Leapin’ lizards! Remarkable reptiles in Costa Rica

Today is the United Nations’ World Wildlife Day, a time to especially raise awareness about and celebrate the earth’s plants and animals. The holiday was instituted in 2013 to be commemorated on 3 March, the day of the year on which the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) was signed. The theme for World Wildlife Day 2020 is “Sustaining all life on Earth”, which includes all wild animal and plant species as key components of the world’s biodiversity.

To honor this international day of commemoration (and hopefully awareness-raising and action), I’d like to share some of the reptiles that I’ve seen in Costa Rica. But first, let me show you one North Carolina turtle that I saw yesterday and that I don’t think I had seen before. It’s a large turtle called a Florida cooter (Pseudemys floridana), which has a nice pattern with yellow accents on the carapace.

In Costa Rica, we came across one turtle at which we got a good look — a black wood turtle, also called a river turtle (Rhinoclemmys funerea). This is the largest turtle among the reptiles in its genus; individuals can grow to 14 in (35 cm).

black wood turtle

We came across several snakes during our trip in 2019, but a few of them were dead on the road and I decided not to show those. One feisty individual was the cloudy snail-eating snake (Sibon nebulatus); when our guide neared it, the snake reared up in self-defense. Of course, it’s good to remember that most snakes will not strike if they do not feel threatened, as we are reminded by the North Carolina Carolinas Reptile Rescue & Education Center.

 

A snake that I found particularly beautiful was spotted during the 2018 trip in which I participated; our guide spotted it after we had stopped at the side of a road. The neotropical bird snake (Phrynonax poecilonotus), also known as the puffing snake, eats small vertebrates such as small mammals, frogs, lizards and insects, but it is known to have a preference for birds and bird eggs.

These are non-venomous snakes, but they will bite hard when feeling threatened. They also will inflate their neck area in a way reminiscent of a cobra in order to appear dangerous.

The presence of caimans was advertised in various places we visited in Costa Rica but I didn’t see one until a spectacled caiman (Caiman crocodilus) was spotted as we were driving down a highway one day.

This brings me to the various types of lizards I saw. Anoles (Anolis) were in all the areas we visited, Although I couldn’t identify the specific species for several, I enjoyed seeing the differences between them.

 

While searching for birds in a heavily shadowed marshy area, we caught sight of what I thought was a slender anole — obviously a male given its prominent inflated neck flap. However, it turns out that slender anoles have white dewlaps with a small orange blotch so this was a different species.

 

I do believe that this anole was a ground anole (Norops humilis) but would welcome correction if I’m wrong. Their diet includes various insects such as termites, beetles, crickets, termites and flies.

 

 

A somewhat larger reptile than the anoles was the – in my opinion – quite attractive Central American whiptail (Holcosus festivus occidentalis). Like the other lizards that you will see below, they have exceptionally long tails.

Juvenile whiptails have blue tails; their skin patterns are quite lovely, which may account for part of their species name – festivus which means merry or joyous in Latin.

Not much information is available online about these lizards, despite their apparent wide distribution. Some studies have been done about another whiptail genus seen elsewhere that aroused scientific interest because reproduction is by parthogenesis. This has not been reported for this species.

 

The iguanas are the very large reptiles seen in Costa Rica. Despite their size, they appear to be quite agile; it was not unusual to see the large black spiny-tail iguanas (Ctenosaura similis) high up in trees.

The male black spiny-tails can grow as large as 4 ft 3 in (1.3 m), while females are a foot or more shorter. During breeding season, the males develop blue- and peach-colored hues on their jowls, as can be seen in the portrait below, captured by fellow traveler Janet Kurz in 2018.

 

They have been said to be the fastest lizard species, reaching a speed of 21.5 mph (34.6 km/h) in a sprint. Running away is a strategy to avoid predators but they can also bite and lash with their tails if cornered. They are mostly herbivorous, although they will also consume small animals and insects. Unfortunately, they are eaten by humans, some of whom think they can cure impotence.

