23. Haliaeetus leucocephalus

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April 22, 2017

Balm of Gilead, Mom called it. Aroma of cottonwood buds in Fern Street Park this morning took me back sixty years and north to the Nass River at Easter. The river offered the only road to Greenville, a Nisga’a village. Men from Greenville ferried us upriver. Us included Mom and other adults arriving for the consecration of a new Anglican church. People of the village had built it and carved its interior woodwork. Balm of Gilead bathed us from cottonwoods in bud along both banks. On their branches perched hundreds of Bald eagles.

In Fern Street Park this morning, one gull keened from a condo block roof. Then many gulls, urgent, loud, mobbing a Bald eagle that cruised low across the park. The eagle was probably hunting their nests on the flat roofs.

Eagles nest in Bowker Valley and take seagulls as a dietary staple. I have seen evidence. Walking the little grandson, asleep in the stroller, down a street in Oak Bay, my plan was to look at birds in the native plant habitat area along the streambank at Monteith. The distinctively silly call of a Bald eagle altered our route. Probably the call would not sound silly from a lesser creature, but this is our most majestic bird, of striking plumage, pure white head and tail in stark contrast to its dark body, our grandest raptor, its hooked beak and grabbing talons, bold yellow. The glare from its yellow and black eye freezes the blood of more timid beings, myself included. Great ornithologists have shared my assessment of the Bald eagle’s voice. Arthur Cleveland Bent termed it “ridiculously weak and insignificant.” William Brewster described it as “weak in volume and trivial in expression….a snickering laugh expressive of imbecile derision….” But when you hear it and turn your steps toward it, you see a Bald Eagle.

I saw two of them in the tall Douglas fir behind Oak Bay’s fire hall, adults at their nest, Bowker Valley’s only nesting pair. I watched from the parking lot, standing on top of the creek. The Oak Bay Fire and Police stations, their parking lot and Fireman’s Park cover decades of household garbage and construction refuse that the municipality dumped there, filling up Bowker Creek’s gully after culverting the stream in 1914. That project seems to have ended the runs of Coho, Chum and Cutthroat up the valley. I can’t find any historical account of salmon or trout since. TheDouglas fir behind the fire hall probably sprouted pre-1914, on the lip of the gulley above the creek. Now the tree’s stout upper branches support a heavy nest of tangled sticks, about two metres wide and thick. One eagle stood in the nest conversing with the other on a branch above. I wondered if they had eaglets there. White feathers of a seagull wing hung over the edge of the nest and fluttered in the wind.

Eagles in the city prey largely upon other metropolitan birds. People around Victoria report Bald eagles chasing and grabbing gulls in the air. Much recent research on urban Bald eagles comes from across the Salish Sea, from the Greater Vancouver area. Eagles nesting in cities there take seagulls, crows and pigeons as the bulk of their diet. In the bigger North American picture, the Bald eagle eats fish as perhaps 90% of its food, and prefers fish to all other meal choices. But it hunts and scavenges opportunistically. Seagulls happen to be the most abundant food here. Less than 2km offshore we have Great Chain Island and the Chain Islets, a nesting colony for thousands of Glaucous-winged gulls. Bald eagle is a chief predator at Glaucuous-winged gull colonies. Our Oak Bay Fire hall eagle nest is one of the closest to Great Chain Island, and our pair of adults likely hunts there regularly.

Bald eagles, at present, are making headlines for re-colonizing urban areas in North America. After avoiding cities, suburbs and farms for many decades, they nest now in Philadelphia, Washington (DC), Pittsburgh and Miami. New York City recorded a nesting pair in 2015, the first in 101 years. On the British Columbia coast, eagles never completely deserted our cities. But almost. Greater Vancouver in the 1960s hosted only three active eagle nests. They have increased remarkably. By the end of that century, more than 100 pairs nested in Greater Vancouver, and by now, a few hundred pairs.

In the 1960s North America’s Bald eagle population was hitting a dangerous low point. From the estimated 250,000 to 500,000 birds on the continent when European settlers first arrived, we had reduced the number by maybe 90%. In Canada, about 25,000 to 50,000 Bald eagles remained, and about 10,000 in Alaska. But the 48 states below the US border recorded less than a thousand. There, the pesticide, DDT, was claiming an alarming toll. As top predators, eagles accumulated DDT from the food chain. It caused their eggs to have thin shells that broke in the nest. After the US banned the pesticide in 1972, Bald eagles began their impressive comeback.

Yet DDT had not been the prime cause of their decline. More basically, people had made a moral cause and a sport of killing top predators. Black-and-white eagles made easy targets. By 1940, the US had recognized the possible extermination of its national symbol as a problem, and Congress passed a Bald Eagle Protection Act. Bounty hunting in Alaska ended in 1952. The DDT disaster in the 1960s further helped people change our attitude.

From my viewpoint in the summer of 1968, working on a salmon fishing seine boat on BC’s north coast, the enemy was us, the destructive disposition of my own culture. The boat stayed anchored in a cove for a day in stormy weather. The cook went ashore with his rifle, and I went along. I liked him, a bluff-but-kindly man in his 50s. Walking in ancient rainforest, we found no deer. The cook noticed a Bald eagle high in a tree and shot it. He couldn’t understand my appalled and disgusted response. We saw the eagle through different moral lenses, from different concepts of our place in or out of nature. The bird stood crippled on the forest floor and glared at me as I clubbed it. What a fierce, magnificent being!

Admittedly, we have been killing eagles on this coast for 15,000 years or more. But not as sport or moral crusade. Around the Salish Sea before European settlement, people roasted, steamed or boiled Bald eagle as food. We also prized its feathers for the eagle life-force they represented. Young men quested to gain powers from eagle spirit. Hunters sprinkled the snowy-white down of eagles to bless their hunt. Bald eagles have watched while our hunters and fishers gutted and butchered our catch, then have glided down to eat the refuse we discarded. We have understood our interdependence.

We have gathered seasonally with them at rivers to feast from spawning runs of fish –  such as at the Nass River in early spring. The eagles I saw in cottonwoods along the banks assemble there every March and April for oolichan. Masses of the little fish come in from the sea to spawn and die. For the eagles, as for the Nisga’a people, oolichan offers food abundance at the end of winter. Greenville, the village I visited that Easter, has since reclaimed its Nisga’a name, Laxgalts’ap, within a self-governing Nisga’a Nation. That church has since burned down; the people have rebuilt and St. Andrew’s stands as the largest Anglican church north of the Vancouver area.

Our spirituality on this Northwest coast evolves. History has thrown diverse cultures together. We labour to find our fit. Each has brought its truths. Each, in its own earlier context, had responded profoundly to the difficulty of human life, its danger, suffering and possibilities. Humans seek always to transcend limitations in our existence. Now we hear each other’s truths. From cultures indigenous to this place we hear that human success depends upon mutual obligations in community. We hear that our community includes every species and every habitat where we live. Species, we hear, is a cloak, a dance mask that conceals our common essence as persons. Our welfare lies in serving the survival of all types of being. Old, imported illusions of otherness from nature, we begin to transcend. We begin to listen to each species in the valley where we live.

We hear Bald eagles in urban areas now because we are changing. Our laws protect the trees eagles nest in. Their defenders in every city closely monitor nests. I search “oak bay fire hall eagles” on the internet. A post from “sassyk”, September 4, last year:

“Welcome to the Oak Bay Eagles thread for the 2016/2017 season. There are 3 nests in the Municipality of Oak Bay, known as the Fire Hall, Golf Course and Anderson Hill nests, that have been monitored by the locals for many years.” (http://archive.hancockwildlife.org/forum/viewtopic.php?showtopic=909089)

Scrolling down the page teaches me much about the Fire Hall eagles. The adults returned to their nest in October and began “nestorations”. People noticed them over the winter in a perching tree beside the bay near Bowker Creek’s mouth. An adult started sitting on eggs in mid-February. At least one hatched by late-March. An April 13 post by “elle”:

“Yesterday afternoon I finally got a picture of Mom FireHall with a very large fluffy and active eaglet in the nest with her. It looks to be about 3 weeks old. I don’t know if there are 2 eaglets or just 1 this year.”

There are two eaglets this year. Local people also contribute data to the Bald Eagle and Osprey Nest Record Registry. It maps the Douglas fir behind Oak Bay Fire hall as wildlife tree BAEA 101-604 (See http://cmnmaps.ca/wits). A data entry, March 20:

“One adult eagle on the nest, two eagle chicks could be seen.”

Bald eagle nesting in urban habitat is limited by scarcity of suitable trees. The birds require prime real estate. They prefer waterfront, but will accept a good beach view a couple blocks back from the shore. They need a mature tree, perhaps 150 years old, 35-40 metres high, 1-2 metres thick, and super-sturdy. An eagle pair builds a heavy nest, sometimes 1,800 kilos, and may maintain it for a decade. The tree must provide a wide view and allow approach from different directions for upwind landing. On this part of the coast, Douglas firs most commonly meet the criteria. But urban areas don’t easily accommodate massive trees. Fitting more humans into our landscape, we select plants of modest dimension. People might want eagles nesting here beyond this century, so we need to plant Douglas firs now and protect them.

The Fire Hall eagles stay from October to July. They disappear for August and September. Adults and juveniles likely head for northern rivers to feed from salmon spawning runs. The Fire Hall adults return from the buffet to reclaim their nest territory, while juveniles continue to roam as nomads for five years. Adults’ heavier, more powerful bodies favour chasing and capturing prey, while juveniles’ lighter bodies enable their livelihood as wide-ranging scavengers. High soaring allows them to glide hundreds of kilometers with little energy cost, and to watch where other eagles congregate.

A few hundred assemble in winter near Victoria at Goldstream River. They scavenge on carcasses of spawned-out Chum salmon. The humans here continue our spiritual evolution. In the future in Bowker Valley we will watch with eagles as Chum spawn in Fireman’s Park, in Bowker Creek, arisen from its culvert. In the meantime we will transplant a young Douglas fir to the native plant habitat area at Monteith. One of our gardeners has it growing now in a pot on her balcony.

 

22. Pipilo maculatus

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February 27, 2017

Starting about noon, the front porch traps whatever heat the sun might offer. Today, sunshine warmed my hands as I sat on the bench, well bundled. From several days indoors unwell, this was my first foray to the garden. Along with sunrays, I absorbed small bird sounds, buzzing, quiet rasps of the Bewick’s wren in the thicket. Snowdrops have almost finished blooming in the perennial bed and yellow crocuses are up. Winter is letting go.

My symptoms last week alarmed us. Slight paralysis on one side of my face made us fear that something bad was happening in my head. I sat in the passenger seat and in medical waiting and examination rooms as Holly and Fuller cared for a dad and granddad with health issues. We found out that nothing bad is happening. My face again works perfectly well. But an event like that makes you think. This morning I resigned from the board of the neighbourhood association and from leadership roles in its committees.

You need to stop and listen to the message from a health scare, or what would be the point of it? “Face this,” it said to me. “You’re paralyzed. You have not manifested community leadership such as you imagined was in you. People around you do not open to each other’s truths. Neither do you. Battle darkens your heart with enmity and political expedience. People who trusted you deserve better from you. Before, in greenspace projects at Fern Street, Begbie Green, Emerson, Adanac, your little group heard each voice, welcomed each viewpoint, opened border checkpoints between your individual realities. Amazingly smart and effective mind emerged among you. Now factions snarl in separate cages.” Time to leave neighbourhood politics.

The sun offered surprising heat on the front porch. I had to remove a sweater and fold away my hat’s earflaps. Another bird in the thicket scuffled on the ground in oak leaves. Looking deep into shade from the sunny porch I could barely discern its orange flanks: Spotted towhee – orange sides, black back with white streaks and spots, red eye – the only towhee we see on Vancouver Island. It revived my self-esteem; my gardening in this yard provides enough overhead cover with enough leaf litter to attract a towhee to feed here.

“THE DENSE UNDERBRUSH OF GARDENS…”, announces my old copy of Birds of Victoria and Vicinity, “… is (a) favourite haunt of this colourful ground dweller.” This winter a towhee has often visited along with other sparrows in mixed feeding flocks. With spring it will soon seek better habitat for its nesting territory. I wish we could provide it here. Birds of Victoria and Vicinitysays that the nest would be close to the ground, “…well hidden in a thicket or a garden shrub that has trapped a few of last year’s fallen leaves.” We can supply dense underbrush and leaf litter here, but not a wide enough extent of it. A study in Portland showed that Spotted towhees choose breeding territories in natural areas as small as one hectare. This hillside can’t offer that much.

Anyway, it’s best that towhees don’t nest here. The cat would kill the fledglings. The black cat from next door owns this front yard for night hunting. On spring and summer mornings I find remains of juvenile birds on the lawn. Cats are a major predator for Spotted towhees in cities. Amy Shipley (2013) and her collaborators in Portland entitled their study: Residential Edges as Ecological Traps: Postfledgling Survival of a Ground-Nesting Passerine in a Forested Urban Park.They found that Spotted towhees prefer to nest along the edges of their densely-bushy breeding habitat, and that high mortality results for the young birds:

“…fledglings near edges had a far higher probability of dying. All deaths were from predation, and at least 11 of 16 predation events were attributable to Domestic Cats (Felis catus) and Western Screech-Owls (Megascops kennicottii).”

I wouldn’t begrudge a Screech-Owl its meals of fledglings from the yard, but the cat predation bothers me. Environment Canada scientist Peter Blancher’s article, Estimated Number of Birds Killed by House Cats (Felis catus) in Canada(2013), sets the number between 100 million and 350 million per year. Feral cats account for about 60% of the total, and house pets about 40%. To be fair to the black cat from next door, I also find plenty of dead juvenile rats on the lawn. And Screech-Owls, do they hunt this yard at night? It’s an appealing thought, but no. Once “fairly common” on Victoria’s bird checklist, Screech-Owl has declined to “rare”. Barred owls have replaced them. We often see a Barred owl roosting in the neighbourhood, and I suppose it works this hillside after dark.
A daytime predator bird here would be Cooper’s hawk. One patrols our block sometimes. Spotted towhee’s eye-catching colour and contrast must make it a good hawk target, but the little bird generally hides its garish Halloween plumage by feeding under cover. They are specially built for it. John Davis closely observed feeding towhees in California in the 1950s. His paper, Comparative Foraging Behavior of the Spotted and Brown Towhees (The Auk, 1957), shows that Spotted towhee has evolved its legs specifically for its life on the ground amid leaf litter and woody debris.

Hopping for locomotion takes far more energy than walking or running. Davis points out that every hop propels the bird fullyoff the ground, then uses further energy to absorb the shock of landing. He’s right; try hopping for five minutes. But the ground where Spotted towhees feed favours hopping. Davis comments that they rarely need to run for cover because they feed there most of the time. Debris and vegetation would obstruct a walking and running little bird. And hopping benefits the towhee in flinging aside surface leaves to expose the damp layer beneath.

