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Posts Tagged ‘Hudson Bay’

Walking with polar bears at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge

This story originally appeared in Huffington Post Travel. It is republished here courtesy of author Richard Bangs.

You can’t drive here; you can’t boat here; you can’t even walk here… you’d be eaten. We’re somewhere in the back end of nowhere, some 300 kilometers from the closest paved road; 1500 kilometers from the nearest Whole Foods. If you cry wolf here, everyone believes you.

 

 
It’s the third day of a week-long safari. Not in Tanzania, Botswana, Zambia or anywhere in Africa. We’re in the sub-Arctic, on Cape Tatnum, Hudson Bay, Manitoba, 57 degrees North Latitude. We’re on foot, in knee-high Wellies, sloshing single-file behind our guide, Andy MacPherson, towards a big mother polar bear. The general rule is to halt 50 or more meters from a polar bear. They’re master predators, largest land carnivores on the planet, top of the food chain, and are hungry this time of year. They feast on ice-breeding seals in the winter months, hunting from floating bergs on Hudson Bay, “The Cold Ocean.” But when the ice breaks in July, sleuths of bears come ashore and wait.

There are some berries and birds, and the occasional whale carcass that washes up onto the sand. But mostly the bears live off stored fat reserves and wait for the ice to come back in mid-November. It is the longest period of food deprivation of any mammal on earth. Now it’s September, when the sun describes a horseshoe around the margins of the sky, and life is beginning to drain from the land. The beasts are, at this time, justifiably famished.

Polar bear with her cubs at Nanuk.

Polar bear with cubs at Nanuk.

Not many get to see polar bears in the wild. Most who do take a Tundra Buggy tour in Churchill, riding in giant tank-like buses that allow looking down at the melancholy wandering of Ursus maritimus without any chance of attack. Others see the bears from the decks of cruise ships plowing through the Arctic Oceans. But very few ever actually walk among the bears.

Some call Andy “The Polar Bear Whisperer.” He doesn’t disavow the title, but admits he can’t really Dolittle with the bears; rather he has come up with techniques to “keep them off balance.” Polar bears are intelligent, curious, and socially complex, he says, though there are several instinctive responses to humans approaching, and each bear has his own contextual personality and reaction. If she deems approaching vehicles, or a walking group, threatening, she might turn and run. Or she might charge. But once a response kicks-in, it is near impossible to stop. So, if kept disoriented, Andy postulates, she won’t decide on an action, but will wait for more information.
 

 
“Each time we interact with a bear we have the opportunity to add either positive or negative experiences to her toolbox,” he softly explains. “And that accumulation of knowledge affects the bear’s decision-making process.”

We have slowly walked around a long sandbar, being careful to stay downwind of “Pihoqahiaq,”(the ever-wandering one), as the Inuit call her. Her eyesight is supposedly similar to ours, but the ears are much better. And it’s very quiet here. The few sounds the polar bear knows include the crack of ice, the whoosh of wind, and the claver of geese. So, the human voice is unfamiliar, and can potentially trigger the wrong behavior.

So, Andy signals us to be quiet. The white giant, though, stands up, and begins to amble in our direction on large, silent feet. Her face is inscrutable, though the eyes say someone is home. She taps the air with her Roman nose, which has, Andy says, a better sense of smell than a bloodhound. I imagine everyone is thinking the same as me… if she attacks, who will be the slowest runner. The bear keeps stepping towards us. The Arctic air suddenly seems hot from the flame of risk. I expect Andy to back up, but instead he steps towards the bear…. a face off.  Andy has two small rocks in his hand, which he clicks, a sound meant to keep the bear a little off-balance. And Andy speaks to her, a note of mysticism in his voice.

“Hi Beautiful. We’re just here to say hello. How is your day?” He speaks in a low monotone, which he says sounds like Charlie Brown’s teacher to the bear. It is meant to be non-threatening, and mildly confusing. The bear and Andy keep moving closer, and we obediently stay behind, and formally still.

