Category Archives: environment
It has been over two years since I last posted a blog. I’m not sure why I lost interest in blogging, and I’m not sure why I’m back again, but perhaps that doesn’t matter anyway. I am here because I have an urge to write and post some photos. It is going to be light this time, nothing deep or philosophical, and I figure what better way to start than to blog about hummingbirds.
We have two regular species of hummingbirds here on Vancouver Island, the Rufous and the Anna’s, and it is warm enough in the winter that the Anna’s overwinters as long as there are hummingbird feeders to help them out. Even though I live in a townhouse with a very small backyard, I regularly get Anna’s Hummingbirds through the winter, and the Rufous visit the yard during both spring and fall migration. This year for the first time since I moved here seven years ago I have had Anna’s coming to the feeder all summer long. So here are some photos of these birds from both last year and this, with some comments about them.
This male has dominated my feeder all summer long, terrorizing any other hummer that tries to get a drink when he is around. I have to wonder if it is the same male from last winter. I just love the variety of colours in his gorget.
I absolutely love hummingbirds. They are amazing jewels with an attitude and ferociousness that belies their diminutive size. But they are descendants of the dinosaurs so maybe that’s where it comes from.
If you want to see more of my photos, including many species of hummingbirds from Costa Rica, please visit my website at :terrythormin.smugmug.com/
I went to 9 km. Bog yesterday with the local botany group, part of Comox Valley Nature. The bog is right at the 9 km. point on the road up to Mount Washington and is at an elevation of about 800 meters. This is a beautiful little bog that is a favorite location for me, mostly because of the dragonflies, but also because it has many unusual and showy species of plants.
On this trip however we were exploring the bog fairly early in the season and many of the more spectacular flowers were not in bloom as yet. But with a couple of very good amateur botanists along we were finding some of the smaller and less showy plants that can still make great photos. I have selected four plants that I thought made quite attractive photos. The first is a deer fern, Blechnum picant. I’ve wanted to photograph this fern for quite some time, but I have never found a plant that I could isolate enough from the background to make it stand out. On this occasion though I decided to photograph a single fiddlehead. One of the neat things about this fern is that there are two types of fronds, sterile fronds that are often in a whorl close to the ground and fertile fronds that stick straight up from the middle of the plant. This photo is of a single fertile frond as it is just unfolding.
The next plant is the seed head of the leather-leaved saxifrage, Leptarrhena pyrolifoli. This is one of the earliest bloomers in the bog, and we were too late to see it in flower. I have never seen this plant in flower, but my botanist friends informed me that it is more impressive when it is in seed anyway.
The next two plants are both sedges. I tend to overlook sedges for the most part, first because they are generally not very impressive, and second, because it takes an expert to identify them. Fortunately we had an expert with us and we were able to identify several species of sedges. The first one is the few-flowered sedge, Carex pauciflora, a tiny little sedge that is easily overlooked but was quite abundant in the bog although it is rather uncommon in the valley. To get this photo I had to pick three stems and stick them in a crack in a log to isolate them from the background.
The final plant, and the second sedge is the many-flowered sedge, Carex pluriflora. Although quite small and easily overlooked, I think it is a very pretty sedge and makes a great photo. This one was easily photographed in situ.
I have set myself the task of photographing as many species of plants as I can from Vancouver Island, and this trip added a few. I have largely ignored the sedges so it was nice to be able to get photos of a couple of species the could be identified.
It may well be a year since I last wrote a blog so I thought it was high time I did. So much has changed on this planet, just in the passed year. It boggles the mind. Almost everyone I meet has gone so hi-tech that I feel like a fish out of water. So getting out in nature is all the more grounding and important, even if my walks are brief these days.
Here in Victoria it is hot and the sun feels scorching. Many friends and people I meet when I am out have told me how different the sun is feeling and I also feel it more and more myself. A harshness that seems to grow with each passing season. It is troubling.
Former sun worshippers I know are seeking shade, although many younger folks don’t seem to realize the dangers of our thinning ozone layer. I admit I have very low tolerance for heat…a strange thing for someone born and raised in Toronto. But I haven’t lived in Toronto for 35 years now and I have witnessed such changes in Victoria’s climate, especially in the last 15 years, that I find it truly alarming.
These days, I must go out completely covered prior to 4pm to protect myself (doctor’s orders!) no matter how hot it is. Not great for looking for butterflies, but the sun on my skin doesn’t feel pleasant this time of year the way it used to and after this past year I know only too well how deadly the sun’s rays can be.
This last week I have seen five different species of butterflies in Gorge Park but they were not landing until I walked into the territory of a Mourning Cloak this afternoon and got lucky. Happily, the companion I was with at the time was happy to wait with me while I tried a few “tricks” to get this lovely butterfly to land so I could get a few shots. And few they were indeed! This butterfly is probably one of our longest local living butterflies, sometimes living for up to 11 months. It is a hibernator, and over winters even in the prairies.
