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.

Quebec chronicles – the marine mammals, part 1

When our small band of independent travelers was formulating a plan last year to go to Tadoussac Dunes in Quebec to see the spring warbler migration, we all began investigating the area on the Internet. One of my first discoveries was that several species of whale live in the St. Lawrence Seaway, including the beautiful and rare belugas (Delphinapterus leucas). I began advocating that we include whale-watching options in our itinerary and fellow birder Chloe was also VERY enthusiastic! We were well rewarded during the actual trip, even though it was early in the season for these migratory cetaceans to be there.

On our first afternoon exploring after arrival in Quebec province, we stopped by a shoreline to look at birds and saw a shop for a whale-watching company. A lady working for the firm pointed out a herring gull sitting on her nest nearby and we had the pleasure of seeing our first harbor seal (Phoca vitulina) in the small cove next to the nest.

The next afternoon, we visited the Parc National du Fjord-du-Sanguenay. A 3.2-km trail led us through forest, along a couple meadows and inlets to the Baie-Sainte-Marguerite where belugas are often seen in the summer. Part of the trail was bordered by rocky areas with running rivulets of water nourishing mosses and other vegetation.

 

Many plants were growing in the rocky areas along the trail, including beautiful red trilliums (Trillium erectum L.), red osier dogwood (Cornus stolonifera – thanks to Lynda for the ID!) and trout lilies (Erythronium americanum).

 

 

Signs along the way told about the history of the Bay Mill village which had been built alongside the bay. Sawmill residue was used to fuel a steam engine, which in turn gave the village electricity.

Visitor center staff informed us that no one had seen belugas recently in the bay but we had a beautiful land-based view of the water.

 

The Sanguenay Fjord (water-filled valley carved out by glaciers) is unique in that it is the only navigable fjord in North America. The fjord is characterized by water stratification, with the bottom layer being as cold and saline as ocean water while the top layer is warmer fresh water, so that this area contains both saltwater and freshwater ecosystems.

There was a nice exhibition area with informative signs; in the summertime, a park ranger is stationed there to provide tourists with additional information. For example, we learned from the display how specific belugas have been identified so that naturalists can follow their lives over time.

The next day, four of us went on a whale-watching tour, which ended with a visit to the Sainte Marguerite Bay from the water side. No belugas were to be seen but to our great delight, there was a pod of harbor seals which had hauled up onto the rocks. “Hauling” is actually a “technical” term for seals getting out of the water temporarily for purposes such as avoiding predators, resting (also when molting, which I didn’t know they did) and engaging in social interactions.

They tend to hang out in familiar haul-out spots; this family group seemed relaxed, with some members sunning and others swimming nearby.

It is said they are easy to recognize by the sunbathing pose that they adopt, called the “banana pose” – lying on their side with head and flippers raised. No one in this group demonstrated the pose, however!

They mostly eat fish but also squid, shrimp and mollusks. Their color may vary from gray to brown, with some looking a bit more spotted than others.

We were lucky to see them since they migrate from eastern Canada to breed along the Maine coast in May and June. Occasionally, a few have been seen in North Carolina. And now on to the whales in aquatic mammal blog part 2!

A bountiful year for seeing Castor canadensis

It has been my privilege to go on safaris in Africa and my outings in nature there resulted in sightings of multiple mammalian species each time. Where I live now, there are also a variety of mammals but I don’t see them often, other than squirrels, chipmunks, deer, opossums and raccoons. I was lucky to see chewed trees as evidence of American beavers’ (past) presence, but I was not seeing members of the Castor canadensis species. Some of the chewing patterns on the trees were interesting though.

I saw my first beaver lodge at Brumley Nature Preserve South in early 2016 and had the good fortune to get a quick glimpse of a beaver there. (Before that, I had seen them in zoos.) Then I began noticing beaver dams more often on walks, like the one below near the Haw River. So for my first long blog of 2019, I’d like to share with you how 2018 became my bountiful beaver year.

In the spring, a friend told me about a creek where beavers’ dams had resulted in marvelous wetlands along some nature trails. Their handiwork at Pokeberry Creek was appreciated by a considerable number of nearby residents, who were pleased with an increasing number of waterfowl and other birds at the wetlands, as well as otters.

 

They spoke about the benefits of beavers’ presence, such as the increased biodiversity, improved water quality and more opportunities for wildlife viewing, and celebrated their arrival. Some birding groups began leading walks there to view the numerous songbird and other avian species.

For me, the chance to see the beavers in action was wonderful. One day, I saw an adult chewing branches as part of its meal; it was quiet and didn’t seem disturbed to have me nearby watching.

