Chapter 10. Bay of Fundy, New Brunswick
© Bert & Shari Frenz, 2000 All rights reserved.
(Shari) Separating from Don and Jean, we move out early and head west, back to New Brunswick. Bert wants to catch the fall migration of shorebirds. So we will meet up with them on Friday back in Halifax. As we travel west, the day gets dimmer and drearier. I guess a whole week of good weather is about all I am to get in one stretch. I loved every minute of it too. We travel over 200 miles today, using the Trans-Canada highway to make time. Stopping for groceries and lunch, it still takes us six hours to come to a rest at Ponderosa Pines Campground near Hopewell Cape. Squeezed between two marshy lakes it should have lots of birds for Bert to see. I know it has mosquitoes on this damp dreary dim day. R-TENT has a pretty view of Ponderosa Lake, where campers need no license to fish for trout. I see no "catching" going on so I may not even get out my pole. We are within walking distance of Hopewell Rocks but the map I have says the hike is "messy." I can understand that, since the ground uncovered by a receding tide looks very slippery and muddy.
(Bert) Shari gives in to my desire to see shorebird migration in New Brunswick, so we split from Don and Jean for the next few days. They head to Halifax; we head toward Mary's Point. We cross over on the land connection between the provinces and travel Petitcodiac River first upriver and then down, since there is no bridge across the muddy river. By the time we reach our campsite just past Hopewell Cape on the Bay of Fundy, it is raining and we spend the rest of the day indoors, catching up on computer tasks.
(Bert) Driving in the predawn darkness, I wind through coastal countryside to Mary's Point, a finger of forests, saltmarsh and mud flats that juts into the Bay of Fundy. I time my arrival by the tide schedule since high tide is the best time to view the shorebird migration. A long sandy beach arcs along the mud flats and from my perspective I see one small flock feeding near me. Its size is only about 200 birds, hardly the tens of thousands I expected. So I hike along the beach to see if they are gathering elsewhere. I find Surf Scoters and eiders, but no more shorebirds. When I return to the original spot I notice the flock has grown larger, doubling or tripling in number. I try to count the birds, but each time I get part way through the flock they take flight, head into the bay and quickly return, increasing their numbers after each flight. The tide soon covers the mudflats, leaving only a narrow band of beach for the birds to roost. They settle down and I can get a more accurate count. Through my spotting scope I can count 200 birds in one position, and swinging the scope left and right I scan the flock in 25 positions although the density is considerably less at the edges. I guesstimate there are about 2500 shorebirds in the flock. Of these, 199 are Semipalmated Plovers, about 25 are Least Sandpipers, 15 are Sanderlings, 7 are Black-bellied Plovers and the remaining are Semipalmated Sandpipers. Having left their Arctic breeding grounds, the sandpipers fly to the Bay of Fundy to fatten their bodies - as much as doubling their weight - before the next leg of migration: Surinam, South America. The 2500-mi. flight is across the Atlantic Ocean, a distance the Semipalmated Sandpipers travel in a 72-hour non-stop flight. To fuel for this long flight, the sandpipers feed on small 3/8-in. mud shrimp densely scattered across the vast mud flats of the Bay of Fundy. This morning's flock is very small. I'm told they had 60,000 here last night at high tide. I walk back along the forest trail that follows the edge of the salt marsh. At a forest opening I hear the distinctive raspy trill of a sharp-tailed sparrow and I stop to look out into the marsh. Eventually I see the singer and, to my amazement, it is not the Nelson's I've seen many times elsewhere. This one is the Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrow, a life bird for me. Back at the campground, I join Shari and we head to Hopewell Rocks nearby. Although they call the rocks "flower pots," I can see many other images in these strange towers of sandstone capped with tufts of trees. Here we see another effect of the monster tides in the Bay of Fundy. They say some 100 billion tons of water rise and fall with each tide, the equivalent of the average 24-hour flow of all the rivers in the world. At Hopewell Rocks the tide erodes the sandstone cliffs, leaving towers of harder material standing on the beach. Little by little the base of each tower is eroded further until the shape resembles a flowerpot. Since we arrive at low tide, we can walk on the beach. Here the hard surface is a conglomerate of pebbles and stones cemented by silt. We hike along the coast, but eventually become separated in the crowd of other tourists and do not find each other again until we climb back up the footpaths to the interpretation center near the entrance to the park.
