What’s in a Name?
January Naturescape Notes
What’s in a name? Different references to the same thing may convey quite a different sense of understanding and appreciation. Often our impression of the natural world may be superficial, not taking in the finer details of what is really there.
One example that particularly comes to mind is use of the word “bush”, as compared to “woodland”. “Bush” (no political pun intended) seems to convey the message of something with little value – trees and a tangle of undergrowth. To the more discerning, that “bush” will be observed as a “woodland”, rich with life. The overhead canopy is recognized as home for a diversity of invertebrates, and they, together with a harvest of seeds, nuts and fruits, provide sustenance for many species of songbirds. Interspersed in a healthy woodland will be trees in decline, wildlife trees, providing nooks, crannies, mossy boughs and secret cavities for safe shelter and a place for wildlife to rear their young.
Understorey vegetation provides shelter and food for other bird species that stay closer to the ground. Fallen logs, and woody debris are rich with life – amphibians, reptiles, invertertebrates such as centipedes, millipedes, beetles, termites, ants, and countless others making up the foundation of woodland life. Below the ground, vast networks of fungal mycellium form essential nutrient exchanges with plant life above.
The woodland may include alders, that some consider “weed” trees. Weeds, perhaps because commercial harvest is not important, but far from weeds for the health of the woodland. A short-lived tree, the alder builds the soil, through nitrogen fixation, for a succession of growth to follow. Birds and insects feast on the catkins and cones of the alder, and woodpeckers create abundant cavities in the soft trunks, providing nesting opportunities for many.
Woodpeckers spend their days in search of insects - “bugs” to some! Sometimes our reference to insects is restricted to the “pest” viewpoint when, in fact, the invertebrate world is nothing less than wonder-filled in its richness and diversity. There seems to be a specialized insect for every niche imaginable – each essential in the fascinating picture of biodiversity.
And then there are the references to “swamps” rather than “marshes” or “wetlands”. A “swamp” often connotates merely a wet place to be filled. When we understand the value of a healthy “wetland”, however, we recognize it as one of the richest of natural areas, teeming with life, and essential habitat for a broad range of species, from waterfowl to amphibians, to dragonflies and pond striders.
My final puzzlement for the day: why is the label “environmentalist” often referred to with disdain? “Conservationist” is a little safer, but still may be considered disparagingly.
Should we not all be environmentalists/conservationists, working together for the health of our planet? After all, as they say, “What part of the environment is not our thing?” - the air we breathe, the water we drink, or the food that the land provides?
I guess it all boils down to a matter of caring - for our woodlands, our wetlands, our planet, and the life they hold. Caring, we recognize that on “our” land, that life is in our hands.
Birds in Winter
February Naturescape Notes
How do birds survive in winter? This is a question that came to mind particularly during our spell of inclement weather. The birds that stay with us during the winter months look for milder conditions that Pender normally provides, and times may well have been tough for many.
Following the high winds, we watched with concern as flocks of tiny Golden-Crowned Kinglets left their usual lofty conifer hunting grounds and took to feeding on roadways – much to their peril. Life in the treetops does not condition them to road hazards, and looking as they did like small leaves bouncing on the roadways, many met a sad fate. Several times I walked in front of our car to shoo them off, and even then they were reluctant to fly! It appears that their usual winter foodstuff of overwintering insect eggs, pupae and larvae must have set sail in the wind, to be conveniently picked off the road surface when things calmed down. I only hope that sufficient food remains aloft for them to continue through the season.
Weighing less than an ounce, kinglets are our smallest birds, after the hummingbird. Being tiny has special challenges when the weather is cold, for the smaller the creature, the greater is body surface area relative to body mass – more of an area through which to lose body heat. For that reason, tiny birds are especially dependent upon fat reserves being built up on a daily basis. Up to ten percent of these reserves may be depleted overnight, so it is important that food sources are found quickly each morning, stoking up their heat reserves all over again. You may have noticed early morning and late day rushes at bird feeders. As well, given opportunity of abundant food, nuthatches and chickadees will hoard emergency tidbits in assorted crevices throughout the day.
Some species have thermal controls and may become partially torpid during winter nights, with their body temperature and respiration decreasing significantly. During storms and extreme cold they may remain in their roost location throughout the day in a semi-torpor, rather than fighting the weather.
Overnight cuddling is important too! Smaller birds such as kinglets, chickadees and nuthatches will roost together in tree cavities. Brown creepers huddle together beneath slabs of loose bark on conifer trees. Woodpeckers hollow out tree cavities specifically for roosting. We have winter wrens tucked in each night on our porch, within a rolled-up bamboo blind! Recently, as we loaded our car at dusk, just outside the Community Hall, a pair of winter wrens was anxiously seeking shelter. One even rushed into our car to see if that would do! Discouraged from that option, the two hurried off together around the Hall, investigating various crevices beneath the eaves!
Robins and Varied Thrushes spend time seeking out food along roadways during winter and into spring. For their sake, please keep an eye out and your speed down!
