Saturday, March 28, 2009

Everything's coming up thrushes

I met this chap while out hummingbird banding.

One of the things I like about this project is that it gets me out at the crack of dawn bird watching. Something I never seem to be able to make myself do otherwise.

So you're outside, sitting still and quiet, and if there aren't many hummingbirds coming to the traps, it's great bird watching time.

The bird in the picture is a Swainson's thrush. One of those robiny species that I take for granted and tend not to pay much attention to.

So, I decided to put my raptor bias aside and learn a little bit about these birds.

First off, they are known for their song. Walt Whitman wrote about it, so did Henry Thoreau.

The reason their songs stands out is that thrushes have what's called a syrinx, or a double voice box that allows them to have air moving in and out at the same time. In essence, they can sing two notes at once and harmonize with themselves.

It makes a chimy, unearthly-sounding song. The hermit thrush's call is especially beautiful. You've no doubt heard them in the wood of the west – or the Swainson's or varied. If you hear a coach's whistle in the woods, there's a varied thrush somewhere nearby. In Eastern North America it's the voice of the wood thrush that inspires poets.

Speaking of the wood thrush.
A recent study involving the birds, fitted with geolocator backpacks for the first time, demonstrated that they migrate about three times faster than researchers had guestimated previously.

They fly about 500km each night and spend the day feeding and resting. Who wouldn't?

Another fascinating thrush tidbit is that they harvest pesticides from ants. People have seen these birds rubbing ants over their feathers. It's called anting, naturally. The most reasonable explanation seems to be that use the insect's defensive secretions to ward off pests.

Parasites are costly for any animal, and there are many examples of animals using natural products as pesticides (because going to the drug store is inconvenient, and they are staunch environmentalists).

Thrushes, it seems, take an ant bath.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Hummingbird banding

In a few weeks I'll return to a citizen science project I joined last year.

There's a group of dedicated volunteers in the Alberni Valley who've joined the Hummingbird Monitoring Network.

Each year teams from Arizona all the way up here to British Columbia collect information about hummingbird populations and their migration patterns.

From early April to July we put in about a dozen sessions heading out at sunrise with traps and calipers to catch hummingbirds, band them, take measurements and send them on their way. Follow this link to an article I did about the project.

I've always had some apprehension about the whole banding, radio-collaring side of biology. Now that I've seen how little effect it seems to have on rufous hummingbirds, I feel a little more like the benefits may outweigh the risks.

I also hadn't realized how little is known about what seems to be a fairly common and highly visible species.

That's something that big-name biologist Paul Erhlich talked about recently after releasing a review paper on the 408 mammals discovered since 1993. That's 10 per cent of the known species of mammals.

"Our analysis indicates how much more varied biodiversity is than we thought and how much bigger our conservation problems are if we're going to maintain the life-support services that we need from biodiversity," Ehrlich said in an interview about the paper.

Basically the author of the 1968 bad news book Population Bomb, says these discoveries attest to how little is known about the natural world. The world that a single species, humans, are busy altering in every conceivable way.

"I think what people miss is that the human economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the economy of nature, which supplies us from our natural capital a steady flow of income that we can't do without," he said. The income is the host of services that intact ecosystems provide.

Ehrlich and his wife, Anne Ehrlich are the originators of the rivet-popper hypothesis. As in an airplane, nature has some built in redundancies. So you can remove rivets on an airplane wing and still fly, but at some point, you pop one too many and the wing falls apart.

They say it's the same with natural systems. We can keep taxing them and breaking them down, but at some point they will collapse. Without a full understanding of the systems, and their components and interplay, it's anybody's guess when that will happen. What the last rivet will be.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Dog gone

I heard there was a Great Dane at the Port Alberni SPCA and I thought to myself, "This is a message from the universe."

And the message is, don't leave this town. Stay put, get a big dog and settle in.

Great Danes don't turn up at the SPCA very often. Great Danes are bred and they cost and that's another issue for me because I need to get a dog from a rescue centre, not a designer breed.

I had to go see. Had to see the dog to know what to do. I cruised over to the pound and heaved a sigh of relief when the woman told me the dog had already been adopted.

Stupidly, I decided to have a look at the dogs that remained. Just for fun, I told myself.

Ten minutes later I was sobbing in my car in the SPCA parking lot. I could have taken any one of those wonderful animals home. One of them I really wanted. None of them deserved to be dropped off, possibly facing death if they don't get picked.

I have wanted a Great Dane for years. I'm not in a position to commit to a dog right now. My lifestyle, my work, just wouldn't make it fair to the animal.

I won't be popping in there again anytime soon.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Alberni Valley Hiking part II

Here's another hike I like.

This one follows along the Alberni Inlet starting just south of China Creek.
Part of it follows an old (1913) Canadian Northern Pacific Railway grade which never was put into service.

The 4km trail has a little bit of everything. A steep descent on a rocky path through old growth. Views of lovely Underwood Cove. Flat stretches lined with flowering current that hums with hummingbirds in May.

