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Last month I travelled with good friend Danny Green and Natures Images to Churchill, a small town with a population of just 900, situated on the western shore of Hudson Bay in Arctic Canada.
Churchill is world famous for its high concentration of Polar Bears and is often referred to as being the Polar Bear Capital of the world. Each autumn, the bears gather along the shore of the Bay waiting for it to freeze over so that they can head out onto the ice to hunt for their staple prey item, the Ringed Seal.
The last time I had photographed polar bears was four years ago, on a trip to Svalbard when I was just starting out on my photographic journey (and didn’t really know what I was doing), so I was really looking forward to making acquaintances again with this magnificent predator.
Churchill isn’t all about polar bears though. They share this wild and inhospitable tundra environment with other beautiful, hardy Arctic species, including Arctic Fox, Red Fox and Ptarmigan. These were our other main targets for the trip. Taking nothing away from the bears, Arctic Fox in particular was right at the very top of my own species wish list for the trip, as I had never seen let alone photographed them in the wild. Wildlife is always unpredictable though and as always I went into the trip with no expectations whilst hoping for good fortune.
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For the first couple of days of the trip, Natures Images had 4×4 vehicles so we could explore the tundra wilderness surrounding the town. The first afternoon was intended pretty much as a reccie to enable us to get our bearings after a long series of flights to get to Churchill. Although wildlife sightings were limited, it was very exciting to be out looking. I had been looking forward tothis trip for such a long time and to be back in the wild places of the North that are my consuming passion. There was also a lot of fun and laughter to be had in our vehicle with Danny driving and long term Natures Images customers Ann Brooks and Nigel Spencer also on board.
The following morning we struck lucky early on, coming across a very confiding Red Fox as we were driving, just on the outskirts of town. He was in wonderful condition. At this time of year, temperatures in Churchill can plunge as far down as – 40 – 50 degrees below. In these harsh conditions, this far North the Red Fox is well adapted with a beautifully thick, long, luxurious winter pelage, providing excellent insulation.
We initially spotted our fox walking alongside the railway track, before settling down to rest. We slowly got out of our vehicles and carefully edged our way towards his resting place. By this time he was curled up and fast asleep. He seemed very relaxed in our presence, opening an eye from time to time just to check what was going on around him.
After a quick nap, he casually got up and after a stretch and scratch started to investigate the surrounding area for prey such as lemmings and other small prey items. Seemingly oblivious to our presence, he afforded us some wonderful photographic opportunities.
This is one of my favourite photographs from the session. I just love his pose and that thick brush of a tail.
We got to spend about an hour in his presence in all, allowing me to get some intimate portraits and try to vary the composition.
Our fox seemed to be particularly taken with Nigel, returning to check him out on several occasions, cocking his head inquisitively. Such behaviour was very endearing (the Fox not Nigel) .
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We were also treated to some great behaviour. After final grooming session our Fantastic Mr Fox trotted off purposely away from us out onto the wider tundra without even so much as a backward glance. It had been a privilege to spend time with him and we wished him good hunting.
That same day, in the late afternoon, we also found a female Polar Bear and her young cub foraging for kelp and sea weed along the shoreline of the bay. Such behaviour just goes to show just how desperate and hungry the bears get at this time of year and how reliant they are on the bay freezing over so that they can get out to hunt. It’s a sad fact that the ice is forming later each autumn and melting earlier the following spring making for a shorter and inadequate hunting season, leading to an increasingly uncertain future for this magnificent species. Although watching the mother and cub foraging in such close proximity was a wonderful wildlife encounter it wasn’t great for photography, with winter days this far North being short and the light already beginning to fade. It was nice though for everyone in group to get to see their first bears. For some of the group it was their first encounter with a polar bear and the realisation of a dream. No Arctic Foxes yet, unfortunately but it wasn’t for the want of trying to find them though. Hard work, but you make your own luck. The one thing that life has taught me is that hard work always reaps its own rewards.
The next four days would be spent on Tundra Buggies with Frontiers North looking for bears and Arctic Fox. There would be plenty of great opportunities to come…..
Next – Nanook, the polar bears of Churchill