NATURE’S VIEW: Of Tundra Buggies & Polar Bears

Story and Photos by Jim Clark

Part IV –A little bit about the polar bears of Churchill, Story and photography by Jim Clark

To wrap up this series of four articles on photographing polar bears, I’ve put together a few tidbits of natural history about the bears of Churchill, Manitoba.

What makes Churchill so attractive to polar bears?

The western portion of Hudson Bay (The Bay), where the village of Churchill is located, is a landscape of raised beaches, small ponds, willow thickets and grassy flats interspersed with gravel ridges known as eskers, remnants of the last glaciation.

Polar Bear @ Hudson Bay (c) Jim Clark_086

Polar bear along the Hudson Bay near Churchill, Manitoba. © Jim Clark

Churchill is surrounded by the Churchill Wildlife Management Area and Wapusk National Park, which, when combined, protects nearly five million acres of subarctic transition habitats, including spruce forest, tundra ponds, marshes and bogs. These two parks also protect the largest known polar bear maternity denning grounds in the world.

During spring, ice on The Bay melts in a southeasterly direction, and as the ice disappears, the bears go ashore along the southern coastline in Manitoba and Ontario. While most males stay along the coast during the summer, females, including pregnant females and females with cubs, frequent the inland areas.

Polar Bear @ Hudson Bay (c) Jim Clark_057

A polar bear snoozes along the Hudson Bay, Manitoba. © Jim Clark

When the ice refreezes in early winter, it does so first along the coast at Cape Churchill, which is situated on an esker. This makes Churchill the prime springboard for these bears to congregate along the southern coast and venture on to the sea.

What do polar bears do at Churchill before The Bay completely freezes?

Polar bears along the coast at Churchill are simply waiting for The Bay to freeze. And when I say wait, I mean they wait and wait and wait and wait even more. For these animals, there is not much else to do. Of course, they move around a bit, including forays into Churchill. But there is very little else going on for the bears at this time.

It’s all a matter of saving energy. The bears rely on their fat reserves to sustain them until they can go onto the ice. Some bears walk along the coastline, while others scavenge for whatever they can find. Some males engage in wrestling, a harmless activity that doesn’t expend too much energy. Others simply lie down and sleep or just peer over The Bay.

As temperatures drop and the ice starts forming, a few bears will test the ice to see how far they can go, sometimes falling through thin ice. Once the bay is frozen solid, however, the bears leave Churchill and start moving onto Hudson Bay to hunt ringed and bearded seals.

Other natural history tidbits about polar bears

  • Polar bear hair lacks pigment and the color of the fur ranges from white to pale yellow, depending on age, sex, season and light. Long-time polar bear photographer Chas Glatzer says older and younger bears are typically whiter overall.
  • Polar bear hair is hollow, which aids in insulation and buoyancy.
  • Polar bears have black skin and a purple tongue. Cubs have pink skin until they reach five months in age.
  • Polar bears have a much longer snout and neck than other bear species, and their eyes are elevated a bit more—all adaptations for swimming and hunting seals on the ice.
  • Finally, remember this: The eagle sees it first, the deer hears it first, but the bear smells it first.

 

Polar bear sow and cub along the Hudson Bay, Manitoba. © Jim Clark

Polar bear sow and cub along the Hudson Bay, Manitoba. © Jim Clark

 

A past NANPA President and contributing editor for Outdoor Photographer, Jim is also a nature photography instructor for the Chincoteague Bay Field Station, Wallops Island, Virginia. The author/photographer of six books, Jim is particularly proud of two children’s books he did with his son Carson. Jim was also a major contributor to the book, Coal Country. Visit Jim’s website at www.jimclarkphoto.com, blog at www.jimclarkphoto.wordpress.com or visit him on Facebook.