Sat, June 6: An email arrives from the school — “tree work” will start next week.
Surely not? It’s nesting season!!! Sun, June 7: We write to the school to ask how they plan to do this “tree work” without disturbing nesting birds. Mon, June8: A reply from the school:
With regards to the status of the existing trees, which are addressed within our Building Permits and requirements, our landscape architects have a registered biologist currently conducting a review of the existing trees to be removed to confirm if there are any birds currently nesting in the trees. This is a provincial requirement based on the Wildlife Act and is standard throughout BC for construction happening on treed sites between the months of March and August. There are a range of requirements that need to be met to consider a nest “active” and the biologist assesses the trees for these requirements. If nesting is present the biologist will provide guidelines for how to treat the nest and what timelines are required to ensure the Act is met. There are strict protocols that we have to follow and these are being adhered to.
June 9-10: A frantic series of calls are made to City Hall to see how this could happen. Attempts are made to find out who to contact at Environment Canada as this seems contrary to federal rules.
I write my blog post about how a nest count seems unfeasible and send it, and an accompanying letter, to Vancouver Mayor and Council.
June 10: We hear that the school-hired biologist’s report has been submitted, stating that, in all of those 23 trees there is just a single White Crowned sparrow nest, so while some trees will be spared (the nest tree and some buffer trees) until June 23, pending another nest inspection, the rest can be cut immediately.
We don’t even know what the biologist’s report contained for sure, as it’s not publicly available. Incredibly, we were informed that a Freedom of Information request has to be submitted and processed, something that takes weeks or months, before we can see it.
June 11: (only 3 working days after the email warning of “tree work” arrived) most of the trees are gone. Not enough time or information to mount a fight to save them just until nesting season was over — and I can’t help but think this was part of the strategy.
The biologist who wrote the report was not present on the work site.
There were a host of community safely issues with the work site that had to be reported to City Hall, which I won’t go into here as that’s a whole other story — but speed over safety seemed to be the order of the day.
June 12: I receive an email from Mr. Sadhu Johnson, Vancouver’s City Manager, detailing how all the legal i’s and t’s were dotted and crossed, to make this cutting permit legally watertight from the City’s point of view.
Fallen poplars. Look how sound the wood looks.
This huge end tree was not noted as a nest site by the school’s biologist — but I heard white crowned sparrows in there every morning this spring.
This Spring, with many of us forced to stay close to home and contemplate an uncertain future, one of the great consolations has been watching our local birds. We’ve taken comfort in observing them going about their natural seasonal business, even as the human world turned on its axis.
Baby bushtit feeding time
The incredibly constructed bushtit nest — moss, leaves, lichen and spider webs for stretchiness.
The nesting season timing has meant that — some of us for the first time in our lives — have closely observed the hope and the drama inherent in the process; the careful strategy of site selection, the tireless work of collecting twigs, followed by soft materials for a cosy lining. In a somewhat quieter world, we’ve been better able to hear the fierce and beautiful territorial songs. “Stay away from this tree! This tree is my tree! I am a fearsome warrior house finch! Trespassers beware!”
Nesting and fledgling young is a brave and precarious avian mission every year. There’s so much that can go wrong: stolen eggs; fallen hatchlings; predators; window strikes by novice flyers. We cheer to ourselves when we see the clumsy fledglings finally out of the nest and begging for food, experiencing that small vicarious thrill of victory over circumstance that makes the day a little brighter.
And, what can we do for them, in return for the joy they bring to us?
Well, surely here in Canada our birds are at least protected during nesting season by our Migratory Birds Act?
And certainly, Vancouver (Greenest City 2020 with its very own Bird Strategy must be especially diligent in this area?
Naively, I’d have thought so until one week ago today — when a work crew arrived and felled most of the Notre Dame poplars at the height of nesting season. We knew the trees were destined to go at some time, since the City gave permission for Notre Dame School’s artificial turf facility and tree removal last year, but it honestly never occurred to me that they would come for the trees at peak nesting time.
Apparently we love our birds in Vancouver, as long as they don’t get in the way. Even during nesting season.
Confused White Crowned Sparrow at Notre Dame, June 12
But cut them they did, the very day after I posted my last blog post arguing against it. Today most of the Notre Dame poplars are now stumps.
While I’m still in shock, I’m thinking of ways to move forward with what I’ve learned over this last week and a bit.
My goals now are:
to share what I learned through this process in case it can help others in the future
to have the remaining ten poplar trees left alone until nesting season is over.
According to the Migratory Bird Act of 1994, it seems as if most birds in Canada are protected from disturbance during nesting season.
