Quebec chronicles – Domaine Forget & birds of black and white

One afternoon during our recent stay in Quebec, we took time to visit a lovely park and academic center called Domaine Forget de Charlevoix, located in the village where we stayed, St. Irénée. The Domaine is a music and dance academy on grounds featuring flower gardens, open-air sculptures, studios, dormitories and a concert hall where an international music festival takes place from June to September.

The grounds also contain small practice cubicles of very basic and inexpensive construction, though each also has a small solar panel (but it was not clear what it powered).

   

It wasn’t clear at first what these little sheds were but when I pushed open a door, I saw they were furnished with a table, chair and walls covered in messages left by students who practiced there. Many of their comments focused on the music that they loved.

 

  • There are people out there who would give anything to play as well as you. Don’t forget to be grateful for what you have.
  • Perfect practice makes perfect
  • Chill! (Responding comment: There is no chill in Paganini ☹)
  • To play a wrong note is insignificant; to play without passion is inexcusable – L.v. Beethoven (responding comment: If you can have both, it’s still a bit better)
  • Love your instrument, but love music more! (Responding comment: Unless it’s a viola)

More of the messages left behind are interspersed below throughout the blog as I show you a first batch of birds we saw in the Canadian province. The focus here will be birds that are mainly black or black and white, their colors nicely complementing the paper birch trees (Betula papyrifera) that we saw everywhere.

The Domaine grounds proved to be a wonderful birding spot and our group was excited to see a blackpoll warbler (Setophaga striata) there. I had never seen one before so spotting this black-striped forager was a treat. Their song is so high-pitched that it is almost inaudible even to people with good hearing.

  • You’re sounding great ♥
  • We do not project our voices, we resonate our souls. RH
  • Play as if no one is listening

These amazing little songbirds – they weigh less than 0.42 oz (12 grams) – make one of the longest non-stop migratory journeys over the Atlantic Ocean of any avians, flying non-stop for over three days!

  • I count myself a king of infinite space
  • If you take time, you will go nowhere/anywhere
  • Endless rivers, boundless time, love flows free

Another small bird present at many of the sites we visited was the black-capped chickadee (Poecile atricapillus), which looks just like the Carolina chickadee to me. Apparently, the black-capped has more white edging on its feathers but it is a subtle difference.

This pair was busy at the Tadoussac dunes where they were foraging while also collecting some nesting material.

These birds rely on tree cavities for their nesting sites (although they will also use nest boxes if available), so when trees are cut down, they are losing vital habitat features for their survival.

These are one of the animal species that hides food in order to retrieve it later; the chickadees can remember thousands of hiding places – a useful memory feature for lean times!

 

Whereas chickadees are only 4.7-5.9 inches in length (12–15 cm) and weigh only 0.32–0.49 oz (9-14 g), the American crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos brachyrhynchos) measures 16–21 inches long (40-53 cm) with a weight of about 11.1 to 21.9 oz (316-620 g).

 

 

We saw several crows at different sites, in some cases chasing ravens. The group watched a crow that apparently had a nest nearby as well. An interesting and sad fact about them is that they are unfortunately susceptible to West Nile virus.

  • There is nothing more difficult and therefore more precious than to be able to decide
  • Profit du temps présent le plus possible
  • Through iron and blood we solve our problems, attack them head first!
  • Take a risk! You never know what might happen

An interesting fact about the lovely black-throated blue warbler (Setophaga caerulescens) is that the monogamous males all sing at the start and peak of the spring breeding season, but those who do not find a mate stop singing as the season draws to a close. The males who manage to entice a female into mating continue to sing! Their vocal virtuosity therefore indicates reproductive success!

 

  • Let the music speak through you
  • Everybody wins, just some sooner than others!!
  • Smile. Maybe someone loves you 😊
  • Love yourself more than anything else in the entire world

When species identification first took place, the male and female black-throated blues were classified as different species. The females (not shown here) are more muted in color than the males, without any blue feathers but a white line through the eye. Both sexes sport the “pocket handkerchief”, however, i.e., the white patch on their wings.

 

 

A warbler that we see often in North Carolina is the black and white warbler (Mniotilta varia), a bird that seems to always be in a hurry and in motion as it scurries along tree trunks seeking insects.

 

 

 

While birders usually see these attractive individuals in trees, they actually place their nests in leaf litter on the ground. The females can be distinguished from the males by their white throats.

 

 

 

 

The final bird in this black and white line-up is one that we can see often in the US South – the gray catbird (Dumetella carolinensis). I have to admit that this is one of my favorite species – I find them to be really sweet.

