9. Cathartes aura

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July 31, 2016

Turkey vulture, you surprised me yesterday late-afternoon. I don’t often see you in the city in high summer. You glided across the park, maybe fifty metres up, a black silhouette against blue sky.

I won’t see you now. It’s too early in the morning, too cloudy and cool. No warm air rises from sun-heated rocks to lift you soaring. I sit on the fire escape behind the Meeting House as water hisses from a sprinkler onto garden beds. You sit a few kilometers from here, in forest away from humans, in a big Douglas fir probably. It sways slightly in this breeze that puffs on my face and hair. Around you sit other Turkey vultures, at roost on Discovery Island perhaps, or on Chatham Island. You glided yesterday in that direction, returning from pastoral foraging, I’m guessing, out Munn Road and Prospect Lake way.

You pass over Fern Street Park without landing. We don’t smell right. Not that we lack your kind of edibles. No doubt you whiffed the rat I buried yesterday in the compost box. I can’t smell it, but your olfactory abilities infinitely outshine mine. To your nostrils the park speaks too powerfully of human and dog. Given your slow lift-off from the ground, you know better than to land around here.

Your kind of country lies beyond Victoria city limits. Southeastern Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands offer plenty of the pasture, scrub, rock and shore you prefer for scavenging. Nearby forest provides safe roost. Cliff and steep rocky slope offer secluded nest sites. Sunny days and sea breeze across rugged terrain send updrafts to keep you aloft.

There was no mistaking you. No need for binoculars or bird book. Only you would drift, wings sloping up in a V, aglide with comical wobbles and tilts. An eagle would glide more majestically steady, stable, with wings out flat. We see no other vultures around here, and very few birds with your wingspan.

Soaring in the hills you surprised me when Sherryll and I moved to the Island in the 1980s (not literally you, but possibly a grandparent). Missing relatives and friends, we drove and bicycled in the country. Seeing you evoked memories of green ranchland Christmas hikes with my California sister and brother and their families, summer trips in Oregon landscapes of oak meadow. Here, the countryside looked similar, and you fit the picture.

You have soared here for centuries I suspect. It’s not clear. Historical records don’t mention you in British Columbia until the late 1800s. But indigenous languages name you. Some of the peoples who were living around the Salish Sea when Europeans first settled here include words for Turkey vulture in their dictionaries. So I suspect thatyou were known locally before the English language took over.

Dense rainforest previously repelled you from most of coastal BC, but some landscapes around the Salish Sea may have welcomed you. Mountains to our west reduce rainfall here. Our dry ridge-tops and upper slopes naturally lack forest. Camas flowers bloom here. You had no interest in flowers, but our camas may have affected you. People here prized the bulbs as food. We cultured camas lands, and cleared them with fire. We maintained expanses of oak meadow that looked and smelled to you like the camas lands of Oregon – good foraging for Turkey vultures.

Yesterday afternoon you passed straight over these buildings and this park. They are new to the hillside. Three hundred years ago in oak meadow, I imagine, in summer, at night, in long grass here, a deer mouse died. Next afternoon, a Turkey vulture circled above. It spiraled slowly down a trail of scent and landed to pick the mouse from the grass.

Through the 1900s, people around the Salish Sea enlarged your foraging habitat. We cut down forest for cow pasture, for electrical transmission corridor and as logging clearcut. You expanded your range and increased your numbers. By the 1980s, the checklist in The Naturalist’s Guide to the Victoria Region listed you as common in summer. Sherryll and I could reliably enjoy your tippy floating over the local countryside. Here in the city, Turkey vulture time was late September.

Soccer season, 1995, Saturday afternoon, September 23rd, the Flames, nine and ten year-old girls, were burning up a field at Oak Bay High. Our child Holly ran with the Flames. Bowker Creek trickled alongside the field. Himalayan blackberry vines, a thorny tangle, concealed the ditch, steep-sided and deep where the stream emerged from its culvert under Oak Bay Rec Centre’s tennis bubble. Coaching the Flames, though, gave me no time to brood on the sins of my culture toward salmon streams.

On such a sunny afternoon of autumn, brisk and golden, who could brood anyway? The Flames hustled as a team, intelligent and fast. But a mid-fielder quit running. She stood affixed, looking upward. A parent exclaimed and pointed upward. The game halted as all watched Turkey vultures kettle. Maybe two-dozen huge birds circled, bobbing like a pot beginning to boil. The Flames, I may safely assume, prevailed in the match, considering that we never lost in three years. We remembered that game though, as the vulture day.

It happens to you every late-September. Instinct urges you to glide south. Glide, not fly. Wing-flapping is not your style, but your soaring and gliding, no bird around here can equal. You detect the most modest of updrafts. At Oak Bay High, for example, you saw dark, flat roof and parking lot. You glided to it, felt its thermal, and circled inside its narrow column, rising with it. When its lift petered out, you glided to the next updraft westward.

