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Archive for June, 2009

Great news for Polar Bears! Bad News for Birds.

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Polar Bear with Cubs in Churchill, Manitoba - Michael Poliza Photo

Life often deals winning and losing hands at the same time – and it all depends who gets the Aces. This year, it’s the polar bears of the Eastern Arctic and Western Hudson Bay who are winning, with the longest, coldest spring in decades. This follows last year’s “normal” spring, with ice persisting on Hudson Bay until mid- August.

Over the past 40 years, scientific knowledge of the ecology of western Hudson Bay has expanded at a tremendous rate. The famous white bears of Churchill were familiar to anyone who lived in the area for as long as anyone’s notes or memory extends. In fact, due to the exceptional interests of several of the traders working for the Hudson Bay Company, Churchill is credited with having the oldest and most accurate birding records of any location in the world! Weather and climate data, and observations of many other natural features were also accurately recorded for almost 400 years. Largely missing from this body of data were scientifically verified details about the intimate lives of the bears and birds – how and when they reproduced, how many offspring they had, growth rates, physiological details etc.  That type of knowledge began to rapidly accumulate in the 1960s and ‘70s, with the change in Churchill’s economic focus from trading, shipping and military towards research and ecotourism.

In a nutshell, key points from what was learned about the birds and the bears included the fact that the birds arrive in a rush in the spring (that’s late April and May, not July!). They arrive carrying fat stores and developing eggs in their bodies – essential because the weather does not usually allow them to put on weight when they arrive – everything is still emerging from the grip of winter. Some of the birds nest near Churchill, but the majority will only pass through – heading for the food-rich predator-limited conditions offered by the burst of life in the Arctic summer.

For the polar bears, spring is also a critical time of year. Unlike the other bears most of us are familiar with, which pack on weight in late summer and autumn before their winter’s sleep, the polar bears’ boom time is spring – from April to July – when the young seals are born. These young seals grow at tremendous rates (their bodies may be 50% fat) and are very available to the bears because of their inexperience. The bears slowly lose weight throughout the remainder of the year, so the right conditions in springtime are essential.

Keeping the key points above in mind, it’s easy to understand why 2009 has winners and losers. The birds are trapped by the weather, food is limited and they use up their fat stores. They absorb their growing eggs or lay their eggs only to have them freeze. And finally they head south again without nesting.

On the other hand, the polar bears bask in the cool spring conditions, feeding on seals for a month or more – longer than average. The end result is large numbers of fat and healthy polar bears, with numerous healthy cubs – and great bear watching seasons in 2009 and 2010!

Polar Bear cries Wolf on Tundra

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What a Day!

Woke up at 6:30 a.m. and was watching a wolf playing with/teasing a bear out by the airstrip. The wolf would get in close to nip and the bear would charge after her, the wolf always staying just out of its reach, literally one step ahead.  Awesome sight!

After 30 minutes the bear just laid down and completely ignored the wolf.  She would nip at him along his hind quarters and he would just lay there bored, so she moved on and started harassing a second bear slightly closer to the lodge in our bear waiting area – incredible behavior to watch. This time the wolf, seems a little more serious about its attempts at bothering the bear. Through the spotting scope you could easily see she was showing her teeth and acting in a much more aggressive manner with this bear.  Food being the sticky point maybe. This went on for a short period of time before the wolf gave up hope. Before the wolf  left, she took some time to mark a number of trees in the area, then moved off to the west towards Swan Lake.  All this action before breakfast!

Out on the Bay at 8:15, great morning, super calm and loads of Beluga about. The whales were very curious again today, following us closely the whole time we were in the river mouth. They were very vocal and once the Hydrophone was in the water the whale song was all around us.. Vocal enough in some instances to not even need the Hydrophone. At the end, after everyone who wanted in the water had gone in, we sat and drifted with the tide and wind as the Belugas came and circled us, turning on their sides to peer up at us, as curious about us as we were about them. We drifted offshore a ways into much clearer and deeper water. Under and around us, huge males were swimming just beneath the surface. What was going through their minds? Spectacular!

Back for lunch, then a short rest to digest. Dave put out a great spread! When everyone was ready we headed out towards the north. I had spotted two bears bedded down in that direction earlier. We hiked out to see what we could find.

We decided to stalk the bear furthest away from us, but the wind was wrong on our approach. He scented us and decided to move off as we came in sight of him. He moved into some brush at the base of the next point to
the north. It seemed he didn’t want to be viewed so we decided not to chase him any further.

But we were now in a perfect position to stalk the closer of the two bears near the lodge. Walking back into the wind, we managed to get in closer to him, within 50 metres. We set ourselves and everyone managed to get some great photos. The bear eventually looked up, saw us and moved away onto the tidal flats where he laid down in a position to keep an eye on us.

We then found a third bear we hadn’t noticed before out towards a kill sight from the previous week (beluga whale washed up on shore.) We approached him cautiously, staying quite a distance away, watching. He knew we were there, but didn’t move. We decided we’d leave him laying there, he might have been a little more protective of that particular area.

It was such an awesome day I almost forgot about my own personal close encounter in the morning! I was out working, dropping my Zodiac in the water and looked up towards the lodge, hmm… a bear was standing watching me work about 30 metres away! Mike and Ryley as well, with big grins on their faces. Nobody had said a word to me. Guests were standing in the dining room window snapping shots – a few good ones as well! We tossed some rocks and yelled at the bear and he moved away – but not before providing me with another lesson.  Never get too engrossed in my work to look around – you never know what’s watching you!

Curious bears… another excellent day! What will tomorrow morning bring?