June Naturescape Notes
As we have enjoyed the gentle prelude to spring on Pender, serious springtime preparations have been taking place to the south of us, setting in motion one of the most compelling dramas of the natural world – the annual winged migration north.
Millions of birds, from songbirds to waterfowl to shorebirds to hummingbirds, are instinctively building energy reserves in the form of body fat for their long journeys back to their nesting grounds after wintering in the southern United States, Central America, South America – and some even farther to the south.
Migration is a precision operation. Too little fat reserved and there will be insufficient fuel for the journey. Too much and flight efficiency will be impaired.
While most birds will have refuelling stops along the way, some species are able to make the entire journey non-stop. For example, the bar-tailed godwit, a shorebird, undergoes a remarkable physical change for the journey, with many of its internal organs shrinking to a fraction of their usual size. The birds are thus freed of the baggage of heavy innards, with more room for fuel, readying them for 6800 miles of non-stop travel between New Zealand and the Alaska Peninsula.
In contrast, the tiny rufous hummingbirds have been winging their way to us at 78 wingbeats per second – many to precisely the location they left last fall. Some arrived on Pender in early March, and nesting will soon be underway.
Unlike most species, hummingbirds do not travel in flocks, but individually make their way on their journey of up to 3000 miles. Picture the many challenges they must face along the way. Weather conditions are critical – upon departure and along the way. Will there be headwinds or tailwinds, cloud cover or storms? Cross-winds must be compensated for. Being blown out to sea can pose a major risk for our hummers for they must stop to feed enroute. But - will traditional refuelling areas still be there for them?
Arriving at their destination too early may mean snow cover and lack of food. Late arrival may mean loss of nesting territory to competitors.
What will they find when they arrive? Will nesting habitat still be available for them?
What can we do to welcome them home?
The return of the rufous hummingbirds to this area coincides with the flowering of native woodland understorey plants and their assurance of nectar and associated insect food.
This amazing little bird beautifully demonstrates the wonderful connectivity between native plant, animal and insect species. As careful stewards of our land, there is much that we can do to ensure that their special needs are met. Wherever possible it is important to leave native vegetation intact. Red flowering currant, salmonberry, elderberry, Indian plum, honeysuckle are essential for the hummers, and for many beneficial insects. It is often assumed that hummingbirds feed only on nectar, but their appetite includes many small insects as well. Often when they are immersed in a blossom they will be feeding on insects as well as supping on nectar.
NOTHING NEW UNDER THE SUN!
My husband Keith volunteered for a number of years for an annual fund-raising sale of used books. This provided great opportunities to browse through natural history and gardening books in the hope of discovering treasure. And, indeed, I did!
A copy of a 1939 publication “Birds in the Garden, and How to Attract Them” by Margaret McKenny came my way. To my amazement, this book seemed to be the genesis of the Naturescape concept!
Seeing chapter headings such as “Planting in the Small Garden to Provide Food and Cover”, ditto for the larger garden, “Feeding Devices”, “Supplementary Food”, “Protection”, “Bird Homes”, “Water in the Garden”, “Nature’s Balance Keepers”, etc., I quickly delved in to compare notes!
Just as with Naturescape, Margaret McKenny emphasized the need for food, water and shelter, and provided sketches and ideas for landscape designs using native plants. Designs for bird boxes are similar to ours, including dimensions for entrance holes and cavity sizes. There are descriptions of garden birds, and lovely water colour illustrations, many by British Columbia’s late Allan Brookes! There are descriptive lists of native plants to attract particular species of birds, sectioned for various regions of North America.
Reading the text felt like déjà vu, as I thought back to writing for the Naturescape Provincial Guide! For instance, the introductory paragraphs in her chapter on “Protection” read:
“The most effective protection that can be given our birds is properly selected planting, which means a growth of plants which as nearly as possible duplicates their natural habitat. In the close-set belt of sheltering evergreens they will find protection from cold rainy winds and from snow and ice, and in the tangle of thorny shrubs and vines they can get the cover necessary for nesting.
