Posted by: Anne Murray | March 10, 2016

A winter thrush

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A male Varied Thrush has spent the winter in our back garden, lurking in the shade of the cedars. It’s drawn-out, eerie, melancholy whistle echoes through the trees early in the mornings. The thrush’s plumage is cryptic; the colours blend perfectly with leaves and fallen cedar twigs. It spends a lot of time just sitting still, either on the ground or on a high branch. A female has sometimes been seen, too. Her plumage is similar but with softer hues, lacking the dark facial markings of the male.

A few thrushes stay to nest in the last remaining delta forests, such as those on Point Roberts, WA. Most will only winter here. Their numbers have declined in South Delta, B.C., as housing has filled in many of the older quarter acre lots and large trees have been cut down.

Flocks of thrushes will start moving through our neighbourhood in a few weeks, with American Robins mingling with the Varied Thrushes and maybe the occasional Hermit Thrush. They will head into the forested hillsides further up the Fraser Valley and onto the north shore mountains for the breeding season.

Posted by: Anne Murray | March 10, 2016

The Fraser Delta’s Great Blue Herons

As the days lengthen and warm, marine fish move into shallow water. Their arrival is important for great blue herons which gather at the tideline. Nowhere is this more evident than on Roberts Bank where hundreds of herons congregate through spring and early summer, feeding in the intertidal area and nesting on the adjacent wooded bluff on Tsawwassen First Nation land. Extraordinary as it may seem, these long-legged, long-necked birds build flimsy stick nests, high up in alder, maple or Douglas-fir trees. The Tsawwassen colony has over 300 heron pairs, with often three or more nests in a tree, and is the largest heronry on the Canadian west coast.
Great blue herons are often seen feeding in the peaceful shallows of the Little Campbell River estuary, on the Semiahmoo First Nation land, and along the Nicomekl River. They stand motionless in shallow water for lengthy periods. Others try stalking fish on White Rock beaches, but disturbance from beach goers and dogs unfortunately soon move them on to quieter areas.

In winter, herons disperse into farmland and marshes around the Fraser delta, where they catch voles and other small mammals. However, once starry flounder and shiner perch begin to arrive in inshore waters, the herons move to a diet of fish; later in the summer, they will also eat frogs and snakes. Endemic to the Pacific northwest, the local subspecies of great blue heron has grey, black, and white feathers and plumes. In March, their bills turn bright yellow-orange, indicating their breeding readiness. Pair bonds are formed and the noisy business of nest building begins.

Prior to 1955, the herons nested in woodland near Tsawwassen’s current town centre, but forest clearance forced them to repeatedly move. By 1973, the colony had settled in Point Roberts, WA, close to the Canadian border, where it remained for twenty years, growing to nearly 500 pairs. Tree clearance adjacent to the heronry and increasing predation by juvenile bald eagles, the population of which was increasing, caused nesting failure in 2003. Nests and eggs were suddenly abandoned, and no young were raised.

The following spring, some of the herons moved a few kilometres north to their current location, and within a couple of years they were all settled in. Rather curiously, they settled in trees around one that was already occupied by a mature pair of bald eagles. Could the herons somehow know that the territorial behavior of adult eagles would keep unruly juveniles away? A study has since shown that great blue herons nesting within 200m of an eagle nest have comparatively greater reproductive success. Heron species survive successfully all around the world; their innate wisdom must be greater than we appreciate!

Herons nest elsewhere in the Fraser delta, including near Boundary Bay and South Surrey, but attempts at colonial nesting often suffer from disturbance. A larger heronry exists at Chilliwack in a protected location. Remember when observing these spectacular birds that they need peace and quiet to survive in our busy world.

Posted by: Anne Murray | January 30, 2016

Eagle numbers high in Fraser delta

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Huge numbers of bald eagles congregate in Delta for the winter. Some gather on the tidal marshes around Boundary Bay, feeding on the tens of thousands of ducks and shorebirds that use the bay as a wintering area. Other eagles prefer the easy pickings at the Vancouver Landfill at Burns Bog or the compost heaps and farm fields along 72 Street.

The Christmas bird count held each year at the end of December regularly records between 600 and 1,300 bald eagles within a 24km radius of Ladner. Yet, as long-time residents will remember, there was a time when there were very few eagles in the Fraser delta. Their numbers have steadily risen over the last four decades. Christmas bird count data (viewable on the Audubon.org website) reveal that on average between 1958 and 1974 fewer than 3 eagles were observed on the single day, mid-winter count. Today, it is a common occurrence to see a dozen or more adult and juvenile eagles perched in a single tree. The local population shift began in the 1980s, when average count numbers first rose to 76, then increased through the 1990s to 234. Since 2006 the average tally on the Christmas bird count has soared to 936. Breeding numbers have also increased dramatically, and there are now 400 – 500 nesting pairs in the lower Fraser Valley.

