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.

Growing up barred – Part 2: personal care

The young barred owls that I observed this past summer at the Mason Farm Biological Reserve could be found rather predictably in two places at the reserve, both of which were near water. They were quite beautiful to see.

Barred owls (Strix varia) are the only owls in the Eastern USA who have brown rather than yellow eyes. When adult, barred owls have short feathers on their heads but no ear tufts. Their eyelids are also feathered. The juveniles still have fuzzy down feathers on their heads and pink, barely feathered, eyelids as you can see here.

     

Adult barred owl                                                                Young barred owlet

Their feathers extend down their legs and feet right up to their talons. The owls’ claws are less curved than other raptors’ talons which makes it possible for them to squeeze their prey to death.

  

  

As they grow, the young ones will groom often, pulling out downy feathers.

    

They frequently stretch out their wings and tails when grooming.

                    

  

Baths were also a welcome form of personal care.

  

This was especially so during our very hot summer days. The fact that I was standing about 5 feet away did not deter the owlets from enjoying vigorous dunkings in the water ditch.

 

I did not see them bathe at the same time; they appeared to take turns. Perhaps each one was keeping watch for the other one when they were vulnerable.

The siblings did indeed seem to be very aware of each other’s activities and when I observed them, they didn’t stray far from one another. The next blog will show a little of their interactions.

 

Growing up barred – Part 1: becoming independent

From the ages of about 8-19 years, I lived in a house that had a nice backyard and was not too far from some neighborhood woods with a creek. As a child, I read under backyard trees, planted a flower garden and played in the woods with friends. While I became familiar with squirrels, robins, frogs and some bugs and loved being outdoors, I didn’t spend lots of time looking for wildlife. And I never saw an owl in the wild.

Now decades later, I’ve had the good fortune to learn a good deal about various members of the wildlife community while spending time finding and watching them. And in the past couple years, I’ve been privileged to see owls up close in the wild; for example, the owl below was perched next to a pathway at dusk when I walked by a few days ago.

This past summer was unique for me, however, because I was able to observe a pair of juvenile barred owls (Strix varia) at the Mason Farm Biological Reserve as they set off on their life’s journey outside the nest. I’d like to share a bit of what I saw with you in a three-part blog. This one is about them finding their independence. The next two will focus on their grooming and interactions.

Barred owl pairs usually bond for life; if one mate dies, the survivor will seek another partner soon after. They tend 2-4 eggs, which hatch after 4 weeks’ brooding and the young leave the nest after four or five weeks. They remain dependent on their parents for food for some time after that even though they may be almost as large as the adults at 16-25 inches in length (40–63 cm); their wing span can stretch up to 3-4 feet (38-49 in, 96–125 cm).

When I first spotted the young owls in June, they could already fly. Nevertheless, they did need to find their balance occasionally as they perched and moved along branches and snags.

 

The owlets were making a keening noise the first time I saw them. At first, I didn’t recognize it, and I thought perhaps some small mammal was in distress.

Eventually, the plaintive call helped me locate them above me in a tree. This particular call apparently is used by the babies to call to their parents. I figured mom or dad was close by as the owlets kept looking upwards and eventually the parents did fly in with a meal – crayfish as far as I could tell.

 

On several occasions over the next 6 weeks or so, I would hear the owlets making that keening call and staring upwards. I figured the parents were nearby, but they were obviously just keeping an eye on their offspring and not feeding them (at least not when I was there).

It was time for the young ones to learn how to get their own meals.  Although barred owls usually hunt at dawn and dusk, the young owls were busy looking for food during the day. The mammals they eat include voles, mice, shrews, squirrels, rats, rabbits, bats, moles, opossums, mink, and weasels. Birds are also a food source and their prey may include woodpeckers, grouse, quails, jays, icterids, doves, pigeons, cardinals, cedar waxwings and grackles. They also eat amphibians, reptiles and insects (e.g., snakes, slugs, lizards, frogs and toads, salamanders, crayfish, turtles, scorpions, beetles, crickets, grasshoppers) and it was the latter group of prey animals that I saw the owlets hunting. Here for example, it appears one young owl had caught a crayfish.

