Legendary Cape Churchill

Cape Churchill at sunset

A Tundra Buggy at Cape Churchill at sunset

The Tundra Buggy Lodge

The Tundra Buggy Lodge

Every year the polar bear viewing season culminates with a tour to Cape Churchill in Wapusk National Park, Manitoba. The adventure tour is run by Frontiers North and it is first class in terms of accommodation, food and polar bear viewing. The Polar Bear Lodge consists of 4 modules on wheels, together with some modules for staff and support. Two bunkhouses, decked out in Hudson Bay colours, a lounge and a dining car, along with the support vehicles are towed by Tundra Buggies, in a convoy 35 km from the Churchill Wildlife Management Area to Cape Churchill in Wapusk National Park. The logistics of such a trek are awesome. There has to be enough ice to support these large vehicles as they are towed across shallow bays, yet the operators cannot schedule this tour too late in the season otherwise the bears will have migrated out onto Hudson Bay.

Mother and cub investigate a Tundra Buggy

Mother and cub investigate a Tundra Buggy

About thirty paying clients from North America and around the world met in Winnipeg, flew by charter to Churchill, were outfitted in complimentary Canada Goose parkas, and were towed out to the Cape for six days of dawn to dusk wildlife and scenic photography in a bleak, windswept subarctic environment. The friendly, professional staff of Frontiers North tended to all of our needs.

Windswept Cape Churchill near sunset

Windswept Cape Churchill near sunset

Willows and snow along the Hudson Bay coast

Willows and snow along the Hudson Bay coast

We had excellent light on some days and encountered a nice variety of wildlife, from arctic hare, arctic and red foxes, snowy owl, ptarmigan and the bears. Big males together with mothers and their cubs. For the most part the bears looked fit and healthy. Part of the expedition included a group from Polar Bears International, who provided expert background updates on the status of polar bears, sea ice and the research that is conducted year-round on the bears. Our group of nine was recruited by Canadian wildlife photographer John Marriott who was unable to be with us, due to unforeseen family circumstances. John recruited a dynamic, knowledgeable and fun-loving group of wildlife photographers who spent 8 days together, in the capable hands of driver Bob Debets and guides Haley, JoAnne and pro photographer Richard Day who each accompanied us every third day.

Arctic Hare (Lepus arcticus

Arctic Hare (Lepus arcticus)

Arctic Fox (Alopex lagopus) Sleeping in snow

Arctic Fox (Alopex lagopus) Sleeping in snow

The sun rises about 8:30 in November in northern Manitoba and sets about 3:30. The wind blows constantly but we were comfortable in our Tundra Buggy, even though the temperatures (excluding wind chill) were in the -20s Celsius. Photography was done through open windows, using bean bags for support of our long lenses. There was an option to photograph from the back deck. I sometimes chose that option, then being able to set up a tripod. One of the attractions of the Cape Churchill tour is the opportunity to see and photograph polar bears at first light in the morning and last light near sunset. We were fortunate this year to get both.

Polar bear (Ursus maritimus) heading to Hudson Bay

Polar bear (Ursus maritimus) heading to Hudson Bay

Hudson Bay coastline at freeze-up- polar bear wandering along the coast at sunset

Hudson Bay coastline at freeze-up- polar bear wandering along the coast at sunset

Polar bear (Ursus maritimus) Sparring males

Polar bear (Ursus maritimus) Sparring males

Polar bear (Ursus maritimus) running in the snow

Polar bear (Ursus maritimus) running in the snow

Polar bear (Ursus maritimus),

Polar bear (Ursus maritimus),

The red fox might be an indication of climate change, expanding its range northwards into the arctic. We witnessed the red fox dismembering and eating an arctic fox it had killed near the Cape. Disturbing but compelling to see.

Red fox (Vulpes vulpes) preying upon an Arctic Fox (Alopex lagopus)

Red fox (Vulpes vulpes) preying upon an Arctic Fox (Alopex lagopus)

Some bears were nicknamed BABs- “Big A** Bears”. Cape Churchill is famous for its big males. These guys steer clear of the town of Churchill, choosing to migrate out to the ice through Cape Churchill instead. Once the Big Males have moved through, they are followed by females and cubs.

