Monday, 25 July 2011

Polar bears- Fact or Fiction?

Polar bears were making our lives a misery. We couldn't walk any great distance down the road because of them and we had to write our names, where we were going and when we'd be coming back on the sign out board, because of them. And yet there weren't any. Well no real ones. There were plenty of polar bear nots (as Valerie calls them). They were on hundreds of posters and newspaper articles adorning the studies centre (each bedroom seemed to have at least four posters), they were on the signs (polar bear alert), there were statues, painted rocks and murals with them, buildings were named after them (polar bear lodge etc.), there were plenty of books about them, postcards and souvenirs with them on and there were tundra buggies to go out and watch them. But where were they?

It was no surprise really that there weren't any. We'd pretty much convinced ourselves that we weren't going to see any. The polar bears of this part of Hudson Bay gather en masse around Churchill in the autumn since the sea ice begins to freeze there first. This is polar bear season in Churchill and the time to see the bears. They then spend the winter out on the ice hunting for seals and drift back inland when the ice thaws. Hopefully rotund from their winter at sea they conserve energy over the summer and laze around, often close to the shore where they can go for a quick dip.

Even the researchers were beginning to doubt the existence of the great Ursus maritimus.They are all gun trained and had been lugging their guns around with them every day since they'd got to Churchill. Just as everyone was beginning to get a bit too complacent the polar bears hit town. I was out with Lisa and Carmen dozing in the sunbeams on the beach whilst attempting to catch semi palmated plovers before I looked out to sea and saw something white near the Ithaca (ship wreck). Grabbing the binoculars I realised that I'd spotted the first bear of the summer. On the way to the next semi palmated plover I spotted a further two bears on the rocks and the same bear as before some distance down the beach we were on.

The polar bears had arrived in force. As we drove to more plovers near Miss Piggy (a plane wreck), we heard one sided snippets over the radio. Things like 'Have you released fire crackers?' and 'Do you require any assistance?' didn't sound all that reassuring. Back at the CNSC we discovered that all the researchers in the fen had had a pretty close encounter with their first polar bear.

The sightings drifted in almost daily and they were duly written up on the polar bear sightings board. Bear activity in the fen was high and team godwit found one of their highly prized nests trashed and the eggs eaten by a bear. At one point a black bear was also spotted in the fen. When I was out with team godwit we saw from a distance a mother polar bear with her two cubs following behind her.

I'd seen six bears and I was feeling rather guilty that Valerie still hadn't seen any. I needn't have worried because we were woken one morning by Madi knocking on the door with the news that there was a bear right outside the CNSC. Along with many other spectators we stood on the balcony and watched as the bear ran from fire crackers, paced through the undergrowth and then towards the CNSC. It stopped now and then to sniff the air filled with breakfast sausages. Finally it disappeared into the trees. For the first time I found myself hoping that Rob would be cooking some meaty lunch concoction. In the afternoon we spotted the bear on a rock in the trees where it began to pant before taking a stroll into the lake to cool off.

In all I saw eleven polar bears, some walking, lying about and one swimming in the sea. Fortunately they were all from a pretty safe distance. I feel really privileged to have seen this predator in the wild. Sadly I didn't get many good pictures since I dropped my telephoto lens on the floor and it was off in Ontario getting fixed, and when the bear was close enough not to need it I'd forgotten to put a memory card in (school boy error according to Valerie) . So thank-you Kelly for letting me use yours!

Sad news filtered to the study centre about a polar bear having been shot in town because it chased a man who ran from it, wouldn't leave when crackers were fired at it and then proceeded to smash in the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) truck. Allegedly the bear was 400 pounds underweight. It seems that even though it was a colder winter than most some bears didn't manage to fatten up enough and are still looking for food. Human-bear conflicts will only increase as the climate continues to change.

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