Monday, November 28, 2011

Part IV Life and death on the tundra

(Please start with Part I, and work your way up, if you haven't already!) 
We spent two very full days on the tundra, learning more about it and its inhabitants each day. Polar bears thrive on a diet of ringed seals, which live in Hudson's Bay year 'round (and elsewhere where polar bears abound) but the bears can only access them from the ice surface, in other words, they can gorge themselves on this nutritious food source only from November through about June each year--unless a seal is serendipitously delivered up to them on the beach before ice-up. It does happen; given the windstorms we were experiencing, I would guess by the looks of it, this poor guy apparently had had a fatal head-on bash against a rock. 
Ringed seal, favorite polar bear food, named for the distinctive spots on its hide.
Polar bears, like other bears, are by no means averse to consuming a free meal, and this one had already started to investigate this gift from the sea.

A polar bear tests the air in an effort to locate the odoriferous seal carcass about 75 or
100 yards in our direction.

Same hungry bear, circling the source
Unfortunately, at that moment there were a three tundra vehicles surrounding the seal carcass, and I think, in spite of very strong off-shore winds blowing across it towards the bear, the large vehicles may have distorted the scent-line. He walked back and forth several times while we watched, stopping to point his nose in the air, clearly aware that a free meal awaited somewhere nearby. But he either wasn't quite able to accurately locate it, or he was not willing to pass between the rovers to get it. After a while he bedded down in the osiers for a nap. A friend who stayed in the Tundra Lodge later reported to me that the next day her rover excursion witnessed a bear consuming the last of the seal. It may have taken a while, but the bear(s) took full advantage of it after all.  
More bears out there, everywhere:

A nice big bear heads toward the fully liquid Hudson's Bay; less than a month later the Bay was frozen and the bears had left the tundra.
The nature preserves of Churchill are known for other wildlife besides polar bears, too. Everywhere we saw what looked like dozens of kleenex tissues fluttering in the wind, rising about 15 feet in the air, swooping, and landing on the ground. When the "tissues" did finally descend for a few seconds they were revealed to be snow buntings, like large sparrows with white breasts and undersides, black-tipped wing tops, and rusty nape, head, and "necklace," pecking at the remnant fruits of the summer's seed-bearing plants. We saw a raven or two, three or four lesser scaup lagging behind their migrated brethren, and maybe an occasional gull--forgive me if I know not what kind. We also saw a tiny herd of rock ptarmigan, all in winter white except for little black Zorro masks across their eyes. Most disappointingly, none of this birdlife was gracious enough to stand still for a photo. In other seasons, they say, it's birding paradise. 
Other critters we might have seen, but did not happen to: arctic fox, arctic hare, boreal woodland caribou, and moose. And very, very remotely possibly, wolves. What we did see, in town near the docks (on Cape Merry) rather than out on the tundra, was this stunning red fox, described as being "cross phase" meaning, I believe, that it combined red and silver fur patterns in one animal:

With apologies for the poor quality image (what a lost photo op!!) -- I wasn't allowed to get out of the van and shoot without a windshield between camera and critter because a polar bear was said to be in the vicinity. We didn't see the bear but in the distance we could see the trap that awaited it.

And of course, the presence of fox means a plenitude of small rodents year 'round. It gave me the feeling that there's so much more going on out there that I wanted to know about!
Go to Part V.


  1. Years ago I remember reading about this place as an abandoned CRAF airbase. The barracks had been converted to civilian housing and there were BARS on the windown. That can't be true anymore can it? :)

  2. Hi Troutbirder - Stay tuned! More on exactly that subject to come!
    Glad you're enjoying the series. I have at least two, maybe three more parts to upload. It was an amazing trip, if you decide to look into going, get in touch with me directly and I'll share what we learned.