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.
“Explore your own neighbourhood,” advises our provincial premier, John Horgan for this long weekend in British Columbia. We’re all being asked to stay relatively close to home to limit the spread of COVID-19. So, much as I long for the forest and mountains after weeks and months confined to the city, I decided have some fun and set myself a real Urban Nature Enthusiast challenge.
Geordie and I heading out on our urban nature safari.
We headed out to one of the least promising-looking locations, nature-wise, in our East Vancouver neighbourhood.
Our destination was the old Grandview Hydro Substation located at the noisy intersection of First Avenue and Nanaimo Street. This cavernous space is a perennially popular filming location for the local movie industry. From what I can discover, it was built in 1937 as a substation for the BC Electric Railroad Company to help power the old interurban rail lines that once criss-crossed the city.
As the traffic roared past, Geordie and I scouted around for some interesting moss, lichen or rust. I wasn’t really expecting to find much in the way bird life, but the trilling, whistling sound of many starlings lured me around the corner of the building.
The east side of the substation is covered in a cascade of ivy and, at first, that’s all I could see. It took a few moments before I realized that it was alive with starlings; specifically, fledgling starlings, merrily feasting on the ivy’s dark berries. Very few adult starlings were around, making it seem like a massive starling nursery — a relatively safe place to leave the kids while running errands.
Roll call at the starling nursery school.
Apart from the starling crowd, there were some robins and sparrows also enjoying the dining facilities. Nearby, a pair of crows seemed more focussed on another project.
These two were industriously flying back and forth to a nearby tree with a succession of twigs, mud and grass.
First, some structural stuff …
… and then some soft furnishings …
… finally, some scraps of cedar bark fibres, which crows often use to line the nest for its antimicrobial properties.
I thought that was a pretty good dose of urban nature for a trip to an old substation in a busy traffic area next to a gas station and was about to call it a day when I noticed the swallows.
At first I thought they were just more starlings darting around in the sky, but I could see they were much smaller and more erratic. When one swooped only feet from my head I realized they were Violet Green Swallows!
I tried for quite a while to get a photo of them flying, which is hard enough because of their speed and random direction changes, but just about impossible in an urban area with all the power lines and poles getting in the way of the camera’s focus.
I found the best strategy was to focus on one bird when it stopped on a wire and hope that some others would fly close by. I just had my light “walking” lens with me, so success was limited, but here are few shots of the magical substation swallows.
I grew up in a very industrial part of a northern English town and I spent my childhood playing along the Newcastle quayside, discovering places like this all the time. Forgotten by the grown-ups, slightly dirty, dodgy and dangerous, but full of adventure and new understanding for free range kids. My substation outing reminded me of those days, and the sense of having made small but amazing discoveries.
If you’re looking for something to do, I really suggest setting yourself an urban nature challenge, checking out some new part of your local neighbourhood. It’s important to give it a a few minutes of waiting and watching to see what’s going on in the slightly hidden world of nature in the city. Bring the kids — they love a good expedition and, if it helps, imagine it being narrated by David Attenborough!
A small chickadee making himself heard over the river of traffic.
The Squirrel Buster bird feeder is an ingenious contraption. When anything heavier than a small bird (say, a squirrel for example) lands on the perch to get at the food, their own weight causes little doors to close on all the seed ports. Northern Flickers are also, technically, too heavy to use this feeder but, even though they have a couple of other food options to chose from, they clearly take this a personal affront.
Luckily they have their secret weapon, the mindbogglingly long tongue they keep neatly wrapped around their brain and ready for instant deployment. All woodpeckers have very long tongues, usually with barbed ends for catching prey, but the Northern Flicker has the longest of all of them, and their tongue tip is flattened and comes with extra sticky saliva for collecting the ants that they find so delicious.
So, back to the Squirrel Buster conundrum.
This male Flicker (you can tell by the red “sideburns”) has figured out that by hanging from the perch he can j-u-s-t get his tongue into the the gap at the bottom of the closing door. I was a bit worried he’d get his tongue stuck and we’d have a difficult conversation with the Wildlife Rescue team, but it seems he’s done this before.
Not only did he get the food out quite handily, he managed to also pick up the bits that fell out of the feeder and landed on his belly. This is where the really impressive gymnastics come in.
I’m pretty sure I saw these two, taking a break from digging up ants, exchanging bird feeder foiling tips on my dog walk the other day.
And, just in case you think it’s only the males who have figured this out, here’s a female I saw doing it in back February, so perhaps she passed on the technique to her mate.
Speaking of ingenuity I’ve been scanning the internet for COVID-19 mask making patterns, as it seems that medical advice here in North America is now pivoting in favour of mask-wearing for all to help “flatten the curve”.
So, just in case you’re also thinking about making your own mask, I’ve looked at a few and made a couple of versions for when someone from our family needs to go out for groceries. The one I like best is this one from the University of Minnesota. It seems to have a good fit, and it has a pouch to put replaceable home-made filters in (suggestions for filter material you can find about the house are included in the instructions.)
