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
There is nothing quite as therapeutic as a lovely walk along the Gorge Waterway in the sunshine. For those of you who do not live here however, I should mention that Victoria weather at best is very unpredictable and, usually at this time of year, very gloomy and damp. The low light can make it rather camera unfriendly but I always take the camera along just in case.
In late January and early February, I was fortunate enough to get out and make the best of a few sunny days and see what was new, what was old, and what was expected or unexpected, all the while hoping to get a few good shots to record as much as I could. Some days I lucked out and of the many shots I took usually a few were usable, sometimes more if the lighting was right and my reflexes weren’t too tardy.
On a particularly lovely day I managed to capture some rare images of ducks that I have found very hard to photograph, one being the female Bufflehead and the other, the Common Goldeneye. In the case of the Common Goldeneye male, it usually swims too far out for my camera to be able to get a decent image but this one time it was just close enough. It was also challenging because it was diving for fish and spent very little time above water. The image I got when it surfaced was very dark but as I knew I had captured the eye (very hard for me) I managed to lighten it up sufficiently to get a sharp enough image, the first I have ever been able to get of this species of duck. I was exhilarated that I had managed to get a shot that was not extremely blurry for a change!!
Along the waterway, especially on the weekends, there are always people walking their dogs, jogging, pushing babies in carriages, boaters out in kayaks or, far more irritating, motor boats zipping by causing all the ducks I am trying to photograph to flock off in all directions. This is a very frustrating experience especially when the perfect shot may present itself. People like to stop and socialize, compare dog breeds and generally just enjoy the lovely scenery of the waterway. And on these sunny days when I am out, the green grass and blue sky make it feel more like March than January or early February. But I have to wonder how many of the passersby know anything about the various ducks on the waterway or just take them for granted as part of the scenery.
During the time this blog covers we took our two little dogs walking with us but as soon as an opportunity presented itself for a photograph I would quickly passed my dog leash to my partner and clicked away as fast as this slow camera allowed. Over several days I was able to get a variety of species. In my previous blog I included a photograph of a male Bufflehead, and in this one I offer a fairly decent pic of a female. The trick in getting a photograph of her while she was fishing was to follow the bubbles as she was underwater and which gave me a fair idea where she would surface. It worked well this time!
We have two species of Mergansers here on the waterway as well, one being the Hooded Merganser. I got this image of three males in one shot, perhaps not as clear as I would like but the winter ducks are usually a fair ways out as I’ve mentioned. I have observed only one female so far, and was unable to get a shot of her. Oh, wouldn’t it be nice to have such odds for us human gals. We’d certainly be much more “sought after” because of our scarceness. I certainly wouldn’t mind having three males vying for MY attention. But I digress. Here is the picture of the three males.
The other species of merganser we get here is the Common Merganser. I managed some far off shots of both a male and a female merganser. They are quite unique in appearance.
Male Common Merganser
Female Common Merganser
I would say that the most common and easy to photograph winter ducks we get along here are American Wigeons. Like Mallards, these are not diving ducks as are the others I have or will be showing in this blog, but are “dunking” ducks. Now in past years, I have often found one pair of Eurasian Wigeons in a raft (a group of ducks is referred to as a “raft” as opposed to a “flock”), but not this year. Since I didn’t get any exceptional shots of Wigeons so far this year I have included a couple of shots from a previous year that do include the Eurasian Wigeon and its mate. As you will see, the Eurasian has a beautiful red head and even its mate, though not very colourful, differs in appearance to the female American Wigeon in that she has darker, almost chestnut feathers around the head and body. They do make a handsome pair. I am fond of Wigeons as they have such friendly and pretty faces and the males have what looks to be green mascara running down the back of the eyes and neck. Lovely!
Mixed flock of American and Eurasian Wigeons
Male and female Eurasian Wigeons
These shots are rare for me, but I wanted to share them with you as I observed the number of birds become fewer and fewer. So far I have seen no other species, but if I do, I will keep you updated.
The swans were far off on the far side of the waterway, sunning or foraging and the Great Blue Heron has not been seen since that day in January when it magically flew up and landed for some fishing. I miss the numbers of birds I am accustomed to seeing but am grateful I have at least been able to share some with you.
