Part 1. Summer Nesting Season
Chapter 1. Quebec
© Bert & Shari Frenz, 2009 All rights reserved.
(Bert) I awaken in darkness with the premonition the alarm will sound. It does. I push the alarm light to verify the time: 3:45 AM. Fifteen minutes later I am out the door, donned in multiple layers. The SUV thermometer reads 48º and drops to 45º by the time I reach the top of Mont Mégantic, elevation 1105 meters (3625 feet). Even with five layers of clothes, I am cold when I face the brisk winds atop the mountain where the observatory telescope points to the sky now dimly lit in predawn. I can hear the crisp songs of White-throated Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco and Winter Wren. I concentrate on hearing thrushes and quickly recognize several singing Swainson’s Thrushes. At 4:30 AM I hear a familiar song – familiar only because it is so similar to Gray-cheeked Thrush, which I have heard singing many times elsewhere. But this is not Gray-cheeked. It is the much rarer Bicknell’s Thrush. I hear it sing again, the song emanating from the dark thicket of short fir densely covering the sloping mountainside. Bicknell’s is known as a bird that does not come out into the open and retreats at the slightest disturbance. Even if the bird stayed at the same perch and kept singing, I doubt I could reach it in the dense tree cover. But I am delighted at hearing it in full song. From a different direction I hear a Bicknell’s calling, again very similar to Gray-cheeked. Then the one or two birds go silent and even as I move along the peripheral of the cleared mountaintop, I do not hear it again.
Getting too cold to stay in the winds, I drive the short distance to Mont Saint Joseph, only slightly shorter at 1065 meters. Along the way I wait for a porcupine to lumber across the roadway. From the parking lot I hike the Sentier des Crêtes to Mont Victoria (1055 meters). I am only about 100 yards along the trail when I hear another Bicknell’s Thrush singing, again too far away to hope for a sighting. Unlike Swainson’s and Hermit thrushes, these Bicknell’s only sing a few times and then are silent. Is that their habit, or is it because it is only 4:47 AM? I’ve read that they only sing the first two hours of the day. At an opening in the forest and a lookout over the broad valleys below I can see the orange arc of the sun rising beyond Lac Mégantic. It’s 5:05 AM.
I hike very slowly, listening intently to the forest, hearing mostly the whistling wind stirring the fir trees. Almost always I can hear Winter Wrens cheerfully singing their complicated musical songs: 7 seconds of joyous song, followed by 7-15 seconds of silence. Throughout the early morning I must be hearing a couple dozen singing wrens. Blackpoll and Magnolia warblers are also singing, as well as the species I heard earlier. But I hear no more Bicknell’s during my 2 km hike through the forest until I reach Mont Victoria. At 6:55 AM I hear the distinctive call of another Bicknell’s. It calls two or three times and goes silent.
I hike back along the same trail and just 0.2 km before the parking lot I feel the first raindrops. Quickening my pace I reach the shelter of my car by 8:10 and before the rain intensifies. I am delighted with my success, having heard 3-4 Bicknell’s Thrushes, the first report for the season according to the national park naturalist.
(Shari) As we travel north I am disappointed that the leaves are already on the trees. We usually leave two weeks earlier and follow spring for 4-6 weeks. Looks like spring has sprung this year! Everything is green and temperatures do not vary much - low 80s all the way to New York. We push ourselves and drive 400 to 500 mi. per day, a very tiring task for me and, yet, I only drive 3 hr. of the 2200+ mi. Most of our trip is along interstates and we sleep free at Flying J or Wal-Mart until we reach Quebec, Canada. Once crossing the border Bert heads to Mégantic National Park where he hopes to see a life bird. The closest campground is just an open field without water, electricity or sewer. For that we pay $22.00. After arriving we head to the Visitor’ Center where we hope to buy park passes for the caravan throughout our stay in Canada. We find out that this national park is not really a national park although the lady insists that it is one. It is a national park of Quebec. I suppose Quebec considers itself a nation and not a province of Canada. Once we get that straight, we buy our “National Park” pass for the day only and hope to buy the Canadian National Park passes elsewhere. We head up the mountain to the trail THE BIRD is supposed to hang around. Bert just wants to scout it out because he read that the bird only can be found during the first two hours of the morning. Morning this far north starts at 4 AM so needless to say Shari will not be getting this life bird. The walk is pleasant through the woods but we see little wildlife. Tonight we can go to an astronomy program at the center or out to eat. We choose the later since the program will be all in French anyway. The first restaurant we enter is full of men sitting at a bar. It doesn’t look like food is served. I ask if anyone speaks English and I am directed to an older man who tells me the restaurant is not open but there is one in another town. We luck out there. The restaurant is serving a seafood buffet and it looks like all the locals are here. We too decide to join the crowd and partake in all the lobster, crab legs, shrimp and frog legs we can eat plus salads and clam chowder. Yum!
