Sylvia Pincott’s 2012 Pender Post articles

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What’s in a Name?
January Naturescape Notes

What’s in a name? Different references to the same thing sometimes seem to convey quite a different sense of understanding and appreciation.

One of my favorite examples is use of the word “bush” as compared to “woodland”. The former 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 will be home to a diversity of invertebrates, and they, together with a harvest of seeds, nuts and berries, will provide sustenance for many. Understorey vegetation provides shelter and food for other species that stay closer to the ground.

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. The eventual fallen logs and woody debris are rich with other life – amphibians, reptiles, invertertebrates such as centipedes, millipedes, beetles, ants, and countless others making up the chain of woodland life. Below the ground, vast networks of fungal mycellium form essential nutrient exchanges with plant life above.

The moist 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 community.  Though short-lived themselves, Alders build the soil, through nitrogen fixation, for a succession of life to follow.

Insect may feast on Alder catkins and cones, and birds may feast on the insects and seeds. A close look at the cones may also reveal tiny galls – unusual wee chamber-like growths by the plant that will provide shelter for the metamorphosis of a particular insect. These growths are the plant’s response to eggs of the insect being deposited in into the plant tissue. Galls are surely one of my favorite of insect phenomena!.

Woodpeckers will create other larger and abundant chambers in Alders – nesting and roosting cavities for themselves and eventually for others.

Woodpeckers spend their days in search of insects – “bugs” to some! Often 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 waste land 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 many - waterfowl to fish, shorebirds to amphibians, dragonflies and pond striders.

What may be just a “ditch” to some, invariably feeds into wetlands, streams and rivers - part of the river of life.  Ditches are ultimately important to the health of our waterways, and surely need our care and respect.

And, my final puzzlement for the day. Why is the label “environmentalist” often referred to with less than respect? “Conservationist” is a little safer, but still may be considered disparagingly.

Should we not all be environmentalists / conservationists / stewards of the land, 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 that is in our hands.

Sylvia D. Pincott


Backyard Bird Count
February Naturescape Notes

It is one of our cold and snowy winter days as I write this article, thinking that the birds that migrated south are likely having it a little easier than our winter residents. It isn’t easy finding sustenance on days like this.

Taking a bit of time to get to know our at-home birds is always rewarding, and a good opportunity to do so is coming up from February 15 to 18, with the 15th Annual Great Backyard Bird Count. Sponsored by the National Audubon Society, Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology, and Bird Studies Canada, the GBBC combines nature and technology in a fascinating way. Check out their website at http://www.birdsource.org/gbbc/ for lots of interesting details.

During the count period, participants keep track of bird species observed, and report totals via the Internet. Observations are made at feeders, in gardens, parks, and natural places throughout North America. These reports create a real-time picture of where the birds are across the continent - “citizen science” making an important contribution for science and conservation.

People of all ages and experience levels are invited to take part. 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. It is fun to watch the reports coming in on count days.

In 2011 more than 92,000 checklists were submitted from across North America. 11,400,000 individual birds of 596 species, were counted! Canada and seven of our provinces submitted a record number of checklists.

Eleven submissions were sent from Pender last year, reporting 43 species. We have submitted more reports in the past, and with this reminder I hope there might be more participation this year   Considering that we counted 74 species for our recent Christmas Bird Count, we have a challenge to meet.

The Pender species with the greatest number of individuals reported for last year’s GBBC was the Mew Gull, with 2,195 birds noted!  Of our backyard beauties, the Dark-eyed Junco was once again the most reported - 214 birds.  Next was the Pine Siskin, with 105 birds noted. Siskin numbers fluctuate considerably from year to year and month to month.  I haven’t seen any lately.  Chestnut-backed Chickadees were next in number, with 80 birds.

There was one Anna’s Hummingbird noted for Pender (but an amazing 39 were on the Christmas count). I worry about these tiny treasures in this weather. They are a non-migratory species that has pushed its range precariously northward – rather to their peril, for they can be caught in winter conditions with few sources of food available. The decision to keep a hummingbird feeder out for them is a big responsibility. It needs faithful attention in keeping it thawed and ready at daybreak in freezing weather - a big commitment to their well-being – and a particular challenge on days like today.

