FIELD TRIP REPORT: SNOW GEESE AND MORE ON THE ST. LAWRENCE RIVER

by Bob Duchesne
Every few years, the Penobscot Valley Chapter of Maine Audubon arranges a northern rendezvous with the world’s entire population of Greater Snow Geese.  Our meet-up point is at Cap Tourmente on the St. Lawrence River. It’s a Canadian National Wildlife Refuge, located 25 miles northeast of Québec City. Our 2015 excursion took place over Columbus Day Weekend.  It was the chapter’s fourth trip to this location in the last dozen years.

There are roughly one million Greater Snow Geese in the world. Nearly all pass through Cap Tourmente on the way to their wintering areas along the Middle Atlantic coast. This particular spot on the St. Lawrence River is overgrown with American Bulrush, a favorite food for the migrating geese. The root is a starchy tuber, rich in energy. The geese snip off the reeds, then plunge their heads into the mud to dredge up the potato-like roots.

This spot offers several other goose advantages. The river is broad, yet conveniently shallow in the coves where the bulrushes grow. Large fields adjacent to the cape provide geese with an abundant source of  grain and safe places to roost for the night.  Some of the refuge’s vast fields are designated for hunters to reduce the size of the migrating flock, but the most accessible fields are gun-free havens that permit goose-watchers and nature photographers to get amazing close-up views.  A majestic ridgeline funnels favorable north-south wind currents.  Waves of “V” formations fill the skies as tens of thousands of geese approach Cap Tourmente from the north during the height of the fall migration.

The geese pass through Cap Tourmente from early September through October. Migration peaks around Columbus Day weekend, which is when the local Québec villagers stage an annual Snow Goose Festival, their “Festival de l’Oie des Neiges.” That weekend usually coincides with peak foliage season on the cape, and even if you catch it at slightly pre-peak or post-peak, the scenery is spectacular.

The geese were not the only attraction. White-crowned sparrows mobbed the bird feeders. Hawk migration along the ridge was still lively. A few lingering warblers remained, and post-breeding vagrants commonly fall out here; an orange-crowned warbler was mist-netted and banded by refuge biologists during our visit.  In fact, the landscape was peppered with avian surprises. We even encountered a Purple Gallinule working a marsh – far, far north of its breeding range.  I typically see this bird in the Everglades in South Florida.

No tour is complete without spending a charming evening in the heart of Old Québec. A walk around the gated city and the old fortress provided a deep sense of history. An elegant dinner at one of our favorite restaurants, Aux Anciens Canadiens, provided fine dining and good wine. This tour spoils people.

This year’s trip was particularly fruitful. Cold, unfavorable weather had preceded our arrival. We brought improved conditions with us, and the warmer weather brought waves upon waves of new geese down from the arctic. The numbers quintupled during our weekend on the St. Lawrence. Thousands congregated directly in front of our blind, accompanied by thousands of green-winged teal. Nearby wetlands sheltered more waterfowl. At one point, an American bittern foraged in the marsh almost within arm’s length of us, seemingly ignoring our presence. Birding adventures don’t get much better than this.

