An Excursion To Canada, New England, and Washington DC

Our trip was mainly a fortnight cruise on the NCL Dawn from Boston to Quebec City and back, calling at; Portland and Acadia National Park (Maine); Saint John (New Brunswick) - famous for its reversing falls; Halifax (Nova Scotia) – starting point for the Atlantic convoys and site of most of the Titanic burials; Gaspe - for Perce rock and Bonaventure island gannet colony; Saguenay – for its massive pulp mills; Quebec City – for its French cuisine, Chateau Frontenac, the Montmorency Falls, and victory over the French on the Heights of Abraham; and Charlottetown (Prince Edward Island) – home of the author of Anne of Green Gables. Finally we flew to Washington DC to spend an intended 4 days in the magnificent US capital before returning to the UK.

Here are a few photos of the places we visited. [click on a photo for a larger view]

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View of old Quebec taken from the famous Dufferin terrace by Chateau Frontenac, looking down over our ship and the St Lawrence River.

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Montmorency Falls just outside Quebec City.

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Soldier on guard outside the citadel at Halifax.

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View from the Hawk watch on top of Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park.

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View of the reflecting pool, Washington monument and the Capitol building taken from the Lincoln Memorial Washington DC.

We were supposed to call at Cape Breton Island too (northerly part of Nova Scotia) but the weather was so bad that they closed the port due to 25-foot waves.

Overall it was great trip, though we were a little too early for the best of the fall foliage and the snow geese migration. But I had some great birding too!

Birding on sightseeing excursions is usually very limited and frustrating. So when one visits places for the odd day or so, and subject to some negotiation with my better half, I always try to pre-plan some meetings with a local birder or guide. With limited time and the need to be back on board to avoid a swim, it is so useful to have the company of someone with local knowledge of good birding spots, transport, and a sound ID facility! Apart from that, it is invariably a delight to talk to a local person, especially if they share your enthusiasm. And cost is usually quite reasonable – certainly no greater than an equivalent general excursion organised by the cruise line.

So on this holiday my wife and I agreed to devote time to 3 such trips– in Portland & Bar Harbour (both of which we had already visited many years ago) and in Quebec City (where we were due to spend 2 days). In addition we agreed a boat trip round Bonaventure Island – with the largest gannet colony that side of the Atlantic.

Much time was spent on the Internet before our trip trying to find suitable local contacts. The Birdingpal site proved on this occasion useless (no-one replied), but eventually, I found guides directly or indirectly at Portland and Bar Harbour. In Quebec City I emailed the Quebec City birding society (COQ). To my amazement, the long-time President agreed to take me out for a half day – at no cost, though of course I made a suitable donation afterwards! All 3 trips were excellent and the weather was kind on those days.

My total tally came to 89 bird species, of which 30 were entirely new to me. We also saw several other creatures such as whales, dolphins, lobsters, seals, turtles, squirrels, chipmunks, a porcupine, groundhogs, and a few butterflies (no moose or elks unfortunately).

Here is a brief summary of the birds we saw, grouped by type, with photos of some of the highlights.

Gulls

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American Herring, Greater black-backed, and Ring-billed gulls were common on the coasts (and the latter on rivers too). Here is a photo of the guests feeding the Herring Gulls on our nature trip in Halifax harbour. The gulls were very adept at taking bread from outstretched hands, but in my case the gull mistimed its lunge and nearly took my finger off!

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A few Black-legged Kittiwakes (the UK bird) were seen around Bonaventure Island. In addition I took this close-up of the delightful Bonaparte Gull picking food off the water surface in Charlottetown harbour.

Tubenoses

Only a few Fulmars seen at sea from our ship.

Terns

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Only a few Common Terns, and this photo of a Caspian Tern – parked on a pond next to turtles and cormorants just outside the Pentagon on the Potomac in Washington.

Cormorants

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The Double-crested are the commonest on the east coast, but there were quite a few of our Greater Cormorants too. This is a photo from Halifax showing both types on a buoy.

Gannets

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Were in abundance, especially in their huge breeding colony near Gaspe. Most had not left yet for the south as the juveniles were not ready. Here is a close-up as one flew by our boat.

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And here is a photo of just part of the colony. It’s huge.

Alcids

Common Guillemots (known as the Common Murre locally), Black Guillemots and Razorbills were seen around the Gannet colony and again in Acadia National Park.

Loons, Sawbills, & Grebes

A few of our Red-breasted Mergansers fishing just off-shore in Saguenay on the St Lawrence Gulf, one Common Merganser (Goosander) preening by the river outlet there, and a very distant view of several Red-necked Grebes – identified by our guide - on the sea in Acadia.

