Quebec chronicles – the marine mammals, part 2

Our whale-watching tour set off from a dock in the village of Tadoussac. A naturalist was on board, but she stood only at the front of the boat and her electronically-enhanced voice was difficult to understand with some static and heavy winds interfering. Our group stationed itself at the back of the boat so we would have unobstructed views of the birds and any possible whales. To our enormous delight, a fellow passenger called out a view of the first whale to swim near – a minke whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata), which is a type of baleen whale.

illustration credit: International Whaling Commission; https://wwhandbook.iwc.int/en/species/minke-whale

These smaller whales, which feed on krill and smaller schooling fish, are known for frequently breaching but that didn’t happen during our tour. It was cool to see this one swimming along though. We are unsure if we saw it again as they appeared somewhat similar to the fin whales, but the other whales we saw on the tour were a pair and minkes tend to be more solitary. Unfortunately, the minke is now the most numerous whale species worldwide and therefore a main target of the whaling industry.

Our next sighting way out on the river was a pair of harbor seals (Phoca vitulina), whose heads bobbed on the surface as we passed by. Then we were thrilled to see a “blow”, a whale spouting water into the air.

A pair of fin whales (Balaenoptera physalus) was swimming around in our vicinity and though they did not breach, they did rise to the surface multiple times – once quite close to our boat.

Illustration credit: International Whaling Commission; https://wwhandbook.iwc.int/en/species/fin-whale

These whales, considered an endangered species, are the second largest mammals in the world and have been nicknamed the greyhounds of the sea because of their swimming speed.

They have sleek bodies that can grow to 80 feet in length. Sometimes, you could spot where they might partly surface due to a bit of turbulence in the water.

Their diet consists of krill, crustaceans and small schooling fish. If they get enough to eat, can avoid predators (e.g., orcas) and man-made threats, they can live to be 100 or more years old! (The minke whales live 30-60 years.)

A scientific group has been collecting photo IDs of fin whales since 1986; they now have some 100 identified individuals who have received names such as Capitaine Crochet, Triangle, Caïman and Zipper. Another group has a catalogue that has identified 450 fin whales since 1980.

While we were thrilled to have seen the minke and fin whales, a beluga sighting remained a wish. That evening after the boat trip, Chloe and I were talking about whales as we gazed out at the St. Lawrence Seaway from the balcony of our rental house. I was of the opinion that if we really made it our intention to see a beluga, we would (Illusions is one of my very favorite books!). Fleeta joined us a little later on the balcony and then excitedly called out – “Beluga!!!”

Everyone came running out from inside the house and a few of us ran for cameras, despite the fact that all we could really see was a white splotch against the blue water. Those with binoculars likely had a much better view, but I didn’t care – we had our elusive sighting! The following photos, taken on our last evening and the next morning when it was raining, are admittedly not good ones but do give you an idea of what we saw.

The beluga (Delphinapterus leucas) is the only white whale and is known as the canary of the sea for its broad range of vocalizations. This trait, combined with the species’ curiosity which causes it to surface near boats to look at humans, unfortunately has led to it being one of the aquatic mammals that are hunted and captured (and sometimes bred) for the entertainment industry.

In contrast to the fin and minke whales, the belugas are social mammals, often traveling in groups and also moving from one group to another. On our last evening in St. Irénée, we probably saw about 12-15 of them! If you look closely at the white spots, you will see there were seven in this photo.

Males tend to associate with other males and females and their calves (born about every three years) hang out together. The young belugas are born gray and turn white between 5-12 years. Another interesting fact is that these whales molt in the summertime!

The St. Lawrence Seaway belugas, the southernmost beluga population in the world, are protected under Canada’s Species at Risk Act. This became necessary to multiple threats, a main one being massive hunting of the species. From 1880 to 1950, about 15,000 of these whales were killed, being blamed as “white demons” for threatening commercial fishing (which proved to be false). The latest estimate of how many now remain in this area is a paltry 889 individuals.

Hunting of belugas was outlawed in Canada in 1979 but other threats to the species persist. Besides chemical and plastics pollution, they succumb to getting hit by boats, being ensnared in fishing nets, and falling prey to predators (e.g., orcas). They may also be facing competition for their food sources, including the sardine-like capelin fish; here you see a couple that washed ashore.