It isn’t easy being tiny during cold and stormy weather, but we are thankful that nature has provided a diversity of adaptations that help to save the day for our feathered friends. Let’s take care on the roads not to add to their challenges.
Luminescence, Owls, Rats
March Naturescape Notes
Something I have noticed, here and there on Pender, is a soft glowing in the dark from tree trunks, stumps, and even rocks. Two such arbutus trees along our driveway first caught my notice, for they look very much as though patches on the lower trunks had been painted with something fluorescent to guide the way. Not so! These are examples of bioluminescence – the creation of light by living organisms. The responsible organism in this case is likely a fungus that biochemically produces a form of light. The mycellium of particular wood-decomposing fungi form a thick network of filaments beneath the bark, and may become exposed when the bark eventually falls away, emitting a soft greenish glow that may even lead the way home! I treasure the welcome of our driveway, lush with native shrubs, moss and trees - and even at night it shines a “welcome home”!
Bioluminescence is more common than might be thought, and living on an island, most of us have probably seen the lovely lights of the ocean, emitted by marine organisms – bacteria, sponges, jellyfish, squid, crustaceans, fish, etc. Marine biologists estimate that as many as 2/3 of deep-sea fish luminesce. Another fascinating area of study to be explored!
On an entirely different topic, and back on land, we were excited to be able to record for the Great Backyard Bird Count in mid-February both a Western Screech Owl and a Barred Owl. We saw neither, but their calls are distinctive. The Screech Owl is seriously declining in numbers in coastal BC, and we welcomed its tremolo “bouncing ball” calls during the night. We hope that a mate was enticed and that they will soon be nesting in a tree cavity nearby! A tiny, well camouflaged owl, more often heard than seen, the Screech Owl’s prey consists of small rodents, large insects, and even amphibians, fish, slugs and worms.
The Barred Owl’s “Who cooks for you, who cooks for you-al-l-l-l” call is unmistakable! This large owl may be heard even in daylight, for it hunts both day and night. Ours spoke up during the day, but was quickly silenced by an indignant raven who hurried off his perch tree, intent to harass this “intruder”! We really want to be more welcoming than that to Barred Owls, special that they are in so many ways, including their important service as our most important predator of rodents (including rats).
With the concern on Pender at the moment regarding the rather abundant appearance of rats, we want to do all that we can to care for their predators. It is for the sake of the owls, and for other predators and scavengers, that the poisoning of rats is strongly discouraged. Poisons may be quickly distributed through the food chain, with disastrous results. Please stay with careful trapping only, and use all the preventive means you can to avoid attracting rodents in the first place, i.e., catching or cleaning up seed from beneath bird feeders, keeping compost tightly contained, and keeping pet food indoors. Let’s show that we really give a hoot!
April Naturescape Notes
Watching for returning migrants (of the avian variety!) is on the agenda for the next few weeks! The first Turkey Vultures of the year were reported by David Manning during the week of March 5th, and Keith Pincott and Rob Weaver (a visitor from MacKenzie, seeing his first of this species) overlooked them soaring below George Hill a few days later. It seemed an early return for these birds – from their wintering range through the southern US and into Central and South America. Then, there is the possibility of them being over-wintering birds – so much we don’t know! They will make their nests in remote places – precipitous rocky outcrops and cliffs, perhaps within crevices or caves.
Some of the eagles are nest-sitting now. The McKeatings are having fun observing a nest on Mayne Island through their North Pender scope! These birds regularly fly back and forth between Mayne and Pender!
We have been “serenaded” with barred owl courtship duets in the Stanley Point/George Hill area recently. Both the male and female talk – their usual hoo, hoo, hoo cooks for you allllll calls, embellished with strangling screams that can put shivers down your spine! While owls are more often heard than seen, Bob Vergette was fortunate enough to see one of the Stanley Point Barred Owls on a recent evening!
And – hummingbird reports! It seems that Thursday, March 15th, was the day. We were thrilled to see a brilliant male Rufous while visiting the Armstrongs, and further reports for that day came from Canal Road and Greenburn Lake on South Pender, and from the Magic Lake area. (See Doreen Ball’s summary at front of Pender Post.)
Much birding is done by sound as well as sight, and with the spring arrivals this is very helpful, indeed. My skills at birding by sound are not brilliant – while I usually recognize the song, I am often frustrated by not remembering who belongs to it! There are a few tricks, of course – probably the quick, three beers!fitz bew of the Olive-sided Flycatcher is most notable! The sneeze of the Willow Flycatcher is pretty clear too! The ethereal calls of the Varied Thrush are gracing the woodlands now – a haunting sound that makes me think of them as the loon of the woods! The Dark-eyed Junco’s are trilling delicately, while the huge henk henk call of the Red-breasted Nuthatch suggests a bird ten times its size! Following this past long, grey, wet and windy winter, the songs of spring are welcome indeed!
To close with an all-points alert - the robins are establishing territories now, and are also getting into active roadside feeding. Towhees and song sparrows dart back and forth across the roadways too. Please take care as you drive (and tether your cat!), remembering that a bird casualty in spring may mean the loss of several tiny dependent birds on the nest.
