No, this is not another melancholy blog post about dealing with social isolation in this time of the pandemic. It is a post about nature and some of the “blue birds” that can be seen in British Columbia! It is a good time to socially isolate in the great outdoors!
April 22, 2020 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the establishment of Earth Day. This movement was initiated by two American politicians from the Democratic and Republican parties, who were concerned with the prevalence of air and water pollution, the decline and disappearance of species, and the presence of toxins threatening public health. Their objective was to focus public attention on these issues in a non-partisan manner. The publication of The Silent Spring by Rachel Carson in 1963 and the establishment of Earth Day in 1970 are credited by many as main drivers of “the environmental movement” and subsequently many improvements were made. Important legislation was established to reduce water and air pollution, to clean up polluted lakes and rivers, to eliminate acid rain which was devastating forests around the world, to eliminate toxins such as DDT (thereby resulting in the return of bird species such as the bald eagle and the peregrine falcon), to reduce lead and mercury in gasoline and air and water emissions (thereby improving public health) and to restore and preserve habitat for nature at large and threatened species in particular. In this time period, the United States was a leader in environmental protection and this leadership prompted other countries to follow suit. Over this time period, the Earth Day movement grew to an extent that it is recognized today in more than 180 countries! It is clearly a movement that inspires international cooperation, as most environmental problems are international in scope.
While many problems have been solved, environmental issues have become even more serious in the intervening years with significant loss of biodiversity, loss of habitat, declining standards of environmental protection, loss of momentum for international cooperation and above all, with global warming. Like the Covid-19 Pandemic, these problems are all international in nature, and require concerted international effort and cooperation. Many scientists believe that the Covid-19 Pandemic will be relatively small in its impact on people, relative to the eventual impact of global warming, and just as there was for the pandemic, there are many warnings that we are past due the time to start to take serious actions. The templates for action were established in the 1970’s. Can we learn from the past? This is something we should all contemplate on Earth Day 2020.
With the pandemic, and stay at home directives, I have had time to revisit photographs taken over the last few years, sometimes finding captures that I had forgotten about. This review highlights the beauty of nature, and how fortunate we are in North America to have the diversity we still have. Sadly, this diversity is threatened by loss of habitat, global warming, and laxer environmental protection standards. The losses of the last fifty years are unprecedented in the history of mankind (reference “The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert). Sadly, these losses are likely to increase in the future due to the very significant rollbacks of environmental protection standards and enforcement in the United States and the disdain for rain forest protection in Brazil by its current president. It upsets me to think that my grandchildren will not have the same opportunities I have had to experience the beauty and diversity of our natural world.
One of the most interesting birds I have had the opportunity to photograph this year has been the northern pygmy owl. It is a bird of western North America, found in mountainous and foothill areas from Central America to northern British Columbia. As owl locations are protected, it proved a challenge to find one, but I finally lucked out on a forest access road in the Fraser Valley about an hour drive from our home. Due to its intense eyes and small size, many find the pygmy owl “cute”, but it is a fierce predator and will take on rodents and other birds up to three times larger than itself. (It is actually not much larger than a song sparrow in length (15-17 cm.) and when a friend described to look for, he said look for a baseball at the end of a tree branch). Sure enough, that is what I found! The pygmy owl, unlike most North American owls, is mostly a day time hunter, and sticks pretty well to one specific area and thus once located, can generally be found on subsequent visits. I believe the following pictures taken over several weeks are all of the same bird, or at most, are of two different birds. On one occasion when photographing one, I believe I her the characteristic “toot” of a second nearby, although I could not locate the second one.
One of the birds I have been trying to see in the wild for years, is the magnificent great grey owl. It is the “largest” of the North American owls (although not the heaviest) due to its mass of feathers. It is a bird of the north, sometimes wintering as far south as Southern Ontario, but it is rare and due to its rarity, the reporting of sightings is discouraged as people flock to see such a magnificent rarity, stressing the bird. Last October, Mary and I traveled to Alberta to try to spot this bird, but had no luck. The birding guide we had met (Ken Anderson) recommended a return in March, as this is the time of year they mate, and they are less secretive. Ken was correct with this advice, and we managed to see four or five great grey owls in total. Unlike other owls, they seemed to be curious, and on a number of occasions, after we had been still for several minutes to observe them, they flew over, seemingly to observe us. It was a wonderful experience.
