Salish Sea Atlas
January Naturescape Notes
A quiet time of being “under the weather” has allowed me the opportunity to thoroughly savour the superb new publication, “Islands in the Salish Sea - A Community Atlas”. This book is the culmination of over five years of community involvement by more than 3,000 people who live in the region of the Salish Sea (also known as the Strait of Georgia). It is the final stage of the ambitious “Islands in the Salish Sea Community Mapping Project”, coordinated by Sheila Harrington, Judi Stevenson and Briony Penn. What an incredible gift this is, offering an intimate portrait of various and treasured aspects of life on 17 of the more than 500 islands of the Salish Sea!
Rather than typical graphic representations, this book of maps conveys the heart of the islands. With a richness of words and artistic representation, the reader is given a wonderful sense of the unique story of the distinct communities of each of these islands. These distinctions reach all aspects of life – the ecology, the geology, the history that brought islanders to their present day culture and values, and the challenges that all have faced and continue to face daily.
Community outreach on each island gathered local knowledge that resulted in the amazing representations of their “home place” by artists of each island.
Lisa Fleming and Don Harrison were the Coordinators for the Pender Islands, and Susan Taylor and Lily Wilde the artists. Many other Penderites took part in the initial planning and “brainstorming”.
Susan’s “disappearing line” map celebrates the preservation of Brooks Point, and illustrates the continuum of native species from ocean bottom through the intertidal zone to terrestrial zone and on up to treetop.
You may recognize Lily’s map from its original, now in place in our Community Hall (and available from PICA as a conservation poster). One hundred and seventy-one species are respresented on this exquisite map - a mere fraction of the many who live here with us. Lily’s message, “We share these lands and seas – please, let’s take care!"
To quote Lisa and Don, “The project has reminded us that maps are not just graphic representations: they shape our perceptions of place. They open the door to understanding, awareness and appreciation. Perhaps our greatest hope is that the maps and this book will instill in others a sense of discovery and a thirst to learn more about the places we call home. As more people come to the islands, we need these maps to make us all more aware of our connections with the land, and to the larger region in which we live.”
Amanda Martinson,, artist for Texada Island, provides a lovely summary: “The Islands of the Salish Sea are like pearls, each a different colour, each having evolved as unique ecosystems for flora, fauna and humans, each a part of a rare and precious necklace. We simply must protect them.”
“Islands in the Salish Sea” is a book for all – islanders and beyond!
February Naturescape Notes
We are daily charmed by the antics of the Chestnut-backed Chickadees and Red-breasted Nuthatches as they visit our feeders, and explore all exterior nooks and crannies for insects and spiders. In fact, more than once I have had them explore me, looking for goodness knows what, as I relaxed on our deck!
No less charming, but rather more elusive, are the tiny Golden-crowned Kinglets that spend their days exploring foliage in the forest canopy, seeking similar prey, in a different niche, to that sought by the chickadees and nuthatches. They inspect the needles of the Grand Fir outside our kitchen window with the proverbial fine-toothed comb. While mingling happily with the chickadees and nuthatches, they will only on rare occasion check out a suet feeder. Their mainly carnivorous diet sometimes extends to tree sap and fruit, but feeder seeds don’t work for them.
Our attention to Golden-crowned Kinglets is usually first drawn to their high, wispy calls overhead – “tsee tsee tseetsee-tsee-tsee-tsee”, in the upper range of most human hearing. Their song is a fine, high-pitched and accelerating “” – supposedly repeating “why do you shilly-shally?” – but I’m not too sure about that!
Alerted by their sound, you will observe that Golden-crowns are not much bigger than humming birds, and are easily missed as they flit quickly through their tree. You might be deceived into thinking you have a wee flock of birds, but it may be only one - a tiny acrobat, exploring quickly, flicking its wings, constantly on the move. They are plump, olive-green, pale below, with two white wing stripes, and a distinctive white eye stripe. This is bordered above by a black stripe, and then a tiny golden crown (gold with orange in the male). Its genus name, “Regulus”, Latin for “king”, is very fitting for a bird that is crowned with gold!
Cousin to the resident Golden-crown is the Ruby-crowned Kinglet. It is more secretive about its ruby crown, and usually keeps it concealed unless excited. It is an autumn to spring visitor, usually moving inland to breed at higher elevations. Its long, loud, rolling song is described as sounding like this tiny bird is exuberantly trying to attract attention: “tee, tee, tee, tew, tew, tew, look at Me, look at Me, look at Me!”. The Ruby-crown lacks the white eye stripe, having only a broken, white eye ring. It may be seen in thickets and closer to the ground.
April is the beginning of the breeding season, when the males attract females by singing and showing off their crown. Their exquisitely delicate nest is hung high in the coniferous canopy, suspended like a cradle, and hidden among the needles. Spider webbing and fine plant fibres attach the nest to its branch and bind together its delicate mosses, lichen, hair, feathers and other cozy materials. Up to 9 eggs will be inclubated for about 12 days.