Spotted towhee’s leg and foot muscles evolved for the hop-scratch. Davis describes the “…sharp backward thrust of both feet….(as) strong claws dig into the soil cover, which is kicked as far as three feet to the rear….” The bird shifts backward in the kick, lands and hops forward again to repeat the motion. A burst of five or six vigorous hop-scratches opens a foraging pit, a depression about 10 cm wide and perhaps 20 cm long. The bird pauses to peck at bugs and seeds exposed in the pit, then hops to a new scratching place. It may proceed steadily through its foraging area for an hour at a time, covering many metres and opening many pits.

John Davis studied the towhees at Hastings Natural History Reservation for thousands of hours over many years. I’m glad we have made space and time in our era for such meticulous observation. The eminent ornithologist Joseph Grinnell founded the Hastings Reservation in 1937. He saw an opportunity for biologists to track the long succession of farmland returning to nature. The Hastings family donated their cattle ranch, 600 hectares in the Carmel Valley, to the University of California. UC’s first biological field station, Hastings served as a model for the university’s Natural Reserve System of thirty-six stations on 55,000 hectares. John Davis became Hastings’ manger and studied there for three decades.

Today’s Spotted towhee in the front yard, where will it relocate for nesting? The literature doesn’t answer clearly.It reveals that Pipilo maculatus populations on Vancouver Island and around the Salish Sea belong to the oregonus subspecies. Our Pipilo maculatus (oregonus) is the darkest of 21 Spotted towhee races. The back of its males is blackest; its white spots and streaks most minimal. Oregonus range includes the west coast of Oregon and Washington, and BC’s south coast. Its populations appear mostly resident year-round, with some short-distance migration. Birds may move down from the mountains for the winter, or slightly south on the coast.

The fall migration data from Rocky Point Bird Observatory makes me wonder though. RPBO volunteers capture huge numbers of Spotted towhee in September. It appears to rank as one of the five most numerous songbirds migrating south from the Island to the US. The RPBO information does not fit easily with a picture of a mostly-resident bird. So I ask local birders at the online forum, BCVIBIRDS.

One of them comments that a Spotted towhee banded by his group in the fall in Nanaimo died the following spring near Portland, Oregon, more than 400 km south. The Nanaimo study also recaptured banded Spotted towhees close to the tagging location at various seasons. “So some individuals migrate, while others don’t”, he concludes. Another birder notes that banded towhees from Rocky Point Bird Observatory have died locally (Sooke, Saaninch, Victoria) as well as more distantly, across the straits in Sequim, WA and in the mainland mountains near Pemberton, BC.

Another participant in the on-line forum comments that all the towhees in his yard disappear in August, after breeding season. Towhees re-appear there in late September, so it looks like a different or re-shuffled winter population replaces the breeding population. And another Vancouver Island birder adds that some of the Spotted towhees he observes during migration and in winter display more prominent white markings than do our coastal oreganussubspecies. Pipilo maculatus races arcticus and curtatus both breed in BC’s southern interior and both show more white. Perhaps arcticus or curtatus populations migrate to and through the Island. So where will today’s Spotted towhee in the front yard relocate for nesting?

It might stay here in Bowker Valley. I can think of spots with at least a hectare of dense cover: Mount Tolmie, Cedar Hill Park, University of Victoria, maybe Summit Park. How many Spotted towhee territories does the valley support. I want to know; in fact I hereby promise myself to find out. And what fun! The task is to walk Bowker Valley’s most beautiful places on spring mornings at civil twilight, and listen.

Civil twilight – the term is new to me. John Davis’ study on Spotted towhee song, Singing behavior and the gonad cycle of the Rufous-Sided Towhee (The Condor, 1958), indicates that I can depend on the males to be singing in their territories on spring mornings during civil twilight. (“Rufous-sided” was another name for “Spotted” towhee.) Searching “civil twilight” online took me first to the site of a four-piece rock band from Cape Town, South Africa. Further search revealed that dawn unfolds in three phases, “nautical”, “astronomical” and “civil”. The period of “civil dawn” (or “civil twilight”) begins when the sun climbs to six degrees below the horizon. It ends at the moment of sunrise. Today,February 27, civil dawn occurred between 6:27 and 6:58 am. It gets earlier as spring progresses. By May 15, for example, I can expect the male towhees to be singing in the morning at 4:55.

“Singing” – the term is used loosely when applied to the Spotted towhee. It ranks among our least musical songbirds, producing loud rattling trills, loud nasal squawks and loud sharp chirps. To the winter garden it contributed lively, assertive presence. And even my inexpert ears will be able to locate the trill of males in their breeding territories. If I take time to listen closely, I might be amazed. Each male will perform his individual trill repertoire during civil twilight, his own sequence and variation of tone, volume and speed – his unique statement in his local dialect.

The sun went down today at 5:54. Civil twilight will persist until 6:25. I want to make best use of my civil twilight. What matters most to me? Before I quiet and watch nautical twilight deepen horizon colours, before I turn and watch astronomical twilight bring out stars, before dark at 7:38, what song might I sing?

 

 

18. Troglodytes pacificus

Horse chestnut leaves

November 1, 2016

Another little bird has a new name. The American Ornithologists’ Union replaced “Winter wren” along the Pacific coast in 2010. I noticed the change only today. First I resented it, but now I’m glad. Researchers at the University of British Columbia established our west coast bird as a separate species, Pacific wren, Troglodytes pacificus, a cryptospecies. “Crypto-“ means “concealed”. David Toews and Darren Irwin discovered a new bird, four million years old, hiding in plain sight. It appeared briefly in plain sight in this back yard this afternoon. A very small brown bird with a very stubby tail cocked up over its back probed for insects in the bark of the ornamental plum tree in dim November.

About 4:00 pm, sitting on the fire escape, I was hearing the deep river of homebound traffic from Fort Street beyond the condo blocks. A sound more immediate around me was rain on leaves. A few still hung on the Horse-chestnut tree, but most cast a soggy, tawny mat over the lawn and garden. Neighbourhood and family concerns have delayed my leaf raking and shredding.

I noticed motion low inside the thicket. Little birds shook thimbleberry stems. Glimpses of black hoods and white tail feathers disclosed juncos. A wren appeared on the plum trunk then disappeared down into the bushes. I got only one clear look, but it matched with the illustration in Peterson’s Field Guide to Western Birds (1990). The citation read: “Winter Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes)” Consulting Birds of Victoria and Vicinity (1989), I found Winter wren listed as resident here, common year-round. The book advised:

“In winter, look and listen for it low down in thick, moist, damp woodlands of the city, but watch for it also in the garden if you have an overgrown corner with thick vegetation.”

Yes we do have such an overgrown corner – and I’m proud of it today for attracting a bird that demands deep cover.

I might be less proud if the Horse-chestnut leaves kill the lawn grass before I get around to shredding them. Emma, my companion in leaf raking, had some seizures last week. They were minor and brief but they rule out yard work at present for her. We look for exercise on less bumpy ground. Yet my biggest worry is not Emma or the leaves. This week the Greenspace Committee will host a North Jubilee Neighbourhood public meeting about parks. We hope to make something happen. Opposition may arise and I am sweating it.

Victoria is renewing the city’s Parks Master Plan. It will guide park development for the next twenty-five years. My friends and I want the long-term plan to include a park that will daylight Bowker Creek, free it someday from culvert, to meander across a corner of our neighbourhood. Political contention disturbs me. My determination disturbs the Neighbourhood Association board. Today on the fire escape my time of listening stillness brought not peace but a sense of the back yard as vibrant nigh to bursting, no more tranquil than the song of “Winter Wren” in John Neville’s Bird Songs of Canada’s West Coast album (1999).