Audubon and Bird Studies Canada partner in organizing Christmas bird counts, which began in 1900. The information gathered by thousands of volunteer birdwatchers is very valuable in learning about North American birds. While a single year’s data can be misleading, collectively the surveys can demonstrate population trends, such as the increases in Delta’s bald eagles and Anna’s hummingbirds (now a common garden bird, yet only observed on our local count since the mid-1980s). Some other bird populations have declined. The Ladner count is often first in Canada for high numbers of birds, with typically 140-152 different species, but in 2015 only 134 species were seen, with the cold, wet weather being a factor.

Other eagle counts are conducted at salmon spawning sites. Last Fall, 1,400 bald eagles were recorded on the Chehalis River during the Fraser Valley Bald Eagle Festival. In contrast, at Brackendale on the Squamish River, only 411 eagles were counted this January, compared with over 3,700 eagles back in 1994. There are many complexities to the population dynamics of these majestic birds.

Posted by: Anne Murray | September 29, 2015

Orange Sea Pens on Roberts Bank

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Orange Sea Pens at Roberts Bank; photo courtesy Port Metro Vancouver

Heading out on the ferry from Tsawwassen, our family often scans the water for whales or porpoises, but seldom think about other underwater creatures, many of which live in the Salish Sea. Some are dramatic in shape and colour, such as the orange sea pen, a type of soft coral that grows up to 50 cm tall and looks like it belongs in a tropical ocean. Because it lives in the subtidal zone, deeper than is revealed at the lowest low tide, the sea pen’s presence generally goes unrecorded. I was surprised to learn we have colonies of these exotic-looking animals on Roberts Bank.

The orange sea pen is sometimes known as sea feather and it looks like an old-fashioned quill pen in an inkwell. It has a bulbous base that holds it in the sand, a rubbery central spine, and a “feather” of polyps that move in the currents. If disturbed it will pull back into its base and bury in the mud.  One remarkable feature is its bioluminescence: if disturbed by a predator, the orange sea pen will glow with a green light to scare the intruder.

These soft corals live in sheltered areas of the subtidal zone, with sandy substrate and a fair amount of current, but not too much turbulence. Paula Romagosa at The Shaw Ocean Discovery Centre told me that colonies are common off Sidney and Pender Islands. They also live off the deep end of the Roberts Bank port causeway and Tsawwassen ferry jetty. Many formerly occupied areas in Puget Sound have been abandoned, for unknown reasons. Sea pens eat drifting plankton, and are in turn eaten by sea stars and nudibranchs. With the current decline in sea stars, maybe sea pen populations will increase.

Port developments are unfortunately proposed within part of the orange sea pen habitat, so I asked John Parker-Jervis of Port Metro Vancouver what the future holds for this interesting species. He said that the port has been studying the feasibility of transplanting orange sea pens since April 2014. Three Roberts Bank locations have received 400 sea pens each, transplanted at densities of four to six sea pens per square metre, mimicking their natural distribution. The transplants are regularly monitored, with the next check-up due soon, and, according to Parker-Jervis, appear to be thriving in their new locations.

The richness of our local ecosystem means there is always something new to discover, though not always easy to see.

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Male Hooded Merganser – one of many duck species that can be found in the Fraser Delta

It has been said that children today can recognize hundreds of corporate brand logos but very few common birds, flowers, or trees. Author Richard Louv describes separation from the natural world as “nature deficit disorder”. Yet even people who love nature may experience difficulty identifying local species. Fishing enthusiasts have a rich vocabulary for salmon – words like tyee, smolt and jack – but many of us struggle to recognize a coho from a chum. Local plants are a mix of native and introduced Eurasian ones, daunting in their complexity. Fungi are even worse. Every year people get sick from eating mushrooms they mistakenly assumed were edible. Even garden birds, such as chickadees and nuthatches, cause confusion.

Compared with the UK, a physically smaller country, where generations of children were raised in a literary tradition of local nature, Canada lacks relevant resources. The cardinal, blue jay and Baltimore oriole are familiar to sports fans but these are not western species. B.C. iconography focuses on charismatic large animals, such as killer whales and bears, and scarcely mentions the many smaller mammals. Anyone wanting to learn more about local nature is forced to turn to dense field guides or the confusion of the internet. Luckily, the Delta Naturalists’ Society has recognized this dilemma and produced a handy pamphlet, Birds in Delta, featuring members’ photographs of 56 of Delta’s common and not-so-common bird species, with a short description for each one. Delta is a remarkably rich location for birds: over 330 species have been recorded here and the Ladner Christmas bird count is often the highest in Canada with over 140 species.

