Saturday, May 19, 2018

Interpreting Belcarra.

I led a walk in Belcarra Regional Park last week.  It was for a group of seniors, a trek around Sasamat Lake and, after a lunch break, a shorter trek around Woodhaven Swamp.  Both of these walks are relatively short and easy, and full of pretty things.  A one hour drive through Vancouver's eastern suburbs brings you to the Land of Banana Slug and Sasquatch.

False azalea, Menziesia ferruginea.

I hadn't walked either trail for at least a decade.  I think my last time there was with our son, who was about 8 or 9. That visit had been after another long absence, probably also close to a decade.  In the 1990s, I was very familiar with the trails of Belcarra.  I worked there as a park interpreter for the (then called) Greater Vancouver Regional District.  During that employment I worked in 15 of the 22 or so GVRD parks, which included a wide variety of habitats, from mudflat to mountainside, open marsh to deep, dark forest, but Belcarra was one of my more frequent haunts, and certainly one of the most beautiful.

Name tag, occasionally worn.

Know this: I had not wanted to by an interpreter.  It was a last ditch job, a plan C or D or whatever comes after Z.  I had been sending out my c. v. to every potential employer in the region and beyond to whom my hard-earned credentials, knowledge, and experience might be valuable.  There was a glut of people like me though, and post-secondary institutions weren't hiring very many of us. 

It was one of the hardest times of my life, struggling to find a foothold in this province.

Bigleaf maple,  Acer macrophyllum

I found interpretation dispiriting--the repetition, the exhaustion, the lack of respect from superiors, who treated interpreters as interchangeable and expendable.  The pay reflected this.  Most of the programs were for school groups, which, if the teachers were ill-prepared or lazy, could be very trying.  Take these 15 distracted grade threes into the woods for two hours, teach them something meaningful, and don't lose any of them.

I have to admit that it was nice working outside in what approached wilderness--when it wasn't raining,which it usually was, but really, if anything made the work tolerable it was the other interpreters. I was in my mid-thirties, finished with university in every way--and bitter about it--while most of the others were bright-eyed undergraduates, hoping to get into teachers' college.  Despite the pay and lack of respect they were hard-working, kind-hearted, and often hilarious.

 Bigleaf maple,  Acer macrophyllum, spectacular flowers.

Only later would I realize other rewards from my time as an interpreter, what at the time had seemed a form of purgatory or exile.  Apart from providing material for the Interpreter Stories and The Jesus of the West (much of which really happened), interpretation had also provided, drip by drip, a new and valuable layer of education, thickening like moss on a limb, a slow understanding of  the flora and fauna of the Lower Mainland of British Columbia.

I was an easterner from southern Ontario who had spent the previous decade studying reptiles in far-flung places, but after two years as a GVRD Park Interpreter could identify most of the biota of the 15 parks I had worked in.  I had memorized talk-loops that went with numerous species, and  still retain them, twenty years later.

 Bigleaf maple,  Acer macrophyllum, and moss.

Twenty years.  I left the GVRD in 1998.  A house, children. Employment expanded and diversified and I started to feel that this province was my home.

I thought I was done with interpretation, but several years ago received a call from someone who had obtained my name from a former coworker.  Would I be interested in leading a bird walk?

Not really, but okay.

Branches of western hemlock. Tsuga heterophylla.

One walk led to another, and another. and now I find myself back in the middle of it, well into my fifties, walking the same trails I walked in my thirties.  Most of the programs are with seniors, and I enjoy listening to their stories, their experiences, their memories of this fast-changing place.  Several have become friends. 

Nurse stump. (Western hemlock, Tsuga heterophylla, growing on stump of long-ago harvested western redcedar, Thuja plicata.) 

Belcarra Park, memory-maker, I'll be back soon.  (Sooner than 10 years.) 

Sunday, April 22, 2018

The meteorological year, here.

October to May: 

 It rains. Colours disappear.  The land becomes a cold, pencil-lead pond.

May-June: NHL Playoffs, etc. 



Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Bogs are purple and green

They have split-trunked trees, beset by fungus and Labrador Tea.

Welcome.  A green bed in a purple room.

Cedars are regimented and intolerant.  Under story not allowed.

