What Is That … White Bear?

Waddells

Our previous article dealt with signs of fall at our cottage on White Lake.  Another less obvious sign of fall is our friends’ planning their trips away from the cold weather.  We on the other hand recently travelled north to Churchill, self-proclaimed polar bear capital of the world.  Situated on the western shore of Hudson Bay in northern Manitoba, Churchill at 58.7 degrees north, is roughly 1500 kilometers north of our cottage.

As part of this adventure, we spent two full days bouncing around the Churchill Wildlife Management Area (CWMA) in Tundra Buggies.  Much more than super-sized versions of the four-wheeled all-terrain vehicles we see and hear at the cottage, they are purpose-built ATVs that carry 40-plus passengers; are enclosed, heated with a washroom; and, have an outdoor viewing/photography platform at the rear.  Here we are providing scale.

We also took an hour-long helicopter flight over Wapusk National Park just east of the CWMA.  In the course of these activities, we learned about the biology, behaviour and ecology of polar bears and photographed northern animals and birds that caused us to think of cottage wildlife.

We have seen black bears near our cottage twice. These black furred bears grow to 1.4 to 1.8 meters in length and weigh up to 270 kilograms.  They are opportunistic foraging omnivores; live in forested areas; obtain 95 per cent of their food from plants; and, go into a light hibernation in winter living off stored body fat. In several respects polar bears are “polar opposites” to our local black bears.  Polar bears have white fur; are specialized marine carnivores; hunt primarily ringed seals on the sea ice throughout the cold months (as long as sufficient sea ice is present); and, live off stored body fat during the ice-free summer months.  In addition, polar bears are much larger, growing to 2.0 – 3.4 meters in length with the females weighing 150 – 300 kilograms and males weighing 300 – 800 kilograms.

Polar bears have a circumpolar distribution, with 23 identifiable groups throughout the northern hemisphere.  The Churchill group is the largest of several groups found in Canada. They mate in April-May.  Typically two cubs are born in December in dens on-shore or snow banks on the frozen sea. Mother and cubs are able to move out of the den onto the sea ice in March, just when ringed seals are having their pups.  The young bears stay with their mother one to two years resulting in females having cubs every two to three years.  This picture, taken from the helicopter, shows a female and two nearly mature cubs resting on dried kelp waiting for the sea ice to form.

We observed many bears eating kelp.  Experts suggest this may help restart their digestive systems after months of living off body fat.  Everyone joked about kelp being prunes for polar bears.

This time of year bears are eager to get out onto the sea ice to start hunting seals.  This young male was testing out some newly-formed ice, finding it not yet strong enough to carry him.

We witnessed male bears interacting.  Experts believe this behaviour helps condition muscles and establish prominence for the upcoming hunting season.

We also saw a moose, a holarctic species which ranges throughout most of Canada and Alaska.  While we have never seen moose at our cottage, some of our neighbours have reported seeing them around White Lake, but rarely.  During our helicopter flight over Wapusk National Park we photographed this bull moose.

Recently Canadian Geographic (CG) canvassed Canadians for recommendations on the naming of a “national bird”.  Based on public input, CG recommended the Canada jay (also called the gray jay or the whiskey jack).  While the federal government has yet to consider this recommendation and make it official, we and many others already like to think of the Canada jay as our national bird.  We can see them in Algonquin Provincial Park but their range does not extend south to our cottage.  We were pleasantly surprised to see Canada jays in Churchill.

We have brown-coloured ruffed grouse at the cottage and were excited to see their northern relative, the willow ptarmigan, in the CWMA.  We were pleased to get this photograph as the half dozen birds we saw had already adopted their white camouflage winter plumage.

Our timing was perfect and we had a fabulous time in Churchill seeing many polar bears which we had always wanted to see up close and personal.  Nice way to celebrate Bruce’s birthday!

For additional information we recommend: Polarbearsinternational.com; Steven Kazlowski and Ian Stirling’s Icebear: The Arctic World of Polar Bears; Tamar Eder’s Mammals of Ontario; and, Roger Tory Peterson’s Field Guide to Birds of Eastern and Central North America.