Quebec chronicles – passerines with yellow colors, part 1

People who journey to the Tadoussac Dunes area in Quebec during spring bird migration often are focused mainly on one type of bird. They are members of the group of passerine birds, i.e., birds that perch using four toes – three that face forward and one that faces backwards. The “new world warblers” (also called wood warblers) are a subgroup of passerines that are only found in the Western hemisphere. They are featured in this blog and include some of my favorite photos from our trip. The next blog, passerines part 2, will feature other bird species that perch.

The warblers really are quite beautiful in their breeding plumage and many birders spend long periods of time searching them out and admiring them. This often involves looking up at treetops since many species forage for insects in mid- and high forest canopies. This may lead to a condition in humans called “warbler neck”, the result of staying for a prolonged time in the posture indicated to the left. (The statue was in the lobby of our Quebec hotel and was called “Force intérieure” (inner force) by Julie Lajoie.)

One warbler that we didn’t need to strain to see was the Cape May (Setophaga tigrina), which was named for Cape May, New Jersey, where it was first observed by ornithologist Alexander Wilson in 1811. After that, these birds weren’t seen again in that area for more than a century!

The males really do call attention to themselves with their bright breeding colors – a distinctive rusty cheek patch, yellow throat and collar, dark crown and lots of vertical black stripes going down its sides and chest.

In spring, this warbler migrates almost 3,000 miles from the West Indies to the coniferous forests of Canada and the northern US to breed. As the fist-sized songbird flies north, its diet adapts to the environment. During winter among the palm trees, the Cape May drinks berry juice and the nectar from flowers thanks to its unusual semi-tubular and curled tongue. (It will also drink from nectar feeders!) But in summer in the boreal forests, it eats insects—especially the spruce budworm—with a special gusto.

The male and female build a nest together near the top of a tree (35-60 feet high!) and the female tries to prevent others from seeing the nest. She namely will not enter the nest directly but goes up and down the trunk of the tree, entering from below.

A second seemingly ubiquitous bird at our migration destination was the magnolia warbler (Setophaga magnolia). Like the Cape May, the male in breeding attire has vertical black stripes on a yellow chest but his face is marked by a black mask topped by a white stripe.

 

Most of my sightings of this species involved individuals looking for insects on the ground. At one point, it was interesting to see a “Maggie” fluttering his wings over sandy spots in the dunes, obviously to scare up insects that he then quickly grabbed. My attempts to get a photo of the fluttering were unsuccessful but it was very cool to watch.

 

 

 

Another warbler that sports a black “necklace” against a yellow breast is the Canada warbler (Cardellina canadensis). Males and females look similar except that the male has a bit longer tail and somewhat darker breast stripes.

 

Some of these birds spend the summer in the Appalachian Mountains of western North Carolina (NC), but I had not seen one before. Towards the end of our trip, a Canada warbler decided to forage in the yard of the house where we were staying – finally, I was able to get some good looks at him!

The male Blackburnian warbler (Setophaga fusca) also has black breast stripes but against a white background. His face is quite striking with a flame-orange throat against a yellow and black head.  The female is somewhat more muted in coloration but also quite lovely.

 

These birds do not appear to be shy around people. One was grabbing insects in a grassy patch near a parking lot and not at all perturbed when five of us stopped nearby to take portrait shots.

Another was intent on getting insects among the rocks alongside a pier.

 

 

 

 

 

The Nashville warbler (Oreothlypis ruficapilla) was a lifer for me, fairly easy to distinguish by its rufous cap.

 

 

An interesting bit of information about them is that they sometimes use porcupine quills in constructing their nests, which they locate on the ground under shrubs!

The Wilson’s warbler (Cardellina pusilla) also has a distinctive cap, but when I got to see one around dusk one day, it didn’t feel like turning around to face me. It was nevertheless another lifer.

They spend a lot of time in the understory and nest on the ground, but that apparently doesn’t make them easier to spot!

One warbler that I have seen several times in NC is the tiny yellow warbler (Setophaga petechia). They tend to like being near wetlands and streams and this has proved to be the case for my spottings. I have seen them near a water ditch in one reserve as well as near the Haw River. In Quebec, I also saw one searching for insects in the rocks bordering a pier.

