Chapter 3. Prince Edward Island
(Bert) Steep red cliffs of Orby Head inscribe a rough edge separating the fertile green farmlands of the island from the calm sea. On the periphery, Double-crested Cormorants find narrow ledges to build nests, a tall condominium of porches for multi-family living. The black birds with snakelike necks glide from the cliffs to the sea, capture fish and return to hungry young that feed on the regurgitated food. Adults have bright orange featherless gullets, quite colorful compared to the dull yellow that shows when I see them in winter in Texas. Bank Swallows glide and flutter erratically, gleaning insects and visiting burrows in the soft topsoil where grass reaches the boundary of the cliffs and erosion has cut a concave edge that descends a hundred feet below. A broad rock ledge is a stopping point where dozens of cormorants and gulls gather, and below them in the sea, float guillemots and eiders. Farther out to sea lobstermen cross in boats, shuttling between work sites. Someone yells “Peregrine” and I see the raptor land on the edge of the cliff, quickly line up my scope and let others see it. I try a few digiscope photos, since it is too far away for my Canon 400 mm lens. Later I discover the Peregrine is really a Merlin displaying unusually bold moustachial markings. Birding is good in the weatherworn trees at our level above the cliff and warblers are active in the pretty morning. Doug finds a Blackburnian, almost the only one for the trip so far. Most of us get a good look at the first Boreal Chickadee of the trip and I learn a new song when I watch a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher sing.
By our next stop at Cape Turner, the rains have come and our pretty morning becomes water sodden. We continue on, still finding birds, as we head east through P.E.I. National Park. Ron has the passenger side window open and I stop suddenly when I hear a Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrow. We pile out and see a moving sparrow, too fast to focus binoculars on, but I hear it call twice more.
We push on to Dalway, where we meet Linda. In the conference room she gives us an excellent presentation of the National Park Service’s program to protect Piping Plover nesting sites. In 1977 a graduate student recognized the drop in the plover’s population and by 1985 the species was declared endangered in Canada. Recently the population has been estimated at 8000 individuals worldwide, an increase from 6000 due to the success of breeding in the Canadian Prairie Provinces. The Atlantic Provinces have not fared as well. Most recent counts are 2161 individuals for Canada with 1703 in the prairies and 457 near the Atlantic, 93 of which were in P.E.I. in 2008. Linda tells us about their 6-fold management program–beach closures, predator exclosures, flood rescue, egg fostering, banding and camera monitoring–for enhancing nesting success. Her talk comes to an end when the electricity goes out and it restarts long enough for us to see a video of a fox snatching eggs from a Piping Plover nest. Appropriately, the rains have stopped and we head to a bridge that just happens to overlook an exclosure surrounding a Piping Plover sitting on the nest. Not only do we see the nesting bird, but also we see its mate wandering the sandy beach picking up food. Then to top it off, the birds meet in the exclosure and exchange nesting duties. Because virtually all nesting Piping Plovers are now on national park beaches closed for their protection, we are especially fortunate to have witnessed this pair.
Linda takes us to another birding site, but by now the rains have resumed and we decide not to pursue wet warblers hiding in trees. We head back to where I heard the sharp-tailed sparrow and have the good fortune of finding another first-summer Black-headed Gull, confirmed by sharp photos. The P.E.I. checklist marks the species as occasional–seen only 1-9 times per decade. How can we be so lucky to see one in New Brunswick and now another in Prince Edward Island? And birding is not over yet. We stop at a marsh and flush an American Bittern and then visit a pond to see a pair of Wood Ducks. A day of mostly lousy weather but very good birding.
(Shari) Boy, today it is serious about raining. I hear on the news that P.E.I. expects 80 mm which if I calculate right is in the range of 3 in. The birders took off early and Marlene, Larry and I leave at 9:15. We all meet at 10 for the Piping Plover talk. After the talk, the birders continue birding and Marlene, Larry and I travel to the soap place, the cheese factory, the lobster pound, the bank, the bakery and a restaurant for lunch. Bert beats me home. At 2 PM Ginny joins us for the trip to the oyster farm. Here we learn about the life cycle of oysters. A small oyster is about 4 yr. old. The case we buy for our cookout are 6 yr. old and a little bigger. As we hear Mr. Powers tell us about his oysters, we watch men unload cases and cases from a boat to a truck. Others are washing and sorting the oysters to put in cases to be shipped to Rhode Island and towns here in P.E.I. All oysters have a different taste and of course these are supposed to be the best in the world. From our sample taste, they are good: much saltier than Gulf of Mexico oysters or even those from Washington. Ginny buys 3 dozen for herself and Bill, and I buy 2 dozen for us and a case for the party. The full case we take to the covered pavilion (it is still raining). When Judy arrives, she shows us the dog tick she found eating her leg. I have never seen a tick so big. It is as big as my little fingernail. Yuck! I would freak if I found that on me. Ron again brings his grill and with our two grills we cook the oysters until they open their shells. One at a time, everyone gets seven hot oysters to eat along with cheese, grapes and apples. Many have not heard of this mode of preparation and all seem to like it. Bob would however prefer to eat his oysters all at once instead of one at a time. I remind him these are appetizers for a social and the purpose is to have fun. Everyone departs when the oysters are gone. Ray is getting real social. He and Nancy are the last to leave.