On other occasions, I saw individuals bringing reeds back to a lodge, presumably to feed young ones left at home. (The offspring may stay with their parents up to two years.)

As beavers are mostly crepuscular, visiting at dusk offered a good chance to see them at work felling trees for their dams and lodges. It struck me that when I had observed them eating, they were very quiet. When they were working to cut trees down, however, I could hear them chewing very loudly.

Some people living near Pokeberry Creek brought chairs and drinks to watch the animals at work in the evenings and everyone present seemed to be learning a lot about them. Apparently, many people are interested in beavers – the ranger station at the Jordan Lake Dam has a taxidermied beaver and information about their lodges on display.

Nature’s aquatic engineers are certainly interesting mammals. North America’s largest rodents can swim underwater without coming up for a breath for some 15 minutes; this is because they slow their heart rate. Their transparent eyelids function as goggles so that they can see underwater.

They build dams to ensure that the ponds in which they construct lodges are deep enough so that the entrance remains under water. When the water is at least 2-3 feet, they will be safe from predators and the entrance to their home will stay ice-free in the winter. If they are in a spot where the water remains high enough all the time, they may forego building dams. At Pokeberry, the animals felt a need to build dams in two places. Research has shown that the noise made by water flowing away contributes to their decisions to shore up dams; they apparently cannot tolerate the sound of running water above a certain number of decibels.

The beavers’ environmental engineering irritated some members of the Home Owners Association (HOA) of a nearby community which is still under development. Some people complained that the water was encroaching onto properties (other property owners were ok with it). The rising waters also sometimes flooded a long walking bridge and a cul de sac. Numerous repairs were needed for the bridge and “opposing” parties emerged.

After the HOA announced a plan to have 35 beavers killed, a petition to save the mammals was begun. Within a few days, more than 3700 signatures had been gathered and the HOA undertook a consultation process with different agencies to explore other options. The Friends of Pokeberry Creek Beavers and Wetlands, in the meantime, put up small barriers so that the waters would not encroach so easily onto the cul-de-sac. They also installed a “beaver deceiver” (a pond leveling device, comprising large tubes inserted through a dam so that water would continue to flow through).

It appears that the beavers found the water flow too noisy, so each evening they would mud up the fencing around the deceiver intake so that no water could enter there. The humans would take away the mud; the beavers would put it back. The humans moved the pond leveling devices to deeper areas, but with heavy rainfall, the waters would rise very high.

Finally, in early autumn, the HOA had much of the wetlands drained. This was done to avoid killing the beavers by driving them further downstream to find another area where they could build dams to establish a new pond territory.

The beavers in a large pond that remains rather full have not moved; they are still felling trees, presumably to reinforce their lodge and to have some food supplies in stock for the winter. They also need to keep chewing as their teeth never stop growing. When they remove trees, they leave stumps of about 6-12 inches behind. I’ve seen some of these tree stumps, such as a tulip poplar, sprouting branches again. So the beavers’ tree clearing does not have the same effect as clear-cutting done by humans.

   

  

I thought that the drained wetlands at Pokeberry Creek might be the end of my beaver observation opportunities, but then I discovered that another wildlife and recreational park was facing challenges from beaver dams. Sandy Creek Park had had beavers some 5-6 years ago and at that time the mammals were removed (killed). The park manager wants to avoid that now if possible, but the dams need to be controlled since they are causing flooding onto paved pathways which help make the park accessible to persons living with disabilities.

A wildlife biologist visited the park to assess the potential success of a pond leveler there; because the pond in question is rather deep, they may have more success with a beaver deceiver. I’m guessing it will also depend on how the noise levels evolve with the new flow of water into the nearby creek. If they can install a silent outflow pipe, the intervention may be successful.

In November, I found that beavers were also busy at a third natural area that I visit often, the Brumley Nature Preserve North. The rodents are busy in two of three ponds there. The volunteer trail steward periodically breaches the dam at one pond so that the water can continue flowing downstream. When the pond water level remains high enough, the beavers seem to be more lax in repairing the dam.

  

At the other pond, the water level has stayed fairly consistent with all the rainfall our area has had in the past months and no beaver engineering seems to be happening there. As there is no obvious stream flowing into that pond, if we have a dry summer, the beavers may have to abandon that home as the pond could dry up as happened during a drought period last year. There was an interesting development at this pond, however. It involved one particular beaver who recently spent afternoons for a couple weeks swimming laps for hours.

