TRAVELLING NATURALIST TRIP REPORT
Sunday 24 October - Thursday 4 November 2004
Highlights: Seeing two of our five Snowy owls on the first day of this holiday was an indication of what was to come. We enjoyed amazing experiences with bears Black and Polar and birds.
The Black bears could have been hibernating but due to relatively high temperatures were not. Polar bears venture out onto the ice after it has formed but the temperatures again acted in our favour and we enjoyed more than 100 sightings in two days. We also witnessed flying bears as three were airlifted from Churchills gaol to freedom.
Huge numbers of Snow geese had moved into Oak Hammock marsh and we saw blizzards of them lifting into the air and wheeling around. They were the highest numbers recorded in the sanctuary for several years.
A male Spruce grouse believed we were opposition for his would-be mate and allowed us to approach and photograph him at close range. One the mammal side, a tame Arctic fox responded to a mitten offered for its interest, shaking and worrying the glove before running away with it altogether. Arctic foxes were present in good numbers due to this being a year of high Lemming populations and we all enjoyed the non-stop running action of the animals.
An American marten was one of the most beautiful creatures we saw as it ferreted around the houses of Churchill looking for rodents.
The Elk and Moose seen in Riding Mountain National Park we most impressive, as was an inquisitive Coyote which watched us on one stop. A stag Elk with 14 hinds looked harassed as it tried to keep them together while herding them away from the proximity of our vehicle.
Rough-legged buzzards were numerous on the prairies and even one or two Red-tailed hawks were found, lingering before heading south.
In the north Rock ptarmigan had just moved in to the Churchill area and we had great views of a pair, both showing the pink wash which was described to us by our guide David Hatch, an undocumented feature of this species.
Sunday 24 October
>We all arrived at Heathrow Terminal 3 long before the check-in opened at 5.45am. At least that took us to the front of the line for only a short wait.
Boarding our Air Canada flight was interesting with a stroppy old gentleman and his two wives demanding squatters rights to three bulkhead seats and eventually being manhandled into places in front of Tim and Wim. They were close to being taken off the flight altogether, we learned later.
The flight to Toronto was otherwise uneventful but the surprise bird of the day was, sadly, waiting for us in the baggage hall a Hermit thrush. It was fluttering around but we could see no way of relieving its plight.
A few Ring-billed and Herring gulls, Starlings and House sparrows were seen before we transferred onto the Winnipeg flight arriving at 5pm local. Dinner was taken in a steak-house and we retired for an early night.
Monday 25 October
Tens of thousands of Snow geese, several parties of Snow buntings and two Snowy owls gave our first days birding a wintry feel. So too did the weather which was clear, bright but decidedly parky first thing.
We met Jim Irwin just before 9am and were on our way to Oak Hammock marshes with rather glum thoughts. Jims last trip there had been more than disappointing.
How things can change.
We soon located a huge flock of Canada geese which had a few of the tiny Richardsons subspecies among them. We were to see the intermediate sub-species, Lesser Canada goose, at Crescent Lake later in the afternoon.
Our next vast flock was mixed Snow geese of the blue and white forms in with Canada geese. This gave us all great pleasure and we used the viewing platform on the roof of the minibus with delight.
It soon became apparent that there were thousands of Snow geese in the area. Huge flocks kept rising and dropping back into the fields or lakes they were occupying. We were told later that the sightings were more numerous than any other period in the last 10 years. Our guesstimate was between 50,000 and 100,000 Snow geese seen.
One eruption of geese drew our attention to three Bald eagles which were quartering the area looking for birds injured by hunters. We were to see seven during the day.
Small birds were present too as we toured and tasted the tantalising vistas before us. There were several flocks of Red-winged blackbirds while Snow buntings passed overhead occasionally.
Best find of the morning was a Snowy owl which posed on a post for several minutes before flying off to a hay-bale where it joined a second. What a brilliant sight. We were told later that their early presence might have been due to a poor lemming-summer, part of the four-year cycle of rodent numbers in the Arctic. Tim had experienced the same phenomenon watching owls in Finland during the spring.
Lunch was taken watching Snipe, Short-billed and Long-billed dowitchers. A Richardsons ground squirrel colony entertained us while Jim found a Pied-billed grebe and a Blue-winged teal.
