January Naturescape Notes
Numbers of birds observed during annual Christmas Bird Counts may be conveyed in colourful ways, as one tries to get a handle on an actual figure. I find that counting chickadees at our feeders is about as easy as counting snowflakes, they are so quick and so flitty. Whatever their numbers, they can always be referred to as a charm of chickadees!
Collective nouns are fun, and with reference to birds there are many whimsical terms – some classics, some modern. While most are not likely to be used in everyday conversation, they are amusing nonetheless – and could be helpful for crossword puzzle solutions!.
Among the classics of early English, many of the words were hunting terms. Birds in general were referred to as a flight (in the air) and a flock (on the ground).
To complicate things, however, ducks are a flock in flight and a raft or a paddling on water, while geese are a skein in flight and a gaggle on the ground.
In loftier terms, we may refer to a convocation of eagles or a parliament of owls. Hawks are a kettle when riding the thermals, or a boil when two or more spiral in flight.
Some of the modern labels for waterfowl include a quilt of eider, a cushion of pintails, a smidgen of wigeon, a blizzard of snow geese or a fanfare of trumpeter swans.
In the garden we may observe a tune of hummingbirds, a scold of jays, a teapot of towhees, a spiral of brown creepers, subdivision of house sparrows, constellation of starlings, a rant of ravens, a slurp of sapsuckers, or a cawlection of crows!
Beyond the birds there is a gaze of raccoons, a scurry of squirrels, a prickle of porcupines, a frolic of otters, a knot of toads, or a lounge of lizards.
Before closing, and risking a yawn of collective nouns, I will add a few of my own for some of my favorite friends – a clique of juncos, a glitter of goldfinches, and a bundle of bushtits.
It would be fun to hear of additions that you might come up with! The best internet list that I found was at the New Zealand Birds website http://www.nzbirds.com/more/nounsy.html
Happy New Year!
Tracks and Signs
February Naturescape Notes
February 13 has been named “Creation Sunday”. Regardless of one’s faith, can we not but marvel at the intricacy of life on our planet? I have recently added a book to my natural history library that is surely the most comprehensive and fascinating book in my collection.
Tracks and Signs of Insects and Other Invertebrates, written and photographed by Charley Eiseman and Noah Charney, covers 2000 North American species and includes 1000 pictures celebrating the diversity of the insect realm. We are introduced to eggs and egg cases, webs and cocoons, feeding signs, droppings and secretions, shelters, burrows, tracks and trails – discreet evidence of a complexity of life usually overlooked or treated with disdain by the human species.
The spinning of silken threads is a particular wonder. How can tiny creatures exude such an abundance of material – usually to embrace their eggs in protective cocoons. Spiders additionally use their silk to spin diverse snares – orbs, sheets, domes, funnels – each specific to its kind. Also species specific is the type of cocoon – a silken dome, sac, urn, balls in a string, fluffy or dense, and varied in colour. These may be carried by the mother, guarded by her, left in a wee nest, or perhaps just hung on vegetation of a particular type.
Certain Neuropteran larvae emerge from their fresh water habitat and on nearby vegetation spin a beautiful double-walled cocoon – a densely woven inner cushion and a separate delicate outer dome of hexagonal mesh.
Deposition of eggs into plant tissue is very common. Leaf miners, for instance, are not usually celebrated, but perhaps we should do so for their particular diversity. Eggs may be inserted into plant tissue in many ways - into the veins of leaves, or perhaps into their edge, from which their tips may be seen jutting out.
The Trigonalid Wasp inserts tiny eggs in slits near the margins of leaves. But, the eggs do not hatch until swallowed by a caterpillar or sawfly larva feeding on the leaf! The Trigonalid larvae, having hatched within its caterpillar host, then needs an Ichneumon Wasp or Tachinid Fly to parasitize the caterpillar so that it can then parasitize the parasitoid! Whew! How have entomologists even determined these relationships?
