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Emerging Canada

MV Saga Sapphire - 13th - 26th May 

Emerging Canada 'Dover - Montreal leg'

All images are taken on the tour. Copyright Jeff Clarke Ecology Ltd  unless otherwise stated. Click on images to enlarge.

I count myself very lucky to have the opportunity to join cruise ships as a guest speaker, it means I visit amazing places and encounter extraordinary wildlife. My latest trip was no different, this time accompanied by my wife Adele, aboard Saga Sapphire for an Atlantic crossing trip to Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and Quebec.  Normally I’m assisting the passengers to spot the cetaceans and seabirds on my own, but this time I would have the company of Orca Surveyors, Cassie, Lorraine, Paul and Tony. We made a great complimentary team and the additional eyes made a real difference to our observing potential. The more eyes looking, the more will be found.

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Me, Adele and some of the Orca team in T-shirt weather aboard Saga Sapphire © Jeff Clarke

We departed Dover on the late afternoon of 13th May and we would make a six day transit across ‘the pond’ before reaching our first port, St. John in Newfoundland. Large stretches of deep ocean are mostly unproductive for seabirds and cetaceans as there is limited food. However, it was migration season and this meant increased opportunities.

Storm tracks across the Northern Atlantic meant a somewhat dog-legged route was taken to miss the worst of the weather. Even so we had mixed conditions from almost flat calm to Force 9 at various times.

Thankfully our hopes regarding migrant seabirds proved correct, and we were passed by large numbers of Skuas heading north, by far the most commonly encountered species being Long-tailed Skua.

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Long-tailed Skua © Jeff Clarke

On the European side of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge we had moderate numbers of Manx Shearwaters, Fulmars and Gannets, the migration season being noticeably more advanced, Once we reached the ridge the numbers and variety of species steadily increased. Huge numbers of Fulmars crossed the Sapphire’s bow and once we encountered the cold-water Labrador current the ‘Blue Phase’ Fulmar became increasingly common.

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'Blue Morph' Fulmar © Jeff Clarke

Shearwater variety increased too with Sooty and latterly Great Shearwaters (many in heavy moult), joining the Manxies. One of the commonest birds encountered was the Leach’s Storm-petrel (see video below). It’s hard to get low enough on Sapphire to photograph seabirds but I did get a sequence of moderately reasonable shots and some film footage of this tiny ocean denizen, in gale lashed seas.

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Leach's Storm-petrel & Great Shearwater © Jeff Clarke

Also, in the Labrador current we would see huge numbers of auks, including many Brunnich’s Guillemots and Little Auks blasting north towards their Greenland breeding grounds.

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Little Auks in Labrador Current © Jeff Clarke

There was always the expectation that a few landbirds and waders may use the ship as a temporary refuge and so it proved. In the outer English Channel and the Western Approaches this included a Northern Wheatear and two Turtle Doves and a Ringed Plover landed on the bow.

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Ringed Plover on bow of Saga Sapphire © Jeff Clarke

The following day a superb sub-adult Hobby came aboard and I managed to get a nice sequence of images of it. It stayed most of the day, hopefully successfully re-orientating towards the safety of Ireland or the UK.

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sub-adult Hobby aboard saga Sapphire © Jeff Clarke

We didn’t acquire any more landbirds until we were adjacent to the Newfoundland landmass in the Labrador current and the Gulf of St Lawrence, when we were joined by Northern Waterthrush, Ruby crowned Kinglet and White-throated Sparrow. Sadly, after a time the Northern Waterthrush perished due to a lack of insect food. The White-throated Sparrow fared better as we kept it supplied with muesli, another White-throated Sparrow also came aboard and I had to rescue it from the Verandah dining room. It soon departed along with a Dark-eyed Junco. Latterly a Pine Siskin spent a day with the, now muesli-addicted, White-throated Sparrow.

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Northern Waterthrush aboard Saga Sapphire off Newfoundland © Jeff Clarke

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Savannah Sparrow (left), White-throated Sparrow (centre), Pine Siskin (right) © Jeff Clarke

Conditions early in the journey across the Atlantic were initially moderate at best and so it was no surprise that cetaceans were hard to come by. It wasn’t until the 15th that I recorded my first Short-beaked Common Dolphins. The weather and sightings improved considerably as we approached the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, more Short-beaks were joined by Sperm Whale, a pod of Cuvier’s Beaked Whales, 3 Bottlenose Dolphin plus unidentified Whale blows. As usual I often missed cetaceans when I was giving my talks. Luckily Orca were on board to tell me what I’d missed. Here’s a typical example; I went to give a talk and Paul Soulby from the Orca team captured the moment when a White-beak actually spy-hopped. Staying on deck whilst I give a talk is a guaranteed way of seeing something amazing.

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Short-beaked Common Dolphin© Jeff Clarke

Some good fortune did come my way as I picked up Risso’s Dolphin after the ridge soon followed by 40+ Long-finned Pilot Whale in four pods. I also racked up as a new species for me in the form of Atlantic White-sided Dolphin, long overdue considering where I have travelled in the past.