Back at home, I have had a rare and sweet visitor for many weeks now. A Ruby-crowned Kinglet has become a regular at my suet feeder, although the little mite is so quick and never still, I can’t tell you how many tries it took before I finally managed to get this shot. I wanted to end this blog with a poem (yes, another sonnet) and one last picture of this sweet little bird who comforts me when I am unable to get out and enjoy my walks along the lovely Gorge Waterway. I still feel so fortunate to be living so close to such a lovely marriage of man and wildlife (although I do wish that dogs were not allowed to chase the ducks on the beach by the old schoolhouse!). The last poetograph is one more of the waterway and follows this sonnet and picture of the Kinglet. Thank you for joining me on this little part of my life with Nature and people.
Come little Kinglet
Come little Kinglet, come and visit me
and lift my spirits with a lovely view,
pretending I’m not here that you don’t see
the shots I try in vain to take of you.
The outside world awaits me but for now
the sight of you sustains me for a while,
so like a hummingbird in flight somehow
your antics to grab suet make me smile.
Though when the sunshine calls I’m off and gone
to see what ducks are on the waterway,
when I come back it’s you I’m counting on
to give the time at home a sunny ray.
Along the Gorge I walk to find a duck,
then I return to you, my prayer for luck…
© Annie Pang February 7, 2013.
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.
Three years ago I moved from the prairies of central Canada (Edmonton, Alberta to be precise) to Comox, Vancouver Island. Until that time I had lived all my life inland, and now here I was on the coast. So much is new here that I doubt that I will ever run out of things to do and places to go. Perhaps the most fascinating habitat though, and the one that I have devoted the least amount of time to, is the intertidal zone, that area exposed when the tide goes out. At low tide the rocky shoreline, sandy or muddy tide flats, and in some areas tide pools are accessible. For those willing to take the time there is a wealth of wildlife here.
Whenever I visit this habitat, especially in summer, there are people out on the exposed beaches. Some are walking their dogs or out for a stroll or just sitting in their camp chairs, reading or sunning themselves. Some, however, especially parents with young children, are actually exploring, looking in tide pools and turning over rocks. But this seems to be largely the pastime of the children, and not the adults. I remember as a child when the family went to Cape Cod to visit our relatives, how much I looked forward to exploring the same way. Fortunately I have not lost that sense of curiosity, and I still enjoy doing the same thing, but now I also want to put a name to everything and learn something about the various things I find. And of course I am always taking photos.
So to start with here is a photo of the closest tidepools to where I live, a short 5 minute drive away, followed by photos of some of the various creatures from previous visits to the intertidal zones with some information on each one.
When I think of Pacific tide pools the first thing I think of is anemones, so I will start with the Giant Green Anemone. Although quite common in tidepools this anemone can be found as deep as 15+ m (50 ‘). It can grow as large as 30 cm (12”) and can live for up to 30 years in captivity. Like all anemones it has stinging nematocysts on the tentacles and it feeds on small fish, crabs, sea urchins and shrimp. The green colour of this species is the result of having green algae growing in the tentacles. I have found this species to be more common on the west coast of the island.
The next creatures I think of in tide pools are the sea stars. The first I will mention is the Purple Star. This species is quite common on the east coast of Vancouver Island where I live. Although most commonly found in tide pools, I have also seen it in rocky beaches and lines of kelp. It can also be found in much deeper water, up to 90 m (300 ‘). It feeds on a variety of molluscs including mussels, chiton, abalone and a various snails. Its bright purple colour with a delicate, filigree pattern in white makes it one of the most attractive of sea stars. Although less commonly seen, at least in my experience, it also can be found in shades of brown, yellow and orange.
Another sea star that I see occasionally is the Sunflower Star. This is the largest of the sea stars in my area, getting up to 1 m (39“) across. Evidently juveniles of this species start with 5 arms, but gradually add more as they get older, getting up to 24 arms as adults. If they lose an arm to a predator, it will gradually grow back. In this photo you can see where this individual lost an arm and it is now growing back. Although it is occasionally found in tide pools, on rocky shorelines and even sandy beaches, it can also be found at depths up to 435 m (1,435’). It is one of the fastest moving sea stars and will crawl or even swim quickly to avoid predators such as abalone and swimming scallops.