I was quite surprised to see him (it could be female but somehow I thought of this individual as a male who was hoping to attract a mate), since beavers often prefer not to be out in the open during the day. He even emerged from the water from time to time, but always on the other side of the pond.

 

It didn’t matter whether the day was sunny or colder, gray and overcast. Sometimes, it seemed that he was taking a quick power nap.

  

The beaver would make small circles, large circles, go to the shore for a quick rest and then resume laps.

One day, I saw him swim toward the lodge and I was able to see inside above the underwater entrance. He didn’t stay there long though and soon came out again to exercise.

This beaver seemed to be quite relaxed, swimming around and around, except for when walkers came by with dogs. He definitely did not care for the canines; when they appeared, he often would begin slapping his large, flat tail on the water and then diving noisily under water before emerging again nearby.

These tail slap warnings and dives showed off his webbed hind paws.

It was interesting to hear how very loud the tail slaps can be. The beaver will also vocalize its distress.

At one point, some visitors to the reserve allowed their dog to jump into the pond and the canine swam close to the beaver lodge. (Dogs are supposed to be kept on leash but a number of pet owners ignore the sign stating this. When I mentioned that dogs running loose also disturb ground-feeding birds, the response was: “Too bad for the ground birds!”) That very much disturbed the beaver, who slapped his tail again and again.

After that incident, I only saw the beaver having afternoon lap sessions a couple more times. He seems to have given up the practice or is now restricting his swims to very quiet times. I can understand if the animal is trying to avoid stress and distress; that’s one reason I go out for nature walks, too. But I was glad he ventured out for a while so I could see him fairly close on several occasions.

Happy New Year to you all – hope your 2019 is happy, healthy and filled with nature’s beauty!

Autumn amblings — seeing insects, birds, a snake and two surprises

It’s been challenging lately to know what to expect as far as weather goes in our area. Following tropical storms Florence and Michael, we’ve had several more episodes of drenching downpours that caused local flooding and closed off some natural areas. The temperatures have gone down to freezing or below in the morning and then have risen to 50-60s F (10-16C); this has sometimes led to steam rising from fence posts and some flowers still blooming which usually would have died by now. This morning, I skipped my walk as the temperature was below freezing with wind, so I re-lived some visits this past month to the Brumley Nature Preserve North. If you, too, are inside sheltering from the weather, perhaps you’ll have the time to amble photographically through this long Brumley walk with me.

Some parts of the reserve are still fairly green, which creates a lovely ambience for leisurely strolling and nature observations. In other cases, we can see the arrival of late autumn and approaching winter. This picturesque tree, one of three near a pond that harbor various bird species, was still very green in late September; now these forest denizens are showing off their gnarly “bare bones”.

     

So some early mornings are quite nippy and others a bit milder, with dried plants glistening with spider webs and dew drops that sparkle in the sun.

 

Some of the insects emerge with the sun to bask in the golden light, like this seed bug (Orsellinae, left), whose coloring camouflages it well against the seed heads, short-horned grasshopper, American bird grasshopper (Schistocerca americana) and different color variations of Asian lady beetles (Harmonia axyridis) who were hanging out on the dog fennel (Eupatorium capillifolium).

 

   

Various birds have been enjoying the winter seeds and especially the winter berries, like the red multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora) and beige poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans).    

The Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) are quite fond of berries.

They travel back and forth between fruit-laden trees and dried grass seedheads, occasionally stopping on paths to find worms and insects.

The cedar waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) also like to gorge on berries, often sharing trees with American robins who enjoy the same meal. Sometimes snagging a berry involves some acrobatic moves.

  

The waxwings are adept at these moves and I only occasionally saw one drop a fruit. They are such elegant birds with their black masks and subtle touches of red on the wings and yellow on the tail feathers.

 

One of my favorite bird species, the ruby-crowned kinglets (Regulus calendula), are also fond of berries. They like suet in gardens but no suet feeders are found in the reserve.
Some of the larger birds, like the Northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos), Northern flicker (Colaptes auratus) and yellow-bellied sapsuckers (Sphyrapicus varius), also look for berries and insects as they mostly stay high up in the trees.

 

Purple finches (Haemorhous purpureus) are another species that enjoy late autumn fruit.

  

In early November, I had my first of two delightful surprises at Brumley. It was early morning and as I glanced up at some very tall trees, I spotted movement among the earth-toned leaves. My lens revealed a yellow-billed cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus) – and when I entered it into my bird list for the day, eBird asked me to justify having seen it as it was a rarity this late in the year.

Two other birds that are not surprises but also a joy to see are the hermit thrush (Catharus guttatus) and colorful Eastern towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus).