 

In my yard, they do not chase other birds away, do not fight for a place at feeders, sing sweetly and are alert and caring parents.

  • Shoot for the moon, even if you miss it, you’ll land amongst the stars (Responding comment: I don’t think you understand astronomy)
  • Be happy 😊
  • You can always be better – everybody that came here believes that
  • Dieu ne choisit pas les gens qui sont déjà capables, il rend capables ceux qu’il choisit.
  • No matter how well or badly you play, always remember you are human and therefore deserve love and support

I do have to acknowledge that not all the Domaine students were into encouraging one another.

  • Don’t be a diva. Listen to Diva by Beyoncé
  • You’re wasting so mutch time [sic]
  • Who just wasted a lot of time reading through these walls? (Responding comment: Me! Me!)
  • I don’t like inspirational bullshit

But they also reminded us about the importance of what is beautiful in our lives. And their thoughts can apply to any activities in which we choose to engage, be they jobs or avocations like wildlife watching and nature appreciation.

  • One day your life will flash before your eyes – make sure it’s worth watching
  • Most confuse wealth with success. Wealth means different things to different people. It doesn’t mean someone is happy or content. Ultimately your career is a concept that exists in your mind. What you really have is a series of jobs, strung together, that forms a story you are in charge of writing. Sarah Hill, performance artist
  • If you suppress the arts [or people’s ability to enjoy nature], then you’re suppressing the deepest dreams of a people

Next up – some of the “flashy” birds we saw on a top birding day!

Quebec chronicles – the marine mammals, part 2

Our whale-watching tour set off from a dock in the village of Tadoussac. A naturalist was on board, but she stood only at the front of the boat and her electronically-enhanced voice was difficult to understand with some static and heavy winds interfering. Our group stationed itself at the back of the boat so we would have unobstructed views of the birds and any possible whales. To our enormous delight, a fellow passenger called out a view of the first whale to swim near – a minke whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata), which is a type of baleen whale.

illustration credit: International Whaling Commission; https://wwhandbook.iwc.int/en/species/minke-whale

These smaller whales, which feed on krill and smaller schooling fish, are known for frequently breaching but that didn’t happen during our tour. It was cool to see this one swimming along though. We are unsure if we saw it again as they appeared somewhat similar to the fin whales, but the other whales we saw on the tour were a pair and minkes tend to be more solitary. Unfortunately, the minke is now the most numerous whale species worldwide and therefore a main target of the whaling industry.

Our next sighting way out on the river was a pair of harbor seals (Phoca vitulina), whose heads bobbed on the surface as we passed by. Then we were thrilled to see a “blow”, a whale spouting water into the air.

A pair of fin whales (Balaenoptera physalus) was swimming around in our vicinity and though they did not breach, they did rise to the surface multiple times – once quite close to our boat.

Illustration credit: International Whaling Commission; https://wwhandbook.iwc.int/en/species/fin-whale

These whales, considered an endangered species, are the second largest mammals in the world and have been nicknamed the greyhounds of the sea because of their swimming speed.

They have sleek bodies that can grow to 80 feet in length. Sometimes, you could spot where they might partly surface due to a bit of turbulence in the water.

Their diet consists of krill, crustaceans and small schooling fish. If they get enough to eat, can avoid predators (e.g., orcas) and man-made threats, they can live to be 100 or more years old! (The minke whales live 30-60 years.)

A scientific group has been collecting photo IDs of fin whales since 1986; they now have some 100 identified individuals who have received names such as Capitaine Crochet, Triangle, Caïman and Zipper. Another group has a catalogue that has identified 450 fin whales since 1980.

While we were thrilled to have seen the minke and fin whales, a beluga sighting remained a wish. That evening after the boat trip, Chloe and I were talking about whales as we gazed out at the St. Lawrence Seaway from the balcony of our rental house. I was of the opinion that if we really made it our intention to see a beluga, we would (Illusions is one of my very favorite books!). Fleeta joined us a little later on the balcony and then excitedly called out – “Beluga!!!”

Everyone came running out from inside the house and a few of us ran for cameras, despite the fact that all we could really see was a white splotch against the blue water. Those with binoculars likely had a much better view, but I didn’t care – we had our elusive sighting! The following photos, taken on our last evening and the next morning when it was raining, are admittedly not good ones but do give you an idea of what we saw.

The beluga (Delphinapterus leucas) is the only white whale and is known as the canary of the sea for its broad range of vocalizations. This trait, combined with the species’ curiosity which causes it to surface near boats to look at humans, unfortunately has led to it being one of the aquatic mammals that are hunted and captured (and sometimes bred) for the entertainment industry.