I had seen it a few days prior but it was illusive and I was short of time and never saw it except in passing. Today I had a bit more time and it definitely had a territory to defend, and my hat seemed to be attracting it. Its wings are tattered as one would expect in an old butterfly. It will mate and die and then in the fall or maybe sooner, it’s offspring will emerge. I have never had the luck of finding a fresh, young Mourning Cloak though, so all my pictures are of older ones.
I believe the Mourning Cloak is so-named because it’s wings are dark and trimmed with a creamy-lacy fringe on the dorsal sides of the wings, resembling a long, dark cloak. I wanted to share this with you and hope you get out and look for butterflies this spring and summer. With the climate changing so quickly and society speeding up faster than I feel I can keep up, my time in Nature becomes more and more precious to me.
It is something we just can’t afford to take for granted any longer and there are no easy answers any longer. My only answer is to keep writing when I can, and try to raise awareness where I can.
Be well and I do hope you enjoy this latest tale, poem and two poetographs. If I happen on other wildlife including butterflies, I hope to write about them again.
The Mourning Cloak
In the stifling heat getting late in the day
while walking a path in the middle of May
inhaling the pollen ’til I thought I might choke
I happened upon an old Mourning Cloak!
Over wintered, now flying so wild and free,
it flew dizzying circles all about me.
In the stifling heat getting late in the day
it flirted and skirted in territorial play
gliding upwards and downwards and this way and that
never landing until …well, I took off my hat!
I then set it down on a branch in a tree
and prayed that the butterfly’d come look and see.
For so few butterflies have I had time to find
too chained to the drudgery of the daily grind.
I asked once again, “please dear creature please land,
I’m weary and almost too tired to stand”.
It came! It returned and it landed right there
and then opened it’s wings up both tattered and fair.
I’m old, said those wings, but there’s still time to fly
and I got in these shots before it flew to the sky.
How grateful I was with my spirit renewed
that this creature of God had so altered my mood.
Oh yes, I was stifled and terribly hot
but for this moment in time, all my troubles forgot
I was dancing with Nature like an old Garry oak,
a bit old and tattered like the old Mourning Cloak.
It was time to go home and get out of the heat
and leave the dear soul to return or retreat
and be wild and free with the time that it had;
I walked up the path then, both happy and sad…
The full moon has risen and the heat carries on;
it is night as I write in the hours of pre-dawn.
Tomorrow will come far too soon it would seem
leaving this day behind in a hot, hazy dream…
© Annie Pang May 14, 2014
Perhaps this is a strange title for a blog, but it centers around my garden, a friend’s garden, as well as the few shots I got along the Gorge which I have been walking regularly up until my garden called.
But I must include a picture I managed to get of a lovely Golden-crowned Sparrow right from my kitchen window. It posed so beautifully on the suet feeder and considering these birds are ground feeders, I felt I must include this shot first.
While on some of the walks along the Gorge I took very few pictures. On one walk, even though I had my camera, I was unable to get photos of two of the three butterflies I did see there. It was quite hot and so they were not landing. The first one I saw was a Mourning Cloak and what a surprise that was! I hadn’t seen one along there before. Then suddenly it was chased off by a Satyr Comma, which landed so briefly I could not get a shot of it either, but could see it clearly.
On another walk, I was able to get a rather poor picture of a Cabbage White butterfly which I will include below. It was such a long shot and I was lucky it landed at all, frankly. It had become so hot in Victoria so quickly that it made anything I saw impossible to photograph at the time.
But it was interesting to see an Arbutus tree growing out of the rock wall!! How resilient are our native species. If man vanished from this planet suddenly, is this not proof of how Nature would just take over and soon cover any evidence of our prior existence? It is a humbling thought indeed, and also a comforting one from an ecological point of view.
Arbutus growing out of the rock wall
The day the garden called was the day that three generous people from the Gorge Tillicum Urban Farmers group volunteered to come over and help me start getting my garden ready for planting. The task was far too overwhelming for me to undertake in my present state of health, and so my friends put out a call for help. Although everyone else in the group was busy, my friends, Kendell, Laurie and Brad showed up on a Saturday and I ventured out to try to do what I could which wasn’t too much.
That was when a little miracle happened. In all the years I’ve had my gardens, I’ve seen only three butterfly species; Cabbage Whites, Western Tiger Swallowtails (not out yet) and Lorquin’s Admirals. But this year was very different and it transformed me completely at the time. Brad and I were digging compost and later, Laurie and I found a shady spot to sit and weed….and when I saw a Cabbage White appear I went to grab my camera. When I returned, I was very surprised at what happened next. Every time the Cabbage White tried to land, something very dark swooped in and chased it off. And then it landed – a Mourning Cloak. I couldn’t believe this. I’d always gone searching for them when I’d had more aid for field trips, and often never found one, yet here was one in my backyard?? Well of course I took pictures.
