Belugas, Bears & Birds

  1. 2020
    Friday, July 10, 2020 to Monday, July 20, 2020
    Tour Duration: 
    11 days
    Tour Price:
     $4,175 CAD, $3,450 USD
    Single Supplement:
     $750 CAD, $620 USD
    Tour Starts/Ends: 
    Winnipeg
    + 5% GST for Canadians, + 2.5% GST for non-Canadians. Flights are additional.
    Guide: 
    Number of Persons Limit: 
    12
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Highlights

• Explore the readily-accessible tundra in and around Churchill - a world-renowned hotspot for viewing and photographing arctic birds and mammals. 

• Traverse the diverse and productive prairies, aspen parkland, and wetlands of southern Manitoba, and the boreal and mixed forest and wetlands of Riding Mountain National Park.

• Relatively easy and productive bird and mammal viewing and photographic opportunities.

 

Overview

Manitoba has become one of the premier locations on the continent for seeing and photographing iconic northern birds and mammals. The Beluga, Bears and Birds tour takes in two incredibly diverse wildlife-viewing sites in Manitoba – the aspen parklands and boreal forest of southern Manitoba and the taiga/tundra and arctic environment of Churchill.

Our first destination is the boreal and mixed forests in and around Riding Mountain National Park.  This boreal island is superb for a variety of warblers and numerous other boreal and parkland birds including some highly sought after species like Spruce Grouse, Great Gray Owl, Connecticut and Golden-winged Warbler, plus Black-backed and Three-toed Woodpecker.  Other bird species we will be hoping to find here include Black-billed Cuckoo, Boreal Chickadee, Canada Warbler, Gray Jay, and depending on the cone crop Evening Grosbeak and crossbills may be found.  The park is also particularly productive for mammals including Black Bear, Elk, Moose, Beaver, Lynx have been seen with some frequency, and maybe even a Wolf, Cougar, Pine Martin or Fisher. 

Next we fly north to Churchill, a world-renowned hotspot for birding and mammal viewing and photography opportunities.  Here we will hope to see both of great white northern icons - polar bears and beluga whales.  We will be taking two organized boat trips to observe the hundreds of beluga whales that gather in the waters of the Churchill River and Hudson Bay and use hydrophones to hear their vocalizations.  Although polar bears are just coming off the last of the ice in Hudson Bay in mid-July, we expect that in some years there might be a few around in spots that are visible from the boats or as we drive around exploring the arctic tundra.  Other arctic wildlife that we might encounter include Red and Arctic Fox, Arctic Hare, Ringed and Harbour Seals, and Barren Ground Caribou.  This is also prime time for arctic breeding birds.  Pacific and Red-throated Loons, Common Eider, scoters, as well as numerous shorebirds are in superb breeding plumages.  We will also search for Willow Ptarmigan, and various arctic passerines including highly sought after northern specialties like Gray-cheeked Thrush, Harris’s Sparrow and Smith’s Longspur. 

 

Itinerary View Short Itinerary

Day 1: Arrival

Our Belugas, Bears and Birds tour begins with arrival in Winnipeg and check-in at our hotel. We meet for dinner to discuss the adventure ahead. Night in Winnipeg.

Day 2: Souris River Bend WMA and Whitewater Lake to Melita

After an early breakfast, we do an extended drive west of the city to a Wildlife Management Area (WMA) known as the Souris River Bend WMA.  This wooded riparian area can be particularly productive for raptors and forest songbirds including Turkey Vulture, Cooper’s & Broad-winged Hawk, Yellow-throated, Warbling & Philadelphia Vireo, Veery, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Eastern Towhee, and a variety of warblers including Northern Waterthrush, Black-and-white, Tennessee, Orange-crowned & American Redstart.  Carrying on to our lunch spot in Boissevain, we’ll remain vigilant for Gray Partridge, Sharp-tailed Grouse and Swainson’s Hawk, as well as open country mammals such as White-tailed Deer, White-tailed Jack Rabbit, Red Fox, Coyote, plus Richardson’s & Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrels. 

In the afternoon, we’ll make numerous stops to check out any accessible vantage points along Whitewater Lake.   This lake is usually teeming with waterbirds and broods, which may include up to six species of grebes including Red-necked, Western & Clark’s, 16 varieties of nesting ducks, up to 20 early migrant and nesting shorebirds, pelicans, gulls, terns, bitterns, White-faced Ibis, and a variety of herons and egrets.  From there, we carry on to Melita and check into our accommodations, hopefully having a little down time before dinner.  In the evening, we may head out for a couple hours checking out extensive pasturelands in a broad valley south of town known locally as the “Blind Souris” for specialty grassland birds, and maybe spot a Gray Partridge, mule deer or a hunting badger.  Night in Melita.

