Part 2. Fall Migration
Chapter 10. Nova Scotia 2
(Shari) Our orientation turns into a breakfast one instead of a meeting and pizza dinner. We can choose anything on the menu at the local restaurant and, as we wait for our food, I handle the necessary repeated paperwork for a second trip, forms to fill out and collect, reminders to mention and a travel meeting that amounts to “Here is the log, here is where we are going next, you all get there the way you want anyway.” After our filling breakfast, we return to camp. Bert has gotten some nudges about getting new batteries from some of the men. You see, the last few times we had to start the engine with battery assist from our house batteries. Where is our Tailgunner when we need him? Yesterday a guest from another caravan metered our batteries and confirmed they were bad. Today while Bert is taking a nap, Bob meters them also and confirms we need new batteries. Bob stays with Bert as Bert makes phone calls. We then unhook and drive to the battery place. Bob gives us moral support as we purchase and replace the batteries. I think Bert kind of feels proud of himself as the engine starts and he realizes he must have installed them correctly.
(Bert) We step into the year 1744 when we pass under the Dauphin Gate and into walled Fort Louisbourg. A French soldier warns us not to make drawings of the fortifications, although in his age he knows nothing about the digital camera slipped into my pocket. I photograph the three drummers marching down the dirt street and turning the corner at Hôtel de la Marine. On the second floor of the Ordonnateur’s residence I study the paintings of the busy fort crawling with over a thousand residents and a harbor cluttered with dozens of ships and boats, the busiest harbor in North America. We hear the drums and the fife announce an event at the military field enclosed by King’s Bastion Ramparts and follow the crowd through the streets, past the guardhouse and through the barracks. Under orders from their superior officer, five blue-uniformed soldiers load and fire their muskets, a loud crack followed by a puff of white smoke. They march up the ramparts from the left approach while the drummers and fifer mount from the right. Already in position at the canon, three more soldiers follow step-by-step orders for preparing the canon for firing. Enemy soldiers could advance a half-mile in the time it takes for the canon to be loaded (and with my secret camera I record the process, impatiently waiting for the much prolonged firing). Finally, in sequence, each of the foot soldiers fires his musket, the fuse is lit, we see a flash of fire and hear an enormous boom. Quickly a cloud of smoke enshrouds the canon and soldiers and drifts our way. The French fort fell to the British twice before being blown up and destroyed. Elaborate architectural drawings allowed Parks Canada to recreate the village and fort to exacting conditions, leaving visitors like us with the distinct impression that we have entered the mid-18th century world.
After a seafood dinner at a Louisbourg restaurant overlooking the bay, six of us go to the Louisbourg Playhouse for the performance of the 2009 Spirit of the Island. Five performers on keyboard, guitar, drum, fiddle and voice entertain us with Cape Breton music and humor.
(Shari) After returning and setting up, we drive to Fort Louisbourg. We get there later than we wanted too and have to rush to get in all we want to see. I have been here before and actually remember it, but it is worth a return visit. A project of the Canadian government back in the 1960s to employ out-of-work miners, the fort is a representation of the 1740s. Only 20% is reconstructed but the place is still the largest recreation in the world with numerous streets and buildings. Guides in period costumes help with the ambience and we feel we are really among the people in 1740, cold and damp included. The fog has started to roll in and the town has an eerie feeling. We watch a military demonstration. I buy some bread that is the same recipe as was fed to the soldiers. We view typical houses of the time and express our thankfulness that we live in the 21st century. Soon it is time to leave.
Doug and Kay meet us at the gates as do Bill and Ginny. Ginny has found menus of local restaurants and we pick one on the bay. After our meal we walk the shore until it is time for the play. For the next two hours we are entertained by two men and three women, singing, fiddling, step dancing and telling jokes. During intermission traditional oatcakes, tasting much like shortbread cookies, and tea are served. It is a fun evening.