In contrast to the fin and minke whales, the belugas are social mammals, often traveling in groups and also moving from one group to another. On our last evening in St. Irénée, we probably saw about 12-15 of them! If you look closely at the white spots, you will see there were seven in this photo.

Males tend to associate with other males and females and their calves (born about every three years) hang out together. The young belugas are born gray and turn white between 5-12 years. Another interesting fact is that these whales molt in the summertime!

The St. Lawrence Seaway belugas, the southernmost beluga population in the world, are protected under Canada’s Species at Risk Act. This became necessary to multiple threats, a main one being massive hunting of the species. From 1880 to 1950, about 15,000 of these whales were killed, being blamed as “white demons” for threatening commercial fishing (which proved to be false). The latest estimate of how many now remain in this area is a paltry 889 individuals.

Hunting of belugas was outlawed in Canada in 1979 but other threats to the species persist. Besides chemical and plastics pollution, they succumb to getting hit by boats, being ensnared in fishing nets, and falling prey to predators (e.g., orcas). They may also be facing competition for their food sources, including the sardine-like capelin fish; here you see a couple that washed ashore.

 

Wildlife conservationists have been alarmed by a large number of female and baby belugas washing up on shore along the Seaway since 2008. Many of the mothers have died in the neonatal period and researchers are asking whether the mammals are lacking sufficient energy and failing to find sufficient food.

It is thought that the Seaway habitat may be changing with damming of rivers that flow into it. Noise pollution from whale-watching, boating, military sonar, oil and gas drilling may also be making life difficult for the whales as it disrupts their navigation. On the day we went out, a couple zodiacs zoomed a bit close to a pair of fin whales, even though they are supposed to observe the same distance rules as the larger boats. Hopefully, the authorities will be closely monitoring this.This is now being studied by Fisheries and Oceans Canada. In 2019, the Groupe de recherche et d’éducation sur les mammifères marins (GREMM) received a grant from the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation to study the increased mortality among the female and young belugas.

It would be great if the Beluga Whale Health Project could discover what is harming the belugas in the Seaway since these mammals can live more than 100 years of age in favorable circumstances. That is important for the species because it was recently documented that belugas have their own cultures in groups that stay together for generations; one researcher Greg O’Corry-Crowe, commented: “”We have compelling evidence, in our view, for the evolution of culturally inherited migration knowledge and behaviour.” This also has led to the intriguing question of whether their ability to learn from one another might help them cope with changing climatic conditions.

 

Hopefully, something can be done in the shorter term to help all the whales cope with the challenges and threats facing them. Outside the whaling and marine entertainment industries, many people would like to see them survive and thrive in the wild. They inspire artists as well, as shown by the metal beluga sculptures on display down the road from where we stayed.

At the Domaine le Forget in Charlevoix, another sculpture was called the Song of the Whales by Peter Lundberg.

It was a joy to see the whales during our trip, especially given the threats to which all the aquatic mammals are subject: hunting, getting caught in fishing nets, poisoning due to toxic chemicals from litter and oil spills, and ingestion of the ever-increasing plastic trash that is floating into our oceans. I would love to return to the area in warmer weather in the hope of getting closer to the belugas to see them better. I would again go on one of the large whale-watching boats because it appears that the smaller boats might be getting too close to the marine mammals. If we want to see the cetaceans in person, we need to think about how we can do it most responsibly while protecting them. The St. Lawrence Seaway is quite beautiful and will hopefully continue to offer a home to the southernmost belugas.

My special bird in autumn 2018

Well, having had time to finally process photos as the year end approaches, I’m “on a roll” with posting blogs in contrast to other months in 2018. I have two more to post on mammals this year. This one is to commemorate a real birding treat that came to me during the snowstorm that was featured in my last two blogs.

 

There had been reports on birding sites and listservs that some bird species which usually don’t come too far south during the winter were on the move this year to warmer climes. They included birds that sometimes arrive in North Carolina (NC) in winter, but who don’t always come in large numbers (an “irruption”) such as pine siskins (Spinus pinus, above) and purple finches (Haemorhous purpureus, below).

  

I’ve also been lucky to see red-breasted nuthatches (Sitta canadensis), another irruption species, either in my yard or on nature walks.

 

So why are they coming here in numbers?  It turns out that trees in the northern boreal forests are not producing enough food sources that these birds need to survive winter weather such as conifer seeds and berries (from trees such as hemlock, spruce, firs, alders and larch).

What was really exciting for birders in NC, however, was that some other bird species are also seeking new winter foraging areas. They include redpolls, crossbills and the gorgeous evening grosbeaks (Coccothraustes vespertinus) who are seen here only rarely.