Birds in Delta illustrates that a juvenile bald eagle lacks the white head and tail of the adult, and that male ducks are more brightly-coloured than females. It explains when shorebirds occur on the coast, and how to distinguish between hummingbirds. Both the native band-tailed pigeon, the largest in North America, and the recently invading Eurasian collared-dove are pictured, showing their subtle plumage differences. The local Steller’s jay, named for the explorer and naturalist, Georg Steller, is a dark blue bird, clearly different from eastern blue jays. Steller’s jay is B.C.’s provincial bird.

The Delta Naturalists are distributing their pamphlet through community events and information racks. The club runs regular field trips and the public are welcome; check for times in the events page of the Delta Optimist or at www.dncb.wordpress.com.

Posted by: Anne Murray | June 11, 2015

It’s nesting season for birds

Barn Swallow nesting under the eaves

Barn Swallow nesting under the eaves

A crow was rifling through my plastic recycling this morning and pulled a tangle of bags clear of my carefully stuffed bin. When I went to tidy up, the crow cawed loudly, annoyed to be disturbed from its important work of finding nest material. May is bird nesting season and, for many of our neighbourhood species, it is time to find space in our crowded world to lay eggs and bring up young ones.

With natural landscapes disappearing from the lower mainland, finding a good nesting site can be challenging. Unlike many woodpeckers, the northern flicker will reuse holes from previous seasons, but this year our local flicker distained last year’s nest in a decaying snag, and hammered a significant hole in our neighbour’s siding. Barn swallows are also drawn to buildings and their mud nests are often built under house eaves, a habit that some people dislike. If you have nesting swallows, please try and tolerate them. Swallow populations, like those of many insect-eating birds, are in steep decline, and they are now on the endangered species list. Delta still has a fairly healthy local population around the farmland, where local landowners allow them to use barns and sheds. Not only swallows benefit from farms. Only a few barn owls live in Canada, and Delta’s farms provide excellent nest sites and hunting habitat for them in fields and hedgerows.

Some birds build nests in trees and bushes, in holes or among the branches. Many suburban gardens lack the density of vegetation necessary to support nesting birds, so homeowners miss out on the beautiful song of the American robin on spring mornings. Thrushes, finches, dark-eyed juncos and black-headed grosbeaks need thick foliage and tangled shrubberies to provide suitable nesting sites, hidden from cats, raccoons and hawks. Bushtits that build woven, hanging nests need a steady supply of aphids to feed their young, so like hummingbirds are attracted to flower gardens. Natural gardens are more likely to have birds. Chickadees often take to nest boxes and have large broods, so it is easy to provide a home for these little birds.

Other birds nest right on the ground, such as the northern harrier, killdeer, and savannah sparrow, three species characteristic of the Boundary Bay marshes. Here they face the hazard of other animals stealing their eggs or eating their young. Please keep dogs on a leash when walking the dyke, to avoid disturbing nesting birds.

This article first appeared in the Delta Optimist newspaper.

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Photos: Long-billed Dowitchers feeding in the lagoon at Reifel Bird Sanctuary

This is the time of year that over a million shorebirds visit local beaches as they head north for the nesting season. The smallest sandpipers, collectively known as “peeps”, are tiny birds, each weighing only as much as a granola bar. Individual birds are easily overlooked since their brownish-grey plumage blends with the mud. A large flock is much more noticeable, especially when they perform their amazing aerial displays. Peeps fly 11,000 km on migration from their wintering areas in South America to their breeding grounds in Alaska, and the Fraser delta is one of only a few major stopovers en route. It is essential that the mud and sand flats of Boundary Bay, Roberts Bank and Sturgeon Banks, the three main components of the outer delta, remain viable habitat.According to a 2014 study by Environment Canada and Bird Studies Canada, it is possible that the entire Pacific Flyway population of Western Sandpiper and Dunlin may be found on the Fraser River delta during migration. The study authors calculated that 600,000 Western Sandpiper and 200,000 to 250,000 Dunlin, another sandpiper species, stop to feed just at Roberts Bank, with similar numbers occurring on Boundary Bay and Sturgeon Banks. Each bird may stay only two to three days, foraging and roosting, before pressing on with its journey. Many other species of shorebird also stopover at these important habitats, most migrating through northwards in April and southwards between July and October.

