Polar Bears of Churchill Nov 05—11, 2013

Posted by Brian Gibbons


Brian Gibbons

Brian Gibbons grew up in suburban Dallas where he began exploring the wild world in local creeks and parks. Chasing butterflies and any animal that was unfortunate enough t...

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VENT hosted the first commercial Polar Bear watchers in Churchill in the 1980s. Nearly every year since, scores of clients have enjoyed the antics of the aggregating Polar Bears on the shores of Hudson Bay. This year was no exception; we witnessed 20 bears a day loafing, sleeping, sparring, and generally biding their time. During the three days we were aboard the Tundra Buggy, the bay went from being completely open to having large amounts of grease and pancake ice. One adventurous bear even made it a quarter-mile out on the ice before returning to shore to wait a few more days. The unique geography of the western Hudson Bay and the counter-clockwise current ensure that every year the Churchill area is the first to freeze. Bears have been aggregating here for millennia, waiting for the freeze to liberate them from months of fasting. We witnessed some amazing scenes of not just bears, but also Arctic Fox in its stark white winter pelage, various forms of Red Fox, Arctic Hare, Gyrfalcon, Snowy Owl, Willow Ptarmigan, and some hearty eiders.

Male Polar Bears sparring

Male Polar Bears sparring— Photo: Brian Gibbons

On our first morning in Churchill we visited bird feeders in the spruce forest, where Boreal Chickadees and Gray Jays gathered seeds. Driving around town, we knew we were too late for the great variety of birds that the Arctic summer entices north to Churchill, but a few hearty residents entertained us. The bird of the day and perhaps the trip was the juvenile white-morph Gyrfalcon that hung in the wind over the dunes at Cape Merry on our first morning—a stunning creature trying to flush a ptarmigan. In the afternoon, the Parks Canada Visitor Center and Eskimo Museum were our main targets as we meandered through town. That evening we caught a glimpse of the setting sun—at 4:00 p.m.

The next morning we were bundled and ready for the Tundra Buggy. Our first Polar Bears of the trip were sparring, but as we raced closer at 15 mph, they had exhausted themselves and lain down; after a while they began sparring again, and a third bear wandered into the fray—an amazing start to the tour. Then a curious bear wandered to the buggy, walking underneath it, then finally finding us on the back deck with just a metal grate separating large carnivore from puny omnivores. This was a magical experience with the beast just inches from our feet, or noses if you chose (perhaps JP was the only one). After seeing more than 20 bears, we had to head back to the launch. We were delayed by a beautiful mother with its adorable one-year-old cub tucked into its hip.

Polar Bear approaching Tundra Buggies, Churchill

Polar Bear approaching Tundra Buggies — Photo: Brian Gibbons

Thinking that Day One would be impossible to top, we did just that in our first couple of hours. Gordon Point hosted a mother and cub, a lone female, and an Arctic Fox that was being chased by a gorgeous Silver Fox (dark morph of Red Fox). This had me scrambling from one end of the buggy to the other trying to get photos of everything. In the middle of all this action we noticed a female with two cubs swimming from the end of Gordon Point back to the mainland, presumably to escape the other three bears on the point! This took more than an hour to play out, and I was exhausted by the end of the action.

On our final day, with Hayley at the helm, we made a decidedly bird-oriented trip to the tundra. We still watched the wonderful bear activity, but we were looking for birds. Sandra spotted a beautiful heavily mottled juvenile Snowy Owl early on. Then Hayley declared she would find us the ptarmigan and we enjoyed multiple Willow Ptarmigans at point-blank range. We even observed them nibbling on willow buds, the food that will sustain them through seven months of frigid, long winter nights. Interrupting our birding were a few Polar Bears that wandered past and sniffed the buggy. A white Gyrfalcon was cruising the willows of Ptarmigan Alley with designs that were different from ours. This, our third day aboard lucky Tundra Buggy 13, was our coldest. Ice had been forming and had reached more than a quarter-mile offshore; the pancake ice was solidifying into a sheet that the bears could wander out on. The grease ice encouraged the Common Eiders to move to more open water. In a few more days the ice would be in and the bears gone! Our final bears, glimpsed by some, were a ghostly mother and cub that appeared in front of the bus, only to quickly disappear back into the blizzard.

Thanks to all of you for traveling to Churchill with VENT. I look forward to our next adventure together.

To view photos from our trip: