On May 8th a group gathered at Cowichan Bay for the last Coastal Waterbird Survey until September. The Waterbirds were scare – apart from Double Crested Cormorants and Glaucous- winged gulls, we only observed a few Bufflehead and one female Common Merganser. The resident Mute Swans graced us with their presence. Great Blue Herons were busy flying back and forth to the heronry which is perfectly located in maples at the edge of the estuary. Purple Martins are back occupying some of the nest boxes on the old pilings.
Those pilings also offer a site for Osprey to nest and they have been doing so for many years. This year, however, a pair has chosen a different piling to build their nest.
Have you ever felt that you are being watched? River Otters are a common site at Cowichan Bay. This one was watching us as we watched for birds. Thanks to Wilma Harvie, our photographer, extraordinaire!
On Sunday I was sat at my window with my daughter Sally and Irene when one of the few Purple Finch we have coming landed on one of my wooden props which I use for taking pictures. It was very obvious that this female Purple Finch was not well. I have taking down and no longer use silo feeders to help control the spread of this deadly decease, sadly I have several neighbors who still use this feeding method.
There was a small flock of Brown-headed Cowbirds on the ground around 8 birds 4 males and 4 females when suddenly they were disturbed and most flew up into the Winter Honeysuckle bush, this one female flew up and sat right next to the sickly Purple Finch and began to cuddle up. This went on for all of 10 minutes with the cowbird rubbing it’s head against the finch’s back, it was almost like the cowbird was consoling the finch in her day of pain. They rubbed wings and the cowbird gave the finch a little nudge but then went back to touching and rubbing. Even a little bill touching was observed by the cowbird. What surprised me the most was that the finch perked up after a while and the female cowbird flew down to be with her flock.
I have never ever seen anything like this happen with any birds showing what appeared to be some sort of caring for another birds dilemma.
I will leave this with you with pictures to see what you think. I will also be loading a video up on Facebook for those who indulge.
One of the most welcome signs of Spring is the chorus of frogs. If you are lucky enough to have a wetland area near where you live, you will know what I mean. The tiny Pacific Tree Frog (also called the Pacific Chorus Frog) is the one most common to me. The Scientific name for this frog is Pseudacris regilla.
Pacific Tree Frog photo by Barry Hetschko
The genus name for the Pacific Tree Frog has changed quite recently. It used to be Hyla regilla and I could remember that name, because a well-known Herpetologist at UVic told a story that if you were ever unfortunate enough to see one squashed on the road, it would look “highly irregula”. Dark humour to be sure, but this leads to our concern about the migration of amphibians – often crossing roads. Add in the fact that this often happens on dark, rainy nights, it means hundreds of amphibians are killed by automobiles.
It is fun to catch a toad, frog or salamander and have a close look at it, but please remember that these animals are ectothermic. That means they pick up the heat from your hand and their body temperature may rise to a dangerous level for them.
Young Western Toad Anaxyrus boreas photo by Steve Mitchell
If you want to study them for a while, put them into a plastic container, like a margarine or yogurt container. Some of these amphibians actually breathe through their skin, so it is very important not to handle them for long periods. After your look, put them back where you found them. Most amphibians need water to reproduce, but once hatched and metamorphosed from tadpole to adult, they may travel long distances through forests, away from water – always returning to water to lay their eggs. The fact that they require different habitats at different times of the year means fragmentation of wilderness areas leads to the demise of these animals. Continuous areas from wetland to forest are necessary for their survival.
One exception I know on Vancouver island is the very small, fully terrestrial Western Red-backed Salamander Plethodonvehiculum. These beautiful little salamanders are found under fallen logs or within decomposing logs in the forest. They depend on these fallen logs – “Nurse Logs” which provide habitat and nutrients for many species of plants and animals.
Whereas the little Pacific Tree Frog is vociferous, you will likely never hear a croak from the Red-legged Frog, Rana aurora, (so-called for the reddish colour on the ventral surface of their hind legs), because they only call under water.
Red-legged Frog photo by Barry Hetschko
Another amphibian I have had the pleasure of knowing is the Rough-skinned Newt, Taricha granulosa. As it name suggests, this salamander has rough skin, chocolate brown on the back and brilliant orange on its belly. As a Park Naturalist, many years ago, I remember having one in a mossy terrarium in the Nature House where I worked. It was my job to feed it meal-worms. Now, I would not recommend keeping such an amphibian long enough to have to feed it. While holding this Newt and trying to persuade it to take the mealworm, it started to exude a white material behind it’s jaw. It turns out that this is a potent, poisonous toxin – a defense against predators, and I was the predator. I wisely washed my hands and advise anyone who does pickup a Rough-skinned Newt to do the same. It is much better to watch them without disturbing them. I guess that is good advice for all amphibians.
It is well known, that many amphibian species are in decline and we must do all we can to save their habit. Let’s do all we can to protect them – especially saving their habitats – even the smallest wet area may be a spot they depend on – including those wet areas that dry up in the summer.
Here we are in January of 2022! My last Blog was months ago and I cannot offer a good excuse for my silence.
Members of the Cowichan Valley Naturalists continue to be involved in Citizen Science Projects: Bird Surveys; Invasive Plant removal; Planting of Native plants and Fish Forage sampling for some examples. In cooperation with CERCA and two of the industrial groups in the estuary we installed several excellent nature interpretive signs along the old rail line trail at Cowichan Estuary.
Fieldtrips, although infrequent at this time, are still in the offing. Presentations by a variety of Speakers are taking place twice a month via Zoom.
Throughout 2021 the unprecedented weather events in this province have surely brought the majority of us to the realization of our Climate Change Emergency. Therefore my wish for 2022, is that we do take action in as many ways as we are able. With credit to Kathleen Dean Moore, the author of “Great Tide Rising”, if you are concerned that you cannot do much as one person, then stop being one person. Join one of the many groups that are working toward a healthy future for all life on earth (including us).
CVNS offers a chance to learn about the biodiversity and natural ecosystems of the Cowichan Valley. We would be happy to have you join us. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for a complimentary copy of our latest newsletter.
It has been a while since I have written anything here. Who knows where the time goes?
The long dry summer seemed to cause me to draw into my shell.Â Now we have had some rain, althoughÂ I am still hoping for more.Â I do love this time of year â€“ so much colour and thankfulness for the harvest.
September is the restart of our Coastal Waterbird Surveys. I participate in the Cowichan Bay zone.Â I am thankful for the people who come out to help.Â Willie Harvie is one of them.Â She is an outstanding photographer and the big lens she has on her camera, often helps us identify a bird that is some distance away, as she can quickly take a shot that we can view and compare to the Bird Guide.
One never knows what one will find on a survey.Â Here are a couple of shots from Willie taken on our September count:
Determining species of gulls is always a challenge!
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?
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
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.Â 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!
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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-Bakerâ€™s article in the May-June edition of the Valley Naturalist.Â Eric was enthusiastic about volunteering to share his knowledge and support at these day camps as well as class visits to the Nature Centre.Â 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.