“When we think of the life in our gardens we are inclined to consider only the plants and the song birds. We not only enjoy the birds but appreciate the benefit they do us by keeping in check the insects that despoil our shrubs and flowers. But if our planting approximates natural growth we will find in it many forms of life, all depending on one another for existence and maintaining a balance of which we are often quite unaware.”
Who was Margaret McKenny, I wondered? No biographical information was provided in her book, and even the Internet didn’t help! Cross referencing in other books told me that she was acquainted with Roger Tory Peterson, but that is as far as I got – until I discovered another elderly and delightful book, “Wild Flowers for Your Garden” by Helen S. Hull, published in 1951.
To my delight, Helen Hull covered wildflower gardens and gardeners from each of the 48 states. There, for Washington State, was reference to the wild-flower garden of Margaret McKenny in Olympia, Washington. A “naturescaped” garden, so close to home, more than 60 years ago!
The intrigue doesn’t end there, for reference was given to another book by Margaret McKenny., “The Wild Garden” My search is on!
I can’t help thinking if we had discovered these books sooner, we would have had a wonderful reference source when we put together the Naturescape Provincial Guide! I guess there really is nothing new under the sun!
Naturalist Advisor for Naturescape
Seabird Survival Program
July Naturescape Notes
A recent symposium at UBC on Marine Protected Areas gave rich opportunity to learn more about the intricate, exquisite, and fragile ecology of the waters of coastal British Columbia and embracing our treasured Gulf Islands.
We are thankful for the acquisitions of the new Gulf Islands National Park Reserve, which cover some islets and reefs, and the National Marine Conservation Area proposed for the Southern Strait of Georgia (www.parkscanada.gc.ca), but these are just a beginning for the level of protection needed for coastal waters. Further stewardship programs are proposed - such as the cross-border Orca Pass Stewardship Area (www.georgiastrait.org), and the Living Oceans Society (www.livingoceans.org).
The need for immediate action is abundantly clear. Increased pollution, habitat loss, fisheries mismanagement and other human activities are profoundly affecting life in the sea around us. Imbalances and population declines of even a single species can affect the entire coastal food chain.
Of the various initiatives underway, large and small, the Seabird Survival Program (www.naturalists.bc.ca) provides ways in which WE can make a difference – now. Voluntary guidelines are offered for recreational boaters, kayakers and beach-walkers for viewing seabirds responsibly. Often in our enthusiasm and lack of understanding we literally risk “loving them to death”. Birds will be onshore for their need to rest, feed or breed. Birds at ease will exhibit behaviors such as preening, feeding, nest building, sleeping, or “loafing”. Disturbance will interrupt these essential activities.
If breeding seabirds are disturbed the adults may take flight. While they will generally return to their nests as soon as it is safe, their eggs or nestlings may have suffered from exposure or may have been taken by predators. The timing of nesting for seabirds is critical and there will likely not be opportunity for a second nesting attempt.
The nests of some birds are inconspicuous - perhaps just two or three well-camouflaged eggs in a shallow scrape on a rocky shore. Some birds such as auklets and storm petrels nest in hidden burrows that may collapse if walked on by humans.
The following guidelines are suggested.
- Allow a distance of at least 100 meters between you and nesting seabirds at their colonies.
Do not land at any nesting colonies, to visit, to picnic, or to relieve your dog!
- Allow a distance of at least 50 meters between you and seabirds on the water.
- Avoid flushing birds when you go ashore. Always keep dogs on leash when seabirds or shorebirds are present.
While we hope for a wave of major stewardship programs to be implemented, we can set our own waves in motion and be conscious of our own stewardship opportunities both on- and off-shore!
And - if you would like to learn more about the ecology of the West Coast, don’t miss “The Jade Coast” by Dr. Rob Butler (available at Talisman Books). This book is a meticulous and often poetic overview of the richness and intricacy of the web of life of the waters around us.
A recent presentation sponsored by Pender Islands Conservancy Association further acquainted us with a very special Pender resident – the Sharp-tailed snake. Biologist Christian Engelstoft shared his research on this unique species known in Canada in only a few isolated areas of British Columbia - of which the Pender Islands are considered the “hot spot”!
