Follow in Nigel's Footsteps

Churchill, Manitoba Field Trip 2016

The following is a compilation of a series of posts that were originally posted live from Churchill in Manitoba during a visit in July 2016.


17th July 2016

Right now I'm a little outside my regular three counties area. In fact I'm currently sitting in a very comfortable and cosy lodge just on the outskirts of Churchill, Manitoba (population 923) in central Canada. Despite coming to Canada regularly over the last 25 years (this is my 40th visit), I've never been to this small outpost situated on the shores of the Hudson Bay about 600 miles north of the Provincial capital Winnipeg.

Lazy Bear Lodge on the road into Churchill: R. Harris
Churchill has been here quite some time though (in North American terms), having first appeared on the map as a permanent settlement back in 1717, when the world famous Hudson's Bay Company came to the area. The trading post was named after a descendent of Sir Winston Churchill, namely John Churchill, 1st Duke of Malborough who was the governor of the Hudson's Bay Company at that time. So why am I here?  Well, Churchill's unique position of 58°46′09″N 094°10′09″W means that it is an ideal place to see Polar Bears Ursus maritimus!  Although Polar Bears occur in many other parts of Canada, none are as accessible as Churchill. The town is served by both air and rail routes, so it is relatively easy to reach. It is often thought that you can only view Polar Bears in the late Autumn, but they can in fact be seen around the town throughout most of the summer as well as at peak times in October and early November and I'm here to try and see them and some other Arctic specialities too.

Having arrived on a special Calm Air charter from Winnipeg at lunchtime (check-in 15 minutes before the flight, no security to go through and carry whatever baggage you like!), I've already had a few sightings while walking through town including my first Belugas, loads of Arctic terns, yellow warbler, American Robin, Chipping Sparrow,  Savannah Sparrow, White Crowned Sparrow, Cliff Swallow, Lesser Yellowlegs, Stilt Sandpiper, a couple of Northern Harriers, Bald Eagle and Sandhill Crane. With a few more days to come I'm sure I can add to that and maybe get some new birds too!

For now though a little look around town. Sometimes people come to town, see lots of old abandoned vehicles and just think it looks a bit run down but that couldn't be further from the truth. Sure it looks a bit neglected but you have to remember that there are no roads up here other than those through town and out to the airport. When anything is brought in at huge expense by rail or air, it's destined never to leave again. The result is an eclectic mix of vehicles stretching back as far as the fifties, though many are not in great shape! But more of that later.

The warnings are everywhere. Be careful out there! 
The World famous 'Polar Bear Jail', a holding
facility for rogue or nuisance bears.


Keeping a close eye out for bears.
You must never ignore these signs. To
Venture beyond to the shore of the
Hudson Bay behind me would be
foolhardy to say the least.
Sandhill Cranes along the Churchill River: R Harris
White - crowned Sparrow: R. Harris 

Right, it's time to set off on an early morning trip to see Belugas. More to follow...

Day 2...
Day two in Churchill and I got up at 5am to a howling cold NW wind and a series of heavy showers that thundered rapidly through the town only to vanish as quickly as they'd arrived. It was so cool that a thoughtful member of staff had risen even earlier to get the wood stove burning. We were supposed to be snorkelling with Belugas at 6am but the water was too choppy and the event was cancelled. As I was already up and ready to go I decided to head out for a walk around town. When heading off on your own you have to remain vigilant. At this time of year the Polar Bears are leaving the rapidly shrinking ice sheets in the Hudson Bay to swim ashore and wait for the big freeze in October/November. This means they can turn up just about anywhere, so you have to keep an eye open, stay away from longer vegetation and plan your escape route as you walk. With this in mind I set off to take a look at couple of small ponds I'd noticed while out on the Churchill city tour yesterday and they proved to be worth the walk.

Yellow Warbler by Lazy Bear Lodge: R Harris 
Ring - billed Gull, Churchill MB
The Hudson Bay, looking very cold!
Drake Surf Scoter, Churchill: R Harris 
American Wigeon,  female with young.
Arctic Tern: R Harris
As well as a smart drake Surf Scoter and nesting Arctic Terns the ponds also held a smart but more distant Lesser Yellowlegs, 6 Greater Scaup, Savannah Sparrow and a Red-necked Phalarope. Not bad considering their small size. I then continued my walk around the town perimeter and saw this lovely young American Robin, several White-crowned Sparrows and a host of other Common species.
American Robin,juvenile: R Harris
White-crowned Sparrow: R Harris
Later I was heading out on a Hudson Bay coastal tour so decided it was time to head back to the Lodge, grab lunch and layer - up. The clouds were gathering once more and the wind was still blowing hard...

Day 3...
Day three of my visit to Churchill Manitoba and after a great morning in town it's time to take to the water to start searching for one of our largest carnivores.

