8. Larus glaucescens


July 27, 2016

Hardly any breeze this morning at seven. Leaves of the Lombardy poplars barely stir. On the big oak at the far corner of the park noisy crows raise a boundary to my back yard stillness. They flock from roosts somewhere north of here, gather in the oak and disperse for the day in town. The stillness contains voices of little brown birds, musical notes from an alarm clock in someone’s apartment, excited squirrel chatter and crow fuss in a poplar tree where I see a long tail hanging down from a branch, a raccoon. Erratic insect flight, the stillness includes, back-lit by sun that slants low across the valley to illuminate one strand of silk festooned between the birch tree and the back fence by a drifting caterpillar.

Yesterday evening in the park I identified Glaucous-winged gulls, Larus glaucescens. From the playground with Holly and Fuller, I trotted back here for my binoculars and bird books. They supported my assumption that the seagulls I might hear and see any time, any day, all year on this hillside are Glaucous-winged. Fuller watches the big gulls overhead from the swing or the climbing structure, and points to them and says “bird”. It was his second word. His first was “tree”. We are working on “crow” and “seagull” but that may take a while. He points also at the gulls that call from the roofs of apartment and condominium blocks on both sides of the park.

Identifying was not entirely easy. Local checklists offer too many gull species. The Naturalists Guide to the Victoria Region celebrates my confusion:

“Victoria is a paradise for gulls and gull watchers. Eighteen species have been recorded here. Gull identification, particularly for the immatures, is a challenge even to the birding expert, and the variations within each variety of plumage of the different species – as well as the presence of some hybrids – adds spice to the fun.”

The Glaucous-winged gull, for example, has a pure white head and body, except in those seasons when it is streaked with brown. The upper surface of it wings is pure “glaucous” (a pastel shade of blue-grey), except in the first three years of its life as it progresses through several juvenile stages of mottled browns and greys. The same “glaucous” extends to its wingtips, except for some natural variation in wingtip shade, and for the disposition of Glaucous-winged gulls to freely cross-breed, producing various wingtip effects. Identifying gulls here is a path to madness, except when it’s a symptom.

Whenever, in the past few decades, I have risen to the challenge of naming the gull that surrounds me in Victoria, I have come up always with Larus glaucescens. In 1992, for example, I must have made a New-Years resolution to get serious about birds. On the checklist in the back pages of Birds of Victoria and Vicinity on 1/1/92 I tick-marked Glaucuous-winged gull and three duck species, then apparently forgot the project. Identification, finally, is not so difficult when I sort out the key features. In Bowker Valley a large seagull with light blue-grey on its wings that extends to its wingtips is Glaucous-winged, our common resident gull.

Hundreds or thousands nest on rocks two kilometers offshore from Bowker Creek’s mouth at Oak Bay. The Important Bird Areas Canada website reports that “Chain Islets and Great Chain Island… is a site of global importance, supporting a significant breeding population of Glaucous-winged Gulls…” Great Chain Island is a treeless rock, which glaciers about 20,000 years ago scoured in long north-south grooves. Grasses and shrubs grow in the grooves. Across thousands of years, canoes launched, I expect, from Bowker Creek mouth for egg-gathering on Great Chain Island.

In Bowker Valley’s yearly round of life, people knew early June as a time for seagull eggs. The family that held rights to egg-gathering on Great Chain Island would land its canoe at the small gravel beach, bringing empty baskets. Here is Denise Titian’s description of egg-gathering, published online in Ha-Shilth-Sa, the newspaper of the Nuu-Chah-Nulth Tribal Council. Her family landed this year on a similar coastal islet where “…seabirds reign on the rocky reefs, depositing their black-speckled army green eggs in the swatches of seagrasses they nest in.”:

“…the family scours the island, loading up with seagull eggs as the birds circle above, squawking, squealing and dropping the occasional bird bomb.

“[Steve] Titian says they begin checking the nests in early June and do about three harvests spaced over a week.

“’They usually lay up to three eggs so we leave one in the nest and take the rest,’ he explained.

“They did their first harvest on June 12 and got about 80 eggs. Their second trip netted about 200 eggs.

“’We leave them alone for two or three days to give them a break and allow them to lay more eggs,’ Titian said.

“And when they get back to the village they give eggs freely to those that love eating them.

“The seagull egg can be used any way that a chicken egg is used but people from Ahousaht prefer them scrambled. A seagull egg is much larger than a chicken egg and the rich yolks are deep orange, almost red.”

Humans in Bowker Valley and Glaucous-winged gulls have participated from ancient times in each-others’ lives. The gulls have recycled our food wastes at our village by the shore. Clamouring, they have watched our fishers and hunters gut our catch, and have rushed in to clean up. Before the Capital Regional District began residential pick-up of compostable garbage, Sherryll and I often walked down to Oak Bay with a salmon carcass to fling onto the rocks. We enjoyed the gulls’ frenzied feeding while crows at the edges darted in for morsels. Since the first people stood at the creek mouth, the spectacle of Glaucous-winged gulls recycling salmon carcasses has entertained us.

This far up the creek, on the hillside, we might not have seen so many gulls in the past. Now they gather worms on the lawn in the park. Our food waste and our buildings attract them here. Glaucous-winged gulls roost and nest increasingly on roofs of big buildings, such as these apartments and condominiums. The roofs provide flat expanses with good visibility and few predators. Eagles leave them mostly alone.

In recent decades, more and more Bald eagles nest on southern Vancouver Island. They prey on Glaucous-winged gulls nesting on the rocks off Oak Bay. Recently I noticed a seagull wing hanging from our Bowker Valley eagle nest, high in a Douglas fir near the creek mouth. Glaucous-winged gulls may be learning to site their colonies in locations safer from eagles. Gull populations are smart like that.

Not eagles, I suspect, but ourselves, gathering eggs from offshore rocks have been Glaucous-winged gull’s most efficient predator in the past. “Predator” however, is too limited a word; it ignores our human intelligence. We learned thousands of years ago that we and the gulls depended on each other; we understood our power in the relationship; we set ourselves egg-gathering rules by which the gulls and we could thrive. Human populations are smart like that. We construct our morality around our well-being in community.

About 150 years ago we largely set aside our understanding and rules about Glaucous-winged gulls. The gold rush on the mainland attracted a new influx of people with a new mixture of moral codes, not local to Bowker Valley or the Salish Sea. Rules about gathering eggs and hunting birds broke down. Plunder ensued. We have been working, ever since, to rebuild our understanding, morality and policy.

Already 100 years ago, the rules took a big step forward. People across North America saw that species of birds were disappearing. We had made extinct the Great auk and Labrador duck, and in 1914, the Passenger pigeon. People knew it was wrong and dangerous. In 1916 we signed the Canada-United States Migratory Bird Convention to conserve birds “that are useful to man or are harmless.” It protected the Glaucuous-winged gull, a migratory bird.

Migratory? When does it migrate? I can see Glaucous-winged gulls in Fern St. Park every day of the year. The Birds of North America website provides a better word: “disperse”. “Banded birds in British Columbia”, the site reports, “disperse mostly southward along the coast.” Immature birds may drift for two years or three, for twenty kilometers or 2,000, before returning home. Juveniles from a Victoria rooftop might wander as locally as Seattle or as distant as San Diego. An immature bird I see in Fern St. Park might have coasted from Sidney, the next town up-Island, or from Anchorage, Alaska.

Glaucous-winged gull colonies breed on rocks off Oregon, Washington and BC, and along Alaska’s south and west coasts and the Aleutian island chain as far as the Commander Islands of Russia. Young birds wander to Japan and Korea. A few disperse east on Alaska’s Arctic coast. Rarely, they end-up in Europe. Last January an Irish birder, Fionn Moore, set off a Rare Bird Alert, photographing a Glaucous-winged gull in the harbour at Castletown Bree, County Cork.

Here at home, our migratory bird legislation aided gull populations. After we limited egg-gathering and hunting, Glaucous-winged gull numbers increased through most of the 1900s. We specifically protected many of their breeding colonies. BC’s provincial government enacted the Oak Bay Islands Ecological Reserve, including Great Chain Island.

Numbers of Glaucous-winged gulls increased until the 1980s. Perhaps our fabulous quantities of food waste helped. Scientists debate that question. Certainly, dense clouds of the birds have fed from our dumps. Some of us still remember the white and grey tempest of seagulls that adorned our garbage barges and ferryboats. A tourism slogan of the day was “Follow the birds to Vancouver Island”. In fact the gulls followed the ferries, anticipating the gullet-stuffing moment when crew dumped containers of restaurant leftovers astern. We no longer distribute our food waste quite so freely.

Since the mid-1980s our gulls around the Salish Sea have greatly declined. Surveys in the Oak Bay Ecological Reserve found about 2400 Glaucous-winged gulls nesting in 1986, but a thousand fewer in 2009. The authors of a study, A Century of Change in Glaucous-winged Gull (Larus glaucescens) Populations in a Dynamic Coastal Environment (The Condor, 2015) state that numbers breeding in the Georgia Basin fell fifty percent between the mid-1980s and 2010. They identify two likely causes: more eagles, and less of the fish on which the gulls naturally feed. Eagles have come back since we banned DDT in the ‘70s. Abundance of fish in the Salish Sea has decreased from overfishing and from destruction of their habitats.

Now, as of old, human actions dictate the fate of Glaucous-winged gull nests on Great Chain Island. In ancient times we saw and thought local. You knew it made a difference whether you gathered all three eggs in a nest, or left one. Now we see and think more global. That’s good; clearly it matters that we act internationally to stop DDT and regulate hunting and fishing. But local disappears from our mind. You live in Bowker Valley but you’ve never heard of Great Chain Island. I hadn’t until now. You disturb the nesting gulls, not consciously, not gathering eggs, but unaware, partying on the beach.

Bowker Valley itself disappears from our wisdom. Twice a day you drive across the valley and the creek in its culvert under Cedar Hill Cross Road at the Shelbourne intersection, and never know. Decades you live here before you stand on a rock at Bowker Creek mouth and watch Glaucous-winged gulls dip and splash in fresh water. People you can’t see stand with you: Elders, ancient mind of our community and place. Gulls, crows, eagles, feasting on Chum salmon that your imagination might remember spawning and dying here entertain the Elders.

5. Selasphorus rufus


July 14, 2016

Watering another garden yesterday, not this one at the Meeting House, brought me eye-to-eye with a Rufous hummingbird. I care for a patch of native plant habitat along Bowker Creek at Monteith Street. From Jubilee Hospital it’s a kilometer or more downstream. I was directing the spray wand onto three little serviceberry bushes. A hummingbird hovered in front of me at the edge of the spray. Was it drinking? Bathing? I clearly saw the rusty back and light brown belly. No hint of a flaming red throat, but the rusty back is enough. My checklist from Victoria Natural History Society shows only two kinds of hummingbird ever here in July. Selasphorus rufus is the rufous one.

Gardeners at Monteith planted the serviceberry bushes. Hummingbirds will sip at their flowers if the shrubs ever grow up. We do our best to protect them from deer, drought and the lush growth of their neighbouring blue elderberry, which we also planted. Serviceberry starts to bloom in early-mid-April, when the Rufous begin to pass through here. Drinking twice their weight per day in flower nectar, the birds follow the main outburst of spring bloom up the Pacific coast. Flower abundance matters to a creature who can beat its wings fifty times a second, whose heart can thump 1000 times a minute, and who may migrate more than 6000 kilometers twice a year. Rufous hummingbirds typically winter in southern Mexico, in the hills behind Acapulco. They nest north as far as Prince William Sound, Alaska.

In coastal BC, a tradition holds that the Rufous time their arrival for the bloom of red-flowering currant. My mom passed along to me a 1946 book, Wildwood Trails, a collection of newspaper columns by WJ Winson. “Old Mr. Winson”, as Mom referred to him, lived in the woods near my family’s little town in the Fraser Valley. He observed on a warm April day and wrote:

“The little hummer visits no other bush than this large blossoming currant. He is seen here as soon as the light reveals him. The last sunset gleam finds reflection on his throat.

“Over and over the bush he works, hovering before each cluster in irregular turn.”

The gardeners at Monteith have planted several red-flowering currants, plus other early-spring nectar suppliers, salmonberry and tall Oregon grape. A mature big-leaf maple blooms already in April.

Rufous-friendly plants also grow here at the Meeting House, and in Fern Street Park. We see hummingbirds, but I have not yet identified one. They fly fast. Little bodies zoom across the garden and disappear over the roof, one chasing another.

Chasing appears as a common theme in Rufous hummingbird descriptions. Aggression. Territory. The male stakes out his patch of flowers and guards it with exceptional ferocity. At the red-flowering currant bush, WJ Winson observes that honeybees “are bustled off with furious bluffing”; a big queen bumblebee arrives and “he snaps his beak in angry chase”. He needs pugnacity in his long migration. When Rufous arrives in Victoria and finds our resident Anna’s hummingbirds already enjoying a back porch feeder, he chases off the larger hummer species. Up the coast and down the Rockies, Rufous hummingbirds constantly trespass into other creatures’ domains.

Most other hummingbirds, by contrast, never leave the tropics. Of 300-plus species in the Americas, only twelve to fifteen nest north of Mexico. In Canada, five. Only Selasphorus rufus ventures north of sixty degrees. The typical hummingbird stays home in Columbia and Equador, striking exclusive pollination deals with local plants, equatorial, ever-blooming. Tubular flowers evolve, long and narrow to favour the needle bill and syringe tongue. Scientists assert that new flower and hummingbird species continue to co-evolve.

In the northern Andes, hummingbird variety has showered forth during the past twenty million years. An oceanic tectonic plate collides with continental plates, grinds, submerges, pushes up mountains and throws off sparks which are hummingbirds. Rising mountains create new niches of climate and landform. The birds evolve into the niches. Rufous, meanwhile, battles for flowers of varied shape and size as the interloper chases springtime to Victoria and Ketchikan. What draws or pushes the Rufous to such migratory extremes?

To wander is ancient in hummingbirds. In fossil records, hummers emerge first in Europe and Asia around thirty million years ago. They vanish from Eurasia, and re-appear about twenty million years ago in South America. Around five million years ago we find, in North America, the ancestor of all the hummingbirds that will migrate into Canada. It has crossed hundreds of kilometers of ocean from the south, as arising Central America has not yet connected the two continents. Selasphorus rufus separates as a species about a million years ago.

In those million years it has not changed much. The Rufous and its closest cousin, the Allen’s, still appear almost identical; look for the distinctive notch in two tail feathers of the Rufous adult male. The species differ most clearly in range. Rufous claims our Pacific Northwest habitats for springtime nesting, and leaves the California coastal niche to Allen’s.

Yet habitat moves. Changing climate sends plant species relocating up and down the coast. Over the past million years, ten ice ages have displaced Victoria’s cool climate southward to California. Between ice ages Victoria has heated sometimes to our present levels. I imagine Rufous and Allen’s hummingbirds continually adjusting their ranges south and north to follow their preferred habitats. Selasphorus rufus may have nested here on Vancouver Island during other of the interglacial periods. In the present warm interlude, one spring during the past several thousand years, Rufous arrived in Bowker Creek’s valley, at this Fern Street hillside, at a blooming bush, ready to fight.

