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Posts Tagged ‘Birds Bears and Belugas’

Surrounded by polar bears, sharing a meal at Seal River Lodge

Polar bear mom and cub after seal lunch at Seal River Lodge

Mom and cub relaxing after lunch at Seal River.

by Mike Reimer

Wow! The action at Seal River Lodge is hot and heavy early this year for our great white bears just off the ice!

We’re literally “surrounded” by polar bears as we speak, just point the camera or scope at a point on the compass and you’re likely to see one or two bears. We’re not sure what caused this early concentration but we are not complaining!

Ever wondered what groups of animals are called?

Here at Seal River we have “gaggles” of geese, a “paddling” of duck, a “convocation” of eagles, a “colony” of gulls, a “husk” of Arctic Hares, and today we had a spectacular “sloth” of polar bears.

Six gorgeous bears spent the day sharing a ringed seal one of them had managed to catch. Said seal made the fatal mistake of falling asleep on a nice warm rock on lodge point while the tide was going out and forgot to leave, ending up several hundred meters from the receding water line. This is huge no-no when you are trying to survive on a coastline liberally sprinkled with hungry polar bears and you also happen to be loaded with thousands of calories of their favourite snack, seal fat!

This must have been one of those seals that didn’t belong in the gene pool, and it certainly provided hours of incredible polar bear watching for our Churchill Wild guests. The bears are satiated and fresh as they emerge from their icy Hudson Bay hunting grounds, but they’re certainly not going to pass up an easy meal.

At times there were as many as six bears, including a couple of family groups that were graciously sharing their prize. This certainly won’t be the case come fall when the new ice is forming and the last seal-meal is a distant memory. At present the bears look very well fed and in fabulous shape, so we’re looking forward to another great summer!

Shaping up to be one of our best polar bear viewing seasons yet!

Award-winning photographer Robert Postma returns to Churchill Wild for three dates in 2014

Polar bear cub at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge - Robert Postma photo

Here I come… Photo Credit: Robert Postma

Award-winning photographer Robert Postma will be back at Churchill Wild again in 2014, this time to lead three different groups of photographers and guests in their quest for the perfect polar bear photograph at Seal River Heritage Lodge, Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge and Dymond Lake Eco-Lodge.

Postma will be at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge from September 9-15 and will return to Seal River Heritage Lodge and Dymond Lake Eco-Lodge from November 2-13.

Never one to shy away from adventure, Postma split his time this winter between relaxing in Bolivia, South America, and on-call nursing at remote First Nations outposts in Yukon, Canada.

Wolf at  Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge - Photo Credit: Robert Postma

Wolf at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge – Photo Credit: Robert Postma

“I’m hoping to catch the fall colours at Nanuk this year,” said Postma, who was at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge for the first time in 2013. “We got some great shots last year. I caught a polar bear and a black bear in the same photo, wolves came right up to the tundra Rhino, and we also experienced a full-on intense thunderstorm. I just love photographing storms.”

Storm over Nanuk.

Storm over Nanuk. Photo Credit: Robert Postma

Postma won the Canadian Geographic Photo Club’s Annual Photography Contest in 2011 when the theme was extreme weather and he’s certainly no stranger to winning photo contests. He also won the Banff Mountain Festival Photography Competition, The Nature of Things and Planet in Focus Environmental Photography Competition, the Show us your Canada photo contest, the Up Here Fantastic Photo Contest and Canadian Geographic Photo Club’s Annual Photography Contest, among others. And on April 2, 2012 his photo of a great horned owl bursting from an abandoned toolshed in Saskatchewan was the Photo of the Day on the National Geographic Web site.

“I haven’t been entering many contests lately,” said Postma. “I just haven’t had the time. I’m looking forward to getting back up to the Churchill Wild lodges. You just never know what’s going to show up when you go out the front door (of the lodges).”

