Southern yellow-billed hornbills perched together in Kruger National Park, South Africa.
Southern yellow-billed hornbills perched together in Kruger National Park, South Africa.
We lucked out with a close up leopard encounter along a river bed in Kruger. This impressive male had killed an adult male impala earlier in the morning and dragged it over 100 meters from the edge of the river, up a steep slope and into a small stand of trees right next to a pullout.
For the next few days we watched him off and on as he came back to feed in the early mornings. Such impressive animals and always a thrill to see them in the wild.
2015 was another great polar bear season up in Churchill, Manitoba with Bill Lamberton and Les Stegenga from Classic Canadian Tours! The bears were plentiful, playful and best of all, there were lots of mothers with cubs. Almost all of the bears were in good to great condition, including one massive male that dwarfed the others. Scroll down to see and read just a few of the highlights.
A large male bear comes in close for an amazing, up-close experience. It’s no wonder why they have the title, “Lords of the Arctic.” Their huge roman noses give them a very distinguished look, but more importantly it’s used to detect seals 30km away and through several meters of snow.
A mother and her 10 month old cub walk along the frozen shore of the Hudson Bay. Cubs are typically born in January and will stay with their mothers for 2-3 years, gaining weight and learning the ropes of surviving in such a harsh environment. In an average day we typically saw 3-4 mothers with 1-2 cubs each; a sign that the past few years have been good for the bears.
When the ice on the Hudson Bay melts in July, the bears are forced onto shore and will go 3-4 months without a substantial meal. On average a polar bear will lose 2lbs of fat every day it’s on land and not eating. Couple that with the fact they they use 13 times more energy when they are moving and you can understand why they spend the majority of their summer and fall resting.
As winter nears they start strolling the shores for any snacks that wash up with the large tides.
When the tours start in late October and early November, the weather is getting colder and the snow starts flying. The bears know it’s only a few more weeks until they can get back out onto the ice. It’s also cold enough that they don’t overheat as quickly so they spend more time playing and sparring with each other. This particular male is the largest bear we saw this year and probably weighed around 1200lbs!
With the return of the cold, northerly winds, winter starts to take hold. This mother and cub huddled together to stay warm during one of the early winter storms.
Fresh water coming from the neighbouring rivers, coupled with the NW winds and counter-clockwise ocean current means that ice forms quickly here and gets pushed up against the shores around Churchill before other areas of the bay. The bears have learned this and migrate long distances to get to Churchill in time for the early freeze-up, hence why Churchill is known as the polar bear capital of the world. This large male was strolling along the recently formed ice, sniffing for seals.
Only over a very short, 4 week period do we get such a great opportunity to see so many of these magnificent animals. This week, large sheets of ice have formed around Churchill and the bears are heading out to sea. Here’s hoping it’s another good year for them out on the ice.
Is seeing polar bears roaming the tundra on your bucket list? If so and you’re near Calgary, Edmonton or Saskatoon next October or November, check out the polar bear safaris offered through Classic Canadian Tours. Guests consistently rate these trips as excellent and it really is an experience of a lifetime. But don’t just take my word for it…click here to read their reviews.
With that, I’ll leave you with one last photo to cap off the season.
This wild, male burrowing owl which was was not baited, called or otherwise enticed to come perched right next to me, gave me several opportunities to get some unique images. The owl decided I was nothing to worry about and picked up one leg as it gazed in my direction. Soon after, it relaxed its head and neck creating a crease of feathers under its beak, giving the otherwise grumpy looking character the appearance of having a smile.
Often the deciding factor of whether the public and governments give money for wildlife conservation comes down to looks. Charismatic wildlife like bears, rhinos and big cats get a disproportionate amount of resources while birds, reptiles and amphibians, fish and the bottom of the barrel invertebrates struggle to even be noticed.
Here’s hoping that the burrowing owl, with all of its personality and character can get a federal recovery strategy to go along with its listing under the Species At Risk Act (SARA).
Time for amphibians to get some love. This grumpy looking character is a boreal toad (Anaxyrus boreas boreas). They range along the west coast from Alaska down to Mexico.
A common myth is that they have warts along their backs that are contagious. However, these ‘warts’ aren’t warts at all, but large glands that secrete a bitter fluid that causes numbness and irritation in the mouth of their would be predators. An important point to remember if you touch one and forget to wash your hands!
Like many other amphibians, their numbers have declined significantly throughout their range, in part due to the introduction of chytrid fungus, habitat loss and pollution. I photographed this guy near Meziadin Junction in Northern British Columbia, where their populations are still relatively stable.