To me, one of the most fascinating natural events is the development of plant galls in response to the deposition into their tissue of the eggs of particular wasps or flies. Unique plant growths form and provide larval habitat for the insect they are hosting. These gall growths can also house the larvae of other species that discover the comforts within. These “guests” may end up eating the original larvae in the process, but such is life….
Particularly conspicuous is the Mossy Rose Gall, a beautiful moss-like formation, three or four cm in diameter, usually pinkish in colour, that may be found on shrub roses and native species. These really should be left in place and treasured as a special gift. An intriguing ornament to the plant, they will do no harm!
Tracks and Signs surely shares the fascination of looking closely and appreciating the complexities of the natural world. It is truly a marvel that all of this is genetically programmed by species, each a part of the web of life that provides the services of nature for the well-being of our planet – and us.
And, by neat coincidence, as I complete this article, TempoThe Wasp, on CBC Radio 2 has just played Vaughan Williams’, and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee!
March Naturescape Notes
We look forward to the return of the tiny wonders of the avian world in mid-March from their winter in the southern US and Mexico. While quite a few of the non-migratory Anna’s hummingbirds remained with us through the winter, it is the Rufous hummers that make the long migratory journey, often returning to exactly the same location each spring. It is difficult to tell the two species apart – both are about eight cm from end to end, weighing less than a nickel!
The Rufous holds the scientific record for the longest hummingbird trip with the shortest elapsed time between banding and recapture – an amazing 1248 km in 15 days. Its migration route from Mexico to Alaska is the longest of any North American hummingbird and, in proportion to its size, it makes the longest migration of any bird in the world. The birds fly alone, rather than in flocks.
The males arrive first – up to three weeks ahead of the females – and leave first, in late June and through July, likely moving to mountain meadow wildflowers. Housekeeping duties are left entirely to the female – building the nest, incubating the eggs, and feeding the young. She has a very busy life while the male flits among the flowers!
Her chosen nesting site is usually in a coniferous tree (76%), often at the branch tips of western red cedar. Deciduous trees and shrubs are also used, including maple, arbutus, oak, salal, oceanspray, salmonberry and honeysuckle. More unusual places have included wind chimes, Christmas lights along a gutter, and a metal loop on a wharf piling!
What a treasure the nest is – a four-cm moss bowl lined with plant down and decorated with a camouflage of lichen and/or paper from the nest of a paper wasp. Spider webbing attaches it securely to its branch.
The blossoms of native shrubs provide the first nectar, particularly the red flowering currant, followed by salmonberry. When landscape planning, keep the hummers in mind. Leave native vegetation undisturbed wherever possible, and ensure that the garden is chemical-free. For the planted garden, honeysuckle, foxglove, monarda, phlox, hardy fuchsias, and flowering quince are particular favorites. When selecting hanging-basket fuchsias, remember that single blossoms are hummingbird-friendly. The elaborate doubles are inaccessible. Tiny insects also make up a significant part of the hummingbird diet, so pollinator-friendly plants are important too.
If you supplement natural food sources with a feeder, the correct sugar/water mix for early spring is 1:3, and for summer 1:4. Mix and boil for four minutes. Select a feeder with red on it. Never use red colouring or chemicals of any sort in the solution, and never use honey. Place in a shady location and keep it clean! This is critical! Change the solution every three or four days, and rinse the feeder thoroughly in hot water each time. Refrigerate unused solution.
Hummingbirds can fly forward, backward and even upside down briefly, which they accomplish by spreading their tail and doing a backward summersault. Each species has specific aerial maneuvers for communicating, territorial defence, and courtship, but not much is known about what they mean.
If you wonder how many hummers are visiting your feeder, bird-banders suggest that you count the number of birds you see at any one time and multiply by six – each a special little miracle we are privileged to share!