Polar bears sparring at Seal River Heritage Lodge

Polar bears sparring at Seal River Heritage Lodge. Photo Credit: Robert Postma

“The arctic foxes, like the red foxes, will sometimes come right up to you at Seal River,” said Postma. “We caught a red fox watching two polar bears sparring last year. There’s also an elusive wolverine at Dymond Lake. And there’s something very special about a backlit polar bear walking towards you through the mist at Seal River, as the sunlight cuts through the steam rising off the icy coastal boulders.”

“If the weather is clear we should also be able to get some great shots of the aurora borealis,” said Postma, who wandered about the Nanuk compound in the wee hours of the morning last year helping guests photograph the northern lights. This year he’ll again be tasked with helping guests take better photographs, while also giving tutorials and slideshows during the evenings.

Northern lights over Nanuk.

Northern lights over Nanuk. Photo Credit: Robert Postma

Postma has worked on Ellesmere Island in Nunavut and traveled all over North America, as well as to Iceland, Australia, Bolivia, Peru, Guyana and Lebanon. His photos have appeared in numerous publications including National Geographic, Canadian Geographic, Up Here, Our Canada, Mountain Equipment Co-op and Astronomy, as well as in brochures, annual reports and calendars. Examples of his work can be seen on the gallery section of his Web site at www.DistantHorizons.ca and on his Robert Postma Photography Facebook Page.

Postma prefers on-the-ground polar bear photography over the tundra buggy variety. He likes to get down low; to look into his subject’s eyes; in an effort to portray emotion in his photographs. Crouched down, lens ready, face-to-face with a polar bear, your heart pounding….

Could you take the shot?

Polar bear paw closeup

Sometimes you do not need to see the entire bear… Photo Credit: Robert Postma

Birdwatching at Seal River Heritage Lodge

Guest Post and Photos by Christian Artuso, PhD
 Bird Studies Canada – Manitoba Program Manager

Seal River Heritage Lodge lies 60 km north of Churchill, right on the Hudson Bay coast. Below is a view of this superb lodge… oh yeah and a big furry white thing.

Seal River Heritage Lodge, Manitoba, Canada

Polar bear relaxing in front of Seal River Heritage Lodge.

This is arguably the best place in the world to watch polar bears, like the mother and cub in the photo below, and these massive animals are certainly the biggest draw for most visitors, along with the beluga whales.

Polar bear mom and cub at Seal River

Polar bear mom and cub at Seal River.

Nonetheless, along with the big mammals, there are many opportunities to view other fascinating wildlife around Seal River, and the birdwatching is excellent. This area, for example, represents the southernmost range limit for certain Arctic species like the Arctic ground-squirrel below, famously known as “Sik-Sik”. These fascinating animals don’t occur south of Seal River and hence are not found in Churchill, but they are very common around Seal River Heritage Lodge.

Arctic ground squirrels, commonly referred to as "sik-siks"  are common around the Lodge.

Arctic ground squirrels, commonly referred to as “Sik-Siks” are abundant around the Lodge.

Seal River Heritage Lodge is further from the trees than Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge, and most of the birding is therefore along the coastal strip. For most birders, having dinner in the main dining room and watching the tide roll in, pushing massive flocks of waterfowl and shorebirds to within easy viewing distance, along with the accompaniment of passing raptors and jaegers and other northern specialties, is the main attraction.

Nonetheless it is well worth going slightly inland towards the treeline transition for excellent birding, with a whole host of specialties. Rocky peat land such as that in the first photo below taken just west of the Lodge, is breeding habitat for the beautiful Smith’s Longspur (second photo below). This area is one of only a few places where you can witness this avian gem on its breeding grounds in spectacular breeding plumage.

Treeline transition: Excellent birding territory!

Treeline transition: Excellent birding territory!

Rocky peat land is prime habitat for Smith's Longspur.

Rocky peat land is prime habitat for Smith’s Longspur.

The treeline transition is also the best place to find the superb Harris’s Sparrow (North America’s largest sparrow and always highly sought after by visiting birders).

The treeline transition is the perfect place to find  Harris's Sparrow.

The treeline transition is the perfect place to find Harris’s Sparrow.

Birding around the small lakes near the Lodge is sure to produce many waterbirds, shorebirds and the thrill of seeing the northern loons up close and personal. The first photo below shows a Pacific Loon with her chick and the second photo shows a Red-throated Loon (both breed locally).