  

It’s always worthwhile to look all around when you walk, not only up at trees if you are a birder or at eye level if you like mammals. I take a lot of bird photos, because I love birds and because they are often easier to see than other wildlife species. But I consider myself more a “wildlifer” than a “birder” since I really am interested in all kinds of animals. That now stands me in good stead during the high-precipitation events we’ve been having. The ponds are filled to capacity and then some, with water flowing over the banks and onto paths.

In some cases, the high humidity has been great for plants; bryophytes are shooting up sporophytes which carry their reproductive spores. As there are over 600 mosses, liverworts and hornworts in North Carolina, I didn’t get the scientific ID for this species.

The rains created new temporary water-filled gullies, where chipping sparrows (Spizella passerina) and white-throated sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis) have been enjoying baths along with other birds.

 

  

This earthworm (Lumbricina) obviously decided it had to get out of the water-logged earth for a while and I was glad not to have squashed it as I walked along. Its slow progress along the path may not have aided it, though, because there were plenty of robins and other worm-eaters in the vicinity.

 

A large Northern water snake (Nerodia sipedon) was sunning next to a path after the rains as well.

   

So my last visit to Brumley, when I was hoping to capture a golden-crowned kinglet digitally, did not fulfill that hope but ended by giving me a great surprise – my first sighting of a beaver (Castor canadensis) at this reserve. A colleague had seen one there, I’d noted the gnawed tree near the pond, and I had figured out where the lodge was, but I had not yet seen the mammal in the early mornings. Shortly before reaching the pond, I’d stopped to chat with dog owners and mentioned that a beaver was there but I hadn’t seen it yet. Ten minutes later – at 2 p.m. in the afternoon, there s/he was!

It was so surprising to see the aquatic mammal cruising the pond, swimming in large and small circles. As it created small waves and wakes with its head, I pondered why this largely (but not solely!) crepuscular animal was out in the open with people walking by. S/he must have just really wanted to have a good long swim because the animal was out and about for a few hours.

 

Three times, the beaver slapped its tail and dove under with a huge splash when people with dogs strolled by – three times, I missed getting that shot but I did manage to get a photo when the beaver took a time out at the entrance to the lodge.

That was an exciting wildlife spotting – not only did I get to see an animal I rarely see but it was also exhibiting a behavior that I witnessed for the first time. (Previously, I’d seen them harvesting and transporting food to the lodge, chewing bark and felling trees.) As I often go to Brumley in the mornings, being there in the afternoon had another advantage as well – I got to witness a spectacular autumn sunset with the sky almost seeming like a kaleidoscope as the clouds and sun’s rays created rapidly changing skies. I’m looking forward already to my next foray to this reserve!

The gorgeous grebes when aggrieved and grumpy!

During my great-crested grebe (Podiceps cristatus) observations at the Gouwzee in July 2018, it became apparent that they don’t mind swimming about amid groups of Eurasian coots (Fulica atra).

It turned out, however, that the grebes can also be quite aggressive and one morning these birds treated me to a stunning display as they had six years earlier. This time it was not a peaceful event like their mating dance, however, but apparently a territorial dispute. Two pairs were each tending a young one near reeds in a cove on the Gouwzee side of a dike. It appeared that one adult had ventured into space that the other pair considered their own. An epic battle ensued – I wish I’d had the presence of mind to change my camera settings to get better photos, but it was so sudden and exciting that I was just glad to be able to get some shots. The whole dispute only lasted about three minutes but seemed to last much longer!

References I found in the literature online appear to indicate that researchers believe territorial aggression mostly takes place when the grebes are building nests and tending eggs. They mention that it stops once the young are born. This was obviously not the case for the two pairs that I observed; their young appeared to be several weeks past fledging age.

The birds first caught my eye when they faced one another, lying low in the water. This is said to be a common aggressive posture.

Suddenly, they erupted upwards, calling loudly and flapping their wings strongly to intimidate one another. (You can see larger versions of photos by clicking on them.)

  

 

   

 

A couple times, they surged upwards from the water to clash their chests together.

   

One appeared to have dunked his opponent in the water, although this happened so quickly that I didn’t really see how it occurred.

They would take a few second pause, making their mutual displeasure apparent.

This would be followed by another bout of confrontation. At one point, one grebe’s mate and young one swam closer to the action.

Finally, after a couple minutes, one “combatant” was driven off by his opponent.

He was joined by his mate and offspring and peace returned. And I walked away elated at having witnessed the behavioral exhibition, glad that no injuries had been sustained. 😊