It took off and returned many times. It even landed on Laurie’s jeans.
Mourning Cloak on Laurie’s jeans
Then it landed on my head! I knew it was attracted to my hat so I removed it and stuck it on a pole in the garden, and sure enough, the Cloak landed there many times.
Mourning Cloak on my hat
Several times it landed on some Yarrow seed heads. Yarrow, when in bloom is a very good butterfly nectaring source and if I keep the faded blossoms dead-headed it will flower throughout the summer.
Mourning Cloak on Yarrow
Here is a sideview of the Mourning Cloak.
Sideview of Mourning Cloak
The gardens were being prepared for both human and wildlife consumption, especially hummingbirds, bees and butterflies. The Red-flowering Currant is quite a favourite of the hummingbird although mine hasn’t gotten big enough to be of interest as yet. Once we have the plants in the ground I imagine they will grow rapidly.
We were all very happy to have such a visitor to watch us at our labours, as if to bless the garden. Kendell was good enough to bring along organic snacks for all to sample and so, with a Mourning Cloak in my garden, I had my very first tea party of sorts after our hard work.
Brad, Kendell and Laurie
GTUF, short for Gorge Tillicum Urban Farmers, is a group dedicated to producing our own food on the land we have. Being on my own now, that task is overwhelming as I mentioned, but I do hope, with enough helping hands, that many will benefit from my gardens this year. I just want to see the land used and my gardens there to welcome the butterflies and other insects.
Later that day, Laurie emailed me a picture of two butterflies for identification. They were two more Mourning Cloaks and it appeared that they were mating on the side of her Mason Bee box.
Mourning Cloaks, photo by Laurie
The next day I was invited over there to see what I could find in their garden. There was a fair bit of activity but my camera was only able to get this honey bee and a Paper wasp, or Thread waisted wasp, Mischocyttarus flavitarsis, as well as a Bumble Bee.
Laurie also had a different Bleeding Heart than my cultivar, and she felt it was probably the indigenous one.
Bleeding Heart flowers
Meanwhile, here at home, there was activity at night as well for awhile. I turned on my porch light and this attracted two different moth species. The first was a good sized one and although it decided to plaster itself on a window far above the ground, I was still able to get a serviceable shot. This moth is known as the Crucialis Woodling Moth (Egira crucialis) and it was a welcome sight indeed.
Crucialis Woodling Moth
The other moth I have found a few times is a “micro moth”, Alucita montana, or Montana Six-plume Moth and I have even found it in my office tonight as well as outside. Here is my best picture taken as I write this now in my office. The little guy let me get really close! Originally I was going to show this moth taken outside, but this picture turned out better.
Montana Six-plume Moth
Although I was certain I saw a Green Lacewing outside, I couldn’t get it to land so there were no shots to be had until a later date, but I did manage to find this male Cranefly at the time (family: Tipulidae).
Here is the Green Lacewing I got at a later date, again, at night. It was another long shot, but better than none.
So while I am still here in my home I am trying to enjoy as much of the wildlife as I can find. The Mourning Cloak returned briefly the next day, but then was off. They are mating now and I suspect, worn as they are looking, they will live longer still before they depart this world.
In closing, I will leave you with my best wishes, as well as a poem and one last picture of my Bleeding Heart cultivar. It is the food source for my favourite butterfly, the Clodius Parnassian, that I doubt I will see again since I cannot go back to the hills where they are found. But one never knows….one never knows.
I did once find one in a very unusual place that was not too far away….but then that is another story I may tell sometime….
The Garden of my dreams
What soothing balm does Nature bring
what wonders in the garden
with butterflies and birds that sing
with trees that fence my yard in.
I wander in my solitude
along the Gorge at times;
a Cloak of Mourning greets me there
and speaks to me in rhymes.
But there are times that come along,
and suddenly there’s life
for Nature sings her special song
and sings away my strife.
And in the Garden of my dreams
outside my very door
an ocean full of sunlit beams
now calls me to its shore.
The honey bee is buzzing and
the moths might come at night
for life is always all about
and flying to the Light.
May people join their hands to help,
to save my bit of land.
May kindness shown stay with me now
and help me understand
that Bleeding Hearts have beauty too
and Nature always heals.
May faded blossoms bloom again,
through cracks in concrete seals.
Though hardship faces all of us
in Nature must I trust,
to have this Phoenix rise again
from ashes and from dust.
Bleeding Heart cultivar
© Annie Pang May 9, 2013.
The first of March was a typical early spring day, overcast, dull and drizzely, so neither a lion nor a lamb, and the rest of the month remained pretty much the same way, although we got less rainfall than usual. Out at the pond spring was still gradually unwinding. The ducks remained active throughout the month and most days I would see all five species that were frequenting the pond, both hooded and common mergansers, buffleheads, ring-necked ducks and mallards. I spent quite a bit of time trying to photograph the ducks and managed to get several good photos of the female common mergansers, although the other species were never quite as cooperative.