Birding in Maryland

Paul and I just returned from a vacation involving family, friends, and birding.   We were in Putnam Valley, New York, the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia and in Laytonsville, Maryland.    Putnam Valley is an intensively wooded part of the world, only 60-miles north of New York City.   The trees are very tall and our birding was largely restricted to birding by ear, with most birds hiding themselves in the canopy.  Unfortunately, many of the songs were unfamiliar – that’s the virtue of going on a guided walk with a local expert.  We did hear and see a cheery House Wren, several Tufted-titmouses (mice?) and a very vocal Scarlet Tanager.  Of course there were Cardinals, Blue Jays, American Crows and the drumming and tapping of Woodpeckers.  We heard Ovenbirds, Hermit Thrushes and lots of Veerys and saw a Baltimore Oriole.  We did not see any birds that we had not seen in Maine though we heard some unfamiliar songs that suggested there were others about.
Moving south to the Shenandoah NP:   remember that Indigo Bunting that we regularly saw in the clearing at the top of the Essex Woods trail?  The one that we haven’t seen lately?  Well I believe I saw him in the Shenandoah.   And dozens of his friends.   If there is one really common bird there it is the Indigo Bunting.  We stopped at almost all of the scenic overlooks (several dozen) and there were usually two, one at each side of the overlook and several songs indicative of others about.  They were not at all elusive, perching typically on a bare snag near the tree top.  We often saw Scarlet Tanagers. Once we found a Prairie Warbler. I recall the excitement when one appeared at the Orono Bog Boardwalk a few years ago.  Its song is a fast trill or musical buzz that rises evenly in pitch over about 1 and ½ seconds and ends.    One might think it was a Northern Parula except that there is no ‘exclamation point’ at the end of the song and I think the Parula’s song is a bit shorter.  Away from the overlooks, in the woods, a frequent friendly flier was the Eastern Towhee – we saw many males and females at close range.  We found the songs of the Towhee to be variable.   We heard the typical or diagnostic ‘Drink Your Tea.’ This is a mid-pitched song:  drink is one note, your is a note below it and tea is higher than both and is always a quick trill  ( A – G – B-trill).  Variants have 2 parts to the song, but the 2nd part is always a trill. Their call is musical, not a dry chip.  Something like:  tooeeet!
Paul saw a Hooded Warbler – sadly I did not.  It has a quick song, mid-pitched:  hooey-hooey-hooey-achoo!  There are variants on this too but they are hard to describe.  Others:  Chipping Sparrow, American Red-StartHermit Thrush, Red-eyed Vireo, Turkey Vulture, Wild Turkey, Black Vulture, Eastern Peewee, Catbird, Robin, Great-Crested Flycatcher, Downy and Pileated Woodpeckers, Cedar Waxwing, Chimney Swift.
In the Big Meadows part of the park:  Brown Headed Cowbirds, Ravens, Brown Thrasher, Barn Swallows, Goldfinches, House Wren, Bluebirds.  Dominant though in this meadow were Field Sparrows and Song Sparrows.  When I first heard the Field Sparrows I thought I was hearing a Tennessee Warbler because they had a 3 part, accelerating song ending in a trill (of course there are variants).  Then we saw them and quickly were able to see they were Field Sparrows (and LOTS of them).  When I later checked the Tennessee Warbler song online – which is also a 3 part accelerating song ending in a trill -  I realized that it is very mechanical sounding compared to the more musical, whistle of the Field Sparrow.   I did not readily identify the Song Sparrows by ear, so different were their songs from our local birds.  Is it the southern accent?  I was quite surprised by this – I am aware of the variability of our local Song Sparrows but this was a dramatic change.
My last words on the park.   I have been priding myself on being able to readily tell the difference between the Chipping Sparrow’s and the Pine Warbler’s trills.  So I heard a trill and confidently announced – Chipping Sparrow!   Sadly for me, Paul saw the bird and it was a Dark-eyed Junco.  Back to the drawing board!!

The final part of the trip was to a friend’s home in Laytonsville, Maryland, They have 10 acres of fields for horses lined by trees.   There we saw:  Great Blue Heron, Red – Shouldered Hawk, Eastern Meadowlark, Cedar Waxwing, Eastern Kingbird, Robin, Bluebird, Tree, Barn and Cliff Swallows, Chipping Sparrow, Black and Turkey Vulture and House Sparrows.
Overall, a good trip, however, we do hope to journey somewhere to find entirely different groups of birds.

Birding in Hawaii

from Gloria Vollmers

My family (me, my dad and Paul Markson) went to Hawaii where my brother and his family lives– traveling from June 21 through July 3. We visited Oahu, Maui and Hawaii (aka The Big Island). This trip was primarily for my father who wanted to visit his son and see the sights.   Paul and I are amateur birders (he is superior to me in this regard) and so the two of us wished to see as many birds as possible within a trip circumscribed by accompanying dad and visiting family.   In sum, we would not have much time to bird actively.   Nevertheless we were forearmed with the laminated “Hawaii Birds: A Folding Pocket Guide to Familiar Species (Pocket Naturalist Guide Series) “ and a more lengthy field guide to Hawaiian birds and habitats. Also, Paul had previously lived several years in Hawaii. Although he was not an avid birder at the time, he knew his way about Oahu and The Big Island and tried to get us to as many habitats as time permitted.

Landing at Oahu and walking through the open-air airport terminal to catch a taxi, I was very excited to briefly catch a glimpse of a dark-headed crested bird. Oh MY! This is going to be good! Arriving finally at our hotel (after a VERY long journey from Maine!!) we relaxed on our little deck and saw, across on the opposite roof, more of those dark-headed crested birds. It took little time to identify them as Red-vented Bulbuls (Their little rear ends are red under the tail feathers). Who names these birds? Turns out that Bulbuls are very common, we soon saw them everywhere on Oahu. They are viewed as a pest and are listed as a “Hawaii State Injurious Species” meaning that on islands outside of Oahu, any sightings should be reported. They are the ONLY bird so listed.

