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Starlings as demolishers

Starlings are an introduced species.  It seems they have taken to demolition of Purple Martin Nest boxes!

Willie Harvie captured this photo recently at Cowichan Estuary.  Look carefully and you will see a nail flying through the air.

Heat Dome Devastation

The recent, record-breaking heat-wave, described as a “heat dome”, caused shocking devastation on some many fronts.

Our Violet-Green Swallows abandoned their nest.  We watched four adults swirling around in front of the birdhouse on one of the hot afternoons and then they were gone.  I knew that no young had fledged as I had been keeping an eye and ear on the birdhouse ever since the adults started nest building.  There had been lots of activity, but no sound of hungry, young birds.

It took a day before I realized they were definitely gone, and it was with dread that I opened the nest box.  Luckily, there were no dead chicks or even eggs.  But I found a beautiful, feather-lined nest which had taken so much work.  What a waste of valuable energy.  Others had even worse results. Neighbours grieved for dead chicks, one which had managed to pull itself out only to die under the bird house with its siblings dead in the nest.

Another tragedy came to light when I learned that our Eel-grass transplant project was cancelled (or hopefully just postponed).  The extraordinarily high levels of E.coli in Cowichan Bay made it unsafe for the divers to enter the water.  There are likely several causes for this huge increase in the bacterial count in the Bay, but one contributing factor could be the rotting invertebrates that were cooked at low-tides during the heat wave.  Thousands of mussels, clams and other invertebrates perished during the heat dome.  These would have been the food source for seabirds and other marine predators. The chain reaction is frightening.

Will more of us now realize that climate change is real, and do whatever possible to try to turn the tide?

Bats on a Solstice Evening

It was nearing 21:45h on June 20th.  Steve and I were visiting Bruce and Adele with several other friends.  The sun had set behind Mount Prevost an hour earlier.  Adele disappeared and then I heard her call, “Gail, come here quickly!” Through the twilight, I spotted her sitting on a beautiful old wooden bench at the edge of the trees.

We all hurried over and I sat beside Adele. “Look, just up, right in front” she whispered. Suddenly a bat darted right in front of me.  Then another, a pause and then another.  Bill attached his ultra-sonic microphone (from Wildlife Acoustics) to his iPhone via the data port.  Immediately, signals appeared on the screen, accompanied by intriguing high pitched calls.

Bats can be identified by the frequency of their calls.  Bill’s microphone picked up four different calls which were instantly identified by an app on his phone.

The Little Brown Myotis – image taken from the Missouri Department of Conservation website.

The Silver haired Bat image taken from the University of Wisconsin website

Adam Mann, Environmental Solutions and Innovations.

The Hoary Bat image taken from Animal Spot website

The Mexican Free-tailed Bat image taken from the Arizona Highways website

Bruce and Adele’s property has several good sites for bat roosts.  Bill suggested that high in the tall Douglas Firs – with their thick, coarse bark  – would likely be a place for bats to find a roosting spot.

Bill is working on a Bat project with CERCA.  These data can be added to the project.  Thank you Bill for sharing this amazing technology.  Thank you Bruce and Adele for inviting us to be there. What a way to celebrate Solstice!


Grosbeaks and Aspens

Thanks, again to Kerry Finley for the following delightful account – including a bird and a tree – a perfect story for a Nature Blog!
Also thanks to Mike Yip for the photos of the male and female Grosbeaks.  Mike’s latest book: “a beginner’s guide to the common VANCOUVER ISLAND BIRDS” is one I am often browsing through to learn more. GM
A Drunken Robin in Macoun’s Aspen ?
Early June is a rich time to be born at the height of verdure and bloom. Today on my daily walk to McDonald Park swamp, headwaters of Tsehum Harbour, I was thinking of John Macoun, Dominion Naturalist, who thoroughly explored this small drainage with its giant Black Cottonwoods and its understory of Macoun’s Trembling Aspen, and its distinctive plant community. I forget which native culture called it the Happiness Tree because it was always chattering in the wind. Unfortunately the ferry traffic passes nearby so bird song is diminished so when I heard an unusual alarm call – a high clear beerk, I stopped and waited some time before it began singing from the rustling aspens. It was worth it. I was transported into the aspen canopy with one of the cheeriest singers I have heard. A new bird ! Try as I might I could not spot the singer in the fluttering leaves. This is always exciting, so I hurried back and called Bob Peart, a birder, and he played back several songs from vireos and warblers but none matched. He suggested the Black-headed Grosbeak but then his app broke down, so I checked out the Cornell Labs site, and in a moment I recognized it. Bob said that they occurred on a few wet sites on the peninsula where Black Cottonwoods are found.
Macoun’s Vancouver Island aspen is a glacial relict. It has larger leaves and a different phenology of bloom than the prairie aspen. The aspen’s “trembling” is attributed to its long stem and leaf design which allows it to withstand strong winds by whiffling, but the incessant rustling and dancing of the leaves also create a special acoustic environment where certain species can hide and sing in the canopy. So maybe the rustling Aspens evolved its noisiness to conceal those songbirds that could best protect it against infestations. Just thinkin.
Like Bob, we are more bird listeners than bird watchers. We may not know them by their English names, but certainly by their distinctive songs. Many native names mimic the songs of species.
Gone away is the Blue Bird, here to stay is a New Bird.
Listen here : 
In western North America, the sweet song of the Black-headed Grosbeak carolling down from the treetops sounds like a tipsy robin welcoming spring.