A Guide to Galls!
April Naturescape Additional Newsletter
The fun of the unexpected is one of the joys of Naturescape gardening and caring for wildlife habitat at home! Mysteries, too, are there when we look closely. I am particularly fascinated by the intricate interconnections between native plants and insects.
Something especially intriguing is the mystery of galls – strange growths appearing on certain plant species Often beautiful and bizarre, galls are growths of various shapes, sizes, and colours, produced by host plants in response to stimuli of other organisms.
Beautiful examples are the moss-like balls, 3-4 cm in diameter, that sometimes appear on the stems of roses – wild roses, or perhaps shrub roses in the garden. These are mossy rose galls - remarkable chambers for the larval development of minute Diplolepsis wasps during metamorphosis.
The unusual plant cell development of these galls is initiated through the stimulus of the eggs of the tiny wasp being deposited into the plant tissue. As the gall forms, the eggs hatch and each resultant larva is provided with a separate chamber within the gall, where it will feed on the unique plant tissue thus provided.
These galls may house not only the original gall-making species, but also possibly a sequence of other insects. For example, the larvae of other gall wasps, referred to as inquilines, may also be found in the same gall. These inquiline “guests” do not cause their own galls, but must find one ready-made.
Also in this communal chamber may be the larvae of parasitic wasps that will feed on the developing gall-makers or the inquilines – either externally or from within! And then, to make it even more interesting, other intruders frequently feed on them! There are even galls that form within galls that squash the original gallmaker in the process! It is suspected that there could be as many as 25 species living in the mossy gall insect community. It could turn out that the insects eventually emerging may not include the original gall-maker at all. It started the process but its larvae may have provided sustenance to many others and long since disappeared! It breaks my heart when I see these amazing chambers harshly pruned away without a thought.
Depending on the species of plant and insect, intriguing swellings of many configurations may occur on various parts of plants. Last summer I was delighted by tiny spiny spheres, rosy pink, four or five cupped in the leaves of native baldhip roses - exquisite little formations, few and far between, and only on the one rose species that I have observed thus far.
Thimbleberry, also a member of the rose family, is another host of interesting galls. These take the form of woody swellings creating larval chambers on the upper stems. The galls don’t harm the plant and the larvae housed within often provide food for woodpeckers and chickadees!
At last there is a guide to the galls that we might find in our area. A Field Guide to Plant Galls of California and Other Western States by Ron Russo, University of California Press, provides fascinating descriptions of more than 300 species of galls, many of which may be found in British Columbia. Excellent information is provided on host selection, growth and development, predator and parasite defence, and animal and human uses of galls. We are encouraged to look more closely and to wonder at the intricacy of it all.
Galls are one of the many mysteries of nature to be appreciated and pondered in your own backyard, front yard, or on the trail!
The Birder’s Bug Book
by Gilbert Waldbauer, Harvard University Press
The cover of this intriguing book, showing the blissful expression of a fledgling screech owl about to devour a cecropia moth, is enough to encourage us to add the book to our library! In this case, you really can judge the book by its cover, for it is captivating from beginning to end.
My Naturescape curiosity regarding the minutiae of life in my garden and beyond is certainly piqued and satisfied by this intriguing book - as has been the case with Waldbauer’s previous entomological publications, including What Good Are Bugs?, Insects Through the Seasons, and Millions of Monarchs, Bunches of Beetles.
Waldbauer takes some of the least appreciated species in various ecosystems and eloquently discusses many of the roles they play - sharing his respect, admiration and wonder for the insects he has spent his life studying. A book that can make fascinating reading even about lice is, indeed unique. Did you know that there are certain species of lice specific only to hummingbirds?
Chapter titles outline the ground covered. Some of these are: Bugs and Birds Through the Ages, Bugs That Birds Eat, The Bugs Fight Back, Bugs That Eat Birds, The Birds Fight Back, Bugs That Eat People, People Fight Back. These are followed by a brief guide to the insects, and a summation, sadly, on the disappearing diversity of birds, bugs and beyond. Waldbauer concludes with the message,
The greatest of all human adventures is the quest for self-knowledge. But since we are but one aspect of the planetary web of life, we can understand ourselves only in the context of all life. The loss of a species or the destruction of a habitat narrows our view of ourselves, thus diminishing us and impoverishing our spirit.
Sylvia D. Pincott
A Salute to the City of Port Moody for Ten Years of Naturescaping!
It is almost ten years since the City of Port Moody became the first community in British Columbia to officially adopt the principles of Naturescape into civic policy! Under the caring guidance through those years of Biologist Julie Pavey of their Parks and Environmental Services Division, their program has expanded to include virtually all aspects of Naturescape within their community.
Port Moody has an area of 3434 hectares in the Coastal Western Hemlock biogeoclimatic zone. Fortunately, even ten years ago, there was a reasonable understanding of habitat within the city, based on an Environmentally Sensitive Areas Management Strategy – and it was recognized that there could be a lot to lose from a biodiversity perspective. For example, there are 33 streams within city borders! It was important that the community be made aware of its ecological sensitivity.
