Camas flowers & cherishing our garry oak habitats

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Camas flowers at Uplands Park

This week, I went for a walk at the park in the late afternoon to watch birds and I was pleasantly surprised as I walked down a wooded path, looked to the side and saw a meadow awash with violet flowers! The camas flowers are in full bloom now and I have made some time this week to go out and enjoy them.

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Camas meadow at Uplands Park

Camas flowers grow in plenty during spring in the garry oak meadows of southern Vancouver Island, along with the strikingly bright pink Henderson’s Shooting Stars. Seeing them carpet the meadow floor and the flanks of hills is utterly stunning. Standing in the middle of this field of flowers, I felt like I was nowhere on earth.

White Fawn Lilies sprout up in wet, shady areas below trees where Orange-crowned Warblers, Chipping Sparrows and Spotted Towhees sing. Before the Victoria area was colonised and developed, Western Bluebirds, Western Meadowlarks and Vesper Sparrows once thrived in the native garry oak habitat. Now, they have all virtually disappeared and are a rarity if seen. Some species need these habitats to survive. More species, from plants to insects to birds, could follow. To prevent further loss, we should protect these ecosystems and cherish them.

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Camas flowers at Mt Tolmie

I had the joy of seeing my first Orange-crowned Warbler of spring today. They are one of my favourite birds and I’ve been hearing them in the trees all week, but I’ve not been able to locate one until today. I just love everything about them; their colour, their trill-y song, the way they blend in to the tree like a leaf.

Across the meadow, there was also a Chipping Sparrow singing in the top branches of a small tree. Garry oak ecosystems are one of the few places I most often see both of these birds. Garry oaks benefit the birds by providing food and habitat and they are also one of my favourite types of places to visit.

Go see what makes the garry oak habitat special. Get out and visit a local garry oak meadow today – you won’t regret it when you see the beauty of the flowers and the song of the birds! Support or contribute to a local initiative preserving these habitats, like the Garry Oak Ecosystem Recovery Team, the Friends of Uplands Park, or the Garry Oak Meadow Preservation Society. Think about what you can do with your own land to help.

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There are a few garry oak ecosystems still remaining in Victoria. Here is a list of a few:

Larger garry oak parks:
Uplands Park, Oak Bay | Map
Mt Tolmie, Saanich | Map
Francis King Regional Park, Highlands | Map
Observatory Hill, Saanich | Map

Smaller gems worth visiting:
Knockan Hill Park, View Royal | Map
Little Mt Doug, Saanich | Map
Government House Gardens Woodlands, Victoria | Map
Fort Rodd Hill gardens, Colwood | Map
Bear Hill Regional Park, Saanich | Map
Vic Derman Park/Christmas Hill, Saanich | Map
Glencoe Cove – Kwatsech Park, Saanich | Map
Parts of Beacon Hill park, Victoria | Map
Moss Rock Park, Fairfield | Map

Summertime nest observation: Osprey, Bald Eagles and Great Blue Heron

Summer is in full swing here in Victoria – the cicadas are buzzing, the flowers have bloomed and many birds are caring for their young. Last week I was quite lucky to stumble upon a few new nests, as well as checking up on the old ones.

These are exciting times at the Osprey nest I’ve been watching on and off. Around mid-June, the chicks hatched and on June 22, I saw three wee heads poking out from the nest! I’m so excited to be watching them thrive and grow throughout the season this year after only discovering the nest late last summer.

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Three little Osprey chick heads poke out from the nest while mum watches over

All the pair’s hard work repairing and working on the nest starting in April has certainly paid off. Three chicks also hatched last year, but only two fledged.  So far, this year’s three are doing well and I am very hopeful for them!

Last week I went to watch to find lots of action underway! A third Osprey was in the area, seemingly agitating the mother who continuously called out and eventually gave chase to the intruder. A third Osprey had been sighted periodically throughout the pair’s courtship and nest-building; I wonder if this was the same one.

Dad-Osprey finally returned to the nest area and settled on a nearby light-post. Soon, he was swooping and diving and calling loudly in an impressive flight display chasing off the third osprey, and the happy family was safely tucked into their nest once more.