Common merganser female
Common merganser female
On the third of March the pair of eagles were perched on the far side of the pond most of the time I was there, and it was only when another eagle came along that one of the pair took off and chased the intruder away. Unfortunately all this activity took place at such a distance and so quickly that photographing it was not possible. That same day though I found several spiders webs in the fence in the parking lot, so already the orb weavers were active. These are most likely from Araneus diadematus, the Cross Spider, but I will have to see the spiders later in the year to be sure.
By the middle of the month several plants were becoming more obvious. The leaves of yarrow were unfurling in many places, and at the east end of the pond little western bittercress was up and in bloom. This early in the year the bittercress is quite small and easily missed as the white flowers are tiny.
The other plant I looked for was the seaside rein orchid. This is an unusual orchid in that the leaves appear as early as late February, but then completely die off, and when the flower spike finally appears in July there are no leaves on the plant.
Seaside rein orchid
The seaside rein orchid is found in the field north of the river. This field is largely covered by roadside rock moss, Racomitrium canescens, which is a very common moss that is found in exposed areas like roadsides, open fields and even rooftops. It is easily recognized by its pale yellow green colour when wet, and almost whitish appearance when dry.
Roadside rock moss
The beavers are not the only mammals making the pond their home, as there is also a muskrat in the west pond. I had only seen the muskrat once before at the pond, but on one of my trips this month I managed to see and take a photo of it in the west pond. The impression I have is that the beavers stay largely in the east pond and the muskrat in the west pond, even in the winter when the high waters turn the two ponds into one large pond.
Woodland bird activity picked up through the month, and I began hearing robins singing in the area, as well as song and white-crowned sparrows, and Bewick’s and Pacific wrens. On the 18th of the month I had my first yellow-rumped warbler, and on that day I also had both ruby-crowned and golden-crowned kinglets and brown creeper. The last two species were both first records for the area. I have been keeping records of the birds I see in the area ever since my first visit, and prior to that a study of the area was done that recorded all the birds observed. The combined list is now 76 species. This list can be seen on the Comox Valley Naturalists Society’s website as an attachment to the Little River Area write-up under the Nature Guide. This link will get you to the area write-up.
The same day I also explored the Douglas-fir woods at the northeast corner of the property. In the middle of the woods there is a wood ant colony, and on this day the surface of the mound was swarming with ants. These ants go deep underground in the fall and spend the winter in a state of hibernation. Only when the days warm up again in the spring do they return to the surface and become active once more.
On one of my last visits to the pond in March I noticed the eagle back on the nest across the road from the southwest corner of the property. At this point I am not sure if it is really using the nest or not. If it is the young will eventually be evident. I will have to keep checking. Most of the ducks have left the pond, by the end of the month. On my last visit I only saw the mallards and a single ring-necked duck. The other ducks have probably left for larger ponds and marshes that provide more nesting sites and protection during the breeding season.
I have always found March to be a rather slow month regardless of where I am, but spring seems very slow to unfold at Little River Nature Park compared to other areas in the valley. This is in part due to how much disturbance the area has seen and how small the woodlots are. The field to the south of the pond was thick with Scotch broom up until recently when broom busting parties got rid of most of it. I suspect that it will take a few more years of constant broom elimination before many of the native wildflowers start to come back. The field to the north of the pond where the Little River flows through also has a broom problem, and one that has not as yet been tackled. Fortunately the broom is not so thick as to dominate. By the end of the month the leaves of several species of flowers were in evidence but I did not find any flowers. I looked for wildflowers in the northeast woods but could not find any. I suspect its small size and how much people-use it gets might be factors.
The days are getting noticeably longer and even though we are not getting much sun, average daytime highs are gradually creeping up there. We are beginning the long, slow, crawl towards spring. As the earth warms up, roots begin taking up more water, combining it with carbon dioxide, and with the sun’s increased energy, converting them to carbohydrates with oxygen released as a waste product. This is, of course, photosynthesis, a process used by plants and some other organisms to produce their own food, and it has been the source of energy for almost all life on Earth for the last 3.5 billion years.
In northern climates most plants largely shut down during the winter months, some simply slowing down food production, some losing all their leaves, some dying right back to the roots and some dying completely, relying on their seeds for the next generation. But by February this trend is beginning to reverse itself and a walk around the pond with the local botany group early in the month revealed new buds forming on the red huckleberry, and catkins on both the alder and the willows.