(Bert) Not returning from Louisbourg until after 11 PM, I awake a bit groggy at 5:30 AM. In another hour Ron, Bill and I are off to find birds at Graves Point. Ron pulls to the side of the quiet road so we can get a closer look at the goldfinch and Purple Finch at a bird feeder. Jack, the house owner, comes out to greet us and when he finds out we are birders he tells us he shares our interest and, in fact, knows the person I have e-mailed about birds at Cape Breton. He invites us to his backyard where Ruby-throated Hummingbirds come to his feeders. What incredibly beautiful floral gardens his wife attends and from their spacious lawns the view overlooks the river feeding into Lake Bras d’Or. We stop again at a park overlooking the lake and later at a marsh where Bill spots an American Bittern. Ron aligns his scope on the bittern that hides so effectively in the reeds it all but disappears as just another reed among many. Our expectations were low for this morning’s birding, so we are surprised when we reach 35 species by 10 AM. We also find a snake, actually two, one alive and one dead. I photograph both of them for later identification [Eastern Garter Snake]. We get back to the campground well before lunch and I have time for a short nap.
(Shari) After lunch we carpool to Baddeck to visit the Alexander Graham Bell museum. While the rest start at the museum, I find the location of tonight’s Ceigleh and buy some groceries for our fish boil. I meet the group at the museum and watch a few films about Mr. Bell. He is famous for inventing the telephone, but he did much more. I had forgotten that his wife was nearly deaf and he spent much of his life teaching and helping the deaf. After the museum, we all gather on the deck of a local restaurant. We sit at a table that has chairs for all but one of us. Doug decides to sit in a shorter chair. He is so tall that he now looks like the rest. Bill has bought a Tilley hat and we admire it while Doug gives Bill a lesson on the Tilley. I must say, the hat does look good on him. After our meal, we go to our Ceigleh, a gathering of local talent in a relaxed atmosphere. Two women entertain us, one with the fiddle and the other on the piano. The piano player plays by ear and has never played some of the songs the fiddler selects but I cannot hear a missed beat or a wrong note. The fiddle player, teaches us a bit about the beat of the Irish tunes, how they start slow and increase in speed. She taps her foot to the time of the music and I notice I am tapping too. She gives us a demonstration in step dancing and tells us how people dance differently depending on what area of the country they are from. Here on Cape Breton the dancers keep their arms to their sides in a loose manner. She ends her performance by teaching us some Gaelic and we sing along with her on one of the songs. Apparently if no instruments are available, people sing made up syllables to sound like an instrument.
(Bert) Moving campsites, we cross bridges to Cape Breton Island and then move north along the Cabot Trail. The broken road slows me to 30-35 mph and every few minutes I search for a pullout to allow a backup of a half dozen cars behind me. The slowest is the steep climb at Cape Smokey where I downshift to second gear. Once we are settled in our campsite at Cape Breton Highlands National Park, I backtrack to the Operations Center and find John-Francis who gives me yet more details on finding Bicknell’s Thrush. I now have two bird finding books, one website of Breeding Bird Surveys, one e-mail and two conversations on locating the thrush on Cape Breton Island. At social, I discuss my findings with the group and perhaps a few of us will try for the bird in a day or two from now. For tomorrow we decide on a different route, however, and one that should be quite scenic. I’ve read that Cape Breton Island was voted the second most beautiful island in the world. Of course, that begs the question “What is the first?”
(Bert) Rain in the forecast does not appear and we are blessed with another day of sunny weather. We are headed to the top of the Cape Breton Island, the northernmost point of Nova Scotia. Our first stop is Cabot Landing Provincial Park, a grassy lawn with a broad sand and gravel beach where signs warn of Piping Plovers, although we see none, nor spend time on the beach except to take note of the Bald Eagles. Instead we look across a narrow brook at a mixed flock of warblers and sparrows. I usually count myself as somewhat of an expert on sparrows, especially the eastern sparrows I find in Texas in winter. So, I am surprised when I now watch one or two that I cannot identify. I get mixed signals of Savannah, Swamp and Lincoln’s and I suspect it is a rather young juvenile. I’ll have to remember to carry my camera next time I encounter one of these.