The long journey to Riding Mountain Reserve was a terrific trip with many stops along the way. Find of the afternoon was three stunning Western grebes on Lake Manitoba.
A sandy beach nearby produced Pectoral and White-rumped sandpipers, a group of American avocets feeding frantically, lots of tiny Bonapartes gulls and a big flock of Sanderlings which seemed to be operated by clockwork mechanisms, judging from the way they trotted around the beach.
Lots of Hen harriers and Rough-legged buzzards were seen from the bus as we crossed the beautiful flat prairies which are the grain basket of Canada.
Geese still dominated the scene and as we stopped to watch a vast sky-full of Canada goose skeins they decided to drop into a field a few hundred metres away looking like a huge blizzard. They were still pouring in minutes later when we left by which time there were several thousand already landed.
A throw-away comment by Wim about a flock of domestic turkeys had us turning the vehicle around a flock of 15 Wild turkeys is not a common sight. We made our thanksgivings and left them in peace.
The journey across the prairies was fascinating and we arrived at the Riding Mountain Farm guesthouse pleased with our day. The pleasure continued as we enjoyed Jim and Candys hospitality.
Tuesday 26 October
We went to school today to learn about Black bears. To be precise, we sat in a school bus but the lesson was the same. Two were seen and watched for some time as part of an unfolding drama based on a bear feeding station.
We had started early, leaving the guesthouse at 7.45, just as day was breaking. The prompt get-away was rewarded with a female Moose and her calf which crossed the road in front of us. We cruised the best parts of Riding Mountain NP hoping for more large mammals and eventually found three White-tailed deer, a doe with two calves.
A walk around part of Moon Lake gave good views of Great northern divers, Buffleheads, Hooded mergansers which were raising their hoods in display, and a few other species of wildfowl. Golden-crowned kinglets were found on a walk along the Boreal Trail while a Greater yellowlegs and a Bald eagle were found when we stopped to photograph one of the many American beaver lodges in the park.
Lunch was accompanied by Evening Grosbeaks, Black-capped chickadees, a Hairy woodpecker and several White-breasted nuthatches.
After a snooze for some and a stroll around the nearby woods for the rest, we set off for the makeshift bear hide. The old school bus had been bought and converted by Jim. We sat in the childrens seats gazing out of the windows watching a narrow strip of grass bordering a dense wood. Several scoops of balanced dog food were scattered around the area by Jim and we settled back to wait.
Like much mammal-watching, it took patience. The first Black bear kept us waiting nearly an hour before he ambled in to scoff the pellets. He was within a few metres of us, quite an unnerving experience for some, but paid us little attention.
Finally, he ambled off back into the wood, disappearing almost immediately. We waited 90 minutes for the next bear to appear but the stage was filled in the interim with Red squirrels which stole the bears food, running away with scores of pellets to be stashed for the winter. A Blue jay or two joined in, doing the same thing except that they had a number of caches which were being stocked up, while Black-capped chickadees, Black-billed magpies and a Downy woodpecker all played their individual cameo parts.
Suddenly a second bear appeared this was a female and also tucked into a free meal, albeit with a bit more timidity than the male. Her fear of something in the wood got the better of her and she shuffled off.
Within a minute or two the original male returned, accompanied soon after by the female, and both enjoyed a second course. When they finally went their separate ways, so did we returning to the house in time for a bath before an excellent supper.
Wednesday 27 October
We concentrated on mammals today, looking for and finding all the species we hoped for.
Elk (Red deer) were most obliging with a group of two stags and two does to start the batting and a wonderful group of 14 does led by a magnificent stag a little later.
Jims policy of hitting the road at first light paid dividends with great views of a stag Moose (Elk) which we were admiring when a Coyote came out onto the road about 50 metres away and stood watching us for a couple of minutes.
White-tailed deer were common with six in the morning and a further 13 when we went out Beaver-watching in the evening. The Beaver was seen at a beautiful pool we had stopped at yesterday to photograph the lodge. It surfaced within seconds of our arrival and proceeded to collect small branches which it stashed in its underwater store for the winter.
The lodge was also occupied by Muskrats one of which was busily taking plant material into its home, again to be consumed during the winter. We saw two more in the pool.