Red huckleberry buds
There is a bald eagle nest just off the southwest corner of the park and right beside the road that has been active for a number of years now. On another walk early in the month I met a young couple who mentioned that they had seen the eagle on the nest just the day before. Bald eagles typically start working on the nest by early February, either starting on a new one if they are first time nesters or the old one has been destroyed, or adding to and repairing the old one. Egg-laying usually starts towards the end of February. By the end of this month I still had not seen any activity in this nest, but I often heard the eagles calling from the woods just west of the pond. Perhaps the birds have relocated because the nest was too close to the road for comfort
Bald eagle nest
The same day I talked with the young couple about the eagle I observed three beavers in the east pond, swimming round and round and occasionally slapping their tails. Normally a tail slap indicates the presence of danger, but in this case I really think it was an indication of annoyance or frustration. I was not the only one who was watching this event as about 11 other people were at various places around the pond watching the beaver. Normally beavers are not active during the day, but rather are nocturnal. The only time they become active during the day is when the dam needs to be repaired or they have a need to gather more food. As there is no dam associated with these beavers they must have needed more food. With so many people around the edge of the pond, they could not even find a safe place to exit the pond to do their search. Finally, after more than half an hour, they gave up and disappeared into the lodge.
Beavers live in extended families, comprised of two adults and young up to two years of age. They have 1 to 9 young every year, with pups being born in April to June, so potentially an extended family can be quite large. Obviously at least one of the three I saw that day had to be a young beaver, but all three were quite large so it was difficult to determine which ones were adults and which were pups. There was one that seemed to be a bit smaller, but it was obvious that any young had to be from the litter born almost two years ago.
I explored the small woods at the northeast corner of the pond three times this month. I doubt that this woods is even as much as an acre in extent, so biodiversity is rather poor here. The dominant tree is Douglas-fir, although there are a few grand firs and shore pines as well. After a careful search I found some branch tips with the short, light green needles that indicate new spring growth. Douglas-firs have quite distinctive seed cones with bracts that are three forked and often remind people of the back ends of little mice hiding in the cones.
Douglas-fir seed cone
Ground cover here is mostly salal with scattered sword ferns. I did find the leaves of some rattlesnake plantains in one spot. This is a very common orchid in coniferous forests on the island, and is our only orchid that retains its leaves all winter long. The leaves are quite distinctive with a white stripe down the middle and generally with fairly strong mottling or striping, although this can vary considerably from plant to plant.
The area between this wood and the pond, and extending along most of the north side of the pond is a brushy area of mostly alder with some willow. Many of these bushes have lichens in the genus Ramalina growing on them, and in some places this lichen is thick. Lichens are a composite organism formed by a symbiotic relationship between a fungus and either a green algae or a cyanobacterium. Because the fungus is generally the dominant organism and is always present, lichens are classified in with fungi. This means that they are no longer considered plants as the fungi are now in their own kingdom.
On my walks around the pond I was regularly hearing the Red Crossbills jip-jipping as they flew from tree top to tree top looking for cone seeds. There were a few other birds as well, including Pacific wren, Bewick’s wren, ruby-crowned kinglet and song sparrow. The song sparrow was often heard singing, even from the other side of the pond.
On one of my trips I saw a male hooded merganser on the west pond. I had seen and photographed the female here earlier this month, but this was the first time this year that the male was present. I grabbed my camera and folding stool and went down to the shore hoping to get a photo. The bird simply swam across to the other side of the pond to get away from me, Patience is a virtue in cases like this and an hour of waiting finally resulted in the bird coming quite close and my getting some great shots. This is a strikingly handsome duck and one that I have been trying to get good photographs of for a long time. The male hooded merganser can depress its crest so that the white is a fairly thin line or erect it fully so that it looks like it is wearing a huge, black and white helmet. The fully raised crest is part of the courtship display. In this case, in the absence of a female, the bird kept its crest in a partly raised position the whole time.
Hooded merganser male
Hooded merganser female
Four days later I returned to the pond and found both the male and female hooded mergansers swimming together and a single male common merganser with three females. By now most mergansers have formed a pair bond, so I am not sure why this particular male had three females in tow. I did observe some interaction between two of the females on more than one occasion, so perhaps it was a mated pair and two additional females hoping to steal the male from the mated female. Although the hooded mergansers never came close enough for more photos, the male and two of the female commons eventually came close enough for some good shots.
Common mergansers, male and two females
So spring has started, slowly, but the signs are showing. Overnight lows are now consistently above freezing. The last couple of trips out to the pond I was seeing good numbers of midges and the song sparrows were singing more often. Hopefully we will start to get a few more sunny days.
Now as the soil begins to warm
and roots begin to stir,
first signs of spring are showing now
on willow, alder, fir.
And in the air the midges fly,
their numbers growing strong.
While ‘cross the pond the song sparrow bursts
into loud, joyous song.
The ducks are found in mated pairs,
The eagles build their nest.
And beavers swim around the pond
as for fresh food they quest.
Its early days, there’s so much more
that spring has yet to give.