One day, one of the pair was grasping a twig in its beak; I’m not sure what it was doing but it seemed to have some purpose. Perhaps it was testing how strong its beak was.

  

That a strong beak can be an asset became apparent on another occasion. One of the juvenile owls suddenly flew from one tree on the other side of a water ditch to one above my head. There was much rustling of branches and leaves and when I got into a spot where I could see the bird, it became obvious s/he had caught the largest stag beetle I had ever seen at Mason Farm Biological Reserve. It appears that the giant stag beetle (Lucanus elaphus) drinks tree sap, which must have been what it was doing when the owlet got hold of it. The problem for the owl was how to eat the beetle when those large pincers were in the way.

     

The owl would try to grab hold of a pincer but lose its grip; s/he would turn the beetle around but was having a very difficult time getting those defensive appendages off. This went on for quite a long time, which made me feel a bit sorry for the beetle.

 

Finally, the owl had success and was able to settle in for a crunchy meal.

 

They expel the indigestible parts of their prey in owl pellets that they cough up regularly. Here you see the contents of one a friend found under a favorite perching branch at the reserve.

Another day I saw one owlet suddenly fixate on the water ditch.It turned out that quite a large rat snake (Elaphe obsolete; Pantherophis alleghaniensis) was swimming by. The owl watched it carefully as it climbed out of the ditch and eventually crossed the adjacent walking path, never making a move to tackle the reptile. I had remarked on this encounter to the reserve’s land manager, who said it was probably a smart move on the owlet’s part, since the snake was large enough that it could have wrapped around the owl’s head and choked it.

The young owls seemed to have learned a lot about life as a predator as they grew older. It was fascinating watching them explore their world.

Next up: how the owlets cared for themselves.

Avian generations in the making – part 3B: fledgling and post-fledgling care

The number of days after hatching when young altricial birds leave the nest is fairly predictable for many species; knowing those approximate dates is helpful if you want to plan a day to watch fledging happen. I can often arrange to sit and watch a nest box on the appointed day for several hours.This has enabled me to see several broods of Eastern bluebirds and brown-headed nuthatches make their leaps to freedom on the path to adulthood.

When it is time for fledging, parent birds encourage their babies to leave the nest. They may entice them by perching nearby with some food but not bringing it to them. Or they fly to the box with food and then go to a branch instead of feeding. The Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) in my yard will hover in front of the nest box like a hummingbird, sometimes with food in their mouths; perhaps they are showing the young ones that flight involves flapping wings.

While in some species, parents appreciate help from older children in caring for a current brood, Eastern bluebirds apparently do not. This may be because they see the previously fledged young as competitors for food. In my yard, father bluebird especially was chasing the young of earlier nests away from the feeders, not only when they begged but also when they fed themselves.

 

When fledging day arrived for the bluebirds’ third brood, one of the older siblings (I’m not sure if it was a female or male) was very interested in seeing the third brood fledge. He imitated his parents, hovering in front of the nest box so the young ones could see him.

 

Again, however, the parent bluebirds chased him away.

This did not deter the immature bird, however. He waited for the parents to go get food and again took on encouraging the young siblings. It was fascinating to watch!

 

The parents returned and drove him off with a show of bad temper.

Eventually, the babies did fly out of the nest box into a nearby crepe myrtle. There, they continued to call for food with a wide-open mouth.

    

This gaping behavior stimulates the parents to feed their offspring and the offspring can be very insistent and persistent in begging for food.

    

Eastern starling (Sturnus vulgaris)

     

Carolina wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus)

  

Common grackle (Quiscalus quiscula)     Royal tern   (Thalasseus maximus)

This behavior can go on for days, especially when the young ones cannot yet fly, like this recently fledged Northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos).

