bears sidled off and lay belly down on the ice, taking a long break. Even in the 15 F air, they needed to cool down before the next round. One such round of sparring came to involve three bears at once, adding another element of slapstick.

Polar bears in action are what nearly everyone comes to see at Churchill in the fall, but other autumn wildlife holds its own attraction at Churchill. We saw red foxes on at least two days on the tundra, where their reddish brown fur stood out handsomely across the snow-covered landscape. We spied a huge Arctic hare tucked into a shrubby willow thicket, its white fur a close match for the snow covering the ground. Grouse-like ptarmigan winter in the same landscape, and we were fortunate to see both Rock and Willow ptarmigan. Both species were now in fresh white winter plumage, some with a distinct pinkish cast to their feathers, as they huddled under the willows or foraged across the snowy tundra. At scenic Halfway Point, where a long arc of boulders angles out into Hudson Bay, we watched a Snowy Owl flap slowly along the shoreline, then perch briefly to stare back at us with its intense yellow eyes. Long-tailed Ducks and Common Eiders flew in flocks by the point. Hoary Redpolls bounced in small flocks among the willows, and pale Snow Buntings fed near the tideline. A visit to some residential bird feeders in the spruce woods outside Churchill added a few more birds, including Boreal Chickadees, Common Redpolls, and the latest fall sighting on record for a Brown Thrasher.

Not all the tundra wonders were wildlife.  The deep-rose Arctic sunrises and sunsets across the ruggedly beautiful white landscape were breathtaking, even more so when the picture included a huge bear ambling toward the horizon.