But still the promise is now there,
to stir, to wake, to live
Winter rains have filled the ponds, causing them to overflow their banks, flood the gravel bar at the southeast end and the low area between the two ponds, and create a single, large pond. It now looks much like it did when I first saw it, causing me to name it in the singular – Little River Pond. It will remain like this until the rains stop and the heat of summer evaporates much of the water. Most of the gravel bar is under water and much of what isn’t, is just barely above the water level. I have to wonder how the tiger beetle and sand wasp larvae can survive in these conditions, but every spring the adults appear again. For now, though, the gravel bar is devoid of life.
Little River Pond showing flooded narrows
Not all life is silent, though. The bald eagles regularly fly overhead, giving their weak, high-pitched chirping whistles in antithesis to their massive strength. An occasional crow or raven gives out its rasping call and the local flock of red crossbills flies from tree to tree looking for seeds to eat and calling “jip, jip” as they go. chestnut-backed chickadees and song sparrows forage in the bushes around the pond, and from the small patch of woodland across the pond a spotted towhee gives a raspy “zreeee.”
Red Crossbill (photographed in 2007 in Edmonton)
On the pond you may hear an occasional “quack quack” from a mallard as the small resident flock forages among the flooded bushes between the two ponds. There are other ducks as well. The ring-necked ducks are usually present, but wary, frequenting the far shore and swimming into the bushes if they feel threatened. The two female buffleheads that are usually present don’t seem to be as wary, and if you are quiet they may swim close by you, diving regularly for whatever they can find on the bottom of the pond.
Earlier in the winter I had noticed a large number of freshly cut branches at the entrance to the beaver lodge. It was obvious that the beaver was stocking up on food for the winter. Beavers will remain active all winter long but will stockpile branches in the fall to minimize how frequently they have to go out foraging for food in the winter. During the summer months they feed on fresh green shoots and roots of plants, but in the winter they have to feed on tree bark, and for this purpose they will sometimes cut down quite large trees.
On one of my visits to the pond I had the opportunity to talk with a local resident, who told me that the beaver had finally felled a large tree at the west end of the pond earlier in the winter. I walked down to the west end and found the tree the beaver had cut down, a large cottonwood with a diameter where the beaver had cut it of about 60 cm (2 feet). Most of the side branches had been cut off and much of the bark on the main trunk was chewed away. Obviously this was the beaver’s source of food for the winter.
Cottonwood trunk stripped of bark
January has been rather average weather-wise, although I suspect that we have had less sun than average. Daytime highs have generally been up around five degrees and the warmest day hit nine. Although we have had a fair bit of rain as usual, and the occasional wind storm that typically comes down the Strait of Georgia, there has not been a major winter storm with a dump of snow this month. At Little River Pond no ice formed other than overnight ice in the shallow, flooded areas, which quickly melted as daytime temperatures rose.
Life in the water slows down in winter, but activity never completely stops. The only evidence of any fish I saw was a single fish jumping on January 1, most probably a sea-run cutthroat trout. This doesn’t mean that the fish aren’t there; they are simply not rising to the surface for insects. The adult cutthroats, which are typically found in sheltered estuaries and tidal lagoons, return to fresh water in late fall and early winter and spawn in late winter to early spring. The young stay in fresh water for two or three years before they migrate to the ocean.
I did a couple of sweeps with my insect net to see what I could find in the water. My net has a very fine weave so it collects even the tiniest arthropods.
The first sweep was shallow, through the vegetation, so that I avoided getting any of the bottom muck. I transferred it to a large plastic jar that I keep just for that purpose and immediately, even through the murky water, I saw life. A tiny predaceous diving beetle, probably less than 3 mm long, rose to the surface for a bubble of air. Then I noticed several damselfly nymphs swimming in the murky water. I decided to bring the jar home to let the silt settle out of the water.
By the time I got home it was obvious that the water was teaming with life. There were at least a dozen damselfly nymph, a number of caddisfly larvae, a couple of daphnia, several cyclops and numerous tiny arthropods that I finally decided must be clam shrimp. The last three were all around a millimeter or less in length, just barely visible to the naked eye.
I did my second sweep almost three weeks later, and this time I went deep into the muck, looking for larger aquatic insects. Sure enough, I dredged up two dragonfly nymphs, which was not in the least surprising as this pond has such a high number and diversity of dragonflies.
I also got a water boatman and a small predaceous diving beetle larva, also known as a water tiger, and this time there were lots of caddisfly of at least three types. It is these larger creatures that are necessary to sustain the fish population.
Water tiger with cyclops at lower left
With temperatures often ranging into the high single digits, I really expected to see at least a few insects and other terrestrial invertebrates. I was not disappointed – on almost every visit I saw at least one or two small flies, most likely midges of some sort. On one occasion I took the time to overturn a few logs, and on my third attempt I found several very active European sowbugs.