Compared to other little birds on the album, Winter wren sounds fraught. Notes stampede, full-tilt in fancy vocal tricks without melody. I don’t remember hearing it in the wild, yet I must have. Surely, many of those little birds sang in Haida Gwaii in spring some decades ago as I walked transects across a valley in ancient rainforest. I definitely sang. The Black bears of those islands are the world’s largest. I bellowed, tromped and whacked trees with a stick, hoping that bears would decide they didn’t want to meet me. Perhaps my racket put the wrens off their song.

I saw them. In fact Winter wren is the only bird I associate with those memorable walks deep in old-growth forest – almost the only animation. The place was too still for me, too quiet and dark – immense green gloom, taut with suspense. No sunlight penetrated the tree canopy. No breeze or weather. Moss blobs, shaped too much like bears, soaked-up all the noise I could make. Any time a tiny wren darted, perched, cocked up its tiny tail and scolded, I welcomed the event.

My task of walking across the valley had the purpose of evaluating trout and salmon habitat. A mining company wanted to excavate, and regulations required environmental assessment. A biological field technician, I stopped at each creek, recorded habitat information on data sheets and set minnow traps. Baiting each trap with a sticky glob of salmon roe left my hands aromatic with the favourite food of Black bears. As thoroughly as I tried to rinse my hands and seal and rinse the bait bag, I knew I still smelled edible to bears. But they did avoid me.

Those good old memories felt threatened today. I searched “Winter wren” on the internet and found the name replaced by “Pacific wren” for the BC coast. The grumpy-old-man lobe of my brain resented the change. I had known Winter wren, Troglodytes troglodytes, as holarctic. It had spanned the boreal of Europe, Asia and North America. My Celtic ancestors celebrated Wren at winter solstice as symbolic king of the old year.

Like the old king of the year past, my grumpy-old-man response needed killing and burying by new information from Dave Toews and Darren Irwin. I searched out their article, Cryptic speciation in a Holarctic passerine revealed by genetic and bioacoustic analysis (in Molecular Ecology, 2008). It supplied vital evidence that our Pacific coastal birds are a separate species, even though they look and behave so much like eastern Winter wrens. Toews and Irwin found a zone in northeastern BC, around Tumbler Ridge, where breeding ranges of western and eastern birds overlap. The study showed both occupying the same habitat, in which eastern and western males staked out neighbouring territories. Western males and females paired up; eastern males and females paired up; no mixing.

DNA analysis confirmed that ancestors of the eastern and western birds had parted ways more than four million years ago. The American Ornithologist’s Union responded by officially separating Winter wren into three species: Eurasian wren, Troglodytes troglodytes; Winter wren, T. hiemalis, of eastern and central North America; and our Pacific wren, T. pacificus.

So similar, why don’t Pacific and Winter wren interbred? The Toews and Irwin study suggests that song sorts out the species. The female finds her little, camouflaged mate by his song. Troglodytes pacificus sings in a generally higher frequency range than T. hiemalis, and changes his note more times per second. Even I can easily hear the difference. To my ear Winter wren sounds more melodious, rich, attractive, but my preference hardly matters.

Toews and Irwin also authored the Pacific Wren article at Cornell University’s Birds of North America website. Exploring it and other sources, I learn that deep rainforest, such as I walked in Haida Gwaii, is prime habitat for Pacific wren. For nesting they prefer old-growth, greater in age than 200 years. They favour intact forest blocks larger than twenty hectares (fifty acres), and prefer to nest deep within it, at least 100 metres from its edge. Dead, decaying and fallen trees of old forest provide a prime source of their insect food, and they often nest in woodpecker holes in rotting snags. They nest most abundantly along the many small streams that drain rainforest valleys, and frequently conceal their nests in rootballs of trees that fall in the wet ground of the riparian corridor. Where the trees fall, patches of bright daylight sprout dense undergrowth where the wrens find food. Pacific wren nests also beneath overhanging bank of the streams.

Research suggests that the web of life in rainforest valleys connects Pacific wren, salmon and bears. Mature salmon from the ocean ascend the streams in autumn to spawn and die. Bears feast on the salmon then fertilize the forest soil with their droppings and with fish carcasses they carry from the stream. The nutrients enrich the riparian (streamside) ecosystem, including its insect populations, which feed wrens. Nutrients quickly leach from rainforest soils, so the ecosystem needs its yearly salmon fertilizer.

Gardeners here in Bowker Valley recognize the same need for yearly fertilizing. Our climate is dryer than classic Pacific wren breeding habitat, but heavy rain in winter washes nourishment from our soil. Riparian forest ecosystem functioned for thousands of years along Bowker Creek. Pacific wren males sang in spring in old-growth habitat. Now none of it stands along the stream. Vancouver Island has lost about 90% of its ancient forest. Pacific wren populations appear to be decreasing. It fits a worldwide pattern. Varied reports indicate that about 40% of Earth’s bird species are in decline, with 8% already nearing extinction. The main cause is habitat destruction by humans. The planet has lost half its wildlife population since my class left high school, including 75% of animal life in freshwater ecosystems. Bowker Creek and Pacific wren are only snapshots from the big picture. Would Earth be better without humans, I wonder.

Troglodytes pacificus, fortunately, is fairly versatile in its habitat choice. North Jubilee neighbourhood thickets can provide cover and insects in the cold months, and our suet feeders contribute extra energy. Pacific wrens move to and through the city as winter pushes them down from the mountains and coastward from the BC interior. The bird in the back yard today could be a Victoria area resident or a short- or long-distance migrant. Rocky Point Bird Observatory (RPBO) at the southern tip of the Island sees hundreds during fall migration, with highest numbers passing south in mid-October.

The RPBO website links to a report on Pacific wren behaviour that I found disturbing. Ann Nightingale and Ron Melcer Jr. authored the article in Western Birds (2013), Conspecific Nest Aggesssion of the Pacific Wren on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. It provides a horrifying record of a prolonged attack by a Pacific wren female on the nest of another female. It made me think about who these little creatures are and who we are.

The nest was in a carport. Habitat was semi-rural and adjacent to a wooded corridor along a stream. The attacker was attempting to drag nestlings out and take over the nest. Both females may have been mates of the same male. Recent heavy rains, the authors conjecture, may have destroyed one female’s nest, leaving her in need of a drier site within her male’s territory. The account distressed me, perhaps because it could have been a human story. Polygyny, in which a male mates with more than one female, and infanticide among jealous, competing mothers occurs in humans. Polygyny probably served our species well for tens of thousands of years. Some evolutionary anthropologists assert that we began our shift to monogamy only a thousand years ago. Our economies and communities were expanding. Village-based culture was collapsing. Monogamy and the nuclear family provided better care and protection to infants in a more complex civilization. We have built monogamy into our morality. Today it offended me that Pacific wren doesn’t observe the social code in which we humans invest so much effort.

Ridiculous, but it points to the new capacity that Earth labours to develop through the human. Pacific wren behaviour is more strictly bound to genetic coding. Humans can use concepts to evolve personal behaviour and to unify civilizations. I am offering my personal answer to the question: Would Earth be better without humans? The planet tends not to throw away new capacities, but to fit them in. By the human, Earth now learns to see itself as a whole, to know itself and its universe. It’s not about us, just the capacity we carry. The concept of justice for all life evolves in us now.