 

You can see that this warbler has reddish striping on its chest and that is what I’ve noted in the birds seen in my area. However, below you can see a male bird without striping; our local guide said that a number of birds that breed in Quebec do not develop any striping but remain entirely yellow.

 

A behavior that distinguishes them from many other birds is that they are capable of recognizing when a brown-headed cowbird has laid one of its eggs in their nest. The yellow warblers try to avoid raising the nest parasite by smothering the cowbird egg with a new layer of nest materials. If they had already laid eggs of their own, they then produce a new clutch; sometimes, they just build a new nest elsewhere.

Another warbler that is quite familiar to me is the yellow-rumped warbler (Setophaga coronata). A group spends the winter at my yard feeders and begin changing into their breeding plumage shortly before migrating north. In Quebec, I got to see them in their full coloration, and they were handsome indeed!

My final bird for this blog is also one I’ve seen before, but I found it simply stunning when watching it in the Canadian trees. The black-throated green warbler (Setophagahy virens) as the striped warblers but the brightness of the yellow and black coloring on the breeding male is wonderful to see.

They seemed to “color-match” some of the trees in which I watched them foraging.

 

In other cases, they complemented the deep green of the deciduous evergreen trees in which they were perching.

 

 

 

These birds particularly like caterpillars but eat a wide variety of insects. An interesting behavior observed by researchers concerns its singing – the males really like to belt it out, with one male having been recorded singing 466 songs in one hour!

 

Having observed these wood warblers in their breeding habitat, I now have an increased understanding of why birders are willing to endure warbler necks. 😊

Quebec chronicles – the non-avian wildlife

While birding has become a beloved pastime for me, I think of myself mostly as a wildlife photographer. I enjoy observing (new) insects, reptiles and mammals as much as I like seeing birds and find their behaviors just as fascinating. So I was also on the lookout for non-avian wildlife during our recent migration trip.

You could tell that springtime was flourishing as plants were putting out new leaves and buds. There were gorgeous red (Trillium erectum) and white trilliums (Trillium grandiflorum).

 

Fiddlehead ferns were popping up everywhere. And a new flower for me was the white baneberry (Actaea pachypoda).

Yellow trout lilies (Erythronium americanum) were emerging and red columbines (Aquilegia canadensis) dangled their pretty red and yellow blooms.

Red osier dogwoods (Cornus sericea) were in meadows at one park and in the area where we were staying, multiple shadbush (serviceberry, Amelanchier) trees were in bloom.

Quite an unusual plant turned up in Pointe au Pic near an area with local shops. I had not seen one like this before – a helpful member of a plant identification group told me it was a rhubarb (Rheum).

The dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) we saw were very large in comparison to those I’ve seen in North Carolina (NC). Interesting is that the official name in French is “pissenlit”, which literally translated would be “piss in bed” (although proper French speakers would say “Pisse au lit”). In any event, dandelions can not only be eaten in salads but also be used as a diuretic, so perhaps centuries ago the French Quebeçois were referring to the flower’s properties in describing it. Another French name for the bloom is “lion’s teeth” or “dents de lion” (from which the English word dandelion came).

The insects were taking advantage of those edible yellow flowers; both spiders and ants were busy crawling around them.

 

A beautiful syrphid fly was also busy getting its meal, while an unknown moth flitted down to rest in the middle of a road.

There were butterflies at the shorelines, like this Lucia azure (Celastrina lucia) and mussel shells rested on rocks.

 

 

A spur-throated grasshopper (Melanoplus) was hanging out on a pissenlit, and a diamondback moth (Plutella xylostella) turned up in a photo of another plant (not a great photo but a lifer insect for me).

A beautiful honey bee (Apis mellifera) was covered in pollen.

Another new insect for me was the tricolored bumble bee (Bombus ternarius).

A few mammals appeared during our spring vacation, although not the hoped-for moose. (We unfortunately saw one black bear, but it had been hit on the road.) On several days, I caught sight of white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) bounding away, both in the area where we were staying and in the parks that we visited. I managed to catch a glimpse of an Eastern chipmunk, too, but it wouldn’t come out from behind some twigs for a photo shoot.

