Churchill for Polar Bears

25 October - 3 November 2003

Mike Read
Jim Irwin (Riding Mountain)
David Hatch (Churchill)

Saturday 25th October
The flight from Heathrow to Toronto went smoothly as did our passage through the Canadian customs formalities. While waiting for our onward flight to Winnipeg, a European Starling and at least three Ring-billed Gulls were seen around the Terminal 2 buildings.
The flight to Winnipeg arrived a little early and we were soon on the road with Jim Irwin and heading for Riding Mountain Guest Ranch. The journey was punctuated by occasional sightings of birds like Canada Geese, Rough-legged Buzzard, Bald Eagle and a group of Sharp-tailed Grouse (the latter species was only seen by people in the second minibus). As we reached the Ranch itself, a Porcupine waddled its way along the track in front of us before heading off into the vegetation.
We were warmly welcomed by Candy and after a sumptuous evening meal, we all headed for our rooms and a good night's sleep; after all, some of us had now been awake for 24 hours!

Sunday 26th October
A fresh fall of snow greeted our slightly leisurely start to the day saw us heading off out for our first wildlife watching session at 08.15 although birds like Hairy Woodpecker, Black-capped Chickadees, White-breasted Nuthatch and at least 30 Evening Grosbeaks on the feeders did their best to delay our departure.
On a lake there were Mallards, Gadwalls, Common Goldeneye and a pair of lovely Buffleheads. As we entered the mixed Boreal Forests of Riding Mountain National Park, the first interesting sighting was the fresh footprints of two Timber Wolves but sadly we did not see the animals themselves. We also saw Moose tracks but again the animal eluded us.
Further on, a Beaver was collecting twigs and small branches for its winter food supply and out on another pool, at least five Muskrats could be seen. As we drove on through the park we saw a Coyote walking along the roadside. Jim backed up in to a suitable parking spot and this seemed to arouse the animal's curiosity. It ended up walking around the minibus and spending some time with us and everyone had excellent views. We drove on but saw little and on the return journey the Coyote was seen equally well again.
Coffee was taken at Moon Lake campground and here we glimpsed a Gray Jay and had fair views of a Downy Woodpecker. During the journey back to the Ranch, we saw a small group of Green-winged Teal and had a very brief glimpse of a Sharp-shinned Hawk, which dashed through the trees. As we reached ranch land, three people were watching something in some roadside scrub and this turned out to be a juvenile Bald Eagle. Unfortunately, it flew off as we stopped but then it perched in a tree and we were able to get fair views of it through telescopes.
During lunch there were the same bird species on the feeders while the lake held a Pied-billed Grebe, three Lesser Scaup and a female Redhead. On the way out for the afternoon, the Bald Eagle had been joined by a second individual. Back inside Riding Mountain National Park, a pond that we had looked over earlier in the day now contained signs of life. Three Beavers were feeding or collecting food for their winter store, a Muskrat swam past and an American Mink was diving for food near the Beaver lodge. At another pool, three more Beavers were busy putting mud on their lodge.
A little further on, we walked to see a bear den (disused, of course!) and then we drove to the Boreal Forest Trail. As we drove in to the car park, bear tracks less than two hours old were on top of all previous vehicle tracks. Sadly we did not find the animal itself and Jim was somewhat surprised that it was not hibernating already.
After a somewhat unproductive walk, we drove in search of other wildlife and a female moose and this year's calf were seen on the roadside. As the gloom of evening was drawing in, we made our way back to the Ranch for a fine evening meal, which was followed by a showing of some of Jim's superb slides of Riding Mountain wildlife.