Aggression is normal in this back yard. Belligerence abounds. Sudden squirrel fracas startles me. The rodents emote and fling themselves chasing, clattering up the horse chestnut and leap to the Meeting House roof. Many creatures contest territory in the garden. Robin chases hurtle above it. Crows loudly notify a raccoon in the laurel hedge that he or she must move along. Cats at night shriek to contest who may hunt here. My gardening makes it worse no doubt. The more varied habitat, the more desirable territories for more species to fight over.

Humans contend also in this back yard. I lack adequate time for gardening, and other people want my time. Emma and Fuller fight over it, the 91 year-old and the 14-month-old, Holly’s little boy. This week for example, they both helped me pick snap peas. So long had I neglected the task that many had grown to full-size shelling pods. Emma often gardens with me. Working and contributing in the household means much to her. She sat on her walker beside the pea patch holding a wide stainless steel mixing bowl while I picked and brought peas for her to drop into it.

“That’s a skinny one”, I heard her say. She was sorting through the bowl, throwing thin pods back into the garden. Those “skinny ones” were the snap peas I was trying to harvest, but they didn’t fit her idea of peas. Correcting her wouldn’t help. It would have confused, embarrassed and offended her. So I got another bowl from the kitchen, moved the skinny pods into it, and handed her only the fat ones. She shelled peas. We were both happy.

Meanwhile, where was Fuller? He had tried to help with the peas when I was focused on Emma. Now I couldn’t see him. The fence would keep him in the yard, but he finds hazards everywhere. I scurried to check the fire escape stairs, which he loves to climb, then the north side yard. In the south side yard he was picking cascade berries from the lattice, trampling strawberry plants.

Emma tired of gardening and I escorted her indoors to Sherryll. Fuller took over as my helper with the peas. From the bowl of skinny pods he threw handfuls into the garden and replaced them with handfuls of leaf mulch. Gardening with Fuller doesn’t really work either.

We had one excellent gardening session this week though. Sherryll called me from my desk upstairs to look after him while she took Emma out on errands. Fuller climbed on the play structure in Fern Street Park, then I wheeled him to sleep in the jogger. I can’t get the jogger upstairs so I couldn’t return to my desk. Instead I got a shovel from the shed and spread a layer of soil onto a compost box as Fuller slept. He slept as I tied up tomato plants and snapped off unwanted extra shoots. I weeded the potatoes. Ah, gardening, peaceful and productive like it’s supposed to be, and the beautiful guy sleeping.

A lovely moment darts into the busyness like a small bird to hover briefly. A few days ago Fuller stood gazing at the top of a Lombardy poplar illuminated in evening sun and moving gently in the breeze. Looking at me he said “Ooooh, ooooh”, waving his hand like the tree. He pulled me into his wonder at the glory of it. Those poplars suck up too much water; the roots have wrecked my raspberries and now invade the vegetables; Sherryll bought them and insisted that I plant them; she and Fuller see things the same way I guess.

He eats berries with earnest purpose. Any day he visits here we forage the garden and the park for strawberries, cascades, raspberries, thimbleberries, black-caps. When I tire of it and move him along he fights me to return to the berries. Their sweetness draws him like nectar draws a hummingbird, controls his attention. But his focus on the poplar was different. Gazing open-mouthed at a treetop, turning and telling another person “Ooooh, ooooh” was not hummingbird-like behaviour. It was child-like.

That ability for amazement, I’ve mostly forgotten. I’ve learned to filter my perceptions like other adult apes. If the treetop contains no threat or opportunity for the old primate, why would he gaze there? Perception serves my safety, appetites and social status, guards my territories, furthers my goals, adds new birds to my list. Rarely would I simply see the poplar top lit-up. Only crumbs and bleached, thin threads of reality squeeze through adult filters. Standing staring I leave mainly to the child. Wonder is for little ones. It’s a practice I need though. I hope to relearn it. What a world might be out there and in here for the person who can glimpse at times beyond the bulky editorial apparatus, the towering walls of assumption, concept, category, identity that the adult maintains around himself.

