Posted by: Anne Murray | March 27, 2015

Sea life of the Salish Sea


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.


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:

common garter snake am

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.

Western gartersnake BB 2014 3         

Western gartersnake BB 2014 1

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


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


Ucluelet Harbour, west coast Vancouver Island



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 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


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.


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.


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.


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

osprey nest

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.

Posted by: Anne Murray | April 2, 2013

Boundary Bay’s sand dunes ~ a rare ecosystem

spit view 2 oct 31 06

Sand spit developing on Boundary Bay shore

Walk behind the South Delta Recreation Centre and you can sometimes see shells poking through the grass. The elevated ground here once marked the high tide mark at Beach Grove. A large midden, or ancient waste pile of discarded shells, dating back thousands of years, stretches across 16 Avenue and into the golf course. The ocean gradually retreated and new sediment was added, filling in the northwestern shore of Boundary Bay. The present beach is very dynamic, with new sand banks forming parallel to the shore and creating lagoons. Where houses abut the water in Beach Grove, very little sand dune remains, and the beach is mostly flat, whereas south of Boundary Bay regional park, there are more extensive areas of high, dry sand. Older dunes within the park have some interesting plant species and sand wasp colonies.

The provincial Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations describe the sand dunes around Boundary Bay as rare and sensitive ecosystems. Staff recently undertook restoration work in Beach Grove, removing invasive plant species that have escaped from adjacent gardens. Within the regional park, many native and non-native plants grow on the sand dunes and in the salty, upper-tidal sand. One of the most striking in June and July is the saltmarsh dodder, whose tangled, orange stalks look like sprayed fluorescent paint or plastic string. It is parasitic on sea asparagus (Salicornia), has no roots and only stumps of leaves, and obtains its nutrients entirely from the host plant. The tiny white flowers are only visible on close inspection.

dodder 2

Saltmarsh dodder

Another strange plant is the big-headed sedge, which has brown spiky flowers and thin, grass-like leaves. It anchors the sand in place with its roots and helps stabilize the dunes. Female and male flowers (the former larger than the latter) are on different plants. Brilliant yellow flowers belong to the entire-leaved gumweed, a showy plant with sticky buds, at its best in mid-summer when it blooms in abundance. Sheep sorrel, a delicate, red-flowered plant, found on dry dunes, is one of many European plants that have infiltrated the delta over the years. Sea thrift, silver burweed, blue-eyed mary and Lomatium or Indian consumption plant are other sand-loving plants. Blue-eyed mary flowers in late March and early April. The seeds and leaves of Lomatium were a traditional herbal treatment for tuberculosis, also known as consumption. They taste of celery.

bigheaded sedge

Big-headed sedge

Boundary Bay’s special sand dunes are well worth a closer look; tread carefully!

Posted by: Anne Murray | March 27, 2013

Sea Lions in the Salish Sea

California sea lions

California Sea Lions

Ocean waters between the mainland and the Gulf Islands are home to many marine mammals, including whales, sea lions, porpoises and dolphins. Two species of sea lion, the California and the Steller sea lion, are present in southern B.C. waters at this time of year. They can sometimes be seen swimming in the sea or hauled out on rocky islets and jetties.

Seal lions are much larger and noisier than the more common harbour seals, which belong to a separate family. Even from a distance, one soon hears the barking calls of California seal lions or the loud growls and grunts of enormous male Steller sea lions. They can raise themselves on their front flippers and turn their rear flippers forwards, so they are quite agile on land. Underwater, they are sleek, fast predators, feeding on herring, hake, octopus or rockfish. They are not at the top of the food chain, however, as they are hunted by transient orcas.

Steller Sea Lions

Steller Sea Lions

The histories of Steller and California sea lions illustrate the significance of human predation and long term, oceanic climate cycles on marine mammals. Steller sea lions breed on the B.C. and Alaska coast and some disperse to the Salish Sea in winter. They were once aggressively culled through hunting and population control programs, but since 1970, the B.C. colonies have rebounded. This is not the case for the once abundant Gulf of Alaska populations, which have declined dramatically since the 1950s. The northeast Pacific Ocean has been undergoing significant ecological change and Steller sea lions, harbour seals and northern fur seals are all struggling to survive. With herring in short supply there, the sea lions feed on less nutritious fish, such as pollock.

Only male California seal lions spend the winter in B.C.. They often gather out on the 8 km Steveston jetty in spring. Until the 1960s, they were rarely seen locally. Their presence here now may be overflow from booming southern populations, or due to cyclical ocean conditions. California sea lions are recovering from nearly two hundred years of extermination in California and Mexico but are now thriving.