Herons & Egrets

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Plenty of Great Blue herons on marshes and on sea shores – so much like our Grey heron- plus one sighting of a Black-crowned Night Heron (photo above) roosting in a tree in a Quebec city nature park.

Sea ducks

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Apart from lots of Common Eider, flocks of Common Scoter (known as Black Scoter locally), and a few Velvet Scoters (White-winged Scoters locally), I found one Harlequin Duck (above) energetically feeding in very rough water at the sea’s rocky edge

My luckiest sighting was a Red-billed Tropicbird, with its distinctive foot long white tail, in Saint John harbour being chased by two gulls. A very unusual visitor so far north, my guides later told me that a bird had been reported around Nova Scotia. I happened to be looking out of the ship restaurant window on a high deck as we ate a meal.

Other Ducks & Geese

A fair number of Canada geese (some in big flocks) of course, in various places, including on the Potomac in Washington being fed along with Mallards by the locals.

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At long last I got to identify wild American Black ducks- very similar to Mallards. They are a bit darker in plumage and the speculum has no white. Here is a photo from a Quebec City nature park.

Other ducks seen included both Green–winged and Blue-winged teal, quite a few spectacular Wood ducks (the equivalent of our Mandarins), a flock of Ringed-necked ducks, and one Northern Pintail.

Waders

Surprisingly we saw few waders, certainly in comparison with similar habitats in the UK. But I found several Spotted Sandpipers and one Solitary Sandpiper doing what such sandpipers do in the UK on the edge of ponds.
At Saguenay, a row of 4 Semi-palmated Plovers conveniently lined up facing the breeze on the beach at high tide, quite close.
At St Martin, in the Bay of Fundy, we watched two Semi-palmated Sandpipers fly in to the sea marsh on their migration before flying off again.

Raptors

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I had hoped to see quite a few raptors, especially Bald Eagles. But that iconic bird didn’t seem as common as on the west coast. Here is a photo from the shore of Prince Edward Island. Judging from the white droppings, the two birds regularly use these perches on the cliff top.

Two Ospreys were seen in Portland, one circling over the bay and one perched near its huge nest constructed in the girders of a wrought-iron bridge.

My best sightings were of a juvenile Cooper’s Hawk preening in a Quebec City nature park and a Sharp-shinned Hawk in a tree also in the same park.

From the so-called “Hawk watch” (known for observation of migrating raptors) on top of Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park, we watched two huge Turkey Vultures circling over a forested island far below and near our ship.

Pigeons & Gamebirds

Apart from seeing many feral pigeons, we also had several sightings of Mourning Dove. This bird, very slightly smaller than the Eurasian Collared Dove, is fairly widespread. It is an elegant bird with a long tapering tail.

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As to game birds, in Portland I was delighted to see my first Wild Turkey, a female with chicks, feeding in the long grass of a nature park. As the photo above shows, it is a very large bird. Surprisingly, given US gun laws, it has been expanding its range. One of my guides told me that his small daughter had renamed their road Turkey Lane because of the numbers!

Woodpeckers & Nuthatches

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The only species of woodpecker we saw were excellent views of the diminutive Downy Woodpecker in several places. Resident, it is similar to our Lesser Spotted. Here is a close up of a male in a Quebec City nature park.

The area has two Nuthatches – both of which we saw on bird feeders. The White-breasted we saw in a Quebec City nature park, the Red-Breasted we saw in the back garden of a local birder in Acadia National Park. The latter is slightly smaller than our variety but neither is in my opinion quite as handsome as the UK bird.

Kingfishers

The only regular species in the areas we visited is the Belted Kingfisher. It is resident, quite a large bird and unmistakable. We seemed to see that most places we went – both by sheltered sea waters and by lakes, either flying or perched.

Hummingbirds

In a Portland nature park, we had excellent views of the one species breeding in the area, the diminutive Ruby-throated Hummingbird. A pair conveniently sat on a wire fence quite close – and periodically visited the flowers in a large allotment for nectar. They will be off south soon no doubt.

Flycatchers

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There are about 10 breeding species I could have seen, mostly very similar small birds about the size of our Spotted Flycatchers. But before they migrated south, I was able to add 3 to my list - the Eastern Phoebe, the Eastern Wood-peewee, and the Alder flycatcher. This photo of the latter gives an idea.

Shrikes & Vireos

No shrikes were seen unfortunately, but two vireo species were identified by our guide in a Portland park – the Red-eyed and the Blue-headed. Both breed in the area but migrate south.

Crows, Jays & Magpies

The American Crow, the equivalent of our Carrion Crow, was everywhere. We saw one Common Raven.