 

The green iguanas (Iguana iguana) are somewhat smaller than the spiny-tails but they are also large, growing to 4.9 ft (1.5 m) or more. We were lucky to see a juvenile green iguana meander along a smaller tree, posing for quite some time. There might have been others nearby but we didn’t see them. It turns out that these iguanas are quite social – juveniles form pods of about four animals and then spend time grooming one another and sleeping together.

 

 

Their coloring is quite bright but can be other hues such as reddish brown, black, lavender and blue. These iguanas are good climbers, often staying high in trees; reportedly, they can fall as far down as 50 ft (15 m) and still land unhurt.

 

The green iguanas are often found near water and they swim well, being able to stay submerged as long as 30 minutes at a time. Like the spiny-tails, they can use their tails in defense. They can also drop their tails when caught and grow new ones.
 

The basilisks are among the “showiest” reptiles even though they are smaller than the iguanas (e.g., growing up to about 2.5 feet/76 cm in length). They gained the name Jesus Christ lizard because they can “walk” across water when rapidly moving (up to 15 mph/ 24.1 km/h) to escape predators. They have special webbing between the toes on their hind legs and cross the water “standing up” on those legs.

The male common basilisks (Basiliscus basiliscus) have a distinctive fin-like crest on their backs. Both sexes range in color from olive to brown; they are distinguished by a light-colored stripe along their upper lip.

 

The common basilisks also have a stripe along their body, although this fades as they grow older. The females and juveniles look somewhat similar. The females do not care for the young, leaving the eggs once laid. The hatchlings instinctively know how to care for themselves.

 

 

The green basilisk (Basiliscus plumifrons) is also known as the plumed basilisk. Males have three crests (on the head, back and tail), while females (shown in the photos here) only have a head crest. The juveniles have no crests.

 

Like the other basilisks, these lizards can dive under water after running along the surface for a time. They can stay submerged up to an hour but often do not do this as they could fall prey to aquatic predators.

 

 

Like the common basilisks, the green basilisk females leave their eggs and the newly hatched babies are able to run, climb and swim right after birth.

Among the brown basilisks (Basilicus vittatus), also called striped basilisks, the juveniles (shown below) can often run further across water than the adults.

   

The crests are similar to those in other species. These basilisks have dark bars across their backs and quite yellow stripes.

Like the other basilisks, these lizards often eat insects but also eat berries and other fruit, making them omnivores.

 

The last type of lizard in this reptile review is another iguana known by a couple popular names: the casque-headed lizard or the smooth helmeted iguana (Corytophanes cristatus).They have several distinct features that make them quite unique.

They are characterized by very long toes, a long tail like the other lizards and highly variable coloration, ranging from olive, grey, black, brown to reddish-brown, often with irregular blotches of other color.

 

 

 

They are also able to change their color rapidly as a form of camouflage. Unlike the other lizards, they tend to freeze in place when predators approach (a strategy called catalyptic freezing). If this and trying to appear larger by erecting their crest and expanding their gular pouch do not scare off predators, they will bite and attack.

 

 

 

They differ from the other iguanas and basilisks in that they often do not actively seek out prey. Rather, they sit and wait for worms, other lizards, insects and spiders to wander by and then pounce on them.

One final noteworthy and unexpected fact: because these lizards sit still for very long periods of time, both a fungus and a plant have been found growing on their skin!

Happy World Wildlife Day!

 

Local beauties in the woodpecker family

My first blog on this website, written in October 2013, focused on woodpeckers; my first blog of 2020 was also about these birds (I know, the blog prior to that says 1 January but I posted it on 31 December; WordPress time is ahead of mine. 😊) Obviously, they are one of the bird species that I enjoy watching so to follow up my last blog, I’d like to share just a few more photos of three species that it’s my privilege to see locally. They are quite different from one another in appearance but equally beautiful and it’s always a delight to see them. (And no, it’s not snowing where I am; this is a photo from January 2018; we are supposed to have 70⁰ F/21⁰ C in a couple days!)

The Northern flicker (Colaptes auratus) is found in the Western hemisphere and looks quite different from many other woodpecker species. In the US, there are two sub-species. In the West, there is the red-shafted and in the East the yellow-shafted variant. The “shaft” refers to the undertail feathers. When the bird flies, however, you can also see the beautiful, otherwise hidden, yellow hues on the underside of other feathers.