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Dad returning to the nest area
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Dad setting off to chase away the third Osprey
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Osprey family all tucked in the nest

My second visit last week saw more activity – lunchtime! Mum and babies were calling out hungrily from the nest until dad swooped in with lunch – fish, of course! It must be very hard work fishing for four family members and yourself. Its no wonder only two chicks fledged last year.

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Patiently waiting for lunch
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“Fish again, dad?”

In a setting entirely different from the sports field, but still not far from human activity, I found a Bald Eagle nest hidden up a tree.

So far, I have seen no chicks, but it looked like they were busy building up the nest in preparation and giving it lots of attention. I’ve only ever once before seen a nesting pair of Bald Eagles, so I am very excited about this!

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Bald Eagle nest

 

I really hope to see chicks here in the future. Bald Eagles are a rare creature out east where I grew up, but B.C. is home to a huge population of these sea-eagles. Sometimes I find it funny that I have seen far more of them here than I have in its iconic home to the south, the U.S. I saw one fly low over my backyard the other day; something I have never seen before and will not soon forget!

On the weekend, I spotted an Osprey nest at another sports field. Its so interesting that Osprey do not seem to mind the noise and boisterousness from the games going on below. I didn’t spy any chicks from the angles I could view from, but here’s hoping there are some more on the way!

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Another Osprey nest found at another sports field.

Finally, I observed a Great Blue Heronry which used to house many more nests in the past until the nests were decimated by bald eagle predation.  It appears to be bouncing back, though, with a number of nests hidden in the boughs of trees with tall herons perched atop branches looking every bit as graceful as they are in the water.


Unlike Osprey, Great Blue Herons are incredibly sensitive to human disturbances and will abandon nests as a result. However, their chicks are also vulnerable to predators like bald eagles. While Bald Eagles and Osprey tend to mate for life, Great Blue Heron pairs remain together only for the season and will seek other mates in the following years.

Despite their differences, all three of these birds rely on fish as a huge part (or the only part) of their diet. That means the success of each species is intrinsically linked with the health of the ocean. While individuals may thrive in an ideal nesting site or decline from human disturbance or predators, as a whole, how will they survive challenges like dwindling fish from over-fishing, plastic pollution and ingestion or toxic chemicals moving up the food chain?

Did you notice the common link between these challenges are humans? Only we can change our habits, our behaviour, our society, in order to protect the environment from ourselves. Next time you reach for that plastic bottle of soda at the store, order fish for dinner or put pesticides on your garden or lawn, think about the impact of your actions and choices. Think about the Osprey, think about the Great Blue Heron. Remember Rachel Carson and DDT in Silent Spring. Think about the ocean. It belongs to all of us, human and creature alike, and as such each one of us is responsible for its well-being.


More reading and resources
Overfishing.org explains what overfishing is, why it is a problem and what you can do to help.
Participate in a Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup to remove garbage and debris from the coasts. Remember it is always better not to pollute, litter and use single-use plastics in the first place.
Observe a nest at OspreyWatch and log your observations to partake in citizen science.
Seven ways you can reduce ocean pollution right now

How glaciers carved Lake Louise & the Rockies: what remains today

Everywhere, the Canadian Rockies are scoured and marked by the power of ice. We have these powerful glaciers to thank for much of the beauty we now enjoy. Banff NP’s Lake Louise at 1,731m elevation is one example of one such famous site created by glacial erosion.

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The Victoria Glacier above the head of Lake Louise, feeds the glacial lake with meltwater.

Above the head of the lake lies Victoria Glacier, a valley glacier, which feeds Lake Louise with beautiful blue-green meltwater (Britannica). Years ago, the Victoria glacier probably once extended much further into the valley while only a fraction of it remains today.

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The end of the trail approaching the head of Lake Louise. Beyond this point the trail crosses avalanche paths. It appears not everyone heeded the warnings; see footprints litter the snow just beyond the sign.

 

 

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The mini-avalanche we witnessed at Lake Louise still roared and crumbled despite the small size of the collapse. I still wouldn’t want to be anywhere near it! These falls must happen regularly based on the debris pile at the bottom. Spring is avalanche season in the mountains.

You can get closer to the  Victoria Glacier on the Plain of Six Glaciers trail, but the latter part of the trail was closed to us (like a few others on our trip) due to potential avalanches. In fact, while we walked along the frozen lake, we witnessed a mini-avalanche on the opposite shore.

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Lake Louise still frozen in late April.