Polar Bears Ursus maritimus have helped put Churchill on the map, it's nickname is 'Polar Bear Capital of the World' and each year they come ashore along this part of the Hudson Bay as the ice gradually melts and recedes. With no ice to fish from they swim to shore and basically chill out, not feeding until the Bay freezes again in mid November. Although they aren't catching their preferred prey of Ringed and Bearded seals at this time of year, it doesn't mean they aren't still extremely dangerous animals where we are concerned. A typical summer job in Churchill is as a bear lookout.

Patrolling for Polar Bears, an important job in Churchill.
Once on land they tend to remain close to the shore, hiding among the rocks or trying to keep cool by lying in patches of willows or other tall scrub. My best bet of seeing one was to join Lazy Bear Lodge's Hudson Bay Tour, which uses a custom built boat called the Samuel Hearne (after the famous explorer). These tours head out of the mouth of the Churchill River and then north-east towards Button Bay and Hubbard Point to maximise the chances of seeing one.

Prepared for the sea trip in fetching floatation suit.

Before leaving the river though you can't miss seeing some of the 3000 Belugas that make this their summer residence.

Beluga whales feeding on Capelin, Churchill River
Beluga, adult. You can just make out some scars on this one
though most have some from run-ins with predators
such as the Orca.
They are such inquisitive and friendly mammals. They'll come right up to the boat to take a look at you - that said I wasn't fortunate enough to capture them with their heads out of the water so I'll spare you a mass of 'white hump' photos and leave it at the above until my video footage has been edited. So on with the bears!
Arctic Skuas are very common out in the estuary.
Arctic Skua harassing a American Herring Gull
No sooner had we left the shelter of the river we discovered it was quite rough in the Bay - too rough to head as far north as planned so we loitered around the river mouth just off Prince of Wales Fort to watch more Beluga where we also had great views of Arctic Terns being harassed by Arctic Skuas. Then, just as the captain was making the decision to abandon the trip to go look at the fort instead, a Polar Bear was spotted high on the headland walking among the boulders. But they were brief views only lasting 30 seconds before it made a hasty retreat to the other side and out of view. It was decided we'd creep back around the headland in the hope of getting more prolonged views from the other side so that's what we did and it was a good call. Swimming just off shore we saw a mother and cub! As she decided to go back to shore we had great views of them both from about 150 m away and once again the Nikon P900 saved the day.

Polar Bear mother and cub emerging from the Hudson Bay
Thoroughly satisfied with views lasting several minutes, we headed back to the calmer waters of the river and a walking tour of the Fort before returning to Churchill.

Day 4...
Day four of my visit to Churchill, Manitoba on the shores of the Hudson Bay and the town has really grown on me. The people are so friendly and helpful - not least our guides at the Lazy Bear Lodge. Today we were up at 5am for a 6am private snorkel trip with the Belugas. We took a small Zodiac out into the Churchill River where I could test my little action cam and get some great filming opportunities. They would come right up to us, which gave me the opportunity to get some unique footage. As soon as I get back I'll edit and add to this post, they are amazing creatures.

Heading out to get close to Belugas with
our guide, Addie.

Getting close to Belugas: R. Harris

After an hour we made our way back to Lazy Bear so that we could join a Tundra Tour aboard one of the Lodge's Arctic Crawler vehicles. These vehicles are specially made to cause minimum damage to the tundra by spreading the weight across the huge tyres, which makes them superb on the snow too. They can accommodate 40 people but are only ever filled to a max of 25, so there's always plenty of room on board for guests and equipment. They have on-board washrooms and a kitchen for preparing meals so you can stay out on the tundra (or ice)  all day if necessary and the Polar bears can take a look at you without putting anyone in danger. It also made a great mobile hide for summer use.

Arctic Crawler - ideal for getting close to Polar bears.

Distant Pacific Loon on a taiga pool
The wreck of the Ithaca just east of Churchill
Snow Geese starting to build in numbers
Judd, our guide from the Lodge.
An amazing person with incredible knowledge
and always looking out for the bears
The beach shown above also yielded 18 Hudsonian Godwit and a handful of Hudsonian Whimbrel too but a bit distant for photos.

Mid afternoon we went kayaking back on the Churchill River with the Belugas but not before spotting a small group of Greater Yellowlegs and another White-crowned Sparrow near the town Port.

Greater Yellowlegs enjoying the sun.
Keeping the mosquito population in check a
White-crowned Sparrow 


Tomorrow we head out again to try and reach Hubbard Point on the Samuel Hearne and hopefully get to see more Polar Bears.