Posted by: Anne Murray | March 15, 2013

Moles and Voles

Moles and Voles: the hidden life of small mammals

Townsends vole

A Townsend’s Vole from the Fraser Delta

Mole or vole? These two native mammals have confusingly similar names but play quite different roles in our local ecosystem. February is a good time of year to watch for signs of these small rodents. They are a seldom seen yet vitally important part of the food chain.

A sudden eruption of soil mounds on your lawn indicates the presence of coast moles. The wet winter season is an active time for moles and they will soon give birth to young, deep underground in their burrows. As they dig beneath the surface, you can sometimes see the mole hill moving as fresh earth gets pushed up from below. In early summer, the young moles disperse above ground and are vulnerable to predators such as barn owls and cats. Coast moles have soft black fur, pointed snouts, and strong, paddle-shaped front paws, used for digging. They eat many earthworms, slugs and other invertebrates.

Voles also live in tunnels, but they create intricate runways that meander mostly above ground, burrowing through the thick, matted grass of fields and marshes. These burrows are easy to find, especially in old field habitats that can hold up to 800 voles a hectare. Two species of vole are common locally: the Townsend’s vole and the smaller creeping vole. Both lead short lives and breed young, so populations of voles can increase rapidly. When this happens, coyotes and birds of prey will gather to feast on them, causing the vole populations to diminish, in an irregular boom-bust cycle. Townsend’s voles are a key dietary item for many of the resident and wintering raptors for which the Fraser delta is renowned, including northern harrier, short-eared owl, barn owl, rough-legged and red-tailed hawks. Even great blue-herons survive the winter by hunting voles. It is an amazing sight to see one of these stately birds spear and swallow one whole!

The high number of voles contribute to making the Fraser delta the best location in Canada for numbers and diversity of wintering birds of prey. Farmland, old fields and marshes are vital habitats for them.

Posted by: Anne Murray | November 18, 2012

Snowy Owls on Boundary Bay

Snowy Owl photographed from Boundary Bay dyke, January 2012, by Felicity Jenkins

Snowy Owls are once again wintering on Boundary Bay’s salt marsh and in fields and marshes near Brunswick Point, Roberts Bank. Last year, these birds proved to be a huge draw for photographers and the general public, not just birdwatchers. These spectacular birds are well worth a visit, but it is ESSENTIAL that some care and thought is given to their well-being. Last year, several of the Snowy Owls died, probably because they did not get enough to eat. In order to rest and hunt, these owls need to sit quietly for long periods of time, familiarising themselves with the terrain, listening to their surroundings, and conserving their energy. When people approach them too closely and surround them so that they have no obvious escape route, the owls can become stressed. This is true of most wildlife.

In many years of watching birds and wild animals, I have always found it best to wait quietly and allow them to approach. If there are many people watching at the same time, and the birds stay at a distance, there may be no option but to enjoy the view you have. Please use binoculars, a long camera lens, or a telescope if you have one. Please stay on the dyke, do not go into the salt marsh (where a number of other species live, that can also be disturbed) and do not go into neighbouring fields. Wonderful views can be obtained on the dyke, especially if you go a little earlier in the morning or stay later in the evening.  Photographers should be aware that Boundary Bay dyke is on the north side of the bay. This means that if it is sunny, you will be shooting straight into the sun, so it is better to visit on an overcast or cloudy day. 

The marshes around Boundary Bay and Roberts Bank are an Important Bird Area and some of the area has just been designated a Ramsar Site (Wetland of International Importance; actually all of it qualifies).  There are  many birds in both locations, although seeing them can depend on tides, weather and sharp eyes. Not only can you look for Snowy Owls, but also Short-eared Owls, Northern Harriers (they used to be called marsh hawks – they have a white rump, conspicuous in flight), Western Meadowlarks, Northern Flickers, Northern Shrike, Merlins, Peregrine Falcon, Dunlin (sandpipers, that occur in huge flocks), Trumpeter Swans, Great Blue Herons, and several species of sparrows. There is lots to photograph from the Boundary Bay dyke which is 22 km long. Spread out from the crowds and enjoy the view.

Posted by: Anne Murray | November 13, 2012

Boundary Bay in November

A Short-eared Owl flying above the bay, Dunlin flock wheeling in background

Saturday was a gloriously calm, sunny day and perfect for birdwatching on Boundary Bay. Owls were present in abundance: we counted 13 Short-eareds between Beach Grove and 72 Street and also saw the first Snowy of the winter (a friend saw two out in the marsh). Huge Dunlin (sandpiper) flocks were doing their amazing aerobatics across the bay at high tide, easily avoiding the Merlin that was pestering them.  As the tide fell in late afternoon, the shorebirds descended to feed on the glistening mud.  Four Trumpeter Swans flew in, giving a nice contrast in size.