Monday 27th October
We woke to another fresh fall of snow and those driving in from 'the house' saw two Striped Skunks, which were walking along the road.
After breakfast, we drove to a different part of Riding Mountain National Park where we saw a herd of 35 Bison feeding in the snowy conditions. Some distant Elk were only glimpsed through the trees and a North American Red Squirrel was seen at close range. Along a different snow-covered track, a two year old bull Moose wandered off amongst the trees dislodging showers of snow as he went. A large, dark bird perched a short distance into the trees turned out to be a Golden Eagle. It flew a short distance, perched on top of a lofty pine and then, with deep, purposeful beats of its wings, it flew off over the trees with a couple of mobbing Ravens in hot pursuit.
We had coffee beside Lake Audy and among the birds seen there were seven Hooded Mergansers, Ring-billed and Bonaparte's Gulls, six Tundra Swans, a couple of Double-crested Cormorants, a Blue-winged Teal, a few Pintails and American Wigeon and two Bald Eagles. During the journey back to the Ranch, a Common Snipe was on some ice on a pond and looked rather out of place.
After another fine lunch, Candy took some of the group for a short walk to see some of the animals and then during a walk in some nearby woods, a Ruffed Grouse was flushed by one of the Irwin's dogs.
In poor weather, we drove out towards the town of Sandy Lake (confusing or what?). Various ponds along the way held a good variety of ducks including American Wigeon, Buffleheads and Green-winged Teal. In the town itself, three American Robins were feeding on lawns etc. while another lake just along Highway 45 there were about 60 Ring-necked Ducks and 40 Buffleheads. We took the 'long route back' and on Clear Lake we found about six Red-necked Grebes. This completed our watching for the day so we returned to the Ranch for another fine evening meal. As we went to bed, a strong wind was whipping the fairly heavy snow into a blizzard.

Tuesday 28th October
Three inches of snow greeted us this morning as did a number of birds at the Ranch feeders and this included a good number of Evening Grosbeaks and our first Blue Jay. After breakfast, we set off towards Winnipeg keeping an eye open for wildlife as we went. A Rough-legged Hawk/Buzzard and three Bald Eagles were the major sightings until we approached Neepowa where a flock of about 700 geese contained about 150 Snow Geese; the rest were Canadas. A male Northern Harrier drifted low over a field a little further on.
At Portage la Prairie, there was another flock of geese and this time there were about 3000 Snow Geese in a single field with a similar number a few fields away. In the town itself, the Oxbow Lake held Pied-billed Grebe, Ring-necked Duck and more Canada Geese. Here the size difference in the latter species was really noticeable with two subspecies obviously present.
Some of the group then headed directly for Winnipeg while the majority went out to spend some time at Oak Hammock Marsh. The birding here was great with Bald Eagle, Canvasback, three Rough-legged Hawks and 17 Sharp-tailed Grouse all seen from the roadside. There were some Black Ducks among the numerous Mallards and a Great Blue Heron flew off as we approached. A Common Snipe, two Western Meadowlarks, a Greater Yellowlegs and a few Northern Pintails were good finds, as were the two or three Song Sparrows (thanks Alice).   Over the marsh itself, there were at least three female Northern Harriers to be seen.
Closer to the visitor centre was a large area of open water that held a few extras for the day including American Coot, Ruddy Duck, Gadwall, a few Hooded Mergansers and about 120 Trumpeter Swans.
Although we had travelled many miles that day, it was a reluctance to depart from such a good birding location rather than 'travel weariness' that meant we did not want to head for Winnipeg. Soon we were assembled in the lobby of the Fort Garry Hotel and were heading for our rooms.

Wednesday 29th October
The day began in a leisurely way with people free to do their own thing until 11.30. Some went walking by the river, some went to a museum and others indulged in 'retail therapy'. At the allotted time, we gathered with tales of species seen (including Blue Jay, American Red Squirrel and American Crow) and then headed off for lunch.
We ere collected from the hotel at 1.30 p.m. and headed out to the airport for our flight to Churchill. It was dark when we landed and we were taken to the Churchill Motel where we settled in before our evening meal. John and Pauline took a brief walk in town and were instantly rewarded with good views of an Arctic Fox.