Day 5...
Polar bear, Ice bear, Sea bear, Nanuq - call it what you will, it has many names. It's certainly a maritime species much more at home on sea ice and in the water than it is on dry land. At this time of year though they have no choice other than to leave the retreating ice flows, which are currently around 20 miles off shore of Churchill and swim that distance to land to wait out their time until the Hudson Bay freezes once more allowing them to go and hunt again.

The owner of Lazy Bear Lodge, Wally Daudrich, has been guiding for bears and belugas for over 25 years and his knowledge of how they behave and where they will be is second-to-none. Although they can (and do) turn up anywhere along the south western shore of the Bay, just like migrating birds they have preferred spits of land that they will try to reach if they can. Locally there are several hotspots, the best being a place called Hubbard Point 50 miles to the north east of Churchill and this is where we were heading on day 4 of our visit.

Wally Daudrich, Owner/Operator
of Lazy Bear Lodge.
The Samuel Hearne. Specially built for Lazy Bear this
aluminium speed boat has an ice-reinforced hull, a drop
down drawbridge at the front, holds 40 people and skips
across the waves at just over 30mph.
After leaving port we headed to Eskimo Point just past Prince of Wales Fort where we saw the mother and cub coming ashore a couple of days ago and to our surprise they were still there. They were both very cautious at first with just their noses appearing above the rocks to sniff the air as we approached but the cub's curiosity soon got the better of it and it came out to see what all the fuss was about, closely followed by mum.

Inquisitive cub coming to take a look at our boat.
Mum is understandably more cautious and keen to
keep en eye on her little one.
Mum was constantly sniffing the air.
After watching them (watching us) for about 10 minutes, we started the journey to Hubbard Point 90 minutes away. An hour later the engines slowed and captain Wally announced that he could see a large pod of Belugas about a mile in front of us. He eased the boat quietly forward and 10 minutes later we found ourselves drifting into a superpod feeding in just 15ft of water. Superpods are formed when several large pods join forces to feed on a particularly good supply of Capelin, their favourite fish. The average size of such pods is usually around 1000-1500 animals but this was a 'super' superpod, which Wally estimated at around 4000 strong. It was certainly a spectacular sight!

Attracted to the outboard motors the largest adults fed
constantly around the boat. 
Part of the feeding frenzy.
The feeding frenzy wasn't exclusively for the whales, they were joined by dozens of Arctic terns complete with entourage of Arctic Skuas, Eider ducks and White-winged scoters.

Arctic Tern joining in the feast.
I will expand on this post and add some video of the whales once I get back to the UK. We easily spent two hours with the whales and it was a magical moment I will never forget. We dropped a hydrophone into the water but you could hear them calling just as easily without it, they are a very vocal species earning them their other name, Sea Canaries.


 

Eventually the pod moved off and we continued to Hubbard Point another 20 minutes to the north and only 40 miles from the border with Nunavut territory. As we approached the headland I spotted three adult bears lying in the grass on the highest point. It didn't take long for them to stand up and start sniffing and looking in our direction, even from a quarter of a mile away. Two big healthy males disappeared into the water while another slightly skinnier bear stood its ground and gave great views.

Polar Bear, adult male: R. Harris
Polar Bear, adult male: R. Harris
We decided to move around the headland to see if the other two bears were anywhere to be seen and we soon found them swimming around in the Bay - two huge healthy males estimated at over 1600 lbs a piece!

There they are! Powering their way across the Hudson Bay
Head of the largest male: R. Harris
I can't begin to describe the size of these two.
You certainly wouldn't want to meet them on land.
Polar Bears, Churchill, Manitoba
Hand held from the boat.

So the boat trip was hugely successful. On return to port I decided to take my chances and walk back to town - not a decision I took lightly! I really wanted to stop by the pools that I visited the other day though just to see what was around. I kept a careful eye out on all the scrub that I passed and was ready to scale the chain-link fence into the old sea port if required but thankfully no encounters with Polar bears was had. I port worker even stopped and asked if I wanted a lift back into town - I guess I looked nervous!

The pool delivered again with close views of three Sandhill Cranes, the red-necked phalarope that I saw distantly the other day, a nice Lesser Yellowlegs, the drake Surf Scoter, loads of American Wigeon and of course the Arctic Terns nesting close to the road.

Pool just on the outskirts of town, Churchill
Lesser Yellowlegs: R. Harris
Lesser Yellowlegs: R. Harris
Red-necked Phalarope: R. Harris
Red-necked Phalarope: R. Harris
Arctic Tern and chick: R.Harris
Sandhill Crane: R. Harris
Savannah Sparrow: R. Harris
Surf Scoter: R. Harris
Ring-billed Gull: R. Harris
Tree Swallow: R. Harris
Richardson's Ground Squirrel: R. Harris
Not a bad way to end the expedition. I will update with videos when I get time to edit them together.


Final thoughts...

