Polar Bears of Churchill Nov 01—07, 2014

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, stands as one of the top wildlife spectacles in the world. The tundra frontier near Churchill has become the premier site in the world for watching and photographing the immense white bears from the warmth and safety of a Tundra Buggy. In just a few days here one can see dozens of Polar Bears, the largest of all land carnivores, and often at very close range. The experience is truly unforgettable.

Polar Bear

Polar Bear— Photo: Bob Sundstrom

Churchill’s Polar Bears are one of the world’s southernmost populations, and by this time of year concentrate along the southwest Hudson Bay coastline outside Churchill, anticipating the formation of sea ice along the shoreline and the arrival of the pack ice. The immense “bay,” truly an inland sea, is home to 900–1,000 Polar Bears. As early November arrives and freeze-up becomes imminent, Polar Bears pace near the coast, sniffing the air. Once back on the ice the bears may once again hunt seals, their primary prey, after more than four months of fasting during the ice-free season of Hudson Bay.

Victor Emanuel Nature Tours schedules its Polar Bears of Churchill tour to coincide with the maximum concentrations of bears near Hudson Bay. It was VENT that brought the very first commercial group of Polar Bear watchers to Churchill in the 1980s. The timing for the 2014 tour worked out very nicely. Over three full days aboard the Tundra Buggy, we had at least 40 Polar Bear sightings. The very first bear sighting was the one visiting groups anticipate the most: a female with small cubs, young bears just 11months old, born during the 2013 autumn denning season. Since we were the first buggy off the launch that day (and each successive day), we had the great fortune of watching this threesome before they walked off to seek greater privacy. Over the course of the Tundra Buggy days, we had a wonderful variety of bear experiences. We saw bears playfully sparring and wrestling, and lounging in shallow pits with legs sprawled out. One particular bear visited the buggy on more than one occasion, leaning up against the side and sniffing at the grate in the floor of the back deck—close enough to smell its breath. We also saw full-size adult males, massive bears that the younger males gave a wide berth. There were superb photo opportunities each day.

Gyrfalcon, white morph

Gyrfalcon, white morph— Photo: Bob Sundstrom

We had excellent luck with other Arctic specialty fauna too. An all-white Arctic Fox trotted alongside our bus one morning as we traveled to the buggy launch. A huge Arctic Hare snuggled under a tiny spruce tree, offering a close view of another white-furred tundra specialist. A final white mammal and the most unlikely sighting was an Ermine (Short-tailed Weasel), that sped back and forth under a band of spruce trees, its black tail tip giving away its position.

There were glamorous white birds too. We saw both Willow and Rock ptarmigan decked out in their winter white feathers. The white feathers were so fresh they showed a hint of pink. A few Snow Buntings paused along the beachfront high tide line, making for good viewing in the spotting scope. And the most glorious bird sighting of all: a nearly all-white Gyrfalcon, with just a few black dots in its wing feathers, perched atop a tower and also sped by on the wing a couple of times close to the buggy. A white Gyr’ ranks near the top of all bird sightings anywhere.

There were a number of other things that made this a very special tour: a wonderful group of participants who enjoyed every aspect of the tour; a wonderful Tundra Buggy driver, Neil Mumby, whose sense of humor, knowledge, and driving skills added much to the Churchill experience; Gypsy’s hot soup and fresh pastries each day on the Tundra Buggy; the gracious help of our North Star drivers, Rob and Doug; and the hospitality that greeted us in each of our dining places, from the Hilton to Gypsy’s, as well as the Seaport Hotel and Tundra Inn restaurant. It was an overall tour experience that left us with many fine memories.