Kinglets are tiny royal treasures. I hope you have opportunity to enjoy them as they, in turn, enjoy your coniferous trees and thickets.
March Naturescape Notes
Ornithologists are anxiously awaiting this year’s seabird nesting season to see if the catastrophic nesting failure of seabirds and serious mortality among adult birds along the Pacific coast in 2005 was an anomaly, or an indication of serious ocean changes
Seabird researcher Julia Parrish directs the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team from the University of Washington’s College of Ocean and Fishery Sciences. Three hundred volunteers of the survey team scour Oregon and Washington beaches and report the incidence of dead seabirds. She reports that last year there was between 5 and 10 times the highest number of bird deaths the survey has ever previously witnessed. Numbers of dead birds were estimated in the tens of thousands. Dominating the toll were Brandt’s cormorant and the common murre. It was apparent that these birds were starving to death.
The phenomenon was widespread, from Triangle Island, northwest of Vancouver Island, to California’s Farallon Islands. Cassin’s auklets were also reported in trouble. Farallon auklets started the breeding season late. Only half as many as normal tried, and they eventually abandoned their nests.
Parrish reported witnessing the struggle of nesting murres on Tatoosh Island off the Olympic Peninsula. Normally the murres feed on fatty, nutritious sand lance, herring, surf smelt and eulachon. Last year the murres brought back no sand lance and few herring. Instead, they were observed toting species of fish not normally fed to young. It was heartbreaking to see the desperate mother birds unable to provide adequate food - eventually abandoning their nest and heading further out to sea for their own survival.
Suspect in the situation is the fact that last year the annual upwelling of nutrient rich cold water from deep in the ocean did not take place along the west coast of North America. These nutrients, brought closer to the surface, are the base of the food chain. Normally they ensure richly abundant populations of plankton, krill, small forage fish, and so on – staple food of seabirds, and leading on up the chain to larger fish and marine mammals.
Oceanographers and atmospheric scientists aren’t sure of the reason for this phenomenon and are, needless to say, studying further.
Long-lived birds …
There is a progression of acquisitions in the naturalist’s library, and a collection of field guides is the important beginning – be they guides to birds, plants, mushrooms, butterflies, beetles, etc. Even for the casual observer, a good field guide is the matchmaker that acquaints us and may, indeed, initiate a love match, as we learn more about the wonders of the natural world.
Field guides may sometimes be so general as to overwhelm us with options as we look to identify a new acquaintance. The closer to home the information provided, the less challenging is identification. Two recently released guides bring us much closer to the birds at our doorstep.
“Birds of Southwestern British Columbia”, by Cannings, Aversa and Opperman (published by Heritage House), is a beautifully laid out guide, rich in detail and photography. Each of the over 200 species described is given a photo page with an opposite page covering “Description”, “Similar Species”, “Seasonal Abundance”, “Where to Find”, “Habitat”, “Diet and Behaviour”, “Voice”, and “Did you Know” tidbits of information. Even with over 400 pages, the print is of good size, and the book’s compact size and sturdy binding invite travel in a backpack.
While covering a broader territory, and only 83 species, the “Compact Guide to British Colulmbia Birds” by Campbell, Kennedy, Kagume and Adams (published by Lone Pine), is another special addition to our library. Rather than photographs, this book has lovely illustrations, with notes made of particular identification details to be observed. I also appreciate small illustrations, alongside, of similar species that might bring confusion. Details of nesting, including eggs, are interesting extras.
Both guides tell us that it is time for the Rufous Hummingbirds to return to us from their southern sojourn. Don’t forget to let the Pender Post know of your first sightings!
And, for those who have been privileged with visits from hummers during the winter, this will let you know that these are the non-migratory Anna’s Hummingbird – a species that has pushed its range precariously northward over recent years. If the weather is not severe, they manage to survive winters on the south coast – Victoria, the Gulf Islands, and coastal Lower Mainland.
We were particularly privileged to get to know an Anna’s hummer very well in our former Fraser Valley home. She was rescued in an Abbotsford blizzard and brought to us for care (with the assistance of a wildlife rehabilitator). She flew free in our sunroom for four months. What a treasure! We hung tiny perching branches from the ceiling, imported special insectivorous food from California which was refreshed twice daily, and raised fruit flies for fresh food! When spring arrived she delighted in daily bouquets from our garden – but when released she did not linger in our lush vegetation but flew directly back to the townhouse balcony from which she was rescued! She was seen there for the next year.
One last note regarding hummers, and to allay confusion. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are an eastern species, not seen west of the Rockies.
Grossbeaks and Nesting
April Naturescape Notes
I look forward to soon hearing the song of the Black-headed Grosbeak, surely my favorite of songsters, when it returns from its winter home in Mexico. From the tip of a tree it announces its presence! While it initially may have the tones of a robin, it breaks forth into a much more elaborate song, melodious in a long whistled warble - that has been likened to a drunken robin! It has a distinctive call note, too, a sharp pik, often revealing that it is nearby.