I look around to scope an escape route, but there is nothing. We’re a kilometer from the taiga forest, which doesn’t have a tree worth climbing anyway. On the other side, the second largest bay in the world, named for doomed explorer Henry Hudson, with water deadly cold, and bears are faster swimmers anyway. Behind is a loamy coastline, desolate as the mare on the moon, and polar bears can outrun a race horse from a standing start. I recall a bit of advice I heard from a guide years ago on the Seal River: “Most polar bears are left-pawed, so if the beast charges, leap to her right.” But I used to be a guide, and know the adage true: “How do you tell if a guide is lying? His lips are moving.”

Andy McPherson, Polar Bear Guide, Churchill Wild, Manitoba, Canada

Andy the Polar Bear Whisperer.

Regardless, all bets are on Andy. He continues to step forward, facing the bear, eye-to-eye. He clicks the rocks. Slung around his shoulder is a 12-gauge shotgun; on the belt of his camouflaged chaps, a starter pistol and a can of pepper spray. His back-up: Albert Saunders, a Swampy Cree born near here, bringing up the rear, and equally equipped. Albert has worked this coastline for years, laying trap lines in the winter, and hunting polar bears, with binoculars, in the summer.

Finally, less than 20 meters from one another, the bear turns, and plods away, like a bulldozer back to the yard. It would have taken her seconds to leap forward and rip off Andy’s head. But she chose something else. We all let out sighs. It was, all and all, a sublime encounter, an agreeable kind of horror.

The 18th century Irish philosopher, Edmund Burke, tried to account for the passions evoked in the human mind by what he called “terrible objects.” He was interested in our psychic response to things that seized, terrified, and yet also somehow pleased the mind by dint of being too big, too fast, too powerful, too uncontrollable to be properly comprehended. He wrote: “Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of The Sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.” He went on to summarize that terror was a passion that “always produces delight, when it does not press too close.”

There are few places where one can plunge into the reality pudding of proximity to an ice-loving ursid, or any large predator, on the ground, in the field, eye level, with no fences or glass between. The Nanuk Lodge, named for “the master of the polar bears” in Inuit mythology, is one such place.
 

 
It takes at least two days to get to sub-Saharan Africa from almost anywhere in North America, and once there it takes a few days to get through the fog of jetlag. It takes me a day to reach the western edge of Hudson Bay from Los Angeles, two time zones away, arriving in time for moose burger soup, and an afternoon safari into the habitat of the Monarchs of the North.

I fly commercial to Winnipeg, capital of Manitoba, and then Calm Air to Gillam, a dam town on the Nelson River, and finally a charter Britten-Norman Islander over endless spots of water that look like human eyes glittering or brooding, as the mood strikes, mirroring, it might seem, the soul of the landscape. We bank sharply, and then swoop to land at the small dirt strip in front of Nanuk, corrugated with footprints the size of hubcaps.

Flying over Hudson Bay, Manitoba, Canada.

Flying over Hudson Bay.

Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge, owned by Churchill Wild, is surrounded by a 10′ high page wire fence, evoking the feeling that we, the humans, are in the zoo, especially when the animals rear haunches and place paws on the linkage. Inside the fence is a boneyard of animal skeletons found nearby, adding to the Planet of the Beasts sensation. Within the first few hours a black bear and a polar bear circle around our cage, looking for a way in. They bite, shove and pull at the wire mesh. We climb the wooden viewing tower, half as an added precaution. The polar bear finds a cardboard box, filled with empty wine bottles, awaiting an air pickup, and sticks her snout in for a few good sniffs. When she finally chooses to move on, we retire to the Common Room, and snack on caribou bacon wraps, and sip Pinot noir in front of the large handmade stone fireplace, backed by a huge bay window that looks, when a bald eagle perches on a black spruce outside, like a giant screen saver.

We’re utterly, completely, totally off the grid, except for the satellite Wi-Fi. The protracted twilight is spent reviewing digital photos of the day, thousands of them, posting on social media, and generally committing philosophy. The group is mostly Australian, and a few Canadians. My friend Didrik and I are the only Americans, or South Americans as some Canadians consider anyone from south of the 53rd parallel.