Ornithology is a particular study that needs participation from individuals – the more eyes the better! Information from citizen scientists may be compared from year to year, and particular trends noted. How are changing weather conditions affecting bird populations; where are “irruptive” species from year to year; are worrisome declines noted that need conservation attention? Each year that these data are collected makes them more meaningful, and allows scientists to investigate far-reaching questions.

Imagine scientists 100 years from now being able to compare our data with theirs!

Sylvia Pincott


Spider Silk
March Naturescape Notes

Contrary to usual public sentiment, two of my favorite fascinations of the natural world are bats and spiders! Spiders have been in the news recently regarding “progress” in the scientific exploitation of the properties of their spun silk.

While not all spiders spin webs, all spin silk, which dries into elastic and waterproof threads. Their varied types of silk are used for spinning webs, traps, and cocoons, for creating drag lines, and for swathing prey.

For all its apparent delicacy, the silk of a spider’s web is one of the strongest fibres known, and scientific technology has been unable to duplicate its relative strength – greater than high tensile steel. It is hypothesised that a pencil-thick cable of spider silk would be able to stop a Boeing 747 – somewhat equivalent to what happens when a silken thread arrests a speeding fly in mid-air! Hummingbirds, well aware of this strength, often use these delicate cords to lash their nests to supporting branches.

Recognizing the incredible potential for a fibre with such strength, science has long been challenged to reproduce spider-strength silk - tough, lightweight, biodegradable. Digging a little further, I have learned more about recent research and development.

Unfortunately, spiders are not very cooperative spinners. They do not produce enough silk to make spider farms commercially viable. They are also territorial, and have a tendency to eat each other!

In contrast, the silkworm (not a worm at all, but the caterpillar of the moth, Bombyx mori, native to Northern China) has been employed for many centuries, exploited to the extent that the adult moth could no longer survive in the wild. She does not eat or fly, but is something of a reproduction “machine”, laying several hundred eggs, and dying within a few days.

Metamorphosis proceeds from egg to caterpillar to the beautiful silken cocoon - a single silken thread up to 900 metres long. For harvesting of silk, metamorphosis is interrupted at this point and the cocoon is immersed in boiling water to enable its unravelling. Three-thousand cocoons make up a pound of silk, for an industry with a commercial value of $200-500 million dollars annually. Whew – that’s a lot of moths!

Now scientists at the University of Wyoming are finding a way to toughen up the silkworm fibres and make them even more attractive to industry. Silkworm embryos are being injected with the sequences of spider genes that give spider silk its elasticity and strength. Thus far they have achieved hybrid silk from silkworms that is 95 per cent silkworm protein and five percent spider protein.

In a paper published recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the research team reported that the resulting fibres, while inconsistent, were "on average, tougher than the parental silkworm fibres and as tough as native dragline spider silk fibres". This leads to speculation that increased spider-silk proteins introduced into the silkworm larvae may result in a fibre that is mostly or even entirely made of spider material. The spider-silkworms could become mini-factories for manufacturing super-strength silk! Already a textile manufacturer is commercializing the fibre – looking at artificial limbs, tendons, parachutes and landing lines on aircraft carriers!

Amazing as it all sounds, I really do prefer to know these small creatures in their natural way of life – essential in their ecosystem and working within the balance of nature!

Sylvia Pincott


Pipes
April Naturescape Notes

Human hazards to wildlife are many and varied - from loss of natural habitat to the risks created by the human structures that replace it.

One that I hadn't realized was pointed out in the March/April publication of The Victoria Naturalist, quoting information from the California Audubon Society. This referred to "Bird Death Pipes" and the extensive wildlife mortalities in uncapped pipes of various sorts. As the article points out, these pipes are everywhere, and it certainly behooves us to do an inspection around our homes and on our roofs to ensure that we are not contributing to this threat. Studies have shown that any open top vertical pipe can be a death trap - for birds, amphibians and small mammals. Attracted by their curiosity, they then fall in and can't get out. The Audubon study in California disclosed remains in almost every pipe examined, with as many as 200 dead bird carcasses and remains of other wildllife in a fallen six-inch irrigation pipe.