Even in the USA, where their numbers have plummeted, it’s not all bad news for these toads. The first evidence of successful, natural breeding of translocated toads occurred in Colorado last year, giving hope that over time and with protected species status, they can be re-established throughout their historical range.
Those were the first two options that came to my mind as I crested a hill in Northern British Columbia and saw this creature far off in the distance.
Thankfully, it stuck around long enough for me to get closer and as it moved out into the open it became clear that it was a red fox (Vulpes vulpes) with an unusual coat. I’m not sure if the experts would call this a silver, black or cross fox? There are 8 genes responsible for coat colour in foxes and depending on which genes have dominant or recessive coding, there can be over 80 different colour combinations.
Maybe just a coincidence, but I’ve only ever come across red foxes with unusual coats when I head further north. This one seemed almost as curious about me as I was of it, giving me this questioning look before we both moved along.
Like many, owls are one of my favourite groups of birds to photograph. Early this summer I had an awesome week with 3 different species ranging in size from tiny to tall, endangered to numerous, with all of them having the common theme of putting on a great display of flight for me.
It started off in Grasslands, with the charismatic, endangered burrowing owl that came to hunt insects right next to where I had set up my gear.
Next stop was Banff and my good owl luck continued with the first animal I came across being an impressive great grey owl. It was conveniently perched right next to a roadside pullout, and didn’t seem bothered at all by the traffic. Despite being so visible, most people didn’t even see it as they drove past! He’s an image as it hunted for a vole in the grass.
Later that same day I got a tip about a northern pygmy owl hanging around the area. Sure enough, after a bit of waiting I spotted this tiny little owl. It flew directly into a tree cavity before I could get a picture, so I waited for its exit. I barely had time to prepare. It seemed to almost shoot out of the cavity, and as I held the shutter release button I wasn’t sure if I was quick enough. It wasn’t until I got home and downloaded the images that I found this one.
Photographing wildlife in their natural environment can be very frustrating with many hours sitting and waiting with no results to show for it. Often times there may be beautiful light but the animals are not around and other times it’s the reverse. On the rare occasion when both light and wildlife come together, the hours of patience seem worth it.
This red fox had just returned to the den to deliver a freshly killed rodent to the hungry kits and as the kits ran off with their meal, the adult sat down and stared at me. Up until then it had been mainly overcast, but as it overlooked their territory the sun briefly broke through the clouds and created a spotlight of soft light just long enough for me to get this photo. Gotta love it when everything comes together like that!
There are two things that are pretty common in Yellowstone during the spring. Almost everywhere we went we saw herds of bison and large flocks of mountain bluebirds, all of them searching out areas in the park where the snow had either completely disappeared or was just about to. The spring thaw and green-up was in full swing which made for prime feeding grounds. The bison were chomping down on tiny stems of green grass wherever they could find it and when that wasn’t available or was covered over in fresh snow, they resorted to winter-killed, high roughage stalks of grass. Bison have lots of character and this one seemed to want to go for a hillbilly look and I must say, pulled it off better than anyone else I have seen try.
It wasn’t until watching the bluebirds for some time that it became clear they were relying on by-products of bison to help them survive the first few months of spring. In March and early April there aren’t as many insects to feed on. But as it turns out, buried within and under old bison patties are lots of overwintering insect larvae. With their keen eyesight, the bluebirds snatched these insects up as they emerged from the dried-up dung. Other times they would use the piles as perches to get a better vantage point to spot their next meal.
As the saying goes, one person’s trash is a another person’s treasure! To some, this might diminish the image of these beautiful birds, but without them we would suffer even more from the torture of biting flies, mosquitoes, ticks and other pesky insects. So for me it adds another level of appreciation since doing all of this dirty work and still looking good can’t be easy. With that I will end on a high note with one last photo that showcases just how spectacular and stunning these birds really are.
First a disclaimer. If you are squeamish about seeing footage of nature at its most raw, than the below photos and story may not be for you. However, this is reality. Animals need to hunt to survive and some animals have to die so that others can live.
With that out of the way, below is one of the rarest wildlife moments I have ever seen and captured in photographs. It is an age old battle between predator and prey. A young wolf honing its hunting skills against a seasoned mule deer.
With each photo, if you would like a closer view please click on it.