The next creature is Nuttall’s Cockle, a bivalve mollusk that can be found on sandy or gravel shorelines and to a depth of 30 m (100’). Large individuals can get up to 14 cm (5 ½”) across. When viewed from the side it has a distinctive heart-shaped cross-section, resulting in its alternate name the heart cockle. One of its chief predators is the Sunflower Star, and when threatened by the star it used its long, powerful foot to vigorously push off from the star and hopefully escaping.
My next object is not a creature, but rather an artifact left behind by a creature. It is the Moon Snail sand collar. Sand collars are quite large and distinctive, and thus usually quite visible in sandy intertidal areas. The shape of the collar is dictated by the curve of the snail shell. Inside the collar is a layer of jelly containing the eggs of the snail, and this is sandwiched between two layers of sand held together by mucus. The snails lay their eggs seasonally from April to September with the peak being May and June.
My final creature is the Kelp Isopod, or Vosnesensky’s Isopod. This creature is the marine equivalent of the sowbugs and pillbugs. There are far more marine isopods than terrestrial however, and in fact some 4,500 species have been described worldwide. This is a large species, getting up to 3.6 cm (1.4”) and is most likely to be seen in lines of beached kelp and other seaweed. It can also be found in waters up to 15 m (50’) in mussel beds and hiding under rocks.
This is barely scratching the surface of the diversity of creatures that can be found in the intertidal area. Hopefully I will be able to cover more of these fascinating creatures in future posts. Who knows, maybe these blogs will inspire some other people to take the time to look for some of these fascinating creatures. A search in your local bookstore and library will turn up a wealth of books on the subject, so identifying and learning more about these creatures should be easy. Take the time to search the sandy and rocky beaches. Take the time to look carefully in the tide pools. There are many amazing and beautiful creatures here, and maybe it will reawaken that sense of curiosity and wonder that you lost when you grew into adulthood.
And one final word, if you have never read “The Edge of the Sea” by Rachel Carson, or like me haven’t read it for many years, then pick it up and read it now. It is truly a timeless classic which I am thoroughly enjoying reading for a second time.
Back on August 29th I wrote a blog called Vancouver Island Dragonflies, 2012 Season. In that post one of the things I said was that the Autumn Meadowhawk had not put in an appearance at that time. This seemed rather worrisome to me as last year I saw my first individual on August 16th. Well they have now turned up, and in good numbers. I saw my first on September 6th, just a single individual, and then a few on the 12th, but today they were numerous.
Everywhere I looked along the shore of Little River Pond I saw pairs flying in tandem and laying eggs along the edge of the pond. In one stretch of preferred shoreline that was only about 2 feet long I saw 6 pairs of Autumn Meadowhawk ovipositing, and the total number of pairs along the edge of the pond had to be well over 20, and for a small pond like this that was quite impressive.
The pairs would fly in tandem just over the shoreline, hovering briefly and then dipping down to allow the female to reach down and touch the tip of her abdomen either in the water very close to shore, or in the matted vegetation just above the water line, each time laying a single egg. With the water rapidly receding at this time of year all the eggs will shortly be out of water. The eggs will not hatch until the fall rains fill the pond again, causing the eggs to once again be submerged.
Autumn Meadowhawks flying in tandem
As well as the pairs busy ovipositing, I also saw a number of individuals flying around and perched on the vegetation. Most of these appeared to be females, although I did see at least one individual male. This species is not only the last dragonfly to emerge as an adult in the summer, but is also the last one flying in the fall, with some individuals lasting into mid November if the weather stays warm enough.
Autumn Meadowhawk female
Autumn Meadowhawk male
As well as the Autumn Meadowhawk I had four other species today, the Striped Meadowhawk, and three darners, the Common Green, Blue-eyed and Canada. It is encouraging to see this many dragonflies in September this far north and it was particularly encouraging to find out that the Autumn Meadowhawk was not absent this year, just late, and present in good numbers. I will continue to go back to Little River Pond to see how long each of these species hangs in and who knows, with a little bit of luck my last dragonfly blog may be in November.
