Friday, December 29, 2017

Hello, and thanks for all the fish.

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

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


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

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

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


Something had popped up through the ice.



An otter?  How the heck did that get here? 

Poonk Poonk

Two more?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Otters should be shared.  They are amazing.  

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

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

Friday, December 1, 2017

For Lost Species Day, two species hanging on.

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

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

Image result for cahow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Off I went.

Hellooooo Bermuda Rock Lizards!

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

David Wingate in the Whaler

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

Measuring snout-vent length of a Bermuda Skink.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Salmon - nitrogen bomb.

Yesterday, miraculously, our scheduled trip to the Fraser River Eagle Festival at Harrison Mills coincided with a break in the rain.  Today the weather throughout the region reverted to November.

Harrison Mills is at the confluence of the Harrison and Fraser Rivers, about 50 miles upstream from Vancouver.  Before joining the Fraser, the Harrison flows around the tip of a sandy peninsula, at Kilby Provincial Park.  In this picture, facing west, the river is flowing right to left around the point to meet the Fraser flowing west on its south side.  Notice the lumpules scattered along the shore.  The larger ones are the carcasses of chum salmon.

Back around the northern flank of the peninsula and a short distance upstream the Harrison  broadens and contains a silty delta known as the Chehalis Flats, created by deposits settling out from the inflowing Chehalis River and Weaver Creek, whose winding channels continue into the flats, producing a web of sand bars and channels.  Within the faster flowing watercourses, where the bottom is sufficiently gravelly, chum salmon spawn.  And here, on the flats, bald eagles feast, hundreds at a time.  

I took no eagle pictures.  I had only my phone to record the scene, and phone pictures of eagles would be sadly inadequate.  The following images from the Eagle Festival Flickr photostream show nicely what the birds looked like: Eagles on flatseagles in trees. 

Oblivious to bird and human, the salmon fulfill their biological imperative, having spent years at sea, swimming who knows where, surviving who knows what.  

After that? Struggle upstream into freshwater while undergoing dramatic alterations in form and physiology, spawn, and then die, but not easily.  Salmon have death throes too.

But that's just the start of things:

Bears and other large mammals drag salmon from streams up to 500 meters into the forest where the remains gradually decompose and act as fertilizer.  The elements in their tissues, and in the waste products produced by carnivores then become available to the ecosystem.

In Gwaii Haanas, Haida Gwaii, it was estimated that 3,611 salmon carcasses, 63% of an entire run, were transferred from the river into the surrounding forest by as few as 3 to 8 bears.

Eagle numbers and breeding success are correlated with the abundance of salmon carcasses left behind in spawning streams.

In some places the timing  and success of mink reproduction is related to the availability of salmon carcasses.

Coastal Alaskan Brown Bears obtain virtually all of their nitrogen and carbon from salmon.

Bottom-dwelling insects in salmon-bearing streams in interior BC obtained up to 60% of nitrogen content from salmon tissue.

      Vegetation near salmon streams contain significant amounts of marine-sourced nitrogen.

The more salmon in a run, the more nutrients available to the ecosystem, and the more productive it is.  This inevitably includes an increase in the invertebrate prey species that nourish developing larval salmon.

When a salmon stock diminishes all plant and animal species within their food web are to varying degrees impacted.  This includes salmon themselves, whose decaying carcasses influence the survival rates of future runs.

It's almost as if the ocean is the lungs, the rivers are the blood vessels, the forest is the living tissue, and the salmon are the corpuscles.  Unlike the circulatory system in a single animal, however, the fish only travel in one direction, and their vital cargo isn't oxygen, required for the fueling of life, but rather carbon, and, especially, nitrogen, elements essential for its construction.

Once you start to get salmon, you realize that we spend most of our lives in a bubble of remarkable ignorance, clueless of how the heck our world works and needs to keep working for the whole darn thing to stay alive.

Chum Salmon, blessed nitrogen bomb.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Pack o' smokes.

Remember cigarette packages?  Players, Kool, Dunhill, uh... Marlboro, Pall Mall....others I forget? 

Virginia Slims!

Remember them before the government (in Canada) mandated ugly boxes with images of diseased smokers' lungs and gums and whatever else on them? 

Remember ash trays?  Some of the glass ones where beautiful.  I remember ash trays on the end tables in my parents' house.  My parents didn't smoke, but many of their friends did. They could turn a pristine ash tray into a toxic haystack in a single visit.

Remember ashtrays and cigarette lighters in cars?

Remember sour, soggy, cigarette butts everywhere?  Swarming the curb at the Warden bus loop, or scattered, a flick away, between the tracks at Bloor and Yonge?  (Childhood Toronto ref.)

Recently I became interested in Chinese cigarette packages, in an admittedly dim-witted--Hey, there's a different one!--kind of way.  There are many people from Mainland China here, either recent immigrants or visitors, and the smoking culture over there is at a different stage from here, at least with regard to cigarette packaging. I have created a brief image gallery of empty Chinese cigarette boxes I have found.

Double Happiness was the first.  I recognized the characters right away, because they are usually on the wall behind the bride and groom at Chinese wedding banquets. That it was crushed flat on the road seemed poignant.

1956.  I don't know what else to call it.  It is very elegant.

This one, I think, shows one of the buildings from The Forbidden City.  This is a very pretty cigarette package, the picture not doing justice to its true colour.

I have no idea.  What is this character holding? A pie?  Roast turkey? A diseased lung?