(Bert) The skies have cleared, yet evidence of yesterday’s rain is etched into the red gravel farm roads we take to reach Cape Tryon. At French River we stop at a small pond for Pied-billed Grebe and Pat C. hears a Bobolink sing from a roadside tree. After we get a good look at the male, it flies to a hayfield lushly green to nearly knee high. I can see four more Bobolinks displaying at scattered sites across the field.
Near the cape, we have trouble finding which farm road takes us the last mile to the coast as each is single lane, muddy and heads uphill. Remarkably, Doug and Kay’s GPS has the road marked as Cape Tryon Road, although we don’t see a sign. I am riding with Ron and Carol when Pat C. sees a pair of birds in the road ahead of us. “Gray Partridge” I announce and with the radio I repeat the sighting to the cars behind us. Surprisingly, they say they see it running into the tall grass edges of the road while we see the pair centered on the gravel road. I look behind me and can’t see the other two cars, so coincidentally they must be watching a different partridge. We park quietly and the pair runs in our direction along the edge of the road. My camera lens catches the female in mid stride with feet off the ground. Coming almost to the car, they turn into the grass and I capture one in a close up photo. The partridge is a life bird for everyone except me.
We finish the last part of the road and barely can get around the last ruts of the washed out road to make a turnaround at the lighthouse. On the cliffs we see nesting Double-crested Cormorants with nestlings about a third the size of the adults. Far away on the distant cliffs our spotting scopes pick out Great Cormorants.
Next stop is P.E.I. National Park at Cavendish campground which will not reopen for the season until June 15. Away from the cold winds of Cape Tryon, I shed one layer of clothes and the absence of any rain clouds is a welcome relief this morning. The wooded campsite is cheerily alive in warbler song. We again search for Black-backed Woodpecker and see substantial stripped spruce evidence of their presence, but no woodpeckers. At the sandy beach 12-ft. cliffs show erosion from yesterday’s rain: the red soil collapsed and tufts of sod fallen. Bank Swallows go in and out of nest holes in the embankment, probably having lost other nests yesterday. At the parking lot again, we meet up with Pat C. who birded on her own in another direction. She reports seeing details of a sharp-tailed sparrow in a marsh. Maybe I can visit that spot tomorrow morning before we change campsites.
(Bert) A few minutes before 6 AM, I’m at the marshes described by Ron and Pat
C. Dark gray fog cloaks the wetlands and dulls my photos of a pair of close
Common Yellowthroats. I hear my first Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrow, an
unmistakable buzz unlike any other sounds of the marsh. As I walk around the
marsh I hear four more hidden securely in the grass, but I also see two. By the
time I see the second one, the fog has lifted and morning sun bathes the marsh,
perfect light for photographs. This sparrow is quite curious of me and I am
delighted at how closely it approaches my camera lens. Later, when I walk to the
dunes I get photos of Song Sparrow and Savannah Sparrow, but it is the
Sharp-tailed Sparrow that is the prettiest and most desired.
Our next campground is on the river looking across to Charlottetown harbor and all of our campsites face the river with a broad view of the bridge, sailboats and capital city. In late afternoon I present a talk about John James Audubon’s visit to the Madeleine Islands in 1833 on his way to Labrador. I include quotes from his journals, many of which are memorable, and include just one here for June 14, 1833: “I rubbed my eyes, took my spy-glass, and in an instant the strangest picture stood before me. They were birds we say, a mass of birds of such a size as I never before cast my eyes on.”