I hope this will encourage each of us to have a thorough inspection of our property, to ensure that we aren't offering inadvertent death traps. Be sure that roof vents are property capped, and that any pipe used for fence posts, such as for a chain link fence, is covered. Larger pipes from well casings, or irrigation systems, pipes used for signposts, or those stored to be used "sometime" may be filled with sand or concrete, or have a cover welded on.

The hazard of bird collisions with glass is another big one - be it windows or deck fencing. A very simple answer that we have found is to hang one-inch mesh deer fencing on the outside of our windows. You may think that this would be a terrible obstruction to one's view, but we don't notice ours at all - and it sure beats the view of dead birds adorning our decks. There are other feather friendly technologies available, that are suggested on the website of the American Bird Conservancy - www.abcbirds.org - or just Google Bird Collisions with Glass.

It is staggering to learn of the numbers of birds that meet a sad end, that could be prevented by our careful concern. Our spring migratory birds are returning now - let's welcome them back to "home safe home".

We saw our first Rufous Hummingbird on March 16th!

Sylvia Pincott


Events of Spring
May Naturescape Notes

A date of interest in May is the 23rd - the birthdate of Carolus Linnaeus in 1707. Linnaeus was a Swedish botanist who developed the binomial (Latin) nomenclature system for naming of the genus and species of plants and animals, that has carried forward to us to this day.

And, Rachel Carson was born 200 years later on May 27, 1907. Her courageous book, "Silent Spring", published in 1962, alerted the world to the dangers of pesticide poisoning. Sadly, in the agribusiness world, particularly, much of the poisoning continues, with the "good" being at risk along with the "bad". Recent news of threats to essential pollinators from the buildup of systemic pesticides in pollen is sad - and scarey.

Closer to home, and sad to us, is the huge decline of Rufous Hummingbirds at our feeder. Two years ago at this time we were going through five cups of syrup a day. Last year there was a decline, and since mid-March this year we have probably not seen more than two cups taken in total. I change the syrup every four days (1 part sugar to 3 parts water), but it is almost untouched. The cattails that we offer for nesting material also have seen little action. I am wondering if this is general on Pender? I would be interested in hearing from you - 6797.

A bright note, however, is the return to our feeder, at the end of April, of at least two handsome American Goldfinch "boys", with their brilliant yellow plumage, black cap, and cheery song. While Goldfinches are noted for feeding on weed seeds such as thistle and dandelion, they may be attracted to feeders offering nyger seed and sunflower chips. It is suggested that tying a yellow ribbon to a new feeder will quickly catch their eye! Goldfinches are late nesters, not beginning until July. The female builds the nest, using grasses bound with spider and caterpillar silk, and lining it with thistle down - so tightly, it is said, that it can hold water. Somehow that doesn't seem like a good idea - the little birds could end up sitting in a pool!

Our resident Chestnut-backed Chickadees have been taking nesting material with their usual enthusiasm. Angora goat fleece from friends on Mayne Island, softly puffed and in tiny pieces, is a great favorite. Such luxury!! Cat and dog brushings, and fleece from Pender sheep are welcomed too!

The queen Bumble bees are out and about now, looking for a place to establish a new home. Only their queens overwinter. They have a busy time establishing their new colony, with starting their nest, laying eggs, and feeding the early larvae until they mature and are able to take over many of her chores.

The joys of spring - a time of beauty and busy-ness - a time to celebrate the gifts of nature.

Nesting time – when the great significance of “wildlife trees” is particularly apparent. Undervalued though they usually are from a human perspective, these dead and dying trees provide essential habitat for over 80 species of BC birds, mammals, amphibians, and myriad invertebrates – a place in which to nest, rest, roost, find food and shelter, or store food supplies.

