Chapter 2. New Brunswick
(Bert) South of Percé the road soon ceases its severe inclinations and we travel on a level highway close to the ocean shore, usually with houses on both sides of the road in a constant succession of small villages. A few miles south of a much larger city, Chandler, I pull off to watch ducks in the bay. A large flock of eiders have gathered on the calm sea near shore. In one cluster I count 15 male adults and 30 female adults accompanying numerous chicks. With the lead of the females, the chicks feed near submerged rocks and, with their heads below the surface, they look like a bunch of floating furry brown tennis balls. In the distance a much larger flock of only males floats farther out to sea.
A hundred miles farther south, Shari has unplugged the GPS and silenced May
from announcing numerous wrong turns. It seems the programmed Canada map has
many inaccuracies. Now comes a crucial left hand turn that I’m sure May would
have announced. Just as I pass the intersection Shari recognizes it was our turn
toward New Brunswick. Ray and Nancy, who have been following us, miss the turn
also and quickly recognize the error. Driving only a car, it would be no big
deal to make a U-turn and double back. With a 60-ft. rig–motor home plus hitch
plus car–a U-turn is more serious. I find a gas station about a mile down the
road and swing around. I see Ray has stopped at a closer pullout and tries to
make the U-turn, but only makes it across the highway when he sees a severe drop
off on the shoulder. Now he is in the dilemma that all RV’ers dread. The RV is
broadside across the highway, blocking both lanes and both shoulders. The small
truck they tow is jackknifed and RV hitches do not allow backing up. Meanwhile
we are a third mile beyond, pulled off at another gas station waiting for them
to join us. We contemplate unhitching our car to return and help, but that may
take too long. We watch through binoculars as traffic edges around the rig,
through the pullout. Ray has to take out a hammer to free the hitch pins pinched
by the jackknifed position. Like in our rig, Ray and Nancy also have to release
the auxiliary braking system on the car and have to reconnect the drive shaft
disconnect. Finally getting the truck out of the way, he backs up the RV onto
the shoulder and has the remaining task of reattaching the tow car, enabling the
brake and disconnecting the driveshaft. Something like a half hour after the
mishap, we are back on the road again heading to New Brunswick. We soon stop for
lunch and I walk up to their rig. Nancy jokes, “If only they had not been
following us through the missed turn …” and I retort, “If only you had not been
following us, we’d be a half hour farther down the highway.”
(Shari) Nancy says in all the years of driving the RV and of all the miles put on, they never have had to disconnect their truck in order to get out of a tough spot. Not only do they have to do it today but they have to do it twice; first after getting propane and second when trying to turn around after a missed turn. The missed turn was our fault since they were following us when we missed it. Bert and I decided to drive until we saw a place to turn. Ray thought he could make it from the shoulder and he could have had there not been a steep drop off. So here they are with motor home perpendicular to the highway blocking all lanes of traffic and the truck jackknifed behind them. Bert and I discuss what to do. Should we go back? No, our motor home would just add to the traffic jam. Should we disconnect? No, by the time we do that they should be unhooked and moving. So we walk out to the street and watch with our binoculars trying to determine just how bad the situation is. It takes awhile but finally we see the motor home backing up. We wait and wait and wait. Are they having trouble? We decide to take our motor home back to find out and just as we pull into the street they come forward. We then turn around again and continue onward.
After advancing our clocks ahead an hour, we arrive at camp close to 4 PM, New Brunswick time. Our travel meeting and social is postponed an hour to allow others to attend since only half the group has arrived by 5 PM. We plan our day tomorrow deciding who will bird and who will not: 7 no and 10 yes.
(Bert) Two islands, connected by bridges, jut out into the Gulf of St. Lawrence. I miss my first turn and our three cars end up on an unmarked beachside road that deteriorates. We turn around and I joke to copilot Judy that she should pay closer attention to the map I found in a tourist booklet. Miles later, we make the turn but then disagree on another turn (either road would have gotten us to the next intersection). Then in Shippagan a blacktop machine and crew block the main street and I follow a string of local traffic through a hospital parking lot and apartment complex, ending up at the wharf. Time for a bathroom break, I lead the group back to a Tim Horton’s we passed up. Judy is ready to give up the front seat, but no one wants to be navigator. The joking continues all day, Ron brings out a New Brunswick map and Bob even gives Judy another island map he got at a bird sanctuary stop. Still, no one wants to trade places with Judy.