I want the child’s amazement back. And something else, I want Rufous hummingbird’s aggression, spirit of lively defense. The little bird so clearly defines his patch of flowers and so relentlessly guards it. Serviceberry bushes at Monteith need that from me. Any modest remnant of local native plant habitat along Bowker Creek needs gardeners to fight for it. Human heart expands now to embrace communities of life around and within us, to honour our local valley, our stream and the plants along its shore. Our sense of justice correspondingly expands. It accords serviceberry rights to bloom and fruit here, with red-flowering currant, tall Oregon grape, big-leaf maple, Rufous hummingbird, people and the complex of plants and animals that have interwoven since this land rose from the sea.

Rufous hummingbird, face-to-face I appeal for a spark of your spirit in me. I open my mind to long, deep mind of this valley where Homo sapiens and Selasphorus rufous from ancient days of spring regard one-another at a flowering bush. Gardeners of Bowker Valley would care for habitat that both our species have long made home. Lend us your fierce, quick, acrobatic, implacable energy defending it.

2. Corvus caurinus


June 18, 2016

Crows was the second sound I noticed this morning. The first was partiers returning home. Emma has the bedroom again, so Sherryll and I slept in the living room with a front window open. Lots of life happens on Fern Street’s only block. Hundreds of people live here in four-story apartment and condominium buildings, townhouses and a few old wooden houses, circa 1910. We live in one of those, the Friends Meeting House, mid-block. “Friends” comes from the proper name for Quakers, the Religious Society of Friends. As Resident Friend, Sherryll takes care of the building and the rentals to groups who meet here. Generally Fern Street remains decently quiet until six-thirty or seven, but the crows got noisy much earlier. Raspy, emphatic, this bird voice I recognize.

Everyone in Victoria knows crows. The term “in-your-face” comes to mind. On strike, many years ago at a school a few blocks from here, I paced round and round the block. Each time around, insulting crows dive-bombed my placard and me as I passed under a tree with a nest. Springtime always brings stories of hats knocked off or scalps scratched.

Our crow species on Vancouver Island is the Northwestern, Corvus caurinus. Or maybe not. New genetic studies may be changing the picture. Northwestern crow looks identical to American crow, just slightly smaller. My bird books assure me that American crow stays away from British Columbia’s coastal islands and keeps generally east of the Coast Range mountains. That belief might be wrong.

Corvus caurinus translates as “the crow of the northwest wind”. Its evolution as a separate species has occurred recently, within the last 400,000 years, during ice ages. Glacier has periodically advanced and retreated during that time period.  Sometimes it has burdened almost all of British Columbia, from the Rockies to the ocean. Only a few fragments of coastline have remained free of ice. In the most recent advance, for example, between 25,000 and 11,000 years ago, glacier covered the coast here at Victoria, but bits of ice-free seashore persisted at such spots as Naikoon Peninsula on the islands of Haida Gwaii, and likely on Vancouver Island’s Brooks Peninsula. Such places became refugia, where many animal and plant species survived. Crow populations likely persisted there, isolated for millennia, adapting and evolving into Corvus caurinus – shoreline foragers.

On the ebb tide they combed the beaches and rocks. Fish, living or dead, crabs and shellfish became their staple foods. They learned to dig clams, fly up and drop them on rocks to smash open. High tide forced the crows onto dry land to forage berries and bugs, and to eat seafood they had cached during low tide. When humans arrived, Northwestern crow learned to watch for edibles that we left unguarded.

British Columbia coastline has included human camps and villages for many thousand years. Some scientists argue for sixteen or seventeen thousand. People were moving south from Beringia, the land that linked Alaska and Siberia during the most recent ice age. In the coldest millennia, ocean levels lowered drastically because glaciers held much of the planet’s water. Huge areas of continental shelf dried out. Where the Bering Straits now separate Asia and North America, low sea level exposed a land corridor 1,500 kilometres wide. Extreme dry climate kept much of it free of glacier. Humans migrated there from Asia and survived its harsh tundra conditions. People from Beringia traveled south, populating our continent. Some came down the Pacific coast.

