January Naturescape Notes
In preparing a new Pender Islands Bird Checklist, we noted that the Barred Owl was not included on the previous list for our islands. It will certainly be added to the new list, for it is now a fairly common resident here. We have had the pleasure of their company over the past year, and I believe they found a nesting place nearby last spring. Certainly their courtship conversations were apparent – strangling midnight sounds coming from our forest - more suggestive of mayhem than romance!
The Barred Owl is expanding its range. While historically known in eastern and central Canada and the United States, it was first recorded in northern British Columbia in the 1940’and on the south coast in Surrey in 1966. Our friend Glenn Ryder recorded the first breeding pair in the Fraser Valley near Langley in 1986. In the 1990’s it gained some repute in the Lower Mainland for swooping at joggers – particularly those with a bouncing pony tail, with its possible resemblance to the tail of a fleeing squirrel!
We lived in the Fraser Valley at that time, and it was speculated that the increase in Barred Owl populations could be related to the explosion of Eastern Grey Squirrels and Norway Rats throughout the Valley. Could the Pender rat explosion have encouraged it to extend its range to these fair isles? It does seem to be doing a great service here with its rat patrols. Actually, it is apparently broad in its taste for prey, which may include mice, birds, amphibians, reptiles, insects and sometimes even smaller owls. That being said, however, I have noticed that our feeder birds take the owl much in their stride, not fleeing from its presence as they would from a hawk. With Barred Owls being diurnal, hunting both day and night, we are often given excellent viewing opportunities.
Closely related to the endangered Spotted Owl of ancient forests, there is some concern that the spread of the Barred Owl throughout the Pacific Northwest could impact, through habitat competition, already declining populations of Spotted Owls. Cross-breeding between the two species has been noted - resulting in “sparred owls”!
Unlike the less adaptable Spotted Owl, the Barred manages to make its living in second growth forests and increasingly in more populated areas such as parks, farmlands and residential areas. For nesting it prefers coniferous forests, although occasionally cavities of black cottonwoods are utilized. It doesn't build its own nest, but seeks out deep tree cavities or abandoned nests of hawks, crows or squirrels. Peterson’s Field Guide to Western Birds’ Nests reports two instances of nests containing, at the same time, incubated eggs of both a hawk and Barred Owl.
The Barred and the Spotted similar in appearance with a puffy round head and liquid brown eyes. The Barred may be up to 60 cm tall. It has barred markings across its chest and is streaked lengthwise on its belly (as compared to the spotted chest and cross-barred belly of its spotted cousin).
Perched, or gliding on silent wings, they are a treat to observe. Keep your ears tuned for their distinctive call of “who, who, who cooks for you-all”. A commotion of harrassing crows could also lead you to an owl. Often we notice the noisy mob gathering, but the owl seems to take them in its stride, appearing to ignore their wrath! It has been said that the Barred Owl is endowed with about as mild a personality as a raptor could have and yet maintain a predacious existence.
Christmas Bird Count
February Naturescape Notes
With the Christmas Bird Count tallies in (see separate Pender Post article, this issue), the opportunity to again combine nature and technology in a fascinating way is offered between February 15 and 18, with the 11th Annual Great Backyard Bird Count, organized by the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society.
During the count period, participants will keep track of birds species observed, and report totals via the Internet. Observations will be made at feeders, in gardens, parks, and natural places throughout North America. These reports create an exciting real-time picture of where the birds are across the continent - this is “citizen science” making an important contribution for science and conservation.
People of all ages and experience levels are invited to take part. We hope some of our Pender Young Naturalists will do just that! Observers count the highest number of each species seen over periods of at least 15 minutes on one or more of the count days. They then enter their tallies on the Great Backyard Bird Count website www.birdcount.org It is fun to watch the reports coming in on count days. Amazing technology!
In 2007, Great Backyard Bird Count participants made history, breaking records by sending in 81,203 checklists, that tallied 11,082,387 birds of 613 species.
Sixteen submissions were sent from Pender, reporting 48 species. Our most reported bird was the Dark-eyed Junco, with 168 birds noted. The cute little Buffleheads observed in bays and off sheltered shores totalled 88, and Chestnut-backed Chickadees numbered 69. It will be interesting to see what chickadee numbers look like this year following their strange absence from some areas of the island throughout the autumn months. (They seem to be back in most places now.)