(Shari) I am more comfortable in Mexico than in French Quebec. Naively, I did not think about the language difference. In Mexico I can speak enough Spanish to get by and can read most traffic signs and billboards. As soon as we cross into Canada we see the error of our ways. We see many orange signs and surmise road construction. But which lane is closed? Is there a detour? What are we to do next? We muddle through but feel like fish out of water. At the campground a sign points to “Camping Rustique” one way and “Camping” another. We assume correctly we want the plain “Camping”. The sign also points to “Plage”. I tell Bert we surely do not want to go there and take the chance of catching some disease. We later determine that “Plage” means “beach”. Getting gas at a self service should not present any difficulty. Think again! I stick my credit card in the slot following the pictures of the magnetic stripe up and left. I pull out the card and then the screen pops up with four choices all in French. I cannot even guess what they mean, so I look around for some help. I ask the man at the pump next to me what it all means. He says I have to choose debit card or how much gas I want. How do I know how much gas I want? I want it to shut off at full. That is not an option. So we guess at $25. The card is still not accepted. He goes into the building and comes back to tell me, I have to pay inside. Luckily most people in Quebec City know some English and, when asked, will talk to you in that language. That is not the case in the countryside where their English is nonexistence to poor. Even the young people we met know very little English.
(Shari) We arrived at the rendezvous point on the Saint Lawrence River and on the same day Bill and Ginny come in. I am so glad that they have come early since it gives us quality time to spend with them. Last night we sat outside sipping One Barrel Rum from Belize, watching the ships pass by on the Seaway below us. Our campsites are just beautiful. Today Bill goes with Bert to check out a birding site and Ginny goes with me to buy national park passes for the group. “May”, my GPS, leads us to downtown Quebec City via a ferry. We board the ferry and 10 min. later are in downtown. We follow May’s directions and after I make two wrong turns, forcing May to recalculate and get me back on track, we park next to the address given to me for the passes. We are an hour early so walk the street full of shops and restaurants, stopping for money exchange and lunch. The buildings are colorful, close together and “foreign”. Signs, of course, are in French, people passing us speak French and one could believe we are in France. At noon we go to the park’s office to purchase the passes for the group. Between Ginny’s map and navigating and May, we find our way to a grocery store and home. Some of the group has already arrived and we have a small social at 5 to get acquainted.
(Bert) Bill and Ginny arrived yesterday afternoon shortly after we got to the Quebec campground. Bill offers to drive this morning for birding far north of Quebec City and the ladies stay back to visit shops near the city. It takes us an hour to get across the bridge over the St. Lawrence Seaway and pass through downtown Quebec, finally breaking through into hilly forests north. Completely unpopulated, except for the dozens of highway construction workers operating huge Caterpillar equipment to construct a major 4-lane highway, we drive half way to Chicoutimi and turn off on a dirt road into the forests. Judging by the numerous spurs and clear cut lands at various stages of reforestation, we must be driving a logging road. Our main target is Bicknell’s Thrush, but birds are sparse and, besides, it is probably too late in the day to hear the thrush. I hear a Cape May Warbler singing high in a spruce, yet in 15 min. of searching we cannot see the bird.
We reach Lake Malbaie, where White-winged Scoters are said to nest. Instead we find a couple dozen Surf Scoters floating and flying over the frigid water. A few fishermen are standing in their boats, casting in different directions. I’m freezing in the icy breeze and I wonder how they can endure the chill in the middle of the large lake. We continue on, through the park to areas where the Bicknell’s occurs, finding only a Swainson’s Thrush. Stopping atop a steep slope Bill and I get out, inspecting the deep ruts and scattered boards–evidence of other vehicles getting stuck. Deciding it should not be difficult going downhill, we proceed. Fifteen minutes later we come to a secure barricade blocking a bridge and an entrance to the park. The sign marked “Ferme” forces us to make a U-turn in the road and head back to the bad uphill road. Bill shifts into low 4-wheel drive and his truck takes the road much more gracefully than I anticipated. Finding another road through the park we are surprised how many porcupines we encounter: 2 road kill, plus 3 very much alive. One is in a short leafless aspen and I jump out for photos. The porcupine is coming down, but when I approach it quickly climbs higher. Standing on the pickup’s bed I have an eye-to-eye view of the porcupine.
