Thursday, August 21, 2008

Birding on the St. Lawrence

It always kinda weirded me out that there exists an entire civilized country north of Maine.  In the States, Maine is thought of as the Great White North, all frigid and isolated.  That there was a country that didn't even begin until after the most northern of Maine's northern forests had passed just seemed illogical.  But exist it does!  And, as proof, my girlfriend and I spent a couple days there, along the St. Lawrence River.

Now, this wasn't a birding trip, but of course I took every opportunity to find birds wherever I could.  I really had no idea what I was in for: there aren't a lot birding websites for the St. Lawrence and very few eBird locations on the St. Lawrence east of Quebec City.  [Aside #1: eBird, I love you but you need to make it easier for me to search birds by location.  When I am preparing for a trip I want to be able to easily plug in my location and see what other people have seen there.  I could just be an idiot, but I can't figure it out.  Aside #2: How did Maine sneak into the top spot for Checklists Submitted in August? What's up with that?]

So we left from Portland and headed north.

Interesting stop: Mars Hill Wind Farm in Mars Hill, Maine.

It's no secret that I love wind power, and I have to say that I was filled with pride at seeing Maine's only (for now) large-scale wind farm in full glory.  Mars Hill, the hill, seems to rise out of nowhere (this is flat potato country), and really towers over the Mars Hill, the town.  The 28 turbines were spinning like mad.  I took these pictures at a gas station in town and while I was there I asked the woman at the counter how she felt about the project (some people living close to the turbines have complained about the noise):  "Doesn't bother me, I don't live close to them."  

"Where does the power go?" I asked.  "Canada."  She replied with a smirk.

[Aside #3: While in Quebec I saw another set of turbine rotors (4 total) and a nacelle traveling from east to west.  I wonder where they were made and where they were going?  Starting a wind turbine construction company would really help Maine's economy...]

Riviere-du-Loup, Quebec

One reason we wanted to go to the St. Lawrence was for the epic whale-watching.  At a certain spot on the river, where the warm water of the Saguenay River meets the cold subarctic water of the St. Lawrence, science happens and lots of delicious shrimps and krill are created.  Whales love it, and people love to look at whales.  Done and done.  Usually, people drive to Quebec City and then up along the north coast of the St. Lawrence to the town of Tadoussac, where the whale-watching is easier, but we decided to stay on the south coast and take a trip out of Riviere-du-Loup.

While we waited for our boat to leave, I scoured a gigantic mudflat between The Point and the town.  See photo below:

Though the birds were very far away, there were thousands of peeps out there.  Only a few groups came into range where identification was possible, and they were all semipalmated sandpipers.  A small number of semipalmated plovers walked on the beach much closer to me.  With some planning, and on the right day, this mudflat most likely produces some spectacular shorebirds.

St. Lawrence River at Tadoussac

The wind was ferocious during our few days in Quebec.  Unrelenting and intrusive.  The wind made birding difficult (very hard to keep a zoomed scope steady) and our whale-watch uncomfortable.    

But there were birds.  Specifically, there were Black-legged Kittiwakes.  I had never seen a kittiwake before the trip, but then the boat returned to Riviere-du-Loup I had seen probably 15,000.  And Minke Whales leaping out of the water.  And Finback Whales, the second largest animal in the world.  

Here's a picture showing how rough the seas were.  Those are kittiwakes, identifiable from, say, ring-billed gulls by the jet black wing tips lacking any white and yellow unmarked bills.  There were very few other species out there: a few black guillemots, herring and black-backed gulls and an odd flyover greater yellowlegs.

Also missed were cooler whales.  Blue, Humpback and Beluga are all quite possible here, but the combination of rough seas and the necessity for a long haul back across the river to Riviere-du-Loup cut the trip a bit short.  I would advise anyone looking to whale-watch on the St. Lawrence to make the trip around to the north side of the river at Tadoussac instead of trying to go from the south side.

Parc National du Bic

An absolutely beautiful little National Park on the St. Lawrence just west of Rimouski. Mountains really come out of nowhere and form huge cliffs at the riverside.  The wind, again, was ferocious, and it hindered birding to a large extent, but I was able to see quite a few species.

That's a shot of the muddy beach in the Baie du Ha! Ha! (Yes, that is what it's called.  Translated into English it's Ha! Ha! Bay.  I don't know what to tell you), which probably hosts lots of shorebirds when the wind dips below gale force.  Around the rest of the park I saw the usual seabirds, gulls, black ducks, a single juvi kittiwake and a thousand or so of the park's famous eiders.  Inland, I managed to avoid most of the boreal species I was hoping to see in Canada, but I saw a few more boreal chickadees and heard a small group of red crossbills at a treetop.  A pair of nashville warblers were a nice surprise.  I'd love to bird this place again, with more time.


Rimouski is a very nice little city just a few miles from Bic National Park with a big ol' mudflat out front.  I got there just as the tide was rising, but still caught over 30 great blue herons (the largest number I've ever seen at one time), 1000+ American black ducks (ditto), thousands of gulls (nothing unusual, however), red-breasted mergansers and a smattering of semipalmated plovers.  I was a bit surprised that there were no other peeps out on the flats but, like at Riviere-du-Loup, things were pretty far away.  

Whelp, that does it.  I had an absolute blast in this part of Canada and would love to return with less wind and more time to bird.  Au revoir!  

EDIT: Here's a nice little Quebec RBA website I just discovered (plus it's in English): Recent Bird Reports from Quebec


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