Polar bear (Ursus maritimus) waiting for the sea ice

Polar bear (Ursus maritimus) waiting for the sea ice

Polar bear (Ursus maritimus) near Hudson Bay

Polar bear (Ursus maritimus) near Hudson Bay

A big male

A big male

Polar bear (Ursus maritimus), Wapusk NP, Cape Churchill, Manitoba, Canada

Polar bear (Ursus maritimus), Wapusk NP, Cape Churchill, Manitoba, Canada

It appeared that the polar bears were going to have a slightly extended ice season this year. I had a dream (nightmare?) before the tour began of seeing the last bear at the Cape disappear into the ice fog as it receded from sight, leaving us on land as it returned to its seal hunting territory in Hudson Bay. That dream became a reality on our last day at the Cape.

Polar Bear (Ursus maritimus) Radio-collared mother and yearling, second-year cub

Polar Bear (Ursus maritimus) Radio-collared mother and yearling, second-year cub

Polar bear (Ursus maritimus) Mother and yearling cub

Polar bear (Ursus maritimus) Mother and yearling cub

Polar bear (Ursus maritimus) Yearling cub

Polar bear (Ursus maritimus) Yearling cub

Other polar bear images from this trip may be viewed by linking through to my 500px site. http://500px.com/don_johnston/sets/cape_churchill_manitoba_animals

A photographer’s perspective on Weeds

Following up on my last two postings on the subject of the monarch butterfly and its host plants I thought I would post some images of noxious and invasive weeds, taken over the years. In some locales these plants can be common. Often, under the right conditions, they can make nice photographic subjects. I don’t shy away from photographing invasives and noxious weeds. A weed is a flowering plant (usually) in the wrong place, such as a garden, crop or lawn. On a more sinister side, invasives such as purple loosestrife can seriously disrupt natural ecosystems like wetlands, and their control becomes more important. Photographing these plants can help draw attention to the ecological issues. Agriculture has classified plants like common milkweed as noxious, giving them special status for control programs. Unfortunately there can be some collateral damage, such as loss in monarch butterfly numbers. As always, with complex problems such as these, there are no simple answers.

Here are some pictures of noxious weeds (classified usually by state or province or country) as well as some invasive plants.

Sunrise and Queen Annes lace flower. (Pennsylvania)

Sunrise and Queen Annes lace flower. (Pennsylvania)

Purple loosestrife is pretty but deadly to wetland ecosystems. The infestation in North America has necessitated the use of specific insect controls- beetles and weevils that feed only on this plant, but are themselves non-native.

Purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) in an Ontario wetland.

Purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) in an Ontario wetland.

Orange and yellow hawkweed are invasive plants in North America, but their flowers are visited by many beautiful butterflies.

Mixed colonies of windblown yellow and orange hawkweed at base of rock outcrop

Mixed colonies of windblown yellow and orange hawkweed at base of rock outcrop (time exposure with wind)

Canadian tiger swallowtail (Papilio canadensis) perched and nectaring on orange hawkweed

Canadian tiger swallowtail (Papilio canadensis) perched and nectaring on orange hawkweed

One reason the milkweed is classified noxious is because it can propagate through the production of airborne seeds.

Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) Bursting seed pod

Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) Bursting seed pod

Roadsides and other marginal habitats are often places where invasive plants get a toe-hold.

Roadside wildflowers: Daisies, Birdsfoot trefoil and vetch.

Roadside wildflowers: Daisies, Birdsfoot trefoil and vetch.

Hare's-foot clover (Trifolium arvense) Flowering colonies in Olympic Park on the road to Hurricane Ridge

Hare’s-foot clover (Trifolium arvense) Flowering colonies in Olympic Park on the road to Hurricane Ridge

Russian thistle is unwelcome in South Dakota’s badlands ecosystem.

Russian Thistle seedlings in cracked mud

Russian Thistle seedlings in cracked mud. (Badlands National Park, SD)

Oxeye daisies and dandelions are so common we often forget they are non-native. The dandelion flower and leaves have some culinary and medicinal uses.

Large colony of roadside oxeye daisies blowing in strong wind (time exposure)

Large colony of roadside oxeye daisies blowing in strong wind (time exposure)

Oxeye daisies, star chickweed and hawkweed in urban roadside habitat

Oxeye daisies, star chickweed and hawkweed in urban roadside habitat.

 

Dandelions on lawn with flowering serviceberry bushes.

Dandelions on lawn with flowering serviceberry bushes. (Manitoulin Island, Ontario)

 

Shortly I am off to Churchill for an exciting polar bear photo tour (with John Marriott). Brenda and I just returned from autumn in the (very busy, but very pleasant) Smokies in Tennessee. Blog entries to follow, when there is time. Thanks for stopping by.