Cape Churchill Polar Bears

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

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

In November 2016 (Nov 17-28) I will be leading a group, through Frontiers North Adventure Tours, to Cape Churchill Manitoba for Polar Bears and other wildlife. We will have our own tundra buggy and be part of a larger group of 40 like-minded individuals. This is considered the ultimate polar bear tour and while it is expensive (CAD 11 799 + tax+ single supplement 450.00) it is all inclusive and exclusive. Only 40 people per year experience this adventure on the Hudson Bay coastline in Wapusk National Park. Frontiers North has perfected the technique of towing their modular Tundra Buggy Lodge 35 km from Polar Bear Point to Cape Churchill, where the big bears, mothers and cubs assemble to await the formation of ice in Hudson Bay.

Polar bear (Ursus maritimus) Mother and yearling cub, Wapusk NP, Cape Churchill, Manitoba, Canada

Polar bear (Ursus maritimus) Mother and yearling cub, Wapusk NP, Cape Churchill, Manitoba, Canada

Our tundra buggy will have a limit of 10 photographers plus guide and driver so there is plenty of room and each photographer will have access to both sides of the vehicle plus the platform at the back. We are out each day, all day, for 7 full days plus some time in the town of Churchill and in the Churchill Wildlife Management area prior to departure for the Cape.

Arctic Fox (Alopex lagopus) Sleeping in snow, Wapusk NP, Cape Churchill, Manitoba, Canada

Arctic Fox (Alopex lagopus) Sleeping in snow, Wapusk NP, Cape Churchill, Manitoba, Canada

The tour begins in Winnipeg with a welcome dinner and accommodation included. It ends in Winnipeg with a farewell dinner and overnight hotel. Frontiers North provides (on loan)  winter apparel- parka, boots and pants. Travel to Churchill is by charter aircraft so all your gear can be carried on without carry-on restrictions.

The Cape Churchill Lodge

The Cape Churchill Lodge

Tundra Buggy vehicle and curious polar bears, Wapusk NP, Cape Churchill, Manitoba, Canada

Tundra Buggy vehicle and curious polar bears, Wapusk NP, Cape Churchill, Manitoba, Canada

Please don’t hesitate to contact me through the blog or my website email info@donjohnstonphotos.com if you have questions. I will provide information regarding booking the tour at that time.

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

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

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

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

Christmas Images

Seasons greetings, Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas to one and all!

Christmas morning light on trees in the yard

Christmas morning light on trees in the yard

After the family traditions on Christmas morning have been attended to there is sometimes an opportunity for me to do some nature photography, something that I always ask permission from the family before venturing forth, sometimes just on the deck, sometimes in the driveway, never too far from home nor for too long.

Christmas morning light and fresh snow on spruce trees

Christmas morning light and fresh snow on spruce trees

 

Christmas morning sunrise

Christmas morning sunrise

Christmas is one of the quietest days of the year to be outside. The winter weather over the past 8 years- the time period from which these images were chosen- has been variable in the extreme. Cold days, El Nino warm days. Days with little snow but morning frost and days with beautiful fresh snow. This year is promising to be gloomy and wet but I am hoping the rain turns to snow in time.

A red fox lounging on a small roadside mound

A red fox lounging on a small roadside mound

 

A chickadee spreads its wings near the bird feeder

A chickadee spreads its wings near the bird feeder

Through these past 8 years, when the conditions were excellent and the light was magical, I knew I had to forgo some of the family traditions and take time to make some pictures. Please enjoy these images made on a very special day.

Junction Creek snowfall 2012

Junction Creek snowfall 2012

Ice formations along Junction Creek

Ice formations along Junction Creek

A dusting of snow on grasses along the driveway

A dusting of snow on grasses along the driveway

Garden grasses

Garden grasses

Tree shadows on snow drifts in the yard

Tree shadows on snow drifts in the yard

An ice puddle at the edge of the lawn in an El Nino year

An ice puddle at the edge of the lawn in an El Nino year

Santa Claus takes the kids for a ride

Santa Claus takes the kids for a ride

On and off the deck

 

Male ruby-throated hummingbird perched on a branch on the deck, near the nectar feeder

A male ruby-throated hummingbird perches on a branch on our deck, near the nectar feeder

 

Brenda and I are about to hit the road again and I thought I had better get in a blog post before leaving for the Northwest Territories and Vancouver Island. We usually stay home for the summer, preferring to avoid the crowds, traffic and higher prices.

 

A male goldfinch forages among the goldenrods behind our lawn

A male goldfinch forages among the goldenrods behind our lawn

Brenda enjoys her gardening and we tend a vegetable garden and milkweed patch that was finally visited by monarchs. It has been a cool summer thus far, perhaps following upon the very cold winter and its lingering effects. Blueberries were late this year but the crop was quite good in places. Nonetheless birds, small and large mammals, insects, snakes and spiders continue their seasonal rituals around our property.

 

Geranium flowers in a basket after a morning rain

Geranium flowers in a basket after a morning rain

During the summer I stay close to home with the camera too. Not surprisingly, if I am ready and the equipment is at hand there are photo opportunities awaiting in Brenda’s gardens, on the lawn and on the deck.

 

A moth rests on red flower petals, chilled by raindrops

A moth rests on red flower petals, chilled by raindrops

Here is a collection of examples from the last couple of months. Please enjoy!

