Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Lulu Island Bog Fire, Richmond BC, July 2018

Picture from CTV helicopter, facing north. The north-south road is Shell Road.  The forest to the right of Shell Road is the Richmond Nature Park.

Lulu Island is the main island of the deltaic archipelago that comprises Richmond, British Columbia.  The city of New Westminster claims a small portion of the upstream end of the island, like the tail of a skink, where the street signs are blue instead of green, but for the most part Lulu Island is Richmond.

Near the centre are several quarter sections (half-mile squares, slightly more than 100 acres each) that represent remains of the former domed bog that once covered much of the eastern half of Lulu Island.   West to east these are the Garden City Lands (long cleared, but presently being redeveloped into an urban green space), the forested Department of National Defense Lands (DND), which contains a small military base in its northwest corner,  the Richmond Nature Park (west half). which contains the Nature House and a network of trails, and, across Highway 99, the east half of the park, which contains a single loop trail.

All this land is covered in a thick, spongy layer of sphagnum peat, which burns happily when dry, and is very hard to extinguish because the fire can spread below the surface along tree roots and resurface somewhere else.

Bogs burn.  It's part of basic bog ecology. Fire opens the cones of the shore pines and clears the scrubby understory, allowing cranberries and  slow-growing bog blueberries to flourish.  Lightning is rare here, so most Lulu Island bog fires have been anthropogenic.  As long as there have been people on this island they have been setting fires, either managing the vegetation, or for less productive reasons, or by mistake.

The fire broke out late July 26 or early July 27 in the southwest corner of the DND, very close to the Nature Park.  It is assumed someone camping in the bush is responsible, but that has not yet been officially announced.

We live about 2 Km from the fire.  I woke up at 4 AM to a strong smell of smoke and closed all the windows.  It has been hot here for the past week or more.  Few homes here have air conditioning.  Until recently it was rarely needed. Windows slammed shut all over the island.  

Then the wind shifted and sent smoke to Vancouver.  Richmond calling.

But it was also sending the fire west, toward the Nature Park, where I used to work.  I went for a ride, concerned over what I would find.

From S side of Westminster Hwy, west of No 4 Rd. (0.6 Km from fire).  The smoke column seemed relatively dainty.  Westminster Hwy and Shell Road were closed to facilitate water access and the staging of equipment.  I had to circumnavigate. A bike is good for that--you can cut through condominium walkways and back lanes.

View from Granville Ave, 200 m east of No. 4 Rd (0.90 Km from fire). About 10:30AM,  the heat of the day was ramping up, and the fire no longer seemed dainty.  Trails of the Nature Park had been closed by this point.  I know there was a children's summer camp scheduled for that day.  I'm guessing they had to cancel it.

View from 300 m east of Francis Rd and No 4 Rd (2.7 Km from fire). 

One news report said fire briefly spread to RNP but was put out.  Fortunately the winds were light.

An aerial photo in the online  Richmond News today showed the burned area to be about as shown in black.

View from home, 1 PM, July 27.

At about 3 PM, a small Cessna jet zoomed overhead, only a few hundred feet up.

I watched from an upstairs window as it circled the fire, even seeming to pass through the column of smoke. 

I found the plane on Fightradar24.  By the end of the day this map looked like a ball of yellow yarn.

After the Cessna had sussed out the situation, four Air Tractors arrived, small but maneuverable water bombers that use their pontoons to scoop and drop water.  The Cessna was the bird dog, pointing the way.

"Here I come to save the day..."

For several hours the planes flew between the Fraser River and the fire, scooping and dumping water, a fine and effective (and noisy) ballet.

Air Tractor  and Cessna bird dog.

By early evening the smoke column had thinned considerably.   The fire was still active (4 days later, it still isn't completely out), but it was contained.  Since then, Richmond Firefighters and members of other agencies have been in the bog, clearing brush and digging in what has to be miserable conditions--very hot, very smoky, very dense brush.   This has been close to a record-setting heatwave, and there has been very little rain since mid-June.  Most people wouldn't want to walk through the bog in this weather, let alone do strenuous work. The weather is predicted to cool down over the next few days, perhaps even rain.  It feels wrong, in this place where at other times of the year it rains for weeks on end, to actually find yourself looking forward to the return of precipitation before the end of summer.  Okay,  rain a bit.

Then back to sun.  No one wants a grey August.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018


I got a lifer today
Say's Phoebe
An odd name
Sayornis saya (in Latin)
"Say's Say-bird"

It's a tyrant flycatcher
Which is a good name for a bird family
It has orange undersides
Not a common trait

I don't see many lifers these days
Because I have been birding since I was ten and am considerably older now
And don't go out of my way to see a lifer when it is reported on the birders' hotline
Because I just don't see the point*
Someone will post a picture
Then a bunch of other people will too

*Apart from meeting other people who share your weird hobby
Which may be the point of a lot of things
So, okay.

In any case the Say's Phoebe was on the birder's hotline
And was really close to the outlet mall where members of my family like to shop
Which is also where the planes land on top of you
Which is pretty cool
The heavies from Asia and Europe
So I went

Plus I've always loved phoebes
The Eastern, nesting under the eaves of our cottage back home
The Black I got to know in California
I could complete my phoebe set

I met a birder at the site
From his binos I knew he knew where it was
His instructions were perfect


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 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

Thursday, May 11, 2017


A friend said, "There's a raptor nest visible from the road. It would be good to know what kind it is."
Subtext is the province is widening the road because they want to put a stupid TEN-lane bridge onto our island and need somewhere for TEN lanes of traffic to hang out before the clog-up at the four-lane bridge at the other side of the island.

The nest-thing was fine with me.  Get away from a keyboard and tromp around in the woods for a while.

The woods are far from pristine.  The understory is mostly a tangle of invasive blackberry that will happily kill you with a million punctures. 

We could see the nest from a distance, and scrabbled a circuitous path to the base of the tree, a tall but not impressively old cottonwood.

We craned our necks, raised our binos.  50 feet up.  No heads, adult or baby.  The nest seemed empty. It was too small, too enclosed  for an eagle,  It was too large for a Cooper's Hawk.  Red-tail was the probable owner.

"Or a Great-horned," I said.  They use old nests.  "But they should be fledged by now."

There was fresh white-wash (poop) on the ferns and blackberries circling the tree,  We started searching for pellets.  There were hemlock branches extending into the upchuck radius that could have deflected the pellets away from the trunk.  I skirted wider, and found, sadly, this.

I had a hard time mentally assembling it.  The head is upper right.  It's a baby Great-horned Owl, an owlet, starting to fledge.  Note the blue shafts of the pin feathers, lower right.

It was days dead.  I shifted it a bit so that the talons were visible. 

We have no idea how this one died. Siblicide is rare in Great-horneds, I have since read.  We had mixed emotions, contentment in figuring out the ownership of the nest, and sadness over a dead owlet.

We walked back to the car, a different route.  We couldn't possibly retrace our steps through the blood-letting blackberries.  We came across a log decorated with slime mold doo-dads. Life from death, death from life, a smelly, prickly circle, ugly and beautiful.