We reach Bay St. Lawrence and stop to scan a lake that opens through a narrow channel to the Atlantic, identifying a very distant Common Goldeneye through my spotting scope and three close-up Red-breasted Merganser chicks swimming without adults present. At the harbor the dock is bedecked with a mixed flock of cormorants and gulls, presenting a good exercise in gull ages. The bare facial skin on the Double-crested Cormorants is only slightly diminished from its breeding state and is still bright orange. Large flocks of Black Guillemots rest on the calm water near shore and a few fly to the steep cliffs to a hidden nesting spot. Near the horizon hundreds of Northern Gannets are evident by their frenzied plunging into sea just behind a fishing boat; white and black specks dot the sky and strings of white dots trail the wake. Later when I am standing on a steep cliff I find a few gannets much closer to shore and I photograph them plunging into water just below me. After watching the action for a while I figure out the pattern. The gannets have found a productive spot and keep attacking that spot of water. Each gannet circles to gain altitude and on the final pass it aligns into the wind, brakes itself with an upward turn of its wings and at the moment it stalls in flight, it somersaults forward, aims its long neck downward and drops like a heavy harpoon straight into the sea, causing turbulent bubbles of turquoise appear as a glowing spot in a monotony of dull blue. Within ten seconds the gannet springs to the surface and wastes no time in struggling to become airborne, first stretching its wings backward in a severe “V”, kicking strongly with its feet, raising its tail above the surface. With each downward stroke of its wings it raises a bit higher, then dips slightly and uses its feet for another push, repeating the pattern four more times and leaving a dotted white water trail like a flat stone skipped four times across the surface before the gannet frees itself and becomes airborne.
(Shari) “It’s only $2.50 per pound. We can’t pass that up”, I tell Ginny. That’s the price for snow crab live right from the boat. I buy 38 lb. of crab and now I have to tell Bert that he and I have to stop birding and go home to cook them while the rest continue on. It is only 9:30 AM and I had not intended to do the crab dinner today, but at that price…. Until after I paid for the crabs I did not learn that I had to cook them within 4 hr. Since we do not have a container big enough to keep all that crab cold, the plant lets us borrow one of their big bins filled with crushed ice. All the stuff from the back of our car goes into our back seat. Bert places a garbage bag across the floor of our hatchback and the crab bin is loaded on top of that. We drive the 40 min. home, get out the big pot and set it to boil water while Bert and I clean the crab. After the crab is cleaned and the first of three batches finishes boiling, I tell Bert that I will finish up and he should rejoin the group to bird. I do what I like to do and that is cook.
(Bert) While the birders are watching the sea, Shari is negotiating for snow crabs on the dock. A boat has recently come in and the workers have unloaded their catch. Shari buys enough crabs for the whole group, but is surprised when the workers tell her she needs to cook the crabs within a few hours. My plans of birding the next few hours change of necessity and I rearrange the back of our SUV to accommodate the large plastic box full of crabs in ice. While the others continue birding, Shari and I return to camp. I set up the propane tank and burner, fill the large kettle with water and start it heating. I crack open crabs, knocking off the top shell and together we clean out the internals and separate each crab into two halves, each with four legs and a claw arm. In an hour or so we’ve cleaned 20 crabs and finished boiling the first third. I head back to birding while Shari continues boiling the others and preparing the rest of tonight’s feast.
The others are birding more than an hour away and before I reach them I stop to watch a pod of Harbor Porpoises. Although far from shore, I can study their behavioral pattern. Swimming together in the same direction, a few rise to the surface showing first their heads, then back, then dorsal fin and a portion of the hind back before arching back below the surface. I count as many as five above the surface at one time and suspect the pod must be at least ten. After some time they stop moving in a straight line and circle at one spot and I suspect they’ve found a food source. Bill pulls up in his truck and I point out the porpoises to his car load. They are returning from Meat Cove, but I continue on to see it for myself. Without the others, I study flowers as much as birds and find half a dozen blooms that I haven’t photographed before. The gravel road ends at a campground on a grassy slope overlooking Meat Cove with a dramatic backdrop of a forested mountain cape transitioning into raw rock cliffs that plunge into the sea. On the way back I photograph a Pine Grosbeak in the middle of the road and an hour later I stop at the estuary at South Harbor, first to watch the Canada Geese and then to discover many other species, including Willets and Black-bellied Plovers. The real surprise is hearing a Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrow.