Through the encouragement of the Burke Mountain Naturalists and their delegation request to Council in March of 1997, the City began to explore the possibilities of becoming a Naturescape community. Sylvia Pincott was invited to make a Naturescape presentation to Council at that time, and a resolution was passed then for Port Moody to follow the principles of Naturescape on all publicly owned lands, and to promote their use on private lands where appropriate.
A Naturescape Steering Committee was formed shortly thereafter, to provide specific recommendations for practical application on public lands. The Committee included Elaine Golds (Burke Mountain Naturalist, and Parks and Recreation Commission), Victoria Otton (Burke Mountain Naturalists, and Environmental Protection Committee member), Ron Simpson (Advisory Planning, and Land Use Commission), Julie Pavey (Environmental Services) and Tom Hunt (Parks and Operations).
Committee goals included the following:
- Review applicability to Port Moody
- Potential projects
- Operational practice
- Preferred plant list
- Public education
Their recommendations were taken to Council and approved in October of 1997, and the Steering Committee Report became the foundation of their Naturescape Policy. Operational practices were set out, and no time was lost in getting Naturescape on the ground thereafter!
Their Policy included many aspects of Naturescape, including the following:
- Use of native plants
- Planting criteria, with plant lists and descriptions
- Plant salvaging
- Maximize diversity
- Maximize undisturbed habitat
- Imitate natural patterns
- Preserve wildlife trees, downed logs, and stumps where feasible
- Ensure recognition of times of bird-nesting for restriction of maintenance work
- Use of natural instead of synthetic chemicals
Initial operational practices were developed:
- Staff trained by naturalist
- No pesticide use
- Tree removal policy
- Photographic records
- Creation of brush/rock piles
- Conversion of grass areas
- Improved mulching
- Installation of bird and bat boxes
- Permeable pavers
All of the above criteria have been implemented in many and various ways and, through ten years of Naturescaping, an amazing number of community enhancement projects have been achieved - many of them through remarkable volunteer stewardship partnerships. In addition,
- Port Moody became the first municipality in Western Canada to become pesticide free, with a three-year phase-in period commencing in 2003.
- A “no culverting” policy for streams was established, and many streams have been “daylighted” and restored. Developers came on side, and one, Parklane, created a series of rearing ponds which now support fish and other aquatic life. Salmon are now migrating into Turner Creek after a 50 year absence.
- Many other habitat restoration and enhancement projects have been undertaken throughout the community, including display gardens
- pond construction
- plant and amphibian rescues and salvages
- construction of butterfly/hummingbird gardens
- a bat study
- invasive species removal
- placement of interpetive signs for projects throughout the city.
- Community education has been extensive, including school participation.
- A preferred plant list has been created
- An Organic Yardcare program has been established
Totally deserved recognition for a community working together in such a special way was received in 2004 when Port Moody participated in the LivCom international competition, sponsored by the United Nations to recognize sustainable and liveable communities. Port Moody won first place under the criteria “Planning for the Future”, and received a Silver Award for overall livability for cities of its size!
Congratulations, and many, many thanks to the people of Port Moody for embracing the Naturescape message and bringing it to life within your community!
Sylvia D. Pincott
May Naturescape Notes
We have been enjoying busy nesting activity these days, and are amazed by the quantities of fur and fleece that have been disappearing into chickadee and siskin nests. Maybe our cool spring has the birds ensuring that nests have particularly cozy linings! Mind you, we have been offering some rather elegant choices! There is llama fur and camel hair, resurrected after thirty years in the cedar chest, as well as luxuriously soft, molted deer fur found on the trail, freshly laundered fleece from both Pender and Saturna - and a year of brushings from Miss HisseyFit!
The hummingbirds are busy too, collecting the soft puffs of a cat tail (from a marsh, not from our cat!), offered among our nesting provisions! Hummingbird nests are made up of the most delicate of fibres – lichen, moss, soft grasses, hair, fur, and a lining of plant down. It is interesting that the tinest birds have the most intricate nests. Hummingbirds, bushtits, kinglets and goldfinches often use spider silk to bind their nest and secure it to their branch. It would be fascinating to see that in progress, for it is hard to imagine how it is done. A lovely opportunity to see the nest of an Allen’s hummingbird (not our local species, the Rufous or Anna’s), photographed over 24 days, from eggs to fledgings, is offered on the web at http://community.webtv.net/Velpics/HUM Be sure to click on next page at the bottom of each page - there are five in all.
Ursula recently shared the fun of a chickadee arriving through her door to collect pleasing fibres from about the living room – mohair from a blanket, carpet fibre, and such - landing on her lap for a word of thanks before leaving! Last year’s chickadee (same one, perhaps?), boldly landed on her head before departing!
