23. Haliaeetus leucocephalus


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.


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.