April Naturescape Notes
The wonderfully diverse life systems along our streams and lakeshores will be giving a collective sigh of relief, as North Pender OCP Bylaw 184 moves towards reinforcing protection of their riparian and aquatic habitat. My first frog song chorus of the season, a few evenings ago, definitely sounded like a celebration to me! Perhaps the frogs were singing too on behalf of the Great Blue Herons, whose fishing territories will be cared for, and for the Eagles and Orcas, who are in desperate need of Chum Salmon, that may spawn in a select few Pender streams.
Provincial Riparian Area Regulations provide for the protection of a 30-metre setback from streams and freshwater bodies that provide fish habitat or its potential. Our local bylaw will recognize and designate these special places needing extra care and protection.
On our dry islands, moist areas are precious. They are limited on North Pender to a mere 15 hectares - not much habitat opportunity for wetland species such as Pacific Chorus Frogs (formerly known as Pacific Treefrogs – and probably always thus in my mind!), blue-listed Red-legged Frogs, and Rough-skinned Newts. These amphibious species live in water through their egg and larval stages, moving on to the land as adults. Treefrogs (whoops – Chorus Frogs!), may move quite some distance from their natal wetland, returning only at their breeding season. They often appear in unlikely flower pots on sunny decks during the summer. I once tried moving one into a shadier spot, but he wasn’t pleased, and went back to his chosen hot spot!
After transforming into their terrestrial form, Rough-skinned Newts move into upland forests where they spend their time under decaying logs and leaf litter, returning to their pond to breed after a few years. While frogs lay clusters of many eggs, newts lay their eggs scattered singly on aquatic vegetation. It’s best not to pick up a Newt, for they have a toxic secretion that should be avoided.Dragonflies need moist areas too, along with many other invertebrates that provide fodder for many songbirds and bats. It is suggested that possibly 80% of wildlife species depend on riparian areas in whole or in part.
Riparian vegetation is unique too. Red Alders, for instance, are vitally significant in their role of fixing atmospheric nitrogen to add to the fertility of the land. Many wildlife species depend upon these short-lived trees – particularly woodpeckers, sapsuckers, chickadees, nuthatches, and other cavity dwellers. While Alders are often considered unimportant, their significance within the wetland ecosystem is key to water-replenishment processes of our aquifers, while providing the shaded environment necessary for fish-bearing streams.
Skunk cabbage is always a joyous sight. The Red Alder/Skunk Cabbage plant community is blue-listed, as is the Common Cattail Marsh community. Cattails provide wonderfully soft nesting material for hummingbirds and songbirds.
The epitome of caring for a wetland ecosystem is the beautiful gift from the Kikuchi family of a conservation covenant on a precious property on Hoosen Road. “Frog Song Forest” is now protected in perpetuity. The frogs are surely singing in celebration there!
If you are privileged to live near a riparian area, take care with your activities by protecting native vegetation, allowing wildlife trees, logs, and woody debris to provide safe home places and hiding places, and prevent disturbance by animals and machinery. It goes without saying that you will want to keep any toxic substances well away from the area. Consider caring for these sensitive ecosystems as a gift rather than a challenge, and enjoy the life you will nurture!
November Naturescape Notes
My last Naturescape Notes article was back in June, when the birds of Pender were comfortably settling in to nesting time. Now they have “flown the coop”, and the migrants have headed south.
With fractured wrists disabling me throughout the summer, I haven’t been able to write in a timely way to say thanks to Driftwood merchants, the Library, and those in other locations who each year accommodate the nests of Barn Swallows on their buildings (and put up with a wee bit of mess!). This year, a number of the Pender birds achieved a second nesting, which was good news, indeed – particularly in light of less than good news in May when the Barn Swallow, Hirundo rustica, was officially listed by COSEWIC, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, in the category of “threatened species”.
The COSEWIC category of “threatened” is defined as “a wildlife species that is likely to become endangered if nothing is done to reverse the factors leading to its extirpation or extinction.”
We are fortunate that conditions on Pender are suited for these beautiful little birds. Before European colonization of North America, Barn Swallows nested mostly in caves, holes, crevices and ledges in cliff faces. Following settlement, they shifted largely to nesting in and on artificial structures, including barns, sheds, garages, verandahs, and other locations with suitable ledges and protective overhang – such as under the Driftwood awnings or the Library eaves.