“Our” American Goldfinches returned on April 15th. Between them and the Pine Siskins, our supply of black oil sunflower seeds is going down quickly. They also like nyger seed, or nyger mixed with hulled sunflowers as a real delicacy! What beauties the goldfinches are. They won’t be collecting nest material for awhile yet, for nesting doesn’t begin for them until the first part of July. The female is in charge of building the nest, though her faithful mate may collect some of the materials. She builds in the fork of a branch, using grasses bound with caterpillar and spider silk, and she lines it so tightly with thistledown it can hold water!
We have a small war at the moment. Our Violet-green Swallows returned to their nest box, quickly claiming it for their own. Now a very determined Red-breasted Nuthatch is laying claim and obviously doesn’t plan to give up easily. Actually, I think she may be winning and, just in case, I have added another swallow box nearby!
It seems so wondrous to me that each species of bird instinctively knows when to build and what materials to look for and weave into place. Tiny flying miracles, many returning “home” after journeys of thousands of kilometers. How do they do it?
Humming Birds and Nest Boxes
June Naturescape Notes
Hummingbird researcher Cam Finlay, head of the BC Hummingbird Monitoring Network, is reporting sad returns of hummingbirds this year throughout the province, with serious declines in numbers of each species. Many, and increasing, are the challenges faced on their migratory journeys.
While insects are the main source of nutrients for hummingbirds, nectar is the source of energy, and is required regularly throughout the day to keep a fierce metabolism up to speed. Hummingbird feeders, inviting these tiny jewels to our gardens, may provide that energy when blossoms are limited. A solution of plain white sugar and water is considered suitable for them. One part of sugar to four parts of water, boiled for four minutes and cooled is the formula recommended. There is absolutely no need to add red colouring to the water, and it could be detrimental. The red colouring should be on the feeder, not in the food. If your feeder doesn’t display red, tie on a red ribbon and that will do the job.
Cam Finlay comments on the addition of red colouring with dismay. When they are banding hummers and see red pee, they think of a mother’s reaction to finding red urine in a diaper. Not good. These little guys have enough challenges, without unnecessary chemicals added to the equation. This concern also applies to packaged hummingbird mixes with their added chemicals and colouring. White sugar is all that is needed. Never honey, by the way – it can cause tongue problems for the birds.
Further news on our nest box altercation that I reported on last month. In late March “our” Violet-green Swallows returned, quickly reclaiming last year’s nest box for their own. All was well for awhile, until a determined pair of Red-breasted Nuthatches found favour with the same box, and succeeded in taking over, marking their entry way with smeared pitch, as is nuthatch custom.
We offered a new box nearby for the swallows, and they were very accommodating in their acceptance of it. They commenced nest building in mid-May, dragging in assorted raggedy bits of vegetation. All seemed well, with the nuthatches settled in, and the faithful little male delivering insect morsels to his mate as she incubated her eggs.
Tragedy struck on May 13 with sad calls from a lone nuthatch, obviously seeking its mate. Faithful food deliveries continued throughout the day, with frantic searches in and out of the box, but there was no sign of the little mother – and a broken egg was evident on the deck below. I opened the box that evening and it was empty. What could have been the cause of this disaster? I would have suspected a House Sparrow, but we have yet to see one amongst the many birds visiting our property. The male called plaintively from the boundaries of his territory for two days. His calls apparently were heard! Now, several days later, it appears that he has found a new mate to take over the hard-won home that he had established.
Many are the touching dramas, and mysteries of the natural world about which we know so little.
July Naturescape Notes
Naturalist friends, Linn and John, recently made a fascinating observation at Greenburn Lake of what was almost certainly a Painted Turtle, Chrysemys picta, (a British Columbia blue-listed species) as she prepared a nest chamber and laid her eggs within. The nest was a fist-sized excavation in a soft slope above the lake (precariously close to a pathway, unfortunately). Her clutch was of ten eggs, individually laid and each softly patted with a foot, giving, as Linn described it, an almost maternal blessing before arrival of the next egg. The first egg was much larger than the subsequent nine. Upon completion of egg-laying, the mother used her webbed feet to fill in the excavation, gently pressing it in place with her shell. Small rocks were placed on the surface, disguising evidence of the soil disturbance.
The literature tells us that the eggs will hatch towards the end of summer, but the tiny (25 mm) hatchlings may remain in the nest until next spring. Survival rates apparently are not high. Female Painted Turtles do not reach reproductive maturity until possibly age seven. She is larger than the male, with a carapace (shell) length of up to 25 cm. Turtles eat a variety of food – aquatic vegetation and small aquatic creatures. Their presence is encouraging indication of a healthy ecosystem. Please stay on the trails at Greenburn – intrusion beyond could be sadly destructive to these special Pender residents.
Counting the turtles, there are six reptile species here. There is the neat little Northern Alligator Lizard, Elgaria coerulea, sometimes seen basking on sunny rocks, and darting into a crevice at the least disturbance. It may be up to 13 cm in length - plus a 10 cm tail that may break away (and be regenerated) as a defense upon capture by a predator. They feed on insects and their larvae, as well as spiders, slugs and worms.
