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


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


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

Autumn leaves on groundLQ

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


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!


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.