(Shari) I make coleslaw and potatoes and onions to go along with the crab. At 5:30 we start to eat. Some of us like it cold crab while others like it reheated. We spend the next two hours cracking and eating; Bob is hilarious during the process. I have never seen anyone have so much trouble getting crab from its shell and he does not hesitate to give us a running commentary about his travails. We finish eating just as the drizzle starts. Carol’s birthday brownies have to be eaten under our canopy but that does not stop anyone from participating. Even then I notice no one wants to be the first to leave to break up the gang. Finally I can’t stand the little black flies that have started to bite and go inside, telling the rest they may stay but I cannot. Everyone goes home then. Guess I broke up the group and ended our fun day.
(Bert) One of the spots for Bicknell’s Thrush is Paquette Lake and Ron has gathered a few more details on where we should search along the trail. Although not the best location, it is closest to our campground and we agree to start from camp at 5:30 AM, a bit on the late side but still early enough to give us some chances to hear the thrush. I lead down the narrow trail through dense woods, followed by Ron, Bill and Kay. I stop dead in my tracks when I see 75 ft. ahead of me an adult Moose blocks the path. We freeze, raise our binoculars and cameras and watch the Moose study us briefly before sluggishly strolling into the forest. Gingerly we advance and when we reach the spot we can see the Moose staring back at us from deep in the forest.
Tall forest gives way to a shorter one of tightly woven spruce not above chest high. Our path becomes difficult, not steep, but covered with irregularly shaped rocks that make for uneven footing. Pooled water can usually be navigated by rock stepping, yet I soon have wet hiking shoes anyway. I’ve worn this pair so many years that they are no longer waterproof and I can feel the water seeping into my socks. No problem, the air is warm, the weather is again excellent, this on a day forecasted with 60% chance of rain. We reach stunted forest where we concentrate on hearing Bicknell’s Thrush. We hear only Hermit Thrushes, numerous photogenic Common Yellowthroats and the chips of sparrows. I again find a few of the juvenile sparrows I couldn’t identify yesterday and this time I have my camera ready to photograph them. Later upon expanding them on my computer I see they are juvenile Lincoln’s Sparrows with rusty red wings and only a bit of the telltale facial markings I use to identify the adults. Butterflies in the far north are few compared to our tropical birding areas during winter, so I am happy to find a nicely patterned orange Atlantis Fritillary. We’ve almost completed our hiking and are again in the dense woods when three of us watch an Ovenbird, the only one we have seen (as opposed to heard-only) on this trip. Kay is standing away from us and I ask her if she saw the Ovenbird also. Hesitantly, she says yes, asks a few identification questions and then opens her book. Confusion dissipates when we understand that Kay was watching a Wood Thrush at the same time we three men were viewing the Ovenbird. Since the rest of us have not found Wood Thrush this trip we search for it again, without avail.
(Shari) I know the group intends to do the Cabot Trail tomorrow, but we should not waste a pretty day. When Bert comes back from birding, I tell him I want to go to Chéticamp. He is surprisingly agreeable, so off we go. We stop a couple of times to drink in the scenery and check out a birding site for tomorrow. We take a “Shari-path”, one that is flat and dry (a boardwalk), free of twigs and rocks, and includes interpretative signs. This is the bog trail on French Mountain. Only the last 20 mi. of the road are steep and curvy and not fit for the likes of R-Tent-III. Smaller rigs would do okay, though. We get back a little after 5 and join Bill and Ginny, then Ron and Pat and Bob for drinks and a discussion of our options tomorrow.
(Bert) In the afternoon, Shari and I go off on our own. She is intent on taking the Cabot Trail highway all the way to Chéticamp. We stop at the Bog Trail at French Mountain and traverse the boardwalk loop on a day that has now reached the 80s in temperature. As usual, I become enthralled with the bog plants and especially with finding Bogbean (Buckbean) which I had read about but not previously photographed. While Shari picks up a few items at the grocery store in Chéticamp I find the pale yellow flowers of Indian Mustard growing at the edge of the parking lot. Flowers are everywhere in July. Along the way back we visit a few places where I hope we can find Bicknell’s Thrush early tomorrow morning and while Shari is driving, I finally identify The Green Thing. More on that tomorrow.