Last year no Anna’s Hummingbirds were noted on the count. Perhaps there will be some this year, for there have been reports of several lately – one on Craddock Drive on South Pender, a lovely gathering at Boat Nook, one at Port Washington, one on Stanley Point, and two west of the golf course. Anna’s Hummingbirds are a non-migratory species that has pushed its range precariously northward – somewhat at their peril, for they can be caught in winter storms and freezing conditions with few sources of food available. That being said, the decision to keep a feeder out for them is a big responsibility, for it needs your faithful attention, without fail, in keeping it thawed and ready at daybreak in freezing weather. Think carefully before you make this commitment.
There was one Barred Owl on the report last year, but no other owl species. A Western Screech Owl was recently heard along Canal Road on South Pender at the break of day. I wonder if it will speak up again on count day.
Check www.birdcount.org for more details on taking part this year. If you would like to have a copy of the Pender Island Bird Checklist to guide you on what birds you might expect to see, please give me a call at 629-6797.
Imagine scientists 100 years from now being able to compare our data with theirs!
April Naturescape Notes
Nesting season is once again upon us! “Our” little Red-breasted Nuthatch has been busy reclaiming last year’s nest box, lining the entry hole with sticky pitch. How do they do that? A very unusual custom, but it certainly must discourage others from claiming their nesting cavity. And this little Nuthatch knows all about that, being that she usurped her box from the swallows last year! We named her “Naughty Nutty” after that – but we love her anyway! The swallows graciously accepted another box in its place, so all was well in the end. We look forward to their return in early April!
The Violet-green swallows will receive a real Pender welcome this year with the 25 new nest boxes constructed by the Young Naturalists! It will be fun to see how many are discovered and occupied! We encourage the young observers to keep notes. Perhaps there will be some “nuttys”, chickadees or wrens checking out the boxes too – which is really quite okay. All the cavity nesters are challenged to find suitable nesting sites. Traditionally this would be woodpecker-crafted tree cavities – but woodpecker trees are not as abundant as they once were, and there is great competition for them. Please remember the importance of old trees, dead and dying trees, and retain them on your property if at all possible. Alders are especially important for the woodpeckers and their followers.
Dense, undisturbed thickets and hedgerows are very important for our birds as well. They provide protective shelter from predators and weather, food throughout the year with insects and fruit, and nesting habitat for many bird species – finches, thrushes, bushtits, sparrows, etc. It grieves me to see the recent destruction of a beautiful old Pender hedgerow. It takes a long time for a lovely mixed hedge to develop. I hope we can be encouraged to look at hedgerows and thickets as special wildlife communities, and preserve them wherever possible. They are precious!
I will sign off for this time with a little hedgerow poem shared by Marie Armstrong, its British author unknown.
The bird sat on the brand new fence, surveying all around.
Spring wheat was shooting in the field, abundant on the ground.
The single tree was sprouting out pale leaflets, fresh and new
Into the cool and spring-like air, all bathed in morning dew.
The rooks and starlings circled and, in their squabbling fashion,
Laid claim to every roosting branch, for product of their passion.
The little bird upon the fence took off and flew away –
And sadly, on the balmy breeze, the others heard him say:
“Some birds nest high up in trees, some on a building’s ledge.
But what becomes of birds like me, whose nest was in the hedge?”
Native Plants Sustain Wildlife
May Naturescape Notes
The intricacies of the natural world are endlessly fascinating, and I find particularly so the hidden world beneath our feet. A recent publication, Bringing Nature HomeHow Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in our Gardens, , is a fascinating study on detailing the evolutionary interconnections between native plant and animal species. It surely underlines the importance of retaining native plants wherever possible, and keeping at the removal of broom, gorse and daphne, as well as other invasive escapees from cultivation.
In the overall scheme of things, creatures of the invertebrate world are the base upon which natural diversity survives. Island ecosystems are particularly fragile and vulnerable to interruptions in these connections. Overwhelming covers of non-native plants bring a disconnect for the plants and animals that have co-evolved here over time. Invertebrate species are tied to the particular chemical constituents of associated plants and, for the most part, cannot readily adapt to those of new plant species. These are complex and interdependent relationships that connect the food chain that is essential for all life forms. Introduced species of plants, without their interconnected animal species, create a great gap in the system as they displace native plant species and, thus, their cohorts of the animal world.
An example of inter-dependence of species is provided by the Garry Oak. It is the most significant plant of the Pacific Northwest for members of the Lepidoptera family – butterflies and moths – with 76 of their species dependent upon this oak for essential habitat. As Garry Oak ecosystems diminish, so, too, do the butterflies and moths, as well as their songbird predators who are part of the check and balance regime.
