Black Scoter on Restigouche River, New Brunswick

July 29, 2002 – It’s a calm and beautiful spring morning in Dalhousie, New Brunswick. Still, glass-like water stretches out as far as the eye can see as curtains of fog roll gently along the rocky coastline. Through breaks in the fog, birds of all sorts soar across the open water: double-crested cormorants, long-tailed ducks, common mergansers, and many others. In the spring of each year, thousands of birds flock to the Restigouche River Estuary as they migrate through or take up residence on the shores of this spectacular corner of New Brunswick.

The Restigouche River Estuary is one of several Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBA) in the province. IBAs are scientifically designated sites that support large congregations of bird species and/or rare and endangered species. IBAs can be found all across the province, from Grand Manan to Dorchester Cape to Miscou Island. The Restigouche River Estuary was the first IBA designated in New Brunswick, making it an important part of our natural history.

Restigouche River, New Brunswick

As our team of Nature NB staff and local naturalists looked out over the water this spring, one key visitor was missing: the black scoter. Black scoters have been known to visit the Restigouche River Estuary in huge numbers each year as they pass through on their spring migration and have historically been seen in the thousands. But this year, only a few small groups of individuals were seen by birders in the area. Why is that?

This was a question our staff and dedicated volunteers struggled with as we completed bird surveys this spring. Where were the birds? Why weren’t they coming back to their usual spot? Have they moved on to another place? How can we find them? Will we get the chance to see scoters in such great numbers again?

But that is the thing about nature: it is fluid, dynamic, and ever-changing. Nature follows no rules – a fact we had to remind ourselves often as we worked to find out where the scoters were hiding.

Mike Lushington. Restigouche River Estuary, New Brunswick

Working with local expert and long-time birder Mike Lushington, we were able to mull over a few theories. Mike suspects that many years of large scoter congregations could have put a strain on the birds’ food supply, mainly consisting of mollusks and crustaceans. Perhaps the scoters have moved further east or to another area along the coast with more abundant food resources. This theory became our best guess as the spring progressed and may be supported by scoter observations in the Baie des Chaleur towards Petit-Rocher.

However, this theory remains just that: a theory. Further investigative work is needed to truly understand whether smaller numbers of scoters will continue to use the estuary, what the causes of this shift may be, and where the birds are staging now.

Cormorants on the Restigouche River, New Brunswick

Moving forward, Nature NB, our nature clubs, and other partners will work towards better understanding this trend through increased survey efforts in the IBA and surrounding waters to answer the question – where did the scoters go? With time, dedication, and patience, we hope to solve this mystery and see scoters in their large flocks once more.

Learn more about the New Brunswick IBA program or getting involved in our citizen science work.

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