These aerial acrobats feed on the wing – almost entirely on flying insects such as flies and mosquitoes. This foraging requires open habitat such as over fields, wetlands, orchards and coastal bays.
A nearby source of mud is required for the construction of their intricate mud pellet nests. Nest-building takes an average of 6 to 15 days, but less time if old nests are re-occupied. Reusing old nests allows earlier breeding which may allow opportunity for a second brood for the year. It is, thus, a good idea to leave nests in place for their possible return.
Barn Swallows are mostly monogamous. Females first breed at year one, while males may wait for two years. Pairs that have nested together successfully may remain mated for several years. They have a maximum reported life span of eight years, with an average of four.
Although their breeding range extends across Canada, Breeding Bird Survey data for the period 1970 to 2009 indicate an overall decline of 76 percent for these birds in that 40-year period.. Although not well understood, it is thought that the main causes of this decline have been loss of nesting and foraging habitats due to conversion to modern large-scale farming, pesticide use, declines in insect populations, and mortality due to cold snaps on breeding grounds. Other threats may be experienced during migration and on wintering territory.
Their migratory journey is a long one, through Central America and into the lowlands of South America.
Appreciating their beauty, marvelling at the miracle of migration, and recognizing the challenges the Barn Swallows face, we look forward to welcoming them back to their special Pender Island home next May.
Sylvia D. Pincott
Leaves are not Litter
December Naturescape Notes
I smile when thinking of how, in many ways, the basics of Naturescaping are diametrically opposite to traditional methods of gardening! The Naturescape gardener does not merely cultivate a static landscape of plants but, rather, works with Nature to nurture an intricate diversity of life forms within a vibrant garden ecosystem.
Watching the autumn leaves whipped about in the winds of the days before writing this article, I think of attitudes to leaves themselves. While perfectionist (city!) gardeners fret at the sight of chewed or disfigured leaves, habitat gardeners celebrate the fact that it was likely the larvae of butterflies or moths that made those “unsightly disfigurations”. Many of these caterpillars would have provided sustenance for resident Chickadees, Nuthatches, Wrens, migrating Warblers, and many other species desperately in need of this invertebrate life.
Native alders are sometimes considered messy trees because of their chewed leaves. In fact, they are one of our most important trees for biodiversity because of the insect life that abounds on them! Many insect species are plant specific for their larval habitat – butterflies and moths in particular – and often the alder is the plant of choice.
When leaves reach the ground we have another cause to celebrate! The eggs, larvae or pupae of many invertebrates may ride down with them, to complete their life cycle on the ground. Others burrow beneath for shelter and sustenance. The leaves themselves are rich vegetative material that will maintain the natural fertility of the land as they are processed by a multitude of organisms - that will also enrich the soil as their life cycle completes. Towhees, Song Sparrows, and Juncos may scratch through the cover, finding small processor treasures while adding their fertile contribution as well. I marvel at how much is “swallowed up” into the land by spring – contributing to a rich organic soil that will promote healthy plant growth beyond!
It is a very satisfying conclusion to the gardening season to tuck plants cozily into a blanket of leaves (quietly raked, not noisily blown!). Large leaves such as maples may need some refining for small spaces, but smaller leaves such as birch, hazelnut, and alder are fine as they are. Knowing the life that may already be underway on the leaves, I prefer to keep them intact as much as possible, awaiting the metamorphosis of whomever is developing on or within. No leaf burning for the habitat gardener!
If you run out of places to put your leaves, perhaps you could create a dedicated leaf pile – a “build it and they will come” project. It is fun to discover who makes use of this special habitat – invertebrates such as centipedes, millipedes, springtails, who will attract others such as salamanders, birds and tiny shrews.
Experiment and discover the life in a leaf!
Sylvia D. Pincott