Chapter 11. New Brunswick 2
(Bert) We have a few hours before we move campsites, so Ron and Kay join me for birding at Tracadie Bay. I turn down a country road that leads to the bay and stop when I see a shallow lake and marshlands. While watching a Great Blue Heron I hear a Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrow call from behind me. Turning, I see it perched on a nearby bush and soon Ron has his scope aligned on it. Kay is delighted since her previous sighting months ago was tenuous and this one is readily heard and seen. We hear three more sing from other parts of the grasslands.
Light rains begin to fall so we continue birding from inside the shelter of the car. On a tiny grass island we see a Herring Gull accompanied by two shorebirds whose identity we dispute. Eventually they fly and Ron is right, they are Willets. What confused me is that these are Eastern Willets in breeding plumage, so much browner than the Western Willets I see most often in Texas.
Our last birds of note are gathered in a small flock floating far away on the bay. The rain is coming so forcefully now that we cannot set up a scope and when Ron attempts to prop his scope on the window it fogs up. Through binoculars we see dark female ducks and white fore-winged immature male ducks. We would call them Common Eiders, except their breasts are dark. Even though we study the seven ducks for 15 min. we cannot identify them at this distance.
(Bert) Today is our first chance to see massive flocks of Semipalmated Sandpipers that migrate through the Bay of Fundy. I’m almost to the site near Johnson’s Mills when my low gas gauge light illuminates. Kay switches to Ron’s car and Doug rides back with me to a gas station. By the time we return, the others have been watching a flock feeding along the shore as high tide is pushing them closer. The flock moves across the gravel like army ants, feeding feverously. Occasionally they take flight, a tight knit group turning on a dime, uniform in motion, spaced just far enough apart so wings do not intercept. With their backs to us, the flock is dark brown, but when they turn it becomes white with belly side to us. Brown and white it flashes as the flock swarms across the beach until at an unseen signal the flock suddenly lands back on the gravel and begins feeding again.
One of the attendants at the interpretive center estimates the flock size at 3000. Each day each of the workers gives estimates of the birds they see and this flock is only a small portion of those feeding on the beaches now. High tide has now arrived and the birds find remnant sections of dry beach to roost. With heads tucked into wings, the brown sandpipers resemble the rocks and the flock of thousands all but dissolves into the landscape. We wait out high tide, eat our lunches, and talk to other visitors as the birds sleep. One of the others watching the birds is Peter Hicklin, who has done a great deal of research on Semipalmated Sandpipers. I remember from my 2000 visit that reintroduced Peregrine Falcons were harassing sandpipers so much there was concern that the birds would not get gain enough weight to fuel their long distance migration from here to Surinam, South America. Peter tells us he tested that theory in 2004 and found that the birds had changed behavior to avoid conflicts. Instead of roosting in huge flocks, they spread out into smaller flocks and they chose roosting areas away from tall shoreline trees where falcons perched. Instead of exhibiting territorial behavior while feeding, they now accommodated other sandpipers nearby, thus reducing the time needed to feed. Peter and his students measured weight gain on captured sandpipers and marked about 800 sandpipers with colors signifying arrival week. Thus he was able to establish that the sandpipers gained sufficient weight for the oceanic flight and that their stay at the Bay of Fundy was approximately 10 days.
From a patch of ever lengthening vividly green sea grass, we can see that the tide is receding. The sandpipers are stirring from their naps and milling around the dry beach. As the tide recedes farther, the sandpipers move to the wet mud and vigorously feed on mud shrimp only 3/8” long. A brochure I picked up says on the average a square meter of mud contains 10,000-20,000 shrimp and that their high lipid content is ideal for the sandpipers to gain fat reserves.
One of the other workers radios this station that a flock of 30,000 sandpipers are a few miles from here. We get into our cars and head to the site. When we arrive the worker has raised his estimate to 40,000. Spread across a near mile of mud flats, the flock doesn’t seem that large until I microscopically scan across the area with my scope. With a bit of multiplication of the birds I see in the vertical direction and the number I see in the horizontal direction I estimate I’m seeing 500-1000 in each scope view. Swinging my scope left and right, up and down, I can find dozens of identical views, so an estimate of 40,000 does not seem unreasonable. The farther the tide recedes, the more distant the sandpipers are from us, until finally they are too far away to see easily. We decide it is time for ice cream and we head back to Sackville.