We continue on the gravel logging road, somewhat faster now as conditions have improved. Finally, after what must have been 50+ miles of gravel, we are back on hard pavement, heading south. Rugged mountains surround us and in shadowed crevasses winter’s snow still resists melting. An hour later we stop again at Cap Tourmente National Wildlife Area. In a half hour we see more birds than we did all day in the mountains. Best are American Tree Sparrow and Canada Warbler. We will have to come back to this spot with the whole group on another day, but now it is 3:30 and time to head back. It takes us 3 hours in continuous traffic jams to wedge our way through Quebec City and across the bridge. We stop for fuel and I can’t believe we drove ~270 mi. today and have only 34 species to show for the effort.
(Bert) More of our caravaners show up. Just as Bill and I reached the
campground gate yesterday, Larry and Marlene pulled up in their motor home. It
was only a couple of months ago that we left them at the Mexico border and now
they will join us again as tailgunners. Newcomers Doug and Kay returned from
dinner and we met in the early evening. Now today, Ron and Carol arrive and
later Jim and Pat come in too. Pat tells me about the Bicknell’s Thrushes she
heard at a mountaintop in Vermont yesterday. I’m relieved she got the bird, as
it certainly would have been on her list of want-to-find birds for this trip and
I think it will be hard to locate again.
Day 0 – May 29 – Quebec City
(Bert) With Ron and Carol, we take the ferry across the St. Lawrence River from Lévis to Quebec City, most eventful because I see a Common Tern flying upriver. The towering Château Frontnac is dimly seen in fog and light rain. By the time we disembark and climb the many steps to reach the base of the hotel, the rain is more forceful and it puts a dampener on walking the streets as tourists. Actually, few tourists have ventured out into the bad weather and we cross paths with Ron and Carol three times while looking at the sites. Touring school kids are everywhere, more oblivious to the rain in makeshift flimsy raincoats than are the teachers, chaperones and guides. All speak French except one group of girls about age 12 or 13 that easily mix English with French, sometimes in the same sentence. We come upon Restaurant Aux Anciens Canadiens which we visited nine years ago and enjoyed so much we came back again the next day. Checking the lunch menu we decide to come back at noon for the special of the day. We are the first to arrive when the doors open. Shari is usually the one to describe food, but in this case I’ll mention it because again we had a great meal, mine with vegetable soup, wine, veal and maple syrup pie and Shari’s with baked salmon in a pastry and cranberry cake with cream.
(Shari) The group is complete as of last night when Judy pulled in. Today I see many errands accomplished. Even Bert moves away from his computer and checks our battery and tires and washes the rig. At 3 PM we congregate in the meeting room. Good thing I reserved it since the rain started just as I left R-Tent-III (the name we call our 41-ft. Dutch Star motor home). Even though they do not know each other, all with the exception of Doug and Kay, have traveled on various trips with us before. Therefore we shorten the orientation to 2 hr. and follow it with a Welcome Wine and Cheese party. I assign everyone a task for this trip. I figured I needed help on some things. So Judy is in charge of finding deer, Bob is in charge of rain, Ron has fog, etc. Needing two for sun, I assign that job to the two Pats. Now we should have a great trip.
(Bert) Had it not been Sunday we probably wouldn’t fight Quebec City traffic again to bird at Cap Tourmente National Wildlife Area, but this morning the freeways are nearly empty and we reach Cap Tourmente in about 90 min, enjoying in route views of the city skyscrapers, the St. Lawrence River and green foothills beyond rows of immaculately kept houses and enormous tall churches reflecting silvery roofs and spires in morning light, including the 350-year-old Sainte Anne de Beaupré shrine. Birding starts at the parking lot near the Interpretation Center, under the tall trees sheltering the boarded deck. Wood warblers actively feed and we quickly identify Magnolia, Yellow-rumped, Blackpoll, Redstart and Wilson’s, as well as Warbling and Red-eyed vireos. I hear the familiar song of Alder Flycatcher and when we cross the little footbridge we see one in the Red-Osier Dogwood bushes near the stream. Actually, we see more and hear even more as they seem to be plentiful in this lowland marshy area. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds seem especially common as well and later we see the numerous feeders at the Interpretation Center that explains their attraction. We see an odd gnatcatcher that could more fittingly be named Brown-gray rather than Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, such are its colors. Song Sparrows are numerous and Swamp Sparrows are elusive, but by their singing I suspect they are very common as well. When we reach the mudflats of St. Lawrence they are barren but for a flock of Ring-billed Gulls. Had we been here a few weeks ago we would have delighted in the migration of over 1 million Snow Geese that use the cape as a midway rest stop.