This red squirrel has mastered traversing the clothesline to venture out to a hanging seed feeder

This red squirrel has mastered the art of  traversing the clothesline to venture out to a hanging seed feeder

On the way out to the seed feeder

It swiftly moves out to the seed feeder

Sheep laurel and birch near a blueberry patch behind the shed

Sheep laurel and birch near a blueberry patch behind the shed

Raindrops on fern fronds at the edge of the lawn

Raindrops on fern fronds at the edge of the lawn

Swallowtail butterflies visit a patch of hawkweed I leave un-mowed on the lawn

Swallowtail butterflies visit a patch of hawkweed I leave un-mowed on the lawn

Butterflies are attracted to Brenda's flowers too

Butterflies are attracted to Brenda’s flowers too

A patch of summer flowers with camera movement during the exposure

A patch of summer flowers photographed with camera movement during the exposure

After a bear left a 'calling card' on our lawn the chipmunk moved in and scavenged the seeds in the flop

After a bear left its ‘calling card’ on our lawn this chipmunk moved in and scavenged the seeds in the flop

Dip Snack!

Brenda and I are foreigners when it comes to wildlife encounters in the deep south. We’re used to blackflies and black bears but not cactus and venomous snakes. I suppose common sense should work well- stay on the path and stay alert, but inexperience can lead to potential trouble. While our main objective in South Texas was bird photography I did hope to supplement my species list with non avian subjects like tarantula, horned lizard, scorpion and/or rattlesnake, so long as things were done safely.

A tarantula photographed under controlled conditions at Hardy Jackson's ranch

A tarantula photographed under controlled conditions at Hardy Jackson’s ranch

It was our fourth day of Sue Jarrett’s South Texas Birding Safari in Steve Bentsen and Hardy Jackson’s bird blinds. Steve is the guide and owner of Dos Venadas ranch and Hardy along with his mom Nora Nell run the Campos Viejos ranch. Both these ranches are beautifully set up for photographing birds and other critters that might visit their ponds. It was late in the day at Dos Venadas when we decided to start packing equipment to meet Steve in his ATV for the ride back to our vehicle. About an hour earlier we listened to green jays and other birds- at least five species- causing a raucous commotion in the tree beside our blind. I guessed they were annoyed at the presence of a potential predator such as a snake or an owl, but we could see nothing in the tree.

Bathing cardinals are highlights of the South Texas bird photography tours.

Bathing cardinals are highlights of the South Texas bird photography tours.

We did not look under the tree. Coiled under the tree beside the path out was an enormous diamondback rattlesnake. I was within a metre and about to walk right by her when I caught the movement of the snake pulling her head back. I froze. I gingerly stepped back and informed Brenda behind me what I had encountered. To my horror she approached me, flicking her tongue. Then she retreated to the coiled position. Once I felt out of danger I whipped out my iPhone to send a text message to Steve. After all there appeared to be a photo opportunity developing.

The snake alerted me to her presence near the path by pulling back her head

The snake alerted me to her presence near the path by pulling back her head

My text to Steve was intended to inform him of the coiled diamondback. In the excitement of the encounter I did not pay attention to the body of my text message before pressing Send. I thought I had typed “Big diamondback near the path by the hose. Coiled”

In his reply Steve queried “Dip Snack?”. Time for a head slap. The smart phone’s Auto Correct feature had changed ‘Diamondback’ to ‘Dip Snack’. Steve was wondering what I meant by a coiled dip snack. “Diamondback” I replied, this time making sure the iPhone did not override my spelling. “OK. Coming” he replied.

Steve (a practicing veternarian and experienced photographer/naturalist) figured the snake was female, one of the biggest that he has encountered. She was too large to handle with his snake tongs. Fortunately she was fairly docile and came back to the edge of the path so the rest of the participants could get some pictures in the fading light. She never displayed any aggression or tail rattling. Probably this was one of her regular ambush locales for nabbing unwary prey coming down the path to the small pond near the blind.

The snake crawled back to this position and the other tour photographers got some shots.

The snake crawled back to this position and the other tour photographers got some shots.

After all, we were warned by the birds.

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

Whale Tales Part 1

Two orcas surfacing in the Johnstone Strait

I’m home now after nearly 12000 km and four weeks and many hundreds of gigabites of unedited material. John Marriott’s Orca and Marine Mammal tour aboard the Ocean Light II was a success from many standpoints. I met some very nice folks, had great accommodations and food while on board and enjoyed a variety of excellent photo opportunities, thanks to a knowledgeable skipper and crew (Chris and Jenn) and tour guide (John).

Whale photography is challenging. The subjects spend most of their time underwater and don’t always surface in predictable patterns. I also had framing and focusing issues caused by the boat movements in ocean swells and that meant there were lots of throw-away pictures. John mentioned that successful whale photos require four elements: light, subject, behaviour and lack of wind-calm seas. Fortunately we had all four elements much of the time. Sadly, no breaching Orcas, but there was sufficient interesting behaviour, great backlight, calm seas and lots of marine mammals to keep the motor drives smoking. When things were quiet we downloaded and edited. I had to keep ahead of my laptop’s 350 GB reserve. Two 2 TB Hds had sufficient space for everything but I like to have the Raw files in three places to start.

The skipper is required to stay outside a minimum distance from the whales, so I found I used my 600 mm regularly, mounted on a Wimberley head. Other participants had crop sensor cameras with 100-400 or 500 mm lenses so they got about the same magnifications. It was OK if the whales swam within the 100 m minimum and sometimes that occurred. For the pictures posted below, we followed a pod of orcas as they casually made their way down Johnstone Strait, perhaps loafing, sometimes hunting, There was a rhythm to the process and we learned to predict where and when the whales would surface. The backlit waters and plumes from their ‘blows’ created contrast which was visually exciting. The big bull would announce his imminent presence by showing the tip of his dorsal fin as he rose for air. In addition to orcas we had some exciting encounters with humpback whales.

Two orcas surfacing in the Johnstone Strait

Humpback whale diving in Blackfish Sound

Next. Bait balls and lunge feeding.