Pacific Loon with chick at Seal River.

Pacific Loon with chick.

Red-throated Loon at Seal River.

Red-throated Loon.

Another northern species with great appeal for visiting birders is the Willow Ptarmigan. They breed near the Lodge and are usually fairly easy to find, although many will leave the area in fall (in late fall Rock Ptarmigan move down into this area from further north). The first photo below shows a male Willow Ptarmigan displaying to a female and the second photo shows a young chick.

Willow Ptarmigan displaying to a female at Seal River.

Willow Ptarmigan displaying to a female.

Willow Ptarmigan chick at Seal River.

Willow Ptarmigan chick.

Short-eared Owls also breed on the open peatland here and are sometimes seen from the Lodge. With considerable luck, it is possible to find other species of owls here, such as the juvenile Northern Hawk Owl (you’ll need to walk back to the trees to find this species). Other owls are few and far between, although Snowy Owls are possible, especially in late fall.

Short-eared Owl Seal River.

Short-eared Owl.

Northern Hawk Owl Seal River.

Northern Hawk Owl.

Most of your birding will occur close to the coast, where the waterfowl and shorebirds congregate. If you enjoy the spectacle of massive flocks of waterfowl such as the Snow Geese shown below, you’ll love the Seal River area.

Snow geese at Seal River.

Snow geese at Seal River.

Common Eider breed here and also occur in large flocks in the fall. All three species of scoter also occur. The photo below shows White-winged Scoter and Common Eider.

White-winged Scoter and Common Eider, Seal River, Manitoba, Canada.

White-winged Scoter and Common Eider

In the fall, flocks of Brant move along the western coast of Hudson Bay. This species is rare anywhere else in Manitoba.

Brants over Hudson Bay.

Brants over Hudson Bay.

Although all three species of jaeger have been recorded in the Seal River area, only the Parasitic Jaeger is regularly occurring. The jaeger show is always a special treat as they perform extraordinarily acrobatic flight maneuvers in order to steal food from other birds such as gulls and terns.

Parasitic Jaeger are seen regularly at Seal River.

Parasitic Jaeger. A regular at Seal River.

The Lodge offers truly superb shorebirding. In July, local breeding species don their breeding colours and may be observed with downy young. By late July the migration is already underway and the flocks start to build. If you hit the tide right, the mudflats can be just teeming with shorebirds. One of the big attractions is the magnificent Hudsonian Godwit. The first photo below shows a Godwit in breeding plumage and the second shows a juvenile feeding on worms in the Hudson Bay mud.

Hudsonian Godwit at Seal River

The magnificent Hudsonian Godwit.

Hudsonian Godwit feeding on worms at Seal River Lodge.

Breakfast time!

A July visit to the area offers a chance to see shorebirds breeding, including observing downy young and juvenal plumages. Below a recently hatched Semipalmated Plover chick crosses the tundra (first photo) and eventually finds shelter underneath a parent along with other siblings (second photo).

Recently hatched Semipalmated Plover chick at Seal River.

Recently hatched Semipalmated Plover chick.

Semipalmated Plover Seal River.

Semipalmated Plover. There are chicks under there!

The next two photos show another local breeding shorebird, the Dunlin, in full breeding colours (first photo) and in juvenal plumage (second photo).

Dunlin in breeding plumage.

Dunlin in breeding plumage.

Juvenile Dunlin at Seal River Lodge.

Juvenile Dunlin hopping across tundra.

Shorebirding in late July and August in the Seal River area is all about finding the flocks feeding on the mudflats. Shorebirds gather here in the tens of thousands to feed in the very productive inter-tidal zone. This is a truly fantastic location to wait on a boulder and photograph shorebirds. It allows you to observe quietly in close proximity to the birds and to witness an array of fascinating behaviours.

Most of the shorebirds here are feeding on the high quantity of worms and other invertebrates available in the inter-tidal mud, as shown in the photo below of a juvenile American Golden-Plover pulling a worm, and again by a Pectoral Sandpiper that has also found a tasty morsel.