Along the dyke trail, we saw plenty of other birds: a highlight was two American Tree Sparrows. Song Sparrows and White-crowned Sparrows were common, there were numerous Northern Harriers, after the same prey (Townsend’s voles) as the Short-eared Owls, and the usual birds such as Northern Flickers, Great Blue Herons, American Robins, Red-winged Blackbirds, Eurasian Starlings and House Finches.  A Eurasian Wigeon was hanging out with some American Wigeon in the pond, where female Shovelers and some American Coots were also feeding. Offshore, the duck flocks were typically enormous, as every waterfowl in western Canada heads to the coast for winter.

I was so taken up by looking at all this beauty, I forgot to take photos!


Posted by: Anne Murray | September 21, 2012

Ice and fire beside the Salish Sea

Mount Baker rises above the still waters of Boundary Bay

Mount Baker is a beautiful, snow-capped peak that rises from the North Cascades range in Washington State, about a hundred miles south of Vancouver, B.C.

The 3,286m peak of Mount Baker, an active volcano, formed when eruptions disgorged flows of andesitic lava. This highly viscous, silica-rich lava is produced where the oceanic crust sinks under the continental crust in a subduction zone. Mount Baker is one of a string of such stratovolcanoes that includes Mount St Helens and Mount Rainier, in WashingtonState, and the extinct CoquihallaMountain in B.C. 


Mount Baker is a relatively young volcano and is intermittently active. The last notable eruption was about 5,900 years ago, when ash and rock were blasted into the air and debris flows of mud, ice, rocks and trees crashed down its slopes. Spanish explorers, Galiano and Valdez, heard distant rumblings from the volcano in June 1792, and debris flows occurred through the mid-1800s. In 1975, gas escaped from Sherman Crater but the mountain slept on.

Andesite lava cooled into hexagonal forms

The ice sheets of the Pleistocene Ice Age only covered the valleys and lower slopes of the mountains, but alpine glaciers carved the summits. The North Cascades are the most glaciated mountains in the lower forty eight states, and they experience heavy snowfalls due to their west coast location. In 1999, Mount Baker received a staggering 29 m of snow! It has thirteen glaciers on its summit, yet despite heavy snowfalls, all of them are now shrinking.

Paintbrush and other wildflowers in the alpine meadows

The alpine meadows of Mount Baker are an ecological treasure. Hoary marmots and mountain goats live on the rocky slopes and chipmunks scamper among the heather and wild blueberries. Wildflowers abound in the short summer season: blue lupines, red paintbrush, yellow arnica and magenta monkey flower. Fine weather brings spectacular vistas of surrounding peaks, and a chance to hike the alpine trails. At other times, the mountain disappears in mist, rain and snow, and the temperature plummets. It is a harsh environment and only hardy species can survive.

Above: Mountain goats grazing on the alpine meadows

Posted by: Anne Murray | August 29, 2012

Spotting grouse in Manning Park

We did not so much look for grouse in Manning Park as stumble upon them. They just stand around, quietly and unobtrusively, until you notice them.  The one in the picture above is a male Sooty Grouse, with a bit of Dusky Grouse in his ancestry if I am not mistaken. Both species used to be ‘lumped’ together as subspecies of Blue Grouse until a 2006 decision by the arbiter of such ornithological niceties, the American Ornithologists’ Union.  The Sooty Grouse is a darker, coastal forest bird, while the Dusky Grouse prefers the drier interior. However, in Manning Park these two habitats adjoin and some hybridisation occurs.

This particular grouse was seen quietly standing among the wild flowers and conifers of the alpine meadows on the north side of Highway 3, reached by a winding road opposite the Manning Park Lodge.

Spruce Grouse

A stroll with the Delta Naturalists’ Casual Birders through the lower elevation forests around Lightning Lake produced a different species of grouse: the Spruce Grouse. Once again, the adult, a female, was standing very quietly at the base of a tree, her mottled plumage blending in very well with the surroundings.  Close by was one of her well-grown chicks, and as we watched four more emerged and followed her as she walked calmly along the edge of the car park.

Clark’s Nutcracker

Other interesting highland species include Clark’s Nutcrackers and Grey Jays (both very tame in Manning Park) and various small animals, including yellow-pine chipmunks, golden-mantled ground squirrels and columbian ground squirrels and snowshoe hare. While black bear are often seen around Manning, the hot August day and the many visitors to the park must have sent them to higher, quieter altitudes.

Yellow-pine Chipmunk

The chipmunk and the golden-mantled ground squirrel can be confusing: the chipmunk is smaller and has a striped face.  The cascade subspecies is the one found in Manning Park.  I think it is a different subspecies in the Canadian Rockies, where they pester hikers at Lake Louise.

Cascade Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel

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