The Sharp-tailed snake is on the provincial Red List (highest risk category) and is considered critically imperiled
A tiny snake, seldom more than 30 cm in length and pencil-thin, it looks more like a large brown earthworm. Indeed, hatchlings, only 6 or 7 cm long and reddish brown, might easily be mistaken for a worm! A closer look reveals a short tail that ends with a thorn-like spike. Other distinguishing characteristics are smooth scales, the absence of a stripe along the mid-back, and cross-bars of black-and-white on the underside.
Unlike the more familiar garter snakes often found basking in the sun, the sharp-tail is more likely beneath cover – rocks, bark, logs or in underground burrows. Apparently most active in April and May, the sharp-tail’s preferred habitat seems to be small forest openings on warm south slopes, with rocky crevices providing protection from predators. Its home range may have a diameter of only 25 meters.
Also unlike garter snakes that give birth to live young, the sharp-tail is an egg-laying species. Three to five soft-shelled, leathery eggs are laid in a sheltered warm location in spring or early summer, and hatch in early autumn into tiny snakes that, coiled up, would fit on the surface of a quarter.
Like the garter snakes, sharp-tails are harmless and beneficial. They are thought to feed mainly on slugs, but earthworms and other invertebrates may be on their menu as well.
Our opportunities for protecting their habitat include leaving undisturbed areas on our land, with native vegetation intact. Chemical slug bait may harm snakes that consume poisoned slugs, and other pesticides may be directly harmful. Introduced predators such as free-roaming cats are another concern.
Rock piles and dry-stone walls with “critter cavities” will provide shelter for snakes and other interesting wildlife – possibly including the intriguing little Northern Alligator Lizard. Rather prehistoric in appearance, and so ugly that it’s cute, the alligator lizard does noble work of insect control in the garden. Adult lizards are up to 25 cm in length, and their young are borne live, tiny replicas only 3 cm long.
Not to be confused with the lizards are the Rough-skinned newts – attractive brown amphibians with bright orange tummies, often seen along trails. Their eggs are laid in ponds.
We are fortunate on Pender to have an interesting diversity of harmless and helpful reptiles and amphibians – many of which have been lost to development in more urban areas. Let us care for them as we care for wildlife habitat at home!
If you think you have seen a Sharp-tailed snake on your property, you may contact Christian Engelstoft at 250 652 9770.
Naturalist Advisor for Naturescape British Columbia
While we have enjoyed the gentle prelude to spring on Pender, serious preparations have been taking place to the south of us, setting in motion one of the most compelling dramas of the natural world – the annual winged migration north.
Millions of birds, from songbirds to waterfowl to shorebirds to hummingbirds, are feeding voraciously, storing body fat as reserved energy for the long journey back to their nesting grounds. Preparation for migration is a precise operation. Too little reserved fat means insufficient fuel for the journey; too much and flight efficiency will be impaired.
The tiny rufous hummingbirds are winging their way to us at 78 wingbeats per second – many to the precise location they left last fall. The first arrived on Pender in early March!
Unlike most species, hummingbirds do not travel in flocks, but individually make their journey of up to 3000 miles. Picture the many challenges faced as they travel. Weather conditions are critical. Will there be headwinds or tailwinds, cloud cover or storms? Compensation must be made for cross-winds. Being blown out to sea is a serious risk, for hummers must stop to feed enroute. But - will traditional refuelling areas still be available for them?
Arrival at their destination too early may mean snow cover and lack of food. Late arrival may mean loss of nesting territory to competitors.
The return of our rufous hummingbirds coincides with the sequenced flowering of native woodland plants and their provision of nectar and associated insect food - demonstrating the intricate connection between native plant, animal and insect species. Red-flowering currant, salmonberry, elderberry, Indian plum, honeysuckle are essential for the hummers, and for many beneficial insects as well. While it is often assumed that hummingbirds feed only on nectar, they are also insectivores, feasting on tiny insects immersed in blossoms, or “hawking” for them in mid-air.