Did we migrate by land or by sea? Scientists have debated. If boats carried us, then we may have arrived as long ago as 17,000 years, and settled the coastal refugia. Evidence would be hard to find, however. More than a hundred metres of water now submerges those shores where we and the Northwestern crow may have dug clams. Certainly “the crow of the northwest wind” has long since learned to scout for edibles that people might leave unwanted or unattended. Stealing our sandwich from the picnic table and rummaging our village midden are ancient high-tide behaviours.

As the planet warmed and glaciers retreated, Northwestern crows from the refugia could extend their range north and south along the shore. They would meet American crows that were moving up from the south and would interbreed. Recent genetic studies suggest a long coastal zone where Northwestern and American crow genes have been mixing completely. Victoria might be sitting in the middle of that zone. Pure Northwestern crow genes may persist along the Alaska coast, and pure American crow genes on the California coast, but our population on Vancouver Island appears share both ancestries. What should we call them?

I have wondered when crows first arrived in Victoria. Here at the Quaker Meeting House on Fern Street, when did crows first converse? In Victoria the glacier that covered us in the recent ice age was gone around 15,000 years ago. We were under water though.

The weight of the ice had depressed our bedrock possibly two hundred metres. It takes some imagining. The rock that outcrops in the Meeting House front yard would not easily squish down, one would think. To make sense of it, I remind myself that this rock may be solid, but it’s not so thick. Our bedrock is a thin skin on the planet, maybe ten or twenty kilometres deep. The next layer down is more plastic, semi-molten. Our bedrock floats upon it.

Floating brought Vancouver Island here. Our journey began south of the equator 300 million years ago. Volcanoes under the ocean built islands and archipelagos. The plate of bedrock of which they were part drifted north, slowly. The islands collided with North America 100 million years ago along the Oregon shore. Then, in the slowest of slow-motion shipwrecks, they bumped and scraped north along the coast, leaving bits behind. Vancouver Island was one piece of the wreckage. The Islands of Haida Gwaii, another. The final pile-up added mountains to southeast Alaska.

So yes, I can imagine that glacier depressed this floating bedrock. When the ice went away, Victoria’s downtown lay maybe seventy-five metres submerged, but Fern Street is higher than downtown. Probably forty or fifty metres of water covered our block. When did Fern Street emerge from the sea?

Our bedrock, free of glacier burden, rebounded upward. Sea level was also rising as continental ice continued to melt. In the vertical race between our bedrock and the ocean, we moved faster. Sometime between 15,000 and 14,000 years ago, Fern Street pulled out above the water. We sat on the shore of a small island, looking out across sea surface and other little islands. Crows no doubt foraged at low tide, digging clams in the sand. Did the crows see people? I doubt it. The little rocky island might not yet offer much to attract humans.

Further downhill from the Meeting House, shallow water still covered flat seabed. Land continued to rise. Around 13,500 years ago, our valley fully emerged. A stream picked its path in glacial silt down the valley bottom. These days we call it Bowker Creek. Salmon found it as soon as the ice departed, I suspect.

When glaciers melt, salmon quickly populate the new streams. Scientists observe at Glacier Bay, Alaska, where retreating ice exposes new shoreline every year. A new creek appears. Within a decade, salmon are spawning and crows are picking at carcasses. Life rushes in. Fifty years along, willow and alder grow dense on the streambank; songbirds nest; thousands of salmon crowd the creek mouth.

How about people? When did we find Bowker Valley and this Fern Street hillside? Archaeology has exposed a village site near the mouth of the creek at Oak Bay. It dates back less than 3,000 years, but for sure we have lived here much longer. A salmon stream has meandered several thousand years down a gently-sloping valley to a shore abundant in seafood. People are as observant and opportunistic as crows; we recognize food sources when we see them. Hard evidence is not available though. Our most ancient camps and villages at the creek mouth would now be difficult to locate.