We cross the bridge to Laméque Island and pull off into the parking lot of a dentist’s office so that we can scan the mudflats. Pat C. notices a black hooded gull sitting in the grass and, with only the upper body visible, we first consider Laughing Gull, but uncharacteristically the blackness rises abruptly on the hind neck and the bill is black. The gull rises, showing black legs. I suggest Black-headed Gull but also mention that it is not expected here in New Brunswick. The gull calls and Pat and I know it cannot be Laughing Gull. The gull takes flight and I see the black and white pattern on the upper wing, suggesting Bonaparte’s Gull. Pat notices the dark underwing primaries. We start opening our bird books when a local birder shows up. I ask him what is the most common black headed gull and he says Bonaparte’s Gull. Just then we see the gull again and I quickly get my camera from my car and photograph the bird at rest and in flight. I check the photos in the view finder and think I know the gull’s identity but will have to confirm it on the larger computer screen.
On the islands we take several seaside roads to check the beaches and marshes for birds, finding eight goose and duck species, numerous Great Blue Herons, a Black-crowned Night-Heron, Solitary Sandpiper and a Black-bellied Plover still in winter plumage. Strong winds keep us from finding more, as most beaches are absent of birds. I suggest walking a road protected by a tree barrier and now we find vireos, warblers and mosquitoes. Eventually we reach the end of Miscou Island at the lighthouse, the second best birding spot today. Here a flock of hundreds of Semipalmated Sandpipers including a few Dunlins actively feeds on the sandy beach. Offshore, we see Surf Scoters, eiders, gannets, Double-crested Cormorants and four Gray Seals. Two men on a boat pull up traps and remove lobsters.
Judy wants to stop at a church cemetery and adjacent woods removed from the winds. We find more warblers, but more interesting is the tombstones, almost all of them with the same family name, some dating back to the 1800s. One very elaborate black and white granite tombstone stretches across three burial plots and displays a black marble fishing boat named the Gary & Burl, commemorating the infamous date of September 6, 1988. Inscribed on two stone faces is this poem:
The boats set sail that September night.
Not a soul worried that things weren’t right.
They sailed out along the bay,
No one knew the price they would pay.
The sea was calm, the sky was bright.
It was hard to believe a storm warning for that night.
They reached the fishing grounds and began to set,
Their minds occupied with the load they would get.
The storm swept over the fishing fleet,
Bringing a destination some would meet
Waves grew to staggering heights,
Distress flares were sent out in the night.
Confusion and panic was felt by all,
One after another they sent out their call!
Some boats made safety on that angry sea,
But the “Gary & Burl” met its destiny.
What really took place, no one can say,
One man remains missing to this very day.
Three families lost three loved ones that night,
Never enough tears or heart ache will make it right.
A search was made but much too late,
The three lost souls had met their fate.
The wreckage of the boat could be seen from the beach,
A helpless sight, for it was just out of reach.
A tragic time, how would they cope?
But still there were some who never lost hope.
The waves grew high, the wind chilled to the core,
Prayers were unanswered, when the first body washed to the shore.
The ocean had taken three lives in one sweep,
It only returned two, from its waters so deep.
One remains missing still to this day,
Our hearts reach out to him every day that we pray.
We talk of him often, his memory close by,
These are the times, we laugh and we cry.
The pain and heart ache may someday fade,
But never the reminder of the price that was paid.
Three lives were lost at sea that day,
But Brian you’re still with us when we pray.
Returning from the lighthouse point, I stop once more at the dentist’s parking lot. Pat relocates the gull and this time we get a good comparison of its size: slightly smaller than adjacent Ring-billed Gulls. When we return to our RV’s I quickly download the photos and open my specialty books on gulls. Clearly, this is a first-summer Black-backed Gull, which according to the local checklist is seen less than once every five years.
(Shari) In the early 17th century, a group of people from France wanted a better life and heard about the abundant fish industry off the coast of New Brunswick. Unfortunately they were persecuted here and forced to move because they would not show allegiance to the Queen of England. Some moved to the southern United States and others moved to northern New Brunswick and Quebec. The Village Historique Acadien depicts the past with living people serving as interpreters. I was here nine years ago but remember little so it is like discovering the village all over again. I go with Doug, Marlene and Larry (Bill and Ginny join us later) and we visit restored buildings seeing life at the time also recreated. The interpreters actually work the fields, sheer sheep, make horseshoes and shingles, bake bread, etc. They are enthusiastic as they tell us about life in the early 1800s. We experience a bit of history at lunch too when we eat a typical Acadian meal of the 1800s; Bill and I have pea soup and bread pudding. Doug and Marlene have potatoes and beef and Larry has clam chowder. Some have rhubarb pie. With our appetites satiated we continue exploring the village, meeting at 1:30 to drive through modern day Caraquet and stopping at the bank, post office, fish market (scallops for supper) and RV store. At 5 many join us by the fire and we exchange stories of our day. I am told of a rare gull. I am informed about Bert’s wrong turns which he claims are Judy’s, Pat’s and Kay’s fault since they jabbered too much. He described his trip as trying to hear a warbler with a chain saw in the background. We laugh heartily at stories of past trips and soon it is time to go in for dinner.