Sandpipers feed by probing in the mud for small creatures or by sucking up biofilm from the surface. If disturbed, they try and resettle just a few metres along to resume their feeding. With the tide going out, the shorebirds become very spread out and distant, and can be difficult to observe. However, when the tide turns, the incoming water coaxes the feeding birds closer and closer to shore. With no more mud exposed, the birds sleep, preen, and relax, restoring their energy for the kilometres to come. At this time, they are very vulnerable to attack from falcons and eagles and disturbance by dogs and humans.

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Posted by: Anne Murray | March 27, 2015

Sea life of the Salish Sea

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Steller’s (Northern) Sea Lions on the Belle Chain Islets, southern Gulf Islands

These enormous animals spend the winter lolling around on offshore rocks. Their loud roars carry a long way through the quiet surroundings.

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Orcas (killer whales) from the endangered southern resident population. There are only 78 animals left in this population of orcas, one of which is a new-born calf. They are distinct from other orcas and eat Chinook salmon, not seals or other mammals. Severe declines in Chinook numbers, coupled with noise and pollution in their home waters, has led to the decrease in these very popular mammals.

 

Posted by: Anne Murray | March 27, 2015

Getting up close with B.C. snakes

After the excitement of the Boundary Bay hibernaculum, I looked out a few photos I have taken of B.C. snakes in the past. This first one is, I am pretty sure, the Common Garter Snake:

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The next two photos show a snake that was getting ready to hibernate last fall. It was really taking its time to cross the dyke at Boundary Bay and did not show any agitation when approached closely and photographed in full detail. Despite that, I am not quite sure of the species, so would appreciate any ideas. I think it is a Common Garter Snake, but a darker coloured one than the one above.

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I took these two photos of a Rattlesnake in the South Okanagan, a couple of years ago, while counting birds for the BC Breeding Bird Atlas. It was very well-camouflaged in the grass at the base of a rock. I nearly didn’t see it when sitting down on an adjacent rock. There is its rattle at the end of the tail, on the top photo.

Rattlesnake, Okanagan

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Posted by: Anne Murray | March 20, 2015

Snakes show richness of our marsh habitat

The 500 hibernating garter snakes unexpectedly found during Boundary Bay dyke repairs at Beach Grove have attracted a lot of attention. When the snakes were disturbed and began to wake up, the decision was made to take them to Burnaby’s Wildlife Rescue Association (WRA). After being cooled down, the snakes were stored in buckets with damp sawdust. They will be kept in hibernation until their den site is restored and temperatures become warm enough to release them.

I asked herpetologist Professor Patrick Gregory of the University of Victoria about the snakes, which he identified from photographs as western terrestrial garter snakes (Thamnophis elegans), also known as western garter snakes, a species widely-distributed in western Canada. He explained that garter snakes are very variable in colour and size, so can be confusing for even experienced naturalists to identify. Typically, the western garter is greyish-brown with three paler-coloured stripes down its back. The stripes are broken by two rows of alternating, dark-coloured blotches, the top row of which invades the mid-dorsal stripe, giving it a variably wavy appearance. Yolanda Brooks at WRA told me that the snakes are different sizes. This is to be expected as females are larger than males, and snakes keep growing throughout their lives, with the rate of growth slowing with age.
Western garter snakes are common in Fraser marshes, where they readily enter water, despite their “terrestrial” name. They consume a varied diet of slugs, earthworms, fish, frogs, nestling birds, and small mammals, and have a primitive constricting ability, sometimes coiling their bodies around mammal prey while biting them. Their saliva may be mildly poisonous. Live young are born between July and September and in fall the snakes cool and lower their metabolic rate, before entering a den (hibernaculum) for the winter. The Boundary Bay hibernaculum is much larger than average for our region, but in other areas of North America, winter dens of hundreds or thousands of garter snakes have been found.

Other garter snake species are also found in our area. Common garter snakes may have bold black and yellow dorsal stripes, but like the western garter snake, they can vary greatly in colour and size. This wide-spread species occurs in a diversity of habitats from wetlands to hillsides. Another species, the northwestern garter snake often has a red dorsal stripe. It is less likely to enter water than the other two species, but will roam on beaches, grass margins of dykes, and woodland edges.

The very large congregation of western garter snakes on Boundary Bay is an indication of the richness of our local marsh habitat. Snakes are a well-adapted, essential component of the delta environment. It is most unfortunate that they were disturbed, and moving them was a very risky strategy, only suitable for an emergency situation. Hopefully their den can be reconstructed so that the snakes can be safely returned, and monitoring will be done by the Province to ensure the population survives.