Thursday 30th October
As we board the bus at 07.45, a number of Common Ravens and seven Canada Geese are seen and on the way to the Tundra Buggy 'launch' site, we see an intermediate coloured Red Fox. We are in the Buggy and heading out and just a few minutes later we are seeing our first Polar Bear, which just saunters across the snowy tundra. At 09.30 we found a female Bear with a cub, and she was plodding steadily along with two separate males following along some distance behind. After another three Bears, we found a flock of about 100 Willow Ptarmigan working their way through a large area of willows.
At about 11.30 while we were watching our first Arctic Hare, a Snow Bunting dashed past but was only seen by a couple of people. A small group of what was probably some Hoary (Arctic) Redpolls flew up from a group of willows and then promptly flew down again. These again were only seen by one or two people and despite waiting to see if they would reappear, they never did.
Close to Tundra Buggy Camp, we see at least a dozen new Polar Bears as well as an Arctic Fox; a couple of the Bears were most entertaining as they indulged in some play-fighting. We paused in this area for lunch and were able to be in constant view of Bears and a small group of Snow Bunting, which everyone managed to see on this occasion. With views to the nearby Hudson Bay, we managed to add Common Eider, Long-tailed Duck and Glaucous Gull to the bird list as each was found and identified in turn.
Now it was time to begin our long 'trundle' back to base and so we set off taking a different route for at least some of the journey. Needless to say there were plenty of stops on the way for many more Polar Bears, two Willow Ptarmigan, Arctic Fox and another Arctic Hare. The weather, which had started the day somewhat overcast, had now brightened considerably and some afternoon sunshine improved the day considerably.
All too soon we were in the bus and heading for town. The 'main' road was somewhat busy and so David suggested we take the 'scenic' shore road and as a result, we added another Arctic Fox and a normally coloured Red Fox to complete the day.

Friday 31st October
Heavy snow greeted us for our tour of the town of Churchill and the surrounding area. As it was Halloween, our bus driver arrived in a witch’s costume (I phoned Liz later to ask how her mother was!). Our arrival at the Polar Bear Jail was most timely as a new 'inmate' arrived shortly after us. We were only allowed the briefest of glimpses as the trailer trap was reversed in; human contact is kept to a minimum to avoid the bears becoming accustomed to humans. With the poor conditions, there was no possibility of any bears being taken out and released today.
We tried the road towards Bill's house (he was one of the other bus drivers) but the deep snow was forming drifts over a foot deep. Discretion came into effect and we tried the shore road instead. An old C46 aeroplane which crashed many years ago, still lay on the rocks and we were told the story of how it had crashed. Then as we drove along the shore itself, we had somewhat closer views of three Common Eiders than those we had seen the previous day.
At the grain silos, there were a few more Eiders just a few feet from the quayside so we all had our fill of that particular species. A number of Snow Buntings were feeding on spilt grain and there was an adult Glaucous Gull and a juvenile Herring Gull flying over the sea. The best bird of the morning however was seen as we left for lunch. A superb, white Gyr Falcon was perched on a telegraph pole and gave some of us good views before it took off and flew past the bus; fabulous!
After lunch at the Churchill Motel, we made another attempt to reach Bill's house. The snowploughs had done their work and soon we were watching a couple of Gray Jays and two Snow Buntings at close range. Turning the bus around needed the groups combined weight over the rear wheels of the bus because of unploughed drifts nearby. As we made our way back down the road, a Snowshoe Hare was seen in someone's garden. We parked and trudged back through the snow and in the end, we found there were three present.
We were then dropped back in town and given plenty of time for shopping, visiting the post office to send mail or get passports franked with a polar bear stamp and see other parts of the town before our evening meal. As we headed back to the motel, the snow was still falling and the forecast did not sound too good for the following day.