Dinners are Northern gourmet, freshest tundra-to-table to be found, as Riley the cook hunts much of the fare just beyond the fence. The exception being the quinoa chocolate cake, which I suspect took some ingredients not within walking distance.
 

 
The following days are rich with sensation and awe, and the simple admiration that wildlife can survive in an environment that would defeat us in very short order. After breakfast we board one of the two open-air lodge vehicles, a standard Honda quad bike, and a custom-built 8-wheel drive “aluminum rhino” (a Geo Metro engine inside, and moose antler for a stick shift… it looks, from the front, a cross between the #5 robot in the movie Short Circuit and WALL-E). Neither vehicle offers any protection from 1000 lb. feral quadrupeds, but that’s the point.

As our space station of a lodge fades into the distance we witness flights of avifauna fancy, from avalanches of snow geese, to peregrine falcons, to tundra swans, golden plovers, and the rubber ducky horn perched on the silver rhino. We carve an anfractuous path along a land so raw it looks as though the clock has been reset to zero, across silt flats, peat lands and sedge grasses, through vast, luminous country that provides the supremely satisfying sensation of existing in the midst of something absolute… even if it isn’t.

On the second day, under light that is soft, diffuse and intense at once, we trundle out through bogs and boreal forest towards the mudflats, and at the verge of a small river two black wolves, in full autumnal pelage, lope across our paths. We stop; they stop. The wolves are so fine-looking, but practically pulse with power and barely suppressed savagery. The tension between beauty and violence could snap a winch cable. They approach, and cautiously circle our vehicles. They snuffle, like dogs, and step within a few feet of us.

It’s such a naked, raw, unpredictable experience, knowing that a random, inexplicable tap could trigger a Siegfried and Roy tiger attack. Or what happened to Timothy Treadwell, The Grizzly Man. Or SeaWorld orca trainer Dawn Brancheau, as recounted in the film Blackfish. It would take a trice for the wolves to get to us, to drop us like caribou. But, after several minutes of consideration, they turn and lumber off like shadows into a thicket of birch and bush.

Wolf encounters Rhino Buggy Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge.

Wolf encounters the Rhino Buggy.

Each day we set out in our all-terrains, bobbing through the landscape like boats in a storm. We constantly scope the unsummarized shores of Hudson Bay, and with wildlife sightings, dismount the vehicles and watchfully walk as close as Andy deems safe. In this original scape we witness a range of polar bear behavior, up close and personal.

This is the season, and the prime place, for mothers and c.o.y.s., “cubs of the year,” and we gawp as a mother and her two cubs rest in a day-nest scooped from the sand beneath a turning willow, when another mom, with three cubs trailing, comes galloping across the badlands, either ready to pounce, or fleeing from some unseen hazard. Regardless, the first mom takes no chances, and hastens out of her nest, while the running bear and cubs take over the spot, and settle down. It’s a bear country jamboree.

Under streaks of bone-colored clouds, scratches in the sky, we watch patiently as a bear holds it head like a sphinx, taking her own council, never moving a wit. Another pair on the beach stands erect on hind legs, like taxidermies in The Explorers Club, and battles one another for some sort of dominance. I glass the scene with my Steiners and watch their white fur rippling like a field under wind. A

Another mother emerges from an inlet, shaking the water from her fur like a huge dog, sending out a bloom of spray that glitters in the air like grains of mica. She then swaggers up a small hummock, and turns our way, massive shoulders rolling, expressionless eyes boring into ours. When her big sloped head yawns we all try not focus on the size of her teeth. Every time she moves, Andy clicks his rocks, as though the two actions are connected by a string. It’s all very human-like, and comprehensible, even if we don’t really know anything of what she is doing or thinking. Then, she stops, lies down, and ignores us, so we head back the Lodge.
 

