Posts tagged ‘Beluga Whale’

Churchill Manitoba on Hudson Bay: Cape Merry Merriment!

Churchill Manitoba on Hudson Bay: Cape Merry Merriment!

Scoters, Loons, Mergansers, Eiders, Seals, Beluga Whales and more
June 16-20, 2017

Cape Merry is a stony point of land at the junction of the  Churchill River and Hudson Bay…and I started several of my mornings on the Cape. It was just me, an insulated mug of coffee and two cameras. A great way to start a morning in the low arctic. At this time of year (third week in June) the sun is rising, for all practical purposes, in the north (okay, slightly northeast); and sitting on the shoreline rocks, you face northwest and so have beautiful light in the early morning. Sunrise during my entire visit was at 4:05 am…but I couldn’t quite muster getting up and out THAT early…especially since sunset was at 10:30pm. So I compromised and got up at 5ish and got out to the Cape by 5:30am.

My alarm would roust me out of my very cozy bed in the Polar Inn at 5am. I had all my gear ready to go, and would quickly don long underwear (top and bottom), pants, fleece jacket, and wind/rain jacket. I also wore my winter hat nearly constantly for the first 3 days. Knee-high rubber boots were my footwear of choice for the entire trip.


Cape Merry looking across the Churchill River to old Fort Churchill.

Ice on Hudson Bay in the distance.

map
Churchill on Hudson Bay is only accessible by air. The train quit running in May. It is some of the most southerly tundra in North America (other than mountain alpine tundra in the Rockies).

churchill_area_map-roads
Cape Merry (#1) is the point separating the town site of Churchill from Hudson Bay and the mouth of the Churchill River. This is where I sat for several mornings photographing sea birds, whales and seals as they fed at the mouth of the river.


Common Eider male

One of my “Most Wanted to Photograph” birds on this trip was the Common Eider. We just don’t see them in Minnesota. They are an “ocean duck” in the Lower 48. The first morning I saw a flock loafing in the shallows of the shoreline of Hudson Bay. It was gray skies and heavy overcast so no photos. But patience pays off, and on my third morning on the Cape, I had this male come swimming right towards me. I hunkered down amongst the rocks and got as close to eye level as I could.

“The eider’s nest is built close to the sea and is lined with eiderdown, plucked from the female’s breast. This soft and warm lining has long been harvested for filling pillows and quilts, but in more recent years has been largely replaced by down from domestic farm-geese and synthetic alternatives. Although eiderdown pillows or quilts are now a rarity, eiderdown harvesting continues and is sustainable, as it can be done after the ducklings leave the nest with no harm to the birds.” [from http://www.wikipedia.org]

[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; 1/2500 second at f5.6; ISO 320; hand held]


Common Eider male

I stayed low and still but kept shooting as this stunning male kept getting closer and closer. All my horizons were a bit kittywompus due to the contorted position I was shooting from, but I fixed that in Lightroom.

Eiders spend their winters with the Belugas in the Arctic Ocean, feeding in small open-water pools called “polynia.” They return to the Churchill area in May to nest along the coast. But they also utilize inland lakes near Churchill. They are also found in Siberia.

“Mother Common Eiders lead their young to water, and often are accompanied by nonbreeding hens that participate in chick protection. Broods often come together to form “crèches” of a few to over 150 ducklings. Attacks by predators may cause several broods to cluster together into a crèche. Once formed, a crèche tends to stay together throughout the brood rearing period, although some of the different females attending it may leave” [from http://www.allaboutbirds.org]

[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; 1/3200 second at f5.6; ISO 320; hand held]


Sparky Stensaas shooting at Cape Merry, Churchill Manitoba on Hudson Bay. I spent 3 mornings nestled into the rocks at the mouth of the Churchill River shooting anything that flew or swam by.


Common Eider male in flight

These are LARGE ducks! And I wanted an in-flight shot showing their black and white wing pattern. This is okay…But I hope to do better on my next trip.

Eiders can fly at 70 mph!

[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; 1/2000 second at f5.6; ISO 500;  +0.33 ev, hand held]

Common Eider male in flight

At nearly 5 pounds (sometimes nearly 7 pounds!) they are the heaviest diving duck in North America…and at 2 feet long with a 3 foot wingspan, the largest as well.

[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; 1/4000 second at f5.6; ISO 500;  +0.33 ev; hand held]


Common Eider pair

“This species dives for crustaceans and molluscs, with mussels being a favoured food. The eider will eat mussels by swallowing them whole; the shells are then crushed in their gizzard and excreted. When eating a crab, the eider will remove all of its claws and legs, and then eat the body in a similar fashion.” [from http://www.wikipedia.org]

[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; 1/3200 second at f5.6; ISO 320; hand held]


Common Merganser flock takes off from a dead calm Hudson Bay

Seven males and one female run across the still waters of Hudson Bay in order to get airborne.

[Sony A6500 with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens and Metabones adapter; 1/2000 second at f5.6; ISO 250; hand held]


Harbor Seals loaf on the shoreline rocks of Cape Merry.