(Bert) The security forces for the national park block the campground exit with three marked cars, and a half dozen officers mill outside. It is 3:30 AM. Bill and I are riding with Ron and I suggest Ron try leaving through the entrance gate, but two officers flag us down. Inquiring about what we are doing–without stating the obvious tag: AT 3:30 AM!–I tell him, “We want to hear Bicknell’s Thrush and get across the park before dawn”. If I had used that excuse in Texas, I suspect I’d be hauled out of the car and asked to walk a straight line. Instead, one of the officers comments, “Oh, are you going to Benjii’s Lake. I heard one there a year ago.” He lets us pass and then on the main highway we see a squad car approach with lights flashing. Apparently some mischief in the campground initiated this action. We leave it behind us and for the next hour travel in darkness without another approaching vehicle.
After two days of clear and sunny weather, although forecasted rain, we are not prepared for the drizzle hitting the windshield as we approach French Mountain. Doug flashes his truck spotlight as we near the pullout. He and Kay spent the night at a campground near Chéticamp so they did not need to get up as early as we did. Nonetheless, it is only 4:45 when we meet up with them. Still dark and still raining, we wait in our vehicles for 15 min. until a brief suspension of precipitation. Then we walk across the highway to The Green Thing. I saw it yesterday when we drove past. I don’t know what it is. In Dave’s e-mail he said we should look for the Bicknell’s Thrush near The Green Thing, and we would know it when we see it. Towering above the spruce trees in a small clearing about 25 yd. from the highway, it is circular, tall, tapered and has an odd cap. And, of course, it is green. Bill, Ron and I stand in the darkness, facing the pseudo-phallic symbol and Kay approaches from the highway saying, “Three men paying homage to testosterone”. This has been a weird morning and it is getting weirder. Something near the tower hums like a propane burner fueled by three huge tanks. Strange equipment is on pedestals and large flat panels face away from us, probably solar panels. We suspect this is weather gathering equipment, but still have no idea the purpose of The Green Thing.
After 15 min. of standing silently in darkness, facing The Green Thing and hearing only a distant White-throated Sparrow, rain starts again. We cross the highway, heading for the cars. We pause to listen once more on this side of the highway. First light has crisped the edges of the spruce trees surrounding a bog. I hear a distinctive call note and then hear it repeated two or three more times in the space of a minute. I turn to Ron and Bill saying, “That’s it, isn’t it?” They agree. To be sure, we play the recording. It matches Bicknell’s Thrush. I record the time: 5:20 AM. We wait for another call, or perhaps a song, but none comes. Raindrops gather force and we retreat to the car. I suggest the three of us head to Benjii’s Lake Trail. Rain is falling harder when we pull into the parking lot, so we wait in the car and catch up on a bit of our lost sleep. When the rain stops we start down the trail, pausing frequently to listen for thrushes. Instead we hear the pitter patter of renewed rain that gains strength the farther we hike the trail. Puddles form and rain runs off my raincoat and saturates my cotton pants. I wish I had put on my rain pants and worn my longer raincoat and switched to my rubber boots before we left camp this morning. No birds, pouring rain, time to retreat. By the time I reach Ron’s car I am drenched. Doug and Kay leave us, heading back to the campground, and we three men decide to head to Tim Horton’s in Chéticamp to wait out the rain. After donuts and tea or coffee Ron finds an air dryer at the toilets and one by one we use it to dry out our clothes.
Shortly after 9 AM we return to The Green Thing and walk around to the back side, scaring up a thrush in the process. I see a rusty tail and call it a Hermit Thrush. Ron has doubts and retrieves his field guide while I go for my camera and long lens. Ron points out that Bicknell’s Thrush has a rusty tail also, so we go back in search for the thrush again, finding two adults and a juvenile. I’m more convinced they are Hermit Thrushes and my photographs confirm the identity. In addition, the juvenile’s call is that of a Hermit. Just to be sure, we play back our recordings and confirm the call note. It reassures us that we are seeing and hearing Hermit Thrushes now and that the earlier call notes were Bicknell’s Thrush.