(Bert) A tiny black rail scurries amongst the dense cattail stands, a black spot mostly hidden by green stalks. Could it be The Black Rail? I think not, and Bill confirms that Sibley states all juvenile rails start out black. More likely it is a Sora. Then we see an older juvenile, telltale brown with distinctive black and white bands at its flanks. Floating and diving in the shallow pond we watch ducks in eclipse plumage, a challenge to identify. Most are American Black Ducks, but also Ring-neckeds, Mallards, Wigeons and Gadwalls. We return to the Visitor’s Information Center and meet two guides who will tell us about the Sackville Waterfowl Park’s origin 21 years ago and point out the plants and animals of the park. Well designed, attractive and natural, the park would be the envy of any city, yet here is supported by a small town. Birds know a good thing too and feel quite safe in this environment, allowing close approach and wonderful photo opportunities. Six fist-sized chicks nestle beside an adult Gadwall, all sleeping on a floating board. Seven female American Wigeons are lined up in various stages of rest on another submerged board. Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs share the same tiny mud island with Short-billed Dowitchers, a nice size comparison study. A very young and small muskrat feeds in the duckweed only a dozen feet from the boardwalk, oblivious to our presence. An adult Pied-billed Grebe attends her brood of four, floating together. The chicks have harlequin heads, striped black and white with patches of orange and red.
A family group of eight Canada Geese rest on the clipped grass, the juveniles now almost indistinguishable from the adults. I ask our guide about the geese, since they have buff-colored fronts. She says they are Lesser Canada Geese, and their smaller size supports that judgment. However, their fronts should be white, not buff. I suggest that maybe it is tannic acid in the water or something they are eating, but she says, “No, that is the way they always look”. I take lots of photos and notice that even their chinstraps are buff. Later, when I consult my books, the photos resemble a lighter version of Dusky Canada Goose, but even with that presumption the chinstraps do not match. None of us are satisfied with the identification and wonder what they really are.
(Shari) For a small town, Sackville has some wonderful facilities. The small university dominates the town with its stately older brick buildings and manicured lawns. It brings culture to the community it might not otherwise have. Streetlamp posts are decorated with beautiful hanging flower pots and/or “Welcome to Sackville” decorated flags. The community in cooperation with Ducks Unlimited reclaimed a wetland and made it a marshland park. I have arranged a tour of the marsh this morning that I also attend. It is my type of birding. Luke and Susan guide us for over two hours along the boardwalk, explaining the history of the wetlands, pointing out some of the plants both native and introduced, and birds. Usually the tour lasts 1˝ hours. Our group finds so many interesting things to look at and asks so many questions that it lasts 2˝ hours, finishing with lemonade and ginger snaps on the deck of the visitor center. Susan must have enjoyed us so much that she gives each of us a pin of a mallard with “Sackville” written on it. We enjoyed it too: a beautiful place in a beautiful town.
(Bert) “I can just see the blog in the bog”, sums up Doug for the morning. But that story comes later. We start from the parking lot shortly after 8 AM. It only takes an instant for us to recognize we need bug spray amply applied. The first hour or two we see and hear an abundance of birds, though mosquitoes outnumber birds a million to one. In the wooded areas at the edges of meadows we see mostly warblers and other passerines. The swarms of mosquitoes send Carol back to the cars for relief, but the rest of us continue. Somewhere along the way we loose Doug too. Along the higher ground bordering Layton’s Lake the breeze off the water blows away the mosquitoes and we are relieved for the rest of the morning. A White-tailed Deer bounds through the forest, one of the very few we have seen this trip. A half-dozen Red Squirrels chatter and when we reach the water impoundment surrounded by marshes we watch a distant Beaver. We haven’t found many mushrooms this trip so far. Today that changes when I find a nice grouping of Chanterelles and another of Pear Puffballs.
The best birding is the marshes where we find Soras, Black Ducks, Bald Eagles and many Belted Kingfishers. A flock of 185 yellowlegs is mostly Lesser Yellowlegs and a smaller portion of Greaters. A few Short-billed Dowitchers and two Spotted Sandpipers are mixed in. Bob finds a Solitary Sandpiper through Ron’s scope and I identify a dozen or more Semipalmated Sandpipers. Well hidden in the marsh grass are 17 Wilson’s Snipes. The prize goes, though, to Ron who finds a godwit in the midst of the wader flock. He puts his scope on the target and I take my turn at identifying the outsized bird among its yellowleg neighbors. The bit of remnant burnt orange convinces me it is a Hudsonian Godwit and the darker back and tail lend support. Bob and Pat intently study their field guide and then the scope, checking all the details because Hudsonian Godwit is a life bird for them.