 

Even when frozen, the lake’s waters are blue because it is a glacial-fed lake. As glaciers grind up rocks above the lake, fine glacial silt is created and deposited into the lake by meltwater. The sediment is then suspended in the lake as it slowly settles to the bottom and the sunlight reflects off the sediment is what gives it such rich hues.

As we walked along the lake, Golden-mantled Ground Squirrels scurried along the edges of the frozen lake while Clark’s Nutcrackers were unperturbed by tourists, seeking out an easy meal.

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The small Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel, commonly confused with a chipmunk!
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Clark’s Nutcracker, not at all bothered by the noisy tourists.

While much of the ice that once existed is now gone, glaciers still persist in the Rockies high in the mountains and down alpine valleys. At 2,800m elevation, the Columbia Icefield exists today due to the buildup of the annual fall of 7m of snow; the accumulation of snow over time forms the icefield (Parks Canada).

Perched along the Continental Divide, the approximately 215 square kilometer icefield is a major source of freshwater in North America (Gadd, 2008). The Athabasca River, the North Saskatchewan River and the  Columbia River are all sourced from the icefield, their waters eventually reaching the Arctic, Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, respectively.

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Part of the Columbia Icefield in Jaser NP, AB. The Snow Glacier is the lumpy looking snow on the right of the photo. To the left of the glacier is the Snow Dome at 3,456m elevation which lies directly on the Alberta-British Columbia border.

 

From the top of the Icefield, seven valley glaciers flow downward, one of which is the easily accessible Athabasca Glacier. The Athabasca Glacier is currently retreating although it once reached as far as where the Icefields Visitor Center stands today (Gadd, 2008).

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The Athabasca Glacier, Columbia Icefields, Jasper NP, AB.

While glaciers are mighty erosive forces, they also deposit incredible loads of sediment. By studying the erosive features and deposits left behind by glacier, geologists can determine how far the glacier extended in the past.

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The Athabasca Glacier valley with some glacial features labelled. Glaciers scour through rock, leaving behind characteristic round-bottomed and steep-sided U-shaped valleys as opposed to rivers cutting out V-shaped valleys. (Click for full size image)

The Athabasca Glacier valley where the U-shape of the valley is clearly seen. Lateral moraines are piles of rock debris deposited along the edges of a glacier as it recedes. Here, they mark where the glacier extended much wider into the valley than it does today, almost outlining the glacier’s previous boundaries.

The rocky debris in the foreground of the photo (a recessional moraine) was deposited as the glacier retreated from a former position further into the valley; the land where I stood taking this photo was once covered by ice as recently as the early 1800s (Patton, 2014). A glacier retreats when melting occurs faster at the toe than snow and ice can accumulate further up on the glacier. Basically, it is like simple math. If what goes in (snowfall) is less than what goes out (melt), the glacier retreats.

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The North Saskatchewan River flows from the Rocky Mountains east toward Lake Winnipeg, its waters eventually reaching the Atlantic Ocean at the Hudson Bay via the Nelson River (Jasper NP, AB).

Freshwater is a critical resource not only for human survival, but flora and fauna of all kinds, and the Columbia Icefield is an important resource for all living things besides its simple beauty. The melting and building of the Columbia Icefield impacts what happens downstream in the Columbia River and as far away as the Arctic Ocean where the Mackenzie River (the largest and longest river in Canada) empties into its seas.

All things in nature are inter-connected. Wildlife is wild. When will more people realize this? Animals and plants do not recognize park, provincial or national boundaries. Wolves and bears protected within the park boundaries wander out where they are hunted and killed because legislation permits hunting these animals. Pollution does not stop at the border with Alberta because it is from British Columbia. Invasive species from the U.S. do not stop at a border crossing with Canada to get their passport stamped and approved. When will people work together as stewards and take responsibility for our impact, both positive and negative, on this earth before it is too late for everyone, including ourselves?


References
Columbia Icefield and Athabasca Glacier, Parks Canada
Gadd, B., 2008. Columbia Icefield, Athabasca Glacier in Canadian Rockies Geology Road Tours, pp. 335-342.
Lake Louise in: Encyclopedia Britannica
Patton, B., 2014. Icefields Parkway Driving Guide in Parkways of the Canadian Rockies.