Not enjoying the open sunshine at all is the endangered Sharp-tailed Snake, Contia tenuis. It prefers to warm up under cover of woody debris on a sunny slope, and is seldom seen in the open. Sharp-tails are a uniform reddish-brown on top, with a gray, laddered tummy. They are small, slender and almost earthworm-like in appearance, with a maximum length of 30 cm.
Our three species of garter snake, ThamnophisT. sirtalis sp, bask in the open, but they also may shelter beneath rocks, decaying wood, and other surface objects. They are the Common Garter Snake (), Western Terrestrial Garter Snake (T. elegansT. ordinoides), and Northwestern Garter Snake (). Garter snakes are variable in colour, often with red, yellow or orange stripes. Some are blue. T. sirtalis may reach a length of 130 cm (big!).
Garter snakes and alligator lizards bear their young live. Sharp-tails, like the turtles, lay eggs.
All reptiles found here are non-venomous and harmless to humans, though a garter snake may posture in a hissey way as a defence gesture and, if captured, may defend itself further with a non-venomous nip and emission of a foul-smelling liquid.
All reptiles need undisturbed places. Mowers, weed-eaters, and pesticides take a sad toll.
August Naturescape Notes
Looking closely at the gifts of Nature gives opportunity for wonder, mystery, and joy, as we marvel at the many and intricate forms of life, woven together in a web of dependency, one species upon another. Nothing occurs in isolation, the web embraces all life forms.
Speaking of webs in a more specific form, a recent walk to Roe Lake revealed shrubbery festooned with the filmy and shimmering dome webs of spiders of the sheetweb-weaving family Linyphiidae. The webs were amazing for their numbers, and for the fact that these most delicate of spiders can spin quantities of silk sufficient to form their dense silken dome canopy having a diameter of 25 and more cm. The webs along the Roe Lake trail must be made up of endless kilometers of silken threads! How can this tiny creature extrude such quantities of silk? Their webs trap the tiniest of flying insects – a feast for these forest fairies!
It is interesting that there is another type of sheetweb-weaver that creates bowls, rather than domes. These are referred to, quaintly, as bowl and doily spiders!
Moving through the web of dependency, our Red-breasted Nuthatch “babies” are being taught the skills of spider-searching. Each nook and crevice on the outside of our house is carefully gleaned for spiders, a favorite nuthatch morsel.
Not waiting around to be nabbed by a nuthatch, the miniscule young of many spider species set sail on a parachute of silk, often travelling great distances to establish themselves far from home. I can imagine, however, that many of these are nabbed in flight by swallows, who are also learning their hunting skills at this time. Between July 3 and 11, “our” Violet-green Swallows fledged, one at a time! I had the opportunity to hear the joyous calls of four of the five as they left their nest cavity – tiny flying miracles - an egg only three weeks previously.
The first to leave departed at 8:30 pm, flying in ever-increasing circles until dark, calling continuously with what could only be interpreted as joie de vivre! This bird had never tried its wings before, and yet it left in full power, programmed with the instinctive knowledge of flight, insect-hunting for survival, timing and routes of migration over thousands of kilometers, nest-building and rearing of young. Nest building in itself is amazing. Each bird species nests in specific locations, often with preference for certain tree species. Some form a cup nest in the open. Others, such as our violet-greens, look for cavities in hollow trees. Nest materials are specific too. Barn swallows use mud, violet-greens don’t. They carry weeds and grass, with a lining of feathers. How do they find feathers from their flights on high? I know I don’t often see feathers as I roam about!
As our world-adventurer swallow soared in ever-increasing circles, I wondered what it would do as darkness fell, completely inexperienced as it was in landing or perching! With tears in my eyes at the wonder of it all, I hoped it would find safe shelter for the night, meeting up with Mommy or Daddy the following day to be fed on the wing, while perfecting hunting skills and independence!
September Naturescape Notes
I will remember this as the year of the baby birds! Never have we had such numbers and variety on our habitat property! They included Barred Owls, Rufous Hummingbirds, Downy Woodpeckers, Hairy Woodpeckers, Northern Flickers, Pileated Woodpeckers, Violet-green Swallows, Chestnut-backed Chickadees, Red-breasted Nuthatches, House Wrens, Winter Wrens, American Robins, European Starling, Black-headed Grosbeaks, Rufous-sided Towhees, Chipping Sparrows, Song Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos, Purple Finches, House Finches, Pine Siskins, American Goldfinches. Others such as flycatchers and warblers were heard in our forest, but are more secretive with their nesting activities!
The many gold, purple and house finches, and the chickadees obviously had two families, and just this past week yet another young Pileated Woodpecker arrived with its mom, making incessant demands for a fast food suet snack! This is the third batch of pileateds – June 27, July 28, and August 17. Were the June and August mom one and the same? The male and female share the incubation of their eggs for 15 to 18 days and brood their young for up to four weeks, so she would have had to get back to business quickly after the first fledging. Even though Dad helps with feeding the young, it’s a big job keeping those hungry beaks filled! Perhaps returning to the nest to sit on eggs would be something of a rest for mom! Whatever, it seems we have at least two nests sharing one feeding territory – for a species that usually claims upwards of 100 hectares for a home range that does not normally overlap another.