For close viewing, a hummingbird feeder is always fun, but it is important to do it right! Select a feeder with red on it, and hang it in a shady place. The correct solution is one part sugar to four parts water, boiled together for three or four minutes. Do not add honey, red food coloring, or other chemicals. Last year we used organic cane sugar, minimally processed and rich in nutrients. We couldn’t keep up with the demand!
Feeder cleanliness is paramount! Change the solution every three or four days, and wash the feeders with hot water and a little vinegar. Avoid the use of soap, detergent or bleach.
Careful stewardship of our land and their habitat is most important of all for hummers and countless other woodland inhabitants. The clearing of woodland undergrowth is proportionately devastating to the many small creatures dependent upon it for food and shelter, as is the loss of the entire ecosystem through the wholesale logging that is saddening many Penderites at the present time.
Let us welcome the returning hummingbirds and other migrants with the assurance that “home” will be here when they arrive!
Naturalist Advisor for Naturescape British Columbia
As we are charmed by the visitations of a young pileated woodpecker, we are thankful for the diversity of Pender Island birds – species we grieved the loss of in our former Fraser Valley home. Over recent years, as land-use pressures increased, we saw the disappearance of mature woodlands that supported a rich diversity of life, from trilliums and thrushes to warblers and woodpeckers.
Each of the wonderfully distinctive bird species has specific habitat requirements, which may be the overhead canopy of trees, mossy old growth, the shrubby understorey, the forest floor or grassy meadows, or even the trunks of trees. The “tree-huggers” depend upon mature trees for an abundant offering of insects and spiders, their eggs and larvae. A “replacement” monoculture won’t do it for them. Fifty years, and preferably 100, will be needed for them to find sustenance on a cleared and adequately replanted area, and even then there may be a shortage of their favored “snags” – dead and dying trees - dying, but rich in sustaining life. Alders play an important part here as early succession, short-lived members of the forest community.
Sadly, the forests of centuries-old conifers and their unique and rich cycles of life are all but gone on the coast. While we will not see such forests again, we are thankful that sufficient decades have passed since their demise for the newly maturing “second growth” forests of Pender to support a diversity of life – albeit less and different than it once was.
In British Columbia over 80 species of birds, mammals, amphibians, and myriad invertebrates, require dead and dying “wildlife trees” for essential habitat – a place in which to nest, roost, find food and shelter, or store food.
Ideal woodlands consist of trees of mixed ages, cycling through various stages of decline. While there is still firm heartwood, our pileated friend may chisel out insects, or perhaps a home. Invertebrates are the livelihood of woodpeckers, intent in their explorations for bark beetles and other insects that have bored into the tree to complete their cycle of metamorphosis.
Solitary pollinating bees may metamorphose in vacated beetle holes or sapsucker excavations, and bats may find sheltered roosts beneath loosening bark. When the snag eventually becomes a downed log, moist in its decay, it becomes home for an entirely new regime of inhabitants, and a source of nutrients for the growing forest. Here we observe “life after death”.
Pileated woodpeckers need a minimum territory of twenty acres of mature forest, and the northern flicker requires ten. Woodpecker species are essential in their role as primary excavators, creating cavities that may be occupied for nesting in subsequent years by a great variety of other species such as chickadees, nuthatches, swallows, wrens, owls, and wood ducks. Without the woodpeckers we see a domino-like decline in other species.
We hope the new forests of Pender and the life they sustain will be treasured as a legacy for the future.
Sylvia D. Pincott
September Naturescape Notes
Last month’s Naturescape Notes referred to the dynamic Naturescaped garden, where all life forms are considered in balance, from the microscopic to the more charismatic mega-fauna.
A habitat garden planned for pollinators will attract a fascinating diversity of small creatures, including hummingbirds, butterflies, hawk moths, bees, hover flies, and interesting beetles.
Many hummingbird-pollinated flowers are red with deep tubes such as honeysuckle, monarda, hardy fuchsia, and fuchsia baskets with single blooms. Hawk moths may be attracted to the same long-tubed flowers as well as other blossoms that are fragrant at night.