How you can prevent bird windowstrike deaths: helping at home and in your community

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The Royal Ontario Museum has an annual display of migratory birds killed due to window collision in Toronto alone. This year, the exhibit features 21,000 birds. (Photo from: FLAP)

I’ll never forget the sunny day at work I discovered bits of feathers and avian debris on the edge of a sidewalk which ultimately led me to the body of a dead bird in the bushes. What happened here? I went inside and asked the security guard if she knew what had caused this violent scene. I thought maybe it had been attacked by another animal.

“Oh yes,” she said, “it flew into the window.” She had moved the body to the bushes afterwards in hopes it might make it. It didn’t. After a lengthy discussion, I found out it happens a lot more often than you might think. She found bodies or witnessed collisions on a fairly regular basis. A pair of hummingbirds and a family of kingfishers had died the year before. I was distressed by this, and so was she.

I soon realised how common this problem actually is. An estimated 100 million to 1 billion birds die from hitting windows each year in the United States alone. Another study determined window strikes caused more bird deaths each year than cats! Others estimate 100 million to 1 billion bird deaths per year attributed to window strikes while cats were responsible for up to 500 million deaths per year. A study by Environment Canada found cats caused more bird deaths than window strikes each year in Canada (at least 100 million deaths per year by cats versus 16-42 million deaths per year by window strikes).

There is clearly still room for debate on the leading anthropogenic cause of bird deaths, but window strikes are a top contender regardless. Just imagine how difficult it must be to get accurate statistics on either cause.

Why are windows a problem for birds?
Glass is an issue for birds because they cannot see it. It is invisible to them. The worst cases are those where windows are situated directly opposite windows on the other side, creating what appears to be a clear line of sight through to the outdoors. To a bird, it simply looks like a continuation of their habitat. An additional problem is leaving lights on inside at night because so many bird migrate by night and can become easily confused or even trapped by light reflecting off windows within buildings.

What can you do at home to reduce bird-window impacts?
Don’t place houseplants right against the window.
Place your bird feeders either: right up against the window OR no more than 1m (3ft) away from the window.
Put up curtains or shades to break up the transparency.
Put up stickers or decals on the windows. To be effective, they must be no less than 5x5cm (2x2in) apart.
Hang colourful strings, ribbons or streamers across your window. Again, these must be no less than 5cm (2in) apart.
Use soap or washable marker on the outside of your window to create a design or whitewash your windows.
A single hawk silhouette sticker does NOTHING to prevent bird strikes. This is a very common misconception.

What about commercial buildings in my community?
There are a number of ways for commercial buildings to reduce bird-window impacts. They range from putting up dotted adhesive, to screening on the outside of windows to using special UV glass.  In Canada, it is actually against the Species At Risk Law to inadvertently kill or injure birds from the reflective light through building windows.

A recent study from Duke University of their own campus at Durham found that bird collisions were highest at buildings with the greatest glass area except the building with patterned, or fritted, glass. They also found a higher incidence of collision at buildings with greater forested area in the vicinity. These findings are important in telling us what we can do to reduce bird-window collisions. Migratory birds were also more susceptible to window collisions: 76% of the dead window-strike birds found were migratory species.

If you notice bird impacts at your workplace or around your city, or are concerned, get involved and find out what you can do to help. Talk to a building or facilities manager about options, like those presented by FLAP. Use social media to spread the word. Many birds that end up in wildlife rehab are there because of window strikes. The best way to solve the problem is to prevent it.

April 12 is the Canadian Wildlife Federation and FLAP Canada’s Bird Impact Reduction Day. Don’t forget about this silent killer! Ask your office buildings and workplaces to turn the lights off at night, turn the lights off in your home or close your blinds or curtains, move your houseplants away from windows and tell people about this problem to raise awareness. Donate to FLAP or volunteer. They are an amazing resource on this issue.

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What do I do if a bird flies into my window?
Now that I’ve learned all this, I know what to do when the misfortune of a bird-window strike does happen. The best thing to do is put the bird in a small cardboard box (with a rolled up paper towel to perch on) with airholes and let it recover.

If the bird does recover, you’ll hear it moving and fluttering about in the box, then its safe to let it out. If it doesn’t its best to take it to the professionals are your nearest wildlife rehab centre.

If you don’t know where that is, I encourage you to find out. Here is a list of wildlife rehab centers in the United Sates and abroad though it is likely not exhaustive!