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!

A wildflower walk with surprises!

owl IMG_3036© Maria de Bruyn resThis past Saturday morning, we awoke to water streaming from the heavens in quite a heavy downpour. A local conservation group, Friends of Bolin Creek, had scheduled a wildflower walk to see some of our ephemeral spring blooms but the wet conditions were not inviting. A decision to postpone the walk to early afternoon was taken – and the weather-people had gotten it right – the sun began shining at mid-day and the temperature rose, creating lovely conditions for a walk after all. A large owl (later revealed to be granddaughter Kate of the group’s president) greeted the small group of intrepid walkers and we set off to see what we could find.

Southern arrowwood IMG_3039© Maria de Bruyn res

Our first flowers were the not-yet-open blooms of a Southern arrowwood (Viburnum dentatum). We passed numerous black and yellow millipedes on the paths and then found another millipede species (Narceus americanus) curled up next to a little brown jug (also known as arrowleaf heartleaf, Hextastylis arifolia var arifolia).

millipede IMG_3052© Maria de Bruynlittle brown jug IMG_3048© Maria de Bruyn

We came across other nice specimens of the plant, including one with four small flowers.

little brown jug IMG_3138© Maria de Bruynlittle brown jug IMG_3141© Maria de Bruyn

The painted buckeye trees (Aesculus sylvatica) were blooming profusely with their greenish-yellow flowers.

painted buckeye IMG_3070© Maria de Bruynpainted buckeye IMG_3492© Maria de Bruyn

 

Eastern spring beauty IMG_3089© Maria de Bruyn

 

Clusters of Eastern spring beauties (Claytonia virginica) were in their vicinity.

 

 

star chickweed IMG_3095© Maria de Bruyn

 

Some of the star chickweeds (Stellaria pubera) were near another white bloom, the rue anemones (Thalictrum thalictroides).

 

 

rue anemone IMG_3110© Maria de Bruyn rue anemone IMG_3109© Maria de Bruyn

Both the trout lilies (Erythronium americanum) and cranefly orchids (Tipularia discolor) had already bloomed, the trout lilies about 7-10 days ago and the orchids in the winter (when there are no leaves). One orchid had left behind its brown stalk as a witness to the flower that had seen the light.

trout lily IMG_3156© Maria de Bruyncranefly orchid IMG_3148© Maria de Bruyn

Tiny bluets (Houstonia pusilla) in clusters here and there provided some variation from the ubiquitous white blooms that we were seeing. The mayapples (Podophyllum peltatum) were just emerging and it will be a little while before we see their flowers emerge underneath the leafy umbrellas.

tiny bluet IMG_3118© Maria de Bruynmayapple IMG_3196© Maria de Bruyn

 

Bolin creek IMG_3165© Maria de BruynThe creek was running high and fast and we debated on crossing it at the first branch. Only two of us had wellingtons (and one lady found that her boots leaked); others were wearing running and walking shoes but everyone made it across by using stones, canes and walking sticks that some of our group had brought along. Our immediate reward was a view of a gorgeous pinxterbloom wild azalea (Rhododendron periclymenoides).

pinxterbloom azalea IMG_3174© Maria de Bruyn

foamflower IMG_3180© Maria de Bruyn

 

A sighting of a foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia), followed by a cutleaf toothwort (Cardamine concatenata) provided a bit more color, as did the littleleaf buttercup (Ranunculus abortivus), although its blooms were not fully expanded yet.

 

cutleaf toothwort IMG_3187© Maria de Bruynlittle leaf buttercup IMG_3092© Maria de Bruyn

Only the jigsaw puzzle-like leaves of the bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) were in evidence as that flower had stopped blooming already. A tufted titmouse singing overhead (Baeolophus bicolor) gave us a nice little concert as compensation.

bloodroot IMG_3198© Maria de Bruyn tufted titmouse IMG_3201© Maria de Bruyn

Eastern tiger swallowtail IMG_3428© Maria de Bruyn resAnd then we came across our three surprises of the walk. We had already seen several Eastern tiger swallowtail butterflies (Papilio glaucus) fluttering by in one’s and two’s and we remarked how welcome they were because of the paucity of butterflies we had had the past couple years. But then across another branch of the creek, we spotted some 12-20 butterflies congregating over some delicacy of unknown (to us) origin.

Eastern tiger swallowtail IMG_3259© Maria de Bruyn res Eastern tiger swallowtail IMG_3263© Maria de Bruyn res

The water was fairly deep and flowing fast, so we did not cross but we surmised that someone’s dog had left a pile of poo to provide a mud-puddling butterfly feast.

Eastern tiger swallowtail IMG_3443© Maria de Bruyn res Eastern tiger swallowtail IMG_3447© Maria de Bruyn res

Then we noticed on a rock just below the bank under the butterflies where two Northern watersnakes (Nerodia sipedon) were having a little rest.

northern watersnake IMG_3406© Maria de Bruyn

northern watersnake IMG_3408© Maria de BruynThey were a bit dull in color, which became quite obvious when compared to a third northern watersnake that we spotted on a rock closer to the creek – perhaps a younger individual who had decided that a sunbath was just the thing for a Saturday afternoon.

northern watersnake IMG_3241© Maria de Bruyn northern watersnake IMG_3349© Maria de Bruyn

While we were all enamored with the flowers we’d seen, the butterflies and snakes gave our walk a special feel.

bugleweed IMG_3501© Maria de Bruyn

 

On our return trip through the woods to reach our transportation, we came across an invasive plant, the bugleweed (Ajuga reptans). We had already seen plenty of Japanese wisteria, mahonia, privet and autumn olive and agreed that another volunteer day to weed out some invasives would be a good contribution to the preserve. But that is for the future – right now, we are happy to think back to our surprise spottings!