The seals were a source of much entertainment. They were cautious of me, but very curious as well. After a few days they even got used to me (I think…maybe I’m anthropomorphizing). As the tide on Hudson Bay went out (yes, it has a tide…and a quite dramatic tide), it would expose shallow rocks which the seals loved to sun on. These rocky loafing spots are called “haulouts.” There seemed to be a hierarchy as to who got what position…or maybe it was first come, first served.

[Sony A6500 with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens and Metabones adapter; 1/125 second at f8; ISO 100; tripod]


Harbor Seal basking in the early morning light.

Adult Harbor Seals can reach 6 feet in length and weigh nearly 300 pounds. Females can live to 30 or 35 years, while most males only survive to age 20 to 25. They eat fish and other sea creatures.

[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; 1/2000 second at f5.6; ISO 320; hand held]


Harbor Seal buddies?

[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; 1/1600 second at f5.6; ISO 320; hand held]


Polar Bear meal…Harbor Seal

[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; 1/2500 second at f5.6; ISO 320; hand held]


Harbor Seal yawning revealing pink mouth lining.

[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; 1/2500 second at f5.6; ISO 320; hand held]


Harbor Seal

“Do I look fat in this blubber?”

[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; 1/500 second at f8; ISO 320;  +0.66 ev; hand held]


Red-breasted Merganser pair

[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; 1/3200 second at f5.6; ISO 400; hand held]


Red-breasted Merganser male

Perched amongst the rocks of Cape Merry, I was somewhat hidden from the waterfowl and loons that were either flying towards the river, or from the river to Hudson Bay.

[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; 1/4000 second at f5.6; ISO 500;  +0.33 ev; hand held]

Red-throated Loon pair fly low over the Churchill River.

[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; 1/2500 second at f5.6; ISO 400; hand held]


Red-throated Loon in flight.

Another species on my “Must See and Photograph in Churchill” list. And, boy did I get to see a bunch! One morning, about 65 Red-throated Loons flew past the point of Cape Merry. Most were flying from the Churchill River to Hudson Bay. Many landed on the Bay…more like “belly flopped” on the Bay.

[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; 1/2500 second at f7.1; ISO 400; hand held]


Scoters and Beluga Whale…How often do you see that?!

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 L IS II USM lens; 1/320 second at f8; ISO 200; +1 ev; hand held]


Three species of Scoters and ice floes on Hudson Bay

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 L IS II USM lens; 1/500 second at f5.6; ISO 200; +1 ev; hand held]

Three species of Scoters and ice floes on Hudson Bay

I got as low as I could to make this very shallow depth of field image of three species of Scoters on Hudson Bay. In fact, I had to lay right on the beach and strain my neck to see through the viewfinder. But I LOVE how it turned out. Surf Scoters (big orange and white bill), Black Scoters (yellow knob on bill) and White-winged Scoters (strangely shaped orange bill with white around eye). Ice floes in the background.

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 L IS II USM lens; 1/640 second at f5.6; ISO 200; +1 ev; hand held]


Surf Scoter pair in flight

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f5.6 L USM lens; 1/3200 second at f5.6; ISO 400; hand held]


The Trifecta of Scoter Species! Hudson Bay

All three North American Scoter species in one shot! Love it! From left to right: Surf Scoter, Black Scoter, White-winged Scoter (Velvet Scoter in Europe/England).

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 L IS II USM lens at 340mm; 1/500 second at f5.6; ISO 200; +1 ev; hand held]


Black Scoter coming in for a landing

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 L IS II USM lens; 1/640 second at f5.6; ISO 200; +1 ev; hand held]


White-winged Scoter

The White-winged is an odd looking but strangely attractive Scoter species. I think I like the British name better…Velvet Scoter; it really fits the soft plumage of this sea duck.

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 L IS II USM lens; 1/640 second at f5.6; ISO 200; +1 ev; hand held]

Pacific Loon coming in for a landing on Hudson Bay

Not a great photo but I was just so thrilled to see a “new” species of loon (other than our Common Loon that is ubiquitous in Northern Minnesota), that I had to include it. Note the silvery sheen to the head. I will have more photos of this species on my “Tundra” post that will be forthcoming.

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f5.6 L USM lens; 1/1600 second at f5.6; ISO 400; hand held]

Parasitic Jaeger

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f5.6 L USM lens; 1/2000 second at f5.6; ISO 500; hand held]


Parasitic Jaeger

Jaegers “make their living” by harassing gulls in flight until they cough up their last meal. The jaeger then swoops down and catches the “gull vomit” in mid air and eats it. Not really “vomit,” the regurgitated mass is a solid.

