11/6/2013 5:41:40 PM

At Home with the Polar Bears

By Valerie Abbott

During the month of November, I'm one of the lucky ones. My day usually starts at around 7:00a.m. ET and doesn't end until about 12 hours later. During that time I monitor several of the Churchill Polar Bear Cams from home. My job is to scan the cold desert that is part of the migration route these bears take through Wapusk National Park as they wait for the sea ice to form on Hudson Bay.

A couple of new and exciting cameras have been added this year. One is a new cam near the Churchill River and Hudson Bay. This allows us to film the bears from a different perspective as they gather. It also lets us watch the bay's shore and note the progress as the sea ice forms.

Team Churchill is a group of people that has come together to bring you these great moments. The last few years, four of us ran the cams, each working a different shift. Things could get a little tense at times as we each monitored four different cams! This made for some excitable moments and I was always afraid I would miss something.

We've expanded (not my waistline, it has actually shrunk) the team this year. We now have extra people working each shift. We are dividing the workload a little this year since we now have five different views to bring you. So our team has doubled in size to eight and the support crew is bigger and better too.

We've also set up a network on Skype to better communicate. This has really brought us together as we chat throughout the day. I may read "There are two bears on the Cape Cam" and even though that isn't one of the cams I'm operating, I'll sneak a peek to see what's going on. I don't want to miss anything! We also leave notes for the next shifts. Reading the notes gives the cam operators a sense of how many bears have been around and what their behavior has been.

We are constantly sharing information, help, and just warm greetings.

Looking for bears early in the season can be a bit tedious. You may go for hours where you find nothing! One or two bears may come into sight, but that's all. Soon, though, more of them wander in and out of view. By this time of year (early November) we've reached the point where more and more bears are hanging out. This past weekend on the Cape Cam, the cam operator spotted four bears. They stayed together a good portion of the day.

As the migration progresses, more and more polar bears congregate near the shoreline waiting on the Hudson Bay to freeze. I am told there is a pecking order: The big males gather first, followed by the younger, smaller males. Next, the females arrive and, finally, mothers and their cubs.

In my human mind the order seems backwards—you would think that the mothers with cubs would be the first to go out. Then again, I don't live in such harsh conditions and I don't have to carefully guard young cubs. I can safely go to a grocery store when I need food.

The weather in Churchill is very cool (pun intended). You may start out with a beautiful clear sunrise, but within a few hours find it snowing so hard the visibility is nearly zero and everything appears as if it's black and white. By the late afternoon, the weather may clear again, with just a few clouds and the sun is filling this small part of the world again, restoring its color. This can produce some wonderful sunsets as well.

So please won't you join Team Churchill, Polar Bears International, explore.org, and Tundra Connections as the bears migrate towards their winter food sources? You will see bears playing, sparring, and maybe if we're lucky, even a mother and her cubs.

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