 

Those yellow feathers also come into view when the flicker is upset, like this one was with a brown thrasher who came to the feeder pole where it was taking a brief rest. (This is pretty unusual; they don’t come to the feeders often.)

The flickers have some interesting distinguishing features: they are one of the few woodpeckers that migrate; they are the only woodpeckers that primarily searches for food on the ground, rather than in trees; and they probably eat more ants than any other North American bird!

And, depending on the weather (overcast, cloudy but light, sunlight), their coloring can look different – this is not only because the photos were with different cameras).

 

They also eat berries and seeds in the autumn and winter.

 

Like other birds, the flickers do nest in tree cavities.

 

You can distinguish males from females by the black moustache stripe, which the females lack.

 

 

The yellow-bellied sapsuckers (Sphyrapicus varius) is a woodpecker that can blend in quite well with the trees on which it seeks its food. Their mottled feather coloring often provides a good camouflage and you might not see one if it is sitting still.

The males have red crowns and red throats; the females have a white throat and the juvenile birds lack the reddish hues.

 

 

 

These woodpeckers may be followed around by other birds. For example, last year I saw ruby-crowned kinglets following sapsuckers at one reserve. Why would they do this? It’s because the sapsuckers drill shallow holes into trees which will then ooze out sap on which the woodpeckers and other birds feed. And the kinglets will find insects around the sweet sap. (At a children’s workshop on trees that I conducted last fall, one young boy asked me if humans could also drink the sap from their holes. I hadn’t researched that but answered that perhaps we would like the sap from a maple tree but not from an oak.)

 

The sapsuckers eat insects, berries and fruit like other birds.

 

Last in my line-up of local woodpeckers is the red-headed woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus). The adult males and females look alike but adults and immature birds look very different indeed. While the mature birds are characterized by a deep red head, solid black back and white rump and belly, the juvenile and immature youngsters have brownish heads and bodies and black and brown striped rumps.

 

 

When they are transitioning to adult plumage, they will have mottled red heads and begin losing the brownish hues.

 

They have one of the most identifiable (for me) calls of the woodpeckers. Listen to this recording (Arkansas, 22 March 2005); it almost has a warbling quality to my ear, which many websites describe as a “churring” sound.

I’ve been lucky lately as there is an immature red-head reliably patrolling a certain territory in a forest that I visit so that I can be fairly certain of always seeing her/him sooner or later. This is a boisterous bird who loves to call and make its presence well known.

S/he doesn’t peck too loudly but if some vigorous drilling is required, this bird is up to the task. They have sturdy and powerful spike-like bills. The woodpecker beaks have three layers: the rhamphotheca (outer layer) is made of keratin; the middle layer is porous bone and the inner layer is made of mineralized collagen and contains a large cavity. The tongue bone (hyoid) winds around the bird’s skull and functions like a safety belt that helps cushion the brain when they are engaged in high-velocity and impact drumming and drilling. On the whole, however, these woodpeckers tend to drill less but fly out often into the air to catch insects on the wing.

They eat insects, fruit, berries, eggs of other birds but also really enjoy nuts, especially acorns and beechnuts. They make stashes of nuts in tree cavities, crevices and under bark for later consumption.

When depositing or withdrawing from holes in trees, they will use their tails like other woodpeckers to help them balance as they perch.

 

A surprise for me was that they also occasionally eat cambium and tree bark.

 

If climate change continues and results in an overall warming trend of plus 2 degrees, these birds could lose up to 64% of their range. Yet another reason to do what we can to decrease our energy consumption and advocate for policies and regulations to reduce global warming due to human actions.

 

One more interesting note about woodpeckers (for the time being): did you know that there are no woodpeckers (including flickers and sapsuckers) in the polar regions, Australia, New Zealand, New Guinea and Madagascar?