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f5.6 L USM lens; 1/2000 second at f5.6; ISO 200; +1 ev; hand held]


Parasitic Jaeger

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f5.6 L USM lens; 1/4000 second at f5.6; ISO 500; +0.33 ev; hand held]


Beluga Whale trio

Every early summer thousands of Belugas migrate down from the Arctic Ocean to the mouth of the Churchill River. They begin arriving in mid June and stay until September. What brings them here? The answer is, of course, food!… Abundant populations of a little skinny fish called the Capelin, to be exact. They resemble Smelt (a reference for all my Duluth/Lake Superior friends), only reaching 5-8 inches in length. Incredible concentrations of this fish occur here in July when they spawn along the shores. Arctic Terns and other birds also enjoy the fishy bounty.


Beluga Whale trio with one spouting.

SOME INTERESTING BELUGA FACTS…

  • Belugas are the only white whale
  • “Beluga” means “the white one” in Russian
  • Young are brown-gray when born
  • Average length is 10-13 feet for adults
  • Mature males weigh between 990 and 2,200 pounds; females 550-1540
  • They can hold their breath for 20 minutes
  • Belugas have flexible lips that can “smile”
  • Communicate with facial expressions, sounds, slapping water
  • Unique among the toothed whales for being able to move head in many directions due to flexible neck
  • The lack of a dorsal fin is thought to be an adaptation to living under ice.
  • 60,000 Belugas live in the western Hudson Bay region. About 3,000 of those are found at Churchill
  • In the wild Belugas average lifespan is 15 years, but some may reach 40 or 50 years old.
  • Only predators are the Polar Bear and Killer Whale (Orca)


Beluga Whale mouth of the Churchill River

If you look closely, you can see what looks like “prop scars” on the back of this Beluga Whale. Since these whales feed in the shallow waters of the Churchill River, they can sometimes be nicked by a boat’s propeller.

My timing was quite good as the Belugas were numerous and close to shore. They come in to the Churchill River and feed on the abundant Capelin…a small fish…that is abundant here. Belugas are hard to photograph as they rarely stick their head out of the water, never breach, and they are very white. Nonetheless, it was a thrill to be in their company. One still and quiet afternoon I got to hear the sounds made by the Belugas as I ate lunch on the beach. It was an impressive array of grunts and bellows.

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f5.6 L USM lens; 1/2500 second at f5.6; ISO 320; hand held]


Beluga Whale pair spouting

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f5.6 L USM lens; 1/4000 second at f5.6; ISO 500; +0.33 ev; hand held]

Arctic Tern Cape Merry Hudson Bay Churchill Manitoba Canada-2
Arctic Tern with Capelin fish

Belugas aren’t the only ones feasting on the abundant Capelin fish along the shores of Cape Merry; Arctic Terns are also imbibing. That’s a good meal for a tern!

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 L IS II USM lens; 1/1600 second at f5.6; ISO 400; +0.66 ev; hand held]

Arctic Tern Cape Merry Hudson Bay Churchill Manitoba Canada
Arctic Tern with Capelin fish

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 L IS II USM lens; 1/1600 second at f5.6; ISO 400; +0.66 ev; hand held]

Arctic Tern Hudson Bay Churchill Manitoba Canada-2
Arctic Tern with Capelin fish

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f5.6 L USM lens; 1/2500 second at f5.6; ISO 400; hand held]

Arctic Tern Hudson Bay Churchill Manitoba Canada
Arctic Tern plucking a Capelin fish from the waters of Hudson Bay

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f5.6 L USM lens; 1/2500 second at f5.6; ISO 400; hand held]
NEXT BLOG POST: Churchill 2017: North Edge of the Boreal Forest

25 Years Ago—Churchill, Manitoba on Hudson’s Bay: Part 2

Tyler Nelson and the shipwreck M/V Ithaca in Bird Cove.


Nicknamed “Miss Piggy,” this C46 cargo plane crashed on the outskirts of town in November of 1979. Two of the three crew members were seriously hurt but all survived. She got her name from the planes porky shape and the rumor that she once hauled pigs. But like most junk in Churchill, it is left where it lies…No place to dispose of it.


Long-tailed Duck pair. Back then, they were called Oldsquaw, named after their chattering calls, but this name was deemed politically incorrect and changed. They do occur in spring and fall on Lake Superior but they do not show this breeding plumage. Also remember, this was during the “film days,” and the longest lens I had was a very cheap and slow 200mm lens. I would dearly love to go back with the equipment I have now and shoot the Arctic bird life including the mating displays of the shorebirds.

Maybe it’s hard to tell, but this is a Beluga Whale feeding in the Churchill River. Pods of family groups show up in the river in early summer to feed on the abundant Capelin fish and Lake Cisco. We saw 43 of these 12-foot-long whales in one evening.

Churchill is probably most famous for its Polar Bear tours in late fall/early winter. This is one of the “tundra buggies” that allow tourists a safe but close view of the magnificent bears.


Sled dog puppies were a common sight in the village back in 1987.

Fort Prince of Wales is a massive fortress that was built by the Hudson’s Bay Company to “protect their interests” in the area. Begun in 1717, it’s 16-foot-thick walls weren’t completed until 40 years later. Forty canons we’re supposed to protect the impenetrable fort but it was taken by 3 French warships without a shot in 1782 …The untrained HBC men didn’t even know how to fire the canons!