(Bert) We arrive at the national park in late morning, giving me plenty of time to check out some birding sites before we bird as a group tomorrow. The park is so big, it is 10 miles between sites and double that if we wrap around the river. The naturalist at the visitor’s center mentioned a place he has seen Bobolinks in the past, so I head there first. No Bobolinks, but it looks like a good spot for woodcocks, so perhaps we should come back one evening. I check out the sand beach where Piping Plovers nest. Severe cold winds drill my body and I’m not wearing enough layers to spend much time scanning across the protective barricades for the plovers. I see Semipalmated Sandpipers and lots of Common Terns, but no plovers. We’ll try tomorrow morning, with more clothes layers and bring spotting scopes. Hopefully the winds will die down.
At 5 PM I have a talk on Ruffed Grouse, their features, habits, nesting, population, predators and especially the unusual way they produce the sounds they make. Later, Shari, Larry and I sit around the campfire until the embers grow weak, while a sun is still well above the horizon and barely illuminated as a dull yellow glow behind a deeply gray western sky.
(Shari) By the time Bert and I arrive at the shelter, Larry has started the fire and is placing mosquito coils all around the perimeter. Soon it is toasty warm and bug free. Ron brought his grill and with ours we are able to cook everyone’s meat for dinner. Each person has brought a meat to grill for themselves and a dish to share with others. The shelter is a blessing since the weather turned nasty with on and off drizzle. I suppose we can’t expect sunshine every day and we have had seven nice days. But still…
(Bert) When I arrived yesterday I examined the park checklist and marked eight bird species I’d like to find. I visited with the park naturalist and asked him where in this large park I might best find my target birds. I already knew the location of one species, the naturalist had never seen the second species in the park, a third one could be just about any wooded location and he identified general areas for the other five species. By the end of today, only one of the species was found at a location he identified.
Perhaps it is the heavily overcast and almost perpetual light rain that limits birding, yet lots of birds are out and about. Four times I visit the boardwalk and barrier island in search of Piping Plover and Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrow. I can see the exclosure that surrounds the nest of one Piping Plover pair, but it is in the dunes and only the upper half is visible and so distant I can barely find it with my binoculars. Apparently the plovers feed on the outer bank and that area is roped off from access. I am told that 11 pairs nest on the barrier island, 8 are expected to survive and all have exclosures around the nest to protect from predator attacks. Only one is within view of the area we have access to.
I listen intently for the sharp-tailed sparrow, a buzzy insect like call that I easily recognize. I search the tops of grass and bushes for a perched sparrow. Others accompany me and also visit on their own. At our 5:30 potluck Pat C. tells me she heard the sparrow, so in early evening I go back out yet again, with Doug and Kay accompanying the two of us. The spot she heard the sparrow is the same spot I visited previously. It does not call or rise from the dense salt grass. For a common bird here, these are uncommonly difficult to detect. Perhaps they haven’t arrived yet this spring.
We continue on the bridge to the island, stopping half way so we can scan the inner beach for terns. Pat is convinced she watched three pairs of Arctic Terns in courtship earlier and she again finds one pair. We can make out some of the supportive field marks: very short legs when standing on the beach, absence of a black wedge in the primaries when in flight–expected if Common Tern, but not Arctic–as well as a different call which Pat heard earlier. I am 75% convinced it is Arctic, but still have doubts. [Later on my computer screen when blowing up my very distance photos I see black tips on the ends of the bills of the terns, designating Common, not Arctic, Terns]. On the way off the bridge we briefly search for the Mourning Warbler Bill reported here earlier. No luck, but then again I didn’t expect a recurrence.
We drive 10 mi. across the park to Tweedie and walk along the boardwalk bordering the Kochibouguac River and a wet marsh. Now past 8:30 PM, the skies have darkened but we can still see where we are walking. Birding reverts to mostly hearing birds and it is a fun game that Pat and I enjoy, identifying bird calls. Doug and Kay take note of the many birds we hear. In the order of occurrence, we hear: Common Yellowthroat, Yellow Warbler, American Robin, Swainson’s Thrush, American Wigeon (also seen), Song Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, Chipping Sparrow and a loud chorus of frogs, probably Wood Frogs. Getting close again to the parking lot, we wait quietly in anticipation of hearing American Woodcock over the drone of mosquitoes buzzing around our faces. The skies are now dark enough for the woodcock’s elaborate flight display. This is one of the spots the naturalist pointed out on the map and to me the habitat looks appropriate, but no woodcock takes flight during the hour we are at Tweedie. We move on to another spot, 5 mi. back the way we came, that I found in daylight, one that looks equally good for woodcock. Now about 9:30, we pull to the edge of the road and get out to listen. No rain, no wind, dark skies. A pack of coyotes howls in the distance. Then I hear wings and the twittering call of the American Woodcock. I point to the sky in the direction I hear the sound. Pat hears it too. The sound stops and a bit later I can hear the woodcock on the ground. It must be rotating its body as the sound stops and starts in a regular pattern. It does not repeat its display flight during the time we stay. By 10 PM we are back at the campground.