(Shari) Sunrise is the time to see all those thousands of shore birds. Supposedly they are forced toward shore at high tide and today's tide is at 6:45. I pass on the opportunity of seeing them, however, and sleep in. I am just finishing our home accounting in Quicken when Bert comes back. We pack a lunch and head for the "Flower Pots" down the road in Hopewell Cape. This phenomenon is best viewed at low tide and we are not disappointed. Situated on the Bay of Fundy, a place that has the highest tides in the world because of its funnel shape, it is amazing to walk on the ocean floor at low tide and realize that in six hours the area will be covered with 35 ft. of water. I read that more water flows through the bay in one day than flows out of all the rivers of the world combined! I walk the beach over gravel and rocks covered with small barnacles. I climb over a section of sharp jagged boulders where I lose Bert. I walk across an area of mud flats that reminds me of what I think Mars might look like. I find the path that leads back to the interpretive center, thankful that I do not have to retrace my steps over the treacherous boulders. Meeting Bert at the center, we eat our lunch before driving the Fundy Coast to Fundy National Park. It is low tide and driving through the small fishing village of Alma is a hoot. Here a fishing fleet looks like it got caught in a storm, pushed up on shore by the wind. However, the boats are all neatly tied to the wharf, which is 40 feet above them. About ½ mile out I see a big pole in the sand. It contains red and white markings so that people on shore can watch the advancing tide come in and measure it in meters. Unbelievably, soon those boats sitting on the bare ground will be floating on 35 ft. of water. This occurs twice a day, every day and sure does rule the lives of the fishermen. If they miss their window of opportunity to come and go, they have to wait another twelve hours for the cycle to repeat. We drive to Cape Enrage where six high school students made the abandoned lighthouse their class project and renovated it into a neat little place complete with restaurant and gift shop. Unfortunately it is foggy here and we are unable to see much scenery from the viewing point. Bert wants to see the shorebirds again at the evening's high tide. I go along since it is at a more respectable time of day, but I am not impressed. There may be a lot of birds, but the birds are small and look like black dots to me. While Bert views them in the telescope, I walk the marsh trail and the woodland trail, picking about a half cup of raspberries for breakfast tomorrow. We stop for dinner at The Old Shepody Mill Restaurant, a renovated house with delicious and reasonably priced Canadian and German food. I have pan fried Fundy scallops and fried clams and Bert has German schnitzel, a pork cutlet topped with ham, cheese and a sliced tomato. Both meals come with choice of potatoes and vegetables and wonderful homemade rolls and rye bread. We are eating out more than we do at home, I know. We just cannot resist the wonderful seafood for such inexpensive prices here. Meals like we have been eating would cost more than double in Texas and even more in other states. I still find it humorous that salmon entrees are the same price as those featuring chicken.
(Bert) I return to Mary's Point for the morning high tide, but before I get there I take a gravel road that winds through an area called Historic Harvey Bank. The treeless farmland, cut through by a meandering canal, seems to be one of those areas converted by the Acadians from the original salt marshes here when they first settled in New Brunswick. Now it is waving grasslands populated by hundreds of Savannah Sparrows that, as I drive slowly forward, seem to spring from my car tires and alight on fence wires and the stubby bushes that follow the fence line. A flock of 2-3 dozen stout, ochre-colored sparrows takes flight, winging more ponderously than the Savannah Sparrows, and I stop to investigate. On binocular inspection I recognize Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrows, a perfect compliment to the Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrows I found yesterday. At Mary's Point I again find the saltmarsh species and try taking photos of a few of the dozen or so I encounter. At the beach the sandpipers have increased over yesterday's population. This time they are comfortably at rest and it gives me a good opportunity to try to get a count of them. Through my spotting scope with the eyepiece set at 15X, I count 25 Semipalmated Sandpipers in the first row, about one-third up from the bottom of the scope circle. Then I count 25-30 rows. Moving the scope across the beach, I have about 10 scope widths, but not all are as full as the first view. I estimate 25 x 25 x 8 = 5000 sandpipers. Nearby, a Dalhousie student who works here during the summer estimates 2500, but he misses many because a ridge blocks part of his view of the beach. After talking about it, he agrees the estimate of 5000 seems reasonable. I watch the flock take flight and form a swarm of tightly spaced bodies that swirls through space like a dark tornado, blocking out my view of the water behind it. As if commanded by a hidden squadron leader, the flock acts as one body, flapping wings in unison, banking together, rising, falling, flanking like a kite in a storm. Following the same technique used by official shorebird counters, I create a mental image of what 5000 sandpipers looks like in flight. If I add this image to my previous visions of 500, 1000 and 2500 sandpipers I can use that knowledge to count flocks spread across the mudflats at low tide. Later in the day when we drive to the opposite shore of the Bay of Fundy to Johnson's Mills, I talk to a student worker at the Nature Conservancy site. He said he used that technique when he "counted" 100,000 sandpipers on August 1 at low tide, the peak day for this fall migration. Through ongoing studies like this one, ornithologists have determined that up to 2 million shorebirds, mostly Semipalmated Sandpipers, fly along the Bay of Fundy each fall season. They also determined that 75-95% of the sandpiper population flies through here each year, all because the mud shrimp food supply is the birds' best chance of storing up enough body fat to make the leap to South America. This also tells me how fragile is the existence of this bird species and how easily man could exterminate an abundant species through careless management of the Bay of Fundy ecology. Fortunately, that ecology seems in fairly good shape for the moment.
