Chronicles

Scoters
by: Mike Lushington  

        It is Wednesday, May 1, as I write this. Early this morning, I took a trip upriver as far as Macleod's Siding and then started my pattern of stops back down to home. I do this at this time of year for one simple reason; I am checking on the build-up of Black and Surf Scoters in the Restigouche Estuary. When I set out this morning, it was with the idea that I should be seeing large numbers , if our observations and predictions of past years were valid. They were, and I was not disappointed; there had to be 75 000 scoters in the Estuary from Point du Chene on the Quebec side, down past Escuminac Cove. They were concentrated in the wide but shallow stretch of the river from Point a la Garde across to the New Brunswick shore, but they were, in reality, everywhere realised, once again, that I was witnessing one of nature's grand spectacles, and one of its most underappreciated.

        I have been doing these systematic surveys for several years now and each spring I learn more - about the scoters, and about the whole river system. For example, while counting them, I have come to realise just how important the estuary is to many different species of birds (not to mention salmon, smelts, mussels, seals, and tens of other species which live and prosper here). I must have seen a hundred loons flying in as I counted scoters and I am forever seeing eiders, cormorants, mergansers, gannets, gulls and other duck species. The work we did a few years ago to have the estuary proclaimed as a Globally Significant Important Bird Area is borne out with greater clarity each year.

        It all comes to a simple fascination. I don't take the time to count these birds only for the scientific information we may gain about them, but simply because I am intrigued by them. These rather plump, unprepossessing little ducks survive all winter in the open ocean and then, with the coming of spring, fly to unknown parts of the Arctic to nest. On their way,. they stop by here for a couple of weeks. While here, they eat, they sing, they court, and they mate. And then, they disappear. While they are here, though, they provide us with an opportunity to observe one of the largest concentrations of their kind anywhere in the world. Their sheer numbers threaten to overwhelm me as I try to estimate just how many of them there are out there, and I am tempted, at times, simply to summarise my efforts by noting "a whole big pile of them".

        That I was even out there early this morning is testiment to my interest in them. I say this because Jim Clifford and I were in the woods back on the Road to Mount Carleton last night looking for owls - and I didn't get to bed until 2:30 this morning. Jim and I were indulging in another fascination, our mutually shared one with these birds of the night. It strikes me, as I write this, that there is a real clash with scale here; we counted ourselves successful and reasonably satisfied last night to have found seven owls, while this morning I have been dealing with 75 000 scoters! And yet and again, the fascination lies elsewhere. There is something wonderful about being out in the woods in the middle of the night and suddenly hearing an owl, there, in the dark, hunting, courting and surviving as its kind has for millions of years, far beyond our time of interest in them. We found three species last night; five of the birds were Barred Owls, including a pair which came to our taped calls with every intention of driving out an intruding pair of competitors. We also found a diminutive Saw-whet owl, a little creature hardly bigger than a robin, but one of the more ferocious predators of the nightime woods, and a Great-horned owl, one of the most aggressive and successful birds in the world.

        I found myself wondering about this scale. Why is a single owl such a thrilling encounter while the scoter intrigue seems to be based on numbers? I really don't know, but I suspect that scoters tell me something about the fecundity of the natural worlds, while owls embody the sense of individualism. Scoters are tough birds in a tough world, but in the end the species survives because of its numbers. Owls, on the other hand, are not plentiful; they must survive as individuals in a world which tends not to look kindly on predators. Whatever, though, the basis for my fascination, I know that I am so pleased to be a part of this same world, and to be able to watch and listen to it as I try to understand more about it at every opportunity.

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