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Guest Posts

Arctic fox steals the show on sunny day at Seal River

Arctic fox with guide Terry Elliot at Churchill Wild

Taming the Hunter: The Perfect Pose

by Churchill Wild Guide Terry Elliot

People come to Seal River Heritage Lodge to see the polar bears, but on this occasion the arctic fox obviously stole the show!

Vulpes Lagopus has cyclical population numbers. More prey equals more foxes, and we were seeing lots of lemmings all summer so this was obviously good for the kits (baby foxes). We counted as many as 14 at one time this year, probably a family group with lots of infighting for position in the pecking order.

The arctic foxes have always been bold and inquisitive creatures, but especially so in this photo. Typically they will follow a polar bear out on to the ice and scavenge for the winter. During the summer their coat turns brown, they breed and eat lemmings, eggs, birds, hares, even insects and frogs.

In a prosperous year the females can have as many as 16 kits. Their dense fur enables them to withstand extreme cold temperatures and leave their red-haired cousins behind at the tree line. When sleeping, they will curl into a tight ball with their bushy tail over their nose.

My wife calls this picture “Taming the Hunter”. Unfortunately the photo I was taking here did not turn out as well as the photo of me taking it. It’s a terrible thing when the wildlife is so close to your camera that you can’t get focused. But you have to take the wonderful with the almost-wonderful.

And I did get a decent shot of his ear :)

Me? Fly a Plane?

Or “Rough Company at Cape Churchill”
by Ian Thorleifson

Ian Thorleifson with polar bear cubs

Ian Thorleifson with polar bear cubs

Working with wildlife is always full of surprises. One day in November, my assignment was to meet an airplane and a pilot at Thompson airport, fly to Cape Churchill (a favourite resting place for Polar bears during their on land season), land on the beach ridge, and pick up two Wildlife Service biologists. Then we were to fly along the coast of Hudson Bay, searching for radio- collared polar bears.

Sunday at ten in the morning was the agreed time to meet at the airport, and I was there in plenty of time. The only other person around the hangar was a mechanic, working on another plane. I asked him which plane we were to fly with, and he indicated a Cessna 206 parked nearby. I walked over and checked it out, and noted a couple of unique features. The 206’s I’d seen were “tail- dragger” – two wheels under the body and one more under the back of the tail. This one was on “tricycle gear” – three wheels in a triangle configuration under the front of the fuselage with the load balanced by the weight of the engine. Every other 206 I remembered had a three blade prop – each blade being about 2 and a half feet – 80 cm – long. This one had a two blade prop instead, with three foot blades to make up the difference.  Besides, it was a “Trainer” – two equal sets of operating gear to allow the pilot to take control anytime from a person who was learning to fly. I mentioned all this to the mechanic, and he said “Doesn’t make any difference”, and I reckoned he was right.

“It’s quarter to eleven”, I remarked, “Where’s that pilot?”

“He’ll be here”, the mechanic reassured, and sure enough, in walked a sharply dressed young fellow with a city haircut and the meanest set of blood shot eyes I’d seen since earlier that morning. I don’t like the looks of this, I thought as I introduced myself. “Been bush flying long?” I asked. “Just arrived from Calgary yesterday,” he explained, “And they threw a heck of a welcome party for me last night.” Oh, great….  “You look pretty rough – you sure you’re ok to fly??” “For sure! They’ll fire me if I blow my first assignment!”

Against my better judgement, we loaded up and took off toward Gillam, me in the left front seat. I knew my way from Thompson to Cape Churchill “like the back of my hand”, so I reassured the pilot I could navigate for him without maps. That reassured him, and he visibly relaxed – so much so that in about fifteen minutes, his head was bobbing! “Hey, what are you doing?” I yelled. He snapped to attention, then said, “Man, I’m so tired – Can you fly a plane?” I protested vehemently, summarized my flying experiences from the passenger seat, then realized that we weren’t going anywhere with that.  “It’s easy now we’re in the air” my sad specimen of a pilot reassured me – just do this and this and I’ll just have a quick nap.

He was mostly right – Weather was calm, only a few controls to manipulate. The challenge was navigating. I didn’t have the confidence to fly AND look at a map, but, no problem, I could navigate to the Cape from my own memory of the terrain. But – I had to be able to see the ground! We left Thompson with a complete overcast sky and a 3000 foot ceiling. As I flew NE, the ceiling kept dropping. So did I.  By the time sad sack started stirring, we were at 300 feet and getting close to the Cape. He stretched, glanced out the window and LEAPED towards the controls! “What the … are you doing so low?!” I explained, and he settled down. I then described the terrain at the Cape – open gravel beach ridges, one that led to a tower where the researchers were. We would carefully land on the ridge, taxi to the tower, pick them up and go.