 
“Quork, quork, quork:” the sound at the door, the one with the moose antler handle. Andy enters cupping a wood frog in his palms. It is the cryogenic Walt Disney of Manitoba, in that it spends its winter, frozen solid, but then thaws out to full animation about the time polar bears are leaving the ice for land in the summer. Despite the violence outside our windows, inside Nanuk I am threatened only by a surfeit of tea, hospitality and a tiny green frog.

On the final night, after a dinner of fresh trout, we’re interrupted during a dessert of Pavlovas and cream with an uninvited guest, a polar bear at the fence rattling the postern. But as if the scene is not rich enough, the clear night sky begins to light up with the Aurora Borealis, looking like something at the edge of a dream. What a combo…a giant ice bear at our gate, and the Northern Lights above.

Aurora Borealis above the viewing tower at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge, Manitoba, Canada.

Aurora Borealis above the viewing tower at Nanuk.

We gather outside, into air dank as an oyster, to bathe in the light of this optical phenomenon. I feel as though inside some great fishbowl, a captive on the inside, peering out to a larger universe. A thin nebulous cloud of green appears directly overhead and hovers, changing every few seconds. Suddenly, the fishbowl is alive as flickering tongues of jade lick the “glass” of the bowl, and dancing flames encircle us, spreading up toward some unknown height. Noiselessly they build to a pulsating green, then grow into an electric, dizzying fury. I wrap one hand around the porch rail in a death grip, and place the other over my brow as though to shade my eyes. Finally, I have to head to my room to avoid vertigo.

Gloomy is the day of departure, the surface of Hudson Bay like the lacquered black of Japanese wooden boxes. Looking back at the needles of light flashing over the water, I can’t help but admire this union of what is beautiful and terrifying, this place, which has, until recently, repelled the meddling of Man.

For so much of human history we’ve lived to dominate the natural world, believing the earth a machine that would never break. We are victims of the shears that cut man from nature and nature from man. We today have few elevated conversations with the land, little sense of interconnectedness.

Whatever one’s personal belief system, this landscape, and a safari through it, can provide vital perspective and bearings; can feed the springs of reverence and affection; can quicken our sense of wonder, provoke the imaginings of death, eternity and infinity, and inspire us to great deeds of preservation. More than almost any experience, a stay at Nanuk, validates our brief trek in time; and keeps the wolf of insignificance from our door.
 

 


About the Author:

Richard Bangs

Author Richard Bangs

Richard Bangs has often been called the father of modern adventure travel, having spent 40 years as an explorer and communicator, and pioneering “virtual expeditions” on the Web. He led the first descents of 35 rivers around the globe, including the Yangtze in China and the Zambezi in Southern Africa, while at the same time founding Sobek Expeditions, the first multi-national river running company and the pioneering outfitter for global active wilderness travel.

He has published more than 1000 magazine articles, 19 books, a score of documentaries, several CD-ROMs, and all manner of digital media, and has lectured at the Smithsonian, the National Geographic Society, the Explorers Club and many other notable venues. He writes a semi-regular feature for HuffingtonPost.com, occasionally freelances for other print and online publications, and produces and hosts “Richard Bangs’ Adventures with Purpose, as seen on national public television.

In the early 1990s Sobek merged with Mountain Travel to become Mountain Travel-Sobek (mtsobek.com), then as now, a leader in international adventure and eco-travel. Richard began TerraQuest, one of the first online travel projects, and went on to Microsoft as founder and editor-in-chief of Mungo Park, a pioneering interactive publishing effort. He was also part of the founding executive team of Expedia.com, and served as its Editor-at-Large. He was creator and publisher of Expedia Travels Magazine (published in partnership with Ziff-Davis), executive producer of Expedia Radio, and founder and executive director of Expedia Cafes.

Richard has also served as president of Outward Bound; created the “Well Traveled” series for Slate.com; was founding editor and executive producer of MSNBC’s “Great Escapes”; and produced “Richard Bangs Adventures” for Yahoo! He lives in Southern California with his family. You can also find Richard on Twitter and Facebook. For more detailed information, please visit RichardBangs.com.