That’s what the Act says. That’s what I thought was the law, and judging by the many people who commented on my blog and my social media last week, that’s what most Canadians think. But, apparently, we’re all wrong!
Last week offered a master class on how developers and construction crew routinely get around the Act … with a little help from City Hall. If you’d like to see a timeline and some pictures of how things unfolded here last week, see Chainsaw Timeline.
So that was last week. This week, I’m trying to look forward.
1. Going Forward — Big Picture
What did I learn since last week? Well, obviously the first thing was — I shouldn’t be so naive and optimistic about the legal protections offered to Canadian wildlife.
Second, at least now I know that the best government department to contact in this situation is the enforcement branch of Environment Canada, as they are ultimately responsible for enforcing the migratory bird convention act. However, you do have to go through the national number — 1-800-668-6767 — to reach someone.
Robin on some tree debris, June 14.
I finally did get in touch with an actual Wildlife Canada enforcement officer to report the situation, although not until most of the trees were down. He said his department would look into the matter and I’m waiting to hear back from him.
I also made contact with the President of the Wild Bird Trust of British Columbia, which oversees the Maplewood Flats Bird Sanctuary in North Vancouver. He wrote the following powerful letter on our behalf, sent it to various people and Vancouver City Hall, and kindly gave me permission to reprint it here.
The Wild Bird Trust of BC is seriously concerned with the removal of mature trees in the height of nesting season which surround the Notre Dame high school in East Vancouver.
Given the serious optics of skimming past or minimizing contravention of the Migratory Bird Convention Act (1994) we would like to understand how only a nominal pair of nests was identified in this significant urban green space. Given the Greenest City objectives and the COV’s commitment to transparency (as well as in support of food faith and building and repairing trusting relationships in communities) information concerning the trees removal should be made immediately available to the Notre Dame Neighbours Committee. Such information would be a scientific report provided by Notre Dame’s contracted biologist which was used by the City to green light mature poplar trees being removed at the height of nesting season. The Wild Bird Trust of BC is also interested to review the report submitted to the City.
We are concerned that local residents organizing to protect nesting birds would be required by the City to pursue an FOI to access a biologists report which was sent to the City to justify the actions. Treating this information as confidential is totally against the spirit of transparency, and the Greenest City objectives of promoting citizen engagement with its principles.
It is our request that no further trees be removed until the report is made public, outside of any FOI process, and that the City not approve the removal of mature trees in nesting season without (at the very least) providing transparency in decision making.
President, Wild Bird Trust of BC
I’ve spent a lot of time this week looking into the whole issue of how trees and birds are protected (or not) during nesting season. I’ve spoken to a lot of experts in the subject and learned quite a bit. For example, my intuitive mistrust of the whole “nest count” concept, as outlined in the last blog post, is backed up in the Government of Canada’s own Guidelines to Reducing Risks to Migratory Birds. Nest counts, which the school letter seemed to indicate were being employed, are not considered best practice in all cases, although, we can’t actually know exactly what methodology was used, as the report is being kept hidden from public view, pending our Freedom of Information request.
A term I’d never heard before is “incidental take.” This, it turns out, is what has happened here and it’s a hot topic amongst biologists, environmentalists, government of various levels and industry and real estate stake holders.
A hundred years ago, on August 16, 1916, the Migratory Birds Convention was signed by Canada and the USA. The Convention was implemented in Canada by the Migratory Birds Convention Act (the MBCA). In 1980, a clause was added to the regulations under the MBCA which prohibits the destruction, disturbance, or take of nests and eggs. This prohibition – often referred to as “incidental take’ – applies even if the activity which causes the harm is not directed at the nest or egg and is otherwise legal. In the period after 1980 the prohibition was largely overlooked in economic practices and by regulators, and incidental take was widespread. However, in recent years there has been an increase in awareness (and enforcement) of the prohibitions, and consequent requirements to address it in Environmental Protection Plans and Environmental Assessment Certificate requirements.
It seems that there are a lot of inconsistencies and grey areas between what is laid out in the federal protections for birds and what happens closer to reality. When the Vancouver City Arborist receives a biologist’s all clear, it seems that’s all that’s needed to get a permit and start those chainsaws. It seems to me, and others, that there are many problems with this system: convenient for builders; fatal for birds.
So, if birds have been a source of joy and comfort for you in these trying times, you might want return the favour by dropping your local, provincial or federal representatives a quick line on this topic.
Journalists who have written stories about our increased love for birds during the pandemic might want to follow up on this thread.
2. Save the Remaining Poplars
Just one of the surviving poplars. Imagine trying to visually determine how many nests are in one of these, let alone a row of 23.