While winter is generally the slowest season for birding, the presence of wintering raptors and ducks makes southern BC a good location for winter birding. Here are some of my favourite photos taken in the area this winter.
While attention has been focused on other affairs in Washington this past week, the Government of the United States has been quietly rolling out changes to environmental protection policy. At the end of January, the Government was expected to make official a policy dramatically limiting the federal government’s authority to hold industry accountable for killing birds under one of the nation’s oldest conservation laws, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. A proposed rule will eliminate this Act’s prohibition on the killing or taking of migratory birds by industrial activities. Each year hundreds of thousands of birds are killed by pesticides or in tailing ponds at mines or around oil wells, when they collide with buildings, wind turbines or communication towers, or when critical habitat such as wetlands or grasslands are destroyed. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act has been the most important tool to address these important but otherwise unregulated sources of mortality. This protection has now been reduced to only apply to cases where the killing of birds is the specific intent of the deeds that resulted in mortality. Negligence, collateral damage, incompetence and cost savings are now acceptable reasons for minor and mass killings of migratory birds. This is the Act that was used to fine BP for killing an estimated one million birds with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The Migratory Bird Treaty has been in place for over 100 years. This follows on the heels of rollbacks to the protections offered by the Endangered Species Act of 1973, which occurred in 2019. This act, introduced by the Nixon administration, is credited with saving such species as the bald eagle, peregrine falcon, whooping crane and the grizzly bear in its range in the United States. The approach of the present American Government would suggest that there is little to worry about with respect to species at risk, as legislative protections have been removed, protected areas eliminated, pollution standards relaxed and concerns regarding newly identified toxins are being tossed aside. Facts do not support this conclusion however. The total population of birds in North America has been reduced by about 29% since 1970. To state this another way, North America has about 3 billion fewer birds today than it did in 1970. This decline is not evenly spread out amongst all species, and many species are in severe decline and are threatened. The beneficiaries of these actions are a relatively small number of businesses and “developers”, who have no concern or understanding of the concepts of stewardship or sustainability. It is a very good thing that the present approach has not been the approach since 1970, or the reduction in bird population would be far greater than 29% and many of the species that were threatened (such as the bald eagle, peregrine falcon, whooping crane, Kirtland’s warbler etc.) would now be extinct. When will responsibility return? With all the discussion of sustainability in the public domain today, it is depressing to see such regressive governmental actions.
After a slow start to the year, I have been out now a couple of times looking for birds. With snow and ice, ducks are relatively scarce, but raptors are plentiful.
It has been a busy month, so we did not get out too many times. However, we managed an outing to Harrison Mills yesterday and to Iona Beach and the Reifel Sanctuary today. The highlight at Harrison Mills was watching and listening to a juvenile bald eagle, perched on a tree devouring a salmon. This bird was calling loudly and frequently! The highlight at Iona Beach was watching two eagles and a peregrine falcon pursuing green winged teals. The maneuverability of the eagles was surprising, while the speed of the peregrine was phenomenal. We cheered when a teal finally escaped repeated attempts by the raptors. However, about five minutes later, the two eagles were able to finally catch the teal which repeatedly dove into the water to escape. One of the eagles finally managed to pounce on the teal as it came up from a dive, and the eagle proceeded to drown it. The highlight at the Reifel Sanctuary was a northern goshawk which passed overhead four times, before finally landing in a tree. This is the first time we have seen a goshawk in the wild, and it certainly is very large compared to other acceptor hawks!
All of these photos were taken yesterday either at the Reifel Bird Sanctuary or at Blackie Spit. With ice on the ponds at the Reifel Sanctuary, there were not as many ducks as there have been. Nonetheless, it was a beautiful, sunny day with a good variety of birds.
The Lower Mainland of BC is an excellent place to observe ducks in the winter months, as the Fraser Estuary, the shallow bays on the coast and the many wetlands provide exceptional winter habitat. The following photographs were taken in the last couple of weeks.