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.

Nesting perils – or not?

brown-headed nuthatch DK7A5128© Maria de Bruyn resLast year, I had the good fortune to come upon a snag (a dead standing tree) near the shore of Jordan Lake in which brown-headed nuthatches (Sitta pusilla) were tending a nest. This year, thinking back to those delightful visits, I decided to go investigate the tree again. My first visit revealed no nuthatches in the vicinity, but a second visit a few days later on 15 March revealed they had a nest in the same place again. As these birds may keep mates for several years, I just assumed it was the same pair as in 2014, so it was like seeing old friends!

 

 

brown-headed nuthatch DK7A0438© Maria de Bruyn brown-headed nuthatch DK7A0467© Maria de Bruyn

brown-headed nuthatch DK7A9987©Maria de BruynOn 29 March, it looked like the birds were bringing food to the nest. One might also have had a piece of bark in its mouth; these nuthatches may use bark pieces as tools to help dig for insects. If the female had by chance laid her eggs around 15 March, the eggs would have just been hatching now. Usually, it then takes 18-19 days for the babies to fledge, so they could have been ready to fly around 15 April, but the egg-laying and hatching could have been earlier.

brown-headed nuthatch DK7A9990©Maria de Bruyn resbrown-headed nuthatch DK7A9994©Maria de Bruyn res

On 4 April, the birds were still bringing food to the nest.

brown-headed nuthatch DK7A4943© Maria de Bruynbrown-headed nuthatch DK7A5264© Maria de Bruyn

brown-headed nuthatch DK7A4649© Maria de Bruyn res

brown-headed nuthatch DK7A5331© Maria de Bruyn resI was photographing the birds and wondering which one might be the male and which the female. Suddenly, I was surprised to see three birds, all about the same size.

Reading up on the species taught me that not only the mating pair but also other individuals, usually young males, help attend the nests. Scientists don’t yet know whether these helpers are older offspring, but it seems to me that it might be similar to the older son helpmates among the American crows.

brown-headed nuthatch DK7A5353© Maria de Bruyn resbrown-headed nuthatch DK7A5351© Maria de Bruyn res

brown-headed nuthatch DK7A5366© Maria de Bruyn res brown-headed nuthatch DK7A5364© Maria de Bruyn res

brown-headed nuthatch DK7A8333© Maria de BruynOn the other hand, perhaps the rather fuzzy bird was a baby, which lacks the white neck spot seen in the adults. The babies also tend to have more gray and less brown coloring than adults. On 12 April, I didn’t see any nuthatches, but on 27 April, I saw a bird peeping out of the nest, well past the fledging period I think.

As I mentioned in a previous blog, since 1966, the population of brown-headed nuthatches has declined by 45% because they are losing nesting habitats (dead and pine trees) to deforestation and urbanization. Apparently, they also lose nests to predation.

brown-headed nuthatch 2 DK7A5128© Maria de Bruynbrown-headed nuthatch DK7A9709© Maria de Bruyn res

brown-headed nuthatch DK7A9827© Maria de Bruyn resOn 9 May, when I returned to Jordan Lake to see if nuthatches were still around the nest, I found their home tree decapitated, precisely at the spot where the hole had been for their nest. I imagine that a raccoon might have gotten up there, although I suppose some other predator could have wreaked havoc as well. In any event, it means I won’t be able to count on visiting the nuthatches there next spring.

The mysteries of the third bird’s identity and what took down the nest will likely remain unknowns. But at least I have my photos of the lovely little birds’ last nest at that site!

Pines, habitat loss and endangered woodpeckers

longleaf pine IMG_0016©Maria de Bruyn resLongleaf pine trees (Pinus palustris) grow for 100-150 years before they reach full size and they can live as long as 500 years. Their extremely long needles give the young trees the look of a spike with grass growing out of it. At the tops of trees, the long, fanned out needles paint a pretty picture when silhouetted against the sky, even on overcast and dull days.

longleaf pine IMG_0015©Maria de Bruyn res

RED-COCKADED WOODPECKER IMG_9109©Maria de Bruyn RESUnfortunately, the longleaf pine forests have dwindled in size as a result of logging and this has contributed to the endangerment of a unique bird – the red-cockaded woodpecker (Picoides borealis).