Much more cooperative were the American red squirrels (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus), which feed primarily on conifer cone seeds. They also enjoy other foods such as mushrooms, which were beginning to grow profusely like this nice morel.

The chickarees (another name for these rodents) were often out and about along the roadway where our rental house was located.

On one day, I ran into a small squirrel that seemed to have a problem with its left eye. However, it might have been a trick of the light. I tried to get another view, but the little rodent wouldn’t let me get around to its other side to take a photo. In any event, they are beautiful little creatures (generally smaller than the large gray squirrels that reside in my yard).

A very pleasant surprise during our trip was running into some groundhogs (Marmota monax, also known as whistle pigs and woodchucks). It is said that they tend to avoid swampy areas and like open fields and meadows but both woodchucks we saw were spotted near water. The first one we saw popped up near a cove on a paved road leading down to the water. The mammal was surprised by our group which had occupied a space between the water and nearby vegetation areas.

 

We tried to stay in one area so the groundhog could go around us, but s/he was uncertain about passing us, making several forays in our direction, turning around and then heading back again to get to the bushes and trees.

 

Finally, the groundhog screwed up its courage and ran at high speed past us and disappeared into the trees.

 

A couple days later, one of our group spotted another groundhog that was foraging in the newly leafing out shrubs alongside a creek that ran into a cove. The large rodent was agile and able to climb up into spindly little trees.

 

 

 

 

Its bulk also made it lose its footing a few times, but the mammal managed to hold on and regain its balance so that it could continue munching on the fresh food. It was delightful watching this beautiful rodent going about its daily business.

Another mammal that proved to be a bit elusive for me (others in our group were able to get some good out-in-the-open views) was the snowshoe hare (Lepus americanus). During our first full day of exploring, we spotted one bounding away into the underbrush, which was quite exciting. Then a few days later in the Tadoussac dunes, a hare suddenly bounded out of nearby shrubs to dash across the sand into another group of shrubs. I didn’t get sharp shots as I only caught sight of it out of the corner of my eye and it was almost gone as I swung my camera around.

The hares that we saw were not yet done changing into their “summer” colors and still had some winter white fur on their impressive huge feet. These mammals begin breeding in mid-March and females may have up to four litters a year. They often communicate with one another using their feet, thumping them on the ground to make messages.

On another day, I spotted a hare foraging in a brushy area. In the winter, they eat twigs, bark and buds but in summer they can enjoy grasses, clover, dandelions and other green plants. This hare was enjoying the fresh food, but I felt sad looking at her (or him) as its head was covered in ticks. I don’t know if the animal was particularly vulnerable because it was young, maybe not completely healthy or just had the bad luck to have sat in a nest of the nasty insects. I hoped that the hare would be able to go on in health after the insects fell off.

 

 

The snowshoe hares prefer to be in dense groundcover, so they are somewhat hidden from predators (coyotes, fox, lynx, minks, owls, hawks) while they search for food. Their “cousins” back in my residential area, the Eastern cottontail rabbits (Sylvilagus floridanus) also need to worry about predators (owls, hawks, crows, raccoons) but one pair has become quite relaxed in my yard. Here you see dad (left) and mom (right).

As far as I can tell, they had one surviving offspring. They don’t generally seem too frightened, however, and almost everyday I see them lounging in a relaxed manner in the back yard, in contrast to those beautiful but elusive snowshoe hares. I was glad to have seen the hares though.

Two more Quebec chronicles to go: the “flashy” and yellowish birds and signs of humans along the St. Lawrence Seaway.

Quebec chronicles – birds I know in their summer habitat

As I sit here in the 34 ⁰C/93 ⁰F temperature, a memory of cooler weather in Quebec this past spring beckons. So here we go back to the birding trip I took with some friends at the end of May/start of June. While I was able to see several “lifers” (birds I saw in person for the first time) during that trip, there were also a number of birds I had seen here in North Carolina (NC) but who were now getting ready for breeding on their summer grounds. These included some aquatic species, like the American black ducks (Anas rubripes, above), who interbreed with mallards, and a lovely pair of American wigeons (Anas americana), who are one of the more vocal duck species.

