Text: Nathalie Landry
Editing: Monique Arsenault
Photos and video: Georges Brun
Music: Mario LeBreton
“There is nothing like being in the marshes along the Petitcodiac River in the morning, with the mist rising and the sun’s rays starting to slowly heat the air. You can hear the birds singing… It’s good for the soul.”
It was his love of ornithology that brought Roger Leblanc to become involved in the protection and restoration of the Petitcodiac River. He is a member of the Petitcodiac Riverkeepers and has taken part over several years in the Christmas Bird Count, an annual census of birds by thousands of volunteer and professional birders all over North America as well as in South America. Leblanc leads the count in Moncton, trying to identify and track as many species and individuals as possible over an area that covers 24 km in diameter from the city’s centre and includes the marshes surrounding the Petitcodiac River.
“I remember that before we opened the tidal control structure gates, I use to go to Bell Marsh in Salisbury,” he recalls. “I would observe the marshes around the artificial lake. It was a dead lake – there was almost no animal life. But since the opening of the locks, I see lots of animal life coming back to this marsh. It’s really amazing how quickly nature reclaims her territory when she is left to her own devices.”
Leblanc hails from Campbellton and has always been an outdoor enthusiast. He studied at the Université de Moncton, and then settled in our region. He has worked in television production for many years. He’s made some nature documentaries, and developed a passion for wildlife and flora in the process, resulting in his favorite hobby: bird watching.
“I especially love bird watching this time of the year, in the spring. I try to go out at least 2 or 3 times a week to the marshes along the banks of the river. Nature changes so quickly, it’s this incredible theatrical performance that I feel privileged to attend. Spring sees the return of the Red-winged Blackbird, swallows and duck species. There’s the Nelson’s Sparrow, one of my very favorite species, very unique to our region. If we ever want to give Greater Moncton an official bird, I would recommend the Nelson’s Sparrow.”
Leblanc says that for him, the tidal bore gaining momentum since the opening of the gates in 2010 is only the icing on the cake when it comes to all the positive changes that he’s been noticing in regards to the health of the Petitcodiac River.
“The river and its wildlife are always evolving. For example, I see a lot more species of ducks along the riverbanks as well as other birds for which the river is a natural habitat. Some other species, such as seagulls, are less present. We used to have a big problem with seagulls, there were too many – it was too easy for them as they simply could feed on the fish that were getting stuck trying to go through the gates. Now that the fish are able to pass through the opened gates, there are fewer gulls near the causeway. Also, as the river’s mud banks gradually erode, shorebirds like sandpipers that use to live on the banks are now migrating upstream – making their nests in places that are a more natural habitat for them. This is normal, a sign that the river is returning to its natural state and that the wildlife is adapting.”
Leblanc says it’s a shame more people are not aware of the richness and diversity of our region’s flora and fauna. “We are very fortunate to live in a city where, within a few minutes, you can be in a salt marsh observing the wildlife. For bird lovers, there are several species in our region that cannot be found anywhere else. People come from all over the world to see species like my friend, the Nelson’s Sparrow which has a very distinctive song.”
“When you start learning about birds and know more about their stories, the great migrations they undertake and what makes each species unique, you start to appreciate nature a lot more and you want to protect it.”
His vision for the future of the Petitcodiac River?
“We must give the river – and nature – the chance to reclaim their rights. I hope someday we will remove the tidal control structure and the causeway and replace them with a bridge. The area where the artificial lake used to be has great potential – it could become a much more interesting place if we gave the river a chance to regain its natural width. I envision a beautiful marsh, with boardwalks for people to be able to walk around and watch the birds.”