American Golden-Plover at Seal River Heritage Lodge, Manitoba, Canada.

American Golden-Plover pulling a worm.

Pectoral Sandpiper at Seal River Lodge, Manitoba, Canada.

This Pectoral Sandpiper isn’t missing breakfast either!

Shorebirds are typically less shy than waterfowl, and sitting quietly in areas where the shorebirds are feeding can allow for fantastic close-up photos, such as this portrait of a Pectoral Sandpiper that walked to within a foot of me as I was conducting shorebird counts.

Pectoral Sandpiper close-up at Seal River.

Pectoral Sandpiper close-up.

In addition to foraging behaviour, you can also observe aggressive interactions, responses to predators, and preening and bathing, as demonstrated below by a juvenile White-rumped Sandpiper.

White-rumped Sandpiper takes a bath at Seal River Lodge, Manitoba, Canada.

White-rumped Sandpiper enjoys a bath.

In this next photo, a juvenile Baird’s Sandpiper stretches in preparation for flight away from the busy mud flat.

Baird's Sandpiper juvenile prepares to take flight.

Baird’s Sandpiper juvenile prepares to take flight.

There are also shorebirds a little further inland on the coastal flats that are grazed by Canada Geese and Snow Geese. In late July, August and early September, this is the best place to look for one of the avian stars of fall birding here — the magnificent Buff-breasted Sandpiper. They are masters of camouflage however, as you will note from the photo below.

Buff-breasted Sandpipers

Buff-breasted Sandpipers. Camouflage experts!

If you spotted three Buff-breasted Sandpipers in the above photo, well done! If you spotted any less, go back and take a second look. The two photos below give you a closer look at these beauties!

Buff-breasted Sandpiper

Buff-breasted Sandpiper poses for the camera.

Buff-breasted Sandpiper.

As did this one!

Other species that forage on these flats include American Golden-Plover, Lapland Longspur and Horned Lark, as shown in the photo below.

Lapland Longspur, Horned Lark and American Golden-Plover. Seal River, Canada.

Lapland Longspur, Horned Lark and American Golden-Plover on the flats.

Below is a close-up look at one of the Lapland Longspurs in fall plumage. July is the time to see Lapland Longspurs in their magnificent breeding colours, but in August and September there are flocks of thousands near the Lodge (Smith’s Longspurs depart earlier than Lapland Longspurs).

Lapland Longspur

Lapland Longspur in fall plumage.

And of course, there are still a variety of northern songbirds to observe, even in the fall here. Below an American Pipit that has already moulted out of its pink breeding plumage interacts with a begging youngster.

American Pipits

American Pipit interacts with a begging youngster.

Amongst several warbler species present, the Northern Waterthrush is a common breeder in the willows around the Lodge. In August I managed to photograph the individual below foraging on rocks in the bay near the Lodge, offering an unusually clear view of this often skulking species.

Northern Waterthrush

Northern Waterthrush foraging on the rocks.

The birds pictured here represent just a small handful of the many species found in the Seal River area. Diversity is very high in the summer and you might record over 100 species on a trip if you encompassed various habitat types. Especially if you were present during the migration, when the high Arctic shorebirds join the local breeders.

Fewer species can be seen in the fall, but that is nonetheless a superb time to watch the spectacle of massive migratory flocks, or to search for rarities, and, of course, to view polar bears and other amazing northern wildlife.

 For more information and photos from Christian Artuso, please visit his Web site at http://artusophotos.com. You can also read Christian’s photo essays on his wildlife blog at http://artusobirds.blogspot.com.

Furry boulders and not-so-feathery seabirds at Seal River Heritage Lodge

Guest Post and Photos by Katlin Miller

Author Katlin Miller

Author Katlin Miller outside Seal River Heritage Lodge

When most people think about polar bears, they probably picture massive white bears roaming a never-ending blanket of snow and ice hunting for ringed seals. Similarly, the word beluga likely triggers reminiscences of the song ‘Baby Beluga’ or the white whales featured in some of SeaWorld’s most popular exhibits. For three Colorado residents however, the lasting memories of polar bears and belugas will, forever more, be much, much different.

