Polar Bears of Churchill Oct 23—28, 2016

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 Polar Bears of Churchill tour surely rates as one of the truly exceptional wildlife viewing experiences. Our group rendezvoused in Winnipeg and early the next morning flew north to Churchill in northern Manitoba, at the southwest corner of Hudson Bay. Within minutes after arriving in Churchill, the first Polar Bear of the tour had been spotted ambling along the edge of the tarmac—a remarkably quick first bear sighting.

With most of a day to explore the Churchill vicinity from a van and walk a bit on the Arctic landscape, we set out from the airport. We stopped at the Polar Bear “jail” (where problem bears are held until freeze-up) and the site of a downed plane from decades ago (where the first Red Fox and Arctic Hare of the trip were glimpsed). After lunch at Gypsy’s, we were driven to historic Cape Merry, into a landscape of beautiful, glacier-polished greywacke (a very hard, unusual sandstone). Here and elsewhere today we saw diverse sea ducks, including rafts of hundreds of Black Scoters and the first Common Eiders of the tour. Leaving Cape Merry, our driver stopped at the edge of town where we could walk out to the Hudson Bay shoreline next to a huge inukshuk (Inuit stone marker). Our timing was serendipitous, for soon a white Gyrfalcon came winging overhead, close enough to see even the tiny bits of black in the wingtips. This may have been a good omen for bird sightings for the tour, for we went on to see a good bit greater diversity of birds than most previous tours.

Now we had three full days to explore the tundra and the Hudson Bay shoreline east of Churchill, riding with an experienced and knowledgeable guide on a Tundra Buggy reserved just for our group. (A Tundra Buggy is something like an extra-wide bus set up on very tall, wide tires designed for driving designated routes across the tundra. It makes a Hummer look like an urban toy.) The tundra landscape was in fall color the first two days—green, gold, red, and brown—with lots of boulders artfully decorated with lichens. Late the second day, snow began to fall, so our third day on the buggy showed us a landscape of fresh white. Even the spruce trees were flocked with snow.

We saw Polar Bears each day from the buggy. Highlights included a mother with a pair of first year cubs, probably 10–11 months of age. The first day the mother and cubs were mostly recumbent on the tundra, but by the third day and in a newly snowy landscape, they were much more active and much photographed. On the first day on the buggy, we watched one bear for quite a while as it lounged in the seaweed mass at the high tide line. At one point it sprawled on its back, raising and waving its paws in the air, raising comparisons to what might be a form of Polar Bear yoga. At last the bear rose and—much to our astonishment—walked directly toward our buggy. Soon it reached the side of the vehicle, and it ambled slowly along the side as cameras clicked. Next it posed at the back of the buggy for more intimate photos, before walking back alongside the buggy, then under and out the other side.

On our second day on the Tundra Buggy, we had the opportunity to study two different color morphs of Red Fox as they hunted across the open landscape, close enough for good photos. First a “Cross” Fox appeared off the stern. This fox was warm auburn to rusty-brown on its front half, grading into a darker rump and nearly black tail with a white tip. “Cross” Fox is named for a dark stripe running down its back, intersecting another stripe to form a cross over the shoulders. Later that morning we had an excellent study of a “Silver” Fox, a Red Fox with black head and shoulders, dark silvery torso, and black tail with white tip. The Silver Fox trotted back and forth along the edge of a frozen lake and through the shrubby willows, sniffing for prey. Suddenly it stopped with ears pricked, then leapt headfirst over a willow. The fox came up with a rodent in its jaws.

We had high hopes of seeing an Arctic Hare well at some point, although their camouflage and habit of sitting very still make them difficult to spot. On the third day aboard the buggy Luke drove us to an area of boulders near Halfway Point, where at last one of these large, white hares was spotted. It blended extremely well into the snowy background, all white except for the black tips of its ears, but it became more visible when it backed up against the dark gray of a greywacke boulder.

And there were some fine birds too. We saw coveys of winter-white Willow Ptarmigan, some glinting pale pink against the background. Lots of Snow Buntings foraged along the buggy roadway and in the high tide line of the bay, birds in the warm rusty-brown of winter plumage. Juvenile Black-bellied Plovers and White-rumped Sandpipers persisted as late southbound migrants. A flock of extremely pale Hoary Redpolls was an exciting find, as was a Northern Goshawk that flew by the buggy after flushing some ptarmigan from the willows.

Not all the tundra wonders were wildlife. The lichen-covered boulders and undulating fields of greywacke dusted with snow were fine elements of the landscape. A rose-colored Arctic sunrise comes to mind, as well as the sun struggling to pierce the silver cloud layer, still managing to light up half-frozen tundra ponds. The warm hospitality of everyone looking after us in Churchill made our stay even more pleasant. And our superb group of patient, friendly, and very observant travelers helped make the trip a memorable success.