Black-headed grosbeaks are a little smaller than a robin, and are named for their large conical bill. Males sport the black heads, with a tawny breast and rump, and black wings and tail with bold white marks. The female is brown with white patches in the wings and tail, and a white head stripe, eyebrow and moustache mark. On the coast they have been recorded as nesting from late May through July - usually in dense vegetation within deciduous woodlands, and preferably near fresh water. Their diet consists of insects, seeds and berries – with the occasional foray to bird feeders stocked with black-oil sunflower seeds or chips.
Robins are much more commonly seen than grosbeaks – particularly during spring days as they forage along roadsides. Please drive with care to avoid these “road robins”! At nesting time a road casualty may result in hungry nestlings without a mommy to feed them.
Quail, too, often lead a precarious existence close to roads and, for some reason, particularly so with their flocks of young. Last spring we often observed a family of quail with a dozen youngsters scurrying about at the top of Bridges Road – particularly vulnerable on a blind hill and corner - and another family at Port Washington and Otter Bay Roads. We feared for them as cars rushed by, often seeming unaware. Skulking cats and unleashed dogs add greatly to their perils.
More than 80 species of birds nest on Pender – from seabirds and eagles, to migrants such as osprey, hummingbirds, and grosbeaks, to year-round residents such as towhees, song sparrows, chickadees, nuthatches, and four woodpecker species.
Nesting has commenced now for some. The smaller birds will make welcome use of nesting materials that we may offer for them. Short lengths of yarn (no more than 6 cm), small combed pieces of fleece, tiny feathers, dog and cat hair, and cattails (the vegetative kind from a wetland!) will be enthusiastically gathered to enhance the construction of many a cozy nest.
Spare the spider webs too, for the nests of hummingbird and bushtits are lashed in place with spider silk – the strongest natural fibre known. A tiny bird handling and manipulating the lengths of silk seems an almost impossible challenge, but it is one of the many wondrous skills of nest-making, known instinctively from one generation to the next – one of the lovely miracles of nature at our Pender doorstep!
June Naturescape Notes
What fun it is to see the arrival of songbird families! Their parents have had busy weeks of nest-building and feeding voracious appetites! As we watched young hairy and downy woodpeckers arrive during the first week of June we marveled at their growth and how quickly they observe and learn. How could they have been a tiny egg little more than a month ago?
Fledgling birds may soon be difficult to distinguish from their parents, once they are past their initial feeding routine, with begging motions and quivering wings. Size is not much of an indication. By the time most birds leave the nest they are as large as their parents (or in the case of some owls, even larger). With the hairy’s and downy’s, a clue as to juvenile status is the placement of the red topknot of the males. The immature birds are dabbed with red at the crown, while on the mature males the red has slipped to the back of the head. Other species may retain a drab “juvenile” plumage for several weeks, months, or even longer.
Raven young are loudly dependent, following the parents with raucous squawks day in and day out. Imagine traveling around with such a noisy brood on your tail!
The beautiful goldfinches have only recently begun their nest construction. They nest later than most species, supposedly timed to connect with thistles – using soft thistledown to line their nest and thistle seed to feed their young. “Our” goldfinches (as well as other species earlier) have been collecting nest materials from a supply of cottonwood “puffs”, cattails and fleece offered on our porch railing. The female seems to do the collecting while the male keeps her company.
The violet-green swallows have been preparing their nest for some while in a box on the side of our house – an open location with room for a long swoop in. A litter of rejected grasses, mosses, and bits of weeds has been dropped from their doorway throughout the building process. They don’t have eggs yet, but have commenced a unique courtship ritual – a night flight starting around 3:00 a.m. and lasting until dawn. They fly and call in the dark with their distinctive chitters – making one wonder at first if these could be talking bats! Not so. The swooping shapes are courting swallows that will continue their night flights into July.
How privileged we are on Pender to have opportunity to observe such avian activity. Suitable habitat is the key. Many of our birds require nesting cavities in trees – the woodpeckers, chickadees, nuthatches, wrens, swallows, wood ducks, mergansers, owls. Their trees aren’t suburban-perfect young specimen trees. Rather, they need mature, weathered, or dead and dying trees – wildlife trees – that are rich with communities of other life forms that will contribute to sustaining families of birds from generation to generation.
August Naturescape Notes
How often, when viewing the trees on one’s property, do thoughts go beyond personal considerations? These usually include aesthetic features, leaves that may be shed, shade cast, views limited, or branches that may fall. The services of nature provided by our trees seldom enter into the picture, yet their role is essential.
As an example of the economic value of nature’s services, the City of North Vancouver has just over 5000 street trees, and spends about $100,000 per year to maintain them. This is good value for that money, however, for it is estimated that their annual benefit to the community is $500,000 per year. These benefits include greenhouse gas reduction, air quality improvement, watershed and stormwater savings, energy savings, and property value increases. This works out to $100 per tree annually in benefit to the community and beyond.