That same day I found a larger fly lapping up some juices from bark remaining on the cottonwood tree trunk that the beaver had felled. This is probably an anthomyiid, or root maggot fly, although according to Matthias Buck at the Royal Alberta Museum, there is a possibility it is a muscid. Flies in these two families are often so similar that it is impossible to identify them to family, let alone genus or species without collecting them.
Fly, either anthomyiid or muscid
Now, as the end of the month draws near, the days are getting noticeably longer and soon the first signs of spring will start to appear. But I’m not holding my breath; I know how cruel winter can be, and a serious winter storm is always a possibility in February. My one consolation is that here on the coast such storms are often followed by rain that quickly melts the snow away.
As winter’s winds roar down the strait
the pond lies silently,
broken only by eagle’s screams,
a small cacophony.
But all’s not dead, for in the pond
life stirs ’gainst winter’s hold.
A caddisfly, a diving beetle,
a dragonfly nymph bold.
And on dry land a thorough search
‘neath logs and dead leaf litter
reveals more life that’s active still,
sowbugs and other critters.
But most are dormant, most await
in silent slumber too,
for the first sign of spring’s return,
to begin life anew.
Note: I am posting this blog on World Wetlands Day, a day that is meant to draw people’s attention to the need to protect wetlands everywhere in the world. If you have read this this blog and not read the introduction, which was the previous post, I reccommend that you read it as it will set the scene for this ongoing blog and will also reflect the need to protect wetlands. You can find more information on World Wetlands Day here and you can find the introduction to The Pond blog here.
Little River Pond is a short, eight minute drive up island from where I live. I moved to Comox on Vancouver Island in the fall of 2009, and that winter I discovered the pond while exploring the coast looking for good birding areas. The only birds that I found of interest that winter were Ring-necked Ducks and Hooded Mergansers, but the following summer I again checked out the pond and found that it was a superb place for dragonflies. I have a particular passion for dragonflies and I love the challenge of photographing them, especially getting in-flight shots, so Little River Pond quickly became a favorite haunt.
The pond is really two ponds connected by a very short channel. In the winter the water level rises and the ponds overflow their banks becoming one large pond. There is also an outflow stream that connects the ponds to Little River, a short distance away. These are not natural ponds though, but rather gravel pits that were used in post WWII times as a source of gravel for the nearby runways at CFB Comox. Fortunately the ponds were allowed to revert to a natural state and now support a wide variety of aquatic life.
In 2011 the area was designated as a nature park by the Comox Valley Regional District. There is now a parking lot and sign at the entrance to the park, making it easy to find. The park is right alongside Wilkinson Road just down island from the ferry to Powell River at Little River. As well as the ponds, the park includes the connector stream to Little River, plus a stretch of the river itself and the surrounding meadows and woodlands.
The main focus of this blog is to follow the ebb and flow of life in and around the pond for a whole year. Wetlands are the life blood of the planet. Whether it is lakes, rivers, marshes, bogs or ponds, life cannot survive without the water they provide. It seems that most of our wetlands are under attack by industry, agriculture and general development. Far too often we pollute and drain without any concern for the consequences. It is encouraging to find a man-made wetland in the middle of an urban setting that is being protected. The diversity of life in this one small pocket of wilderness is quite impressive if you take the time to look. Unfortunately most people do not take that time. My hope is that this blog will open up the eyes of those people who live near Little River Pond, and perhaps, for those people who do not, it will make them more aware of the wildlife in and around their own local pond.
So follow me through the seasons at the pond as I search out the secret lives of insects and their relatives, scouring the vegetation, turning over logs and stones, using a dip net to look at aquatic life and using an ultraviolet light to attract nocturnal insects. Join me as I document the spring migration of birds and record their breeding success. I won’t forget the resident beaver and the other mammal visitors to the pond, and of course there’s the fish, frogs and snakes. And for those botanists amongst my readers, I will try to document the flowering time of the various plants.
It began in early January. I had been sick again, but then, after weeks of grey, dreary weather, the sun shone brightly and no bodily weakness could hold me back. I grabbed my camera and barely managed to start the old car. But it finally turned over and after a few circles around the block I knew the battery would get me to the park. So off I went and arrived safely, car humming very happily by then.
It was January 2nd. I’d made it to another new year and the sun came out. Dizzy and weaving about, I didn’t care. I was enthralled with the sun, the sounds, and…..then I spotted a solitary Annas Hummingbird way up on top of the tip of a branch. I knew any shot I got would be poor, but I didn’t care. I was out in Nature again and the healing had begun. I took the shots. It was a male and this was the best I could do. It was the only Annas I saw there and that was very odd. Gorge Park is usually quite filled with the sight and sound of them, but there was only one.
In previous years I’ve been able to get quite close to them and could go daily and find them in very predictable places, but this has become less and less the case with each passing year.