Johnnie, Tasha, and Katlin Miller, of Granby, recently joined 15 other adventurers from around the world to embark on a week-long vacation of a lifetime. Flying from Denver to Winnipeg to Churchill and finally to the Seal River Heritage Lodge, the three weren’t exactly sure what they were in for when they signed up for Churchill Wild’s Birds, Bears and Belugas trip.

Most wildlife enthusiasts know that if you want to see polar bears, Churchill, Canada, is the place to go. After all, it is commonly identified as the “Polar Bear Capital of the World” and even has its own polar bear jail just outside the town limits.

Tundra buggies are the most common mode of travel for polar bear seekers wishing to see the top carnivore of the Arctic. However, tundra buggies are not the only option for polar bear viewing. If you want the real, on-the-ground, polar bear experience, you’ve got to go with Churchill Wild.

Foggy morning polar bear at Seal River

Foggy morning polar bear at Seal River

Located on Hudson Bay near the Seal River Estuary, Seal River Heritage Lodge is one of several Churchill Wild lodges located in the wilds of Canada. Known for being a secluded getaway, you won’t see another soul in sight, or even another plane, train, or automobile.

The little single-engine “Beaver” that drops you off at the Lodge is the only connection you will have to the outside world until it returns to pick you up five days later. Hopefully you learn to like the members of the group, and the lodge staff, because you are literally stuck with these folks for the duration of your trip.

Admittedly, the lodge staff, made up entirely of immediate and extended family members, with the exception of the two guides/bodyguards, were absolutely stellar and heart-warming. The food was also five-star cuisine!

Our fellow adventurers were also great people with many diverse experiences and backgrounds. In addition to the three of us (ranchers), we were accompanied by a principal, swimming pool builder, retired real estate agent, chemist, accountant, family of four, hilarious doctor from the Bronx, psychiatrist, librarian, and even a famous travel writer.

While tundra buggies provide a safe, high-perched, behind-the glass, kind of experience; it would be deemed BORING when compared to Churchill Wild’s EXHILIRATING walking trips. Furthermore, tundra buggies only provide polar bear viewing opportunities in the fall, whereas Churchill Wild offers summer trips too.

Photographing polar bears at ground level

Photographing polar bears at ground level

These summer trips provide tourists with a different scene for polar bear viewing. You won’t see any snow, ice, or ringed seals this time of year. In fact, the typical white background of most polar bear photos is replaced with the vibrant pinks and greens of lush fireweed, grass, and willows. Ringed seals are also replaced with sik siks (arctic prairie dogs).

Likewise, the ferocious, terrifying, killing beasts of the winter turn into a mellow, sleepy bums in the summer. They often lie around on the rocks during low tide and appear as “polar boulders”. Sometimes it takes a second, third, or even a fourth look to see if that boulder over there seems to have a furry texture or if it’s moving. If the true identity of that boulder is too difficult to discern from the “compound”, than why not just take a hike and see for yourself?

Don’t get me wrong, safety is still of the utmost concern and one is constantly guarded by guys with guns when outside the compound, but the nerves of walking alongside the largest land carnivore on earth seem less than frightening. Even up-close-and-personal encounters provided exciting, yet comfortable, viewing experiences.

Churchill Wild is the ONLY tourist company in the world that allows you to step outside the safe confines of a vehicle, fence, or structure and actually walk with polar bears. You walk out in the open and approach bears to within 50 yards both on land and in the zodiac boats.

When in the compound (the fenced yard surrounding the lodge, made 12’ high with 6” wire mesh), guests can literally get within a few feet of the bears. The guide did mention at one point that the fence would not keep a desperate bear out, but rather just act as a deterrent or small obstacle.

Nevertheless, we all flocked to the fence when the opportunity arose to stare into the eyes of passing polar bear. The bear in the photo album below was totally calm and seemed to care less that there were a bunch of ecstatic tourists just on the other side of this seemingly wimpy fence. He stuck around for an hour or more, posed several times for the camera, fiddled with a bird feather on the edge of the deck, swatted some nagging mosquitos, and even took a snooze before our eyes!

