Polar Bears of Churchill Nov 05—11, 2011
Posted by Brennan Mulrooney
Churchill, Manitoba, Canada is probably not at the top of many "most attractive late fall travel destinations" lists. But for polar bears, and for anybody who might want to see one of these amazing creatures, Churchill is a veritable mecca. Each fall, as temperatures plummet toward and well past freezing, polar bears start gathering in great numbers along the Hudson Bay shore near the little frontier town of Churchill. They are waiting for the bay's icy waters to freeze over, so they can head back out onto the ice to hunt seals throughout the long winter. This incredible concentration of top predators in one spot makes Churchill—in fall—home to one of the best wildlife spectacles on the planet.
Vacationing in northern Canada in November, and in the middle of perhaps the largest concentration of top land carnivores on the planet, might sound a bit foolish, but the resourceful residents of Churchill have figured out how to make it not only safe, but surprisingly comfortable as well. Enter the Tundra Buggy. One of these amazing vehicles was our home for three full days out among the great white bears. Though the temperatures outside were well below freezing, we stayed quite comfortable in the buggy, thanks to its massive propane heater. The spacious back deck allowed us to get outside (and cool off!) while staying safely out of reach of the bears, which was reassuring when they walked right up to the buggy!
While we expected to see lots of bears out in the buggies, I think we all were quite surprised when our first encounter happened just minutes after we left the airport in Churchill. Bill, our local guide and driver, made it possible for us to get great looks at our first bear as it was ambling around right next to the runway! Not long after that we watched another bear as it raided a sled dog compound, stirring up quite a ruckus as it stole an easy meal. This is the kind of excitement that the local residents have to be prepared for at this time of year. If either of these bears had become a persistent nuisance, they would have been hauled off to jail—polar bear jail! The jail, the "Miss Piggy" crash site, and Cape Merry were all on our sightseeing agenda that first day in Churchill.
Of course though, it was our time in the Tundra Buggy that was the highlight of our trip. We totaled 65 bear sightings during our stay, along with some fantastic birds and smaller mammals. Our bear sightings were almost all of single bears resting in the snow, or on a rock, or in the seaweed piled along the shore of the bay, but a mother and cub provided our most interesting encounter. At first the two were sitting way out in the intertidal zone, so far away that it looked as if it were a single bear with two heads. Then, as we waited, they became curious and started to approach the buggy. Being upwind of us, they did not know that there was another bear just on the other side of our buggy. Apparently their scent was interesting enough to get the other bear up off his pile of seaweed for a closer look, and momma bear was not too happy to see the surprise guest. Immediately she turned around and quickly led her cub off to a safe distance. Rather than give chase though, the other bear decided to save his energy and nap some more, waiting for the bay to freeze. In addition to bears we were delighted to see both Arctic and red foxes, as well as a very confiding Arctic hare, snow-white except for the black tips of its ears.
While it is to be expected that the bird list for this trip will be rather short, it's really about quality rather than quantity. And thankfully we had quality! White morph Gyrfalcon is perhaps the most emblematic bird of the High Arctic. They aren't common anywhere and they rarely inhabit areas that are easily accessible by birders. So it was very exciting when not one, but two white morph Gyrfalcons flew right past our Tundra Buggy. Soon we found them perched together on a tower, and we watched as a polar bear walked over to the tower and stood on its hind legs as if trying to get a better look at them.
My reason for saying that the white morph Gyrfalcon is "perhaps" the most emblematic bird of the High Arctic is that it's a tough call between that and the Snowy Owl. Snowy Owls also spend most of their lives well away from most human activity, and so are not often seen by birders. They are also quite unpredictable in their seasonal movements, being closely tied to fluctuating lemming populations. The Snowy Owl also has something going for it that the Gyrfalcon lacks: it's an owl. So it was no surprise that Snowy Owl ran away with the "favorite bird of the trip" vote at our last dinner. We had two perched birds at a fair distance on our second buggy day, but it was our last sighting, in the last minutes of our time in the buggy, that truly will be remembered. A Snowy Owl, just sitting down in the snow not far from our buggy, staring at us with those huge golden eyes—what a way to cap things off!