The WWF Arctic Global Polar Bear specialist, Geoff York, is on a field trip in Churchill on the Hudson Bay, observing and blogging about polar bears. Below is the sixth blog from our ‘eyes and ears on the tundra’. Read more blogs by Geoff York.
By Geoff York
It’s the first day out for our new group and I am amazed and happy to look out on the Bay at first light – ice is forming well out onto the tidal flats! This is a stark change from just five days ago when we flew over this same area during our coastal survey and saw only open water. The Wildlife Management Area just east of Churchill is unique and protected for this very reason – ice forms and is retained along this part of the coast early in the winter and remains late in the spring. This is also why so many polar bears remain, or migrate into this area in the late autumn as they await their opportunity to return to the sea ice.
While Churchill is the most accessible and highest probability place in the Arctic to see polar bears up close, nothing is guaranteed with wildlife. I always worry that the bears or the weather will negate the best laid plans. I do not have long to worry as we quickly encounter several groups including males sparring or play fighting!
Sparring behaviour increases as the weather grows colder and the bears congregate on the shoreline. Male bears, though they still spend a great deal of time napping, will occasionally seek out a partner and go through a complex ritualised pre-sparring behaviour of head movements, posturing, and open-jawed posing. If both parties are game, the big boys start to wrestle. Given their size, strength, and sharp claws – they are amazingly gentle with each other during these bouts. We’ll even see large males entice younger males by first rolling on their backs in a semi-submissive posture. It’s all fun and good exercise now, but during breeding season on the ice, it’s serious business with significant consequences. There’s a reason males only live to their early 20’s.
Among the other bears we see today, we’re fortunate to spy this family group out testing the ice forming on the shallow tidal flats. Moms are very cautious when venturing out as they are much more likely to encounter males. It’s impressive to watch how protective they are of their young charges. What a day!