Chapter 4. Madeleine Islands
(Bert) Semitrailers, RV’s and automobiles are still being loaded below deck after we walk-on passengers have boarded the large ferry. From the top deck we look down into the harbor waters watching dozens of fanciful Lion’s Mane pump in slow motion near the surface. The largest jellyfish in the world and highly toxic, their purple heads and red masses trail with 150+ stringy tentacles, contrasting against the pale green water. At 2:15 PM the ship leaves the Souris dock, passes a flock of 250 Herring and Great Black-backed gulls and continues to follow the P.E.I. coastline toward East Point, easily recognized by the tall windmill farm and the lighthouse erected near the cliffs. Most of our group is out on the forward deck, enjoying the warm day, but even in this pleasant weather the ship pushes through the air at 15 knots and I need several layers of clothes for a prolonged stay on deck. The wildlife watchers dwindle to Ron, Pat C., Bob, Nancy and me, with occasional visits by the others. At 3:02 we see a Minke Whale, the first of ten whales during the trip. Most of the others are Fin Whales. Gray Seals poke noses above the surface and at least 35 Short-beaked Common Dolphins hump in front of the ship from 3:15 to 6:15, in groups of 1-6.
The ship rousts a Common Loon but it must have overeaten because no amount of pounding its wings against the surface and kicking its legs in the water can get the bird airborne. I capture the struggle in 16 action photos before the loon finally edges to the side of the ship, never breaking free of the surface. Except for the first 45 min. and the last 30 min. I see Northern Gannets almost constantly during the 5 hr. trip, a few close enough to photograph, many distant yet easily recognized by their long pointed wings and pointed heads and tails. Those appearing mostly white are adults, the dark ones being subadults.
I’ve never been on a ferry cruising over a sea as calm as today. Without a ripple, it is so calm that water skiing would be easy. I don’t think there are days here like today more than 10 times per year. We spot more birds–Double-crested Cormorants near both shores, Black-legged Kittiwakes as we approach Madeleine Islands, Black Guillemots near its harbor–but the ones we most seek are the pelagic birds: the shearwaters, petrels and storm-petrels. Perhaps these seas are not deep enough, for the pelagic birds are few. Midway through the trip, farthest from either shore, is when we find a few. The first is a pair, then nine together, then five in a flock, all within 2 min. of 4:23. Clearly storm-petrels by their pigeon like shapes and white rumps, we are less certain to species. Those in the larger flock dance above the surface, wings raised like pigeons, feet dangling below and patting the water, so these must be Wilson’s Storm-Petrels. A half hour later and twice more in the next hour we see a total of four more that behave differently–a more erratic flight–and even at a distance these appear to be Leach’s Storm-Petrels.
Shortly before 4:30 we see a mirage rising above the distant horizon, ghostly like the broken remnants of a very long dock stretching for miles, with gaping holes in the blue metal. A half hour later the mirage gathers form and substance, more suggestive of an island with extremely high cliffs. Fifteen minutes later the cliffs shrink and the land tapers to the sea and I recognize we have been watching Entré Island and the fanciful effects of bent light through the gradient of humid air at different temperatures. A slight breeze ruffles the water, embossing a quilted pattern as background to my photo of a gannet winging just above the surface. By 5:45 I can easily see houses scattered across the base of green hills. In up-periscope fashion, a Gray Seal intently watches us during the long minute it takes the ship to pass its station. By 6:45 the islands of curvaceous green velvet hills and raw red cliffs are clearly seen and one small rock island is topped with dark cormorants and surrounded by kittiwake wings in flutter. We pass islands and still see more and begin to wander when we will stop. The ship turns slightly and now heads to a harbor, with islands spread broadly in either direction. Connections between islands must be so close to the surface that we cannot make out highways. Maybe some are unconnected. At 7:30 we are in the harbor.
(Shari) Another vacation within a vacation! I call it that whenever we leave our motor homes and stay in a hotel for a day or two. I think it brings a bit of excitement to the trip; at least it does for me. Today we are taking a ferry to the Madeleine Islands, a part of Quebec about 80 mi. from Souris, P.E.I. In four cars we car pool to the dock, stopping at the harbor for lunch. On the ferry, Bert and others stand outside at the bow looking for black specs with feathers flying. The weather is spectacular, the seas calm and the sky blue. We could not have asked for better weather. Hertz meets us at the ferry and has our vans ready. We pile into them and head to our cute chateau on the sea. Doug and Kay just marvel at all the room. Their rooms with its double beds must be twice the size of their little customized sportster van. It is late and all are ready for bed.
