Quebec chronicles – Domaine Forget & birds of black and white

One afternoon during our recent stay in Quebec, we took time to visit a lovely park and academic center called Domaine Forget de Charlevoix, located in the village where we stayed, St. Irénée. The Domaine is a music and dance academy on grounds featuring flower gardens, open-air sculptures, studios, dormitories and a concert hall where an international music festival takes place from June to September.

The grounds also contain small practice cubicles of very basic and inexpensive construction, though each also has a small solar panel (but it was not clear what it powered).

   

It wasn’t clear at first what these little sheds were but when I pushed open a door, I saw they were furnished with a table, chair and walls covered in messages left by students who practiced there. Many of their comments focused on the music that they loved.

 

  • There are people out there who would give anything to play as well as you. Don’t forget to be grateful for what you have.
  • Perfect practice makes perfect
  • Chill! (Responding comment: There is no chill in Paganini ☹)
  • To play a wrong note is insignificant; to play without passion is inexcusable – L.v. Beethoven (responding comment: If you can have both, it’s still a bit better)
  • Love your instrument, but love music more! (Responding comment: Unless it’s a viola)

More of the messages left behind are interspersed below throughout the blog as I show you a first batch of birds we saw in the Canadian province. The focus here will be birds that are mainly black or black and white, their colors nicely complementing the paper birch trees (Betula papyrifera) that we saw everywhere.

The Domaine grounds proved to be a wonderful birding spot and our group was excited to see a blackpoll warbler (Setophaga striata) there. I had never seen one before so spotting this black-striped forager was a treat. Their song is so high-pitched that it is almost inaudible even to people with good hearing.

  • You’re sounding great ♥
  • We do not project our voices, we resonate our souls. RH
  • Play as if no one is listening

These amazing little songbirds – they weigh less than 0.42 oz (12 grams) – make one of the longest non-stop migratory journeys over the Atlantic Ocean of any avians, flying non-stop for over three days!

  • I count myself a king of infinite space
  • If you take time, you will go nowhere/anywhere
  • Endless rivers, boundless time, love flows free

Another small bird present at many of the sites we visited was the black-capped chickadee (Poecile atricapillus), which looks just like the Carolina chickadee to me. Apparently, the black-capped has more white edging on its feathers but it is a subtle difference.

This pair was busy at the Tadoussac dunes where they were foraging while also collecting some nesting material.

These birds rely on tree cavities for their nesting sites (although they will also use nest boxes if available), so when trees are cut down, they are losing vital habitat features for their survival.

These are one of the animal species that hides food in order to retrieve it later; the chickadees can remember thousands of hiding places – a useful memory feature for lean times!

 

Whereas chickadees are only 4.7-5.9 inches in length (12–15 cm) and weigh only 0.32–0.49 oz (9-14 g), the American crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos brachyrhynchos) measures 16–21 inches long (40-53 cm) with a weight of about 11.1 to 21.9 oz (316-620 g).

 

 

We saw several crows at different sites, in some cases chasing ravens. The group watched a crow that apparently had a nest nearby as well. An interesting and sad fact about them is that they are unfortunately susceptible to West Nile virus.

  • There is nothing more difficult and therefore more precious than to be able to decide
  • Profit du temps présent le plus possible
  • Through iron and blood we solve our problems, attack them head first!
  • Take a risk! You never know what might happen

An interesting fact about the lovely black-throated blue warbler (Setophaga caerulescens) is that the monogamous males all sing at the start and peak of the spring breeding season, but those who do not find a mate stop singing as the season draws to a close. The males who manage to entice a female into mating continue to sing! Their vocal virtuosity therefore indicates reproductive success!

 

  • Let the music speak through you
  • Everybody wins, just some sooner than others!!
  • Smile. Maybe someone loves you 😊
  • Love yourself more than anything else in the entire world

When species identification first took place, the male and female black-throated blues were classified as different species. The females (not shown here) are more muted in color than the males, without any blue feathers but a white line through the eye. Both sexes sport the “pocket handkerchief”, however, i.e., the white patch on their wings.

 

 

A warbler that we see often in North Carolina is the black and white warbler (Mniotilta varia), a bird that seems to always be in a hurry and in motion as it scurries along tree trunks seeking insects.

 

 

 

While birders usually see these attractive individuals in trees, they actually place their nests in leaf litter on the ground. The females can be distinguished from the males by their white throats.

 

 

 

 

The final bird in this black and white line-up is one that we can see often in the US South – the gray catbird (Dumetella carolinensis). I have to admit that this is one of my favorite species – I find them to be really sweet.

 

In my yard, they do not chase other birds away, do not fight for a place at feeders, sing sweetly and are alert and caring parents.

  • Shoot for the moon, even if you miss it, you’ll land amongst the stars (Responding comment: I don’t think you understand astronomy)
  • Be happy 😊
  • You can always be better – everybody that came here believes that
  • Dieu ne choisit pas les gens qui sont déjà capables, il rend capables ceux qu’il choisit.
  • No matter how well or badly you play, always remember you are human and therefore deserve love and support

I do have to acknowledge that not all the Domaine students were into encouraging one another.

