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 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.
I know I haven’t written about my crow neighbours for quite a while. There are a couple of reasons, apart from the distraction of Edgar and the Cabin Fever series.
One: I have just SO MANY images and stories filling up my brain and computer, I’m having a hard time knowing where to start. But, since it’s also time to start thinking about the 2021 City Crow Calendar, it’s time for a dive into Crowlandia.
Two: it is nesting season, which fills me with a certain level of anxiety. Like most of us, I already have a bit of an anxiety surfeit, so I was trying to keep a slight emotional distance from the rough and tumble of the bird reproductive season.
But I know it’s hopeless, I can’t stop myself from getting invested in the drama.
I’ll start with a bit of an account of Marvin and Mavis’s nesting season so far. I worry especially about these two as they are my regular visitors and, over the past years, I’ve seen them lose three seasons’ worth of fledglings — to racoons, falling-out-of-tree mishaps and bald eagles.
Marvin and Mavis’s nest, May 2019
For the last two springs, they built their nests high in the Notre Dame poplars.
While those trees have the advantage of height and protection from ground predators, they are also a favourite buffet for the local eagles and hawks. All of the local crows seem to have come to the same conclusion, as I haven’t seen any of them building nests there this spring, although they’re still popular with smaller birds.
Marvin and Mavis got an early start on this year’s nest building back in March, choosing a nice dense pine tree. I’m not sure what went wrong with that project, but by April they were real estate shopping again.
They turned their attention to the dark red-leaved plum trees on our street, which offer great camouflage for dark coloured birds. A couple of problems arose there.
First of all, Mabel and her mate got an earlier start, with their substantial nest all finished in another plum tree weeks ago. With the added advantage of two youngsters born last year hanging around as nest helpers, they’ve been able to wage war on Marvin and Mavis whenever they start a new building project.
Marvin and Mavis warding off a Mabel clan raid from our roof.
On the lookout for incoming raiders
Marvin and Mavis persevered, however, and managed to start a nice looking nest in one plum tree at the far end of the block from Mabel and co.
While it’s wonderful that many people, forced by the pandemic to slow down and stay close to home, have started appreciating their bird neighbours in a new way, it’s also true that it’s given people more time to become very particular about their gardens. Unfortunately for our intrepid couple, the humans whose house they were building in front of decided they did not want to experience the thrill of a crow’s nest so close to them, and started to knock the partly built nest out of the tree. I did try my best friendly Crow Evangelist pitch to get them to leave it alone, and I thought I’d made some progress, but by the next day the nest that Marvin and Mavis had started rebuilding was gone again, so I guess not.
Having read the writing on the wall, M & M selected another plum tree. This is where they are now — trying to be very quiet as it’s rather too close for comfort to Mabel’s nest. Luckily, all of the crows now seem to have entered the “witness protection” phase of the nesting season where they’re all just trying to be invisible from any potential predators.
Mavis checking out the view from the new nest.
Fingers crossed for them this year. I don’t think they have eggs in there yet as both of them have been coming to the house to visit several times a day — for pep talks and some peanuts.
I’m trying not to draw too much attention to their nest as they try to keep a low profile, and hoping that things go well from now on. Fingers crossed for some little Marvins and Mavises this year, even as I try not to get my nerves too jangled at every twist and turn of the nesting tale. I’ll keep you posted …
When we left our happy Northern Flicker couple in last week’s post, they were making great progress with their plum tree nest building. Much sawdust had been mined and the pair were looking pretty pleased with themselves.
I check their progress every time I walk the dog so imagine my surprise when I witnessed a full-scale, no-holds-barred battle taking place between the resident flicker and a starling.
For all the flicker’s size advantage, the starling had pure street fighting instinct going for it. When they finally broke apart, a flicker feather spiralled slowly down through the morning air and into my hand.
The flickers flew back to the nest while the starling pair continued to make fierce calls from the other branches in the tree. Surely, I thought, the flickers must have the advantage here, being so much bigger and on home territory. But …
Once the female flicker had driven the starling off she and the invader both flew over to the neighbour’s fence. The flicker took the opportunity to catch her breath. The starling took the time to perform what looked very much like a starling war ritual, puffing out his feathers, making angry chattering calls and taking out a bit of aggression on a yew hedge before heading back into the fray …
The fight continued for several more minutes. And it was fierce. Somehow the starling got inside the nest and the male flicker tried to keep him trapped in there — unsuccessfully.
Eventually they took a break. Many flicker feathers had floated to the ground. Geordie, the dog, was looking worried that this morning’s walk would never actually get going.
Somewhat reluctantly on my part, we went for our walk. On the way home we, of course, stopped to check in at the state of play at the flicker nest. I fully expected to see the original owners back in control, but …
It seemed that new tenants had moved in and, not only that, they were redecorating to suit …
The Northern Flickers were nursing their wounds and their bruised pride on a neighbour’s roof, hammering out their frustration on the metal chimney.
It looked as if the small but scrappy starlings had won!
But, in the Game of Nests, it’s never over till it’s over … so stay tuned for the next instalment.
Sometimes you need to listen as well as to look to know what’s going on in the neighbourhood.
This was the first sign that new tenants had moved into the ornamental plum tree on our street (one tree down from the current chickadee nest.)
The dog stopped to check his social media messages at the base of the tree and, while we were standing there, I noticed that soft tap, tap, tapping, almost lost in the traffic, construction and other urban sounds.
I had a strong suspicion that I knew who was working on this building job and, sure enough …
… the contractor popped his head out of the other end of the tunnel to see who was stopping by to admire the craftsmanship. I assured him he was doing an excellent job and we moved on.
On the return leg of the dog walk I noticed more work in progress.
The female flicker has been doing her share of digging too. You can tell them apart by the red “moustache” on the male.
After a week or more of hewing and spitting out wood chips, the new home owners were looking somewhat tired, but pleased with their efforts.
However, it can be a very competitive housing market here in Vancouver …
Stayed tuned for the next dramatic instalment of Flicker Nesting 2019 for a tense tale featuring elements of municipal density issues … and, yes, Game of Thrones.