 

Wildlife conservationists have been alarmed by a large number of female and baby belugas washing up on shore along the Seaway since 2008. Many of the mothers have died in the neonatal period and researchers are asking whether the mammals are lacking sufficient energy and failing to find sufficient food.

It is thought that the Seaway habitat may be changing with damming of rivers that flow into it. Noise pollution from whale-watching, boating, military sonar, oil and gas drilling may also be making life difficult for the whales as it disrupts their navigation. On the day we went out, a couple zodiacs zoomed a bit close to a pair of fin whales, even though they are supposed to observe the same distance rules as the larger boats. Hopefully, the authorities will be closely monitoring this.This is now being studied by Fisheries and Oceans Canada. In 2019, the Groupe de recherche et d’éducation sur les mammifères marins (GREMM) received a grant from the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation to study the increased mortality among the female and young belugas.

It would be great if the Beluga Whale Health Project could discover what is harming the belugas in the Seaway since these mammals can live more than 100 years of age in favorable circumstances. That is important for the species because it was recently documented that belugas have their own cultures in groups that stay together for generations; one researcher Greg O’Corry-Crowe, commented: “”We have compelling evidence, in our view, for the evolution of culturally inherited migration knowledge and behaviour.” This also has led to the intriguing question of whether their ability to learn from one another might help them cope with changing climatic conditions.

 

Hopefully, something can be done in the shorter term to help all the whales cope with the challenges and threats facing them. Outside the whaling and marine entertainment industries, many people would like to see them survive and thrive in the wild. They inspire artists as well, as shown by the metal beluga sculptures on display down the road from where we stayed.

At the Domaine le Forget in Charlevoix, another sculpture was called the Song of the Whales by Peter Lundberg.

It was a joy to see the whales during our trip, especially given the threats to which all the aquatic mammals are subject: hunting, getting caught in fishing nets, poisoning due to toxic chemicals from litter and oil spills, and ingestion of the ever-increasing plastic trash that is floating into our oceans. I would love to return to the area in warmer weather in the hope of getting closer to the belugas to see them better. I would again go on one of the large whale-watching boats because it appears that the smaller boats might be getting too close to the marine mammals. If we want to see the cetaceans in person, we need to think about how we can do it most responsibly while protecting them. The St. Lawrence Seaway is quite beautiful and will hopefully continue to offer a home to the southernmost belugas.

Quebec chronicles – the marine mammals, part 1

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quebec chronicles: walking through Quebec City

We visited Quebec City at the end of our recent round-trip migration, but I’ll start off here with some urban scenes before going on to the rural and wildlife parts of the trip in the next blogs. A shocker for me as we drove into the City was the billowing air pollution along the entry highway. The previous 8 days had been in pretty pristine environments; even the little villages looked very clean and litter-free.

Four of us took two walks in the provincial capital, whose name stems from an Algonquin word meaning “where the river narrows”. Quebec City is built on the north shore of the St. Lawrence Seaway. Our first walk was during a very rainy afternoon. After taking a bus partway, we walked through the Porte St.-Jean to enter Old Quebec.

The streets and buildings looked quite European to me, including the many gift and tourist shops that one sees nowadays in old neighborhoods that attract tourists. Gas-flame heaters were burning outside some shops. And in one drugstore, we were helped by a young woman who had one of the most beautiful tattoos I have seen. She was surprised I recognized it right away as a fox because she said people had asked if it was a wolf or a bear!!! (Click on it to enlarge, then left arrow click back to blog.)

     

The rain intensified as we walked on; many people were purchasing rain ponchos at a local tourist information shop.

And the stores started beckoning to us as we strolled along, also admiring architecture.

Earlier in the week, we had stopped at a rural village to visit a well-reviewed chocolate shop. The owners had taken a course in Belgium and learned to make Belgian bon bons (very similar to Dutch ones). Since chocolate appeared to be a comfort food for most of our group members, a fair amount of time was spent in that shop!

When we saw a sign for chocolate in Old Quebec, we ducked in out of the rain to examine the wares there. The chocolate on a stick for hot chocolate looked good to me; the chocolate sausages were a surprise.

 

Canned chocolate fondue in various flavors was for sale in the regular grocery stores as well. What really tempted me were the different flavors of chocolate toppings for Dairy Queen-style cones; I resisted, however.

 

The chocolate shops sold maple syrup products, too, and some stores in Old Quebec made references to moose – with antlers above the door, in their names or in the products they sold.