Sadly, Garry Oak woodlands are one of the four most endangered ecosystems in Canada. People pressures on these lovely areas are intense. Add to that the invasion of alien species and it is a system that is seriously challenged. When broom overwhelms a Garry Oak meadow our native wildflowers fade away - and with them any number of associated animal species dependent upon them in unique ways.
We run the risk of turning these lovely islands into “Anywhere North America” with our diverse pressures on the land. Surely a heritage of life systems that have been functioning for millenia is worthy of our recognition and respect.
It is hoped that an appreciation of the indigenous plants of Pender, and the understanding of their place in the ecological scheme of things, will outweigh the temptation to replace them with the exotica of other worlds!
June Naturescape Notes
At the recent Earth Day “round table” discussion, a number of us shared suggestions on possible Pender Island contributions towards offsetting and mitigating climate change. I would like to now share my suggestions with you here.
We are blessed to live on these beautiful islands where the natural world is relatively undisturbed (compared, that is, to the urban and suburban situation). We thus have the wonderful opportunity to offer the gift of preservation of our trees and their associated ecosystems, necessary in the process of offsetting CO2 emissions.
The Climate Change issue seems to be strongly focussed on energy production and consumption, looking for change in that sector. Equally important is the retention of the services of nature provided by the green blanket on our planet. These services are diverse and beautiful and, in this case, sequestration of carbonMitigating and Adapting to Climate Change through the Conservation of Nature is of essential concern. I reference the recent publication of the Land Trust Alliance of BC, , by Wilson and Hebda.
Carbon sequestration refers to the net amount of carbon absorbed each year by a biological system, after the carbon released by it to the atmosphere is accounted for. Studies show that annual net uptake of carbon is generally low or negative in forests less than 20 years old, reaching peak uptake in intermediate-aged forests of 30-120 years. Replacement of a large tree with a sapling won’t have sequestration benefits for a long time .
Preservation of trees also prevents carbon releaseaccumulating that results from forest removal. When the total amount of carbon contained in all the components of the forest ecosystem is considered, the carbon storage capacity of forests is very significant. While older forests reach the point of relatively small amounts of carbon each year as their growth rate slows, they store an enormous amount in their wood, in surrounding vegetation, and in the soil, as compared to younger ecosystems – in coastal forests possibly in excess of 1000 tonnes of carbon per hectare.
The conversion of old forests to plantations of younger trees results in a huge reduction of carbon storedsequestered, as well as the quantity of carbon that can be . It is estimated that the conversion of five million hectares of old-growth forests to younger plantations in Oregon and Washington over the last 100 years has released 1.5 to 1.8 billion tonnes of carbon to the atmosphere.
The old forests of Pender were cleared, for the most part, 75 to 100 years ago. We now have “maturing forests”, reaching the point where their carbon sequestration and storage capacities are maximizing.
Surely one of the most significant contributions we can make is to conserve these trees and their supporting ecosystems, keeping their carbon stores on hold, and enabling them to cleanse the air of our planet into the future. Their services are becoming ever more necessary.
In preserving our indigenous forest cover and associated intricate ecosystems, we mitigate against climate change and receive many other benefits as well. Retention of biodiversity holds our water resources, cools our air, and preserves wildlife habitat and the natural beauty of these lovely islands. Even if it is not a forest, but a tree or a patch of salal, it is a positive step from all points of view – caring for the land and the beautifully inter-woven life systems that it sustains, for the future.
End of the Nesting Season
August Naturescape Notes
The middle of July seemed to bring bird activity over a threshold to quieter times, when most of the young had fledged, and parent birds were no longer scrambling to feed hungry nestlings.
“Our” Violet-green Swallows left their box through a one-week period – July 1, 3, 4, and 7, with each fledgling taking flight with joyous calls! With their box on the wall just outside our kitchen window, I found myself feeling something of an “empty-nester” without them. To our amazement the family did a “fly-by” to check out the old homestead on the 12th. This brought about some moments of consternation for them and for us, for we had taken the box down to remove a nestling that did not survive, and then to clean the box and soak it in the sun for awhile. Keith hastened to return the box to its place, while the birds swooped around to ensure that it was properly in its place (for next year? - we hope!).
These antics reminded me of an occasion of the swallows returning to our/their home in Abbotsford. Their box, on a high second floor gable of our house, was purposely not in place until the last minute to prevent House Sparrows from usurping the cavity. The birds returned from the south, only to find an empty hook dangling from the eaves. Their anxious twitters around the hook drew my attention to their need. This presented another time of consternation while (in Keith’s absence this time) I fetched an extension ladder and climbed the two storeys, holding out the box in reassurance. They circled around me, twittering in anticipation, while I climbed and shakily balanced on the roof to reinstall their quarters. Ladders and roofs are not my thing, but the birds happily acknowledged my efforts and took up residence to raise their family!