It has turned cool here, cooler and cloudier than normal, and it feels like fall. Dragonfly populations are noticeably on the decline and many species have disappeared altogether. So I have decided that it is time to wrap up the season with a blog.
This year was a mixture of good and bad when it comes to dragonflies, and I will give you the good first. I managed to see five new species for the island and I managed to photograph four new species and get a few species in flight that I had struggled with before.
Forty-one species of dragonflies have been recorded for Vancouver Island, and my hope is to eventually see and photograph all of them. The main reason that I did so well this year is that I finally found a bog at higher elevation. The bog is part way up the road to Mt. Washington at an elevation of 2620 feet, and is aptly named 9 km Bog. Here, with the help of two good friends who are as crazy as I am about dragonflies, we managed to find Hudsonian Whiteface, Crimson-ringed Whiteface, Sedge Darner and Ringed Emerald and all four were new for us on the island. It was easy for us to photograph the Whitefaces as they regularly perched on the vegetation, but the darner was more of a challenge as we had to get it in flight, but all three of us succeeded. The emerald was the tough one as it rarely hovered for more than a couple of seconds and was very hard to find perched. This one I did not get although I have a perched shot from Alberta.
On one of my trips to Bowser Bog, a bog at low elevations that has recorded 26 species of dragonflies, I finally managed to get photographs of a perched Saffron-winged Meadowhawk. Of course, a few days later I photographed one in flight at Little River Pond. This was the first record for that species at Little River Pond, putting the total for the pond up to 21 species.
My final good dragonfly was a Black Saddlebags at Rascals Pond in Parksville. Black Saddlebags is a dragonfly that is recorded only sporadically for Vancouver Island. I do not have all the records, but I know that it has been a few years since one has been seen on the island. This is a known migrant, and it is probable that our records are all of migrants from the south. Considering how few active dragonfly watchers there are here, this species could be much more common than the records indicate. There were at least three individuals at Rascals Pond, two males and a female that I observed ovipositing. As well there was at least one other individual at another pond in Parksville. I went to Rascals Ponds three times and saw the Black Saddlebags on all three occasions, but because they were always in flight I was unsuccessful in getting any photographs.
As for those in-flight shots, I mentioned two of them, the Blue Dasher and the Four-spotted Skimmer, in an earlier blog, “Photographing Dragonflies In Flight”, but at that time I had not succeeded in getting a good in-flight shot of a Common Green Darner. Well I finally did and, as is so often the case, I have since then managed to get a few more good shots. So here is one of them.
And to top it off, I also managed to get my first in-flight shot of a Striped Meadowhawk, another species I had tried for without success on previous occasions.
I have managed to see 26 species of dragonflies so far this year, and succeeded in getting lots of photographs, so what is the downside? The answer can be summed up in one word, numbers. The darners in general seem to be down in numbers somewhat, although not dramatically. The skimmers and meadowhawks though seem to be drastically down, at least in locations that I am familiar with. Meadowhawks that we were seeing in large numbers at Bowser Bog last year we were only getting ones and twos of this year. The numbers of Common Whitetails, Four-spotted Skimmers and Eight-spotted Skimmers at Little River Pond seemed to be down this year and I saw very few Dot-tailed Whitefaces and not a single Western Pondhawk. The meadowhawks in general were well down in numbers. In fact, the Autumn Meadowhawk, which is our last dragonfly to appear, generally emerging in numbers in mid August, has not put in an appearance this year at all so far. I spent two hours at Little River Pond today where it is usually common by now, and although I did see five other species of dragonflies, there was not a single Autumn Meadowhawk to be seen.Just so you know what this dragonfly looks like, here is a photo of an Autumn Meadowhawk taken last year.
The only dragonfly that I can say has been truly here in good numbers is the Common Green Darner. In fact I don’t recall them being this numerous at Little River Pond before. The interesting thing though is that, like the Black Saddlebags, this is a migratory dragonfly. It would be hard, maybe impossible, to determine what percentage of our population is made up of migratory individuals, as there is a resident population as well, but it is quite likely that the large numbers of this species this year are accounted for mostly by migrants.