Trip over and I thought a quick (ha! turned out to be much longer than I planned) post to cover off a few things not mentioned in previous posts would be prudent.

Map of SW Hudson Bay
I did mention a bit about Churchill itself, a unique place where three Biomes converge, which is why it's such a rich area for wildlife. Close to town you can see where the Boreal forests end, the Tundra begins and the Sub-Arctic meets with it. The variety of birds which summer here, the mammals and the flora found in the area are difficult to find together elsewhere. Although the main purpose of the trip was to get to grips with belugas and bears, I did film and photograph everything I could including some birds and plants featured in the following short video:



Also a few images that may have made it into Tweets but didn't make it to previous posts but are worth including now...

Greater Yellowlegs: R. Harris
Chipping Sparrow: R. Harris
Green-flowered Bog Orchid
Beautiful Cinquefoil
Small Round-leaved Orchid
Sweet Vetch
Three-toothed Saxifrage
White Mountain Avens
One very large mosquito. They are plentiful in
the summer so do be prepared!
One of the 17 Tabanid species present. This one was a stonking
3/4 of an inch long. Luckily they don't bite as readily
as the mosquitoes do. See clothing note below.

A bit more about the town and how to get there...

As you may have read in my first live post, Churchill is not a big town. It is also only served by VIA Rail (40 hour journey from Winnipeg) and by air - Calm Air provide a scheduled service as well as a special charter for the Lazy Bear Lodge tours which takes two-and-a-half hours.

Calm Air - the easiest way to reach Churchill
The town has most of the facilities you might expect including a post office, small supermarket, a pub/bar etc. But as it is only designed to serve 800-900 people, don't go expecting much more than that or you'll be disappointed. It is a remote northern Canadian town, built on permafrost, so all of the buildings are made of wood too.

Lazy Bear Lodge signpost
Kelsey Blvd, the main road through town. Looking SE.
Kelsey Blvd, looking NW.
The unpolitically correctly named Eskimo Museum.
Actually a fab place to learn about the local
First Nation's Dené and Inuit peoples.
Inukshuk - ancient signpost of the Inuit people
One of the three old wooden Churches
...and a second
Old railway line near the Sea Port
'Miss Piggy' an ill-fated C-46 that crash-landed
short of the airport after developing engine
problems whilst on a cargo flight in 1979
The Sea Port (now closed) is where grain (wheat, barley, canola etc) from all over central and western Canada was brought to by rail and then shipped out all over the country and indeed the world. Because of the sub-Arctic climate the port only operated for three months of the year during peak summer. Either side of this and the Hudson Bay has too much ice for ships to reach Churchill.

The old Sea Port. 
Sea Port looking back to the SE. The long bridge on legs
is the covered grain elevators used to move grain to
the waiting ships.
I mentioned in a previous post that when a vehicle is brought up to the town (by rail), they stay for good as it is too expensive to ship old ones back out. There is a surprising mix of vehicles sitting around.

Old school buses - used by just about every tour company to
ship their clients around.
The downright strange - some sort of giant, covered
skidoo waiting for winter to come?
There are also a few of these lying around - a reminder that it's the Polar Bears that call-the-shots around here. They frequently wander into town, especially in the Autumn and when they do they are captured using a baited bear trap and brought to the 'Polar Bear Jail' for a 30 day cooling off period. During this time they aren't fed (to reinforce the idea that humans should not be associated with food), before being air lifted by helicopter up to 50 miles away and back onto the sea ice in the Hudson Bay.
Polar Bear trap
If you accidentally get caught in one you won't be
going anywhere very quickly. Potentially very
dangerous in temps of -40!
Lined-up and ready for action.
Bear proof garbage bins are a common sight.

It's worth pointing out that many of the ground operators in Churchill will only book you one of their packages. That's to say there aren't too many options for doing your own independent thing up here and to be honest that's sensible given the danger from bears. You really can't wander off on your own unless you are equipped with a firearm, satellite phone and the skill and knowledge to deal with serious situations should they arise. The weather here changes every few minutes off the back of the almost constant NW winds. In the summer it can be 21 deg and sunny one minute and raining 8 deg the next. You have to take the right gear with you - layers, a good waterproof and a down jacket, be prepared for anything and you can't go wrong. In summer you must also be prepared for biting insects with 16 species of mosquito present and 17 species of Tabanid (bulldog, moose or deer flies). The best way to avoid being eaten alive is to take a good deet repellent and wear long sleeves and trousers (recommend using Craghopper's Nosilife insect repellent clothing - superb!). Anything else and you're just asking for trouble (painful, itchy trouble).

If anyone is interested in visiting Churchill I'd be more than happy to offer advice. This was my 40th visit to Canada so I know the country better than most and I'm always glad to help point you in the right direction.

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