 

When we saw the sign for Les Trois Corbeaux (the three crows), the birders in us had to pop in to see this artisan-run glassblowing shop. A very nice young woman was forming tiny pieces of glass into ducks at the front of the store.

 

At the back, another young woman was rolling blobs of glass in different colored glass pieces, firing them and then stretching the bulbs into brightly-colored starfish. These small pieces were obviously for the tourist trade; larger, more abstract and more expensive elegant pieces were for the art collectors.

 

We walked on and got to the promenade overlooking the river. Along the way, I noted that renters in the city are protesting something (likely high rents). The funiculaire was providing respite to people who didn’t want to climb the multiple flights of stairs (which I did the next day – about 15 in total and not great for my leg which I had re-injured earlier in the week).

We gazed out over the river where I saw my second Dutch boat (the first was from Delfzijl at the Pointe-au-Pic quai).

   

And then we walked home in the rain, stopping so that my friends could pose with a statue honoring women leaders (but I couldn’t keep my point-and-shoot camera dry long enough to get a raindrop-free photo).

The next morning, we again strolled through the local neighborhood, saw the colorful street sign covers, and took the bus to the old city.

Another chocolate shop (!!) didn’t advertise heavily but had lovely painted chairs with potted plants on its lawn. We also noted another branch of a chain restaurant, which had given us a really nice meal the day before (even for vegetarians).

We saw another statue honoring women – in this case, those who dedicated their lives to educating the youth of Quebec after 1639. I found a statue of a jester quite appealing.

As we wandered, we looked at more shop displays – many were colorful, either in hues or their messages.

 

 

 

 

A last exciting sighting of yellow warblers along the stairs (the only birds I recognized there besides song sparrows) stopped us so some photos could be taken. I didn’t have my good camera along, so this reminder of photographers should suffice here.

We then hurried through a park to get to our hotel, which was unusual with a “split horse” in front. And then off to the airport we went, just as it began raining again! (I hope you noticed that I managed to get some animals in this blog, just not live ones. 😊)

 

Goodbye from Quebec City!

           

 

Quebec chronicles: Ste Anne-de-Beaupré

At the end of May/start of June, it was my good fortune to travel to Quebec province with six friends to observe wildlife there, especially the migration of warblers who arrive in their beautiful breeding plumage. There were thousands of birds and I also enjoyed documenting other wildlife – it will take me some time to go through all the photos to select some for sharing. In the meantime, I’m breaking from my usual postings about natural areas and animals to show something of urban and rural Quebec to start off this multi-part series.

On our way to Quebec City, we stopped to see the Shrine of Sainte Anne-de-Beaupré, a church complex devoted to Jesus of Nazareth’s grandmother. The shrine’s brochure claims it is the oldest pilgrimage site in North America, while the website says it is the second oldest. The pilgrims include various Native American groups according to their tourist information. One stained-glass window featured a Byzantine cleric and a female Italian pilgrim.

The bits of info that I read mentioned various Native American groups who visit, but I don’t recall the Inuit being among them. In Quebec shops, we could admire some of the beautiful Inuit and other Native American art for sale (apologies for the reflections in the window that made photographing it difficult).

        

The basilica includes mosaics in the ceiling showing Ste Anne learning to read in a temple; the church houses three relics of the Saint – a forearm, finger bone and other pieces of bones.

In 1658, a man names Louis Guimont was healed at the chapel; now the basilica houses two columns displaying crutches, immobilization masks used during radiation therapy and other symbols of ill health that was said to be cured through divine intervention.

           

A side chapel houses what appears to be a baptismal font; a statue of St. Anthony of Padua is at the back of the basilica.

 

 

As in Catholic churches I have visited, there were stations of the cross.

The shrine appears to be a money-maker as so many church ventures seem to be. A special office with large windows featured a priest wearing a nice straw hat to complement his robes as he blessed people who presumably had paid a fee for this. This was the first time I had seen a facility like this at a church; I would have thought that blessings would be freely given.

 

A large, well-stocked gift shop featured shelves of holy water, religious items and a series of stone and wood scenes created by Normand Simard, ‘a man of nature who uses Charlevoix region stones to create men of stone, ducks and bird houses.’ The ends of the pews in the basilica also featured carvings including animals and birds so even in a man-made structure dedicated to thinking about an afterlife instead of our world, nature managed to have its presence acknowledged.

 

 

Next up: a visit to Quebec City