(Bert) Our group heads in multiple directions today. Ron and Carol are kayaking and then geocaching, Bill is getting his truck and 5th-wheel repaired, Ray and Nancy bird at New Harmony Demonstration Woodlot and I drive the eastern coast with Judy and both Pat’s in the backseat and Bob in the navigator’s seat. We have a leisurely day of relaxed birding through picturesque green farmlands, tranquil bays, busy harbors and red cliff ocean views: the fodder of picture postcards. We visit Orwell Corner Historic Village before it opens and wander among the old buildings and antique farm equipment, clustered beneath tall cottonwoods. An Eastern Wood-Pewee perches on a spruce bough and later when I return to the vicinity I hear a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher–Pat C. thinks so too!–but I can see the song is coming from the wood-pewee when it flies to the same bough, then jumps to another branch and deposits the twig it is carrying into a nest built where the branch forks. I thumb through songs on my iPod and find one recording of Eastern Wood-Pewee not singing its usual peee-wheee song, but rather the same shorter double note of the Yellow-bellied Flycatcher.
We visit Orwell Cove and I stop when I again hear Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrow, though this time the calling birds are too distant to find in binoculars. A Willet flies over the marsh and we see a pair again at Wood Islands. We see our first Barn Swallows of the trip. The ferry from Nova Scotia arrives as we study Great Black-backed Gulls and Bank Swallows in the harbor and we watch the ferry unload semi-trucks and RV’s from the lower deck and automobiles from the upper deck using a high ramp and bridge to ground level.
Driving through farmlands, I brake for Bobolinks perched on utility wires and for an American Kestrel, my second for the trip but the first for others. Our leisurely drive takes us to Cape Bear and on a gravel road extension to Murray Head, a high promontory jutting out into the sea from which we have a panoramic view of the lobster fleet pulling in today’s catch. Strings of black cormorants arrow just above water’s surface and gulls flutter and churn near the boats, eager for tasty discards. We stop again at Beach Point, where I take a two-track through the sand to a miniature lighthouse marking the harbor entranceway. Our timing coincides with the lobstermen racing to the dock while one in each team, dressed in waterproof slicks, is cleaning the deck, tossing out chum and a tornado of gulls swirl in the wake of each boat.
Our last stop is at Harvey Moore Migratory Bird Sanctuary. Just after we park next to the small lake and start looking at the Canada Goose flock, a man our age approaches and introduces himself as the son of Harvey Moore, an acclaimed naturalist who established the sanctuary after becoming enamored with the geese and American Black Ducks that congregated at the two lakes he built within the surrounding forest. While hiking the forest trails, Pat C. points out the call of an Ovenbird. I hear a second closer to us, but both are too far to see. Just as we finish the loop I spot a male Blackburnian Warbler atop a tamarack, the first that our group of five has seen on the trip. We pause to eat the last of the lunches we have been nibbling for the past two hours and then head back to Charlottetown, a 108-mi. loop spread over 8 hours. At 5 PM I give a talk on the sex life of Bicknell’s Thrush–research it, you will be fascinated–and then hear from others about their day’s adventures. Carol and Shari found lots of geocaches, and also Ron and Carol found Bobolinks and sharp-tailed sparrows. Ray and Nancy found several Blackburnian Warblers and Ray photographed a Mourning Warbler. Bill and Ginny have a new replacement for the truck’s back window damaged a few days ago and Larry and Bill are still working on the RV bearings and brakes with a crowd of unhelpful caravaners watching from the sidelines.
(Shari) Such a picture perfect day awaits me when I get up. Overlooking Charlottetown Harbor across Hillsborough River, our view from R-Tent-III is gorgeous. The water is as smooth as glass and the birds are soaring in blue sky with nary a cloud. The birders are long gone, Jim is fishing, and only Larry, Marlene, Bill and Ginny remain. Larry is busily working on Bill’s broken axle, Bill is in town replacing a broken back window, Marlene is doing wash and I am catching up on paperwork. Looks like Bill and Ginny will be having an expensive day with car and rig repairs. After lunch I show Carol my geocaching software program that downloads the information to my GPS and she and I go out to find a few “treasures”. Geocaching takes you to areas you probably would not find on your own and I mean that in a good way. We stop on the banks of a river learning from a plaque its transportation importance to the early settlers. We visit a local hockey field and private beach. We also find a cache on the bottom of a light pole in a grocery parking lot and on the guard rail of a road in a nice subdivision before we call it quits. Bert is already home when we return and soon it is time for his talk on the “Sex life of the Bicknell’s Thrush”. Don’t even go there! The day is still so pretty that we sit outside a bit longer, enjoy our oysters on the grill appetizer before eating our grilled salmon inside as we watch the sunset sinking behind the church steeples across the bay.
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