 

The longleaf pine has a rough bark and plentiful resin, so much so that tree stumps impregnated with the resin will not rot. The heartwood of the old pines also becomes saturated with the resin.

longleaf pine IMG_9042©Maria de Bruyn reslong-leaf pine IMG_9025©Maria de Bruyn res

When the longleaf pine forests were still plentiful, the red-cockaded woodpecker evolved into a very specialized bird species as far as nesting is concerned. They mainly nest in longer-lived longleaf pines, preferring trees that are infected with red heart fungus as this softens the wood and makes it easier for the birds to dig out a nest cavity. They are the only woodpecker species that makes nest cavities in living rather than dead trees.

longleaf pine IMG_9035©Maria de Bruyn resThe nest cavities are constructed by a family of birds and completing one can take as long as two years (or longer). The families work on several cavities at a time and you will find clusters of trees with nest holes in given areas. The cavities are pecked out in such a way that the tree releases resin around the nest hole and you will see trees that are covered with long thick strands of resin coming down from nests.

The woodpeckers employ this tactic because the heavy flow of resin helps to keep tree-climbing snakes away from their nests, eggs and chicks. A breeding male will scout various nest cavities and then roost in the most recent cavity with the heaviest flow of pitch. The female lays the eggs and then the male incubates them during the night-time hours.

red-cockaded woodpecker IMG_9103©Maria de Bruyn resRaising the young becomes a cooperative effort as older sons remain with the parents and help incubate, brood and feed the babies. Family groups can range from three to nine or more members. The female offspring only rarely stay with their breeding parents as they move off in search of their own mates.

These woodpeckers mainly eat insects, including ants, beetles, roaches, and wood-boring insects as well as caterpillars and spiders. The family will forage as a group and sometimes also eat fruit and berries. Their abandoned nest cavities are used by other birds and small mammals.

red-cockaded woodpecker IMG_9152 ©Maria de BruynThe species is now considered vulnerable to extinction, with only about 12,500 of these birds remaining in the Southern United States. This is equivalent to about one per cent of the original population of this woodpecker. In response, there are now conservation efforts being undertaken to preserve the longleaf pine forests as habitat for the red-cockaded woodpeckers.

 

 

long-leaf pine IMG_0013©Maria de Bruyn resAt the Santee Coastal Reserve Wildlife Management Area in South Carolina, as well as in the Sandhills areas of South and North Carolina, forest rangers and others are working to enhance the longleaf pine forests for the birds. Controlled burns are clearing out dense undergrowth as the woodpeckers prefer sites with less deciduous growth; you can see them foraging quite low on trees.

In some areas, wildlife management projects are trying to help out the birds by creating artificial cavities, into which man-made nests are inserted. Restrictor plates around the holes also serve to stop other species from enlarging the holes or shape of the nest hole so that the red-cockaded woodpeckers will keep using them.

longleaf pine IMG_9040©Maria de Bruyn res longleaf pine IMG_9030©Maria de Bruyn res

At the Santee Coastal Reserve, several such nest holes can be observed alongside other trees where the birds are making their own nest cavities. Trees with nest holes are banded with white tape so that rangers can keep an eye on the woodpeckers’ activity.

longleaf pine IMG_9046©Maria de Bruyn resRED-COCKADED WOODPECKER IMG_9229©Maria de Bruyn RES

It is heartwarming to see the efforts being made to restore the longleaf pine forests and the habitat for the woodpeckers – perhaps this will prevent this species from going extinct. And the National Wildlife Federation has stated that research shows that long-leaf pine forests will be especially well adapted to coping with environmental changes caused by global warming.

RED-COCKADED WOODPECKER IMG_9214©Maria de Bruynred-cockaded woodpecker IMG_9165 ©Maria de Bruyn