Posted by: Anne Murray | February 12, 2015

Sphagnum Moss: a B.C. heritage plant

Heritage is usually interpreted as something very solid: the wood, stone and concrete of our towns and cities, or the iron and steel of bridges and railway lines. I like to broaden that viewpoint to include our natural heritage, the plants and animals that compose our local environment. So in celebration of B.C. Heritage Week, I chose sphagnum moss, the fascinating plant that forms local bogs.

Sphagnum clearly qualifies as heritage under the “ancient” category: the moss found in Fraser delta bogs began accumulating over three thousand years ago and is now many metres deep. In the wet heart of Burns Bog, the largest and most well-known of our local bogs, layers of sphagnum, fed by rainwater, have grown into a dome five metres above the surrounding delta. The spongy moss draws up groundwater and increases the water’s acidity. Other plants and animals find it difficult to survive in this acidic, nutrient-poor environment, unless they are specifically adapted. Even the bacteria that cause decay cannot operate well here, so the sphagnum and anything within it are slow to decompose. The resulting ecosystem is totally distinct from the surrounding landscape and has species of plants and insects that normally inhabit more northern latitudes. As well as Burns Bog, there are bogs in Richmond and along the Fraser River. In Richmond Nature Park, you can walk on the quaking bog, where the ground wobbles and trembles due to the spongy sphagnum below.

Sphagnum has no root system but just keeps elongating its spindly, thin stems which clump and tangle into cushiony structures. It is composed of two cell types, the larger, empty ones being highly water absorbent, and the smaller ones providing the chlorophyll that colours the plant. Sphagnum is considered to have natural antiseptic properties. As a consequence, it was used historically for babies’ diapers, treating wounds, and other personal hygiene. Some First Nations’ women used the soft moss to carpet an expectant mother’s birthing room and line the baby’s cradle.

The lower, brown, slowly decaying layers of sphagnum become peat. Burns Bog peat was systematically excavated from trenches during the Second World War and used as packing material for armaments. After the war ended, the peat was dug and sold for horticultural use. Around the world, peat bogs began to disappear as they were dug out. Today, people are beginning to better appreciate the beauty and fragility of bogs, a vital part of our natural heritage.

Posted by: Anne Murray | December 16, 2014

Arctic-nesting Black Brant winter in the bay

Beach Grove in South Delta was named ttunuxun, or “place of ducks” by the Coast Salish. This corner of Boundary Bay has shallow waters, submerged eelgrass meadows and a gently-sloping, gravel shore. In the late 1800s, vast numbers of ducks, cranes, geese and swans were killed here in unregulated hunting for the Christmas market. The location remained a hot spot for sportsmen into the twentieth century, with Black Brant, a small sea goose, being particularly favoured. Hunting shacks lined the Beach Grove shoreline until it became a regional park in the 1980s. Despite constant recreational use, this area remains highly attractive habitat for ducks and geese, including Brant.

Several thousand Brant visit the Fraser estuary annually and many stay the winter. In the White Rock area they are most easily seen out on the water in Semiahmoo Bay, or over the border in Drayton Harbor. The majority of Brant seen in local waters belong to the Pacific Black Brant subspecies, nesting in coastal Alaska and the Yukon, and wintering south along the Pacific coast to Mexico. A few paler, grey-bellied birds, known as High Arctic Brant, from islands in Canada’s far north, also winter here. Brant numbers swell along the coast in March, during spring migration, and Parksville and Qualicum Beach on Vancouver Island hold an annual festival in celebration. Brant face many lifetime hazards, both on the breeding grounds and during migration. They pair for life, and females particularly suffer hardship if their mates are killed. Winter habitat to rest and feed without disturbance is important for these geese. If you are walking a dog, remember to keep it on a leash when these and other birds are close to shore.

With so many waterfowl on Boundary Bay in winter, it may be difficult to distinguish Brant, which are only slightly larger than ducks. When they fly, the contrast between the Brant’s dark body and distinctive white tail makes it easier to spot. A close view shows the small white collar on its black neck. Unlike its larger cousin, the Canada Goose, the Pacific Black Brant is a strictly salt water species, only coming to shore at low tide to graze on eelgrass. It murmurs, rather than honks, and avoids flying over land, staying low over the ocean in long line or U formations.

Posted by: Anne Murray | August 8, 2014

Fraser Sockeye run heading upstream

Once again sockeye salmon are heading through the Strait of Georgia and into the Fraser, as they make their way to spawning grounds in the upper reaches of the river. They come in waves by cohort: Early Summer, Summer, and Late Run. Over 200,000 Early Stuart salmon passed the observation station at Mission and are already on their spawning grounds in the northernmost part of the Fraser basin. The famous Adams River salmon are part of the Shuswap Late Run and spawn in the fall.