This last one is really two, a velvet couple entwined, standing, dancing, reaching for light.  They'll topple together like drunks, laughing all the way down to a landing soft, damp, green and purple.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018


I got a lifer today
Say's Phoebe
An odd name
Sayornis saya (in Latin)
"Say's Say-bird"

It's a tyrant flycatcher
Which is a good name for a bird family
It has orange undersides
Not a common trait

I don't see many lifers these days
Because I have been birding since I was ten and am considerably older now
And don't go out of my way to see a lifer when it is reported on the birders' hotline
Because I just don't see the point*
Someone will post a picture
Then a bunch of other people will too

*Apart from meeting other people who share your weird hobby
Which may be the point of a lot of things
So, okay.

In any case the Say's Phoebe was on the birder's hotline
And was really close to the outlet mall where members of my family like to shop
Which is also where the planes land on top of you
Which is pretty cool
The heavies from Asia and Europe
So I went

Plus I've always loved phoebes
The Eastern, nesting under the eaves of our cottage back home
The Black I got to know in California
I could complete my phoebe set

I met a birder at the site
From his binos I knew he knew where it was
His instructions were perfect


Friday, March 9, 2018

Value Village, Knick Knacks

Our daughter and her friend wanted to go to Value Village.  They were looking for funky additions to their wardrobes. They are artistic and have a sense of fun that is good to nurture, especially at bargain prices.  They went into the racks and delved among jackets and tops.  I stayed in the car, staring at my phone but soon ran out of things to read.  I  went into the store too.

I didn't get much farther than the knick knack aisle.  I find the silent sadness of out-of-context knick knacks hard to ignore.  These are things that meant things to people.  Eventually each was rejected, under what likely were unhappy circumstances--death, sickness, dissolution of marriage or family, loss of memory, of  youth, of sense of fun.

They poke at at your heart with sad smiles.

They mystify.

They disturb.  Is that a goiter? 

They horrify.  

How many gastropods died for this one?  How many copies of this one were mass-produced somewhere, requiring the death of uncountable cowries, periwinkles and snails?  Had google-eyes--the linchpin of this creation--not been invented, would so many mollusks have died?  

These are thoughts that probably don't occur to most people.

Is the pink bow-tie pleasing?  

No, it is not.

Our home is close to knick-knack free.  We have a stylized wooden wood duck drake on the mantle, and a plaster of paris eurypterid that one of the kids made at science camp propped up in a plate stand atop a book case. 

They are hell to dust around.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Hello, and thanks for all the fish.

Garden City Park continues to surprise.  Formerly a cluster of large and largely overgrown residential lots in north-central Richmond BC, in the early 2000s it was transformed into an urban park with a  peanut-shaped pond.  An attractive, arched foot-bridge was installed to span the peanut-pinch.  

The pond was functional as well as ornamental, connected to and serving as a reservoir for the critical ditching and drainage system of this sea-level city.  The park, especially the pond, quickly became a magnet for wildlife. Back in the heyday of blogging I regularly reported on the latest developments, the animal and plants appearing at the pond and within the birch and pine forest that surrounded it .  


The first aquatic vertebrates to arrive were the usual urban castoffs, goldfish and red-eared sliders. Soon other fish, including stickleback and brown catfish (bullheads) found their way in though storm drain connections and along with the goldfish attracted herons, grebesmergansers,  and even an osprey, who became a regular, multi-year visitor.  At some point cattails emerged and started taking over the shallows,but these were beaten back by a single pair of muskrats, who promptly ate themselves out of house and home and then disappeared.

That was a decade ago.  Since then an "adventure playground" has been installed north of the pond, and much of the land surrounding the park has been developed into town homes and condominium towers, into which several thousand humans moved.  As proof of the importance of green space to people, the park is now busy from dawn until nightfall with dog-walkers, joggers, tai chi practitioners, and families with young children.  I no longer visit very often, because the park is no longer a quick and easy escape from hub-bub.  It has become its own hub-bub.

However, I still pass through whenever I walk home from downtown Richmond.  I did so last week on a cool morning after a night in which the temperature had dropped below freezing.  There were no ducks on the pond, which was covered with a paper-thin, unevenly frozen layer of ice.  As I was crossing the peanut-pinch footbridge I heard a noise.