Saturday 1st November
The day dawned much colder and brighter than expected and as we headed for the Tundra Buggy area, we saw a few Common Ravens and an Arctic Fox. By 18.20, we were heading out on the buggy and 20 minutes later were enjoying our first Polar Bear of the day. This species was regular throughout the rest of the day and memorable moments included the individual that walked across a frozen pond towards us and eventually lay down just in front of the buggy and the two bears that had obviously been play-fighting and were totally oblivious of all the buggies around them. They just slept for ages but eventually, one woke and lumbered past the other but as there was no reaction, it sauntered away. After a few minutes, the other bear woke, lay on its back and raised its head to yawn widely. It then promptly went back to sleep!
Close to the Tundra Buggy camp, a couple of Snow Buntings were feeding close to a single Horned/Shore Lark. On the way back to base, a group of at least 35 Willow Ptarmigan and an Arctic Hare caused a couple of stops for viewing and photography as did a Polar Bear walking across a frozen pond. This, we thought, would be our final bear, indeed our final wildlife highlight of the tour. We parked and spent some time admiring this beautiful beast in glorious, late afternoon light. We took in the whole scene and were driven away with great regrets to be leaving. A little further on we saw a female bear with the two smallest cubs we had seen during our stay. Again we parked and went through the whole process of admiration and tearing ourselves away once more!
Back on the bus, everyone seemed a little quieter than usual until we were about halfway back to Churchill and a shout of "Snowy Owl" went up from David. It flew off from a telegraph pole and landed on the top of a spruce tree a couple of hundred yards away. The 'scope was directed and focussed but only a few people managed to see it before it flew off and was lost to view.
Back in town we had a celebration meal at the Wong Kee restaurant before travelling to the airport for our flight to Winnipeg. As we left the restaurant, we looked up at the clear, star-studded skies to the north and there was a fine display of the aurora borealis to make the tour complete. A brief stop away from the lights of town enabled even better views and then it was a rush to make the check-in in time. As we began our flight, the same northern lights could be seen behind us but cloud cover further south prevented further views and there was even a flurry of snow as we came in to land at Winnipeg. Soon we were settling in to the Fort Garry Hotel and enjoying a good night's sleep.

Sunday 2nd November
After breakfast, we all assembled to head for the museum as scheduled in our itinerary. Luggage packed, we all boarded the bus and were soon disembarking and heading in to the warmth of this fine building. The exhibits proved most enjoyable and one of the major themes was the wildlife, loons and all! At the drivers' recommendation, we went to a restaurant a few minutes drive away and had an enjoyable lunch.
Afterwards, the bright sunshine encouraged us to head for Assiniboine Park for a brief walk before we headed for the airport. Here we saw a few Dark-eyed Juncos, about eight American Red Squirrels, two American Robins and overhead were a Ring-billed Gull and an American Crow.
The coldness of the air (the driver said it was -11º C) soon got to us, so we headed for the airport and the warmth of the terminal building for the flight home via Toronto.