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Long-finned Pilot Whale & White-beaked Dolphin © Jeff Clarke

Once we reached the Labrador current and began to zero in on our first port of St. John’s the air temperature became decidedly frigid and the sea temperature dropped to -1oC. This brought a sudden spike in big whale sightings, the Humpbacks and Fin whales were entirely expected, however we were delighted to find 4 Blue Whales including 1 individual that surfaced right next to the ship. The massive splashguard contrasting with the tiny dorsal fin. And the distinctive blue-grey mottled skin visible without the need for binoculars.

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Humpback Whale mother and Calf & Blue Whale © Jeff Clarke

St. Johns is a thriving mini-city set amid a wild Newfoundland landscape. I walked out to a suburban  location called Mundy Pond. It had a reputation for interesting birds, but I found it a bit disappointing. A small number of American Black Duck were present alongside a pair of Greater Scaup and 2 drake Ring-necked Ducks. A mewing call had me thinking Mew Gull, but closer inspection showed the birds to be Ring-billed Gulls, associating with American Herring gulls. Passerines were in limited supply, a few Dark-eyed Juncos, Song Sparrows and an unexpected 1st summer male Purple Finch.

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1st summer Purple Finch © Jeff Clarke

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Greater Scaup & Ring-billed Gull © Jeff Clarke

Later Adele and I took a taxi to Pippy Park. This location had a great deal more to offer. First up being a splendid Great Northern Diver in summer plumage.

The woodland here was pretty dense but some ‘pishing’, pulled out newly arrived Myrtle Warbler, Yellow-shafted Flicker, a ‘trumpet-tooting’ Red-breasted Nuthatch and a pair of confiding Black-capped Chickadee. American Robins were present in most areas but proved somewhat shy of the camera except for a single bird near the Fluvarium, alongside a Dark-eyed Junco. Sadly, I totally messed up the Bald Eagle moment by having my camera on the wrong focus setting, all the best stuff was blurred. Doh!

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American Robin & Dark-eyed (Slate-coloured) Junco © Jeff Clarke

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Bald Eagle (left), Black-capped Chickadee (centre), Northern (Yellow-shafted) Flicker (right) © Jeff Clarke

On leaving St. Johns we passed some impressive icebergs, but eyes were alert to the cetacean possibilities and before long we ran into pods of White-beaked Dolphins. Despite my best efforts I failed to nail the perfect shot, frustrating, especially as these white-beaks actually had grey beaks.

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Icebergs off St. John's Newfoundland © Jeff Clarke

Deteriorating weather prevented us from getting into Sydney, Nova Scotia and so we headed direct for Gaspé, in Quebec. We were initially disappointed, as this meant we would miss the best area for Northern Right Whales. However, the sail in and out of Gaspé would provide some fantastic cetacean spotting that included Blue Whales, Fin Whale, Humpbacks and Minke Whales.

We would over-night in Gaspé giving me an opportunity put my camera to good use. Once we disembarked I noticed there was a patch of interesting woodland nearby on the walk through from the port to the town-ship. On closer inspection it was full of diversity from coniferous patches to, deciduous blocks and even some marsh. Small in size it may have been but it had some great wildlife associated with it! A couple of hours exploration with Adele that evening encouraged me to get out at dawn the following morning, accompanied by Tony from Orca. In no time we had recoded four species of Woodpecker, Pileated, Hairy, Downy and Yellow-shafted Flicker. The place was alive with Myrtle Warblers, many clearly migrating through as they passed in waves.

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Myrtle Warbler & Downy Woodpecker © Jeff Clarke

American Goldfinch were common in the more open patches of woodland and the wet marshy area was full of Red-winged Blackbirds, the males in full display. Some open water attracted the odd wader including Greater Yellowlegs and Solitary Sandpiper. White-throated and White crowned Sparrows were abundant, and Song Sparrow and Savannah Sparrow were singing around the margins of the wood, closer to human habitation, as were Purple Finches.

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Red-winged Blackbird & American Goldfinch © Jeff Clarke

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Solitary Sandpiper & Greater Yellowlegs © Jeff Clarke

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adult Purple Finch & Ruby-crowned Kinglet © Jeff Clarke

There was mammal interest in the wood with American Red Squirrel being abundant and also Eastern Chipmunk.

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American Red Squirrel © Jeff Clarke

The highlight was undoubtedly a male Ruffed Grouse. He had selected a felled tree trunk close to a path as his drumming post. I had the delight of watching him at length thrumming his wings in a spectacular display. Getting a clean view was near impossible due to the lattice of small branches that cluttered my line of site, but I was more than happy just to see him in action.

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Ruffed Grouse relaxed and in display position (right) © Jeff Clarke

Our next destination was Sept Iles, The Orca team and I were once again up at the crack of dawn hoping to catch some cetacean action on the sail into port. Once again, we had a good variety of species, from the largest to the littlest. Don’t think I’ve previously had Blue Whale and Harbour Porpoise in the space of an hour. Even as the ship docked Minke Whales were cruising the harbour itself.

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Minke Whale © Jeff Clarke

The big bird feature of the morning were the vast flocks of scoters pushing through, including Black, Surf and White-winged.

