Arctic Wildlife: When? Where?
Summer in the high Arctic is short and intense. Over the course of 8-short weeks, mother nature will take the Arctic from snowy spring conditions, to warm summer and back to autumn. At 74 degrees north, the summer is so short that certain species of flowers will bloom for a mere three to five days! The Northwest Passage (completely ice-solid in early June) quickly melts and becomes ice free in July!
This poses a great question - when is the best time to see animals in the Arctic? What are the best seasons to visit?
The summer months of July and August in the high Arctic (above 70 degrees north), bring the largest concentrations of wildlife in the Canadian Arctic. This is a time where migratory birds from southern Canada congregate in the Arctic to hatch and raise their young. Marine species such as beluga whales congregate into local nurseries to feed, socialize and educate their young. Summer is when most of the Arctic wildlife feeds and takes-on as many calories as possible for the coming "lean" winter months. Here are a few of the species we find on Somerset Island and around Arctic Watch:
Beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas): Are very social whales that lives in structured family groups. In the summer months of July and August, they congregate in Cunningham Inlet (an estimated 2,000 + animals) to raise their young and socialize within their sub-family groups. Warm summer river water allows beluga whales to cleanse their skin from sea lice (think a day at the spa!) and ice free conditions on the Northwest Passage allow increased feeding opportunities for fish, shrimp, squid and more. Did you know that Cunningham Inlet is one of the last beluga nurseries on earth!? (A great shot below of two mothers and their young in the Cunningham River).
Snowy owls (Bubo scandiacus): Snowy owls will nest in areas with high-lemmings populations every summer. Female owls will use their down to build a warm nest directly on the tundra. A snowy owl generally lays her eggs in early late June and they hatch in July. By late July/early August, the immature chicks are already walking about on the tundra, investigating their surroundings!
Muskoxen (Ovibos moschatus): A member of the goat family, survivor of the late ice-age and resident of the high Arctic, these gorgeous animals are best witnessed in the summer months as they are less wary and nervous. For a muskoxen, the winter months mean survival of the strongest - many babies will die in their first years. By approaching these animals in the summer, observers cause less stress on the animal. Late July and early August also brings the rutting season - where males will battle for domiance of the herds. A dramatic show for the photographer!
Polar bears (ursus maritimus): while most animals increase in weight and health during the summer months of July and August, polar bears actually loose weight. Polar bears depend on seals (their main source of food), during the winter months to survive - October through early June. When the sea ice melts and pushes out in July and August, polar bears are forced to shore, scavenging for the summer (they are omnivorous, and can eat vegetation in the summer). This makes polar bear sightings greater as they are forced to shorelines and coastal environments, instead of the thousands of kilometers of sea ice where they can hunt seals! (A polar bear walking on the Northwest Passage near Arctic Watch)
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