Highlight for several of us was a herd of about 40 Bison which were grazing the prairie grassland like contented cows. Our first close encounter was with two magnificent bulls but we learned later that they were past their prime and no longer ran with the herd. There were bulls, cows and calves in the main herd and we climbed onto the van roof to get pictures and better views. It was a terrific experience.
Our return to the school-bus bear hide again had us enjoying visits from the same male and female Black bears.
Peanut butter spread into crevices in nearby trees and stumps attracted Hairy woodpeckers, Black-capped chickadees, Blue jays and American red squirrels. The bears were quite keen on it too, climbing to scoop a nail-full from the crevices.
We had planned to leave at 5pm to search for beavers and at 4.55 the second bear shuffled off into the woods and we left too.
Our visit to get pictures of a scenic lodge at Deep Bay had been appreciated by the photographers so we returned in the hope of seeing the occupants. As we arrived three Red-necked grebes were spotted and before we could admire them George informed us that an American beaver had surfaced. What to look at?
The beaver won as its lodge was also occupied by a beautiful Muskrat. As it gathered food for a larder deep in the sticks, the beaver dived repeatedly as it took branches down to its underwater winter larder. Two other Muskrats also put in an appearance, leaving V-shaped wakes on the glassy surface.
It was a great end to a super mammal-watching day and we thanked Jim for his skill and knowledge.
Thursday 28 October
Spruce grouse are well known for their lack of timidity but the bird we came across close to Whirlpool Lake was so tame it almost asked to join the group. The bird was displaying to a rather reluctant looking female the day length in mid-October is about the same as early April and the males hormones had kicked in.
We watched and took photos from the bus. George got out and took a few from the side when Jim suggested he tried the moose trick.
Tim got close to George so that the bird could see four legs but not two separate bodies, and they walked at a tangent to the bird getting closer at every step. George held his camera in position to one eye.
Slowly the one-eyed pantomime moose approached the male Spruce grouse which looked on (was it a smile on the birds beak?). The ploy failed. The bird mistook our intrepid pair for another grouse and flew up to them to display. Many pictures were taken as it flew between them and a low branch of a fir tree.
The rest of the group and the female grouse looked on in amazement. The pair turned their attention onto the female but as they approached she moved off a little way.
Its behind you, the group called.
Oh no its not, the moose replied.
Oh yes it is.
The pantomime moose turned around slowly and, sure enough, the male was chasing them up the road.
The scene disintegrated into a photo farce. By this time the bird had worked out that we were not dangerous and everyone approached it for pictures. Even a pair of Grey jay clowns came down and joined the fun. Only the female left, stage right.
It had been a delightful encounter.
We had been exploring the area since leaving the guest ranch. A short walk produced views in the mist of Bald eagle, Rough-legged buzzard and our first Red-tailed hawk. Our friendly Beaver and Muskrat were still active at Deep Bay as were a pair of juvenile Great northern divers.
A search for Black-backed woodpecker was unsuccessful but we did see a flock of Snow buntings as we dropped off the escarpment and left the park.
Our journey to Delta Marsh was broken by many stops American kestrel was found by Wim on a post, the flock of Wild turkeys had increased to 62 and the Rough-legged buzzard count rose to 14 very quickly.
The productive beach at the marsh was empty of waders this time perhaps they had all migrated south, the mild weather could not last long. A Winter wren, Red-breasted nuthatch and a Golden-crowned kinglet were recorded with a Dark-eyed junco at the car park.
A walk around a nature trail produced very little, a couple of Snipe, a few Red-winged blackbirds and a Hairy woodpecker.
We rescued a Leopard frog which was hopping across a road, only to find it was attempting to get to a nearby lake before it froze and we had returned the poor creature to its starting point.
Paul had opted out of the birding and was at least 4km down the road to Winnipeg when we picked him up.
A huge roost of Red-winged blackbirds, possibly 1,000 strong, was observed dropping into a marsh but otherwise the rest of the journey was uneventful and we were at the hotel by 6.30. Jim met us at 7.30 and we all went for a farewell dinner in The Forks, a famous shopping area.
Friday 29 October
Fox hunting was the highlight of a relaxing travel day. Our dinner in Churchill was peppered with information about the areas wildlife from David Hatch and we were tempted to go out hunting for Arctic fox and the silver form of Red fox. We were successful in seeing the latter but not the Arctic.