I had only ever seen a photo of these grosbeaks and thought it would be fun to see one in person. Members of a listserv mentioned that these grosbeaks had been spotted in Virginia, just above the NC border, so we should be prepared to perhaps see them.

On my visits to the Brumley Nature Preserve, I spent time in the spruce areas in the hope of spotting one, but I had no such luck. And then as the snow was falling heavily on the first morning of our snowstorm, I caught sight of a bright yellow and black bird on a feeder as I looked out my window. Lo and behold, when I grabbed my camera I discovered a male evening grosbeak on a feeder!

What was even more exciting was that he was accompanied by two female birds, both of whom were very lovely as well. I took lots of photos.

They finally flew off and I counted myself very lucky indeed. A while later, when the snow had stopped for a while, I was watching the feeders again and the threesome returned to my delight. They fed and then rested on feeder poles.

I tried to go outside quietly so I could photograph them without a window between us but they were quite skittish and left quickly as soon as I appeared. They flew to the tops of nearby tall pines and then disappeared off into the distance. They were not shy when I stood in front of the living room window, however.

The trio reappeared a third time and I stayed behind the window to admire them. It was interesting to see how they could look different, depending on their posture. The bird above looked “tall” as it fed next to the Eastern bluebird. And then the other looked fat and fluffy on the feeder pole – even looking as if it had an outsized head when it leaned forward a bit!

 

They left in the afternoon and did not return, even when it snowed again the next day. A fellow birder who lives northwest of me spotted a male evening grosbeak on one of her feeders that day – the birds were obviously en route to another destination. I hope they found a good food source area for the rest of the winter. And my photos will remind me of their wonderful visit, which made this snowstorm one to remember. 😊

Costa Rican rambles 2 – exploring the fauna of the hotel botanical garden

My first close-up spotting of wildlife in Costa Rica was a butterfly familiar to me from North Carolina – a beautiful monarch (Danaus plexippus). Lots of little flies were buzzing about but they were a bit too quick for photos.

I wasn’t familiar with the first bird I saw, but after running into fellow traveler Dave, he kindly identified it for me as a white-winged dove (Zenaida asiatica).

 

  

Later and the next morning, I saw several wandering about the grounds and at the birdbath.

  

Another common dove was the white-tipped one (Leptotila verreauxi).

 

While roaming around, I ran into two more fellow travelers, Joy and Janet; together with Dave, we climbed a wonderful lookout tower placed in a strategic spot for birders. It looked down on a pond in one direction and a birdbath in another, where I saw the clay-colored thrush (Turdus grayi) – Costa Rica’s national bird, known locally as the yigüirro.  Its beautiful song is said to welcome the green rainy seasons and these birds were abundant in this garden and the other sites we would be visiting.

  

A couple species of hummingbirds appeared but I was only able to photograph the rufous-tailed hummer (Amazilia tzacatl).

  

While looking for it, I spotted what was to become one of my favorite Costa Rican birds, the rufous-naped wren (Campylorhynchus rufinuch).

  

I just fell in love with its brown speckled appearance and followed a pair flitting about the flower-laden bushes in the area.

 

Some “Northern migrants” put in appearances, including a Baltimore oriole (Icterus galbula) and some yellow-throated vireos (Vireo flavifrons).

   

 

Birds flitting in the treetops further included a few yellow warblers (Setophaga petechia) and Tennessee warblers (Leiothlypis peregrina), which I had not yet seen in the USA.

 

A beautiful blue-gray tanager (Thraupis episcopus) flew by and I saw my first male Cherrie’s tanager, for which I’ll post a better photo in a later blog. 

The high perch which we birders had offered me a first spotting of the variegated squirrel (Sciurus variegatoides), which lives up to its name with individuals showing very different coloring on their bodies.

  

I left the lookout tower to investigate more of the 10-acre garden and as it began raining, found a spectacular wasp or hornet nest. It looked quite different from varied perspectives, the underneath view making it look like a pair of pants hung from the tree by its legs.

 

 

 

 

 

The garden featured several man-made hives for stingless bees (Tetragonisca angustula); I didn’t see any buzzing about but perhaps they preferred to stay indoors during the rain.

Back near the lookout tower, I began hearing a pair of birds calling to one another with beautiful songs and notes. I was looking around for some small songbird but suddenly realized the concert was being offered by a pair of large melodious blackbirds (Dives dives), who really deserve their common name!

 

A somewhat more raucous set of cries alerted me to the arrival of a group of brown jays (Psilorhinus morio). They are much larger than the blue jays I see in my own garden and certainly seemed more social; they tend to move around in flocks. At first sight, they seemed a bit drab but a closer look shows they have a pretty muted appearance.