206 cockpit with trainer gear

206 cockpit with trainer gear

He surprised me with his very good landing! Because of our tricycle landing gear, he landed “nose up” then slowly lowered the front until all three wheels were rolling along the ridge – rolling right into a polar bear day bed!  Only about eight inches deep, but just deep enough to make our extra-long blades on the propeller contact the gravel. “Praaang” was the sound, and the plane started to vibrate. We were almost right at the tower, so he quickly shut off the engine. We got out to look, and our biologist buddies came down from the tower. No question – we were not flying anywhere with those twisted and broken blades!

In keeping with the “no problems” attitude, the tower crew invited us up for a meal of spaghetti and red wine, and talk things over. Great supper, but a quick look at the tower did not reveal anywhere for two more people to sleep except in layers. Not the best way to get along. I suggested “That plane is big enough – we’ll pull out the seats and Good Luck the Pilot and I will sleep in there – Any bears around?” The biologists informed me that just before we landed, they had scanned all the way around and counted 43 big male polar bears! Pilot’s eyes got very big – but I said “No Problem – I’ve got scare pistols and heavy rifles and shotguns – They’ll never take us alive!” He was not reassured, but really had little choice.

We climbed down to the plane, removed the seats and stored them safely, laid out our sleeping bags and snuggled in with all but our outer parka and boots on. It was comfortable enough, and I was asleep quickly – but not for long. Pilot had me by the shoulder and shaking, hissing through his teeth “Ian there’s a bear at the window right beside you” and sure enough, I looked up and could see a big black nose pressed up against the Plexiglas, five feet up off the ground. No problem – I just waited until he pulled his nose back, opened the door and bumped his nose, then fired a “cracker shell” onto the ground in front of him – BOOM! FLASH! and away he ran. That happened eight times that night. They pounded on the tail of the plane, pulled the insulating engine cover off, banged on the windows. I chased them away each time, but my eyes were sore from the Flashes, my ears were dull from the Booms. I got very little sleep. Pilot got none.

In the morning, we climbed back up into the tower for coffee. The biologists had radioed to town, and soon two rescue planes appeared! Pilot just about leaped right out of the tower. We flew away with one plane and a regular pilot to do our radio collar surveys. The mechanics put another propeller on the plane, and, incredibly, they flew it to town without it falling out of the sky – but it did have a cracked crankshaft when they took it apart, and that could have come apart at any time in the air…

And, you know, I never did see or hear from that Pilot again!

The amazing strategies behind Caribou antlers. Nature has its reasons.

Caribou with large set of antlers

Caribou antlers all have a story to tell...

by Ian Thorleifson

Caribou antlers are spectacular to look at, but the strategies behind their growth and importance to an individual caribou are even more amazing. Everyone knows that males like to show off for females – that goes without saying. Caribou bulls are no different than males from other species, and the females do respond appropriately, but the showing off and responding is much more complex than just a look.

A caribou bull weighs about 325 pounds or 160 kg. They start with a bare forehead every spring, and in less than 120 days they grow a complete set of antlers that may weigh as much as 35 pounds – 10 percent of their body weight! That kind of growth is almost magical – in fact, no other living tissue grows that quickly except mushrooms!

While the antlers are growing, they are soft, covered with skin and hair and made up of spongy cartilage. They feel like your nose and similarly also have a bone at the base. Unlike your nose however, in the last month of antler growth the cartilage calcifies and becomes hard bone.

To keep the antlers tough and resilient enough to withstand the incredible pressures of battling with other bulls, the blood flow in the antlers – super quick and of large volume while the antlers are growing – slows to just the bare minimum. This prevents the bone from becoming too hard, as to be brittle and easy to break.

Growing new appendages that weigh 10 percent of body weight in such a short period of time takes more energy and nutrients than a bull caribou can generate by eating, so he robs his own skeleton for building materials like calcium and phosphorus, to the point where his ribs would break easily if they were struck in the summer. This is why the bulls complete their antler growth at least a month before the rut. They need to gobble as much nutrition as possible to replace those borrowed building materials and get strong and fat before the rut.

Antlers are expensive, but they add up to a graphic demonstration of the bull’s health, ability to mobilize nutrients and avoid predation – a measure of his vibrancy and value as a sire of many caribou calves.

Caribou cows grow antlers as well, but their strategies are quite different. Their antlers are much smaller than the ones the bulls grow, and they don’t need them to “show off” with – they need them to fight with at feeding sites and to fend off predators.