We’ve reached the end of the impoundment and I consult my map. If we turn right at the bridge we should be able to make a loop around the marsh and head back to Layton’s Lake and then on to the parking lot. Although it is already 12:15 and we left our lunches in the cars, we decide the loop trail is the best route back. However, the path is now waist high grass and reeds, tough going and not beaten down by previous hikers. It shows no indication of being a loop, nor a trail. We notice the country road off in the distance, beyond the farm buildings and Ron becomes convinced we can cross overland to the road. I’ve had plenty of misadventures like this and I’d probably choose doubling back the way we came, but Ron is optimistic about continuing on. We stumble along a dike holding back another impoundment, then wade through taller grass bordering a drainage ditch. Bob contemplates crossing the ditch, I suggest it is too deep and wide, he suggests we lay across so he can walk over our bodies, none of us obliges. Ron gains in confidence and continues way ahead of us. When he radios back to us, Carol joins the conversation. She is still back at the cars and the plan develops into us reaching the road and Carol driving to pick us up. We continue struggling on and eventually hear that Ron has found a way to reach the road without jumping the ditch. Bob and now Kay too still consider the ditch route, especially when we find a somewhat narrower section. Pat and I trudge on, stopping twice for me to retie my shoe laces which keep being pulled apart by the tough weeds. Pushing through the last section of tall grass and short trees I see Ron and Carol’s car. We made it! Ron drives me back for my car and when we return we see that Bob and Kay are still struggling through the tall grass field, finally reaching the edge of the road but still faced with another wet ditch, albeit shallower. I give my hand to Bob and Carol grabs mine, forming a chain, and we pull Bob up the steep gravel embankment. Without socks, but with dry shoes since he removed them for the first ditch, he stands on the paved road with pants wet almost to the crotch. We’ve all survived the ordeal when Doug comments, “I can just see the blog in the bog”, and I jot down the title for my story.
(Shari) This should be a very special 49th wedding anniversary for Bill and Ginny. It started out disappointedly, though, with their dog Meg having to go to the vet. However, Meg got better with medicine. In the early evening we take along–or buy at Wendy’s or McDonald’s–a picnic lunch and head to the city park in downtown Sackville. We finish with a chocolate chip apple cake I made and then stay for the Sackville Music in the Park series. At first we are the only ones in the park. As the music progresses the crowd grows. People come from all over. Families walking babies in strollers sit on the grass. Some stay in their cars parked on the street. Two talented people, a young married couple, play a variety of music, ranging from light jazz to the Beetles, on keyboard and drum. As they perform, more and more people gather until the chairs and picnic tables are filled and many more are gathered on the grass or standing under the trees. They play my mother’s favorite, Autumn Leaves, and Bert’s favorite, The Girl from Ipanema, and another singer joins them to sing Summertime, followed by Georgia. They ask for requests from the audience and Bill is quick to respond, knowing many jazz selections from his personal music experience. Carol asks the duo to sing a special song for Bill and Ginny. All heard a wonderful concert on a beautiful summer evening.
(Bert) The old fort lies on high ground, overlooking vast meadows, wetlands and a twist of a muddy river exposed during low tide. On a telephone post near the railroad tracks a Merlin perches and then lifts off in characteristic direct-as-an-arrow flight. We walk a narrow gravel road along the marsh perimeter and through mature spruce woods, finding a plethora of warblers dining on multitudes of mosquitoes. Bill points out an attractive butterfly and I think it is the same Atlantis Fritillary species I photographed a few days ago, but I photograph it anyway since it is so close. Turns out it is an Aphrodite Fritillary. Carol calls on the radio that she is seeing a pale orange-breasted bird and I think juvenile Robin, but when we get to her spot it is more complicated. The bill tells us grosbeak, yet the coloring is complex. After eliminating Pine Grosbeak and anything smaller we are left with a poorly-plumaged juvenile male Rose-breasted Grosbeak accompanied by a female, the first I’ve seen on the trip.
From the wooded rural gravel road we turn downhill to marshlands and flowered grasslands. Tall stalks of dry brown Bristly Sarsparilla mix with goldenrod and Fireweed. I hear a Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrow. I keep mentioning this sparrow in my journals because prior to this trip I have seen it the least of eastern sparrows. Remarkably, we have now found this sparrow 11 times during our trip. Yesterday, we put a scope on one near Chignecto Bay and Bob and Pat finally got to mark it down on their life list, the last in our group to do so. This morning I hear a total of 10 sharp-taileds, see six of them and photograph one.
The final highlight of the morning is a flock of six ducks I scare up from the tall grass near the mudflats. I photograph one in its weak attempt at flying, suggesting it has probably lost its flight feathers in eclipsed plumage. When I study the photographs it looks like a female Mallard, but it might be partially crossed with American Black Duck since it is darker plumaged overall and its dark tail is tipped with cinnamon and without white.
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