Westward? Why not south? A thousand, perhaps two thousand of you glide south in late September as far as here, Victoria. At the southern tip of the Island you see ahead of you the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and you hesitate. Open water doesn’t create the columns of rising air you need to lift you. Trying to cross the Strait by wing-flapping would kill you. Fortunately, you know a place where you may cross. The Turkey vulture population remembers. Every generation of adults leads its juveniles west along the shore to Beachy Head, where the Sooke Hills reach south into the Strait.

Beachy Head cuts the width of the Strait of Juan de Fuca to nineteen km. That’s too far for you to flap, but the headland also produces major updrafts. Its hills deflect upward the wind that blows down the Strait. Its rocky slopes send up tall thermals on sunny days, and late-September reliably provides sunshine. People gather to watch great kettles of you rise hundreds of metres, tiny dots that disappear. On the Strait’s southern shore, people gather to greet your arrival, straggling flocks of hundreds of Turkey vultures. Some of you flap the final kilometers. Most glide clean across.

Hatched from your egg on the ground under a boulder on a steep slope in Victoria’s greenbelt, you may glide to Central America for the winter. You may drift hundreds of metres above the local resident Turkey vultures that my nieces and nephews see in coastal California. Each day of migration, your sharp eyes will spot features of land and cloud that indicate strong updraft, and spot other birds soaring there. The current will lift you hundreds, sometimes thousands of metres. You will glide south, watching for the next big updraft.

This year in sunny September another generation of little girls, parents and coaches will play at Oak Bay High. Last year the fields were closed. Old buildings fell and a new school rose. Playing fields shifted, and Bowker Creek widened. I exulted. For more than a century, we have ditched Bowker Creek straighter and deeper, culverted and buried. Its lively, intricate community at the centre of this valley, we have corrupted to storm sewer. Of Earth’s flowing fresh water, the few kilometers in our trust we have sickened. But last year at Oak Bay High, one short section of Bowker Creek we opened out and naturalized. We excavated a more gentle slope on the left bank, engineered meander into the streambed, planted local native shrubs and trees, built a path along the bank so people can enjoy. We are waking up.

Beside the creek, in that Oak Bay High section, three hundred years ago I sit and listen. I hear: shady stillness of cedar, fern and lichen; tinkling, sibilant water over gravel; drum logs far off that speak under beaks of two Pileated woodpeckers. Even in dry high summer, cool water quickens down the creek’s riffles and slows in its pools. More water unseen percolates downstream through deep soil. Giant cedar trees can keep their feet damp here. Cedar forest corridor traces the valley bottom, and the creek meanders within it.

I wait, in that past age, quiet beside a pool, looking in. A few little fish, no bigger than a toddler’s chubby fingers, hover above sand beside a boulder. Overhang of the boulder shelters them from kingfishers. Clear water allows me to glimpse a hint of white streamer on a fin. I recognize Coho salmon juveniles. They hatched from their streambed gravel nest this spring. Next spring, grown as big as fingers of a ten-year-old child, they will run down the current into the ocean.

Deep mind of this place remembers the salmon. Sentience echoes here from community that time now conceals. Call it the Elders. It counsels us to live mindful in our relationship amidst our extended family, these creatures whose wellbeing is ours. If we listen, quiet, it speaks in our heart as longing to see salmon here again. Resolution evolves among us to invite salmon back to the stream. Twentieth Century consciousness produced amazing, noble works in this valley, but it cared little for Bowker Creek’s health.

Even the name “Bowker Creek” carries concepts of the stream as human-owned property, as object. We may choose to change it. Heritage Oak Bay has placed a bronze plaque by the creek with a local ancient name of “Thaywun: coho salmon stream”. Personally I would prefer it or some other name that recognizes the creek as a living system.

Renewing our coho salmon stream stands as our local great work for the Twenty-first Century. In the past 100 years we have buried about 60% of the creek in concrete pipe. In 2012 the City of Victoria and the Districts of Saanich and Oak Bay, all endorsed the Bowker Creek Blueprint: A 100-year action plan to restore Bowker Creek watershed. One step in the plan was last year’s earthworks beside Oak Bay High.

The Bowker Creek Blueprint suggests another step here in the North Jubilee neighbourhood. I have provoked a fight about it on the Neighbourhood Association board. The creek passes under the northeast corner of North Jubilee in culvert. The Blueprint suggests daylighting there – bringing the stream up to flow above ground in a new park. Victoria’s Official Community Plan indicates the possible park on a map. Now the City is drafting a new Parks Master Plan to guide green space development through the next 25 years. I want the Master Plan to include Bowker Creek meandering in daylight in that new park. As chair of the Neighbourhood Association, I have pushed for the board’s strong support, and promoted the park at a Community Meeting. At present I may be winning, but it feels like a battle. I feel pushback and enmity. I dread opening my email. Does the universe want what I want right now? Does it like my methods? Does this discussion relate at all to Turkey vultures?

Soaring is certainly not my experience of chairing the Neighbourhood Association board. Coaching the Oak Bay under-11 girls soccer Flames – now that was soaring!