 

I’ll end with a quote from an interesting book that I am currently reading. The author, Robert Macfarlane, describes research into the “wood wide web” and then muses on what it could mean for humans:

 

“If there is human meaning to be made of the wood wide web, it is surely that what might save us as we move forwards into the precarious, unsettled centuries ahead is collaboration: mutualism, symbiosis, the inclusive human work of collective decision-making extended to more-than-human communities.” (Underland; my emphasis)

 

Hungry hairy herons and their caring parents

A little over a week ago, fellow photographer Mary posted a wonderful photo of young green herons (Butorides virescens) perched in a row awaiting their parents. They still had very fuzzy hairdos, reminding me a bit of a row of Albert Einsteins. About 4 days later, I drove to the pond in a senior citizen residential community to see them and they had already lost most of – but not all – the fuzz atop their heads. That didn’t matter though because it was a real pleasure watching them for a while.

 

Friend Lucretia had accompanied me and we were lucky enough to park right near the end of the pond where the sibling group was parked. Only one was out on a limb when we arrived; the three brothers/sisters were in hiding in the thick shrubs bordering the pond.

The bold juvenile may have been the eldest of the quartet as s/he seemed to have lost the most fuzzy feathers.

 

 

S/he groomed, looked around and then yawned hugely – making me think of how I often want to react to much of the news that is shown in the media these days. This was followed by what looked like a smile and happy reaction, which is how I often feel when out taking one of my nature walks!

 

After a while, a couple of No. 1’s siblings began moving around in the brush, eventually coming out into the open.

In the meantime, No. 1 took the time to defecate; gotta take care of those body functions! (It’s interesting that birds all have white poop. The fecal sacs that songbirds take out of nests are white; this bird’s stream of feces was white. Why? Here’s a tidbit of information you might not know: Birds’ bodies do not produce urine as mammals do. Rather, they excrete nitrogen wastes as uric acid in the form of a white paste.)

Another sibling did some preening.

 

 

 

As we walked around the end of the pond, it turned out that Mama was taking a rest there. (I really can’t tell the male from the female adult but for convenience’s sake just identified her as the mother since she was close by.)

 

After a time, Mama took off and ended up in a perch on the underside of a small dock. It made me wonder if that was a good place to fish because the water might be a bit cooler and perhaps fish were schooling there. A good number of turtles were also swimming about there – perhaps the shady area was just a nice break from the sun-warmed water.

 

 

 

While Mama scanned the deeps, a nice song sparrow (Melospiza melodia) and a beautiful Eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis) entertained us with song.

Brown-headed nuthatches, a brown thrasher, and a downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) were among the other birds flitting about the trees and shrubs bordering the pond.

While adult green herons sometimes use tools to fish – using twigs or insects as bait – Papa heron was just standing patiently at the other end of the pond, watching the water intently. He suddenly plunged and ingested a small fish, using what one ornithologist called a “bill lunge”, in which the bird keeps it feet in place but stretches its body forward to spear prey with its long bill. Apparently, green herons can also catch prey by hanging upside down from their perches over water.

 

We wondered if he was eating the fish himself or collecting a gullet-full of food for his offspring. Herons namely feed their young by regurgitating previously-swallowed food.

As we continued our walk around the pond, we came upon a great blue heron (Ardea herodias) who had some good luck in getting a meal.

When we arrived back at the spot where the young herons were hanging out, we saw a beautiful gray catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) snag a meal of its own.

One of the young herons was in the water, apparently practicing fishing behavior. S/he caught something but then let it go.

Then Mama suddenly flew in; the foursome greeted her excitedly and Lucretia saw her regurgitate a meal onto the grass. (Unfortunately, this happened behind a shrub that I could not see around so I missed that behavior.) When I had moved over to see the young ones, they had already gulped down whatever food there was and were engaged in vigorous behavior to convince Mama to repeat what she had just done.

 

This gave a fairly good view of the group. One still had a very pink bill while others were getting more yellowish bills on the way to getting dark beaks.

Mama flew off to a tree and apparently settled in for another food-gathering exercise, while one of her young ones called piteously.

 

After a couple hours, we decided it was time to drive back to our own areas of residence, but it was bittersweet having to leave the group of four behind. But they certainly provided us with an entertaining morning, even if that was not their intention! We hope they will grow up with no threats from predators and be able to repeat the process with broods of their own one day. 😊

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. 😊

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.