We could extend such an equation to tree removal. Using a conservative and approximate number of 1000 properties on the Penders, and with each landowner deciding to remove ten trees, we would see a loss of 10,000 trees from these small islands – twice the number that North Van nurtures each year. This would equate to an environmental loss of $1,000,000, or $1,000 per property per year.
One may think that “nature’s services” or “ecosystem services” are pretty nebulous benefits – we don’t really see them, they are a drop in the bucket. Figures that might bring these benefits closer to home are provided in a BC Ministry of Environment report, citing a study by USDA Forest Service Centre for Urban Forest Research in Davis, CA, telling us that for every 1000 trees, annual stormwater runoff in their study area is reduced by nearly 3.8 million litres. This is of vital interest to island dwellers concerned with ensuring that our aquifers are adequately recharged to meet our need for water. On our many slopes, each tree and surrounding ground cover vegetation functions like a mini-reservoir, retaining the water for us by decreasing runoff and increasing absorption into the land
As a naturalist, I am particularly interested in the aspect of “nature’s services” that includes the vast diversity of life forms supported by trees. A recent publication “Conifer Defoliators in British Columbia”, by Robert W. Duncan and published by the Canadian Forest Service, refers to 175 species of caterpillars and other larvae that are in the category of “conifer defoliators”, and underlines that less than 20 of these are considered “pests”. The significant majority are an important part of the cycle of life within our forests, feeding and being fed – butterflies, moths, and other flying insects in the process of metamorphosis. Many species of birds and bats depend upon these larvae and their subsequent flying adult forms. Others depend upon a rich diversity of insects and spiders found throughout the tree. Life in the overhead canopy is abundant and mysterious, and almost never threatening.
Life beneath the tree is important too, with fallen leaves feeding soil organisms, and ultimately enriching the natural fertility of the land. An important way to care for the land and the health of the soil ecosystem is to “leave the leaves”. Within the endangered Garry Oak Ecosystem, for example, a number of butterfly species at risk rely on fallen oak leaves for over-wintering eggs or larvae.
The complexity of a tree and, collectively, our forests, is a wondrous thing, nurturing the diversity of life that makes up the unique beauty of our islands - to be not only valued, but treasured.
The Blessing of Bats
August Naturescape Notes
Of all creatures, bats are among the least appreciated. Surrounded by myth and misunderstanding, they are seldom recognized for their remarkable and beneficial roles in the web of life.
Referring to bats collectively as “one” creature is almost misleading, so amazingly diverse are their ways. There are almost 1,000 species in the world, representing nearly one-quarter of all known mammals. All are vitally important in their various ecosystems. The microbats of temperate areas such as ours are insect-eaters, but in other areas they consume an impressive variety of foods – from scorpions, insects, pollen, fruit, and leaves, to blood, fish, frogs, birds, and even other bats.
Worldwide, bats are the major predators of night-flying insects, including mosquitoes and numerous crop pests. Large colonies of bats consume billions of insects each season. Individual mouse-eared bats, the most widely distributed North American species, can catch up to 600 mosquitoes an hour.
Other bats are involved with tropical seed dispersal and pollination and, in fact, some tropical fruits such as bananas, avocados, dates and figs, depend upon bats for their success.
In tropical rain forests, particularly on remote Pacific islands, bats are often dominant pollinators and seed dispersers and, in some cases, are a keystone species, vital to the survival of extremely important plants. Eliminate the bats and you may eliminate the plant, and that plant may be crucial to many other animals and plants. It is possible to start a chain reaction of linked extinctions.
In Australia, for example, there have been major efforts to eradicate flying foxes (the largest of bats). What is overlooked in this unfortunate process is that these bats are the unique pollinators of many species of eucalyptus, which are the food of Australia’s beloved koala. Elimination of the bats could have dire consequences to the cuddly koala.
Bats at Risk
The list of bat contributions to the health and welfare of humans is very long. Despite their many demonstrated values, bats remain among the most intensely feared, relentlessly persecuted, even scientifically neglected animals on earth.
Worldwide they are declining at an alarming rate. Typically rearing only one offspring per year, as well as forming the largest, most vulnerable aggregations of any warm-blooded animal, bats are exceptionally vulnerable to extinction. Millions have been burned, poisoned, or dynamited in single acts. Pesticides have killed many others. Because they consume insects that may contain pesticide residues, poisons can build up in their system to levels toxic to them or their young.
There are many other risks. Extermination of roosting bats in buildings is a very serious threat. During the few months of summer spent here, bats need secluded places for daytime “hang-outs”. Both bachelor quarters and maternity wards are required! Hollow trees once provided these homes, but as large old “wildlife” trees disappear, bats have resorted to roosting in outbuildings, attics, belfries – the only shelter left for them. With education and understanding it is possible and appropriate for bats and people to co-exist.