Butterflies and short-tongued pollinators seek flowers with flat heads such as the daisy family. Rudbeckia, echinacea and sunflowers (avoid pollenless varieties) are particularly attractive. They also frequent small, shallow flowers such as mustards, valerian, verbena, and natives such as goldenrod, asters, sedums, yarrow and Queen Anne’s lace, which also attract short-tongued bee species and hover flies (important aphid managers!)
A variety of fruit trees and flowers in the rose family such as strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and single roses are important for mason bees and they, along with bumblebees, are attracted especially to flowers that are blue, purple and yellow.
Particularly useful for Pender gardens are the aromatic herbs. Most are deer-resistant, drought tolerant, and very attractive to bumble bees and hover flies. Lavender, thyme, oregano, fennel and sage are especially effective.
Several mid-summer bumblebee species will hum over globe thistle; and the wonderfully fragrant cimicifuga is particularly attractive to butterflies and hover flies in late summer.
Avoid horticultural plant varieties that are described as “double”. Many showy exotics and hybrids are all show and no sustenance! In the autumn garden, observe the number of insect visitors to single-flowered chrysanthemums as compared to the showy doubles, and you will see what I mean!
Your pollinator garden should also include small patches of bare, moist soil where mason bees can mine the mud needed for sealing their nesting chambers. If you are lucky, solitary ground-nesting pollinators may burrow into a small tunnel and take up residence there as well.
For drier times, you could also create a conical mound of soil in a shallow container. Keep the container moist and mason bees will collect balls of mud from the wet soil at the height and moisture level that suits them.
Remember too that butterflies need larval habitat – the plants on which they lay their eggs. Each butterfly species has an affiliation with specific plants. If they are unable to find their particular host plants they are unable to reproduce. Notable among their hosts are willow, poplar, alder, ocean spray, members of the carrot family (such as yarrow, Queen Anne’s lace, parsley, dill, lomatium) and, yes, stinging nettles!
When we keep in mind that only a very few of the many species of bees and wasps have the potential to sting, we can enjoy the pollinator garden as a place of endless fascination. As for all wildlife, food, water, shelter, and undisturbed places to rear their young are essential.
It is interesting that the tradition of gardening has focused almost exclusively on plants, usually exotic species, often to the exclusion of native plant, animal and insect species. Naturescaping brings an added dimension to landscaping. By offering habitat essentials of food, water, shelter, and a safe place for wildlife to rear their young we become stewards of the garden ecosystem.
When caring for our land, the challenge will be not only that of aesthetic appeal for us, but how useful our choices will be in ensuring habitat for the other life forms that may share our space. When habitat essentials are considered, our landscapes become dynamic, with opportunities for fascinating observations and discoveries as we connect with the life of the land.
In our eagerness to “manage” our land, we sometimes overlook the fact that we are managing out of existence a rich abundance of life, interconnected and living in harmony in the natural habitat that has existed before us.
Often our activities may inadvertently have far-reaching effects beyond the apparent, and the life cycles of many beneficial creatures may be interrupted in our processes. Toxic chemicals and bug zappers, for example, are not selective, and beneficial insects suffer the consequences along with target species. Studies have shown that most of the insects attracted to container zappers, for instance, are beneficial.
Believe it or not, the success of a Naturescaped property may be measured by the number of insects that are attracted to it! Insects in balance are key to a healthy ecosystem. Our warfare with insects is often misdirected for, in fact, less than 2% of insect species has the potential to harm us - or our plants. The other 98% are beneficial, or at least benign. Insect roles are many and varied. Simplistically they may be referred to as the “5 P’s”:
- There are the “processors” of the soil that feed on vegetative debris and upon each other, thereby enhancing natural soil fertility.
- Those we consider “pests” have an appetite for growing plants. Fortunately, there are others with an appetite for them!
- In a balanced system, “parasites” and “predators” such as other insects, spiders, birds and amphibians keep the pests in check.
- The “pollinators” are those recognized for their beneficial service in ensuring abundant fruit and seed production. We may think of bees as our only pollinators – and, indeed, there are 4000 species of them doing that in North America. (Most of them don’t sting, by the way!) There are many other pollinators, however, including flower flies, butterflies, moths, wasps, beetles and hummingbirds.