The Northern Flickers are no longer calling constantly to declare territory, but we are noticing a lot of cross-chat as they call to communicate with their fledged young. We have Hairy Woodpeckers, Dad and Son, as regular visitors. They are similar in size, but can be distinguished by their red topknots – Dad’s is at the back of his head, while that of the young’un is at the top. Mommy Pileated Woodpecker brought her young Son for a brief visit;. He too is as big as Mom, but he has a red mustache, which she does not.
The bats do their nightly circuits in our carport, and occasionally we hear the whales slapping and blowing as they pass by. The smallest and the largest of mammals!
Such is the wonder of our Pender life – so many gifts when we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear!
A Small Space in August
September Naturescape Notes
I spoke too soon in last month’s article, mentioning that the middle of July seemed to bring bird activity over a threshold to quieter times, when most of the young had fledged, and parent birds were no longer scrambling to feed hungry nestlings. As it has turned out, there were late nesters and many second-nesters this year, and mid-August has been busy too!
Pileated Woodpeckers are among our late fledglings. One rather fresh one has a strange wheezy voice, sounding rather like our cat coughing – but he and his Mommy had a good calling session that I noticed, so he is learning! Other late nesters include Northern Flickers with a family of three, Hairy Woodpeckers, House Finches, American Goldfinches, Pine Siskins, Red-breasted Nuthatches, Chestnut-backed Chickadees, Spotted Towhees.
To our delight, young Black-headed Grosbeaks also have been visiting. They did not appear to nest in our vicinity, so I am thanking Melita Miller for sending on youngsters from the twice successful nest enjoyed on their property this year! On the other hand, our visitors may be migrant birds passing through on their way to Mexico!
While, for the most part, Nature does our gardening for us, we do have a small area landscaped for the hummingbirds and pollinators - with the requisite deer mesh surround. I’m not sure why, but this enclosed area also delights Towhees and Song Sparrows, and there is never a dull moment therein. It has been necessary to cut elfin doors and windows in the deer netting to enable easy access, particularly for learning birds who don’t quite get the idea of flying in over the top! It is definitely Towhee territory under the thicket of shrub Fuchsias, and it is an easy hop for them back through a wee door to their bath - a popular spot for all. The Song Sparrows seem to prefer the other end of the garden beneath Red-flowering Currants and Sword Ferns. And, for some reason, everyone likes to poke around in a half-barrel containing Cimicifuga – my favorite pollinator/fragrance plant.
Al Grass, in a recent Wild Bird Trust “Wingspan” article, embellished a familiar saying - tempus fugit - dum aves spectatis (time flies - while watching birds!) Attempting to sit for a little reading time beside this small area is filled with distractions, and many minutes may pass without a page being turned! Today no less than ten Towhees poked about – each distinctive, at present, in their mid-moult scruffiness! One is even tail-less, poor wee chap! Other distractions included several Song Sparrows (also moulting), nuthatches, junco’s, two late-to-leave hummers, a Lorquin’s Admiral butterfly, Woodland Skippers, grasshoppers, crickets, delicate spiders in their sheet web doilies, hover flies, and bumble bees of several species. And, beneath it all, the complexity of countless unseen inhabitants in the hidden realm of the soil, the essential base of the intricate web of life.
Indeed, tempus does fugit while watching birds – and the many small wonders beyond!
October Naturescape Notes
As our summer mellows into autumn with soft sunshine and brilliant moonlit nights, I marvel at the gifts that life on Pender brings. Moonlight reflected on water, framed by silhouetted firs, cedars and arbutus. The crickets offer their melodic backdrop – a meditation in the sunlight, a lullaby at night.
Insect activity hastens in these last warm days. Wasps are particularly busy – but no – not just the kind that plague picnics and sting. There are many fascinating ‘others’ in the world of wasps, discreetly going about their work with various missions to complete. Two species of hunting wasps I have observed as particularly active in these late days of summer are the caterpillar hunters and the spider hunters of the family Sphecidae. – the Thread-waisted Wasp and the Blue-black Spider Wasp.
Neither resembles the typical Yellow-jacket that we all recognize. The Thread-waisted Wasp is about 25 millimeters long and very slender, with a black head and thorax, a “thread” thin waist that widens into a rusty-coloured abdomen that bulges into black end parts. I have been fascinated to watch the activities of the female wasp as she carefully excavated pencil-diameter nest chambers into the sand between the rock flooring of our outdoor sitting area. The sand was removed in miniscule quantities and taken a few inches from the nest – over and over and over again in approximately ten-second intervals. I don’t know how she can back out from the hole without disrupting her long, delicate wings, but that seemed not a problem.