The day started at leisure and we all met for the first time at 11.30 for an alfresco lunch in Winnipegs Forks Market. Here we could choose from the cuisines of a number of countries most appropriate as the Forks was the site of Winnipegs first settlement by people from all over the world.
It was off to the airport and our flight to Churchill where the temperature was -4°C. By the time we had eaten and donned warm clothing it was -10°C. This was more like it.
The Red fox was a beautiful animal, a stunning black with white streaks giving it a silver appearance. The tail was jet-black with a bold white tip.
Predictions for tomorrows tundra buggy outing were good and we retired excited about the day ahead.
Saturday 30 October
It all started quietly enough trundling along frozen tracks in a huge bus mounted on enormous wheels, the well-named tundra buggy. We shared the experience with American, Canadian, Dutch and English visitors to Churchill.
There was little to see, Lots of ice and snow, stunted willows and lichen-covered ground. A call by David Hatch for a Polar bear came to nothing. The animal had popped up and down again after seeing the buggy. It was not a good start.
Angela called out after spotting six Willow grouse moving in a nearby clump of bushes and the buggy ground to a halt. We competed with enthusiastic photographers for a view of the all-white birds feeding on willow buds in an all-white snow field. Eventually all were satisfied and the buggy moved off.
Our first Polar bear was some distance away but we had great views as the young animal walked steadily across a frozen pond. The sun was slightly behind it and the bears off-white fur appeared to have a white halo. It was a beautiful sight.
Our next bears were wrestling with each other and the buggy tipped slightly to one side as 40 people crowded around 10 windows to get a view. Patience paid, however, and we soon realised that the first views of an animal would be followed by others, often more exciting.
In any case, with more than 40 Polar bears watched during the course of the next eight hours there was little need to panic.
We watched some dig scrapes into which they settled to sleep, others lumbered in from further south exercising their ancestral right to hike across the Churchill tundra, still more investigated the smells coming from ours and other buggies, standing nine-feet tall to sniff the scents.
All did a great deal of sniffing. Those marching across the tundra were constantly raising their heads to test the air. Others were clearly investigating the bears around them, again with their noses.
It was an amazing day, one of the best in a terrific bear season this year. The weather was perfect: bright, fairly calm and sunny but cold at minus 7°C. An Arctic fox was spotted by George and our group began to earn a reputation for sharp eyes and observation.
Lunch of soup and a huge sandwich was followed by yet more bears with a Common scoter and an immature Glaucous gull for variety. A Ringed seal was spotted by Tim at a huge distance, made up for by a Snow bunting just a short way from the buggy tracks.
Our departure was delayed by the sight of a huge male bear with feet the size of big soup plates, marching out of the wilderness. Two sleeping bears jumped up and cautiously got out of the big males way while we watched in awe. We stopped a second time for a big flock of Willow grouse numbering almost 50 birds.
A day in the buggy left us all in need of a short walk and we set off towards the towns huge grain silos. We had walked far enough as the road crossed the railway tracks it was bitter in the cold wind which had sprung up.
A quick scan of the river and ice-bound banks revealed nothing, until Tim suddenly leapt to the scope and trained it on a black smudge.
Female Snowy owl, he said in triumph and we all enjoyed the view, made better when she halved the distance between us.
It should have been the finale to a great day but as we came out of the restaurant after dinner, David pointed out an American (pine) marten hunting rodents under the raised houses, and also where we should stand to get the best views of an aurora borealis which was developing. It turned into a cracker lasting 45 minutes and was one of the highlights of the trip for some who stayed out watching the ethereal lights coming and going across the sky.
Sunday 31 October
We do not include sightseeing tours in Travelling Naturalist holidays very often. But the one we did today turned into a cracking wildlife excursion which included flying bears.
A post-breakfast walk had produced little of interest until the American marten popped out from under the hotel, ran across the street and led us a merry dance as it hunted up the road opposite.
The bus tour started by heading up the coast towards Fort Prince of Wales. We stopped for pictures of the do not walk here polar bears signs and then stopped as two young Arctic foxes came into view and started wrestling. They were in exceptionally good numbers this year due to the abundance of rodents.
Our next bus-tick was a pair of Rock ptarmigan which were stripping the willows of buds. They breed further north and these were the first seen in Churchill this winter. An Arctic hare sheltering behind a rock was the next to be spotted and we began to realise that this was no ordinary sightseeing tour.