With this diversity of potential benefactors it is important that we do not assume than an assortment of unknowns visiting our gardens are there to harm. Far better that we get to know and appreciate their amazing diversity and intricate interconnections that ultimately ensure a system working in harmony and extending to the more charismatic songbirds, hummingbirds, woodpeckers, frogs and salamanders!
Sylvia D. Pincott
October Naturescape Notes
Last month’s Naturescape Notes referred to the dynamic Naturescaped garden, where all life forms are considered in balance - from the microscopic to the more charismatic mega-fauna. A habitat garden planned for pollinators will attract a fascinating diversity of small creatures, including hummingbirds, butterflies, hawk moths, bees, hover flies, and interesting beetles.
Many hummingbird-pollinated flowers are red with deep tubes such as honeysuckle, monarda, hardy fuchsia, and single varieties of the less hardy hanging-basket fuchsias. Hawk moths may be attracted to the same long-tubed flowers as well as to blossoms that are fragrant at night.
Butterflies seek flowers with flat heads such as the daisy family. Rudbeckia, echinacea and sunflowers (avoid pollenless varieties) are particularly inviting. They also visit shallow clusters of flowers such as mustards, valerian, verbena, and natives such as goldenrod, asters, sedums, yarrow and Queen Anne’s lace - which also attract short-tongued bee species and hover flies (important aphid managers!)
A variety of fruit trees and flowers in the rose family such as strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and single roses are important for mason bees and they, along with bumblebees, are attracted especially to flowers that are blue, purple and yellow.
Particularly useful for Pender gardens are the aromatic herbs. Most are deer-resistant, drought tolerant, and very attractive to bumble bees and hover flies. Lavender, thyme, oregano, rosemary, fennel and sage are especially effective.
Several mid-summer bumblebee species will hum over globe thistle; and the wonderfully fragrant cimicifuga in late summer invites an assorted array, including butterflies and hover flies.
Choose single flowers rather than horticultural varieties described as “double”. Many showy exotics and hybrids are all show and no sustenance! In the autumn garden, observe the number of insect visitors to single-flowered chrysanthemums as compared to the showy doubles, and you will see what I mean!
Your pollinator garden could also include small patches of bare, moist soil where mason bees can mine the mud needed for sealing their nesting chambers. If you are lucky, solitary ground-nesting pollinators may burrow into a small tunnel and take up residence there as well.
For drier times, you might also create a conical mound of soil in a shallow container. Keep the container moist and mason bees will collect balls of mud at the height and moisture level that suits them.
Remember too that butterflies need larval habitat – plants on which they lay their eggs. Each butterfly species has an affiliation with specific plants. If they are unable to find their particular host plants they cannot reproduce. Notable among local hosts are members of the carrot family (such as yarrow, Queen Anne’s lace, cow parsnip, parsley, dill), ocean spray, willow, cottonwood, alder and, yes, stinging nettles!
When we keep in mind that only very few of the many species of bees and wasps have the potential to sting, we can enjoy the pollinator garden as a place of endless fascination. As for all wildlife, food, water, shelter, and undisturbed places to rear their young are essential.
November Naturescape Notes
Myriad and subtle changes of autumn are creeping over the landscape now. One of my favourites is the adornment of dew-bejewelled spider orbs.
For all its apparent delicacy, the silk of a spider’s web is one of the strongest fibres known, and scientific technology has been unable to duplicate its relative strength – greater than high tensile steel. It is hypothesised that a pencil-thick cable of spider silk would be able to stop a Boeing 747 – somewhat equivalent to what happens when a silken thread arrests a speeding fly in mid-air! Hummingbirds, well aware of this strength, often use these delicate cords to lash their nests to supporting branches.
I observed a display of this silken power recently, when a very bulky caterpillar became enmeshed in the web of a very small spider. This seemed to be causing problems for both, as the caterpillar struggled and the apparently overwhelmed spider ran up and down its length.
Usually reluctant to intervene in such natural events, I did impose on this apparent stalemate to untangle the hapless larva and, in so doing, marvelled at the snare’s tenacity.