(Shari) Oh, no! I don’t want to go. It is raining outside and not a good day for driving 60 mi. along the Cabot Trail. But I have passengers who want to go, so I had better get dressed. At least we don’t have to leave until 9. Later, I am happy I got myself going. On the trip over, we made our own sunshine and went geocaching in the drizzle as well as berry picking. By the time we meet the guys, the sun has started to peak out and Ron shares Tim Horton donuts. They will always make a day sunny. We split up again and Bill, Ginny, Bert and I drive to Chéticamp, stopping at several pullouts for pictures. Because of the rain, the farmer’s market is held indoors. However, I’m disappointed that it consists of only four or five vendors with overpriced handmade items and not much produce. The guys wanted us to shop a long time since they wanted to take a nap. Too bad!
Next we drive to the scarecrow place. It has not changed in nine years and does not seem to have new additions. In the president’s row, the rubber masks on top of stuffed clothes stop at our first President Bush. The other “people” are clothes stuffed on wooden crosspieces, with masks and signs depicting various occupations of the province. It makes for funny photographs when we take turns posing with the props. We stop nearby to watch a crab boat come in. The hold is loaded with iced down crabs. A man bends over, grabs handfuls of crabs and throws them into a bin before he lifts up the bin up to another man who stacks the bins three high. A crane takes the three bins to the bed of a huge semi-trailer and the bins are weighed before they are pushed on rollers inside. So goes the process, crab upon crab, bin upon bin. I learn that I can buy crab for $2 per pound. I am so tempted but Bert shakes me back to reality when he asks how I am going to keep them alive until we get home. Yeah, but the price is so good. We pass up the bargain, hoping we can buy crab later at Neil’s Harbor. After a terrific lunch we start our trek home. More stops at the visitor’s center. Bill buys a bird field guide and we all watch a movie about the park. More stops for pictures going in the opposite direction. More blueberry picking at Pleasant Bay, but no crabs at Neil’s Harbor. The plant finished that day after processing 40,000 pounds of crabs and will not open again until 7 AM. I am tempted to drive out there tomorrow before we leave since this is the last place for crabs that I know about on the trip. We return home a little after five and all join in for a social and discussion on our departure plans tomorrow. Bill asks about Bert’s bird books and Bert retrieves four specialty books from R-Tent-III. Then Ron and Kay show an interest and Bert retrieves about 10 more bird books. They write down titles and authors for a wish list. When the talk turns to birds and books I go inside, start our salads for dinner and watch TV.
(Bert) We leave Cape Breton Island this morning, winding around the coastal road, over the top of Smokey, down to St. Anne’s Harbour and past Baddeck. I remark to Shari that I think a third of the traffic is motorcycles and that Cape Breton must be one of the best places for motorcyclists to vacation. Apparently she takes my statement as a challenge and silently begins counting motorcycles. To her surprise, after she has counted 100 cars and trucks she has also counted 39 motorcycles.
When we reach Canso Causeway, the bridge is closed and traffic is backed up. I pull to the side and Shari prepares lunch. I’m curious about the causeway and go outside to see what’s happening and read the poster signs about its history. I remember reading in Audubon’s journals that when he went to Labrador the boat’s captain and all the cod fishing boats went through the Strait of Canso, rather than around Cape Breton. According to the signs the bypass saved them 70 nautical miles. I am surprised that until 1955 the only way to reach Cape Breton by car was by ferry, which was very congested. When the causeway was constructed it blocked all but 80 ft. of the passageway, thus diverting enormous quantities of tidal water. Tidal locks were constructed to keep boat traffic from surging through the passageway too quickly and a rotating bridge was built to swing away from the channel for the boats. As I watch, a small sailboat gently glides past the swing bridge and enters the locks. Slowly, the bridge rotates back, the locks close and vehicular traffic can resume. Although it is only a small pleasure boat that holds up traffic this time, ships up to 735 ft. can pass through and an average of 2065 ships do so yearly. I go back for lunch and when we finish I start R-Tent-III into the highway, but just at that moment the traffic light turns red and the gate closes. We miss our chance by a minute. This time I cannot see why the bridge is swinging aside until far in the distance I see two small sailboats moving toward us on minimal engine power. I use my camera to video segments of the action. Since the camera also records the time, I later notice that we were held up 10 min. for the boats and by the time we can cross, it has blocked at least a hundred cars. Shari checks the map and notices that this swing bridge is the only way to drive on and off Cape Breton Island and there must be thousands of cars that do so every day. I’m surprised if there isn’t demand for a high bridge.
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