Day 3: Mixed-grass Prairies and transfer to Riding Mountain National Park

At this time of year, prairie birds will still be in full nesting mode, albeit singing activity will wane quickly depending on wind conditions.  This morning, we want to beat the winds with an early start, as we search for iconic prairie specialties like Baird’s & Grasshopper Sparrow, Sprague’s Pipit, Chestnut-collared Longspur, Swainson’s & Ferruginous Hawk, and Sharp-tailed Grouse.  Other prairie/southwestern specialties we have a good chance of seeing include Ring-necked Pheasant, Loggerhead Shrike, Mountain Bluebird, Upland Sandpiper, Marbled Godwit, Willet, Say’s Phoebe, Willow Flycatcher, Brown Thrasher, and with luck maybe even Burrowing Owl and Lazuli Bunting.  This is also an ideal area to find Mule Deer, Coyote, Richardson’s & Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrels, Fox Squirrel, and especially Badger.

After lunch, we head north to Riding Mountain, making brief stops on the way in Souris for Chimney Swift, and in Brandon for nesting Peregrine Falcons.  After settling into our accommodations for the next few days, and having an hour or two to rest and freshen up, we’ll head out for dinner at a local restaurant in Wasagaming where we make plans for our evening’s excursion.  One evening option includes driving through the spacious Lake Audy bison enclosure.  This area is among the best in the park for Great Gray Owls, with the possibility of Barred and Long-eared, and we’ll try to find the Plain’s Bison and maybe some Elk roaming in their native semi-open habitat.  Another evening option is driving gravel roads along the southern edge of the park, good for Connecticut Warblers earlier in the season, but also the best area to find Great Gray as well as other owls, and where deer, Elk, Coyote, or Black Bear may be roaming in the fields at dusk.  If folks are keen on seeing displaying American Woodcock and specialty mammals, we may head out in the park at dusk to look for deer, Elk or Moose, and then stop at a couple openings where woodcock often display.  Although waiting until dark for the woodcock to display can test one’s patience, we have occasionally been rewarded by calling Barred Owls, or seeing a Lynx in the headlights hunting Snowshoe Hares.  Night in Riding Mountain National Park.

Days 4 & 5: Riding Mountain National Park

This superb National Park rises from the surrounding farmlands and parklands to an elevation of 450 meters (1500 feet), and the mixed deciduous and coniferous forests here are rich and varied, with over 260 species of birds recorded.  It has been recognized as one of the top birding hotspots in all of Canada, but the area is also superlative for mammal viewing and photography.  Warblers abound in season, as more than 20 species nest in the park, including a rich array of eastern (Blackburnian, Chestnut-sided, Black-throated Green, Canada, Magnolia, Golden-winged & others) and northern representatives (Orange-crowned, Tennessee, Connecticut, Mourning, Cape May, Bay-breasted, Northern Waterthrush).  The mixed woods are also superb for a variety of boreal specialties including Spruce Grouse, Great Gray Owl, Canada Jay, Boreal Chickadee, Evening Grosbeak, crossbills, and both Black-backed & American Three-toed Woodpeckers.  Other boreal and parkland birds we’ll hope to find include Ruffed Grouse, Osprey, Northern Goshawk, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Winter Wren, Brown Creeper, Ruby & Golden-crowned Kinglets, Hermit & Swainson’s Thrush, Purple Finch, and Pine Siskin.  During daytime excursions, Black Bear are often seen and other mammals may be encountered, but this is one area where late evening and dusk hours work best when searching for specialty northern mammals like Moose, Elk and possibly Lynx.  Nights in Riding Mountain National Park.

Day 6: Riding Mountain and transfer to Winnipeg

After breakfast, we’ll drive by the east escarpment looking for a variety of warblers, including Golden-winged, Black-and-white, Canada & Mourning. Other escarpment specialties we will be hoping to find include Broad-winged Hawk, Indigo Bunting, Eastern Towhee, Philadelphia & Yellow-throated Vireo, Veery, Scarlet Tanager, Eastern Wood-Pewee, Great Crested & Olive-sided Flycatcher, and Eastern Towhee. 

After lunch in Neepawa, we carry on east making one or two stops in the Delta Marsh area for species like Hooded Merganser, Wood Duck, California Gull, Black-billed Cuckoo, and Red-headed Woodpecker.  We may also check out St. Ambroise Provincial Park on the south shore of Lake Manitoba, an area that can be teeming with upland, marsh and wetland birds including Western Grebe, a huge offshore pelican and cormorant colony, American Bittern, Sora & Virginia Rail, Common, Forster’s & Caspian Terns, Franklin’s Gull, Marsh & Sedge Wrens, Yellow-headed & Brewers Blackbird, Bobolink, Baltimore & Orchard Oriole, and perhaps LeConte’s or Nelson’s Sparrows. 

Given all the driving and excitement of the last few days, we take the evening off after dinner to pack and get ready for the next phase of our Manitoba adventure.   Night in Winnipeg.