With the chamber completed to the appropriate size, she seeks out her favored species of caterpillar, injects it with a paralyzing venom, and delivers it into the cavity. An egg is laid upon the caterpillar and the chamber back-filled with sand and wee pebbles. One of her holes received the final plug of a tiny Douglas Fir pollen cone. Within the nest, gruesome as it seems, the caterpillar will remain alive and fresh for the developing larva of the wasp to feed upon, gradually consuming the less essential parts before the more vital organs. Our wasp carried a green caterpillar about three centimeters in length and three millimeters in diameter. How did she fly with something so much larger than herself? I wondered.
The spider wasp is no less remarkable, scurrying hither and about on the ground, seeking her prey. She is blue-black, about a centimeter in length. I am not quite sure of her species, and did not witness delivery of the spider to the nest. I did manage to catch a glimpse of one running, with her paralyzed spider trophy raised overhead. Again, the prey was larger than the predator. The accompanying photograph gives an idea what takes place! Last summer I happened upon an abandoned paralyzed spider by our door. It remained alive in its comatose state from mid-August to mid-October.
Thus is the balance of nature - a world of predator and prey, with intriguing scenarios in the arthropod world and beyond!
December Naturescape Notes
October 15th was an exciting day for us! As of that date, conservation covenants protect, in perpetuity, the natural areas of our treasured North Pender Island property. While we know that we will care for our land in our lifetime, we realize that without covenants there is no guarantee as to what may become of it after we are gone.
In preparation for the covenants, an ecological baseline inventory was completed. To our delight, it revealed that there are two sensitive ecosystems on the property, and five endangered plant communities!
The Herbaceous Ecosystem features open mossy slopes with shallow soil. Here, many tiny treasures of wildflowers and ferns have appeared since an invasive cover of Scotch Broom was removed from the slopes four years ago.
The Woodland Ecosystem, a “tongue” of the Garry Oak meadow of George Hill, with lovely Arbutus, Douglas Fir, and two small Garry Oaks, is the most threatened ecosystem type found within the Islands Trust area. It, too, is coming to life with lovely wildflower surprises following broom removal.
The few remaining Herbaceous Ecosystems of North Pender make up only 0.9% of the total area of the island, and Woodland Ecosystems, only 4.6%. These ecosystems are also recognized by Islands Trust as Development Permit Areas, where certain land-altering activities require a development permit. We recognize these places as something very special and increasingly rare, and are thankful that ours are now completely protected.
The remainder of our property is forested, reaching the 80-year threshhold between young and mature forest. Here the four-foot diameter Douglas Fir and Western Redcedar could spell money to some, and construction projects could obliterate sensitive habitat in a flash. This is where four species of woodpeckers find wildlife trees in which to excavate their nesting and feeding cavities. These cavities are used in subsequent years by other cavity dwellers such as Chestnut-backed Chickadees, Nuthatches, perhaps the endangered Townsend’s Big-eared Bat, or Western Screech Owls. We have recorded 55 bird species here, with at least 20 species nesting each spring.
We sincerely appreciate the assistance of the Nancy Waxler-Morrison Biodiversity Protection Fund in covering the costs of placing our covenents - costs such as the baseline inventory, land survey and legal expense. This special memorial fund is administered by the Pender Islands Conservancy Association.
Your property, too, may have special undisturbed places. In looking closely you may be surprised and delighted, as were we, to discover how precious these intact ecosystems are – especially in light of how quickly they are being lost through disturbance of many kinds. If you would like to provide future protection for special places on your land, you may contact Barrie Morrison at firstname.lastname@example.org for information about covenants and assistance through the Biodiversity Fund, or feel free to contact me at 6797.
Our covenants are held jointly by Islands Trust Fund under their Natural Areas Protection Tax Exemption Program (NAPTEP) and the Pender Islands Conservancy Association, and are registered on title to our land. Under NAPTEP there is the special encouragement of a 65% reduction in property taxes on the protected land. All in all, a win/win arrangement!
We are particularly thankful that a special friend to conservation has also placed covenants on her property near to us. Together this conserves an almost contiguous link of approximately 8 acres, from the ocean shore almost to George Hill Park. It is comforting to know that safe habitat will remain on these properties, in perpetuity, for an unique and at-risk diversity of island life – from the tiny creatures of the soil ecosystem to the tall trees of the forest and their associated realm.