Polar Bears of Churchill Nov 02—08, 2009

Posted by Steve Hilty

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Steve Hilty

Steve Hilty is the senior author of A Guide to the Birds of Colombia, and author of Birds of Venezuela, both by Princeton University Press, as well as the popular Birds of ...

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Without question, Churchill is THE premier site for observing and photographing polar bears. This area is more accessible than any of the other 18 circumpolar bear populations, and the bears themselves are more concentrated at this time of year. Looking back, now that I am home, and autumn leaves are falling, the entire polar bear and Churchill experience, to me, seems almost surreal. It was as if, in some sense, I were a time-traveler visiting another place at another time.

Our group arrived in Churchill as cold winds swept across the snowy landscape. Within minutes of departing the airport we parked in front of the Polar Bear Prison (where bad bears that visit Churchill are sent to do 30 days in solitary) and were informed by Manitoba Conservation employees that a helicopter lift was imminent. Moments later, a bear tranquilized with tellazide and in a rope sling was hauled out to a nearby landing site. The bright green dot on his back, marking him as an offender that has been chemically subdued, seemed incongruous. While we waited, a "wild" polar bear ambled out of the low willows, slipped beneath an airport "No Trespassing" sign, and was summarily driven off by a uniformed officer firing flares and poppers. Five minutes passed and someone saw another bear across the road below the airport. It too, was frightened with flares and poppers. The helicopter arrived, a cable was attached to the still tranquilized bear, and within minutes it was whisked off to wilderness 25 minutes northwest of Churchill. The bear was unlikely to return. I felt as if I were watching "live" television—only this was real life drama.

Somewhat whimsically dubbed a "Tundra Buggy," the monstrous white machine we were riding in was, in truth, a large creaky aluminum box positioned atop fat tires five-and-a-half feet high and three feet across. It lumbered across the snow-blown tundra, and rarely exceeded five mph. I knew this was the season when polar bears gather along Hudson Bay's south shores, awaiting freeze-up so they can move onto the ice to hunt seals, but I could not have imagined just how many bears gather here. At first, in fact, we didn't see much, mostly a vast, flat landscape checkered with patches of stunted willows, wind-blown snow, and shallow, meter-deep lakes that looked like they were already frozen solid. But soon there were bears—a lot of bears—and by day's end we had sighted at least 39 of them, most within a mile of the Hudson Bay shoreline. There were males, females, a female with two cubs, and a female with a collar. Two bears came alongside our vehicle. At one point an Arctic fox streaked past, running fast with busy tail streaming, then abruptly stopped and nervously peered at us twice before disappearing. A flock of distant Willow Ptarmigan flew toward the ice-hobbled shore. Later someone spotted a ptarmigan, snowy-white with black eyes and bill, immobile in a thicket beside our buggy. By afternoon we'd seen more than 40, including a flock of at least 32 rapidly pecking tiny buds from willows and walking on little feathered "snowshoes." On our return to Tundra Buggy base camp, someone spied a small animal running, squirrel-like, across a large frozen lake. We stared…squinting, as it continued, making its way toward a willow thicket along the western shore…and toward a polar bear ambling alongside that thicket. "It's a pine marten," our driver yelled. "The first I've ever seen out here in the open in 24 years of Tundra Buggy driving!" And this marten, perhaps young and naïve, seemed to have a death wish. It stopped a few yards short of the willows, stood on its hind legs, and looked back in the direction from which it came. Remarkably, it was unaware of the bear. The marten dropped to the ground, stood again, and only at the last moment seemed to become aware of the bear, now closing fast. With tiny feet visibly slipping on the ice, the marten made a desperate leap into the willow thicket and disappeared, just ahead of the bear. Now the bear stood and peered into the thicket. Twice it stood—then pounced, but without success. Still it prowled the ice-bound shoreline and we assume the drama continued. But, by now the sun was low in the south, the sky flame-red, and distant ravens were making their way to roosts.