Swallow Time

I am enjoying visits from a pair of Violet Green Swallows as they perch on our deck railing above their nest box.  Their presence always makes me smile and I hope the aerial insect population is healthy this year.  Therefore it was timely when this came into my inbox recently.  Thanks to Kerry (kj finley) an IBA caretaker for Roberts Bay Shoal Harbour Migratory Bird Sanctuary. GM

Swallow Time

26 May, 2021

Rough-winged Swallows are so-called because the leading edge of their primary feathers have hooks and projections, the purpose of which is unknown.

Yesterday was a spectacular day in North Saanich with towering cumulus after a refreshing and welcome light rain. These conditions evidently gave rise to a large release of aerial insects which attracted a considerable flock consisting of all three species of swallows over my field and over the Garry Oak copse.

I estimated that there were about 35 at one time, most Violet-green, two Barn Swallows and two Rough-winged Swallows. I spent much of an enjoyable afternoon watching them with their spectacular movements and grace. Each of them seems to have their particular maneuver but the Rough-wing seemed to me to have the edge on grace.

There is a world of difference between here on the farm and Roberts Bay, just 2 km away. Seldom do the swallows ever appear around the bay; their prime habitat is the fields and Garry Oak meadows of North Saanich, as well as the snags and deadwood that provide them ( Violet-greens ) nest cavities. All the swallows are on the decline thought to be due to the loss of aerial insects. It was really interesting to watch the mixed feeding flock shift from a position over my house to just above the Garry Oak canopy, shifting back and forth in their foraging patterns.

With the towering cumulus, backlit, the grace of the swallows against them, and the towering Garry Oaks, it was heaven on earth.

Birds are essential to human health and well-being.


Mating moths

Thank you Katharine Staiger for this photo of mating Sphinx moths (Smerinthus ophthaimica) found on a peony in their garden. This is likely one of the largest moths that can be found in the Cowichan Valley. I am guessing the large one is the female, measuring about two inches.  The hind wings, which have the striking eye spots are not opened here.  I guess they were not trying to attract attention.  Gail

Nesting time

Bruce Coates and his friend Dan have been keeping an eye on this Common Bushtit’s nest.

These little balls of feathers with long tails build the most distinctive nests in this region.

The Common Bushtit is a delight to watch when they swoop down on a suet feeder in the winter.  A whole flock of 20 or more can arrive, covering the whole feeder, and taking turns getting a spot.  Then they leave as quickly as they arrived.

Now they are paired up and raising families.  The male and female can be distinguished by eye-colour: males being completely dark and females with a striking yellow ring around a small dark centre.


A strange sight – Herring headstands?

If you were walking along a sandy beach and saw this, what would you think?

This is what a couple of friends of mine discovered some years ago.  After photographing this, they went closer and discovered the answer:

It seems that herring not only have a lot of vertebrate predators (including us!);  they also have some invertebrate predators.  Sea anemones are lazy carnivores.  However, having the ability to snare anything that nears them from any angle makes them effective predators of small fish that get too close.  It took the anemones longer than it took the tide to recede, to consume these herring.


Allison Albrecht photos

Eric Marshall Memorial Bursary Fund

I am happy to tell you about another way to help children experience nature.

Thanks to Jim Wisnia for writing about this:

The Eric Marshall Memorial Bursary Fund will make bursaries available for children to attend nature and science day camps at the Cowichan Estuary Nature Centre as noted in Amy Clinton-Baker’s article in the May-June edition of the Valley Naturalist.  Eric was enthusiastic about volunteering to share his knowledge and support at these day camps as well as class visits to the Nature Centre.  By continuing to contribute to the Eric Marshall Memorial Bursary Fund we can ensure that finance is not a barrier to children and youths wishing to participate in these nature education programs in the future.

Donations can be made online through Canada Helps <>, sending an etransfer to or by mailing a cheque to CVNS, 55 Station St., Duncan, BC, V9L 1M2.  Please include a comment that the donation is for the Eric Marshall Bursary Fund.

April 29, 2021

It is bird nesting season in the Cowichan Valley.  The Spotted Towhee appears on the Cowichan Valley Naturalists’ brochure:

Thanks, again, to Willie Harvie for sending me this photo.


April 27th Willie’s Wildflower photos

Thank you Willie Harvie for your generosity in sharing these photos.  Willie uses a zoom lens to photograph flowers as well as birds.  This allows her to get shots without going off the trail – something important for us to remember.  At this time in the Cowichan Valley you can find these beauties:  Blue Camas; Chocolate Lily (with Shooting stars in the background) and Deltoid Balsamroot.