Ten trees were left as a buffer around the white crowned sparrow nest the biologist reported seeing. I am convinced there were nests scattered throughout the whole stand of trees and that they all should have been left.
It was tragic to see birds of various species examining the logged tree area in the days after the cutting.
Juvenile House finches on the construction fence the day after the trees were removed.
Even these ten poplars are not safe until the end of nesting season — only reprieved until June 23 when the biologist will return for another nest assessment. If they’re declared “nest free” the City will issue yet another cut permit and they’ll be down later that day or the next.
Even if the young sparrows in the current nests have fledged, many species of local birds make a second nest in a single season. I’m already seeing white crowned sparrows only feet from the poplars collecting material for that second nest.
White Crowned Sparrow with Nest Lining
I am therefore asking Notre Dame School and the City of Vancouver to release the initial biologist’s report to the public and leave these ten remaining trees to fulfil their role as a nest site for one last season. Given that it’s really impossible to see who’s living up there, the birds deserve the benefit of the doubt this time.
How You Can Help
If you’d like to get in touch with your City Representatives — either on the BIG PICTURE matter of issuing cutting permits in nesting season and how nests are counted, or the SMALL PICTURE issue of saving the ten surviving poplars for a few more weeks, here is their contact information.
I promised myself I was done being angry about the removal of the Notre Dame poplars. It’s been a year since the City granted permission for Notre Dame School to go ahead with their artificial turf stadium and remove the trees, so I’ve had twelve months to prepare. I did feel prepared.
But now they’re taking the trees down during nesting season!!!
I would have thought this would be a clear and hard “no” from the City permit people, since the Migratory Bird Convention Act (1994) makes it illegal to disturb the nests of breeding native birds. To my horror, it seems it’s pretty easy to get around this.
It was only this Saturday we received an email from the school to let us know that they plan to start work in the next couple of weeks, beginning with “tree work.” They had already hired a “registered biologist” to assess the presence of nesting birds.
Apparently the biologist submitted his report to the City Arborist yesterday and the cutting permit (valid for only 48 hours) has been given. We can expect the cutting to begin any moment.
The biologist did find a couple of small nests in the lower branches of two trees, so they will be omitted from the falling for a few weeks pending further inspection. If we wish to see the actual report, we need to submit a Freedom of Information Request.
The thing is, I’m certain there are FAR MORE than a couple of low nests in all 20+ of those tall poplars.
Right now, finding a small nest in those trees would be like a game of 3-D moving Where’s Waldo, in which Waldo is not wearing a striped sweater and red hat, and is actively trying to remain hidden.
The trees are up to 70 feet tall and currently covered in a dense and dancing canopy of leaves. Here, in some rather bad video camera work, I pan down just one of the trees, using a zoom lens. The aim is to give you an idea of how hard it would be to spot an individual small nest.
Why do I think there are nests in those trees?
While I’m not a registered biologist, I have lived next to these trees for 29 years, and spend countless hours closely watching the trees and the local birds.
In years gone by it’s been easy to spot crows’ nests — partly because of their larger size, but mainly because they get a very early start, before the leaves are out.
Marvin and Mavis, spring 2019
Ironically, there are no crows’ nests in the poplars this spring. Perhaps it’s because they were smart enough to read the City permit signs last year! More likely, it’s because there were too many hungry bald eagles using the poplars as a baby crow buffet.
I am, however, sure that the poplars ARE currently hosting many other smaller birds’ nests right now.
For example, one small ornamental plum tree in front of our house is currently hosting a bushtit and a Northern Flicker nest. If there are at least two nests in that one tiny tree, how many could we estimate to be in the spacious poplars?
The poplars could accommodate nests of many species, from cavity nesters like the flickers, downy woodpeckers and black capped chickadees to other birds like bushtits, sparrows and robins.
This white crowned sparrow flew out of the poplars this morning and landed on the school fence. His, coincidentally, is one of the nests the biologist found in the lower branches. Northern Flickers and other species’ nests would be much higher up and really hard, if not impossible to spot.
I’d have thought that much better way to assess how many nests are likely in the poplars would be to look at the local and current range of bird species,* and look at the nesting potential in the poplars and make a fair occupancy estimate from that.
Unfortunately, that’s not the way things are to go, so I am waiting here, tensed for the sound of chainsaws.
Like this baby house finch in my garden, I’m a bit beyond words at this point.
Raccoon snoozing in the poplars in happier days.