On our second day in the Tundra Buggy, the cold Hudson Bay wind was sharp. The morning temperature in Churchill registered 3 degrees F, and we felt the cold bite of the wind (the wind chill was –28). The bears knew it too. Wind piled ice against the shore and bears were making their way onto the frozen bay, stretching dinner plate-sized paws on newly-formed ice to test its strength. Numbers of bears along the shore were down sharply from yesterday, but we saw them far out on the bay ice, some at the limit of vision on the distant icy horizon. A Gyrfalcon, powerful in the wind, flew past the Tundra Buggy. Later a small flock of Snow Buntings, scraps of debris buffeted erratically in the wind, flitted past and were quickly lost to sight. We registered 19 bears today, half of yesterday's total. Among them, however, was a young male that paced beside our Tundra Buggy, looking up, uncomprehending, as a platoon of bazooka-sized camera lenses bore down at close range. A more circumspect female with two cubs made her way across the tundra and into a willow thicket, cubs in tow. Bears sniffed the wind, and moved north, toward life-giving ice. Their months-long fast would soon be over. We returned to Churchill this evening beneath a pair of "sundogs" flanking the sun. It was a brisk walk to the Gypsy Bakery diner tonight.

The next day, a brief detour to the "Tundra Buggy depot" provided our second Gyrfalcon sighting. Later a flock of Hoary Redpolls, pale overall and with white rumps visible, fluttered in stunted willows. With warmer temperatures, bay ice in retreat, and open water prevailing, our bear count increased again. Although several bears were close, it was a mother bear and her unwashed cub that offered the most endearing photo opportunities, and entertainment, of the day—with the cub posing atop an ice hummock, peering out behind his mother, and doing his potty in the snow. But the excitement didn't end. Our lumbering, creaking Tundra Buggy, which several people enjoyed driving this afternoon, suffered a steering malfunction on a stream crossing and we limped slowly back to base, just in time for an early departure for the Eskimo museum.

Our five days in Churchill provided a glimpse of a world relatively few people have experienced firsthand. It may seem like an eternal cycle of ice and bears and long dark winters followed by brief warm summers, but we know better now. The Arctic is changing, perhaps less so here than in the High Arctic, but it is changing nevertheless. The polar bear itself is but a brief actor on this northern stage, having appeared in the fossil and genetic record no more than 250,000 to 300,000 years ago. We know that it likely evolved from large "kodiak" type bears on some of the Aleutian Islands and was once considerably larger than it is today. For most of the polar bears' existence on earth, ice ages have predominated, being punctuated by a few relatively brief warmer inter-glacial periods. We are in one such inter-glacial now. But climate and climatic change are delicately balanced.

Climatologists tell us that several factors, among them the wobble of planet Earth on its axis, and hence its tilt, as well as the variation in Earth's orbit (from almost perfect circle to ellipse) resulting from planetary alignments, changes in solar luminosity, and many other factors, could be poised to plunge our planet into another ice age (recent warmer inter-glacial periods typically last only about 10,000 years and we are very close to this point again). Against this backdrop the footprint of mankind now intervenes. Over the past century our activities have conspired to greatly increase atmospheric CO2 levels and planetary warming is now evident, especially in High Arctic areas. Will the next climatic shift result in warmer or cooler temperatures? We cannot predict the future with certainty, but evidence suggests warmer temperatures may prevail. A prolonged warming trend (at least in geological time) might well doom the polar bear and much of the Arctic ecology as we know it today. Change, in fact, may already be at hand. A hunter recently killed a "polar bear" whose DNA imprint was not that of a polar bear but almost exactly intermediate between that of polar bear and grizzly bear. Are grizzlies moving north with a warming planet? If so, then this may be a glimpse of the future. But, for now, we may count ourselves fortunate to have witnessed this great Arctic drama, one that unfolds each autumn on Hudson Bay's shores. This is the Arctic that we know today and I feel privileged to have been able to experience it with you.