Winds blowing from the northern mountains sweep down across the flatlands and blow birds from open perches, so Ray and Nancy find a more sheltered woods where we find Chestnut-sided and Black-throated Green warblers, Black-capped Chickadees and Purple Finch. Then we join others who have moved on ahead to the ponds and add Gadwall, Mallard and Northern Shoveler to the list. We see Turkey Vultures swooping over meadows and rising in uplifts and I recall my youth when they didn’t come this far north, at least not in Wisconsin where I grew up. Except for a brief 10-min. light rain when we shifted sites, it has been a beautiful sunny morning and a delightful birding area. We end the morning with 56 species, a good start for our tour.
(Shari) Surprising even myself, I get up at 6 to join the group on the bird outing. Bert told me that I would enjoy the preserve and I do. The morning is beautiful and the group gathers around Bert as they check off one bird after another. But still it is too slow for me; I need to walk. When the Interpretation Center opens at 9, I enjoy a 30 min. film on Snow Geese. Twenty years ago, there were only 20,000 geese coming to the refuge in the Spring and Fall. Now the attendant says there are 1.2 million. Amazing! It must be a sight to behold. The birds arrive from their winter homes in New Hampshire, in early May and leave three weeks later–after gaining weight eating the yummy stuff on the shores of the St. Lawrence–heading for their nesting grounds in the Arctic. Reversing their route, they repeat the process in fall. After the movie, I walk the boardwalk, catch up with the group and pass them by. When they decide to bird some more, Ginny and I take the car to a cheese factory and bakery in town. Not realizing how far town is and having to battle some traffic, we arrive at the cheese factory 30 min. later. After 10 min. of shopping we must turn around and head back. I wonder if they are caught in the rain that started to come down in buckets. When I arrive home, I take a nap before our scheduled LEO–“Let’s Eat Out”–at Boston Pizza. This is a chain of restaurants that started in Edmonton, Canada in 1984. I love that place and always try to eat there at least once on any trip I take to Canada, although this year we also found a Boston Pizza in College Station, Texas. It has the second best pizza in the world. The first is Paisons in Madison, Wisconsin. Since Pat and Bob brought me a piece of Paisons pizza, I now can compare them side by side.
(Bert) Flat lowlands border the southern shore of St. Lawrence, a patchwork of farmlands alternating between lush grassy fields and rich dark land cultivated into corrugated ridges. Strong winds push us silently, producing waves of grass across the median strip, tossing trees effortlessly and forcing crows into erratic flight. The river is milk chocolate brown, frosted by white caps. Beyond the opposite shore, are distant purple mountains clipped by white clouds. A Northern Harrier flies low across marshland near the river, a Woodchuck rests atop a wooden fencepost, and I see my first Great Black-backed Gull where Riviére Verte spills into St. Lawrence. Four miles farther, late-departing Snow Geese huddle near the shore and a Great Blue Heron flies beyond. The best show is when Highway 132 hugs the shoreline at Grand Métis and scattered across the rocks and gravel are American Black Ducks, Black Scoters, Common Eiders, Double-crested Cormorants, Herring Gulls and more Great Black-backed Gulls. I later hear that Bob and Pat found Brant and Jim and Pat found Surf Scoters there as well. Ron and Carol stopped at Rimouski and found other ducks. Meanwhile at our campsite I bird with Ray and Nancy, watching a mixed flock of warblers and vireos, perhaps stopped in migration. We tally nine species of warbler, including Tennessee, Nashville, Parula and Cape May. Bill adds the tenth, a Blackburnian. A pair of calling Merlins is an added treat. In spite of a day of overcast skies, winds and rain we reach 54 species in the count off.
(Shari) I see glorious blue skies when I get up this morning at 6 AM. Yes, you read that right: 6 AM. Bert and I leave at 8 with no one traveling with us, everyone taking their time on their own schedule. For us, it is like going to the Maritimes alone. As we go north and east the skies darken and soon the rain comes down. I guess there will be no stopping for birds along the way. I have no idea who wrote the road logs but only find about nine waypoints that are correct. Luckily, four of them are at the end when I need them the most. I hope that the rest of the group is map savvy and forgets the log details. The drive is flat farm country with the St Lawrence Seaway often at our left. We stop for a break at a cheese store and bakery and then push on to the campground making it by 11:45. Bert and check out the meeting room and it looks fine for our Mexican hotdog dinner. Plan A was to have it outside but because of the rain we go to Plan B, the meeting room. I use the relaxing afternoon to prepare the food and by 4 I am ready to set up. As soon as I get to the meeting room, Nancy and Bert tell me that it smells of paint. Boy, does it! Apparently, this afternoon they painted the adjacent room so we ask the owner to open the doors and start the fire and get a fan, but to no avail. The smell is still intolerable. Since it is not raining much we think we can serve near the doors and have those sensitive to the smell eat outside. But within 30 min. it starts to rain more heavily. Plan D goes into effect and we squeeze under the overhang by the office moving all the stuff for a third time. Luckily our group is small. Poor Larry has to cook the hotdogs on the grill in the rain while Bert goes through a bird count off and I lead a travel meeting. We set the food on a big ice chest and have people load their plates one by one. Somehow it all works out and the food tastes great.