I have been concerned about insect populations on the island ever since I moved here three years ago, and other people who have lived here much longer than I have expressed the same concern. But dragonfly populations seemed to be the exception, that is, until this year. Because dragonfly larvae can live for several years before emerging as adults, this might just be the reason why they were not showing a population decline until now. It is interesting that the meadowhawks are showing the biggest decline in numbers, and these are the smaller dragonflies and the ones that generally spend the least amount of time in the larval stage. This decline in dragonfly numbers is very worrisome, and it will be interesting to see if it continues next year. I believe that this island needs a wakeup call, but I am not sure what it will take to do it. Unfortunately most people pay so little attention to insects that they will never notice declines in populations, and if they do I am not sure they will recognize the significance.
When I wrote an earlier blog “A Passion For Dragonflies” I included a poem. When I wrote that poem, in a frenzy of creativity I wrote another, free verse version of the poem, which I did not include with the blog. Somehow that poem seems appropriate now, so here it is.
It courses over the pond
on wings flashing in the sun.
Colours of red, blue, green and yellow,
colours of the rainbow,
and black and white for contrast.
It hunts for food,
for a mate,
for the next generation.
Always keeping an eye out for danger,
from above and below.
But the real danger it does not see,
the danger from humans.
A danger that kills all,
But its loss is our gain.
Or is it?
For if we lose the dragonflies
do we not lose part of our humanity?
Part of our souls?
Part of the soul of our planet?
Is it not better to protect the dragonflies?
To watch, to really see them?
They can bring joy,
If only we all could become
“Watchers at the pond”.
© Terry Thormin, August 2012.
This past Saturday I conducted an outdoor dragonfly workshop for the Comox Valley Naturalists Society. The event was advertised to the general public as well and about 25 people attended, including five children. For the middle of the summer this is a pretty decent attendance. The event took place at Little River Nature Park where there is a pond that supports a good population of dragonflies. In an earlier blog I mentioned that I had recorded a total of 18 species at the pond, but when I recounted recently I came up with 20 species. For such a small pond on Vancouver Island this is a very good diversity.
Of course a number of those species have been seen only rarely and even amongst the more common ones you can’t expect to see all of them on any one day. So when we got a total of 8 species this day I figured that the day was a success. More importantly we observed lots of behavior which gave me lots to talk about. The Common Green Darners were laying eggs in the stems of the water shield, and the Cardinal Meadowhawks were flying in tandem, dropping their eggs one at a time directly in the water. The diminutive Blue Dasher would perch on a blade of grass and then suddenly dart out to give chase to a much larger Blue-eyed Darner. Canada Darners hovered close to shore giving the photographers opportunities to try for in-flight shots and several Striped Meadowhawks were observed hovering and perching in the grass back from shore.
The best show thought was put on by the Merlin later in the afternoon when many of the people had left. The Merlin is one of the smaller falcons and it loves to hunt dragonflies, especially the Common Green Darner. I described this behavior in my earlier blog, but will go over it briefly here for those that did not read that blog. The Merlin perches on a bare branch near the top of a large conifer at the east end of the pond. When an opportunity arises it will launch itself from the tree and come barreling down the pond in pursuit of one of the darners. If it is successful it will fly back to the tree to devour its prey.
On one occasion this day, just after one of the photographers had taken some photos of a pair of Common Green Darners close to shore in the process of laying eggs, the Merlin swooped in and with outreached talons plucked the pair off the lily pad right in front of us. I have observed the Merlin going after darners in flight many times, but this is the first time I saw it take a pair of ovipositing darners. I now suspect that this must be the preferred prey for the Merlin. After all, ovipositing darners are like sitting ducks and you get two for one and I am sure even Merlins appreciate twofers.
I believe that Little River Pond is a good barometer for what is happening to dragonfly populations in this area and perhaps on the whole of Vancouver Island as well. Unfortunately, most dragonflies seem to be down in numbers and some species have been totally absent from the pond. The only species that seems to be doing well is the Common Green Darner, and this is a migratory species, so our resident population may have been augmented by migrants from the south.