Earlier, another small drama occurred over a number of days as a small female spider stood guard over her silken cocoon of eggs. Quietly, apparently not hunting, she awaited the emergence of her many tiny offspring. Eventually a small cluster of spiders was apparent, and for a few days the young fed on the protein of their egg sac. Depletion of this initial food source indicated that it was time to explore the world beyond, and on gossamer strands the young floated off in the breeze. While some would drift only as far as the nearest shrubbery, there are records of young airborne spiders hundreds of metres aloft. With her young launched, the mother spider died beside the empty cocoon.
While not all spiders spin webs, all spin silk, which dries into elastic and waterproof threads. The varied types of silk are used for spinning webs, traps, and cocoons, creating drag lines, and for swathing prey.
Spiders are not classified as insects, but are a separate group of invertebrates called arachnids. Insects have six legs and three main body segments. Arachnids have eight legs and two main body parts.
More than 3000 species of spiders are found in North America, with two groups – trappers and hunters. The trappers include the familiar orb weavers, as well as funnel weavers and cobweb spiders. The hunters include large, hairy wolf spiders that hunt on the ground, active little jumping spiders that stalk their prey and pounce, and beautiful crab spiders often found lurking within flowers and displaying cryptic coloration to blend discreetly with their chosen bloom.
Throughout the summer, spiders have been one of the most important predators of insects, including those considered pests. As autumn approaches, invertebrate activity winds down. Recognizing spider benefits and beauty, let’s be sure to appreciate the delicate traceries of the dewy orbs that bedeck our autumn mornings!
As I prepared a poster for the forthcoming PICA/PIFN presentation for December 3rd, “Birding the Salish Sea”, I added silhouettes of two distinctive birds – the cormorant and the puffin. Both are seabirds, but they are remarkably different. The cormorant is slender and sleek, with a long sharp bill often tilted up and adding to the bird’s streamlined appearance. The puffin, in contrast, appears squat and fat, with a stubby bill that accentuates the chunky form. Interestingly, the puffin’s bill changes shape, summer to winter, being much more triangular in summer. Both cormorants and puffins are fishers, but each is uniquely designed to seek out its particular prey.
These distinctive shapes brought to mind the Six Ss of birdwatching that help us to quickly make a mental note of details to either identify a bird from past experience, or take us through a field guide elimination process. The Ss are:
Size: How big is the bird, perhaps in relation to a more familiar bird? The robin is a good standby reference that we all know.
Sight: Colour is significant, of course, although, as with the puffin’s beak, there may be seasonal differences. Are there particular markings? Wing stripes, tail stripes, eyebrows, eye rings, a plain or striped breast?
Shape: As with the cormorant and puffin, is the bird slim or fat? What is its stance? What about the neck? Is it long or seemingly non-existent? Are the wings long, broad, angular? Beak shape is often key. Sparrows and finches have stubby beaks, while siskins, rather similar in appearance, have a slender bill in comparison. The bills of warblers are sharper still.
Site: Where is the bird? Habitat is an important clue. Some birds prefer dense forest, while others seek open meadows, the seashore, freshwater or salt.
Sound: Much serious birding is done by sound identification. It is also a way to be alerted in the first place to the presence of something unusual. John Neville of Saltspring has produced excellent CD’s of local bird sounds – a helpful tool alongside your field guide.
Season: Many of our birds are seasonal. While a swallow does not a summer make, we do know it’s summer if they are around! Other species come to us for our mild winters. For instance our junco population always increases significantly in winter. Availability of seasonal food may attract birds at certain times too. For instance, when the arbutus berries are red and ripe we may be fortunate enough to see the lovely band-tailed pigeons.
Bird recognition is often challenging, and often we greet old friends. Another helpful tool is the Pender Islands bird checklist, prepared by the Field Naturalists. If you would like a copy, please ask at the Pharmacy, or call me at 629-6797.
And, if you would like to put your birding skills to very good use, why not take part in the 105th Annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count on December 18th? Please call Mary Roddick at 629-3308 for details.