Birdwatching in Parc national de la Jacques-Cartier

In collaboration with Éric Deschamps, wildlife photographer

At the beginning of July, I had the good fortune to visit magnificent Parc national de la Jacques-Cartier in order to observe the avian fauna there. This national park has a multitude of ecosystems in the two vegetation zones that dominate its territory, namely the yellow birch fir forest and the boreal forest (white birch fir forest).

Parc national de la Jacques-Cartier Parc national de la Jacques-Cartier
Parc national de la Jacques-Cartier - Pictured here is a beautiful Canada warbler, a species whose status was changed from "threatened" in 2008 to "special concern" in 2020. Éric Deschamps | © Sépaq

At this time of the year, brooding has ended or is about to end. The chicks have left the nest or are ready to take their first flight. The birds are more difficult to observe in the middle of summer because of the dense foliage, but by exploring the different ecosystems, I was able to see and listen to about fifty species of birds in only a few days. I could do this with the invaluable help of Marc-André Villard, a Sépaq biologist, who has a lot of fascinating knowledge about the various ecosystems. He also showed me one of his talents, which really impressed and helped me in my quest in the park: that of recognizing the songs of the different birds around him. In other words, he can be blindfolded and identify each bird by its song. This extraordinary skill made it a whole lot easier for us to check out the avian inhabitants during our visit.

Yellow birch fir stands

This is the forest type that dominates the Vallée sector of the national park. It is populated by a mixture of yellow birch and conifers, including balsam fir, black spruce, and cedar (eastern white cedar). As you drive the ten kilometres to the discovery centre, you can easily see these large yellow birches dominating the forest. A number of forest birds live there, including the prothonotary warbler, the solitary thrush, the spotted woodpecker, and the Czech flycatcher. These birds feed mainly on larvae and adult insects collected from foliage, the ground, or the wood's surface. Some of them, like the flaming warbler, even have the spectacular ability to feed on insects while in full flight! I have often seen warblers, flycatchers, and sparrows move quickly and athletically from branch to branch to round up their meal.

Rivière Jacques-Cartier, which flows down to the St. Lawrence River, provides further opportunities to check out a variety of forest bird species, including the Canada warbler, the collared warbler, and the yellow-bellied flycatcher. These birds are abound in the alders and other small shrubs that line the river, as well as in the large conifers. I had the privilege of witnessing a fledgling collared warbler being fed by one of its parents. While watching this lovely scene through the dense foliage of an alder, Marc-André told me that seeing a bird with food in its beak was a very good indicator of the presence of youth. So for example, if you see a crowned warbler with food in its bill, there’s an excellent chance that this food is for its hungry babies. When you pay attention to these small details, you realize how much wildlife is constantly surrounding you at the heart of nature.

Then, above and beyond forest birds, the river and the numerous wetlands of the valley attract a vast array of wildlife. Many birds of prey, such as the bald eagle, live in these environments and take advantage of the opportunity to nest in the various walls or large trees of the valley.

These large birds, which often have a wingspan of over two meters, feed on fish or smaller birds. There is also a large number of beavers, which are simply delighted with the multiple possibilities of construction presented by the numerous islets of Rivière Jacques-Cartier. The islets, of all shapes and sizes and located at varying distances from the shore, offer a safe resting site for common mergansers, and the red-breasted merganser sometimes nests there. The islets are coveted by kayakers as well. So be vigilant in May and June when on the river to make sure you don't disturb the nests or broods of these beautiful birds. There’s also the kingfisher, easily recognized by its repetitive "Trill tirrrrr" call. This bird digs a burrow, sometimes up to 30 cm deep, in the riverbanks to lay its eggs.