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The best sightings were of the beautiful Blue Jay – which we saw in various spots, especially taking and eating acorns. The bird is of a more delicate build than the European Jay and has a finer beak. So it can also take food from a bird feeder, as the photo above from Acadia National Park shows.

Swallows, Martins & Swifts

The Swallows and Martins had already departed south, but in Washington we watched a few Chimney Swifts, hunting above the streets. The only species normally seen in the area (also migratory), these birds, smaller than our Common Swift, nest in chimneys – hence their predilection for an urban environment.

Thrushes, Blackbirds & Grackles

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Of the 8 or so species of thrush we could have seen, we twice saw a Swainson’s Thrush perched close up in woodland.

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But it was not until Washington that we saw our first American Robins (which are not robins at all of course). Above is a photo of one in the grounds of the Capitol building.

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As to Blackbirds, we were lucky to see a pair of Rusty Blackbirds turning over debris on the edge of a small swampy lake in Quebec. On migration these birds have apparently become uncommon because of a loss of favoured habitats. The photo here shows the winter rusty plumage.

A few Common Grackles were seen briefly in Washington.

Mimids

We had a splendid view of a Gray Catbird sitting on top of a bush in Portland.

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The Northern Mockingbird (above) was seen several times, especially on the edge of the Potomac in Washington. This bird likes suburban environments – and usually announces its presence noisily, but is a good imitator. So it was not always obvious what it was until you spotted it! Here it is hiding in the undergrowth.

Waxwings

In Portland we had good views of the resident Cedar Waxwing, a slightly smaller version of the UK bird. But for those, called locally Bohemian Waxwings, it was too early for the migration from the north.

Warblers & their allies

The number of species of warblers in North America is truly amazing. All but one, the yellow–rumped, are entirely migratory. I counted 47 in my Sibley. So in many cases, it helps no end to have a local birder with you to help the ID.
My list of sightings, many of which were lifers, included: Magnolia Warbler, Black & white Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, American Redstart (not a redstart at all), Yellow-rumped Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Chestnut-sided Warbler, and Wilson’s Warbler.

The equivalent of our Goldcrest is the resident Gold-crowned Kinglet, a very similar bird in all respects. Difficult to see amongst the foliage, we spotted one in Acadia National Park.

Tits & similar

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Surprisingly, there is only one species that occurs in the areas we visited- the Black-capped Chickadee, a resident. We saw these frequently. Although listed with Nuthatches in my Sibley, this bird looks and behaves like a slightly large Willow Tit. It is very confiding. In the Quebec City Park one would sit on my hand to take food!

Finches, Buntings, Juncos & Cardinals

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The House finch, a native to western USA, has colonised the whole of eastern USA. So it was no surprise to see this pretty bird in several places – the male having a lovely reddish blush on its breast. We also saw in Portland and Acadia the more striking Purple finch. Here (on the left of the photo) is a streaky female on a bird feeder in Acadia National Park. The photo also shows a lovely yellow male American Goldfinch – smaller than, and with no real resemblance to, the European bird of that name. That finch we also saw fairly frequently.

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The male Dark-eyed Junco is a seed-eating resident bird of similar size to the finches and entirely black, except for a white breast. We had a great view of one on the ground in Acadia National Park.

The male Northern Cardinal is a spectacular bird – all brilliant red, with a jet-black face and a crest. It is about the size of our Waxwings. Fortunately, it does not mind suburbia. So we had a good view on the feeders in Acadia.

Sparrows

The number of species is, like the warblers, amazing. Apart from the European House Sparrow which has colonised city parks and airports everywhere, I counted 35 species in my Sibley.

Most species, apart from the Song Sparrow, are migratory, like the warblers. So I was pleased with my tally of Song Sparrow, Savannah Sparrow, White throated Sparrow, and White-crowned Sparrow. Most of these we saw near bird feeders. The photos below show both male and female White-crowned in Acadia National Park and a White-throated Sparrow in the Quebec Park.

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White-crowned Sparrows

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White-throated Sparrow

OTHER SIGHTINGS
As to the various other creatures we saw, here are a few photos.

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Male and female lobsters which the young guide is holding to show their differing sexual parts on our Halifax nature trip (note the rubber bands on the claws).

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A groundhog (hibernates for up to 5 months in its burrow) eating a peanut butter sandwich in the Quebec Park.

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A tiny baby snapping turtle that I rescued from being crushed in the Portland Nature Park car park.

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A melanistic grey squirrel (quite common) in Quebec.

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The beautiful Question Mark butterfly (relative of our Comma) sunning itself in the Portland Nature Park.

Peter M
18 November 2014

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