(Bert) The river widens into the Gulf of St. Lawrence and soon we cannot see the north shore at all, giving me the distinct sensation we are rounding the Gaspé Peninsula. On our side, waves lap across gray rocks and the mountains crowd the shore. Rows of windmills spin in the strong winds on a high ridge at Cap-Chat, while we curve around bays and through small villages with all houses in single file edging the highway. We pass Great Black-backed Gulls, Common Eiders and Black Guillemots, and at Chic-Choc I see my first Common Merganser of the trip. Near the entrance to Gaspé National Park I stop at Sainte-Anne-des-Monts when I see hundreds of gulls flocking near the harbor and resting on rocks in the shallow bay. I scan the flocks for oddities, finding several nearly white gulls with white wings to the tips. The fully black bills and gentler physique tell me these are Iceland Gulls.
At the post marking kilometer 980, a sign warns of 13% inclination and a third of the way up the steep road I shift all the way down to first gear and creep upward. Thus begins an oft-repeated pattern of 10-15% uphill crawling and downhill braking.
We stop at a pullout in Pointe-á-la-Frégate. As I am scanning the bay for birds, Bill and Ginny pull in behind us–the first of our fellow travelers we’ve encountered today–and I point out to them the floating pair of Common Loons and the flying Black Scoters. Continuing our drive around the peninsula I notice the mountains are more densely wooded with dark green spruce and partially unfurled yellow-green leaves of aspen, deficient of chlorophyll.
The highway has numerous sections of broken pavement and road construction crews are busy at the repair work that must be completed during the short summer. Although traffic has been light, in one village dozens of vehicles line up in both directions, trying to get past frontend loaders, dump trucks, earthmovers, deep ditches and uneven ground on the only single lane we all must share. We arrive at Forillon National Park and stop at a Cap-aux-Os campsite built on a hillside, lining up our RV’s so they point their front windows overlooking Gaspé Bay.
(Bert) Just as we arrive at the parking lot at Penouille shortly after 6 AM, a Rusty Blackbird flies overhead. Warblers–including a good look at Blackpoll–actively feed in the barely leaved birch and aspen. As we round the corner we look below us to a very calm Gaspé Bay, a long gravel beach and a saltwater marsh surrounded by spruce, all bathed in the soft light of early morning sun. Resting on a gravel bar not far from shore is a small flock of Brant that eventually come to the shore and give us a close view. Common Terns buzz in erratic flight over the marsh and bay. A large flock of Red-breasted Mergansers rest on the water and later take flight in our direction.
By 8 AM we are back at camp, take a short break and head to Petit-Gaspé, driving slowly along the coastline, but high up on a cliff which gives us a panoramic view of Gaspé Bay. A Minke Whale surfaces for air, then arches into a dive that reveals its short hooked dorsal fin. We watch it often during the morning and later find another close enough for me to get a photo of its back and fin. We drive to the end of the road, park and then hike toward Les Graves.
I’ve seen Woodchuck almost every day for a couple of weeks and today’s poses for my best photographs so far. We also find three porcupines that ignore us as they continue eating. I hear what sounds like a Black-throated Green Warbler, but Pat C. thinks it is Black-throated Blue. We try to get a look at the bird and meanwhile Bob thinks he hears a Ruffed Grouse. So we listen quietly for the low-pitched sound of beating wings. It takes five minutes before the grouse repeats his performance. Kay expresses surprise at the sound, so subtle and low-pitched that most people easily ignore the sound. Meanwhile we have not seen the warbler, but later Pat C. returns by herself and finally sees the Black-throated Blue.
I see a flock of black and white auks floating far below us, just far enough away that even after long study we are not certain whether they are Razorbills or Common Murres. At another overlook, gulls gather and I draw attention to one white gull, our first Glaucous Gull. We’ve had other firsts here, including Olive-sided Flycatcher, Golden-crowned Kinglet and Veery. Our rarest find for this national park is a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher.
On the return drive I stop for a Black Bear and just as I am photographing it crossing the road I notice that the oncoming car is Larry and Marlene, with Shari who is photographing the bear in the opposite direction.