 

At one pond, I surprised a female ring-necked duck (Aythya collaris), who took off in a flurry of wings. These ducks tend to prefer small bodies of water as resting and feeding areas. Later that afternoon, I caught sight of a male counterpart at the far side of another pond as our car passed that body of water.

 

The spotted sandpiper (Actitis macularius) is a shorebird I have seen with some regularity in my home territory in NC. The Northern harrier (Circus hudsonius), which I don’t see as often, is nevertheless a familiar bird.

 

The double-crested cormorants (Phalacrocorax auratus) would fly by on the St. Lawrence Seaway from time to time. I see them often in NC but had not seen the somewhat unusual-looking (to me!) surf scoters (Melanitta perspicillata). The male has what has been described as a swollen bill with patches of white, red and orange color contrasting with its black feathers.

  

A duck that I had seen for the first time in North Carolina, when one paid a rare visit to a lake in our area this past winter, was the long-tailed duck (Clangula hyemalis). These deep-diving birds breed along Northern sea coasts, lakes and on tundras. There were two males swimming at one place that we stopped – one was in its breeding plumage while the other still sported its winter feathers (with a large round black spot on its face, above). Our local birding pal speculated that the winter-plumage bird might not have been completely healthy and was therefore not going to breed.

A female long-tailed duck was very busy in the meantime diving under water, although she was apparently looking for food close to the water’s surface rather than diving deep (i.e., up to 60 m or 200 ft).

 

The water was really beautiful, looking almost velvety to me as it undulated in gentle movement with the long-tailed ducks and a common goldeneye (Bucephala clangula) riding the swells.

On several occasions, we were lucky to see common eider ducks (Somateria mollissima) in the distance. Eider down, which has been used to stuff humans’ pillows, comes from the female duck’s breast and is intended to be used in lining her nest. Nowadays, there are communities in Norway that protect the birds’ nests, eggs and young so that they can later harvest the down from the used nests.

A group of common murres (Uria aalge) flew by one day and, like the eiders, were added to my list of Quebec lifers. The murres are a type of auk, birds that can swim and dive wonderfully but have an awkward gait when walking on land. The murres don’t breed until they are 4 or 5 years old, in contrast to many other birds.

A really beautiful water bird, which I unfortunately was not able to photograph beautifully, was the common loon (Gavia immer). When the light hits its head and neck feathers in the right way, they have a beautiful green-blue iridescence. With its checkered back pattern and white-and-black striped collar, these birds make me think of someone getting ready for a formal dining party, i.e., they are well-dressed avians!

 

We only saw a Canada goose a couple times during our stay in Quebec but did get to  see another species, the brant goose (Branta bernicla). This species almost died out along the eastern coast of North America when their main food, eelgrass, suffered a blight. The birds changed their diet to include sea lettuce and this proved to be a good survival strategy.

 

On land, one afternoon I spotted a sparrow in the garden of a private home. Though I couldn’t get too close, I got an identifiable photo and learned it was a Lincoln’s sparrow (Melospiza lincolnii), which I had not seen before. This species was named by James John Audubon for his friend, Thomas Lincoln, who shot one of the birds during a trip they took together in 1834. (Obviously, one of the sadder aspects of birding in Audubon’s time.)

Another, much larger bird, that I got to see for the first time was a ruffed grouse (Bonasa umbellus). These birds can be found in Appalachia, but it was only in Quebec that I was able to view these birds three times.

They tend to walk around much of the time but also fly up into trees to forage. We saw them in quaking aspen trees (Populus tremuloides); it turns out that dormant flower buds of male aspens are a major food source for the grouse in winter and early spring.

 

Unfortunately, these birds have been succumbing to West Nile virus in some of their habitats.

Finally, two birds that we saw in great abundance were birds that also appear with regularity on birders’ lists in NC.

 

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, it is far more likely to hear than to see the Swainson’s thrush (Catharus ustulatus); however, it seemed these birds were out and about at every place we stopped.