Migrating shorebirds

Now is the time to watch for migrating shorebirds.  Here is a Greater Yellowlegs photographed yesterday by Wilma Harvie at Cowichan Bay.  You might find one if you walk along Dock Road or at the end of the Ducks Unlimited trail. Gail


April 13 2021 Spring has sprung

April 13, 2021  by Gail

After a long hiatus, our website blog is up and running again!

This is my first attempt!  I will try to keep it going with nature news from around the valley.  Stay tuned!

The weather finally feels like spring. Here are some of the beautiful wildflowers that can be seen around the valley.  Photos are by Wilma Harvie

  Shooting Star Dodecatheon hendersonii ; Chocolate Lily Fritillaria affinis;

Fawn Lily Erythronium oreganum    


Tribute for Kenneth Eric Marshall

October 1930 – 17 December 2020

Eric was born Oct 1930 in King’s Lynn, Norfolk, England. He moved to Blackpool where he completed high school. He graduated from King’s College, London, with a degree in marine zoology. Following a compulsory two years National Service he worked as a librarian for Freshwater Biological Association on Windermere in the English Lake District.

Eric married Dorothy in 1958. He emigrated to Winnipeg with Dorothy and daughters, Lynn and Karina, to take the position of Information Scientist at the Freshwater Institute on the campus of U of M. Eric built up what was reputed to be the best marine science library in N. America. Son Ken was born in 1969.

Eric and Dorothy retired to Cowichan Bay in 1996. Eric enjoyed volunteering with many organizations especially the Cowichan Valley Naturalists Society. Eric died 17 December 2020, from complications after surgery.

Eric will be lovingly remembered by Dorothy, Lynn, Karina (Don), Ken (Angela) and his grandson Carter.

Kenneth Eric Marshall Obituary


John William Scull – An Obituary

May 10, 1943 – July 24, 2020

Born a 4th generation Californian and growing up in Beverly Hills, John used to jokingly describe himself as consistently downwardly mobile but no less happy for it.

His youthful interests became lifelong pursuits. He was drawn to science, particularly astronomy, reading, chess, music, sailing, and camping. He spent time working with his hands and exploring philosophy with his grandparents. It was also the beginnings of an enduring fascination with adventure and the South Pacific that began by sounding out the longest word he could find on the map on the wall – Kapingamarangi – which was eye-level for him at just the right age.

The following years included studying and working in engineering and then experimental psychology with rats, pigeons and turtles in California, Toronto, the United Kingdom, Mexico and Victoria. Along the way, he and his first partner Jeri Covay built a family, became deeply involved in the politics of social and environmental justice, travelled Europe and gathered more lifelong friends. His daughter Kathy was born in Toronto and Charley followed three years later in Brighton.

During his brief stint in Mexico City he miraculously found himself living next door to his best friend from childhood, Juan Bueno. They have been close friends ever since. Juan describes 12 year old John as a tall, lanky carefree kid with a gift for original thinking.

In 1973, his best friend Don Fernandez arranged for him to come to Vancouver Island on a six-week contract at Cedar Lodge, a school for children with learning disabilities. That contract turned into 10+ years and became a source of many more lifelong friendships. He had fallen in love with the Island, exploring it through sailing, camping, and tramping through the woods. It has been his chosen home ever since.

John later went into private practice, worked for Mental Health Centres on the Island and taught psychology at Vancouver Island University. He made time for travel, adventure and deep intercultural learnings with his spouse, Linda Hill; first to Micronesia (including a side trip to Kapingamarangi, the Island of his childhood imagination), and then to the Solomon Islands as CUSO volunteers.

These experiences became endless sources of stories, inspiration and even more friends. But home beckoned and he always came back to the Cowichan Valley, where he and Linda threw themselves into the issues that mattered most to them: diversity, inclusion, community, conservation, eco-psychology and the Earth Charter.

John had a deep sense of wonder with the natural world and an endless curiosity. He took great joy in learning and sharing his wonder with others, (especially his grandchildren) through teaching and mentorship. He appreciated the small and beautiful things in life; word-play, the smiles that appeared when he pulled out one of his tiny ukuleles and the pleasure of biting into a Pirate cookie, with the wind at your back as you’re headed for harbour. His ever-growing family of choice was also a constant source of delight.

John always thought of himself as an exceptionally fortunate man for the life he lived. He spent his final months laughing, joking, and sharing stories throughout his adventure with cancer. He was filled with gratitude that he had a chance to connect with so many of the people he really loved.

As John said, “Family, friends and community are the best medicine”. On July 24, as dawn broke and the finches began to sing, it was time for John to embark on his next journey. He was surrounded by his children, grandchildren and spouse, looking out onto Mount Prevost. His was a life well-lived. He left it a fortunate man and all of us a fortunate family.

John was very proud of his role as a founder of the Cowichan Land Trust. He saw the protection of natural areas as a gift to future generations. You are invited to make a contribution to CLT in lieu of flowers at

Online condolences may be offered at

Friends and community groups are invited to celebrate his life through your own informal gatherings and waffle parties. If you let us know your plans via Sands, we can participate virtually, in person, or in spirit.

Cowichan Valley Citizen, July 24, 2020