This is a dominant year of the cycle and fisheries scientists have issued a pre-season run forecast of 22.9 million sockeye. The fish heading upstream today grew from spawn following the 2010 run, the largest since 1913, with over 30 million fish. That exceptional run took everyone by surprise. The year before had seen the great salmon crash when after years of decline only 1.6 million returned. The demise of the sockeye led to the 18 month long Cohen Inquiry. The resulting three volume report made many recommendations but concluded there was no single cause for failing salmon populations. The environment is intensely complex and the combination of effects from habitat loss, disease, fish farms, climate change, and overfishing was too difficult to disentangle. The 2010 lineage seems to be a stronger bunch, as they have generally done better than other classes.

This year’s returning salmon face huge challenges as they head upstream. The river water is 0.7 deg.C warmer than average for this time of year, and flow is 11% lower at Hope. These differences may appear small, but salmon are very sensitive. Sockeye need an ambient temperature between 12 and 15 deg.C to survive. They need clear, running water in shaded streams lined with gravel in which to spawn and deposit their eggs. The tailings dam breach at Mount Polley mine, northeast of Williams Lake, washed millions of cubic metres of turbid water and sediment into tributaries of the upper Fraser, which could potentially smother sensitive gravel beds downstream in the renowned Horsefly region. While the water has so far tested safe by drinking water standards, it will need to be tested for traces of copper and other minerals that are safe for humans but not for fish.

The salmon heading through the Fraser estuary have huge challenges to face to successfully complete their life cycle. Let’s hope they make it safely.

Posted by: Anne Murray | July 10, 2014

Looking at bugs

Hot summer days are a good time to look for invertebrates, including butterflies, moths and dragonflies.

Here are a few photos of local B.C. insects, some recent, some from previous summers. If you can help with correct identification, please get in touch! Insect identification is quite tricky for beginners.

golden jewel beetle July 2014 garden

I was excited to find this beautiful beetle in our veggie patch. Consulting a field guide, I decided it was a Golden Jewel Beetle, Buprestis aurulenta, which is common around coniferous trees.

Anise Swallowtail butterfly, rather worn, on buddleia

Anise Swallowtail butterfly, rather worn, on buddleia

The Anise Swallowtail (Papilio zelicaon) is commonly found near Boundary Bay, Delta, where it feeds on cow parsley and angelica lucida.

However, this specimen was photographed in my garden a couple of summers ago.

Western Tiger Swallowtail

Western Tiger Swallowtail

This Western Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio rutilis) is common in southern B.C. throughout the summer and was photographed on that same buddleia plant.

Painted Lady butterfly

Painted Lady butterfly

Painted Lady butterflies (Vanessa cardui) are migratory and occur cyclically in southern B.C.. This photo was taken a few years ago. I have not seen any of this species this year.

Sara Orange Tip

Sara Orange Tip

Sara Orange Tip (Anthocaris sara) – this pretty butterfly is rather uncommon. Its larvae feed on mustard plants.

Eight spot skimmer

Eight spot skimmer

Dragonflies can be difficult to photograph as they dart around the garden. Two of these skimmers arrived in our veggie patch in late June and were very accommodating. They sat still long enough to give us a good view.

This darner sp. dragonfly visited our fruit trees

This darner sp. dragonfly visited our fruit trees

Blinded Sphinx Moth Paonias excaecatus

Blinded Sphinx Moth
Paonias excaecatus

This beautiful moth turned up on an apple tree a couple of years ago. I keep hoping another will come.  

The Satyr comma butterfly looks like a crumpled leaf and is well camouflaged in the forest.

Satyr comma  (Polygonia satyrus)

Satyr comma
(Polygonia satyrus)

Posted by: Anne Murray | June 6, 2014

Pelagic Birding on B.C.’s west coast

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Ucluelet Harbour, west coast Vancouver Island

 

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Black-footed Albatross

Wild Research organized a pelagic birding trip in May which took us from Ucluelet harbour on the west coast of Vancouver Island to La Pelouse bank, about 25 km offshore. We enjoyed wonderfully calm weather and blue skies so viewing conditions were excellent. The highlight of the trip were the albatrosses – several Black-footed Albatrosses, a not unusual bird to see in B.C.’s offshore waters, but nonetheless magnificent, and the highlight of the trip, a rare Laysan Albatross, a species which breeds in Hawaii. We also saw Pink-footed and Sooty Shearwaters, Sabine’s Gulls, flocks of Pacific Loons heading north, and Red-necked Phalaropes, tiny shorebirds that land on the water. Other seabirds included Cassin’s and Rhinoceros Auklets, Pigeon Guillemots and Tufted Puffin. There were no whales around, but we saw many sea otters, porpoises (Harbour and Dall’s) and Steller sea lions. It was a grand day. The Francis Barkley, a boat I remember from the Port Alberni-Bamfield run, was a good base for a pelagic trip.