The largest woodpecker north of Mexico, and now considered an uncommon to rare resident of British Columbia, the Pileated have a year-round territory and pair bond. They need a mature forest, complete with dead and dying trees. The pair may spent up to six weeks chiseling a large nesting cavity into a mature or decaying tree trunk – perhaps a Grand Fir, Douglas Fir, or Big-leaf Maple in this area. They seldom create a nesting cavity in a trunk with feeding cavities. They do a lot of pecking – and apparently it shows, with the woodpecker bill becoming shorter as the bird ages! It is said that the male roosts in the nest cavity prior to egg laying; at other times it roosts in a nest cavity of previous years. Once the eggs are laid, male and female woodpeckers generally share duties during the day, and the male incubates at night. Obviously dad takes his parental responsibilities seriously!
Quite a contrast to the Rufous Hummingbird male who leaves shortly after mating, offering not a moment’s assistance to household duties! It is quite a contrast, too, to see a hummingbird hovering to check out the red crest of the woodpecker. It certainly underlines the distinct ways and appearance of each species. A bird is not just a bird! Each species has its unique nesting needs, family patterns, food, shelter and survival techniques. A diversity of undisturbed habitat enables a diversity of birds to make this island their home. We celebrate this lovely diversity that brings beauty and joy to our doorstep each day!
October Naturescape Notes
Some of you will have attended the recent presentation by David Manning and Hans Tammemagi, “Eagles on an Island” - a lovely opportunity to become more closely acquainted with “our” Pender eagles of this past year. Following up, I thought I would share some general details about these magnificent birds.
The Bald Eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus, is a member of the sea and fish eagle group.
In June of this year the US Department of the Interior removed the American Bald Eagle (their national symbol) from the protection of their Endangered Species Act. Imperiled by postwar misuse of persistent chlorinated hydrocarbon pesticides such as DDT, eagle numbers reached a low of 417 pairs in the lower 48 states. They have recovered to an estimated 9,789 breeding pairs today. Fortunately, eagle numbers in BC are higher. Being at the top of the food chain (as are we), eagles do remain vulnerable to the endless onslaught of toxins in our environment.
Male and female eagles look alike, with their elegant black back and breast, white head and tail, and yellow feet and bill. Juveniles are a mixture of brown and white, gradually phasing into mature plumage in four to five years, with sexual maturity. The female is slightly larger than the male, 35 to 37 inches in height. Their wingspan can be up to 90 inches! Huge! Once paired, Bald Eagles remain together for life. Their aerial courtship displays are spectacular, and may include locking talons, somersaulting and spiralling downwards!
With hollow bones, they weigh from ten to fourteen pounds, and their lifting power is about four pounds. It would be hard to imagine a human sweeping up a struggling fish from the sea, equivalent to one-third our weight! While the eagle’s diet is mainly fish, they will sometimes join the turkey vultures in consuming carrion. Derek Holzapfel recently posted a remarkable photograph on his website (www.naturediver.com) of an eagle feasting on a young seal. Yuk!
Nests are preferably built in a fork near the crown of a large, usually coniferous, tree. Tree species is not as important as its size and shape. Nests may occasionally be built on rocky cliffs. Both the female and male take part in nest construction, using large branches, sometimes cornstalks or assorted rubbish. The interior is softly lined with grasses, moss, strips of cedar bark, leaves, and fresh conifer boughs. Added to each year, these nests may become enormous – up to 3.5 metres in diameter and usually about a metre deep. The deepest nest recorded in BC was an amazing six metres! Sometimes a pair will have more than one nest in their territory and they may alternate years between nests.
Nests are reclaimed as the eagles return in mid-October to November, with refurbishing starting then. It is quite a sight to see the pair organizing large branches, weaving them as smaller birds might weave their grassy structure! Sometimes dead branches are gathered by breaking them from a tree. I can’t help imagining what might happen if the bird were to fly at a branch, expecting it to break, but it doesn’t. What a jolt.
One to three eggs (typically two) are laid usually in April or May. Often only the largest chick survives. Eggs are incubated by both parents for about 35 days, and the young are fed on the nest for another two to three months. Young birds begin stretching their wings in early summer, usually leaving the nest by mid-summer, in time to seek out herring balls and salmon runs along the coast.
Eagle trees and the nests are protected by law in British Columbia. How could we do other than care for these magnificent birds and their home?
We enjoyed the lovely opportunity to attend the Fall General Meeting of BC NatureFederation of BC Naturalists (formerly the ), recently held at Harrison Hot Springs. As well as connecting with more than 100 committed and enthusiastic naturalists from around the province, there were early morning birding sessions, daytime field trips, Harrison River and Lake boat journeys, inspiring speakers, and meeting sessions that included the Young Naturalists of BC. BC Nature meetings are held twice annually, with the next scheduled for May, in Penticton. All Pender PIFN members may attend these events, which offer opportunities to get to know the natural world of British Columbia in a very special way.