Of the 16 species of bats in British Columbia, it is sad to note that four are on the provincial “red list” as endangered or threatened, and four are on the “blue list” as vulnerable and “at risk”. They are literally disappearing before we have the opportunity to get to know them. It is not known exactly which species of bats may be found on Pender Island, but the possibility exists of ten. They are not easy to identify except in hand.
Bat Myths and Misunderstandings
- It is easy to understand how these night-flying creatures are misunderstood. When we can barely see them in the dark, and don’t know where they live or what they really look like, it is easy to accept the folklore that has been passed down from less scientific times. Now research and photography are taking away the mystery and we discover marvelous little creatures that are very helpful indeed.
- Bats have pin-point eyes, but are not blind. Microbats hunt flying prey, navigating with pulses of sound emitted from the mouth. Sensitive ears hear echoes reflected from even tiny insects. The sophistication of their unique echolocation system surpasses current scientific understanding and on a watt-per-watt, ounce-per-ounce basis has been estimated to be literally billions of times more efficient than any similar system developed by humans. It is interesting to consider that bats use their incredible sonar system to hunt, owls use their ears, and hawks use their eyes. Nature is marvelously specialized!
- The myth of bats being tangled in hair is just that – a myth. They are extremely adept at avoiding collisions. If trapped in a room they may appear to be swooping at the people therein, but they do not attack, and are well able to avoid all obstacles.
- Are there vampire bats?? Yes, but not here! There are three species in Latin America that live on the blood of warm-blooded creatures. Up to a teaspoonful of blood may be taken. The bite is gentle and may even go unnoticed by the animal in its sleep.
Bats in Winter
Bats are generally seen in this area between May and September. Little is known of their winter whereabouts. It is thought that the Myotis species (such as the little brown bat and the Yuma bat) make short migrations (up to a few hundred kilometers) to caves with suitable temperatures and humidity. A small colony of 20 to 40 Townsend’s Big-eared Bats is recorded as wintering in a cave on Thetis Island.
Mating takes place in late summer and early autumn before hibernation begins. Male bats are not involved with family activities, and live separately from the females and nursery colonies during spring and summer. The winter hibernacula are likely shared by both sexes.
In preparation for hibernation, bats add as much as 40 percent of their summer weight as fat to take them through the winter. During hibernation they go into a state of torpor, with their heart rate dropping to five beats per minute from their usual 200 beats while resting.
Their fat or energy reserves are very limited, and disturbance during hibernation can be a matter of life and death. Awakening will use precious reserves, possibly to the point of leaving insufficient energy to survive the winter. For this reason, disturbance of caves where bats are roosting can be devastating. If you do discover hibernating bats, please leave quietly and immediately. Observations of hibernating bats should be reported to B.C. Wildlife Branch, 250-387-9755, to assist with research studies on local bat populations.
The silver-haired bat is migratory in some parts of Canada, but its movements are uncertain here. It is a rather solitary species, seldom found in groups of more than a few individuals. It is a tree bat, with silver-tipped grey-brown fur that camouflages well for summer roosting in the furrowed bark of old trees. Winter roosts are thought to be in hollow trees, in areas with an average daily temperature in January above -7 degrees Celsius.
hoary bat, another tree bat and the largest species in British
Columbia, appears to be migratory to southern California and Mexico.
- The bats we are most likely to see are the “mouse-eared” species – mainly the little brown bat. They are insect-eaters, feeding almost exclusively on mosquitoes. It is exciting to watch them at dusk or dawn. An open area near woodlands and fresh water is an ideal location. They are most prevalent from mid-May until early summer.
- In the past few years many experimental bat houses have been erected to offer summer roosting sites. There are recorded successes in Minnekada Park, and in the interior of BC in Squilax where a traditional roosting site in an old building was destroyed by fire. In that case an unfortunate event provided opportunity for study of alternate roosting locations. Bats quickly made their home in a box installed beneath a refurbished historic bridge over the Fraser at Lillooet.
- If you are interested in constructing and erecting a bat house, contact email@example.com for detailed construction information.
- Bats are not aggressive and have no interest in attacking or biting humans. Sometimes one may be inadvertently trapped indoors and unable to escape. Usually closing off the rest of the house and providing an exit outdoors will encourage its departure. If one is asleep on a wall, place a yogurt container or such over it and slide a piece of cardboard under. Put the open container outdoors in a safe spot above the ground. Since the bat may be in a torpor, it could take some time to recover as it makes the necessary temperature adjustments to get back on the wing.
- Wear gloves if it is necessary to handle a bat. In the general population, bats are no more likely to be rabid than any other wild creature. A bat on the ground is likely sick or injured, and should be handled carefully.
Bat Conservation International does remarkable work, worldwide, to further research and education about bats. For fascinating information, education packages and membership, check their website, www.batcon.org
For further reading, look for “Bats of British Columbia” by David W. Nagorsen and R. Mark Brigham, “America’s Neighborhood Bats” by Merlin D. Tuttle, and “Bats” by M. Brock Fenton. A charming book for children is “Stellaluna” by Janell Cannon.