(Bert) Donna meets me in the hotel restaurant and we lay plans for today’s birding. I have a checklist of birds known to have occurred on the islands and I’ve marked those we have not yet seen on the trip or only observed by very few. As she scans the list she comments. Roughly one quarter rank “too early”, one quarter garner “too late”, one quarter are dismissed as “never seen”, leaving one quarter as today’s targets. When Donna mentions that Snowy Owls are still being seen on the sand dunes, I say that is where we should head first. We load up the van and a few others ride with Donna as she leads us over a short bridge and then a long and narrow land connection between islands, a highway surrounded on either side by tall sand dunes basking in early morning light. I credit Doug with being the first to find a Snowy Owl perched atop a dune 150 yd. from the road. Everyone sees the owl through binoculars before we quickly pile out of the vehicles and continue to watch the undisturbed owl. A second owl appears on the opposite side of the highway. I never tire of watching these soft snow-white owls with dark eyes closed to slits. While we usually associate these with the barren tundra of the frigid north it seems incongruous to be watching them resting on island sand dunes on a balmy day. Reluctantly we feel the urge to move on to other birds, yet I know birding today is a success based on this one find alone.
Viewed from the sea and studied from published photos one is left with the impression Madeleine Islands are all sand dunes, beaches and red cliffs, but now when we stop at Grosse Ỉle I’m surprised that this island is heavily forested, predominantly in White Spruce. We walk slowly uphill, listening to Red-breasted Nuthatch, Boreal Chickadees, Fox Sparrows, Swainson’s Thrush, Blackpoll Warblers and Yellow-rumped Warblers, eventually catching sight of all of them. Donna mentions she has found Olive-sided Flycatcher here previously and a minute later I hear the familiar “Quick, three beers” call. We zero in on the bird perched at the apex of a tall spruce. At a clearing in the forest at the top of the hill we have a grand panoramic view of the secluded bay, Havre de la Grande Entrée, circumscribed by the barren North Dunes and Grande Entrée showing houses reduced by distance to tiny white squares.
Anxious to try our luck at finding a Boreal Owl in a nest box, we backtrack along the dune highway to Cap-Aux-Mueles, stopping when we see both Snowy Owls again, this time a bit closer and in better lighting. One perches atop a dense thicket of spruce reduced to a foreshortened hedge by winds crossing the grass-covered dunes. We stop at the Point Nelson bridge to give Carol, trailed by a few others, a chance to find a geocache while the rest of us study the offshore rock island covered by at least a thousand Double-crested Cormorants, including many hundreds sitting on chimney-like crisscrossed-stick nests, erected tall over years of modification. At the town on Cap-Aux-Mueles Donna leads us through a residential section uphill to another forested area with a hiking trail. We quickly come to a Boreal Owl nesting box, but no one is home. We have enough time to hike to another, about 20 min. farther on the uphill trail. At a small pond completely enclosed by dense forest we hear loud quacks, one emitting from just below the deck where we stand. Looking down, I photograph a large Wood Frog and Donna comments that the frogs have only recently appeared on the island. The second nest box is also unoccupied, but we do get many opportunities to hear Winter Wrens during our hike, as well as Black-capped Chickadee, Veery and Northern Parula.
Ray has been reminding me for the past hour that lunchtime is approaching (he knows from past experience that I sometimes forget about lunch when I am intently birding), so now at 12:15 we head into town to a very busy A&W. For afternoon birding and sightseeing we first head to the west side of Cap-Aux-Mueles where an offshore rock holds a mixed colony of Common Eiders, Great and Double-crested cormorants, Black-legged Kittiwakes, Razorbills and Black Guillemots. Large flocks of gulls are nearby in the harbor and we sort through the Herring and Great Black-backed gulls, hoping for an Iceland Gull. One mottled white gull with white wingtips wings toward us and Donna suggests Iceland, but I comment on its large size and large bill suggesting first-cycle Glaucous Gull. None of us recall noting how much of the bill was dark, so its identity is unsettled.
At the harbor the lobster boats have arrived with their day’s catch and are sorting and repacking the lobsters. One operator is proud of the 4-pounders he caught and I photograph him with his arm around Kay, each holding one oversize claw of the wiggling lobster and both grinning ear-to-ear. Leaving the island we scan a pond for ducks and find a distant American Bittern that occasionally sticks its neck above the marsh grass. On the bay side, four Bonaparte’s Gulls float in calm water and a parade of Common Terns ride gently in the light breeze close by for excellent photos of them on the wing.