Another time, we got very close to three different polar bears swimming in the water. We were in our zodiacs, but still…they were so close and are excellent swimmers.

Though polar bears often steal the show in Churchill, an equally impressive distant relative, the beluga whale, deserves just as much credit. Thousands of belugas migrate into the Hudson Bay during the summer to raise their young, shred dead skin, and enjoy the summer season. Their spirited chirps, whistles, and chatter, ring underwater and righteously honor their reputation as “Sea Canaries” (aka not-so-feathery seabirds).

Beluga whale couple at Seal River

Beluga whale couple at Seal River

Seeing beluga whales from above the water is majestic in itself, but the real action comes when you take the plunge into the water with them. Even though they are carnivores in the sense that they eat fish and other sea creatures, belugas are very gentle and friendly when it comes to people. Just hook up your snorkel and face mask and start humming your favorite song.

The belugas don’t care if you’re a rock star or a beginner singing nursery rhymes; to them, it’s all new and different. Before long, their curiosity becomes irresistible and belugas start showing up everywhere. Swimming within inches of you, the whales sometimes even give little nudges, nibbles, or even a kiss. It is truly a life-changing experience to be touched by a beluga!

All in all, Churchill Wild’s catalog of world-class trips is a MUST-DO for any avid traveler or wildlife aficionado. From furry boulders to feathery and not-so-feathery seabirds, you’ll see it all at Churchill Wild’s Seal River Heritage Lodge.

Trips are suited for all sorts of people. Kids, parents, grandparents, singles, families, and couples are all welcome, and everyone will thoroughly enjoy it. In addition to the Birds, Bears, and Belugas trip that the Millers took, Churchill Wild also offers several other polar bear and wildlife-viewing trips.

Churchill Wild does not disappoint!

Note: A selection of Katlin’s photos from Seal River Heritage Lodge are included below. You can view her full photo album from the Birds, Bears and Belugas Adventure here.

 

Make-A-Wish upon a polar bear

by Mike Reimer, Churchill Wild

Norquay boys meet polar bear!

Norquay boys meet polar bear!

Recipe for a polar bear adventure, with whales!

Start with a wish, two wonderful kids, loving parents, 12 polar bears, and endless fields of fireweed. Add a dash of Terry-O-Terry (guide), large amounts of fantastic food, and mix with thousands of beluga whales. Stir in vast amounts of chilly Hudson Bay water. Top with storytelling and fun and simmer gently with warm, cozy nights in the world’s only polar bear eco-lodge.

It comes out perfect every time!

We were blessed this season to receive a visit from Zachary Norquay, who brought along his brother Jacob, his Mom Sara and Dad Alan. I think Mom and Dad likely helped cover some of Zachary’s expenses, while energizer bunny Jacob supplied the extra power!

It was Zachary’s Make-A-Wish®  to come and see our great white bears and he elected to join us for our Birds, Bears & Belugas Adventure this summer. It turned out to be a fantastic choice!

Many polar bears were spotted on both the coastal hikes and the marine adventures in the Zodiaks. The beluga whales welcomed Zachary to Seal River by the thousands, and I think they would have liked to adopt him into their pods.

The lodge staff enjoyed the Norquay family’s company immensely and tried hard to help them “stowaway” on changeover day, hoping to keep them for future helpers! The family also created the thank you video below, which was very kind of them!

We all look forward to the next visit from this great family.

 

About Make-A-Wish® Canada

Make A Wish FoundationMake-A-Wish® Canada and Make-A-Wish® British Columbia & Yukon are part of the largest not-for-profit wish granting organization in the world, serving 30 countries with international affiliates on five continents (Make-A-Wish International®).

Since inception in 1980, Make-A-Wish® has helped make over 225,000 wishes come true for children around the world. Make-A-Wish® in Canada consists of eight regional Chapters and the Canada Office, which is located in Toronto, Ontario. We grant the wishes of children with life-threatening medical conditions to enrich the human experience with hope, strength and joy.