In Chinese folklore the bat is a symbol of good luck, with the Chinese word for bat, fu, also being the word for good fortune. A circle of five bats is frequently shown, representing five blessings: long life, wealth, good health, love of virtue, and a natural death. This symbolism may be seen at Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Chinese Classical Garden in Vancouver.
Let us, too, count the blessings of bats.
Sylvia D. Pincott
June Naturescape Notes
As spring and summer unfold, we are thankful to observe the safe return of tiny treasures of the natural world. Where has each been and, in the case of our insect visitors, in what form? As the various butterfly species put in an appearance, their timing is reflective of how they spent the winter months.
Our earliest arrivals are the Mourning Cloak and Satyr Comma, each having over-wintered in their adult form. Most flying adult butterflies are very short-lived, but the Mourning Cloak is our area’s longest-lived adult, having a possible life span of ten months (after emerging from its pupal cocoon in July until completion of egg laying the following May). At the present time its eggs will have been deposited on various species of willow and it will be undergoing the four stages of metamorphosis – egg to caterpillar to pupa to flying adult.
The spiny black caterpillar (up to 5 cm in length) of the Mourning Cloak has many white dots and 8 red markings on its back at the base of its spines. Feeding communally on the leaves of their willow host plant, they may appear threatening, but their feeding time is short and damage will be minimal.
While the Satyr Comma also hibernates as an adult, its schedule of events is much different. In our area there will be two generations each year. The adults that over-winter lay eggs on young stinging nettles in April and May. The eggs hatch in 7-10 days, and metamorphosis completes about two months later. Another generation of eggs will be laid and the adults will emerge in July and August. These adults feed on tree sap, and will spend the winter behind loose bark or in other hidden places.
Satyr Comma caterpillars are also bristly and black, but have a broad white or greenish-white band on the back. They may be observed feeding from their protective tent of nettle leaves, and I suspect little concern will be raised about that particular caterpillar diet! The concern is more from the butterfly point of view over the scarcity of nettle patches spared by weed-whackers!
Butterfly hibernation boxes are occasionally offered for sale, but they are seldom occupied. Since the box may more likely become a spider hangout, it could, in fact, become a butterfly coffin. It is probably best not to try a hibernation box.
The most striking local butterflies are the swallowtails. The Western Tiger Swallowtail is the largest, with a wingspan exceeding 10cm. It is seen from mid-May to early August, when it lays its eggs on cottonwood and willows.
The Anise Swallowtail also flies between May and August, and lays its eggs on plants of the carrot family. Swallowtail caterpillars are eventually about the size of your little finger, hairless, and with varying arrangements of green, black, yellow and white (they change their garb five times!) If you are very lucky, you may find one feeding on your parsley, carrots, dill, or fennel. What a gift! Please take care of it! It won’t eat much! Native plant hosts include cow parsnip, lomatium, and water parsley. It will over-winter as a pupa, hung from a nearby twig.
So many lovely mysteries may be disclosed if we observe closely, and celebrate the transformations and seasons of nature. When observing butterflies and caterpillars we will want to keep in mind that we can’t have one without the other!
September Naturescape Notes
The decomposition of logs is a lively business, albeit very time consuming. It is said that a large tree may take as long to completely decompose as it took to grow. Its digestion into the land is complex, with many participants in the process.
You may have noticed Northern Flickers pecking enthusiastically at declining logs - our only woodpecker species that feeds on the ground. Old logs often house termite and ant colonies, and burrowing beetle larvae - each important in the decomposition process, and a feast for flickers!
There are two species of termites in our area that feed on dead wood - the Western Subterranean, and the Pacific Dampwood, each with fascinating life cycles
The mere mention of termites may strike a note of anxiety for some! In fact, termites of temperate areas do not pose a major threat to wooden structures, as do those of the tropics. Reassurance is offered by a Gulf Islands pest control firm noting that structural damage by termites is seldom encountered here. That being said, however, termites do feed on dead wood, as do carpenter ants, and wood is wood, structural or otherwise. It is, therefore, important to ensure that no part of a wooden structure is damp and/or in contact with the soil. A regular inspection of foundations and crawl spaces is a good idea.
Where local termites do their good stuff is in our forests. They are one of the many species of insects that contribute to cycling woody debris into soil nutrients. Their complex colonies consist of a king and queen, workers, soldiers, and secondary “reproductives”.
In late summer, particularly after a rainy spell, the winged reproductives may swarm. Last year we had opportunity to observe this in our driveway turnaround when, through a tiny opening in hard-packed soil and gravel, subterranean termites streamed up for a brief few minutes. Twelve junco’s and a flicker soon appeared to take advantage of a special feeding opportunity on the ground. Fifteen minutes later at the other side of the turnaround a second emergence took place, again lasting only a few minutes.
A few days later at a friend’s property we marveled an evening emergence, this time of dampwood termites. Many of these attained only 20 or 30 feet of altitude before being snapped up in an aerial ballet by a flock of hungry cedar waxwings.