The initial excitement at seeing one slowly turned into remarks of “oh, another Swainson’s” as one, two, three or more of these charming birds worked the meadows and trail paths looking for sustenance.

 

The same thing eventually happened with our sightings of least flycatchers (Empidonax minimus), one of the smaller birds of its type. These birds like to snatch their meals from the air but will also glean insects from leaves and twigs.

 

 

 

What I did find is that these small companions on our walks were quite charming and cute, so I didn’t tire of seeing them again and again.

 

Next time: some of the non-avians we saw in the Canadian province!

My one greed that I do not regret

 

My thoughts & walking wander
Sometimes in conjunction
& sometimes on different paths.

The wheezy red-winged blackbird
Calls out time on this quiet Sunday morning.

An hour’s worth of nature should do me today.
Enough to rejuvenate, calm down, re-fill with some contentment.

A dove’s hooo hooooo
A songbird’s chirrups
The hawk’s plaintive cry.

 

A united triumvirate causes the hawk to flee
As it appears to clutch a prize in its claws;
The flight is too fast to decipher its capture.
Nesting & fledging season continues, so the grackles’ vigilance is warranted.

 

As a vulture descends
Circling downward over my head, I wonder
What does s/he know that I don’t?
Or the grasshopper?
The Nez Perce people said: “Every animal knows more than you do.”

 

 

Lichen-covered and veined stones and rocks jut up from the dirt path.
My feet seek purchase since
An injured leg needs no more distress.

 

 

 

 

A silver-spotted skipper alights on spiky purple thistle
Beautiful white patch on velvety brown.

On another day the summer azures caught my eye.
So small with details of their beauty escaping the naked eye.
The wonders of technology bring them closer.

 

 

 

Someone else has been walking here, too,
Where wetlands waters once flowed.

 

The five-lined skink and Carolina anole
Are not coming out today.

 

The beaver pond is placid
The dragons dip and rise
Turtles break surface and sink
Frogs give a cry of alarm, jumping high-pitched into the depths.

A pair of kingfishers
Fly to and fro,
Practicing their observation skills

As they wait for their permanent colors to come in.

 

Leaves are trembling
Branches and twigs waving
The slightest of breezes beckons
And helps the cattails sway a bit.

 

 

 

 

 

It’s hot
Clothing damp and sticking.
Even the honeybee is not staying around long.

 

 

The brown thrasher, on the other hand,
Is enjoying a dust bath and sunbathing in the glaring light…
Until I surprise her/him from behind. Sorry!!

 

 

A three-way Japanese beetle gathering
Is staying put for a while
Eating up the leaves on which they rest.

 

 

A bright American goldfinch stops by.
I do not think of them as sad
Regardless of the name they were given.
Their brief presence makes me happy.

 

Two hours, 20 minutes…
Passed while admiring an eyed click beetle
And acknowledging deceptions in the natural world.

Two not-so-common looking buckeyes delight.
One a little tattered, showing age.
I can sympathize from experience.

 

 

The life-filled ground, plants, water and air
Enthrall.

An hour should do me?

An hour is enough?
It could suffice in some circumstances.
But the one greed I have, which I do not regret,
Is the desire for much more time among the non-human beings in nature.

The trails beckon.
Who’s waiting around the bend?

Quebec chronicles – brown and white beauties in abundance!

Several years ago, I saw my first chestnut-sided warbler (Setophaga pensylvanica) during breeding season in the mountains of North Carolina. It was a somewhat fleeting sighting but long enough for me to recognize the male’s beauty. My next sighting was a couple years ago when a pair stopped by a local creek during their south-bound migration in the fall. They were still attractive, but I had fallen for their mating season colors. What I didn’t know then was that when they reached their winter destination in some Central American area, they would be likely associating with the same birds with whom they had spent previous winters foraging.

Lucky me, therefore, when I noted that many chestnut-sided warblers were part of the spring migratory crowd in Quebec a couple weeks ago. I saw them in at least five sites and was able to get some nice photos of these beauties.