While the morning has been good, we’ve saved the best for the afternoon when we drive to Cap-Bon-Ami and walk to the edge of the steep rock cliffs that are home to many seabirds. Dozens of Double-crested Cormorants, Herring Gulls, Great Black-backed Gulls, Black-legged Kittiwakes and, best of all, Razorbills decorate the cliffs, many sitting on nests, some just perched in easy view. While I’ve seen Razorbills before, this is unquestionably my best and most continuous view. The Razorbills are on the cliffs, on the rocks partially submerged in the sea, floating on the surface, flying directly in front of us and far out across the water. Also below us is a flock of dozens of Harlequin Ducks, some resting on a large black rock and others floating nearby. Closer to me in the water a Gray Seal pokes up its nose and my photo reveals its upper body through the clear seawater.
In another direction is a view of steep cliffs dropping abruptly to the sea, a photographic scene that could attractively adorn any nature magazine. Like a flurry of snowflakes, distant Black-legged Kittiwakes dance in backlit setting sun rays. Below them hundreds of Common Murres line up like penguins on a rock that is sprinkled with water falling from the cliff directly above.
The whole scene surrounding us is so peaceful and serene, filled with wildlife, it is hard to leave, so I decide to visit again tomorrow morning. In the evening Shari and I go out to eat with Bill and Ginny, enjoy a delicious seafood dinner and are surprised by nature yet once more when a Red Fox trots below our window seats along the roadside, carrying a Snowshoe Hare in its jaws.
(Shari) Two bear, a fox, sunshine and a geocache. Life does not get much better than this. After yesterday’s drive traversing one of the most scenic highways in Canada, we arrived at a campground near Forillon National Park. Our rigs face the water and the view is stunning. Today I get up after the birders left for their first outing. Marlene, Larry and I go out to enjoy the park at about 9 AM. We check out the campground in the park and decide we have the best place to camp. We go to the Interpretation Center and look at the display. We visit a recreated store that serviced the fishermen in the 1800s. And then we see the bear munching on greens at the side of the road. Bert and the birders come at it from the opposite direction and both Bert and I get pictures of the bear crossing the street in front of us. It is now time for lunch and a nap. I go out with the birders at 2:30 and Ron tells me Carol is looking for a geocache on the other side of a building. I run to catch up with her and there it is: a small plastic container, holding a pen and paper and two travel bugs, hidden under a rock. I sign my name and smile to myself as I think about telling Steve and Nancy (fellow geocachers on our Alaska trip last year) of my find. I continue down the path to the birders and again smile as I see them all intently looking through scopes. Bert lets me look and I get a close up of Razorbills on their nests and Harlequin Ducks sitting on a rock. I get bored before the rest and head back to the car to read the book I keep there just for such occasions. Soon the group comes back and we head home seeing one more bear on the way. Larry starts a campfire and we have another social just drinking in the nice weather and scene. Not many days will be better than this one weather wise. We go out to dinner with Bill and Ginny, going to the place the campground owner recommended. It is superb but Bert and Bill’s choice of a mixture of seafood on rice is the very best. I can hardly wait until we find a whole lobster to devour.
(Bert) I return to the rock cliffs at Cap-Bon-Ami in early morning with Judy, Doug, Kay and others that missed the spot yesterday or, like me, want to absorb more of this beautiful sight. I take an alternate entrance road and slow for a large floating flock of eiders, curiously almost entirely composed of males. At the cliffs, I’d hoped for the illumination of early sun, but overcast skies only offer gray light to my camera lens. The Harlequin Ducks have taken a new rock to rest upon and a closer view to photograph. I don’t recall ever seeing so many of these clown-decorated ducks in one spot. From Cap-Bon-Ami we head to Le Castor. In route this morning and at the beaver pond we encounter an amazing list of mammals: White-tailed Deer, two Black Bears, Snowshoe Hare, Woodchuck, Red Fox, Beaver, Moose cow and calf, and Ray and Nancy add Porcupine and Minke Whale–all in the space of about three hours. Ron stays a bit longer at the pond and adds to our trip list: Philadelphia Vireo, Scarlet Tanager and Rose-breasted Grosbeak.
Shari and I, closely followed by Ray and Nancy, are the first to leave for the short drive to Percé. The last few miles are steeply downhill, including a 17% slope descending into the village. Our campsite is on a cliff overlooking the famous Percé rock and Bonaventure Island. Shari locates a place selling live lobster, she and others buy several, and I get out the cooking pots for boiling them. What a meal! Life is good!