Birding at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge

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

Common Redpoll Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge

Common Redpoll

Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge is located on the Hudson Bay coast east of York Factory. While the main attractions are polar bears and black bears, there is also a fascinating mix of Arctic, Sub-arctic and southern bird species around the Lodge.

It’s an easy to walk out to the coastal flats or inland into the boreal ridges and wetlands from the Lodge, and in addition to the wildlife and bird watching, this is a great area to appreciate the big picture landscape of Hudson Bay, the northern lights, and spectacular Arctic sunsets.

This area surrounding Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge is rich in bird life. Through our work with the Manitoba Breeding Bird Atlas, we recorded 175 species in the area. The Hudson Bay coast teams with waterfowl and shorebirds and there is always the possibility of a rarity, so it is worth bringing a scope to scan flocks that may include American Black Duck, Mallard, American Wigeon, Green-winged Teal, Whimbrel, Black Scoters and more.

Fox Sparrow Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge

Fox Sparrow

Hudsonian Godwits (over 1200 birds) can be found near a high-tide roost at the mouth of the Mistikokan River, and the coastal shorebirding at small bodies of water in the coastal zone and along the mud flats is superb. There is a steady parade of raptors on show, Ospreys nest not far from the Lodge and there is a good array of northern songbirds in their breeding plumage. This is also an excellent place to photograph birds like the Common Redpoll, Blackpoll Warbler, Northern Shrike, Fox Sparrow, Rusty Blackbird and Northern Harrier.

One of the fascinating things about the Nanuk area is the ridge and swale landscape, with ridges clad in coniferous trees interspersed with wet meadows. The walking is quite easy along the ridges, which often have well-worn caribou trails. Most of the intervening wetlands are not too difficult to cross, many being wet meadows with very shallow water and lots of Yellow Rails and other wet meadow associated species. Sandhill Cranes are just one of many species that breed in these meadows.

Nelson's Sparrow Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge

Nelson’s Sparrow

If you’re a birder who enjoys chasing the elusive flat-headed sparrows, the wetland swales are well worth a visit. The Hudson Bay subspecies of Nelson’s Sparrow breeds here and is quite common. Surprisingly perhaps, because range maps don’t show them occurring this far north, Le Conte’s Sparrows breed here in the same meadows as the Nelson’s Sparrows. You will also find other southern species here that you might not expect, such as the Black-capped Chickadee, although in this location the Boreal Chickadee is much more common.

In addition to bird watching, Nanuk offers superb wildlife viewing opportunities. Polar bears and black bears occur in close proximity (the former on the coastal flats, the latter away from the coast) and are both fairly easy to observe. I also had no less than three sightings of timber wolves which included observing a black wolf hunting goslings.

Timber Wolf at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge

Black wolf on the prowl near Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge.

About the Author: Christian Artuso is the coordinator of the Manitoba Breeding Bird Atlas (www.birdatlas.mb.ca). He traveled to both Seal River Heritage Lodge and Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge to document birds in the area in 2012 and 2013. Despite having photographed wildlife from around the world, he has a special fondness for northern Manitoba, where all the photos in both this post and his Birdwatching at Seal River Heritage Lodge post were taken during the summer and fall. For more from Christian please visit his blog at http://artusobirds.blogspot.com and his Web site at http://artusophotos.com.

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.

Who made Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge and Dymond Lake Lodge a success this year? Everyone.

by Nolan Booth, Director of Lodge Operations, Churchill Wild

Polar bear Mom and cub checking out the new Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. Dennis Fast photo.

Polar bear Mom and cub checking out the new Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. Dennis Fast photo.

Well, once again we find ourselves in the off season, so that means sitting around the office drinking coffee and Baileys in our pajamas and telling stories.

Kidding!

Sure there is some storytelling going on, after all, you helped us create some wonderful memories once again this year! But there are more exciting projects on the horizon for next year at Churchill Wild, and that means work, enjoyable as it may be.

Some great things happened this season, especially at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. I can’t help thinking back to the seemingly endless flights, the hauling of building materials, the long hours and the extraordinary teamwork that resulted in the construction of our beautiful new viewing and dining lounge.