The Cornell Lab’s All About Birds website advises: “Stay around clearings, road edges, or other disturbed sites with young deciduous trees to find Chestnut-sided Warblers.” They did indeed appear in such places, looking for insects.

 

They appear to really like early successional deciduous habitats, e.g., terrains affected by logging, fire, storms and flooding. Clearing of people’s land around their houses may also qualify as a habitat-forming place for these little birds. We also discovered that these colorful warblers look for food among stones, rocks and boulders along bodies of water.

 

At a small park alongside an inlet of the St. Lawrence Seaway, a chestnut-sided warbler was hopping along the rocky shore seeking caterpillars.

 

  

He also flew out over the water from time to time in order to catch insects on the fly.

At the St. Irénée quay, a species mate was popping in and out among the large boulders on either side of the pier.

Seeing these beautifully colored birds as they hunted for insects was quite enjoyable. The Rev. Leander S. Keyser, who attended the 1896 World Congress on Ornithology, remarked that the chestnut-sided and blackburnian warblers were like “a sonnet in feathers – lightness of air and sunshine embodied – rhythm caught in a living form” – what a beautiful way of describing them!

 

 

Besides the chestnut-sided warbler, I saw another species which I’d seen with more muted colors in North Carolina – the bay-breasted warbler (Setophaga castanea). In the autumn, they have a yellow-green head and only slight chestnut-colored wash on their flanks; they look very similar to blackpoll warblers during that season and winter.

 

 

When I saw their breeding plumage in Quebec, it was a real surprise – and a most pleasant one! The bay-breasted warblers immediately became one of the birds I’ve most enjoyed seeing. And as I saw more and more during the week, I never tired of watching (and photographing) them!

 

During breeding season, these birds eat many more insects than fruit and they were very busy gleaning in the conifers.

In the spring, they specialize in seeking out spruce budworm moth (Choristoneura fumiferana) caterpillars. It was shown in one study that the bay-breasted warblers ate more than 13,000 budworms per 2.5 acres (one hectare) in a period of 41 days. These moths produce larvae that can decimate spruce and fir forests in Canada when their numbers increase greatly. The populations of bay-breasted warblers then fluctuate in conjunction with those of the budworms, which have an “outbreak” every 30-40 years.

In 2004, Boulanger and Arseneault studied this phenomenon and concluded that: “data suggest that outbreak frequency has remained quite stable, with a mean interval of about 40 years between the midpoint of successive outbreaks since the mid-16th century.” It would be interesting if another study could be done to see if the outbreak frequency is changing with climate change. The current population explosion of the budworms began in 2006 and could last until 2021; the government of Quebec is spending $30 million this year to eradicate the moth so the warblers may lose a food source. Their numbers may therefore also decline as a result.

While the fluctuations in their numbers have risen and fallen together with the spruce budworms, their summer habitats may be affected by human interventions. It is estimated that only 4% of these areas are stable so conservation efforts should take this into consideration, especially because their global population numbers have fallen about 74% since 1966.

As these birds forage on tree branches, they tend to move more slowly than some of the other warbler species, taking their time to seek out juicy tidbits. In addition to caterpillars, they eat beetles, flies, moths, leafhoppers and grasshoppers.

The female bay-breasted warblers can be distinguished from their male counterparts by the fact that they lack the black face mask and have lighter bay coloring.

Both sexes seemed to be fairly comfortable with me watching them. They seemed much less shy than some other species of birds. To my complete delight, of course!

 

An interesting observation is that they tend to like foraging on lichen-covered branches.

In contrast to some of the other warblers, they tend to build their nests in the mid-level tree canopy; that is also where they do a lot of their food hunting. However, as my walks in St. Irénée showed, they are not averse to foraging on the ground!

 

   

Since they mostly breed in Canada and spend their winters in Central and South America, seeing them in North Carolina during migration is a treat. Interestingly, the adults tend to migrate along routes west of the Appalachian mountain range and immature birds often migrate along the Eastern US seaboard and coastal areas.

 

These birds of waxing and waning populations have inspired poets and I can see why. Seeing them in their breeding plumage in Quebec was a wonderful gift. I hope to see them there again one day as they have joined my list of special species that I love. 😊