17. Junco hyemalis

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October 3, 2016

 We banded juncos fifty years ago in our Biology teacher’s back yard in Massachusetts. On the data sheets we printed “Slate-colored junco”. Darkest of the sparrows on the lawn under Mr. Sanborn’s feeders, they flashed white outer tail feathers when they flew.

That tail flash of white identified juncos to me when I came home to the West Coast. Otherwise they looked different here. Not slate-coloured, the western birds were more brown-backed and buff–sided. Males wore a hangman’s hood of black over head and chest. My bird book from the 1960s listed them as “Oregon junco”, a species separate from “Slate-colored”.

This afternoon a little brown bird with a bold black hood visited the back yard. It bathed on the stump in the wide, earthenware dish that Holly made at art school. Listen to the junco. His monotonous clicking tells great life stories, varied and revelatory.

Science has changed his name. In the ‘70s the American Ornithologists’ Union gathered Oregon, Slate-colored and other junco species into one: “Dark-eyed”, Junco hyemalis. Dark-eyed junco includes all races that breed in arctic and temperate North America, perhaps 360 million birds. Its summer and winter ranges encompass almost all Canada and the US. In British Columbia, Dark-eyed junco is our most common sparrow. The term “Oregon junco” now applies to a group of five western subspecies, all wearing the black hood.

The Oregon junco races look so much alike that I wouldn’t attempt to discriminate one from another at the birdbath. Today I probably saw our local resident Shufeldt’s, Junco hyemalis [shufeldti]. But possibly I saw subspecies oreganus. It breeds north of here from BC’s central coast to the Alaska panhandle. Junco hyemalis [oreganus] migrates down the Island on its way to coastal California in the fall. It must visit Bowker Valley.

Shufeldt’s, common year-round, connects this valley with alpine forest, distant coastline, and surprising evolutionary journeys. I haven’t noticed any juncos around the Meeting House over the summer. Their numbers increase here through autumn as colder weather pushes them down from the mountains. Many nested at high elevation near treeline and foraged in alpine meadow. Others nested in dense conifer forest and fed in logging clearcuts. By December and January Victoria will host ten times our summer population. Most will be adult males with the black hoods. Many female and immature birds will cross the Strait of Juan de Fuca toward milder weather in Washington, possibly Oregon. Walking a country road with Sherryll I will hear sharp clicks from a blackberry thicket where a junco flock forages.

The click is the contact call among flock members. It sounds to me like the crack of a spark that arcs between live wires, similar to Anna’s hummingbird sparks but higher voltage. Not birds, but horse-chestnuts produced the back yard’s loudest cracks today. The season is fall. Nuts crash down through leaves to smack the fire escape and roll on its wooden deck. A spiny husk grazed the back of my neck.

Emma and I wear hats when we gather horse-chestnuts on the lawn. For a tottery old lady it’s not safe, but gathering nuts is a job she can still do. Sherryll’s mom has not been easy to get along with recently. She hates losing abilities. Even drying the dishes becomes too confusing. But pushing her walker on the lawn while I bring handfuls of horse-chestnuts to drop into the cardboard box on the walker’s seat makes her happy. Moments of great sweetness perch briefly – also moments of alarm when I see Emma bend to the ground to pick up a nut. So far she has not fallen. A nut beaned her. It startled her and scared me, but she smiled and shrugged it off. Having worked in orchards longer than I have lived, she was not alarmed by a nut on the head.

Fuller, I try to keep out from under the horse-chestnut tree. At seventeen months he might be hurt by a heavy, spikey nut. But at seventeen months he doesn’t retain the concept and he’s always moving. He wanted my attention one day and was getting it by pulling the nut box off the seat of Emma’s walker. When he wouldn’t quit I grabbed his shoulders and jolted him, mostly with my sharp voice and angry face. After a moment of shock he burst into tears. Emma immediately bent down and scooped him up. I was horrified, not only at myself for frightening my little friend, but also at the danger of Emma and Fuller both crashing to the ground. Lifting the crying child reached beyond Emma’s capacities of balance and strength. But she did. And I was able, gently, to get Fuller down onto his own feet. It comforted me to see him quickly revert to his effervescent, high-velocity self, but I regret my eruption of exasperation.

It wasn’t just about Fuller. Neighbourhood politics frustrates and upsets me. Warring factions at the community garden, several blocks from here, refuse to seek happy common ground. Their differences predate my involvement and will persist beyond it. My unwitting contribution so far is to lead a coup at the Spirit Garden, to help one group of nice, community-spirited neighbours oust the other group of nice, community-spirited neighbours. And I have laboured energetically to clear away junco habitat.

Juncos need densely bushy havens for quick retreat and for nesting. They forage on the ground in the open, but frequently dart into shrubbery thick enough to deter predators. They also nest there on the ground. At the Spirit Garden I have cleared underbrush away and helped to chase off the gardeners who would protect it.

My task at the Spirit Garden is to get a grant from the City so we can resurface the public path. Shrubbery has crowded close to the path such that it has felt unsafe to some walkers and joggers. Drug users and homeless people have concealed themselves in it. Our application form for the City grant promises to make the path feel safer, opening clear lines of sight and eliminating places where people could hide. Most neighbours favour the changes. Will some neighbours wonder someday why fewer little birds animate the garden?

Beneath the Spirit Garden path, Bowker Creek flows in a culvert. In the 1990s neighbourhood gardeners transformed a corridor of debris-strewn wasteland where culvert crossed under a residential block. Sometime this century, the City may lift the creek up into daylight and make a park around it. I long for that day, but my work in the Spirit Garden may delay it. As I help to renew the path and garden and to rebuild its community of support, the City has less need to intervene and change things. In my role with the Neighbourhood Association, I sometimes work diligently against my own profound yearnings. My notes from today’s back yard time end with the words: “This is intensely peaceful and almost deafeningly vibrant at the same time, but I am not much at peace.”

In Bowker Valley, the Junco breeding spot I have noticed is the University of Victoria campus. I visited there by early-morning bus this summer to listen to birds at the source of Bowker Creek. UVic sits atop an aquifer that feeds the stream. When glacier melted from the valley 15,000 years ago it left us a ridge of sand and gravel, a drumlin, more than 700 hectares (1800 acres) in extent. The ridge holds onto water in the spaces between sand grains and pebbles. Rain falls on UVic and Gordon Head neighbourhood all winter, soaks into the ground and recharges the aquifer. Water continually percolates out the sides of the ridge all through our dry summer months. It gathers into pond and wetland, and makes Bowker Creek the year-round stream that supported human and salmon populations for millennia. Springwater seeps forth relatively warm in winter and cool in summer – just right for salmon and trout.

Arriving at UVic on the bus, standing in the bus loop, I immediately heard birdsong, lusty and melodious. The newly-planted trees that dotted the campus some decades ago when Sherryll studied there, have grown to mature beauty. But I could not spot the singer up in those trees. He was much closer. A White-crowned sparrow sat proclaiming atop a smaller tree in the rain garden in the middle of the bus loop. UVic uses rain gardens to send water down into the aquifer gravel. Rain falls on the bus loop pavement and drains into a sunken garden that holds water as it sinks into the ground. I admire UVic’s efforts in caring for Bowker Creek.

The other loud bird at the bus loop sang less melodiously from a mature pine. A junco’s monotone trill persistently repeated. I heard it answered by two birds farther away. Males were countersinging, each from his own nesting territory. A listening stroll across campus indicated many territories. University campuses attract juncos. They adapt comfortably to the crowds of people and find creative solutions for safe nesting. Holly, who lives in UVic’s family housing, found juncos nesting in the hanging flower basket beside her front door. At another university campus, in California, scientists intensely study the resident junco population. It appeared there in the 1980s and has evolved.