  • Don’t be a diva. Listen to Diva by Beyoncé
  • You’re wasting so mutch time [sic]
  • Who just wasted a lot of time reading through these walls? (Responding comment: Me! Me!)
  • I don’t like inspirational bullshit

But they also reminded us about the importance of what is beautiful in our lives. And their thoughts can apply to any activities in which we choose to engage, be they jobs or avocations like wildlife watching and nature appreciation.

  • One day your life will flash before your eyes – make sure it’s worth watching
  • Most confuse wealth with success. Wealth means different things to different people. It doesn’t mean someone is happy or content. Ultimately your career is a concept that exists in your mind. What you really have is a series of jobs, strung together, that forms a story you are in charge of writing. Sarah Hill, performance artist
  • If you suppress the arts [or people’s ability to enjoy nature], then you’re suppressing the deepest dreams of a people

Next up – some of the “flashy” birds we saw on a top birding day!

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!

Life on late winter-early spring farmlands

Although it’s taken me some time to process photos taken earlier this year, I’d still like to share what I was seeing in late winter and early spring when stopping at farm fields. These sometimes muddy and stubble-covered parcels of land can offer wildlife watchers nice views of birds and occasionally other animals, unobstructed by a lot of foliage. So visits to roadside farms and ponds were on my early 2019 nature-walk itineraries.

Farm fields are often bordered by stands of trees where animals can retreat if they become disturbed by humans standing around aiming long camera lenses at them. The white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) above were browsing one morning and seemed unconcerned as I photographed nearby birds. When I turned to watch them specifically though, they decided to move back into the woods bordering the field.

Many farmers put out bird boxes on fences bordering their fields; in early March, the Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) were already checking out and starting to furnish potential nest sites. Here a male was flying away from a nest box while his mate was gathering pine needles.

The fences offer other birds a good vantage point for observation, too. A Northern flicker (Colaptes auratus) perched on a fence post to look around and then flew to a branch high above me.

 

A bird present in large numbers was the brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater). One morning, a friend and I counted some 200 birds in one small group of trees. Many people think they are an invasive species and dislike these birds intensely because they evolved a behavior that can endanger other birds. The cowbirds, who are native to America, were originally present in prairies where they followed the buffalo. This meant they did not stay in one place long enough to tend a nest, so they began laying their eggs in other birds’ nests. The young cowbirds hatch first and then may throw out the other eggs or hatchlings or they eat so ravenously that the other nest mates don’t get enough.

It certainly is disconcerting to see a small warbler feeding a large cowbird fledgling and a couple bird species have been endangered by the behavior. But I don’t dislike the cowbird because of this – they did not choose how to evolve and the behavior developed as an adaptation, not an “evil” practice. They are attractive birds. And the sounds they make are lovely, akin to water droplets falling into a pool.

 

The American robins (Turdus migratorius) were also present in abundance; they tend to flock together in the winter and early spring. One farm had a boggy area with some cyprus trees and the robins were busy looking for insects among the cyprus “knees” (Taxodium distichum). These woody structures that grow out of the roots may help stabilize the trees when they are standing in water but scientists have not yet definitively identified their purpose.

There were other trees near the cypresses; in one, the cocoon of a Polyphemus moth (Antheraea polyphemus) was hanging high overhead. It also pays to look around to see who is flying u[ ahigh above those trees and fields. It’s not uncommon to see Canada geese (Branta canadensis) flying from one farm pond to another.

Red-tailed hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) soared over different fields I visited.

Red-shouldered hawks (Buteo lineatus) also made an appearance.

And one of my favorite raptors often eluded my efforts to capture a portrait. Only a couple times was I able to catch a beautiful kestrel (Falco sparverius) speeding by in flight.

The robins were feeding in the fields as were several other bird species.

 

Yellow-rumped warbler (Setophaga coronata)

Savannah sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis)

Pine warbler (Setophaga pinus)

A pair of Northern mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos) was taking advantage of numerous cow patties left behind on one farm field in their search for insects. They were flashing their wings repeatedly; I’m convinced that this was behavior designed to scare up bugs so they can catch them easily.

 

 

Other birds were following them around in the field, apparently taking advantage of the insect smorgasbord. Two of them were a song sparrow (Melospiza melodia) and a field sparrow (Spizella pusilla).

This year, it was also my good fortune to see a bird new to me in one farm field, the lovely horned lark (Eremophila alpestris). Although these birds are not considered endangered, their numbers declined by 71% between 1966 and 2015.

I couldn’t get close to the larks but one day I did catch a bird taking a dust bath in a gravel and dirt road next to their preferred field. On a second visit to that farm, I again saw a lark in the road and then another lark joined it.

It turns out that female larks perform a courting display that looks very similar to actually taking a dust bath, so I got to see a mating behavior that I hadn’t expected!

Reading about the behavior, I discovered that if male larks see a female who is dust bathing, he may mistake what she’s doing and try to mate with her when she’s not ready.