Then when you get to the rail bed proper, you walk between sheer rock walls created from blasting that make dark tunnels. Electric green moss on tree trunks jumps out against the damp charcoal backdrop.

From time to time the foilage opens up and you get views of the long inlet heading out to sea via Barkley Sound.

Near the Franklin River logging operation is where the path winds up and where this poor Douglas fir is being choked for no apparent reason. Obviously the cable was put around the tree to do some job long ago and it's just never been taken off.

There are plans to join the CNPR trail into the town's network, and eventually run it all the way down to Cowichan Lake, relying some on logging roads, and beyond to the Galloping Goose trail in the Capital Regional District (VIctoria).

This ambitious plan would create an alternate route for exploring large chunks of Vancouver Island on foot, or by bicycle. Governments are putting money into trail building, so it looks promising.

Saturday, March 14, 2009


All set for a fresh hiking season, I set out on a trail today that climbs up above Cameron Lake on Wesley Ridge to mountain tops that give a view of Georgia Strait to the east.

My trusty guide book also promised a 360 degree view further on, but I lost the trail in the snow so I headed back down to an arbutus bluff overlooking the lake. I had my lunch and went home very satisfied with the challenging two-hour hike.
The second viewpoint will be something to look forward to later in the spring or summer.
Along the way, I saw a varied thrush, and a merlin and heard a red-breasted nuthatch.
That little taste made me want to share some of the other great hikes I've enjoyed on central Vancouver Island.

Last July, I tackled Teodoro, a gorgeous climb up above Sproat Lake between Port Alberni and Tofino.
Like so many trails, finding the start was a challenge and when I returned to my car about four hours later, I had a flat tire.
Still, no regrets.

The name Teodoro lead me to research how it came to have such an exotic moniker, and there's a good story there.

The local man who built the trail named it for the Mexican environmental activist Teodoro Cabrera Garcia who, along with Rodolfo Montiel Flores, was tortured and jailed in May 1999 for opposing forestry company Boise Cascade's logging in the Sierra de Petatlán in southwestern Mexico where they live and farm.

In 1995, the Idaho-based logging company, which also operates in Canada, signed a deal with the state of Guerrero to buy large tracts of land. Mexican farmers watched as entire forests were logged and hauled away by the truckload. The deal, made possible the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), caused a dramatic surge in the rate of destruction of one of North America's last old-growth pine and fir forests.

Teodoro and Rodolfo organized farmers to speak out against the clear cutting of the forests, which they also depended on for their livelihoods. They were on their way to stage a demonstration in the capital of the state when they were stopped by federal police officers. Without warning, the police began shooting, killing 17 and injuring 20 more.

The two men were taken to a military camp, beaten and told to confess to drug trafficking.

Their case drew international attention, including that of Amnesty International, and the men were finally released in November of 2001.

Eventually, Boise Cascade left the area, claiming that the inconsistency of wood supply had forced them to close shop. Many were convinced it was directly related to the activities of Garcia and Rodolfo.

I've planted Boise Cascade blocks in northern Ontario where only the bears know what they're up to.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009


This is a craft I've done since Grade 3 when three Cree women came to my class at Opasquia Elementary during one of our well-intentioned aboriginal education sessions.
Yep, I'm a child of the 70s.

I still do beadwork, these days mainly to cover logos that I've ripped off of new purchases, especially knapsacks and camera bags.

The funny thing is, in my desperation to remove the branding, I almost always slice the new fabric with the stitch ripper. I blame this on the company's effort to make the embroidery indestructible so that the label is never lost.

To rid myself of the corporations' logo, I damage my nice new things.

Needless to say, I loved Naomi Klein's No Logo and remember a conversation at university with friends who wondered why I removed what they called cool logos. In other words, the branding marks of companies people like, like Apple, or Roach, or MEC.

Whether I like the company or not I do not want to walk around with anyone's mark on my back. Not without payment for advertising for them.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Tell me a story

I started reading Rawi Hage's Cockroach in the bathtub on Sunday. For no reason at all I read it out loud. I may read the whole book that way. I've never done that before.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Threats to birds

This is what a pine siskin looks like after it has hit a window. The two biggest threats to passerines, or perching birds, are house cats and obstructions (like windows).
It's estimated that there are half the number of these small birds travelling back and forth between breeding and wintering grounds in the Americas.

Other views of the Valley

Besides the idyllic views, there's also still an industrial waterfront in Port Alberni.

While the paper mill has cleaned up its act a lot over the years, it still dominates the waterway in the central part of town with smoke stacks (discharging only steam, I'm told) visible from everywhere.

While it may have cleaner discharge, the once grand operation still gulps water through big pipes and has left a fibre mat on the ocean bottom that smothers life trying to reclaim the once toxic estuary. Meanwhile the company may be on its last legs and no one seems certain of what level of environmental clean up they are responsible for.