Stories from the Field – Patience is a Virtue

We all know that wildlife does what it wants, and we wouldn’t want it any other way!  In fact, it’s the unpredictable, uncontrollable nature of, well, nature, that keeps me coming back for more.  Each sighting and each trip is different and offers something wholly unique.  You might be seeing the same species but the behavior is always different.

While guiding a recent Polar Bear Photography Expedition with Nat Hab, we learned once again that wildlife does what it wants, but when given the space and time it can provide the show of a lifetime.

a polar rover sits on the tundra with a big sky

There we sat on our final day of polar bear photography, reaching the furthest extent of our three days on the tundra.  We were all the way out in “the flats” having spotted three male bears resting very close to one another in the willows.

The trip was a wild success already, with so many extraordinary sightings and photos-of-a-lifetime, but we were hoping to get the hat trick and photograph males sparring—something this population of polar bears in Churchill is known to do.  In fact, this behavior of play fighting may be exclusive to this specific area.

The best way to spot this sparring behavior?  Hunker down next to male bears that are in close proximity to one another.  We were set.  Not just two bears, but three—this had to be the spot.

As the morning progressed, we got momentary photos of each bear popping its head up, but these bears were particularly lazy…nearly 2 hours with little movement.  In my mind, this was odd, but may indicate that they were taking an extended break and could pop up at any minute to play fight—and we had the ideal position with our polar rover.

a polar bear rolls around in the snow

While waiting, we talked about additional photo strategies, snapped some beautiful landscape photos of the tundra, and even broke out the coffee, hot chocolate and then lunch.  Still, the bears waited.

a polar bear sits in the willows and snow

But then, as we were packing things up to try out a new area, a lone bear was spotted coming in from the shore waaaaay in the distance.  I looked at my fellow Expedition Leader as well as our polar rover driver and we knew…this was probably going to be the catalyst.  Those bears hunkered down were so comfy with one another, they couldn’t care one moment from the next.  But this new male, with a new scent, and perhaps even new demeanor, might kick things off for some much anticipated behavior photos.

a polar bear comes in from the shore

And that’s exactly what happened.  After the ritualistic “meet-up” when noses touched and sniffs were had, the two bears walked directly in front of our rover, into the willows and began to wrestle.  The show had begun.

two polar bears meet and touch noses

This behavior is so fascinating to watch, as it’s actually a valuable adaptation of male bears.  Oftentimes younger males will take on older males to test their might. The thought is that “if I can hold my own with this bear, maybe when I’m out on the sea ice seeking a mate (and playing for keeps) I could stand a chance to become a dominant, breeding male).  To witness this unique adaptation is as fascinating as it is exhilarating.

two polar bears snarl at one another as they prepare to play fight

Having our cameras at the ready we dialed in a fast shutter speed of 1/1600 and engaged “burst mode” to take as many photos per second as our cameras would allow.

Need I say more?

polar bears begin to wrestle

These “bouts” last only a short while, but as you can see with burst mode on we were able to capture so many photos and showcase slight nuances in posture and expression throughout.

two polar bears play fighting

It sure is a heck of a lot of photos to go through when you’re shooting 10 frames a second, but it’s worth it 100% of the time.

I’m rewarded so many times by mother nature and I owe so much of it to the groups that I’m with. The fantastic patience our group of photographers had in trusting our intuition provided each of us with the photos of a lifetime.

Patience paid off in droves and I’m grateful for so many things that came together on that special day.

Cheers, and Happy Thanksgiving!

Court Whelan Signature