A few Eider were seen on the cold waters of Hudson Bay but other sea ducks were absent. Attempts to find some were cut short by the order to return to the bus otherwise we would be late for an air-lift of Polar bears which had been caught in or around the town and were being flown out to liberated about 30km away.
The bus, driven by a Halloween witch named Caroline whose attire was an outfit designed to make her appear to be riding on the back of a pink flamingo, trundled through town towards the bear gaol.
Suddenly, Tim (mines a Snowy owl) shouted stop. He had spotted a bird on a rock. We all got out and admired another immature Snowy. We were sharing the tour with 30 other people all of whom were thrilled to get exceptional views of the bird.
Three bears were lying anaesthetised in nets when we arrived at the ex-Army hut used to hold nuisance animals. A couple of helicopters were spotted flying our way and these landed while the nets were connected to a rope under one of the machines. It soon took off carrying the three bears which would soon be recovering in the tundra way away from Churchill.
It had been an exceptional tour and after lunch David attempted to continue it but with little luck. A feeding site for Pine grosbeaks was empty of birds and we saw little else. Our second excursion finished with a drive along the coast road on which we admired a beautiful Red fox which sported a black tail with white tip.
David had organised a minibus for us and after a tea-break we went out towards the fort once more. Once again there was little of note until Tim spotted another immature Snowy owl sitting on a shed roof. It flew onto an Inuit monument and then disappeared into the rocky terrain.
A search for roosting Gyrfalcons was unsuccessful and we called it a day at 5pm. David joined us for dinner and we celebrated a most enjoyable day, anticipating our second tundra buggy ride on the morrow.
Monday 1 November
We had seen two Polar bears before even reaching the tundra buggy launch site. And moments after setting off the buggy pulled up so that we could see a female with two small cubs walking in single files across the ice. It was a brilliant start to what was to be a great days bear watching. In total we had more than 60 sightings, brining the total for the two buggy days to well over 100 sightings. This is quite exceptional for the Churchill bear experience and we were all thrilled to see so many Great white bears.
Birding was less productive with a flock of Snow buntings, a few Ravens and a flurry of white Willow grouse the only sightings.
The day ended with a celebratory dinner at the hotel and an optional slide show about Churchills bear phenomenon.
A juvenile fox stole one of Tims snow mittens and ran off with it this evening. The glove was never found.
This delinquent animal should be caught and locked in the fox gaol, if there is one, an angry tour leader said later.
The inquisitive fox had responded to the mitten which was thrown to see if it would come closer to some of the group out for an evening stroll. The animal pounced upon it, shook the glove as if it were a Lemming and then ran off with it, to the delight of all except Tim.
Tuesday 2 November
We awoke to a cold clear day with a strong wind. Tim and Wim volunteered to check the towns granary silo, a popular roost-site for Gyrfalcons, sadly without finding one. The early morning cold was intense, especially walking into the wind. We all saw ice crystals in the air and an ice-bow around the rising sun.
We visited the Eskimo Museum before catching a mid-morning flight to Winnipeg. The afternoon was free but little of note was seen despite the group splitting up and scouring the adjacent riverside and parks. Our final dinner was back at The Keg where the visit to Manitoba had started. We celebrated the success of the tour and enjoyed new friendships.
Wednesday 3 November
Some slept before the flight, others watched the final results from the US presidential elections while Tim and Pam persevered with birding the parks and riverside. Their efforts paid off with the first White-crowned sparrow, a free Hermit thrush (if only it had been the same bird we saw in Toronto) three Downy and one Hairy woodpeckers, White-bellied nuthatch and Black-capped chickadees. Grey and Red squirrels were also recorded.
Many of these birds were seen again when we walked as a group via the river, to the Forks market where we again enjoyed an alfresco lunch.
A trip to the Museum of Mankind was great fun and gave us much to think about as we started for the airport and our journey home.
ANNOTATED LIST OF SPECIES
1 Leopard frog Rana pipiens
1 Milberts tortoishell Nymphalis millberti
1 Fire-carrying bracket fungus Used by aboriginal natives to carry fire for days when they are on the move. Pointed out to us in Riding Mountain NP on the 27th.
1 Saturn Seen well in Winnipeg on the 24th.