Laysan

Laysan Albatross off the west coast of BC with Sooty Shearwater

Pigeon Guillemots

Pigeon Guillemots

Posted by: Anne Murray | May 26, 2014

East Point, Saturna Island

East Point, Saturna Island

East Point, Saturna Island
The high tide was running and Boiling Reef was living up to its name! Steller sea lions and harbour seals were lounging on the remaining rocks. A lively group of 30 or so Black Oystercatchers were feeding among the shoreline wrack and a small flock of Harlequin Ducks paraded their magnificent spring plumage.

Posted by: Anne Murray | October 23, 2013

Protect migratory songbirds from windows and cats

Varied Thrush

Varied Thrush

 The Varied Thrush likes the cool, dark understorey of the forest. It is vulnerable to injury and death when in an unfamiliar urban location with glass windows. 

Fall is a dangerous time for songbirds. Heading south to escape the approaching winter, many fly at night and use daylight hours for feeding and resting. When stormy, wet weather disrupts their journey, hungry birds descend like a gaggle of tourists. Unfamiliar with their immediate surroundings, eagerly looking for berries and insects on which to feed, they form noisy, fluttering, excited groups, easily distracted by a passing hawk or a bounding dog. Landing on bird feeders, fruit trees and lawns they are prone to fly up suddenly, making window collisions a frequent occurrence at this time of year. Window alignment or the reflection of sky and trees may mislead birds into seeing an escape route. Thrushes, sparrows, warblers and flickers (a large woodpecker) are often the victims of collisions. The beautiful varied thrush, with its high pitched, eerie whistle and love of dark forests, is seemingly unable to distinguish panes of glass.

 A cat on the loose can also be a huge danger to migrating birds. Hunting is in a cat’s genes so it has a natural interest in birds and small mammals. Chickadees, nuthatches and juncos are at risk when lively cats grab them off a low-hanging branch or feeder. Whole families of chickadees can perish with one enthusiastic cat on the prowl. Song sparrows and wrens feeding on the ground are particularly easy prey.  A new study by Environment Canada reveals that a whopping 196 million birds are killed in Canada by domestic and feral cats. A further 25 million die in window collisions. These are significant and avoidable contributions to bird population declines.

 We can take action to reduce this upsettingly high death rate. Bird feeders should be placed either at a distance, or very close to house windows, so that a startled bird does not fly up and into glass. Transparent, ultraviolet, leaf-shape decals, sold at wild bird stores, make windows more visible to birds, which can see UV light. The transparent decals have been shown to be much more effective than the old-style, hawk-shaped, black ones, and are almost invisible from indoors. They need replacing every couple of the years, but are a relatively cheap investment. An option for new construction is bird-friendly glass, notably “Ornilux”, designed by the Audubon Society and Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Germany. It is already in use in the lower mainland, at the concession building at CentennialBeach, in BoundaryBayRegionalPark.

 To prevent bird kills by cats, some owners have switched without problems to keeping their pet indoors. A fully-netted, accessible outdoor area is an option for others. Where cats roam free, bird feeders should be hung out of reach of a leaping cat or else removed completely. Such solutions are needed to maintain a bird-friendly neighbourhood and put an end to songbird declines.

Posted by: Anne Murray | September 6, 2013

Goat Mountain hike

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On a beautiful summer morning, I hiked with several friends up Goat Mountain. The trail leads from the top of Grouse Mountain, so we took an early cable car up the hill. All was quiet at the tourist facilities around the summit. The path starts quite wide and gradually narrows as it winds its way uphill through the forest.

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This flowering copperbush (Cladothamnus pyroliflorus) attracted our attention. It belongs to a genus that is one of the few endemic to western North America.

Wildflowers included green false hellebore (Veratrum viride), subalpine daisies (Erigeron peregrinus) and others that were unfamiliar to me.

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The path is pretty steep in a couple of places and ropes and chains have been helpfully attached to rocks so hikers can safely climb up. Once at the top, the views are tremendous.

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The descent was easier, and the whole hike took us about four hours, including a picnic stop at the top. Thanks to Kelly for organizing this lovely hike and for Kathy, Wendy and Lauren for their company.