After swarming, surviving males and females bond when the male is attracted to the pheromone “fragrance” released by the female. Future “kings” and “queens”, they search for a suitable site to establish their permanent home. Their wings are shed, and they will excavate a small chamber and seal the entrance. They bond for life and mate periodically, building a colony that may take 8 to 10 years before dispersal of a reproductive swarm.
Strangely, termites are unable to digest the cellulose of wood directly and are dependent upon a symbiotic relationship with one-celled animals, protozoans, living in their gut. Certain species of fungi may also play a part in pre-digestion of the wood.
Subterranean and dampwood workers do not do well above ground, and may build tunnel shelters that look like mud tubes if they head beyond their home in search of food.
Fascinating creatures these - not generally appreciated for their important role in nature and their unique societal life.
October Naturescape Notes
Conservation of wildlife trees (those dead and dying trees that we may not appreciate fully) is a key component in caring for wildlife habitat, with more than 80 species of birds and mammals in British Columbia depending upon them for nesting, perching, food, and shelter. A remarkable champion for the wildlife trees of Pender, and their inhabitants, is David Manning, working as a volunteer coordinator for the Wildlife Tree Stewardship Program (WITS). David has had a fascinating year of following and documenting the activities of eagles, osprey and herons!
Unexpected events have occurred along the way, not the least of which was the rescue of a young Great Blue Heron! David’s wife, Eroca Dancer, writes about it for us, as follows:
“David Manning discovered five heron nests on North Pender this year. Three of those nests were successful, producing four chicks each. However, while monitoring the nest near his home one day, David noticed that one of the four siblings had been bullied out onto a branch near the nest. Later that day David received a call, from a fellow bird watcher (Gary), saying he had spotted the young heron on the ground.
“It was late and daylight was fading fast. David made several anxious calls, trying to locate transport for the young bird before it died of dehydration. Staff of the Wildlife Care Centre on Salt Spring instructed him on how to capture the bird. They also suggested that he give the box with the birdP to a responsible-looking person in the ferry lineup. Two workmen going home at the end of a long day kindly took the bird and delivered it safely to a care centre staff member waiting at Long Harbour.
“Four weeks later, the heron, dubbed “382” (the 382nd animal to come through the centre in 2006), was delivered back to Pender by a biologist doing an internship at the centre. Catie walked onto the 6:15 a.m. ferry with “382” in a blanket-covered dog kennel. David met her at Otter Bay and they drove back to the nest area, where a small group of people watched in hushed anticipation as “382” stepped back onto Pender soil.
“After its release, “382” was seen several times on the ground, or sitting on stumps near the nest area, preening itself. While David believes that it is not likely that the heron actually rejoined its siblings on the nest (they fledged over the next two days), it is hoped that it is now safely fending for itself, along with the other 11 young Pender herons fledged this year.
“The Salt Spring centre cares for hundreds of injured or helpless wild animals every year. Fawns, seal pups (60 when we visited), eagles, ravens and many other animals are ferried, driven, boated and heli-lifted to the care centre where they are nursed to health or maturity, then released back into the wild. Recently, Pender Islanders have sent a fawn, a seal pup, and a baby Great Blue Heron to them.
“We thank the Island Wildlife Natural Care Centre for its dedication to the preservation of wildlife on the Gulf Islands. We love you guys!
“Please give a generous donation to help support their efforts.”
Thank you, Eroca, for telling us about this lovely rescue, and thank you, David, for the countless hours you spend in working towards a safe future for the “big birds” of Pender.
Rats seem to be appearing on Pender in increasing numbers, and non-toxic control is important to keep their numbers in check.
Unfortunately, there have been reports over the last while regarding birds being caught in rat traps that have been placed outdoors, in the open, and baited with peanut butter. Spotted Towhees and Song Sparrows are particularly vulnerable, being ground-feeding birds especially fond of peanuts. A safer approach for the birds would be to place the trap in a box with a small opening, cover it lightly with loose vegetation, and use something other than peanuts for bait - perhaps traditional rat cheese.
Live traps are another method of control - but it does leave one with the difficult task of disposing of the animal – drowning being the most appropriate way of doing that. Whatever you do, don’t trap and release the animal elsewhere – that is just spreading the problem and doing much more harm than good.
Not attracting them in the first place is step number one, so there is a special need now to be diligent regarding cleanliness around bird feeders – don’t feed birds on the ground, or allow seed that has fallen from feeders to lie around. Other sources of food such as dog food are attractants as well. Rats are another invasive species that we can well do without.
November Naturescape Notes
My natural history library is in two sections – the wall of shelves in my den, and the shelf of favorites near at hand in the living room. Books from Lone Pine Publishing always seem to rate the living room – “Birds of Coastal British Columbia”, “Bugs of BC”, “Reptiles of the Northwest”, “Mushrooms of Western Canada”, etc. Now room must be made there for a dandy new addition – “Wildlife and Trees in British Columbia”.