Morning, afternoon and evening we were treated to wildlife outside those big picture windows overlooking Hudson Bay. And what a fabulous place to dine and socialize after a day of walking with polar bears!

Lunchtime! In the new dining/viewing lounge at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge.

Lunchtime! In the new dining/viewing lounge at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. Robert Postma photo.

It was all worth it.

The wolves, black bears, polar bears, moose and the crazy list of birds that followed us from June until September has my head spinning, not to mention the fascinating guest that followed us along the Hudson Bay coast, trudging through the mud and scanning the horizon for movement. Or just sitting in the willows eating berries and laughing at us like nobody was watching.

Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge was a delight to be involved with this season and I look forward to many more Arctic Safaris in the seasons to come.

The Great Ice Bear Adventure at Dymond Lake started up after a short stint back home with my wife Doreen and the boys, and then I was off again, this time prepping camp for our time “playing” in the snow with polar bears and Arctic Foxes.

Our resident polar bear “Scarbrow” appeared early in the season, which shocked all of us, as we were sure he wouldn’t be back to tolerate us again. Thankfully we were wrong! Scarbrow came and went all season and posed for many fabulous photos.

Scarbrow the polar bear, Dymond Lake Lodge, Manitoba, Canada

Scarbrow was back again at Dymond Lake Lodge!

The Arctic Foxes this year at Dymond Lake were phenomenal. When Terry and I closed up camp we counted 20 plus on the lake and around the compound. There were also a couple of snowy owls and an awesome gyrfalcon that joined us in the evenings as the northern lights put on some incredible shows.

I thought I would be back to sitting around in the office for the winter, but Mike (Reimer) has already moved me off my chair and aimed me at a construction project at Nanuk that could only be rivalled by last year’s feat. So off I go again with a brain full of everything from airplanes, windows, carpenters and polar bears. It’s shaping up to be another awesome year at Churchill Wild and we have not even rung the bell for 2014 yet!

I would like to thank everyone involved at our lodges this year, whether you were a boss, staff, wife and kids, contractor, photographer, guide, culinary genius, pilot or guest. You all made this year little bit easier; the impossible possible; the hard work worth it; and certainly a lot more fun!

I look back now at what we’ve accomplished; at the lives of those we have touched; and the memories we’ve created; with humble thanks, and I can’t help but get excited about doing it all over again next year, with all of you…

and the polar bears!

Polar bear standing at Dymond Lake Lodge, Great Ice Bear Adventure.

Where did everybody go?

 

Walking with polar bears at Seal River Lodge — Special Guest Report

Polar Bear Walking Photo Journey Report, Tropical Birding Trip Report, October 2013
Guest post and photos by guide Iain Campbell of TropicalBirding.com

PolarBearPeaking

I am used to being somewhat underwhelmed when people sprout hyperbole. You go there and it is not quite as amazing as they made it seem. Well I can say that this trip to Seal River Lodge was point blank the best photographic and wildlife adventure that I have ever experienced.

After five days with polar bears, I wanted to stay for another week, and was excited when our flight out was delayed by four hours. Time for one more walk.

The trip started in Winnipeg, where you arrive the night before to ensure you make the early morning flight the next morning to Churchill, Manitoba on the southwestern banks of Hudson Bay. After arriving in Churchill, people needing warm weather gear got fitted out and we took a small 8-seater plane for a low flight north to Seal River Lodge. As we left Churchill we flew over the last of the Taiga forest and onto the tundra. The landscape is not classically beautiful, but glorious in its starkness.

On arrival onto the small runway at the Lodge, the snow was blowing strong, our temperatures dropped, and one person decided that the two minute drive to the lodge was better than the 10 minute walk, so she headed off with the luggage. The remaining six of us braved it out, and were rewarded by our first polar bear sighting off the edge of the runway, chilling out in some willows.