Our keynote speaker, Dr. Michael Pearson, delivered a sad note on the lack of legal protection for the biodiversity of British Columbia, referring to a recent report, “Rich Wildlife, Poor Protection” prepared by the David Suzuki Foundation and Sierra Legal. Numbers describing the various species of British Columbia are awesome, but the number of species in trouble is heartbreaking. Virtually none of these species has legal protection within our province. I refer to this publication in the following.
In BC, of the more than 3600 species and subspecies recorded, over 1300 are now thought to be at risk of disappearing. These figures do not include poorly understood and documented species such as most insects, fungi and lichens. Of the 1300 plus species at risk, only an approximate five percent receive any kind of “protection” under BC laws. None receive essential habitat protection, and even species protected under the strongest of these laws are teetering on the verge of extinction or extirpation from our province. For example, the Spotted Owl – with only 17 birds left in existence in Canada – cannot receive the legal protection it needs to survive.
Among the major wildlife groups in the province, those most at risk of local extinction from BC include:
67 percent of 15 species of reptiles and turtles,
47 percent of 19 species of amphibians, and
47 percent of 89 species of freshwater fish
Many other wildlife groups similarly contain high numbers of at-risk species, as follows:
43 percent of a total of 2347 vascular plants
34 percent of 204 species of butterflies
26 percent of 86 dragonflies
18 percent of 261 terrestrial mammals
17 percent of 504 birds
This is pretty sobering stuff that underlines the importance of each of us embracing the Naturescape message of Caring for Wildlife Habitat at Home - recognizing that habitat loss is the major factor in loss of species.
If your property provides special habitat for which you would like to ensure a legacy of protection after you are no longer here to care for it, conservation covenants may be your answer.Through the Nancy Waxler Morrison Biodiversity Protection Fund, assistance may be provided by defraying the costs of placing a protective conservation covenant on your special place. Please contact Barrie Morrison at 629-3774 (evenings) for information. Keith and I are in the process of placing covenants now (as we did previously on our Abbotsford property), and it is wonderfully reassuring to know that habitat protection will remain for the diversity of life that makes our home place their home place too.
Feeder Cleanliness, Missing Chickadees
December Naturescape Notes
As we enter the winter bird-feeding regime, we are still wondering what has enticed the chickadees beyond our feeders for the last two months. Following an amazingly successful nesting season this year, suddenly the chickadees disappeared in early September, only to be heard occasionally in the treetops, foraging with kinglets. Even the nuthatches have cooled on feeder fare. A number of Pender folk have commented on this very unusual change in routine. Fortunately, some have reported the return of a few birds in mid-November. Chestnut-backed Chickadees are resident here and, not being strong fliers, they are unlikely to have flown off to another island. In fact, their cousin, the Black-capped Chickadee, has never had the flying oomph to get from the Mainland to the Gulf Islands, or to Vancouver Island.
We only hope that the absence of the chestnut-backs has been brought about by the presence of unusual insect or seed delicacies in the treetops, and not something less fortunate.
This brings to mind our responsibilities as feeders of birds in our gardens, and how important it is to maintain feeder cleanliness. Think of it as “washing dishes”, and ensure that feeders are well scrubbed at all times. Some species are particularly susceptible to disease that can be spread by unclean feeders. Pine Siskins and Evening Grosbeaks, for example, are known to succumb to salmonella outbreaks. Siskins are sometimes observed puffed up and very tame, as they are weakened by illness.
Ideally, feeders will have some sort of roof or a dome covering to prevent rain dripping in and moistening seed, which will soon spoil. Plastic domes are available at wild bird stores (such as the Victorian Bird House in Sidney). While they aren’t cheap, we find them an important accessory, and are glad that the birds also have a “brolley” overhead as they feed. The Armstrongs have been innovative in this regard, adapting wok covers found at Nu to Yu into excellent domes!
Using seed specifically preferred by various species avoids the rejected waste of mixed seed that often contains fillers not suitable for most local species. Black oil sunflower seeds are a favorite of many. They can also be obtained hulled, thus avoiding a mess below. Suet feeders, our favourite, are almost mess-free, and attract woodpeckers and many others.
Cleaning up beneath feeders if ever more important, with the advent of rats on Pender. The last thing we want to do is attract more of these unwelcome beasties. Unfortunately, this means that the ground-feeding birds miss out on feeding opportunities, but an explosion of rats is very hard on the nests of the ground-feeders, so they are better left to feed on their own, with the rats being discouraged in every way possible (other than poisoning).
We like to have trays beneath our tube feeders, but that is a challenge, too, when the Rock Pigeons pass the word around about easy and fast food waiting for them, served on saucers!
Responsible bird feeding has its challenges. Beyond this, I only hope that no turn of events ever brings the invasive and rapidly spreading Eastern Gray Squirrels to Pender. Their disastrous presence would totally upset our Island balance of things – at feeders and beyond.