I took a few shots of the park and sunshine because I love this place and soon it will be transformed by man.
A community vegetable garden is proposed and I have no idea what affect this will have on the remaining wildlife. It is only on one side of the park, but I worry that any further encroachment on this park will further turn it into what has been becoming a deadzone for the abundance of birds and butterflies I once used to see here only a few short years ago. I feel it could either be a very good thing or….not. Time will tell. Right now, it is mostly just lawn, but I have seen Western Azures nectar on the tiny daisies that grow in both fields. Still the flowers of the veggie plants as well as any complementary companion flowers might attract pollinators and butterflies as well as hummingbirds so I am taking a “wait and see” sort of attitude while hoping for the best. I do know that the butterfly numbers have decreased in the last five years quite drastically, so it will be interesting to see if there are any at all this year.
The next time I was able to get out was later in January as well as today, January 19, 2013. But this time we walked along the Gorge Waterway. Another stunning day, and lots of people walking their dogs, but the disturbing thing for me was the lack of Buffleheads, Mergansers both Common and Hooded, and the small numbers of Wigeons all of which I have found in good numbers in previous years.
There was one spot where I used to like to sit and it was a favourite landing site for a Great Blue Heron at low tide. I pictured it in my mind even though, as we arrived, there was nothing. But then, out of nowhere, one swooped in and landed….and stayed to feed. What a bit of magic for me to grab with my camera. I was elated.
We continued our walk and I spotted very few winter ducks, but then saw two Mute Swans near the beach at the end of the Waterway walk. It was too good a chance to pass up so I hurried along and managed to get close enough to capture them in a number of shots, one of which follows.
The following day, I managed to get out again and the Blue Heron was in hiding, very well camouflaged through some branches, but I still managed to capture him with my camera and was thrilled that this picture turned out.
Just being out in the fresh air and seeing what I saw was so very healing to my spirit, even though I was troubled by what I didn’t see. So I felt compelled to write the following poem because the bird count appears to be drastically down. Am I surprised? No. The butterflies already told me what was coming. I wonder if anyone is listening sometimes. But in the meantime, I can only take pictures and write poems….and hope that all the insanity of this world somehow turns around. But at least for today, I felt the kiss of Nature and for now it will sustain me. I hope you enjoy these last two poetographs that follow this double-sonnet I shall end with.
I look for birds
In January now I look for birds,
the ones in such abundance I once saw
along the trails while writing all my words,
in love with Nature, holding Her in awe.
A solitary Annas do I spot
atop a tree, and only for a time
just time enough to get a far off shot
then he was off with no reason or rhyme.
Another day along the Gorge I walk
and so few winter ducks have come this year
that it has left me feeling sick with shock
until a Great Blue Heron lands quite near.
Then two Mute Swans engage my hope anew
despite the fact that winter ducks are few…
Old feathered friends, I feel your absence keenly
and so I’m gripped by tightness in my guts.
We’ve treated our environment so meanly
at times I feel I’m really going nuts.
I used to call it “Ducksville” long ago
when rafts of Buffleheads paraded by.
Where are they gone to, why do so few show?
These empty waters can’t be left to die.
Back to the park I’ll seek and try to find
where birds in January ought to be.
I hope upon a prayer they’re just behind
and that they still may come to visit me.
But hope seems like an empty thing somehow
because they should be here, should be here now…
© Annie Pang January 20, 2013.
I have decided to do something different in 2013. Those of you who have been following this blog for a while may remember a blog I wrote in June titled “A Passion for Dragonflies”. In this blog I mentioned a book that I was reading at the time (I first read it many years ago) written by Franklin Russell and titled “Watchers at the Pond”. The inspiration for many of my blogs this past year has been my observations and photography at Little River Pond, and much of the time Russell’s book has been in my thoughts.
The idea of doing something along the same idea as “Watchers at the Pond” has certainly intrigued me, and I have finally decided to jump in. I have decided to do an ongoing blog this year based on my observations at Little River Pond.
It will not be nearly as detailed as Russell’s book, but hopefully it will be filled with many photos, so more of a photographic journey but with lots of commentary. My plan is to do it in monthly chapters, although each month may require more than one blog. At the end of the year I hope to turn the blog into a Blurb Book.
I hope that many of you will follow this blog on a regular basis. I would also like feedback on what you think I am doing right and where I could improve what I am doing. This feedback could improve the blog, and ultimately the book considerably. I have decided that to keep the quality of the photographs as high as possible I will use photos from past years if I do not get anything suitable during the course of this year. I will also probably touch on some of the topics that I wrote on in the past year, but hopefully do it with a fresh eye.
I will still be blogging about other things as well, and hopefully my partner Annie will be contributing more of her great blogs and wonderful poems, so “The Pond” will just be a part of what we do. In the meantime I wish you all a great and productive New Year.