 Before the ‘80s no juncos stayed in summer to breed at the University of California San Diego. The local subspecies, Thurber’s, had always departed from the coastal campus to nest high in the mountains. About seventy pairs now summer at UCSD, and they have changed much in three decades. Wings and tails are shorter. Tails have less white, and heads less black. Males share more parental duties at the nest. The UCSD birds are less nervous around people and more curious in exploring their habitat. They sing at a higher pitch, above the roar of buildings and vehicles. Studies suggest that the changes have progressed by classic evolutionary processes of natural selection.

Amounts of white on the tail and of black on the head indicate levels of dominance. The markings relate to intensity of male aggression. Junco evolution on the San Diego campus has toned-down belligerence. Decreasing aggression apparently favours survival in the new habitat. Researchers note that a junco pair at UCSD can raise three or four broods, as opposed to one in the mountains. The coastal population directs more male energy into feeding fast-growing nestlings. Researchers point out also that campus territories are larger than those in mountain forest. Amid buildings and pavement, junco population is less dense. Clearer lines of sight allow males to see each other farther away. Quarrelsome, strongly-marked males might waste their energy chasing each other around large territories. New habitats demand different standards of aggression.

Humans occupy a new global habitat now. Our traditional pioneer belligerence no longer prospers us here. We evolve culturally toward finer-tuned cooperation among people and with life systems that support us. Admittedly, I don’t see it manifested at the Spirit Garden much. Must be a work-in-progress. But the junco at the birdbath tells me we can evolve much more quickly than we knew and find our fit in a new era.

North American juncos evolve faster than anybody imagined birds could. DNA analysis indicates that Dark-eyed junco emerged suddenly after the most recent ice age. It split off 10,000 years ago from Yellow-eyed juncos of Mexico and Central America. Glacier retreated and warmer climate filled our continent with varied new habitats. A starburst of new Dark-eyed junco races differentiated to occupy them. Several of those races may already have evolved into separate species. Science is tending toward that view. New editions of bird books might soon list “Oregon junco” again on a separate page from “Slate-colored”.

13. Thryomanes Bewickii

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September 8, 2016

Fern Street is Bewick’s wren territory. With bravura, as long as I have lived here, males have sung in plain view on treetops. But I haven’t noticed. Thryomanes Bewickii has foraged underbrush, calling out harsh and sharp at the neighbour’s cat. How disconcerting to learn of the bird now. It cracks a self-image I would prefer to maintain, of knowing about nature in the city. Now I consult my books. Birds of Victoria and Vicinity uses capital letters: “THIS IS THE MOST COMMON back yard wren of Victoria.” I search online. Val Schaefer says: “Here in James Bay, Victoria, BC Canada, our ‘signature bird’ may be the Bewick’s Wren.” That’s the problem with old, cherished self-image; you have to keep it in a climate-controlled room. Let fresh air in and it crumbles to dust.

Listening early in the morning on the fire escape lets in fresh air. This week a bold bird voice came from Fern Street Park, from the trees across the field. That was awkward. It meant walking down the field beneath all the apartment and condominium balconies in pajamas and robe on dewy grass in wet slippers to peer with binoculars into someone’s back yard. A little bird sang strongly at the top of a fruit tree.

It sat upright, more like a flycatcher than a warbler, I thought. It sat and sat and sang and sang, giving me time to study. Its tail appeared longer than a warbler’s; its beak also longer, and curved. Wings looked plain and dark; under-parts plain and light. I noted a possible light eye-stripe. I looked-up flycatchers in my field guide and in a local checklist. A few flycatchers are common in Victoria; I listened on my phone to recordings of their songs. None really matched with the bird at the top of the fruit tree. It sat and sat and sang and sang. It cocked up its tail like a wren. I looked-up wrens in the field guide. Bewick’s wren! The songs in Bird Songs of Canada’s West Coast did not really match, but the narrator mentioned that “Bewick’s wren make a variety of perky songs and calls.”

“Variety” perhaps understates. The Birds of North America website reports that a male may sing more than twenty different songs from many high perches in its territory. He repeats each song more than twenty times before changing tune. A graduate student may follow the wren the entire morning to record all his songs. Nor are they exactly like his neighbours’. A young wren, first claiming a territory, learns to sing by imitating the males around him, but may err slightly in his copy. Next year’s young males will imitate his error. Dialects evolve, local and regional. Isolated populations develop distinctive dialects. The bird on the fruit tree probably sang in southeastern-Vancouver-Island-ese. Ocean isolates our Bewick’s wrens.

Crossings between distant islands would daunt our Thryomanes Bewickii. They don’t migrate. The Birds of British Columbia, Vol. 3 (1997) finds no evidence of Bewick’s wren migration in BC. They barely disperse. A study in Oregon showed juvenile males relocating only about one kilometer from home, staking a territory the same year, and defending it permanently. The territories covered only about two hectares (4-5 acres) of thick, shrubby vegetation. Even in sparse habitat, such as this urban neighbourhood, territories might cover only four hectares. The Oregon birds didn’t fly far. Their longest flight might cross a couple of acres, carrying bugs home to nestlings or chasing out an intruding wren. Most flights darted between patches of dense cover, less than twelve meters.

Its stay-at-home habits cause Bewick’s wren to evolve local races. Across the bird’s range from here to Mexico, science currently recognizes sixteen subspecies. Our Vancouver Island wrens belong to subspecies calophonus along with birds of western Washington and Oregon. It seems likely that Thryomanes Bewickii calophonus originally expanded here from Oregon and Washington during a time when warming climate was enlarging their habitat northward. The male that sang from the fruit tree across the park could probably claim ancient ancestry on Vancouver Island.

Its territory might include this entire city block. Aware now of Bewick’s wrens, I have noticed one singing in the front yard from the top of the holly tree and foraging low in the native plant area underbrush. The native plant thicket stacks-up not-badly as habitat. The heart of Thryomanes Bewickii country is dry scrub and chaparral of the US Southwest. Salish Sea coast provides the northwestern extreme of the species’ range. We have dry-enough summers, mild-enough winters and dense understory vegetation. We also have, in the words of the Atlas of the Breeding Birds of British Columbia, “anthropogenic landscapes,” shaped-by-people landscapes. Bewick’s wren has little problem with human presence in its territory. The Birds of British Columbia cites a study that found almost 80% of Bewick’s nests in back yards, on farms or in gardens. Almost half of the nests were in sheds, garages and barns. Nest sites included: “pockets or sleeves of clothing left hanging in abandoned buildings, garage drawers and cupboards left slightly ajar, behind a frying pan hanging on a post…[and inside] a paper bag half filled with nails.” As long as my gardening avoids neat-and-tidiness and allows insect abundance, Bewick’s wren welcomes me to its ancestral lands.

How ancestral? Little brown stay-at-home bird, when did you cross to this island from the mainland? How? Such questions allow fresh air gusting into my self-image vault in a swirl of plaster flakes. I have been happy with my picture of this hillside, valley and creek over the past 15,000 years: Glacier departs; land soon rises from the sea; creek flows down the valley; between 14,000 and 13,000 years ago life rushes in – salmon, willow, warbler, people in boats. I would prefer to maintain my illusion of knowing what I am talking about, but these bird questions make me consult people who know vastly more than I do. I went on a walk led by Grant Keddie.