We take another interisland road beside long sand beaches, Plage de La
Martinique. Donna says Piping Plovers nest here, so we stop and walk the beach.
We soon see a fence without an exclosure and Donna thinks the nesting failed
when the recent storms pushed water across the beach, thus the exclosure was
removed. Not far away is another exclosure closely surrounded by a flimsy wire
tied with red ribbons. This exclosure holds a nest with a resident Piping Plover
and as we watch from a distance, the adults switch incubating duties. At the
edge of the wire are deep tire tracks. Unlike the Canada national parks, these
Piping Plover nest sites are barely protected, easily approached and have a
history of being disturbed by unknowing children throwing stones and even a
four-wheeler plowing directly across the exclosure, according to Donna. We turn
back toward the cars and see two more Piping Plovers, apparently the two whose
nest was disrupted by the high tide. Perhaps they are in the process of
reestablishing a nest. One plover flies high above us, holding its wings to
increase its float and suspension while making repetitive and distinctive piping
calls, a call I have not noticed when I watch them on the wintering beaches in
Texas. I think this is the first time I’ve associated the call with the bird’s
name. We bird for another hour in late afternoon, adding only Common Loon to the
day list, but enjoying the stunning scenery of yet another island, Ỉle du Havre
(Shari) Larry, Marlene, Jim and I have a van to ourselves today. The birders ate at 6 AM. I eat breakfast at 8. We leave the hotel for our errands and sightseeing during mid morning and do not return until late afternoon. We have another picture perfect day with clear skies. Everything sparkles. We are just ahead of the tourist season but can see these islands are geared up for tourism. I rather enjoy the empty shops and attractions but I imagine the shopkeepers can hardly wait for the crowds. The islands have long perfect sandy shallow beaches just right for families with kids. We check out the visitor’s center, the smoked herring museum, the chocolate factory, a wharf, the bakery, a cheese factory, a winery and the chocolate factory. Lunch is at a cute roadside diner where Jim scares our waitress to death. She does not understand English but sure does understand the scare. Luckily she is not holding a pitcher of water. We buy treasures at each of our stops and I come home with smoked oysters, cheese and muffins. We learn of the 3-mo. process of smoking the herring. Just standing at the door of the smoke house, makes our clothes pick up the scent. The drive from island to island is pretty as the road curves along the shoreline, along narrow spits of sand, up and down hills with pretty cottages below. It is a wonderful peaceful day, topped off with lobster at a local restaurant for only $10.95 per pound including coleslaw.
(Shari) Oh boy, it is hard to wake up at 5:45 AM. We need to take the rental vans back and get everyone to the ferry before our 7:30 departure. Many of us head straight to the ship’s cafeteria to get our needed caffeine fix and breakfast. After eating, the group separates for the 5 hr. ferry trip. I take a nap. Others go birding or read.
(Bert) Widely-separated whitecaps foam on rolling waves as we depart Madeleine Islands. The 30-kph winds combined with our 16-knot ship speed makes walking on deck a formidable act of instability and viewing seabirds from the forward deck a cold and shaky experience. Apparently seagoing mammals dislike the 3-ft. swells, for we see none except for the two times Ron spots the puff of water from spouting Fin Whales. Away from islands, I see only three bird species: Northern Gannet, Black-legged Kittiwake and Common Murre. I’m impressed on how widely spread and common are the gannets. From 8:30 to 12:30, the middle 4 hr. of a 5 hr. passage, I see 148 gannets, mostly flying singly but sometimes in groups of up to 9. Except for a 1-hr. nap inside the warm ship, I remain on deck the entire trip, mesmerized by the rolling blue sea reaching to the horizon. Birds or no birds, I love riding long-distance ferries.
(Shari) When we arrive on land, some are hungry again so we stop at takeout and get filled up. Most popular item is ice cream. After arriving at the campsite, I take off again to purchase groceries and then return to shower and change. Tonight is the long awaited performance of “Anne of Green Gables”. All of P.E.I. has Anne this and Anne that. We just must see the play too. I saw it nine years ago and know the basic story but tonight’s production was like seeing it all new again. I could remember little and every song, dance and dialogue thrilled me anew. When arriving in Avondale, Anne is a precocious young orphan who can talk a blue streak. Her adoptive parents learn to love her and she turns into a young lady that any parent would be proud to raise. Her story is one of happiness and sorrow, ups and downs, failures and successes and always entertaining. The play is a grand way to end our stay on the island.
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