Posted by: Anne Murray | July 29, 2013

Cruising the Salish Sea from Bellingham WA

Bridge over Deception Pass, WA

Bridge over Deception Pass, WA

Last Saturday, I joined a birdwatching cruise out of Bellingham Harbour along with five friends from the Delta Naturalists’ Society.  The cruise is run weekly through the summer by San Juan Cruises, leaving the Alaska Ferry Terminal at Fairhaven at 9.00 am and returning at 4.00 pm (they do whale watching and other cruises too).  We were fortunate in the weather, it was a cloudless, blue sky day, and the water was very calm.

Cruising through Bellingham Bay we observed Pigeon Guillemots and Glaucous-winged Gulls nesting on small islands, and Black Oystercatchers on the shoreline. These species were seen throughout the day, and many of the gulls had fluffy chicks. Glaucous-winged Gulls are the only nesting gull in the area, although we also saw many California Gulls, Heermann’s Gulls (beautiful red-beaked birds, up from Mexico where they breed on the Isla de Rosa) and a scattering of Ring-billed Gulls, Mew Gull and one Herring Gull.

Great Blue Heron day roost

Great Blue Heron day roost

Near the oil refinery at the south end of the bay, we saw hundreds of Great Blue Herons standing at the edge of the shore, as well as many Caspian Terns and  gulls. A small flock of Western Sandpipers skimmed the water’s surface.

Alcids were common as we headed south towards Swinomish Channel and La Conner. Flocks of Rhinoceros Auklets were the most numerous, while Pigeon Guillemots were common around the rocky islets, Once we were in the deeper water around Deception Pass and Lopez Island we saw pairs of Marbled Murrelets and even a solitary Tufted Puffin – an unusual sighting for the cruise!

Bird island in Bellingham Bay

Bird island in Bellingham Bay

A highlight of the trip was watching a pair of Ospreys bringing fish to a chick, and carefully feeding it. Their nest was on top of a channel marker.

Osprey nest with adults and a chick

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Osprey pair at nest on channel marker

The scenery was very diverse, from the wide, open waters of Bellingham Bay, through the long, narrow passage of Swinomish Channel, with skittering Spotted Sandpipers, Cliff and Barn Swallows and two Northern Harriers soaring over the grasslands, to the rugged cliffs and waters of Deception Pass, Whidbey Island and Lopez Island.  We returned northward via the shores of San Juan Island.  Bird islands, covered in guano, had Black Turnstones, a couple of Surfbirds and dozens of nesting Pelagic and Double-crested Cormorants.

View of Mount Baker

View of Mount Baker

I saw forty bird species on the trip, as well as many Harbor Seals and a few Harbor Porpoises.  Victor, the birdwatching guide has a blog of the year’s trips here.  They hope to run the tours next year, if demand warrants and the last trip this year is August 24.

Posted by: Anne Murray | May 9, 2013

The bright colours of nature

Blue is an unusual colour in the animal kingdom, especially in northern latitudes, where muted shades of brown or grey are more common.  Blue plumage in birds is not a result of pigmentation but a consequence of light refraction through microscopic bubbles in the feather structure.

A trio of blue songbirds  are among my favourite B.C. birds:  mountain bluebirds, western bluebirds, and lazuli buntings.  Male mountain bluebirds are a beautiful turquoise, while the westerns have vermilion red chests and a contrasting deep blue head and back.  Lazuli buntings are named for the semi-precious blue stone, lapis lazuli.  All three birds spend the summer in B.C.’s  sunny Interior.

Light refraction is the reason the Steller’s jay (the common blue jay of the west, and BC’s provincial bird) will often appear very dark or even black, until, in turning, its back and tail suddenly flash with rich blue tones.  Many species of birds and insects have such structural modifications that create dramatic iridescence. Butterfly wings have crystal nanostructures (think unbelievably small) that selectively scatter light, revealing breathtaking colours.

The glittering throats, or gorgets, of male hummingbirds are caused by a combination of refraction and pigmentation, as is the green plumage of many tropical birds.  Carotenoids are natural pigments that reflect specific wavelengths of light, and result in red and orange colours, like those suffusing the plumage of house finches and orioles.  As male house finches mature, their red colour intensifies.  Black or brown colours in animals are due to the pigment melanin, which is also found in humans. It is synthesized within the body, unlike carotenoid which animals cannot produce.  Birds with red or orange plumage must therefore obtain their pigment from consuming parts of plants, such as seeds and berries.

Even experienced naturalists can be deceived by the colour of a bird’s plumage, if viewing conditions are difficult.  The speculum on a mallard’s wing can look green or blue, entirely depending on the angle, while even brilliant plumage can look all dark when seen against the light.  Identification becomes easier if one understands the nature of colours.

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