Ideal forest communities consist of trees of mixed ages, cycling through various stages of growth and decline. Pileated Woodpeckers are considered a keystone species within our forests, requiring a minimum of 20 acres, complete with dead and dying trees, for their year-round territory. “Pilies” have a year-round pair bond, and together they may spend up to six weeks chiseling a large nesting cavity into a mature or decaying tree trunk – perhaps Western Redcedar, Grand Fir, Douglas-fir, or Big-leaf Maple in this area. They make the large, “squared off” type of hole. This takes a lot of pecking – with the woodpecker bill even becoming shorter as the bird ages!

It has been observed that the male Pileated roosts in the nest cavity prior to egg laying, but at other times 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!

The Northern Flicker, our next largest woodpecker, requires a ten-acre territory. We have three other woodpecker species here – Hairy, Downy, and the Red-breasted Sapsucker. Each is essential in its role as a primary excavator, creating the cozy cavities that may be occupied for nesting in subsequent years by a great variety of other species such as chickadees, nuthatches, swallows, wrens, owls, and wood ducks. Bats will use the cavities for roosting, and small sapsucker feeding holes even provide nesting habitat for the pollinating mason bees.

When the wildlife tree eventually becomes a downed log, moist in its decay, it becomes home for an entirely new regime, and a source of nutrients for the growing forest. Here we observe “life after death”.

As we sadly observed in Abbotsford, our previous community, development brought the loss of forest and woodland habitat, the subsequent loss of woodpeckers, and the following domino-like decline of other cavity-dependent species, including the mason bees

The forests of centuries-old conifers and their unique and rich cycles of life are all but gone on our coast. While we will not see such forests again in our lifetime, we are thankful that sufficient decades have passed since their demise for maturing “second growth” forests to support a diversity of life – albeit less and different than it once was.

We hope the maturing forests of Pender, and the life they sustain, will be valued as a legacy for the future.

Sylvia Pincott


Batty Returns Again
June Naturescape Notes

Our big excitement for Mothers' Day this year was the return of “Batty”, the Townsend’s Big-eared Bat, to our carport storage cupboard where he has "hung out" for the past three summers! He is a blue-listed species of concern, not previously reported on Pender Island until we first observed him 2009! A Pender Post article that I wrote then prompted confirmed reports from two other locations, telling us that Batty had Pender cohorts!

In September our little friend took leave of us to migrate to a winter hibernaculum. Very few hibernation sites are known in BC, but one of them is a cave on a nearby Gulf Island. It is thought that this species has a migration range of about 50 km, so perhaps he did a little island hopping.

Batty's return on May 13 seemed a wee miracle, finding his chosen cupboard after spending 8 months huddled in a chilly cave!

Special as this is, another little event occurred in early March when we noticed a wee bat hanging from Batty's favoured place.  Looking closely and confirming with a photograph, this little chap was even smaller than Batty, and did not have the big ears of our friend.

I sent his picture to David Nagorsen, BC's bat expert, wondering who this might be, and if we might have a territorial dispute upon Batty's return!  David thinks our new little guy was likely a California Myotis Bat, and assured us that he would not likely hang around - which he didn't.  We saw him only the once!  But - the mystery remains as to how this little one found his way in through the carport and the tiny cupboard opening, to hang in Batty's very same spot (when he would usually hang in a crack anyway).

Before leaving last September, Batty would have accumulated an additional 40 percent of his summer weight to see him through the winter. I am sure he appears noticeably smaller than when we last saw him in September.  He will be busy fattening up now on his menu of delicious night-flying insects.

Male Townsend's Big-eared Bats roost alone, but the females gather in small maternity colonies.  May I encourage you, this summer, to keep watch in out-buildings for bats hanging from an open place rather than roosting in a narrow crack as is the custom for other local bat species. And watch for the big ears! I would love to hear from you - 6797 - should you see one.

We are now back to limiting visits to our storage room, and creeping quietly - not wanting to disturb our tiny Pender wonder during his daytime sleeps! 

PS - If you hear tiny twittering calls overhead in the night during May and June, don't be fooled into thinking that the bats are talking.  In fact, these are the "conversations" of Violet-green Swallows during their unique night-time courtship flights - usually heard in pre-dawn hours around 3:00 or 4:00 a.m.

Sylvia Pincott



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 That’s all she wrote, folks!