Pied-billed Grebe
1 on 26th at Riding Mountain Guest Ranch and 1 at Oak Hammock Marsh on 28th
Red-necked Grebe
At least 8 on Clear Lake on 27th
Double-crested Cormorant
2 on Clear Lake on 27th
Great Blue Heron
1 at Oak Hammock Marsh on 28th
Tundra Swan
2 families of 3 (2 adults & 1 juv) on Clear Lake on 27th and about 120 at Oak Hammock Marsh the following day
Ruddy Duck
Just a single sighting at Oak Hammock Marsh on 28th
Snow Goose
There were about 3000 (and 5 apparently!) in a single field near Portage la Prairie on 28th with a similar number a short distance away in another field. This was after seeing about 150 a few miles earlier in the same journey.
Canada Goose
Seen on 25th and 27th in small numbers and then at least 1000 during the journey to Winnipeg on 28th. The final sighting was of 7 at Churchill on 30th
American Wigeon
Just noted on 27th at Lake Audy and at Sandy Lake
Seen on 3 successive days from 26th
Green-winged Teal
Seen in small numbers on 3 successive days from 26th
Blue-winged Teal
Just 2 seen at Lake Audy on 27th
Seen on each of the first 5 days of the tour
American Black Duck
Just a few seen at Oak Hammock Marsh on 28th
Northern Pintail
Seen on 27th at Lake Audy and the following day at Oak Hammock Marsh
Northern Shoveler
Seen on 28th at Oak Hammock Marsh
Just a single female seen at Oak Hammock Marsh on 28th
A female was seen on the lake behind Riding Mountain Guest Ranch on 26th
Ring-necked Duck
First seen on 26th at Riding Mountain Guest Ranch and then seen on the next two days
Lesser Scaup
First seen on 26th at Riding Mountain Guest Ranch and also seen on 28th at Portage la Prairie and Oak Hammock Marsh
Common Eider
8 seen on 30th and a different 8 seen the following day both in the Churchill area
Long-tailed Duck
At least 10 seen on the sea at Churchill on 30th
Despite some peoples' comments, this species was only seen on 3 days, from 26th!
Common Goldeneye
Good numbers seen on 3 days from 26th
Hooded Merganser
At least 15 at Lake Audy on 27th plus a few at Oak Hammock Marsh the following day
Bald Eagle
1 adult on 25th on the way to Riding Mountain, 2 juvs near R M Guest Ranch on 26th, 2 at Lake Audy on 27th and 3 or 4 during the journey to Winnipeg on 28th
Golden Eagle
1 seen in Riding Mountain National Park on 27th
Sharp-shinned Hawk
1 seen briefly in the Boreal Forests of Riding Mountain National Park on 26th
Northern (Hen) Harrier 1 male near Portage la Prairie and 3 females at Oak Hammock Marsh all on 28th
Rough-legged Buzzard
1 on 25th on the way to Riding Mountain then 1 during the return journey and 4 at Oak Hammock Marsh on 28th
Gyr Falcon
1 superb pale individual seen at Churchill on 31st
Sharp-tailed Grouse
At least 5 seen on 25th on the way to Riding Mountain and 19 seen at Oak Hammock Marsh on 28th
Ruffed Grouse
Just a single individual seen during a walk at Riding Mountain Guest Ranch on 27th
Willow Ptarmigan
Over 100 and about 50 seen on 30th and 1st respectively when we were out on the tundra buggies. All of the birds were in their full white winter plumage
American Coot
6 at Lake Audy on 27th and a couple at Oak Hammock Marsh on 28th
Greater Yellowlegs
2 at Oak Hammock Marsh on 28th
Common Snipe
1 at Riding Mountain on 27th and 1 at Oak Hammock on 28th
Glaucous Gull
Seen on 3 successive days from 30th in the Churchill area
Ring-billed Gull
Seen on 5 days with the most being in the Winnipeg area on 25th and 2nd
Herring Gull
Just a single juvenile bird near the Churchill grain silos on 31st
Bonaparte's Gull
At least 3 at Lake Audy on 27th
Rock Dove (Feral Pigeon)
Seen on 25th, 29th 1st & 2nd in Winnipeg
Snowy Owl
Just a single bird as we drove back in to Churchill on 1st
Downy Woodpecker
Seen on 26th and 29th in Riding Mountain and Winnipeg respectively
Hairy Woodpecker
Seen on 3 successive days at Riding Mountain Guest Ranch from 26th
Shore (Horned) Lark
Just a single bird seen from the tundra buggy on 1st
Black-capped Chickadee
Seen daily at the Riding Mountain Guest Ranch feeders on 26th, 27th and 28th and in Winnipeg on 29th
White-breasted Nuthatch
Seen on 3 successive days from 26th at the RMGR feeders
Blue Jay
1 on 28th at RMGR feeders and 1 in a park in Winnipeg the following day
Black-billed Magpie
Seen on 3 days from 26th in the Riding Mountain area
Gray Jay
2 at the RMGR feeders on 26th & 28th then 2 at Bill's place in Churchill on 31st
American Crow
1 on 25th and a few on 29th in Winnipeg
Common Raven
Commonly seen in Riding Mountain NP and in the Churchill area; seen on 3 days at each location
Common (European) Starling
1 on 25th and 3 on 29th in Winnipeg
Snow Bunting
At least 20 seen on 30th & 31st and about 10 on 1st all in the Churchill area
Dark-eyed Junco
Small numbers seen in the Riding Mountain area from 26th - 29th and also seen in Winnipeg on 2nd
Chipping Sparrow
Small numbers seen in Riding Mountain NP, mostly at the Guest Ranch feeders, on 26th, 27th and 28th
Evening Grosbeak
20 - 35 seen on and around the RMGR feeders on 26th, 27th & 28th
Hoary/Arctic Redpoll A small group of birds that were probably this species was seen on 30th
Song Sparrow 2 seen at the northern end of Oak Hammock Marsh on 28th
House Sparrow
Noted on 6 days in the Winnipeg and Churchill areas
Western Meadowlark
2 seen at the north end of Oak Hammock Marsh on 28th
Red-winged Blackbird
Just a solitary bird seen near Portage la Prairie on 28th; most had already headed south for winter!
American Robin 5 at Sandy Lake on 27th and then 2 in Assiniboine Park on 2nd