 

 

The birds that feed their young ones on the ground, like the American robins (Turdus migratorius) have it a bit easier than those that feed juveniles perched on wires, like these barn swallows (Hirundo rustica).

   

I can imagine that the mother and father get to a point of thinking, “Enough already!” as those large fledglings continue to beg for food; this parent Northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) did not seem willing to go out for yet another bug for the young one.

But some young birds can be very insistent, even when it is obvious that they are now fully capable of finding some food on their own. This parent chipping sparrow (Spizella passerina) seemed willing to be a feeder for a while longer.

                        

The parent-child feeding routine that often catches people’s eye is when a young brown-headed cowbird is being fed by a (non-voluntary) adoptive parent. For example, here we see a male hooded warbler (Setophaga citrina) bringing food to a brown-headed cowbird baby (Molothrus ater) after the youngster spent quite a while loudly crying out for a meal and hopping around on branches after the parent to convince him that he needed to be fed.

  

Of course, at a certain point the parents do stop feeding and the young set off on their own. They may check out nearby nest boxes, either scouting homes for next season or looking for roosting boxes for the cold winter nights, like these Eastern bluebirds. They may groom a bit to remove the last bits of fluffy feathers, like this red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus). And then they are ready to spend an autumn and winter getting ready to repeat the cycle, this time as the parent birds. And we can look forward to watching the process again. 😊

 

        

Mama and Papa house wren to the rescue!

A few times each day, I walk outside with my 18.5-year-old cat, Jonahay, who is deaf and has some other ailments. He used to be an indoor-outdoor cat until I decided that it was better not to let him roam the neighborhood.

 

 

He rarely killed anything; he just wanted to mark his territory (which he still does) and occasionally he would catch moving things and bring them inside.

Thankfully, he didn’t bring me dead birds or animals; I did have to capture baby rabbits, chipmunks and a snake or two so they could go back outside. Now he just walks around and sleeps on the porch with me at his side; chipmunks and squirrels walk by him as they know he won’t chase them.

This afternoon as I was vacuuming, Jonahay came to ask for a walk, so I paused to take him outside for a few minutes. When we got to the side yard, I was surprised by a pair of house wrens (Troglodytes aedon) who were chittering vigorously and loudly in a cedar tree above me. They had not nested in my yard this year but do visit once in a while.

 

As I moved, they moved with me, continuously calling – their vocalization was very obviously directed at me, but I didn’t see any young ones anywhere so I wasn’t sure why they were so upset.

One of them – the male, I presume – only paused his calling for a few seconds when he groomed a little. I kept looking around for what might be upsetting them but didn’t see anything. Jonahay indicated we could go inside and the wrens had to let me leave.

 

As I took the vacuum cleaner into the kitchen, which opens onto a screened-in porch, I suddenly noted a few tiny feathers on the floor. If the wrens hadn’t been “yelling” at me, I might have just glanced down and thought they were bits of cat toy or fluff. But now I was more alert!

I called my two other (indoor) cats and they didn’t come, which was suspicious. Even when they look at animals through the windows and screens, they will usually react if I speak to them. When I entered the laundry room on the other side of the kitchen, there were Moasi (shown left)  and Ogi (right), sitting on the washer and dryer watching a juvenile wren perched on the window sill!

I don’t know how the bird got into the house. Likely, it had been early in the morning when I opened the porch door for a few minutes as I put out bird food, but I had not seen the bird on the porch when I re-entered. During the morning and early afternoon, I hadn’t noticed the cats chasing anything either so the mystery remains. I hadn’t been outside much with all my chores so perhaps those parents had been calling for him all that time.

In any event, I shooed Moasi and Ogi out of the room and proceeded to open the window. The little wren jumped into a plastic container near the window and that enabled me to easily move him/her to the open window. The bird waited a minute (enabling me to quickly get his photo) and then flew out to freedom – and obviously to a pair of anxious but effectively protective parents!