So reproductive life is a bit difficult for those males, who look so adorable when they raise those head feathers to project two little black horns.I will leave you here with a few more views of a horned lark who was singing and foraging not too very far from the road.

 

Spring is in the air…. Uh, I mean water!

It was the sound that first attracted my attention. Initially, I thought that it sounded like a flock of birds, but as I approached a pond, I realized that was not the case. The almost chirruping sound didn’t fit with any frogs I had heard before. As I scanned the scene before, my roving vision finally alit on a small section of brownish water dappled with green algae and stalks of dead reeds – there were moving bumps there. When I came closer, I finally realized that it was a mass of writhing and continually moving toads, engaged in what resembled a bit of a battle. It was actually what could be called a mating contest. (Click on a photo to see it larger; then arrow back to return to blog.)

The sound made by the male Eastern American toad (Anaxyrus americanus americanus) when he is ready to breed has been likened to an old-fashioned ringing telephone. It can last from 6 to 30 seconds and when multiple toads are calling at the same time, they create a very loud and penetrating “concert”. It doesn’t sound like a phone to me; you can judge by listening to the video.

I only saw a couple of the toads with inflated throat sacs. The sound was very loud, however, and the water was roiling with moving heads topped by periscope eyes, warty bodies and thrashing legs.

Before examining how the toads were going about their reproductive endeavor, a little biology lesson. Toads are a sub-group of frogs; while most frogs have moist skin, toads generally have drier and wartier skins. They vary greatly in color, including shades of yellow, brown, black and red, and may be speckled or have solid hues. The skin color can also change in response to stress, temperature, humidity and habitat.

 

American toads have two glands at the top of their head behind the eye crest. These are parotid glands that produce a neurotoxin, bufotoxin, which can sicken and even kill a predator. The milky substance can produce skin irritation in human beings and can be dangerous to smaller mammals (like dogs).

 

 

Like birds, toads have nictitating membranes, transparent eyelids that help protect the eye. They sometimes raise the nictitating membrane half-way so that they retain sharper vision.

 

 

Toads actually spend a lot of their lives on dry land, eating insects as well as worms, slugs and other small invertebrates. A particularly fascinating fact is that they use their eyeballs to help swallow food – when they ingest their prey, the eyeballs sink down into their mouth and help push the food down their throats!!!

At times, they created little whirlpools as they bumped up against one another or tried to mount a neighbor.

 

 

Sometimes, a large female with a smaller male atop her would rest quietly under water, apparently trying to avoid notice. This strategy did not always work, however, and sometimes one or more other males would try to join the pair already in amplexus (i.e., when the male grasps the female with his front legs and fertilizes the eggs as she releases them from her body)..

The female toad ejects her eggs in two strings, which are immediately fertilized by a nearby male spurting out a stream of sperm. (Frogs lay their eggs in clusters.) Tadpoles will emerge from the eggs within 2–14 days and reach adulthood within 50–65 days. They become sexually mature at 2-3 years.

In one case, I developed a real sympathy for a particularly large female. She had a small male astride her who resembled her in coloring and they looked to be peacefully joined. Then another male spotted them and he launched a sneak attack, trying to usurp the position of her already-present suitor. The first male clung on tightly.

No. 1 pushed No. 2 away with a hind leg again and again.

In the meantime, a great blue heron (Ardea herodius) who had been feeding on the other side of the pond, made its way over to the site of toad frenzy. S/he had been eating small fish and amphibians.

I thought the heron would plunge into the midst of the numerous toads for an easy meal, but instead the bird looked around and then skirted the group, veering away to the shoreline. Perhaps some instinct made the heron avoid the group during a reproductive event? Or s/he was put off by the vigorous activity of the potential prey?

A second rival toad then joined the first, who was still trying to get the original mating male out of the way. Eventually, a third, fourth and yet another male joined the group and the poor female was weighted down by 5 – FIVE! – male toads all vying for the prime spot on her back. Often her head was pushed down under water.

The first male clung on with great determination, often being pushed down under water as well as the other males piled on. He was NOT going to give up.

Ms Toad did not like this state of affairs. She laboriously began moving from a deeper spot in the pond to the pond’s edge. This was a slow process, made difficult by the clinging crowd who must have weighed a good deal as a group.

I thought she might be trying to get to more shallow water so the toad “knot” would not keep her submerged. Toads can breathe under water like frogs because they can absorb oxygen through their skin. They do have lungs, however, and if these fill with water, they can drown. A fellow Facebook nature lover told me that she had seen expired female toads with males still clinging to them. A toad knot can therefore unfortunately result in maternal mortality – the demise of a mother giving birth (to several thousand eggs; most of the tadpoles do not survive).

I soon left the scene after Ms Toad had reached the side of the pond and could keep her head above water. It was noticeable that her throat pouch was inflating and deflating – perhaps she was breathing deeply to compensate for lack of oxygen when she had to suffer a submerged head due to the over-amorous males.

 

Inhale!                                                                  Exhale!

I know I am anthropomorphizing, but I do believe that she likely felt the amphibian equivalent of relief and was looking forward to the end of that day!