How it all started was that I was busy taking pictures of a bald eagle when I heard a big splash just up the river. When I turned to have a look I was shocked to see a black wolf running down the snow bank towards a mule deer that was frantically swimming across the water! I didn’t have much time to react or set up, my own adrenalin was kicking in as I fumbled with camera settings and started taking photos. Undeterred by the frigid water, the wolf bounded into the river in hot pursuit of the deer…
As the wolf made it close to shore, the deer who didn’t want to leave the relative security of the river and was resting along the banks, turned and they eyed each other up for a few seconds… The pause in action didn’t last long, as the wolf jumped up onto the snow bank and came directly towards the deer. Relatively calmly, the deer turn and jump back into the river and again the wolf followed in close pursuit. By the time the deer reached the other side it had increased the distance between them and I thought it would easily escape. That seemed to be certain when the deer trotted out of the river and started heading for the forest. But then something strange happened. Just as it got to the trees it stopped in its tracks. Whether it sensed other wolves waiting for it in the trees I’m not sure, but for whatever reason it quickly spun around and headed back to the river just as the doggy paddling wolf was getting close to shore. The deer seemed to have made a critical mistake by turning back to the river. As it jumped into the shallows, a split second later the wolf made it to shore. With a burst of speed and water splashing everywhere, it sprinted along the rocky banks and quickly closed in on its prey… With only a few feet separating them, the deer made one last ditched effort to escape by frantically plunging back into the river. The stamina of both of these animals was incredible. It seemed like they had reserves of energy and any time one needed a surge of adrenaline they got it. It was spectacular to watch this back and forth battle play out in front of me… Survival in the wild is always a precarious balance. One misstep by the deer on a slippery rock was all that the wolf needed to gain the advantage. With one powerful bite, it leveraged the deer off its feet and the chase was over. For most animals life is a daily struggle with little in the way of certainties. Wolves only have about a 10% success rate during hunts and so the majority of their prey get away to live another day. This particular wolf was just coming into its prime and its possible that the mule deer was an old male that was too weak from winter and the fall rut to outpace the deer. Whatever the reason, nature took its course.
To have wild places in North America where animals can still play out their age old battles and we are the outsiders that only get rare glimpses into their world, is something I hope we can maintain well into the future.
On Sunday I had the privileged of being a guest naturalist with Classic Canadian Tours on a one day Polar Bear Safari out of Edmonton. We had a wonderful day with over 20 bears spotted, including several mothers with cubs.
If you can only spare a day away from home over a weekend in October or November, I highly recommend these tours. The chartered flight from either Calgary, Edmonton or Saskatoon will take you directly to Churchill and have you out on the tundra viewing polar bears by mid-morning until dusk! All meals are covered and there is even enough time to head into the town of Churchill to pick up a few souvenirs before heading home.
Below are just a few photos (click on each one for a larger view) from our trip on November 9th as well as more details about the bears and the trip itself. Enjoy and feel free to leave comments.
Polar bear sparring is a cold weather event. Only when temperatures get to around -10 degrees Celsius do the bears get frisky. Any warmer than that and they are too hot to play. Yes, you read that right! Polar bears are so well insulated against the cold that they only get active when the temperature dips to levels that would easily kill many other mammals. The above photo is of a mother (left) and her two year old cub that took a break from napping to spar during a winter snowstorm in Churchill, Manitoba.
With blowing snow starting to cover this bear, it hunkered down for a snooze. Polar bears are so well insulated that any snow that falls on their coat doesn’t melt and provides another layer of insulation against the cold. Having not eaten a meal since July, the bears spend most of their time conserving energy while they wait for the sea ice to form. The late afternoon light, the snow crusted fur and the blowing snow over the paws of this bear made for an interesting photo
Up close and personal, this bear came to investigate our tundra buggy and provides a great example of just how big their feet are! Polar bears are great swimmers with these big feet and can easily outswim Olympic athletes. The longest swim ever recorded for a polar bear was 687km over 9 days straight! The female bear lost 22% over her body weight during that time.
To cap off our wonderful day, these two bears started heading out towards Hudson Bay as another storm on the horizon moved in on us. Hard to believe you can wake up and see polar bears all day long and be back home in the comfort of your own bed the same night!
If you would love to have an experience like this, check out Classic Canadian Tours website to get more details about this amazing safari and similar trips to see grizzly bears and beluga whales in other remote locations throughout Canada.
Wondering what the bears are up to right now? Click on this link to watch live coverage from Churchill as the Tundra Buggy Cam gives you live streaming videos of the bears before they head out onto the ice to start hunting.