Something had popped up through the ice.



An otter?  How the heck did that get here? 

Poonk Poonk

Two more?

They crunched their way through the ice to shore for a frolic.

Two minutes frolicking was enough, and they returned to the water. One returned with a fish in its teeth.

I watched them for a while.  It can be hard to know what an otter is doing.  There doesn't seem to be a lot of difference between playing and fishing.  

How did they get to the pond?  There are no open ditches nearby.  Storm drains would seem the most likely solution, but from where?  How far did they travel through dark and icky underground pipes?  How large are these pipes?  Did they have a clue where they were going?

Or maybe they came overland, loping down busy streets through Christmas shoppers, standing on each others' shoulders to push the walk signal at corners, wrapped in a trench coat and wearing a fedora.

A woman taking pictures of water drops on branches came along.  I pointed out the otters, which were back out in the ice.  She didn't know the word "otter," and all she could make out was a sleek head and sinuous body. "Is a snake?" she asked. "Otter," I repeated.  I spelled it out--O-T-T-E-R. "Look it up on Google when you get home."  She said,  "Okay thank you."

Otters should be shared.  They are amazing.  

What was this group of three?  My guesses are 1)  a mother with two grown youngsters, 2)  three siblings that have recently become independent from Mother Otter, or 3) a roving gang of bachelor otters, which apparently is a thing.

Who knows how long they'll stay.   A hard freeze may force them to move on, or, more likely, they'll eat all the fish.   It's all fun and games until the fish run out.

Friday, December 1, 2017

For Lost Species Day, two species hanging on.

Yesterday was @LostSpeciesDay, which I didn't learn until late in the evening.  (Where is the official list of @days?)  I can, and do, mourn lost species, but I wanted to add a splash of hope, point out two extremely endangered species that are hanging on, perhaps are even on the way back, thanks in large part to the hard work of dedicated conservation biologists.

This is a story of the Bermuda Rock Lizard, which is a kind of skink, and the Cahow, a seabird.  It is a gadfly petrel, a group of about 35 species that nest on oceanic islands.  It is considered the second-rarest seabird in the world.

Image result for cahow

I met both in the 1990s when I was a graduate student at the University of Toronto. I was studying the skink genus Plestiodon, which was then still part of the bloated catch-all genus Eumeces.  Skinks, I'm sure you know, are mostly small- to medium-sized, slender, ground-dwelling lizards with shiny scales.  Many species have reduced or absent limbs.  I was using various techniques to break up Eumeces into smaller, related groups that would better reflect the evolutionary relationships among species.  Plestiodon, which contains most of the North American and East Asian species of what was once Eumeces was pretty clearly an independent evolutionary entity, hence the renaming.  One species that didn't quite fit though, was the Bermuda Rock Lizard, or Bermuda Skink, which shared the colour patterns, juvenile and adult, of its continental counterparts, but lacked several derived, defining features, particularly the pronounced sexual dimorphism between males and females. In continental and east Asian species, the males had broad skulls and powerful jaw musculature, presumed to be related to bloody territorial battles that decide breeding rights.

Bermuda Skinks are different.  The males and females are, externally, almost indistinguishable.  I discovered this among the towering shelves of pickled specimens in the herpetology collection at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington.  I was examining individuals from as many species as were available in the collection, and was puzzled by the specimens of what was then called Eumeces longirostris, the Bermuda Skink.  I fanned out the lizards on a plastic tray.  You pretty much had to take a scalpel and peek inside, take a look at the gonads, to determine boy or girl.  There were other differences from the continental species too, particularly in the shape of the head.  Mainlanders had a typical skink head, flattened back to front and with a rounded nose, but the Bermudians had a gently tapered muzzle, like a Shetland sheepdog.  Bigger eyes too. 

I noticed that the Bermuda Skinks had been collected by the curatorial assistant in the NMNH Herpetology Department, the fellow who had helped me get set up in the collection.  I went to his office and asked him questions about the habits of the skinks in Bermuda.  Why didn't the males have expanded heads?  Didn't they fight?  He didn't know.  His visit to Bermuda had been brief, and he hadn't done much with the skinks apart from collecting them.  Ever helpful though, as curatorial assistants are, he gave me the name and address of a biologist in Bermuda.  "Ask him," he said.