*Bird species currently in our immediate neighbourhood: Robins, Anna’s Hummingbird, White Crowned Sparrows, Song sparrows, Golden Crowned Sparrows, Black Capped Chickadees, Juncoes, Bushtits, Northern Flickers, Downy Woodpeckers, Wilsons’s Warblers, Violet Green Swallows, Crows, House Finches, Goldfinches, Pine Siskins … these are the ones I can think of just off the top of my head.
Thankfully, he is no longer the bedraggled bird he was at peak moulting season last year. He got back to being a handsome, if unremarkable looking, crow by late fall.
Last spring I was away in the UK for the month of June, so I missed a lot of nesting season. For whatever reason, Mr. and Mrs. Pants produced no offspring in 2019, so I’ve been keeping a special eye on their progress this spring.
They had a rather trying fall and winter last year, with territorial trouble on their southern border from the Walker family. While Mr. and Mrs. P had no surviving babies last year, the Walkers did, and their need for more food and their numerical advantage led to bold and frequent incursions into Pantsland.
Both of the Pants couple spent most of their time with eyes scouring the sky for invading forces and they were very jumpy and seemed … if it is possible to discern this in crows … stressed out.
Mrs. Pants on guard
Mr. Pants keeping a wary eye on things from above
Mr Pants employing full tail regalia to defend his territory.
Now that nesting season is well underway, all the crows are keeping a lower profile and things have at last quietened on the contested border.
Mr. Pants takes a relaxed moment to pose with wisteria.
As I mentioned in the last post, Small News, many crows are choosing small street trees as nesting sites of late. While they’re closer to the ground and the risk of predation by racoons, cats, squirrels etc. they’re less likely to be raided by large birds like ravens, hawks and eagles — which seems to be an increasing risk as these birds gain a firmer foothold in the city.
The Pants have long favoured the small tree option and this year is no exception.
I spotted Mrs Pants last week sitting in their nest in quite small street tree — a crabapple of some sort, I think, and the same type of tree they chose two years ago. Fortunately they seem to have selected a healthier specimen this time, as the spring 2018 tree shed a lot of leaves in spring, leaving poor Mrs. P baking in the sun or thoroughly soaked, depending on the day, and not particularly well hidden. Even then, they did successfully fledge two little ones that year, although, sadly neither made it past the first few months. One just disappeared early on and the other succumbed to avian pox.
Being an urban nature enthusiast involves, as I learn anew every year, witnessing a lot of tragedy and well as joy.
Mrs. Pants on the nest this morning
Still, like the crows, we consider each day a new start, and each nesting season a potential bonanza of good news, so fingers crossed for the Pantses and all the other birds putting their all into the nesting business this spring.
I walk around the neighbourhood several times a day during nesting season, checking in on the crow news — taking photos and making mental notes of how things are with the various crow families I’ve become acquainted with over the years.
At this point I’ve got so many crow-notes stuffed into my head, I’m not sure where to start unpacking them.
Rather than trying to cram all the news into one post, I think I’ll go one crow family at a time, starting with the Pants family in the next post.
First though, I have to tell you about this morning’s drama.
We’ve had nesting bald eagles in the neighbourhood for years, so all through each nesting season the eagle parents scour the area for baby eagle food, always followed by a loud and angry crow posse. This morning I happened to catch some of the action from relatively close quarters when the eagle landed in the school grounds at the end of the block.
The crows, backed up by screeching gulls, seemed even more loud and frantic than usual.
So impassioned, in fact, you can see one crow in the video below whacking the sitting eagle hard enough to cause it to fly off.
The reason they were so mad? It looked as if the eagle had scooped an entire crow’s nest right out of a tree. You can see a glimpse of the nest in the video below.
In the end, the eagle dropped most of the nest, although there was something still gripped in its claws as it flew off.
The eagle population is part of the reason the crows are changing their nesting habits.
Local ornithology expert, Rob Butler, who spoke about crows last weekend on local CBC Radio show, North by Northwest, mentioned this change: crows who had previously chosen high nest sites for protection against ground based predators (raccoons, cats, coyotes) are now picking spots in lower, less eagle-accessible trees — even selecting quite small street trees they calculate will be awkward for raccoons to scale.
I’ve certainly noticed that our local crows have rejected the once-coveted penthouse suites in the Notre Dame poplars this year in favour of much lower and more camouflaged trees. Marvin and Mavis have picked such a low, mid-street location for the nest this year, it would be quite the drama if the eagle swooped that low.
If you think being dive-bombed by a crow is exciting …!
The Pants crow family, who I’ll be looking at next time, have long been fans of the low-rise nest building solution and we’ll have a look at what they’re up to this spring.