So, of my original eight target species, the only one I find is the woodcock. Others heard a Ruffed Grouse and Pat heard the sharp-tailed sparrow. A bonus bird was Bill’s Mourning Warbler. Although lousy weather today for birding, we birded in groups and we birded separately and reached a respectable total of 52 species, plus 5 mammal species.
(Shari) Seven AM is too early to depart, especially in the rain. I am grumpy. We plan four stops today and those not wanting to make them can depart up to 3 hr. later. Sometimes I wish to be a Tailgunner, so I can leave late too. Our first stop is a wildlife sanctuary on the beach. We have never been here and follow May’s directions plus those Bert found in a book. When we arrive we have to unhook our car to turn around in the parking lot. Did I mention it is raining? After doing that, Bert asks me if I am going to walk with him on the boardwalk. What a silly question! In the rain, for birding–I think not. Soon Nancy and Ray arrive. After telling them about the parking situation, I notice they are parked in a lot that was closed when we arrived. Thank heaven they will not have to unhook. After 2 hr. 15 min., I call Bert on the radio and suggest that he come back. I am concerned that the group will be way ahead of us since only Pat and Bob have stopped here so far. Our next stop is another birding area but Bert only spends 15 min. here. After crossing the Confederate Bridge in the fog, we stop again at the P.E.I. Visitor’s Center and I arm myself with information and literature while Bert buys gin and scotch. Others are here already so I rush through the gift store and we head to our next stop with Ray and Nancy following. May tells me about a big grocery store 3 mi. off course and we trust her directions. Fortunately she is right and no one has to unhook. I spend the next hour shopping, spending $182. It has been weeks since I shopped for staples and I am out of about everything. When we arrive at camp, three are patiently (?) waiting on the side of the road. We hurry to get parked. Larry and Marlene are here ahead of us so they park the group, while Bert prepares his talk and I make phone calls. I want to arrange a fishing trip (too early), a church lobster dinner (too early), a Ceilidh or Kaylee (too early). Seems things do not start to happen here until July 1. Luckily the campground has an activity room where we can get out of the cold and rain. Bert talks about Piping Plovers, I conduct a travel meeting and Marlene brings a delicious Kailua cake for her birthday. See, we can make our own sunshine!
(Bert) Deviating from the nicely paved highway we take a series of broken roads to the coast to reach Irving Eco-Center. Cold and rain keep Shari inside, but I venture out to the boardwalk anyway. This is another protected site for Piping Plovers and Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrows. I keep my binoculars sheltered between my outer two layers of clothes, but keep my jacket hood down so that I can hear the birds, getting a wet hat in the process. Savannah Sparrows and Song Sparrows sing from the salt grass sparsely covering the dunes and I almost always can see them too. The boardwalk is built on poles, is bordered by railings and stretches along the coast over the dunes for more than a mile. By the time I reach the end I’ve seen and heard over a dozen Song Sparrows and at least 30 Savannahs, but no sharp-taileds. Also, no Piping Plovers are on the beach, although I read a sign that says since 1997 3-5 nests have been found per year on the 12 km dune. I do add two birds to the trip list–Killdeer and Willet–at the northern edge of their ranges.
I hear over the radio that Ray and Nancy have arrived. Ray, like Shari, stays inside. I meet Nancy in the spruce forest behind where we are parked. Nancy will bird anytime, anywhere, provided she has on enough clothes to keep warm. The woods are sheltered from the winds, but not the rain. From a local birder we have heard this is a good spot for Black-backed Woodpecker and we soon see ample evidence of its presence. Dozens of dead spruce have striped patches of bark removed where the woodpecker has been mining insects. Although we walk through acres of excellent habitat we do not find the woodpecker. In spite of the inclement weather I manage to find 30 species willing to come out in the rain during the couple of hours I bird here. Back in R-Tent-III we continue south, crossing over the impressive 20-mile Confederation Bridge to Prince Edward Island, stop for grocery shopping and arrive at our Cavendish campsite, all in the rain. Fortunately, the campground has a meeting room for all to gather for my talk on the territorial behavior of Piping Plovers.
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