Grant has served for decades as curator of archaeology at the BC Provincial Museum. Evenings and weekends, he has explored locally for hints of our deep history. He tells of recovering a bison tooth from the trench for a sewer line on Haultain Street. If I understand it correctly, Grant Keddie’s picture of this valley’s past includes a period around 12,000 years ago, dry and cold, of grasslands and of lodgepole pines in open forest, of bison herds (gigantic Bison antiquus, now extinct). The picture does not look to me like year-round habitat for Thryomanes Bewickii. I see landscape more like present-day northern BC, east of the Rockies. Winters here 12,000 year ago look too harsh for Bewick’s wren.

On this Fern Street hillside 12,000 years ago we probably hunted the bison and other large mammals. A backhoe on Orcas Island recently uncovered bones of Bison antiquus bearing marks of our stone cleavers and choppers. Orcas Island is only forty kilometers from here. Archeologists believe that hunters butchered the animal on the ice of a frozen pond approximately 13,500 years ago. Falling sea level in that era was converting enough seabed into dry land that the big animals could cross to Vancouver Island, maybe by 12,500 years ago. Their nomadic hunters would follow them. Did the buffalo hunters encounter any people already living here? How did we humans negotiate that meeting? I wonder.

I could not absorb all the information from the walk with Grant Keddie. I took home confusing scribbled notes and the impression of several big shifts in climate, vegetation, animal and human populations. He mentioned that he hopes to work with Richard Hebda, the Provincial Museum’s curator of botany and earth history, to write our local story since the most recent ice age. I need that article now.

New local discoveries about our distant past are emerging in this century, and particularly in this decade. In Bowker Valley it helps that we sit physically between the BC Provincial Museum and the University of Victoria. Scientists of various disciplines wonder and share information about this region where they live. Master of Science candidates select local topics for their thesis research – Kristen Rhea Miskelly, for example, Vegetation and climate history of the Fraser Glaciation on southeastern Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada (2012). Miskelly’s thesis proposes an ice-age refugium for plants and animals on southeastern Vancouver Island. Much land in the hills west of Victoria may have stayed both above water and free of ice throughout the Fraser Glaciation. Grant Keddie suspects increasingly that elk and other large mammals survived on the Island throughout the ice age. He hopes to prove it.

Searching for a truer picture of this hillside, valley and creek since ice departed and land rose from the sea, the most helpful article I have found is Richard Hebda’s Biodiversity: Geological History in British Columbia (2007). My impression from Hebda is that the dry, cold era of lodgepole pine open forest and grassland extended through the valley’s first 3,000 years – approximately from 14,500 to 11,500 years ago. Sudden, severe cooling ended the bison era about 11,400 years BP (Before Present). Deep winter freezing during five cold centuries broke down our grassland and pine forest ecosystems. Shrubby, stunted alder may have colonized. I wonder which large mammals remained in our valley. Which died out, moved out or moved in? Did people follow them? Certainly I don’t see Thryomanes Bewickii here during that cold period – but I see them arrive soon after.

Around 10, 900 years BP, climate turned warm and dry, with hotter summers than today. Extreme low sea levels continued to bare so much of the seabed among the Gulf and San Juan Islands that entire ecosystems could cross over to colonize Vancouver Island from the south. Habitat for Bewick’s wren expanded all around the Salish Sea. Douglas fir forest, with dense, shrubby understory spread into and beyond its present zone. Garry oak ecosystem established here also, and wildfire repeatedly cleared swaths of Garry oak meadow. Between 11,000 and 8,000 years ago approximately, this hillside and valley may have looked much like Oregon oak lands look today. The people likely hunted animals we know now on the Island, and possibly dug camas bulbs in meadow. During decades between wildfires, patches of dense brush would grow among the old oaks, and we probably heard Bewick’s wrens sing.

Climate turned slightly cooler and wetter from 8,000 to 4,500 years ago, increasingly like the present day. More Douglas fir forest moved into the valley. Redcedar forest established in damp soil along the creek. Wildfires decreased. Oak meadow zones shrank. People may have adjusted by purposely burning the underbrush to preserve meadow for camas-gathering and forest edge habitat for hunting. Sea level was rising. Shoreline gradually receded to its present position, with the creek mouth at Oak Bay. Ocean increasingly isolated Island plants and animals, including Bewick’s wren. From about 4,500 years BP, the valley and its people maintained generally the same ecosystems that enchanted fur traders landing in 107 BP (1843).

I feel better already. Acquiring this new information applies cement to the cracks in that old self-image. I hear Bewick’s wren sing this morning from the top of a spruce tree across Fern Street. What’s that you say, little bird? Your song tells me: “Forget this inward-looking self-image business. Sit up straight. Sing out. Stake life’s claim to this hillside and valley. Fight for us when you need to.”

12. Setophaga petechia

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August 20, 2016

Our neighbours enjoy the Lombardy poplars. They grow tall along the back yard’s north fence. But they need more water in summer than this dry hillside naturally provides. Seeking moisture they send their roots invading the vegetable beds, berries and flowers. They stand out of place and time. They belong in the valley bottom along a ditch on a farm a century ago. A few old Lombardy poplars still do stand there, in fact, beside Bowker Creek.

Nostalgia moved Sherryll to plant Lombardy poplars at the Meeting House. She remembered evening light on lofty windbreak trees across a field; she pictured a high leafy backdrop for Quaker garden parties and family back yard picnics. The poplars do provide it, but Swedish columnar aspens, we belatedly learn, might offer the same benefits, more drought tolerance and less invasive roots.

On the Lombardy poplars, a few leaves are turning colour as fall approaches. No breeze blew this morning, but one yellow leaf detached and fluttered sideways into the next tree. Apparent defiance of gravity by a leaf merited a closer look. Binoculars revealed a yellow bird foraging with a thin bill for insects. A warbler.

Wilson’s or Yellow warbler? I won’t claim certainty. The checklist from Victoria Natural History Society shows both species common in August. Poring over descriptions and illustrations in Peterson’s Field Guide inclines me to identify the bird as a female or immature Yellow warbler, Setophaga petechia.

This was the most cheerful-coloured bird I have seen at Fern Street. Probably it was fueling-up on its way south. BC coastal geography funnels many migrant birds through the southern tip of the Island. The Rocky Point Bird Observatory reports peak numbers of Yellow warbler passing through in the last two weeks of August. I’m happy to think that our trees at the Meeting House may provide insects to power songbird migrations. Visits from little beautiful birds persuade me that bugs may be the garden’s best crop, though caterpillars attacking our fruit trees often challenge that viewpoint.

Setophaga petechia migrates far. In winter, from Mexico south into Peru and Brazil, it brightens-up tropical jungle, mangrove swamp and city park. In summer Yellow warblers fan out through temperate and arctic North America. For any Canadian who knows where to look, they adorn this nation from sea to sea to sea.

Where should we look? The short response is: patches of shrubby willow. Birds of British Columbia, Volume 4 (2007) reports:

“The Yellow Warbler breeds in sunlit stands of deciduous vegetation and has a strong attraction to willow. …. In general it prefers shorter trees in dense stands, and shrubbery in riparian habitats along stream courses, on the margins of beaver ponds, [and] wet meadows….”