“When and how did people arrive here?” – the question has always challenged Archaeologists on the British Columbia coast. My first wife, Marjorie, worked in the 1970s at digs, which I visited. It surprised me that they uncovered coastal villages far from the coast, riverside camps far from the river. Figuring out when shore was where is so complicated here. So many factors play. Glaciers depress bedrock, then melt; rock rebounds and ocean rises; rivers dig channels and build deltas; floating plates of bedrock drift, collide, shove persistently together, buckle, heave mountain up and trench down. British Columbia shoreline does not stay put.

In the present decade, science has given us a clearer picture of shoreline movements since ice-age glaciers melted. A journal article open now on my computer is Post-glacial sea-level change along the Pacific coast of North America by Dan H. Shugar et. al., from Quaternary Science Reviews online, 2014. Isn’t this a time? Sitting in pajamas at the Meeting House kitchen table with a cup of tea, one can search out information on local sea levels in ancient days. Reading the paragraph about Victoria and looking at the graph, I see Bowker Valley hoist fully out of the sea maybe 13,500 years ago, and continue slowly to rise. Shoreline continues to move down across Oak Bay seabed and beyond, perhaps forty metres below present sea-level. Then, around 11,000 years ago I see water-level rising. The shore gradually moves back inland to its present position a few thousand years ago.

So those first humans who landed our boats at the mouth of Bowker Creek and camped here: where should we look for the campsite? If we arrived before 13.5 thousand years ago, the creek mouth would be somewhere upstream from today’s shoreline. Maybe we camped under the parking lot at Hillside Mall. If we arrived between thirteen thousand and five thousand years ago, our first campfire might now lie somewhere beneath the waters of Oak Bay or Baynes Channel. From generation to generation we likely relocated our camps or villages repeatedly back from the shore as rising water inundated them. Money for Archaeology is scarce. We may never find more ancient camps in Bowker Valley.

Why would I care? What does it matter when Fern Street rose from the sea, or crows arrived, or people? Why would the shifting picture of our restless shoreline delight me? Why, indeed, would Shugar et. al. devote all that research time, brainpower, grant-application effort, love, to pin down Post-glacial sea-level change along the Pacific coast of North America? Partly, they were looking for places to dig holes. It comes back to the question of when and how humans first populated the Pacific coast – where to look for our first villages on shoreline that keeps changing.

The researchers identified a segment of British Columbia shore that stayed put when the glaciers departed, coastline where the various forces, pushing land and sea up and down, all balanced. Archaeologists dug on the shore of Calvert Island, halfway up the BC coast. Humankind dug, I would argue. Forensic human brain delved rectangular pits at the shoreline. Our species has evolved gathered around tracks in the mud, interpreting their story. It keeps us alive. Is food nearby? Is danger? Digging on the beach at Calvert Island, we found, one metre down, a footprint in the clay. Further pits uncovered footprints of three people, a family group around a hearth fire with a stone knife for cutting food. Carbon dating indicates antiquity of more than 13,000 years, the oldest human footprints yet found in North America.

More digging, on Triquet Island nearby, has moved the record of humans on BC’s central coast back further, to 14,000 years ago. It shows that people in boats were quickly populating the shore as the glaciers pulled back.

The pits at Calvert and Triquet Islands: I want to say that Earth dug them. The planet evolves capacity, I want to say, delicately to apply trowel and whisk broom to its own skin. Earth wonders who and what she is. The guy at the Fern Street kitchen table is just a moment of conscious attention Earth applies to her question. He reports: I hear people in Bowker Creek’s valley coming uphill. This is sometime between 13 and 13.5 thousand years ago. I am likely wrong. This is a family from the camp at the mouth of the creek. They explore, hunt, forage today upstream and up this hillside. A crow in the valley watches them and comments. A crow here answers.