Once ashore Adele and I walked for an hour to the Innu First Nation Museum. It was diverting enough but the adjacent shoreline and estuary was much more interesting than the town itself, from my perspective. By the time we got out of the museum the tide had receded and so birds were further away, but they included lots of Short-billed Dowitchers and Lesser Yellowlegs. Great Blue Heron’s were dotted about. The shoreline woods were still full of snow, showing that spring here is still two months behind the UK despite being at a lower latitude. The walk back along the coast toward the ship revealed a good number of the sea ducks were reasonably close to shore, Eiders, summer plumaged Old Squaw (Long-tailed Duck) predominated, but the only one close enough to photograph was a drake Surf Scoter.

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Surf Scoter & Short-billed Dowitchers with Lesser Yellowlegs © Jeff Clarke

The sail out that evening had gathered a big crowd on Deck 12, thankfully people had got wind of the ‘Blues’. The weather was set fair and we had hyped the expectation. What occurred was well beyond our hopes. Within minutes we connected with the first Blue leviathan and it just didn’t stop till sunset. I actually lost count of the number of Blue Whales I saw, one of which may have been a Blue/Fin hybrid, but at one point I had five in view at the same time. We also had several Minke, Humpbacks, a single Fin Whale and just a single small pod of White-beaked Dolphins. Several of the passengers stayed for almost the whole period and were just as excited by what they were witnessing as Adele, me and the Orca team. Truly one of the great whale-watching experiences of my life, and I’ve had a few!

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imm. Blue whale hybrid? unusual splashguard and dorsal fin shot © Jeff Clarke

The following morning brought another early start as we would be transiting the St. Lawrence Seaway and the chance of another species. It wasn’t long before our objective was achieved. Something white shone in the water briefly, then another. Beluga whale had made it on to our trip list. We knew the key area would be close to the mouth of the Sauganey River, so I dashed down for breakfast and luckily I was back up in place just as the mouth of the Sauganey hove into view. By 10am I’d seen well over 30 Beluga’s mostly in small groups, though I did have a pod of eleven. There were also plenty of Minke Whales popping up, especially near the Sauganey. I then had to disappear for about an hour and half to give a talk, which meant I missed a whole load more. Orca recorded 71 Beluga that day and I myself was somewhere near 40.

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Beluga Whale & Minke Whale © Jeff Clarke

Late in the afternoon we passed Quebec City and left the saltwater behind, were now in the St. Lawrence river and headed for Montreal. The river here is still pretty huge and still had lots of sea duck, scoters, Long-tailed Duck, Red breasted Merganser etc. but the composition subtly changed and later we would be seeing Snow Geese, Pale Bellied Brent Goose and even a Pied-billed Grebe.

Our last day. We were up and out early the next morning in Montreal. I headed straight for Mont Royal Park accompanied by Tony from the Orca team. We had only departed the taxi by minutes when we connected with a mixed party of migrant wood warblers. I pished them in close and in no-time I had seen Cape May, Myrtle, Blackburnian, Black-throated Green, Black-throated Blue, Magnolia, Bay-breasted and American Redstart.

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Bay-breasted Warbler © Jeff Clarke

This would happen repeatedly as we wondered through the park, though I was only successful in photographing the Bay-breasted Warbler. It was obviously a ‘wave’ day for migrating warblers. We gradually worked our way up-slope to the summit of Mont Royal, with its splendid view over the city. At the top we were entertained by rival male Indigo Buntings song-battling for territory ownership and also Chipping Sparrows were conspicuous. As we began our descent another male Indigo Bunting perched beautifully in full song

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Chipping Sparrow & Indigo Bunting © Jeff Clarke

We tracked back into the woods and came across another naturalist who had found a Milk Snake, a little bonus, but time was running short and we pressed on and ran into another big flock of wood-warblers and added Northern Parula, the flock also had both White and Red-breasted Nuthatches in attendance and they became my final wildlife images from the tour.

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White breasted & Red Breasted Nuthatches © Jeff Clarke

It had been a truly great two weeks from a naturalists viewpoint, an amazing variety of seabirds, with the passage of Long-tailed Skuas being the probable highlight, a fascinating collection of stowaway landbirds taking temporary shelter on the ship and of course some outstanding cetacean action involving some 13 species topped by an extra-ordinary number of Blue Whales. I rarely use this word, but it was awesome!

I need to finish by thanking the following people and organisations for enabling me to participate in this memorable trip. Firstly Saga and the crew of Saga Sapphire and my agents at Peel Talent. I’d obviously like to thank my wife Adele for being there to share those wonderful moments. Team Orca (Cassie, Lorraine, Paul and Tony) for brilliant companionship in a shared quest and a lot of laughs along the way. Also I’d like to thank all those guests who took the time to pass on their kind comments and stories after my talks, they are genuinely appreciated. Finally, to all the guests who spent time with us on deck experiencing the inspiring spectacle of blowing whales. Simply brilliant!

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Me with Team Orca (Tony, Paul, Lorraine &Cassie) of Newfoundland & Saga Sapphire in Gaspé © Jeff Clarke

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