(Shari) Our trip is short today–only 60 mi. to Percé. Our campsite is superb, sitting right on the cliff with a view of the town below, the famous Percé Rock in the sea and Bonaventure Island across the way, not to mention the whales, seals and seabirds in between. Even though the sun shines, the wind makes it chilly to sit outside without a heavy coat and behind the protection of the motor home. We have a travel meeting at 5 and I tell the group about our excursion to Bonaventure Island tomorrow. Earlier I checked out a lobster pound 9 mi. down the road. I got a 10% discount for our group and 11 of us are having lobster tonight making it only $5 per pound Canadian. We set two pots to boil, one on an electric heating element around 4:30 and the other on gas heat around on 5:30. Soon the gas powered pot is boiling and the first two lobsters hit the water. Twenty minutes later they are done and the next two go in. The other pot is not even close to boiling yet. So all of the lobsters are cooked in the same pot and it takes quite awhile for all 11 to cook. Finally Bert and I take our cooked lobsters inside, make a salad and broccoli and savor our lobster dipped in melted butter knowing this is just the first of many such meals.
(Shari) Nine years ago we saw 70,000 gannets nesting on Bonaventure Island. This year there are over 124,000. Gannets are everywhere: in the rocks and crevices, flying in the air, diving into the sea and nesting on the flat hillsides of the island. Pat and Pat, in charge of sun, do a fine job today and there is not a cloud in the sky when we leave for our trip. First we see a movie about the life cycle of the gannets, showing us the varying behaviors of the birds, as they court, when they want to take to flight and when they defend their small 80-cm diameter territory. We arrive on the island at 11 AM and are told we can return at 2, 4 or 5. Unfortunately we have to walk 1.6 mi. up and over the hillside to reach the nesting grounds of the gannets. We are told it takes 45 min. It takes me 1 hr. and 15 min. and the birders arrive about 15 min. later. It is well worth the walk as the ground is literally covered with gannets and we can get within 6 ft. of them. We sit at picnic tables, on benches or on the ground just mesmerized by the sight and the behavior of the birds. We see it all: the defending of territory, the courtship and, yes, the sex. We see the single egg under the female bird when she lifts herself up to turn it with her bill to even the warmth for incubation and inhibit the membrane from attaching to the side of the shell. We watch as the male dive bombs down to his nest bringing nesting material to the female. She either rejects it or accepts the morsel tucking it under her. If the male misses his nest area he gets thoroughly pecked by the other birds. Over and over we watch the behavior repeated, never getting sick of the sights. Bob, who is in charge of rain, mentions the clouds coming in above, and tells us we have maybe an hour before it rains. We head back to the dock. The return only takes 1 hr. 5 min. for me. Now we have an hour to kill so some of us listen to the park ranger tell us about the manager’s house and the fishing industry of the area. We get home by 5, pleasantly tired. I always say the sight of the gannets at this location is one of the seven wonders of the natural world. It rivals our sights of the Kodiak bears in Alaska.
(Bert) If there were a list of the seven greatest nature sites in North America, Bonaventure Island should be on that list. Our adventure starts from the dock at Percé on a crisp clear morning, cold enough to make five layers of clothes feel welcome in the sea breeze. Easily in sight of land is Percé Rock and the boat heads in its direction for a closer look of this mammoth rock wall that separated from the coastline. Erosion pierced a hole–as its name implies–in the rock at its base, a hole big enough to drive this boat through if it were not for the fallen debris barely below the surface. Around us fly hundreds of gannets, gulls and guillemots. At the top, high above us, are cormorants that through binoculars or the camera lens reveal white face patches and white flanks, marking these as Great Cormorants. Gannets dive for fish, starting high above the water, reaching speeds of up to 100 kph, plunging deep below the surface and using wings and tail to maneuver toward fish which are quickly swallowed, the whole action taking up to 10 sec. The fishing is done collectively, the action of dozens of gannets churning the water and attracting fish to the frenzy.
From Percé Rock the boat travels the short distance to Bonaventure Island. Slowly circling the island we gawk at the sheer raw red cliffs, strictly vertical from sea to grassy knoll far above us. The face of the rocks is covered with thousands of birds: Northern Gannets, Common Murres, Razorbills, Black-legged Kittiwakes. The water and the air churns with more of these, plus Black Guillemots, Great Black-backed Gulls, Herring Gulls and Ring-billed Gulls. The incredible quantity of birds is overwhelming; there easily must be over 100,000 birds. At the base of the cliffs, Gray Seals bask.
On the opposite side of the island the land slopes to a boat dock and when we disembark we walk past a grassy embankment and several historic houses left from when a few people lived on the island. Then the trail heads uphill, a 45-min. hike for younger folk and twice that for older folk watching for birds in the spruce forest we pass through. We hear birds–Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Cape May Warbler, Yellow Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, White-throated Sparrow–vigorously defending nesting territories with spirited song and with effort we find their posts. I frequently hear American Redstarts and one male allows close approach, affording good photos. Our slow walk eventually takes us within smelling distance of the gannet colony, then within eyesight and earshot through the trees, and finally the immense colony spreads out fully in front of us. On the flat cap of the island, stretching from left to right as far as I can see, are gannets on nests, so close together that bills almost touch when they stretch out their necks. Thousands of gannets sit in front of us on ground scraped clean of cover, but we sit on lush green grass with a single suspended rope separating us from them, a line that observers do not cross nor birds walk over, although those in flight frequently fly only a few feet above us.