The five authors of the book, Fenger, Manning, Cooper, Guy and Bradford, are foresters and biologists, with four of them members of the Wildlife Tree Committee of B.C. There is technical information enough to provide strong support for “appeals for mercy” to government and land users, together with interesting and informative sections on the life and decline of the trees, and the life and needs of their inhabitants.
One diagram particularly stood out for me as I first thumbed through – a drawing of the tapering trunk of a tree, indicating which bird species will be primary cavity excavators in a particular diameter of trunk - and their preferred species of tree. Also shown are the secondary cavity users that may nest in that excavation in subsequent years. A Northern Flicker, for instance, may excavate a nesting cavity in a 30+ cm Douglas-fir or Cottonwood, and it may be followed in subsequent years by a nesting blue-listed Western Screech Owl or a Hooded Merganser. Chickadees and Nuthatches are both primary and secondary nesters in smaller portions of the tree – but with their tiny beaks they need to start on a snag that is well into the process of decay.
A fascinating wildlife tree coincidence was recently related in “Wildlife Afield”, publication of the Biodiversity Centre for Wildlife Studies. Folks in McClure, B.C., had been observing an unusual Northern Flicker at their feeders over a 22-month period. The bird had a deformity in which its beak kept growing longer and longer, to the point that it had much difficulty eating, and then was no longer seen. More than a year later strong winds toppled a much-loved wildlife tree in their front yard, and the tree, with its abundant cavities, had to be cut up. An attempt was made not to slice directly through the openings, but one cut opened the top of a 45 x 19 cm cavity to expose the skeleton of a flicker – their flicker with the deformed bill. Its bill had reached a length of over 15 cm, and may have contributed to the bird becoming wedged upside down in its cavity. Little do we know about what might be happening in those special trees around us – good things and sad.
Death is inevitable, be it flickers or trees. A Douglas-fir, however, may persist for centuries after death, providing cavities, perches, roosts, and open nest sites for many generations of birds, and evolving habitat for a vast array of invertebrates, mammals, fungi, lichen, plants. Abundant life after death!
After safety concerns, let’s not be in too much of a hurry to remove these old-timers, when they no longer live up to our vision of a perfect tree. You never know what may live within!
December Naturescape Notes
While rushing to and fro along the causeway of the Tsawwassen Ferry Terminal, we travel through the area designated as one of the most Important Bird Areas (IBA) globally, and the most significant site needed for the protection of birds in Canada - the Fraser River Estuary.
The Fraser flows for 1380 km through the heart of British Columbia, dividing at New Westminster into the north and south arms, and depositing sediment to form the largest estuary wetlands in B.C. – more than 20,000 hectares of inter-tidal marshes and mud flats. These wrap around the coast from Iona Island, south to Crescent Beach/White Rock, and include Sturgeon Bank, Roberts Bank, and Boundary Bay.
One can imagine the pressures on these areas, between Vancouver Airport, the Iona sewage treatment plant, the Roberts Bank coal and container terminal, the ferry terminals, Boundary Bay Airport, pesticide use on fields, acres and acres of greenhouses, and urban development. Boundary Bay Airport, Roberts Bank, and YVR are all scheduled for expansion.
The estuary is significant habitat for many reasons:
- The Fraser is the world’s greatest salmon river. Its estuary provides critical habitat for five salmon species, herring, coastal cut-throat trout and bottom fish species
- It is home to over 400 species of vertebrates, thousands of plants, and a myriad of small invertebrates – rich sources of food needed for vital re-fuelling sustenance for up to 5 million birds traveling on the Pacific Flyway in the spring and fall of each year. During the spring migration there are one-day estimates of up to 500,000 Western Sandpiper feeding in the area. It is a remarkable site to see.
- The estuary and adjacent uplands support over 300 bird species.
- Fifty species of shorebirds are recorded in the estuary.
- The area supports Canada’s highest number and diversity of wintering waterfowl and shorebirds.
- More birds of prey over-winter here than anywhere else in Canada. This includes eagles, hawks, falcons (including the peregrine), and owls. In some years even snowy owls move south from the Arctic to winter here.
There is no protected status for this area. Unfortunately the scope of the proposed Southern Strait of Georgia National Marine Conservation Area will not extend into the estuary. We can only hope that some form of protection can be provided through Environment Canada before it is too late.
The opportunity to become more familiar with all that goes on in the estuary is offered by a new website, http://migration.pwnet.org/ You may register to follow the birds during migration, and ask questions of scientists from Panama, Mexico, California, BC and Alaska. There are also excellent teaching tools available. Next April there will be a webcast from Boundary Bay to keep us abreast of migration as it happens.
Next time you are buzzing along the causeway, keep watch! In spite of the busy-ness of the immediate area, you are likely to see herons, scoters, scaup, loons, etc., along the shoreline. When traveling on the evening ferry, observe the breakwater to the south of the usual docking berth for the Queen of Nanaimo. You might be treated to the sight of hundreds of Double-crested Cormorants settling in to roost for the night.