Parc national de la Jacques-Cartier
Parc national de la Jacques-Cartier - Through the foliage of an alder tree, this ashy-headed warbler was searching for its next meal. Éric Deschamps | © Sépaq
Parc national de la Jacques-Cartier
Parc national de la Jacques-Cartier - This bay-breasted warbler had a meal in its beak for its fledglings. The species is found in the boreal forest of Parc national de la Jacques-Cartier. Éric Deschamps | © Sépaq
Parc national de la Jacques-Cartier
Parc national de la Jacques-Cartier - The impressive size of the bald eagle makes it a spectacular bird of prey. Many individuals circulate in the Vallée sector. Éric Deschamps | © Sépaq
Parc national de la Jacques-Cartier
Parc national de la Jacques-Cartier - As strong as they are beautiful, beavers are mammals that shape their environment according to their desires. If you see one, don't move a muscle; otherwise they will let you know, with a little splash, that you are trespassing on their territory. Éric Deschamps | © Sépaq

The boreal forest

The Jumeau sector of the national park is where I discovered the magnificent boreal forest. This type of forest is very familiar to me since I live not far from the largest boreal forest in eastern Quebec, located in Réserve faunique de Matane and Parc national de la Gaspésie. The boreal forest of Parc national de la Jacques-Cartier is part of the bioclimatic domain of the white birch fir forest. Balsam fir dominates, along with a mixture of black and white spruce, white birch, larch, jack pine, and aspen. Birds such as the black-backed woodpecker, the Canada chickadee, and the slate junco are specialists of the boreal forest.

In the boreal forest, almost all wetlands contain sphagnum moss. Marc-André explained that the decomposition of this plant acidifies the soil, which makes it difficult for many other plants and trees to grow. The phenomenon is clearly visible in the vicinity of Lac Barrette, where a peat bog with a flora dominated by sphagnum moss occupies a large area. A bog is a unique, fascinating, and complex ecosystem. It is a large expanse of wetland characterized by the formation of thick layers of peat. The top layer is the visible one and is composed of moss and various species of acid-tolerant plants. On the edge of a peat bog, Marc- André and I observed a pair of black-backed woodpeckers and two families of Canada chickadees. Some birds like the red-crowned warbler and the Lincoln's sparrow prefer to occupy the bogs of the boreal forest.

Parc national de la Jacques-Cartier
Parc national de la Jacques-Cartier - The spotted woodpecker is one of the birds that are abundant throughout Parc national de la Jacques-Cartier. Éric Deschamps | © Sépaq
Parc national de la Jacques-Cartier
Parc national de la Jacques-Cartier - Common mergansers are numerous in the Vallée area. When we stay still and quiet, they can fly right by us at water level. Éric Deschamps | © Sépaq

In summary 

Parc national de la Jacques-Cartier is located at the interface of the yellow birch fir forest and the boreal forest, which greatly increases the diversity of birdlife. The Vallée sector is certainly among the most beautiful in the entire Sépaq network, but the other sectors (Épaule, Sautauriski, and Jumeau) offer spectacular landscapes and a birdlife that one would not expect to find only 30 minutes from Québec City. There is no doubt about the richness of the park's birdlife. As everywhere in nature, it is enough to walk silently and pay attention to the different movements and sounds to become aware of the great diversity of the ecosystems that surround us.

More than a hundred species of birds frequent this protected area during the year, so the next time you visit Parc national de la Jacques-Cartier, bring along your binoculars to identify the different species you see. Better still, learn to recognize some of the songs. Then, pay attention to the environment in which you observed these birds and continue to learn about their behaviors and habitats.

Happy birdwatching to one and all!

About Éric Deschamps

After beginning actuarial studies at Université du Québec à Montréal, Éric Deschamps made a decision that would alter the trajectory of his life. He dropped statistics, said goodbye to the big city in which he had always lived, and packed his bags. His game plan? To set out on an adventure. So he moved to Cap-Chat in Gaspésie to teach himself photography. Nowadays, camera in hand, he criss-crosses the forests of Quebec in search of snapshots that are one of a kind.

You can also follow his adventures on his Facebook page Nature en vue.

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