“Riparian” –  the transitional zone between land and water ecosystems – the term appears often in descriptions of Yellow warbler habitat. It includes the shrubby edges of marshland and the banks of pond and stream. Locally The Naturalist’s Guide to the Victoria Region directs us to the riparian zone at Blenkinsop Lake where “…thick growth of willows and dogwood along the trail conceals Yellow warblers.…”

We grow no willows, genus Salix, in this yard or park. Local native willows would not naturally thrive on the dry hillside. They would prosper more on the flats along Bowker Creek. More broadly defined however, willows do grow in this yard and park. The larger willow family, Salicaceae, includes poplar, alder, birch and aspen. Our Lombardy poplars belong to it, as do the black cottonwood and white birch. We qualify marginally as habitat for Setophaga petechia, if only as a feeding stop for migrants.

Yellow warblers have illumined Bowker Valley, I expect, longer than people have been here to delight in them. Willows would establish quickly after the most recent Ice Age, and warblers follow. Observations of receding glaciers in coastal Alaska illustrate the pattern. Retreating ice leaves bare land, and willows take root within a few years. Within decades, warbler song and colour enlivens dense willow thicket.

When favoured habitat appears, Setophaga petechia quickly colonizes. “Yellow warblers are an indicator species,” the Atlas of the Breeding Birds of British Columbia states, “one guide to the changing landscape of British Columbia, and may be one of the first to expand into early successional habitats.” When logging removes coniferous forest, for example, alders spring up in the clearings and Yellow warblers move in. When we drain wetlands or clear willow from streambanks, warbler numbers decrease.

Bowker Valley offered Yellow warblers far more nesting habitat in the past than at present. Several kilometres of the creek and its tributaries meandered through marsh and ponds. The back cover of the Bowker Creek Blueprint document is a map from 1854. It shows many hectares of wetlands along the stream and its tributaries. Roughly estimated, wet areas on the 1854 map extended about six kilometers and averaged more than 100 metres wide (around 60 hectares or 150 acres). As at Blenkinsop Lake today, shrub willow and red-osier dogwood thicket would naturally occupy that corridor. Every May and June hundreds of Yellow warblers likely nested.

In 1854 the farming era here had hardly begun. Victoria’s settler population consisted mainly in fur trade employees at the Hudson’s Bay Company fort by the harbour. The map indicates that our valley’s only public road was a cart track across it (now Fort Street), connecting Fort Victoria to the HBC farm at Cadboro Bay. A side road branched off to a cluster of buildings on bottomland below this Fern Street hillside. They stood at present-day Carrick Street in the North Jubilee neighbourhood, and served Bowker Valley’s first farm.

The farm lot, labeled “Sec. 26” on the map, appears to include Fern Street and all of North Jubilee. Archival records indicate Modeste Demers as its holder. Marshy Bowker Creek meanders diagonally across it. Bishop Demers faced big challenges in 1854. The church had weighted its newly-arrived prelate of its newly-created diocese of Vancouver Island with responsibility for spiritual care of peoples of the entire BC mainland, its coastal islands and Alaska, but had supplied virtually no funding. Of his two priests, he had sent one up-Island to Nanaimo, and the other to the mainland. I would be interested to learn why he took up a land grant from the Hudson’s Bay Company and broke the soil of Bowker Valley. Did he personally wield the plough? Modeste Demers came from a family that had farmed in Quebec for two centuries. I imagine the middle-aged farmer clearing trees and brush and spading his potato patch.

The image disturbs me. Bishop Demers, did you dig your stretch of Bowker Creek straighter and deeper, drain your bit of its wetlands, cut and uproot your portion of its riparian willow thicket? Did the story of its degradation start with you? I continue your story. I break Bowker Valley soil again every year to grow potatoes; I dwell in comfort on your farm’s hillside pasture with hundreds of other people in huge buildings. Our roofs and roads prevent rain from soaking into earth; we divert stormwater churning down drains to our big storm sewer, the creek.

How may I reconcile my feelings of kinship, admiration, gratitude, disgust, anger and mortification? I dreamt of dead deer lying rotting in dewy morning meadow; maybe a hunter’s dump; it stinks; severed heads of sea lions stare as new lovers walk naked from last night’s embrace in the treetops, ashamed to awaken here. The girl touches her abdomen, aware of a new life. No going back now. The law, attraction, calls forth experience from innocence, summons new innocence out of old experience, spirals mind expanding always out through time.

Settlers: Modeste Demers, faithful servant of his church, missionary to the peoples who already lived here; James Douglas, fur trader, faithful servant of his company and empire. They were good friends, men of goodwill, decent proponents of their civilization’s ideals. Douglas had purchased the lands around Fort Victoria in 1850, including this valley, from the native families who lived in the area. Those families had chosen to live beside the fort. It offered profitable employment as well as safety from raids by more warlike peoples up-Island and up-coast. Potato patches provided starch with much less effort than did camas meadows. Fabric from the trading post provided clothing more conveniently than did wool dogs and spindles. Agrarian, industrial, global economy offered them an easier life. Who turns down that offer?

We sleep. We awaken many decades later in the city that Douglas imagined, in the valley that Demers’ shovel pierced, and walk down the hillside. Death stinks in the meadow: carcasses from fur trade slaughter, settlement and progress. Morning gifts us with new eyes and with guilt. Rest your palm on your abdomen; experience the new sense of justice that makes us feel sick here this morning. We are not who we were.

We carry a civilization to which we may give birth. The sense of justice we feel beneath our palm extends to every human, every species and ecosystem. Rest your palm on your abdomen; the civilization of one living Earth gestates. The law, attraction, calls us to bear and to serve it.

After 1854 change came fast in the valley. Farmers ditched and drained. A 1901 panoramic photo, snapped from Mt. Tolmie, shows pleasant farmland, no sign of shrubby marsh. Only in winter did the valley bottom stay soggy. A man I met remembered skating on the winter lake that covered the intersection of Shelbourne Street and Cedar Hill Crossroad. A woman who had lived upstairs from her family’s store as a child on Haultain Street told me of water inundating the shop. The residence upstairs remained dry and a rowboat ferried the little girl to higher ground for school.

Stormwater drains slowly in a low-gradient stream. Over its eight-kilometre length, Bowker Creek descends only fifty metres; slope averages about 0.6%. Crossing land at hardly any slope, a stream dawdles. It meanders and spreads into wetlands. In rainy winter it pools and stays flooded for months. Salmon and trout prosper.

Around the Salish Sea, streams like Bowker Creek were the most productive of Coho salmon. Coho juveniles live a full year in fresh water before migrating to the ocean. In winter, Bowker Valley marsh and swamp provided safe habitat in calm water. In the leafy seasons, shrub willow hid the stream, protected little salmon and trout from kingfishers and herons. Its cool water, shaded by willow, held abundant oxygen for fish to breathe. Shrubby riparian thicket also showered insects onto the stream surface for fish to eat. And it supplied insects for great numbers of nesting and migrating birds, such as Yellow warblers.

Gently sloping valleys also invite agriculture and city-building. City replaced farm in Bowker Valley during the Twentieth Century. Householders demanded dry ground all year. The creek became a stormwater-management problem for municipal engineers. They ditched it progressively deeper and straighter, then culverted most of it underground. Of Bowker Creek’s wide wetlands the last vestige persists at the University of Victoria, at the creek’s headwaters. Mature cottonwoods dominate swampy ground between the University Club and Gordon Head Road.

City engineers these days know that marsh absorbs stormwater, cleans it and prevents flooding downstream. Climate change appears to be giving us bigger winter rains. To mitigate flooding, Bowker Creek Blueprint recommends opening-up sections of the stream that now lie deep in culvert. As opportunities arise, we may engineer wetlands and meandering channel to slow and absorb high flows. On the old Demers farm in the Twenty-first Century, yellow songbirds aplenty may nest in riparian willow thicket at the city’s heart. Justice invites them.

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!