Days 7 - 9: Churchill

Today, we catch an early flight into Churchill, and check out our accommodations before eagerly heading for our first look at arctic birds and mammals. In Churchill, our days will be organized around weather conditions, reports of target species, rechecking some of the best sites several times, and venturing further afield as far as the trails and road systems will safely take us. A highlight will be partaking in a couple boat or zodiac trips on the Churchill River to witness the spectacle of hundreds of curious Belugas and see some of the other sights that the estuary and nearby Hudson Bay have to offer.  We may also take a tour of the Prince of Wales Fort across the river, established by the Hudson’s Bay Company as one of its original fur-trading posts.  We will make frequent excursions to the granery ponds, the docks by the river, and to Cape Merry near the mouth of the Churchill River as these sites are readily accessible and superb for viewing unique arctic birds and mammals. 

The docks and the elevated rock outcrops at Cape Merry are fabulous viewpoints for observing various gulls, eiders, scoters, mergansers, loons, and other waterbirds in the estuary.   One could probably spend hours watching the frenetic gull, jaeger and other waterbird foraging activities, or observing the rhythmic surfacing of Beluga Whales as they cruise up and down the Churchill River feeding on schools of Capelin and other larger fish.  Seals are often seen from these vantage points as well, those on the river usually being Harbour Seals, while Ringed Seals (a favored food of the Polar Bears), usually frequent the bay shorelines.  The rocky uplands at the Cape and along the coast are also a favored American Pipit nesting area, and this is one of a handful of areas frequented by the Arctic Hare or the dark “cross fox” color phase of the Red Fox. 

During our stay at Churchill, we will venture onto the Churchill River on a couple occasions with a locally owned whale watching company, Sea North Tours, getting up close and personal with the friendly Belugas, often called the “canaries of the sea”.  We will use hydrophones to listen to their strange high-pitched whistles, clicking, chirping and other underwater vocalizations.  Depending on the year and timing of ice-off on the bay, there is a good possibility of finding a Polar Bear walking along the shore and swimming in the water while on our the boat tours.  Although Polar Bears are never guaranteed in mid-July, this time of year is becoming increasingly popular for bear viewing as they venture ashore ever earlier. 

The road systems around Churchill are not terribly extensive, but get us out to all of the best areas for finding the area’s unique wildlife.  At this time of year, it is not uncommon to find a mother Polar Bear with cubs in the flats near town.  Elevated sites near the railway tracks just outside of town provide an ideal opportunity to scan over hundreds of geese looking for the odd Ross’s or Cackling.  This is also an ideal area for observing Bald Eagles and various other raptors hunting, and to look for caribou, Red & Arctic Fox, and of course the iconic Polar Bear. We’ll make frequent excursions down Goose Creek road checking out some productive feeders for various sparrows including Fox, American Tree, White-crowned & Harris’, Canada Jay, Pine Grosbeak, Common & Hoary Redpolls, Rusty Blackbirds, and who knows what else – Merlin and Boreal Owls have even been seen in this area on occasion.  Goose Creek Road is also great for numerous roadside wet and partially dry mudflats, and river overlooks where shorebirds, scoters, various other waterfowl and raptors, plus Little Gull and maybe even the extremely rare Ross’ Gull, are possibilities.

The various roads east of town and along the coast will also be explored, including the Twin Lakes road beyond the Northern Studies Centre.  Churchill is ablaze with arctic wildflowers and butterflies abound in the summer, so if you’re into that sort of experience, this trip offers you the opportunity to see and photograph all that this gateway to the arctic has to offer.  This area is particularly productive during the summer for nesting shorebirds. Still adorned in their breeding plumage, but with many having young by mid-July, Stilt Sandpipers, Whimbrels, Short-billed Dowitchers, Lesser Yellowlegs and Hudsonian Godwit may be found calling from treetops,  performing acrobatic aerial displays, or aggressively protecting broods.  The fens near Twin Lakes are often among the most productive for these as well as American Golden-Plover, Dunlin, Golden Eagle, Short-eared Owl, and maybe even Smith’s Longspur. Willow Ptarmigan are also more plentiful as one gets out further from town alongside the gravel roads, although they may be harder to spot in their mid-summer attire.

In a variety of wooded and shrubby habitats along Goose Creek Road and near Twin Lakes, we’ll search for Three-toed Woodpecker, Spruce Grouse, Canada Jay, Boreal Chickadee, Gray-cheeked Thrush, Northern Shrike, Bohemian Waxwing, Pine Grosbeak, Fox, American Tree & Harris’s Sparrows, White-winged Crossbill, and warblers such as Blackpoll, Orange-crowned, Wilson’s & Palm.  In years when vole and small mammal food supplies are abundant, nesting Rough-legged Hawk, Parasitic Jaeger, and maybe even a Northern Hawk, Boreal, or Snowy Owl may be found.  Nights in Churchill.

Day 11: Departure

Our Belugas, Bears and Birds tour ends today, you can transfer to the airport for flights home anytime today.

 

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