(Shari) Again sleeping in while Bert goes to watch the "thousands" of sandpipers, I enjoy the morning getting ready for our departure at my leisure. We drive about 80 miles (60 by motor home, 20 by car) to reach a destination not five miles across the Bay of Fundy from where we started. We have to drive up and around the muddy bay to get to the other side. Stopping at Marsh View Tent and Trailer Park on Trans-Canada Highway 2 near Sackville, we stay only long enough to eat lunch before getting in the car again to find another roosting spot of the shorebirds. Five locations on the Bay of Fundy are stopping spots for millions of sandpipers on their way to South America from their Arctic breeding grounds. Tiny shrimp exposed during low tide make yummy eating for these birds, enabling them to get fat for their long flight south in the fall. The birds are so small and, to me, look like a hive of swarming bees, as I watch them through binoculars. Bert tells me I have to see them at high tide when they are closer to shore. Unfortunately high tide is too early in the morning right now. I'd rather sleep. Having enough of birding for one day, I go home to start supper while Bert takes the car across the highway to the Sackville Waterfowl Park, developed by the city and Ducks Unlimited. Bert says it is a nice one and I would enjoy the wildflowers, but I still think I am birding saturated and it is time to go to Halifax where I can hear those shops whispering my name.
(Bert) With one more chance to see the shorebird migration, I head to Johnson's Mills Nature Preserve. Fog clouds the horizon, blending sky and water. A strong salty sea breeze makes for uncomfortable viewing. From the lookout platform I count the sandpipers diffusely scattered across the mud flats an hour before high tide. Using the same techniques of yesterday, I estimate at least 15,000 sandpipers on the beach in front of me. Later at the Nature Conservancy interpretive center, we see dense flocks in flight and on the shore. The student workers guess at least 20-25,000 in the flock and expect they may top 100,000 when they do their low tide count today. Finally I am seeing the numbers of sandpipers that I expected. Two minivans of ABA birders arrive to watch the phenomena. They've been in a couple of weeks of classroom study and are on a field trip this morning. A film crew from the Canada Discovery TV channel is here also. The reporter interviews a group of scientists attempting to band some of the sandpipers today. To keep from frightening the flock during the banding process, we are standing on the deck of the interpretation center, separated from the beach by a raspberry patch. Now at high tide, the flocks are densely packed along the shore. One of the scientists walks the beach and gently pushes the flock past the position where we stand. We can see the seething sandpiper swarm rise from and fall along the beach like an aerial wave. As they fly in mass, I can pinpoint a few larger more rotund birds - Semipalmated Plovers - and a handful of ones with white rumps - White-rumped Sandpipers - but overwhelmingly these are Semipalmated Sandpipers. Slowly the bird density concentrates until the mass is black against the background of chocolate water. I move my position further along the shoreline to see the trap and a man in ready attendance. When the signal comes, he pulls the string that springs a small net over a portion of the birds. The flock takes flight. A half dozen students run to the beach, carrying wire-sided boxes. They gently lift trapped birds from the net and put them in one of the boxes. Surprisingly, for their hour of effort and a flock of tens of thousands, they only capture about 20 birds. These they take inside the cabin for measurement, weighing and banding before releasing. The scientists hoped to repeat the process, but a Peregrine Falcon shows up and scares the swirling black tornado into the Bay of Fundy, perhaps to Mary's Point. We are left with an almost empty beach; only a few Semipalmated Plovers remain. The balance of nature is delicate and whenever man dabbles with it, there are subtle aftereffects. Fifty years ago, Peregrine Falcon numbers were decimated from DDT in the food chain. After the ban on persistent pesticides and after a captive hatching program, many young peregrines were released into the wild near Johnson's Mills. Now almost a dozen live in the area. Since they are young and inexperienced, the peregrines are more apt to scare the sandpipers into perpetual flight than they are likely to capture a bird and head to the woods. With constant harassment, the sandpipers may expend energy, use up fat reserves and have insufficient supplies to make the long flight to South America. Scientists now question whether they have released more peregrine falcons here than previously existed and that they have tipped the balance of nature in the opposite direction. It's not nice to fool Mother Nature!
(Shari) Arriving at 3 PM at Woodhaven RV Park near Halifax, we find Don, Jean, Elaine and Rich saved a spot for us next to them. The park is huge. The sites are long, narrow gravel driveways, level with little separating one from the other. R-TENT sits on a gravel base about a foot from ground level and, even with an extra stepstool, it is too high to get up without using the handrail. The most expensive of sites this summer, at CN $23, I think I expected better. The claim to be the closet campground to the city is rather meaningless, when I find we still are 30 minutes away from downtown.
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