So I wrote to Bermuda, to Dr. David Wingate, whom I had no knowledge of.

I got a letter back.  David, aside from being Bermuda's Conservation Officer, was an ornithologist, not a herpetologist, but was concerned about the skinks.  Their numbers on islands where they had previously been plentiful had diminished greatly.  I was welcome to come and try to figure out why.

It's only slightly better than a 2 hour flight from Toronto to Bermuda, which is the world's northernmost coral atoll.  The gulf stream keeps it warm, and its proximity to eastern North Armerica has influenced its flora and fauna, resulting in a mix of Carolinian and Caribbean.  There is only one extant native terrestrial vertebrate, the Bermuda Skink, known locally as the Bermuda Rock Lizard.

However, rather than being related closely to eastern North American species, the Bermuda Skink is a remnant of a more distantly-related line, now lost from that region, which may explain its differences in form and behaviour. I suspected this at the time, but had no means of testing it.  Since then, molecular studies have shown this to be the case (e.g., Brandley et al., 2010), that Bermuda has served as "an evolutionary life raft" for an ancient American, otherwise extinct, lineage. 

Off I went.

Hellooooo Bermuda Rock Lizards!

I became aware of Cahows not long after the plane landed. David Wingate met me at the airport.  He had told me over the phone to look for a grey-haired man with binoculars around his neck.  He wasn't hard to pick out.  As one person had told me, "He looks like Zeus."

From the airport we drove in a small pickup truck across the long and narrow causeway, along winding roads through golf courses, to a small concrete wharf, where we loaded my luggage into a Boston Whaler and headed off across Castle Harbour toward Nonsuch Island, which would be my home for the next six weeks.  

However, en route David asked if I wouldn't mind if he took a slight detour to check on a Cahow nest.


We crossed the harbour, which is bounded on one side by the airport, the other by a long peninsula and a scattering of smaller islands, the largest of which is Nonsuch, and continued into open water.  The water in the harbour had been a bit rough.  Outside was worse.  The boat yawed and pitched as David aimed at an almost barren, ragged rock.  He cut the engine near the rock, which was going up and down relative to us, and tossed an anchor over the back.   The chain clattered out.  Then, as we we drifted near, going up and down and also left and right, one of us feeling nauseous and about to lose his airplane lunch, David plucked up a rope and leapt from the boat, landing like Bugs Bunny escaping the plummeting plane, jumping up at the right moment and landing softly.  He used the rope to pull the boat closer.  I was supposed to jump out next.

I had expected Bermuda to be like the Florida Keys, sandy-smooth and flat as a pancake.  It wasn't.  It was grey knife-edges and petrified meringue pointing in all directions, interspersed with deadly gaps.

I took this picture later that day, a view from Nonsuch Island.

Somehow, eventually,  I managed to leap across and not die, and then, afterward, successfully return to the boat.  Some traumas get blotted out.  I later learned that the sea had been unusually rough that day, the remnants of a tropical storm.  

I also learned that Cahows were seabirds endemic to Bermuda that for more than 300 years had been believed to be extinct.  They were rediscovered when David was a teenager in the 1950s.  He had been part of the group responsible for their rediscovery.  At this time of year the adults were out at sea during daylight and would return after dark to feed their single chick, which was in a burrow deep in the rocks on one of the few islets in Bermuda that had not been overrun by humans and their associates (dogs, cats, rats).  At the nest, David had used a mirror on a pole to look deep into the burrow and around a corner to see how the chick was coming along.

Apparently he did this almost every day.  He knew the location of every Cahow nest in Bermuda and checked them all regularly, no matter how precarious their location.  He had been doing this for years, charting the breeding success of the species, enhancing their habitat, keeping rats and other predators at bay. 

David Wingate in the Whaler

For the next several weeks I trapped, measured and charted the distribution of skinks on Nonsuch Island.  

Measuring snout-vent length of a Bermuda Skink.