Bulls grow their antlers earlier in the year, use them in the rut, and drop them as soon as the rut is over. Cows grow their antlers later, and carry them all winter.  Amazingly, cows that are not pregnant going into the winter drop their antlers earlier as well, so by late spring and calving time, all the antler advantage in competition for nutrients or fighting wolves goes to the pregnant cows. Shortly after the calves are born in early June, newly growing plants offer a flood of nutrients. The cows drop their remaining antlers and…

nature’s elegant cycle begins anew.

Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge – What’s it really like? Photojournalist and adventure travel blogger Birgit-Cathrin Duval tells all

Night at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge

Nightfall at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge - Photo Credit: Birgit-Cathrin Duval

Writer/photographer Birgit-Cathrin Duval, who was recently nominated for a Best International Story Award 2010, was a recent visitor to Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge - and she documented the entire experience!

An adventurous type who says she would rather sleep in a tent than a 5-star hotel, Birgit-Cathrin also says she loves the challenge of getting to where she’s going, meeting great people and listening to their stories.

“I don’t want to write a story,” she says in her bio. “I want to live it and bring back those experiences to my readers.”

Whether it be mountain biking in the Rockies, snowshoeing in Banff, riding horses in ranchland or swimming with beluga whales and hiking with polar bears, Birgit-Cathrin wants to be “in” the story. 

Polar Bear at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge

Morning visit from polar bear at Nanuck - Photo Credit: Birgit-Cathrin Duval

That’s exactly what happened at Nanuck, where she found “friendly” polar bears, stormy weather and spectacular aurora borealis – all of which she photographed for her blog.

Birgit-Cathrin’s entire polar bear trip is documented on her visual storytelling blog at http://www.takkiwrites.com/. The blog is written in German but if you are using the Google Chrome browser with built in Google Translate, you can also read about her trip in English. And you definitely want to check out the photos!

Thanks for visiting Birgit-Cathrin!

Churchill Wild guest Claire Wilson makes semi-finals in Wildlife Photographer of the Year Competition

On the Rocks - Photo Credit: Claire Wilson

by Claire Wilson

We visited Seal River Heritage Lodge on Churchill Wild’s Great Ice Bear polar bear tour at the end of October 2009. I have always had a huge fascination with polar bears and was extremely excited about visiting the Seal River area in search of polar bears.  I tried not to get my expectations too high however, telling myself that we might only get a distant glimpse of a bear.

How wrong I was!

As soon as our plane touched down at Seal River, we could see several bears around us. Within an hour, there were two bears play-fighting a few feet from the front door of the lodge – amazing! I felt like I had died and gone to wildlife heaven!

We were lucky to get a mixture of conditions – the weather was dry and bright when we first arrived, but we then had plenty of snow and at one point the temperature cooled down to -27 degrees.

Polar bears wrestling near Seal River Lodge on Hudson Bay. Claire Wilson photo.

High and Mighty - Photo Credit: Claire Wilson

Our whole three days at the lodge were jam-packed with photo opportunities. Terry and Andy, our friendly and knowledgeable guides, were ready to take us out for hikes at any opportunity, and we saw plenty of bears every time we ventured outside.  Everyone learned a great deal about these majestic animals and their environment, and every day we all came back with full memory cards on our cameras. My husband Pete and I took about 3000 photographs between us!

Upon returning home, I was so proud of some of my photographs that I decided to send a few into the Wildlife Photographer of The Year competition, now in its 46th year and organized by The Natural History Museum, London and BBC Wildlife Magazine. This is a huge competition which has tens of thousands of entries from all over the world every year. Last year there were over 43,000 entries, and apparently there were well in excess of this amount for 2010.

I was absolutely stunned when I recently received an e-mail advising me that three of my entries had made it into the semi finals!

One photograph entitled “High and Mighty” (Semi-Finalist in the Category Animal Behaviour: Mammals) was taken on our first full day at Seal River when we went for a long group hike. The two bears seemed to want to perform for the cameras!

Polar bear photo Clash of the Titans taken by Claire Wilson at Seal River near Churchill, Manitoba on Hudson Bay while on Churchill Wild's Great Ice Bear Tour.

Clash of the Titans - Photo Credit: Claire Wilson

I shot “On The Rocks” (Semi-Finalist for the Gerald Durrell Award for Endangered Wildlife) the next day, literally feet from the lodge. And the third photograph I submitted, “Clash of the Titans” (also a Semi-Finalist in the Category Animal Behaviour: Mammals) was taken on our last morning at Seal River Heritage Lodge just a few minutes before we had too, reluctantly, leave this wonderful location.

We had such a great time with Churchill Wild! I can’t wait to return for our next adventure!