Grey Wolf
Sadly no actual animals but even the tracks in the fresh snow on 26th were impressive!
One seen at very close quarters along one of the roads in Riding Mountain National Park on 26th
Arctic Fox
One in the town of Churchill on 29th was the first then up to 4 seen on the two tundra buggy days (30th & 1st)
Red Fox
2 seen on 30th not far from Churchill with one of them being of the 'intermediate' colouring
Black Bear
Tracks less than 2 hours old seen on 26th but sadly no actual sightings
Polar Bear
Wow! What a superb year for this magnificent beast. At least 25 individuals seen on 30th and 32 individuals on 1st though we did see some of them on the way out and on the way back to tundra buggy base thus giving us many more sightings than the total of 57 above
American Mink
1 seen diving for food from a Beaver Lodge in RMNP on 26th
Striped Skunk
2 seen waddling along in the snow close to Riding Mountain Guest Ranch on 27th
Just a single sighting as we arrived at Riding Mountain Guest Ranch on 25th
Canadian Elk Just 4 or 5 glimpsed among trees in Riding Mountain National Park on 27th
A female and calf on 26th and a 2-year-old male seen on 27th all in RMNP
White-tailed Deer
7 seen not far from Riding Mountain Guest Ranch early on 26th
American Bison
35 seen during heavy snow in RMNP on 27th
American Red Squirrel
Noted on 26th and 27th in RMNP and then seen in Winnipeg on 29th and 2nd
American Beaver
At least 8 individuals seen on 26th and 1 or 2 on 27th in RMNP
5 on 26th & 3 on 27th in RMNP and at least 10 at Oak Hammock Marsh on 29th
Arctic Hare
2 on 30th and 1 on 1st from the tundra buggy
Snowshoe Hare 3 seen near 'Bill's place' near Churchill on 31st

What a fabulous tour! Though a few bird species were missing, probably because they had migrated south ahead of the onset of the snow, we saw plenty of wildlife. Who will ever forget the Bisons pushing the snow aside so that they could continue to feed or amazingly close views that we had of the Coyote in Riding Mountain National Park? Perhaps though it will be the 'Winter Wonderland' scenes of snow-laden pines and other trees that will linger most in the memories of this superb area.
During the return journey to Winnipeg there was the huge flock of Snow Geese that took to the air and created their own spectacular 'blizzard'. And the variety of wildfowl and other birds at Oak Hammock Marsh was great to see ...... especially the Buffleheads!
Best of all were the Polar Bears. We could not have had closer views .... and survived the encounter! And I don't think we could have expected as many sightings as we had this year. Hudson Bay had begun to freeze over just before we left and I reckon that a few days later, the bears would be gone. Perfect timing for the bears and also for the weather, which was good on our two buggy days and a little less helpful on the day between.
Perhaps the most abiding memory of the tour though was the superb humour within the group itself. I sincerely hope to see you all again on future Travelling Naturalist tours.
Mike Read
November 2003

© The Travelling Naturalist 2003