After settling in, grabbing a great lunch and getting an introduction to dealing with massive carnivores that you feel inclined to cuddle, we set off with Tara and Andy, the two local guides who made us feel completely at ease.

We were about to walk around the tundra with polar bears, so having A-grade guides who know their stuff was very important. On the first afternoon we had a bear rolling around, stretching and generally just checking us out. We also had an Arctic Fox in its new winter plumage.

Polar Bear rolling around on the tundra at Seal River Lodge.

It was only that night that we really spent time to check out the Lodge. If you want plush with all the bells and whistles, satellite television and a spa, this is not it. It is however, much better than that, very comfortable with ensuite bathrooms, and there is an extremely cozy lounge to hang out in and chat. And best of all, amazingly helpful staff that do everything to make sure that you have a brilliant experience. Where in the world do you have staff that hops up hourly through the night to call you when the northern lights are shining? Well, they do here.

The food was outstanding, and although I would have been happy in an igloo eating beans, it was fun to have great food every lunch and dinner to warm you up between walks.

The next three days were very similar, where we left the compound, walked on the tundra and on Hudson Bay looking for polar bears. We found at least one polar bear on each walk, but they were always in different situations, different lighting and doing different things.

At no point did I, or any others in the group, feel as though we were doing the same old, same old. So although it was almost all white, it was by no means only polar bears. We spent a lot of time stalking down the flocks of hundreds of Willow Ptarmigan that have turned into their winter plumage. They would let us approach quite closely and you could have taken decent shots with a 300mm. We also chased Arctic Hare all over the place but only managed really good looks inside the Lodge compound.

Willow Ptarmigan Hudson Bay

Sometimes you did not need to head out of the Lodge compound to have a close encounter. Bears are walking up and down the coastline of Hudson Bay, so every few hours or so, one may walk past the Lodge.

Now, sitting for a month waiting for ice to form would test even the most Zen polar bear, so having a person to interact with is a pretty interesting way to fill in the time. If one was in the area and I went out to the compound and sat beside the fence, the bear would come up to the fence. I spent about 20 minutes with the one in the photo above before I was late for lunch and being rude to the kitchen staff. I went in, had lunch and watched him play in the snow.

When we went on the walks, the guides talked about all aspects of Arctic biology, history and culture. We found ourselves talking about Inuit and First Nations lifestyles while being watched by another local. The general protocol was to not let new bears get too close (about 100 yards) before the guides made noise to keep them away. When it was a bear that the guides knew, and knew its behavior, they would let it get to a safe distance.

Arctic Fox at Seal River Lodge

There was one bear that followed us a lot, and would walk to within 30 yards and usually lie down and watch us before dozing off. Now that is not to say that there were not times when my adrenalin went sky high with a bear not wanting to back off.  At no time did the local guides lose their composure, and they were always in control of the situation.

The photo at the top of this trip report was one of those situations. The bear did not want to back down, and after having noise made and snow thrown at it, he went and hid behind a large rock and kept poking his head above the rock to watch us. Now playing peekaboo with a massive carnivore seems surreal, but every time he popped his head over the rock, we would all make a noise saying, “We still see you Bob”.

Again, the local guides were in complete control of the situation, which did not feel threatening, as the bear was showing signs of nothing but curiosity.

On the last day of the trip the plane that was due to pick us up had mechanical difficulties, and it looked as though we might not be able to get out, and the new group might not get in. In a show of a first rate operation, Mike and Jeanne from Seal River Lodge sent a message on the radio that “Guys you are getting a helicopter safari”.

Polar bear and Iain at the Seal River Lodge fence.My last image of this spectacular place was taking off from their front door in a helicopter, rising right over their roof, before shooting off towards Churchill flying low over the tundra.

An exhilarating experience, landing in Churchill just on dusk, heading for a wonderful meal with our group in the local restaurant before flying back to Winnipeg that night. Would I go back?

In a heartbeat.

Need more information about this trip and/or future trips with Iain Campbell?

Web: www.TropicalBirding.com
Phone: 1 (409) 515-0514
E-mail: info@tropicalbirding.com