I discovered that very few were surviving the first few years, that the population consisted mostly of elderly lizards.  Something(s) was killing the young.  It was likely that introduced birds (Kiskadees) were a major culprit, but we later discovered that introduced Jamaican Anoles (another kind of lizard) also preyed on the hatchling skinks, and it seemed likely that the once extirpated, re-introduced Yellow-crowned Night-herons were also preying on skinks, including adults.

From daily conversations with David I learned a lot about Cahows.  Toward the end of my stay he was going out at night in the near pitch black to watch the fledgling birds emerge from the burrows and test their wings.  Once the chicks develop to a certain stage, the parents stop returning to feed them.  The young birds must leave their burrows on their own, or starve.  They do this progressively over a series of nights.  The youngsters emerge, walk around a bit and flap their wings.  Sometimes they find a rock or other higher feature on which to flap.  A nearby human sitting motionless will suffice.

One night several of us went along with David to watch a fledgling emerge on Horn Rock, which is the low-domed island in the top-center of the above image.  We pulled alongside in the dark, and by this time I was relatively competent in getting in and out of the Whaler at random, rocky spots.  We sat on mattresses that had been placed near the burrow and had been there for at least one good rain storm, and waited, silently, damply, listening to the sloshing of waves along the chaotic shore Eventually the bird appeared.  It was pigeon-sized, but with a relatively large head and a narrow, hooked bill.  It walked among us silently.  It had a fishy, oily odor.  It paused to flap its long, pointed wings.  It walked some more, and, if I am remembering correctly, climbed on the lap of someone and repeated its flapping routine from atop his knee, working to strengthen its flight muscles.  We remained silent, motionless and mesmerized, as if watching a sleepwalker, afraid to wake it, or a ghost.  It returned to its burrow, done for the night.  One of these nights it would take wing and fly out to sea, not to return until ready to breed in three to six years.

When I was in Bermuda, there were 40 to 45 breeding pairs of Cahows, which were all on the smaller, difficult as heck to visit islands. In recent years, Cahows have been encouraged to breed on much larger and more accessible Nonsuch Island, thanks to daring transfers of chicks to artificial burrows on that island, made necessary by damage to traditional nests on smaller islands during a series of hurricanes in the early 2000s. The first artificial burrows were made of concrete, and were back-breaking to create. Later, prefabricated plastic burrows--carefully shaped, plastic tunnels buried in the soil with a lid above the nest chamber that could be opened to examine both adults and chicks--were developed. Although he retired in 2000, David Wingate was instrumental in getting the burrows custom-designed for Cahows, and built. The person presently in charge of Cahow conservation, having taken over after David, is Jeremy Madeiros, who is about my age and was a recently-hired conservation officer when I first visited. We became good friends over the four summers I stayed on Nonsuch Island to study the skinks.

The 2016-2017 breeding season resulted in 117 breeding pairs of Cahows, producing a record total of 61 successfully fledged chicks. A complete account of the history of the bird's ongoing recovery, including a link to a live nest cam, is here. My old friend Jeremy is featured too. He is now Bermuda's Senior Terrestrial Conservation Officer.

To bring this full circle: The Cahow nest cam caught a Bermuda Skink checking out a Cahow nest. It is believed that prior to the arrival of humans on Bermuda, when the islands were thick with nesting seabirds, the skinks wandered from nest to nest, gobbling up whatever messy bits lay about (seabirds aren't particularly tidy.) The species had evolved to live together, one the food source, the other the waste removal engineer. Notice the skink flicking its tongue. They have a highly developed olfactory sense, which they use to find food. I caught them by baiting half-buried 1-litre pop bottles with sardines. Unfortunately, their sense of smell and love of stink also causes them to follow the scent of stale beer into discarded bottles, where they tend to perish before finding their way back out.

Skink in a pop bottle trap, next to a hunk of sardine.

Since my time on Nonsuch, others have continued studying populations of Bermuda Skinks on Nonsuch Island and in other localities, and have made advances in understanding their population genetics and life history. Some captive breeding has been carried out.

For both Bermuda Skinks and Cahows the future is looking a little brighter.

It was a real treat, on @LostSpeciesDay to come across the following video, a healthy adult skink in an active cahow nest (pre-egg, adults out feeding or courting).