 

 

As I began following a hummingbird in an effort to get a close-up, Janet and Joy alerted me to a trio of Inca doves (Columbina inca) who were smushing together in a compact group for the night. It was almost dark and I had to adjust my camera settings a lot to be able to photograph them; they were becoming barely visible in the vegetation but oh so cute. Occasionally, one would leave the line and sit atop the other two but those below always got the third one to come down to the branch again.

Seeing some very cute rufous-collared sparrows (Zonotrichia capensis) foraging in the grass.

The next morning began with a spotting of a pair of masked tityras (Tityra semifasciata), who were difficult to photograph in the early dawn light.

A Hoffman’s woodpecker (Melanerpes hoffmannii, right) came by briefly and as the day started to brighten, a tropical kingbird (Tyrannus melancholicus) alighted on a branch.

  

It was after that sighting that I discovered a new bird (for me) – the social flycatcher (Myiozetetes similis); I had been calling all birds that looked like these great kiskadees – and they do look very similar to be sure!  And if readers see I have identified a bird incorrectly, please let me know!

  

My first evening and morning in Costa Rica taught me that the bird photography could be challenging; the lush vegetation meant that the birds are often in between dark leaves and shadows. This meant that I was shooting at high ISOs much of the time, with somewhat grainy photos as a result. I guess perhaps I should finally look into getting a photo editing program!

 

An under-appreciated bird?

In the area where I live, many birders are thrilled when spring migration begins and the wood thrush (Hylocichla mustelina) arrives. They find its song especially appealing and exclaim over the fact that they had the privilege of hearing the wood thrush in their yard or in the woods.

 

 

While it’s a nice song, however, I find that I’m more attracted to our winter visitor, the hermit thrush (Catharus guttatus), perhaps because this species seems less afraid to emerge from the vegetation when people are around. I find its song quite nice as well, even though it doesn’t seem to have as many trills in it as the wood thrush.

 

   

The past couple years, I seem to have been seeing the hermit thrush more and more often. Presumably, this is not because there are more of them but because I have grown a little more adept at spotting and identifying birds as time has passed. The past six weeks, I’ve seen them in various places and have very much enjoyed each spotting.

On the 15th of December, during a walk at Mason Farm Biological Reserve, I spotted one eating berries with gusto.

 

       

Ten days later, birds in different parts of the reserve came out on twigs, observing me as much as I was observing them. On the 2nd of January, one caught my eye when s/he was bobbing its reddish tail up and down. It gave me a good view of the bird’s underside, which looked nicely cushioned. That part of the tail is the most colorful part of the bird, which otherwise is a rather muted light brown with a cream-colored, lightly spotted breast.

   

On the 4th of January, we had a light smattering of snow and I saw a hermit thrush in a crepe myrtle tree, an unusual sight in my yard as their visits are usually few and far between. The next day, the bird returned to the red cedar trees (Juniperus virginiana) to make a few meals of the nicely ripe juniper berries.

  

The snow melted quickly but the bird was back the next day for more berries; fortunately, the American robins and cedar waxwings had not eaten them all.

  

In the spring and summer, the hermit thrush’s diet consists mainly of insects and sometimes small reptiles and amphibians. In the winter, they turn to eating berries and fruit. Here, a thrush at the Brumley Forest Preserve had been foraging on the ground and found a seed or fruit.

Back at Mason Farm, the 21st of January was a stellar day for seeing hermit thrushes; I must have seen at least six in different parts of the woods. At one point, I had stopped to listen to a downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) calling and then noted a thrush sitting on a sapling branch near the walking trail. S/he flew down to the path to forage and suddenly another one flew in landing atop the first thrush! The attacked bird spread its tail feathers on the ground while the other one glared at it.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology notes that hermit thrushes may respond to predators by crouching and pulling in their heads; perhaps this was an adaptation of that response.

I always think of these little beauties as being peaceful birds so seeing one challenge the other in such a physical way was a real surprise. Then as suddenly as the attack had happened, all was sweetness and light as the two birds began foraging on the path about 2-3 feet from one another. The downy woodpecker even joined them on the ground for a little while.

  

The oldest recorded hermit thrush was almost 11 years old. Perhaps their generally sweet disposition helps them survive.

   

Depending on whether these birds are fluffing their feathers against the cold, they can either look like a sleek and slender avian or a puffy little ball of feathers. In both cases, I think they look quite appealing.

  

Whatever shape they take, I do look forward to seeing more of these lovely, usually demure and delightful thrushes!