We eat our packed lunches while watching the spectacle, a constantly changing drama of birdlife. Almost all of the gannets are paired up, often with one sitting on a nest and the other standing close beside. The ritualistic pattern of nesting unfolds, a distinct behavior set that we can clearly study. A gannet carrying green leaves or dried plant life flies over the colony and plunges near its mate, an awkward act resulting in bill attacks from neighbors should the flying bird miss its target. If bearing nesting material, the pair quickly adds it to the nest. If without, the arriving gannet vigorously pecks the neck of its mate who calmly acquiesces to the rough treatment. Then the two raise their necks, crossing bills in a pseudo sword match, twisting necks and heads in all directions, always affectionately close together. Some pairs are mutually preening, an affectionate act. Some pairs are copulating, with the male atop the female and using its bill to grab the female behind its neck. Some birds are already sitting on eggs, one per pair, and occasionally rising in the nest and using its bill to turn the egg which it envelopes within its large webbed feet. All the action and that of its neighbors is accompanied with loud squabbling guttural noises, a collective sound that is a constant drone in the colony. When a gannet feels the need to take flight, it doesn’t simply leave. Instead, it points its head skyward as if testing the wind, stretches out its wings, contracts them, shakes out its feet, clearly revealing the large black paddles with yellow tarsal ridges, takes a step or two and springs upward, its wings flapping vigorously.
We watch the gannet colony for hours, a constant source of amazement. When dark clouds begin to form on the horizon, we begin a slow walk back, listening for birds in route. In mid afternoon most are quiet, but we do add the red form of Fox Sparrow to the list and get multiple views of Cape May Warbler which Bob can finally add to his list, having missed all previous encounters. Back on mainland, Ron, Shari and I sit beside our RV overlooking the sea. Distant cormorants fly above the water, showing just enough features to separate Double-crested from Great. Minke Whales poke above the surface, showing a fin and then quickly submerging again. The setting sun illuminates Percé Rock, a tranquil end to a perfect day.
(Bert) Yesterday being a full activity day, I do not schedule birding this morning until 9 AM, but by 8:45 everyone is at the cars ready to leave for Malbaie Saltmarsh at village of Barachois. A barachois is a coastal lagoon separated from the ocean by a sandbar. This one is fed from four inland rivers and thus includes both freshwater and saltwater marshes. We set up spotting scopes on the periphery to study the mudflats, open water and grassy edges. Judy finds a Great Black-backed Gull with fluffy chicks that leave the nest shortly after birth, although still attended by the adults. A flock of several hundred Double-crested Cormorants stands so densely that they transform a distant sandy point into black ink. When they take flight they spread low across the pond in long dark strings. A Common Eider attends young chicks floating near the mudflats. Perhaps this explains why we saw the group of predominantly males two days ago; the females could have been sitting on eggs or attending young. Nearer to us a European Starling keeps entering and exiting a hole in a tree, about 30 ft. from the ground. When it approaches with food we can hear the chicks chirp excitedly. We leave the barachois, taking an inland road uphill and continue even after it converts to rough gravel. Birds are not plentiful, probably owing to our late start. Ray and I are walking together and as I point out a singing Ruby-crowned Kinglet, a hawk erupts from the dense undergrowth. Seeing its banded tail, I announce Broad-winged Hawk. A few minutes later it circles above all of us and others speculate its identity. I see three field guides come out of packs. Nancy questions the near lack of black edging on the wings. Ray takes note of its small size. In the end discussion, it is still a Broad-winged Hawk, albeit a molting juvenile. Proceeding again on the narrow road I ask Bill to stop when I hear a loudly singing Tennessee Warbler. The rest of the group pulls up and we scan the tops of the aspen for the singer. It moves from tree to tree many times and is easily seen in flight, yet most of the group have great difficulty finding it hidden in the leaves. After 10+ minutes everyone has at least seen its white belly, but most have not seen the contrasting head. Lunchtime urges everyone to head back to camp, but Bill and I visit another back road near the barachois. This is a more birdy place, one we should have visited first. We add an American Kestrel, first of the trip, Belted Kingfisher, Orange-crowned Warbler and I photograph a surprisingly tame Savannah Sparrow that seems attracted to the click of the camera shutter.
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