Saturday, November 4, 2017


Steveston Harbour, looking a bit grim, as if something bad is afoot.
(So to speak.)

Steveson is a fishing village at the mouth of the south arm of the Fraser River.  It is now part of the City of Richmond, and is one of the oldest non-indigenous communities in British Columbia (and was inhabited by indigenous people prior to that).

It has a long history of fishing, especially salmon, and still is an important fishing port, a place to buy seafood right off the boat.

It's a tourist town too, but not to the degree of some seaside villages on the edges of large metropolitan areas.   It is still a vital part of the day to day lives of Richmond residents.  There are family restaurants and dental offices and a pub and banks, a bike shop, a fancy underwear store -- stuff that normal folks use.  Our dentist is on the main drag, which has a false-front, frontier town look, in a wood-sided building that was previously a fishing net sales and repair shop.

Steveston is also a common TV and movie filming location.  The ABC show Once Upon a Time was filmed here for the first six seasons, for which it was renamed Storybrooke, Maine.  That show has moved production to Seattle, but there's always something going on.  Those people dressed in black, drinking coffee, talking into walkie talkies, standing around--the endless list of names people--arrive, take over a block or dock or parking lot, and it's just the way things are.

Which can be annoying.  I was barred from walking down the dock last week by a couple of black-clad burlies.  Something was being filmed at the far end.

"What is it?" I asked, which rarely results in a satisfying answer. It is usually a pilot for something that, if produced, will be so far in the future that this conversation will have been forgotten,  or an episode of a show on a streaming service that you have to pay for.

But this time, it was another ABC show.  "Siren," the burly who was allowed to talk said.

"Oh," I said.

"About an invasion of mermaids, or something."


He shrugged, and then listened to a thing in his ear.  "Rolling," he said to the non-speaking burly.

I looked up "Siren" on IMDB.  It says, 

"In the mermaid-obsessed sea town of Bristol Cove, everyone's lives will change when actual mermaids come ashore, which soon causes a war."

Well this is going to make visits to the dentist more entertaining. 

But really.  How hard can it be to fight mermaids?  I would think they're relatively easy to outrun.  Leg-wise, they're more seal than sea lion.  You could just sort of hem them in with a few sheets of plywood.

Here is a pretty boat angling in to the dock.  I think she was about to be filmed.  Perhaps mermaids are about to flop onto her deck, and this is where the mer-attack is about to begin.

I hope Quint isn't drunk

Monday, August 7, 2017

Big orange sun.

It's been smurky (murky skies due to smoke) for five days.  The wildfires in British Columbia that have been burning for weeks are mostly hundreds of miles north of and inland from here, and their effects didn't reach the coast until the wind changed last week and started blowing westward. The following picture was taken two nights ago, 90 minutes before sunset.  Last night looked more or less the same, the sun an angry orange disk. At this time of day the sun should still be at a state where you wouldn't be able to pin down a colour, beyond "bright." It shouldn't look like a red-hot penny.

Our AQHI (Air Quality Health Index), a measure that includes fine particulate matter (particles 2.5 microns or less), ground level ozone and nitrogen dioxide, has reached as high as 7 out of 10.  Seven is bad, but other places have recently endured much worse. On Thursday, Kamloops, 170 miles northeast and near several major fires, was 49 out of 10, the greatest Spinal Tapping of any measurement system ever.  We, here, shouldn't really complain.  We haven't been evacuated, and our communities remain unscathed.

Nevertheless, this dingy sky is becoming tiresome. To illustrate present conditions:

Planes taking off from YVR (Vancouver) a few miles from our home, look like this at mid-day:

And on it goes. Every day the weather forecast from Environment Canada promises us sunshine tomorrow, but by the following morning it has turned, literally and iconographically, to smoke.

Here is what our August sky should look like:

Yes, sweet blue, and filled with large, fluttering butterflies.  

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Two vast and trunkless legs of stone, or something along those lines.

Target was here, briefly.  It moved in, taking over many of the stores that had been Zellers, a Canadian discount chain, but its launch didn't go smoothly. As I understand it, they had difficulty adjusting their labeling and pricing system to metric measures and bilingualness, and opened with shelves lacking the range of inexpensive stuff Canadian cross-border shoppers could get at Targets short drives away. Target failed expectations, and shoppers pulled back, waiting for the company to find its feet, become the Tar-jet we had known.  It folded within a year.  Sigh.  Folks here really wanted it to succeed. 

The most conspicuous remains were the big red balls.  Outside each door, Target had cemented a pair of large, concrete, red-painted balls, one to the left, the other to the right.

At our local ex-Target, those balls have persisted, at least three pairs, in situ, until this week when one broke its bonds and went for a rumble through the parking lot.

Unfortunately, and metaphorically, lacking a long-term plan or guidance system, it ended up trapped within another, less conspicuous artifact of the lost retailer, a shopping cart return rack.  So there it languishes, waiting for the earth to tilt the other way.

These days, how many mall visitors even know what the big red balls mean?  The couple below, do they consider the ball before them and ponder its significance?  Do they notice its trundle-scuffed partner ensnared a hundred meters away?

Of course not.  They are blindly in love, unable to conceive of how awry a plan can go.

I met a traveller from an antique land, 
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone 
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand, 
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown, 
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command, 
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read 
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things, 
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed; 
And on the pedestal, these words appear: 
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; 
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair! 
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay 
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare 
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Percy Bysshe Shelley