We also saw legions of Rock Pigeons and House Sparrows and Mourning Doves and Northern Mockingbirds distributed just as commonly as they are here in the northeast.   Walking about town in the Waikiki area, we found ourselves surrounded by Zebra Doves. They are very attractive and small birds– maybe 5-6 inches with bluish heads and striped bodies. They are quite fearless (or stupid) and are all over – you can get within 2 feet of them and are always at risk of stepping on or running them over with your car – though I never saw any evidence that they suffered that fate (Paul, an avid fly fisher and fly tyer was hoping to glean some of their feathers…). Also common were Spotted Doves and Common Mynas which are very noisy in an unpleasant way. Cattle Egrets were plentiful. An exciting find (initially for me) was the marvelous Red-Crested Cardinal (Brazilian Cardinal). It has a red-crested head and red bib, breast white and that continues back to encircle its neck, and a grey back. It is also very common and fearless, two of them once alighting about a foot from me and not racing off. Our own Northern Cardinal is also present in abundance. We found many House Finches whose coloring varied quite a bit from what was familiar to me. Many are orange or nearly yellowish rather than red or raspberry, deluding me initially into thinking that I had found another bird.   Walking along Waikiki and the marina – major discovery!! No seabirds at all. No gulls, no nothing. (Well, Paul says he spied a White Tern – one) Once we spotted a Great Frigatebird. At my brother’s house outside Honolulu, we spotted a green perching bird with a prominent white eye ring. Turns out this is very very common bird too – the Japanese White-Eye. It’s a sparrow sized, invasive bird which is seen as having a negative effect on native bird population. Most of these birds I’ve mentioned have been introduced to the Islands, none are endemic. Indeed only 48 endemic species remain and 30 of those are endangered.   Speaking of which, we frequently saw mongooses – almost as frequently as you might see squirrels here in Maine – and they are a “High Profile Invasive Species” having a devastating effect on bird, mammal and reptile populations. They are listed on the same page as the Red-Vented Bulbuls.

Next we traveled to Maui. Outside our lodging, new to me, were Grey Francolins, walking about on a golf course– birds that looked somewhat like grouse or large quails. They are loud and noisy. We walked on a boardwalk over a marshy area where we saw, in abundance, Hawaiian Stilts and Black-crowned Night Herons, and a couple of Hawaiian Coots. We searched for more birding opportunities here on Maui. There are three major preserves but they are generally open only to researchers – I believe they are trying hard to save endemic species. We found a protected area in Kahului (where the airport is) only to find it completely fenced-off and closed from April through August. We were unsuccessful in finding any prime birding spots.   On the other hand, on a death-defying trip around West Maui, we came across our only sighting of a small group of Java Sparrows (Java Finch).

In Haleakala National Park (Maui) and in Volcano National Park (Hawaii) we saw plenty of White-tailed Tropicbirds. They fly around and through the steam of the Kilauea Volcano where they nest in the crater walls. By the way, in both parks we did finally see an indigenous species – the Nene – the Hawaiian Goose. They are quite tolerant of humans and are protected and look much like a short-necked Canada Goose. One other indigenous species we saw, and which was common on Hawaii and Maui, was the Apapane (a honeycreeper) – a red, sparrow like bird that flits about trees like a warbler. Also indigenous was the Amakihi (another honeycreeper) a yellow sparrowlike bird with a black stripe through the eye seen in Volcano National Park – but I only saw one and Paul saw none. These were the only endemic species we saw. We heard other birds in the park but because we do not know the local bird songs we could not identify them.

The Saffron Finch, a bright yellow bird with an orangeish head, was seen grazing alongside roads. We saw many Black Noddys flying about past the ocean-side cliffs of Volcano National Park where they nest. These were really the only sea bird of any quantity that we saw. Finally, we saw many Red Junglefowl – roosters (and hens) – they are not domesticated but neither are they shy. One Ring-Necked Pheasant appeared.

It may seem to you that we saw quite a few birds but we were disappointed.   We hoped to see many new birds and expected more sea birds but they were almost nowhere to be seen (likely done breeding and out to sea?).   We never saw a gull of any type. We also were very unhappy that we could not get into any preserves. If we were to go back to Hawaii for the express purpose of birding (remember- this was primarily a family visit), we would do much more research beforehand, learn more local bird calls, and consider hiring a guide on each island.