As Annie has pointed out many times, butterfly populations on the island are way down, and my observations lead me to believe that other insect populations are suffering as well. It is hard to determine what the cause is, and it is highly unlikely that it is only one cause. I do know that without insects we simply would not survive. They pollinate about 80% of all flowering plants and are the source of food for most birds. What doesn’t eat insects eats those things that eat insects or eats the plants that insects pollinate. Our education system is failing badly when it comes to providing students with a proper insight into the importance of insects in the environment.
A recent report from North American Bird Conservation Initiative states that aerial insectivores in Canada are declining faster than any other group of birds, and the Barn Swallow and Chimney Swift are down to about a quarter of their 1970 population levels. It also states that on the pacific coast, where human settlement, forestry and industry are most intense bird populations overall have declined by 35%. Although this cannot all be attributed to a decline in insect populations, there is no doubt that this is a major factor, and if you consider loss of habitat as one of the factors in bird declines, you have to remember that loss of habitat also means a loss of the insects that inhabit that habitat.
I had not intended this to be anything but a report on the success of a dragonfly workshop, but somehow I managed to get sidetracked into talking about what we are doing to the environment. These conversations seem to occur quite regularly and I am convinced that, amongst my circle of friends at least, most people are becoming more and more concerned. Annie and I are trying through these articles to make people more aware of what is happening on Vancouver Island and elsewhere. It seems like a small thing at times, and we wonder if what we are doing will have any impact at all, after all it is big business and the government that need to change. But almost all big change starts from small beginnings, and we can only hope.
I had originally planned on posting the second part to “Hunters in the Pond” next, but after having done the first real butterfly count for the Comox Valley four days ago, I thought I should do a quick blog on that. If you have been reading our blogs regularly you will know just how concerned Annie is about butterfly populations on Vancouver Island. Well she is certainly not the only one, and in fact the reason I decided to organize a butterfly count was in the hope that it would provide some data to support our concerns. The problem however is that this should have been started at least ten years ago when butterfly populations were more “normal”.
None-the-less, figuring that any data might be helpful and that we had to start somewhere, I organized a count for July 14th out at Cumberland Marsh, the area where I seem to see the greatest number of butterflies these days. All in all I was quite pleased with the results. The event was run and advertised by the Comox Valley Naturalists Society and a total of 22 people turned out. We split into two parties and spent a total of 3 ½ party hours in the field. The results are as follows:
Western Tiger Swallowtail 16
Pale Swallowtail 3
Anise Swallowtail 1
Cabbage White 5
Margined White 11
Lorquin’s Admiral 11
The total of 6 species and 47 individuals is, I think, quite poor. I am used to doing counts where one dominant species may produce many more individuals than our total and where there are easily twice as many species. Of course biodiversity here on the island is not nearly as great as it is in Edmonton, Alberta where I have taken part in butterfly counts before, but still I had hoped for at least 2 or 3 more species and many more individuals as the habitat was quite diverse with lots of nectaring opportunities. One of the things that might have affected our populations this year is a spring that was cooler, wetter and cloudier than normal and that persisted much longer than normal. Summer weather didn’t really arrive on the island until early July.
There are many factors that can affect butterfly populations, weather, habitat destruction, invasive species, use of herbicides and pesticides and probably a few others that I have missed. As a result it is very hard to determine just why populations are declining. The first thing that has to be determined though is if they are declining, and the best way to do this is through regular butterfly counts. If a count is conducted in a consistent manner in the same area over a number of years it can provide statistics like this.
I suspect that butterfly populations may be declining everywhere in North America, just as bird populations are, but I also suspect that in most areas there is very little data to support this. The North American Butterfly Association organizes annual counts where the data can be submitted online, and this type of count may just work well for your needs. They do counts with a 15 mile diameter, and are conducted on July 4th in the US and July 1st in Canada. They can be contacted at http://www.naba.org . We had tried this type of count here in the past and had very poor participation, so we tried a different approach, picking our own date and making it in a specific locality that was much smaller than the 15 mile circle.
Whichever way you decide to do a count, it can end up being a fun event for individuals and families and, if done consistently from year to year, can provide very useful data. It may also result in people becoming more interested in butterflies, and perhaps open up their eyes to how much butterflies need protection.
Western Tiger Swallowtail
For anyone interested in the Comox Valley Naturalists Society, you can get more information at their website here: http://comoxvalleynaturalist.bc.ca