This gripping tale is a repost from nesting season 2017 … enjoy!
I didn’t realize it was going to turn into a saga, but now I’ve accumulated about a hundred photos of our local Northern Flicker family, chronicling their ups and downs over the last few weeks.
I kept meaning to post some as things unfolded, but it turned into such a roller coaster, I didn’t want to start telling the story until I had an idea of how tragic (one a scale of one to three) the ending would be.
Now the number of images is just out of control. I feel as if I have the makings of a small novel! And, besides, who knows what the conclusion will be in any family’s story?
So here is part one of the Flicker Family album.
It began earlier this summer when I noticed a lot of flicker calling going on all around the house and garden. This handsome fellow was to be seen, with his mate, working away with their beaks at a hole in the plum tree right in front of our house.
Northern Flickers are a type of woodpecker, and quite common in Vancouver. In fact, they were the runners-up in the recent vote to elect an official bird to represent the city. You can tell the males from the females by the dashing red “moustache” at the base of their beaks.
After a few more weeks, strange noises began to come from the tree.
The flicker pair were on ferocious guard at all times. Here’s the dad, holding the fort against a marauding squirrel. The squirrel eventually gave up and snuck away down the far side of the tree trunk.
Below, you can see the female flicker on the lower part of the tree. If you look closely, you can see also the male’s head peeking out from the nest hole further up.
Here’s Mom visiting the feeder in the garden. She was usually in the nest and you can see that her feathers were getting a bit dishevelled in the confined space.
Dad on guard, nest bottom right.
*** PART TWO OF THE FLICKER FAMILY SAGA COMING TOMORROW ***
Meanwhile – in an unrelated Flicker incident, we had the …
FLICKER IN THE STUDIO FIASCO
In late June a neighbour brought me a flicker that she saw hit by a car as she was waiting for a bus on a main street near here. The bird was stunned and in danger of getting hit again, so she and her son braved the pointy beak and picked him up to bring to me. The plan was I’d keep an eye on him and see if he needed to go to the wonderful people at Wildlife Rescue for treatment.
I put him in a covered box and I moved it into the studio to keep warm. But then I noticed that the scrap of towel I’d put in the box to pad it had become a bit unraveled, and a thread was wrapped around the flicker. I tried to carefully untangle it and … of course … the bird got out of the box and suddenly regained his powers of flight.
Part bird, part Swiffer, he scooped up some cobwebs from the skylight.
Understandably scared, he took cover behind just about every counter and work table in the place, then flying up the skylight (and doing a bit of dusting for me as he went.)
Luckily he finally made its way to a window that I could open for him.
Apart from never wanting to be in a studio again, he seemed fine as he soared off in the direction he’d been rescued from.
Ada is only 7 months old, but already one of my most trusted Crow Therapists.
She lifted my mood earlier this year, when I was feeling a bit down about being in a cast, and about world news. Of course, none of us knew back in January that 2020 was only just getting warmed up!
Ada was our 2019 late summer surprise, hatched at the very tail end of the 2019 baby crow season — happy news in a year that saw many nest failures.
I first spotted her on the daily dog walk in mid-August last year, gape still very pink and eyes still blue — hallmarks of a fledgling not long out of the nest.
I was worried that she had so little time to catch up with the other 2019 fledglings to be able to fly to the roost with all the other crows by fall.
Another challenge — she had a touch of avian pox on one foot. You can see the pink spot on the photo below.
Luckily, by December her foot had healed completely, as you see in the next photos, and she was keeping up with her cohort just fine.
She experienced some firsts in late 2019/early 2020.
Her first torrential downpour, which left her less than impressed.
She saw her first snow in January, and seemed to prefer that to rain, overall.
Or perhaps she had just acquired that philosophical attitude towards weather, essential for both crow and human mental health in a Canadian winter.
I’m calling Ada “her” — in this case, with no evidence of her gender. With many of my other local crows, observing them at nesting time has allowed me to see who sits on the nest at incubating time, but with Ada, it’s just a random guess. She could just as easily be a young Adam, but I have a 50% chance of being right.
In any case, she’s a feisty and curious young bird.
She’s still hanging about with her parents, but they’re no longer pampering her when it comes to getting food. When she was young, they would answer her calls for food.
Now it’s every crow for him/herself. If I drop some peanuts for Ada, she’s often shoved aside by Mom and Dad, so she’s learning to be faster and trickier — vitally important crow lessons.
She’s also kindly demonstrated for us the all-important cough into your sleeve/wing technique.
Here is my most recent photo of her, taken on a dog walk earlier this week.
You can see that, for a 7 month old, she’s already acquired lots of crow personality and intelligence. As she edges closer to me you can see in those eyes the subtle risk/benefit calculations being made in real time.
I imagine she’ll be sticking around to help her parents with this spring’s nesting efforts, but after that she’ll probably find a mate and move to a new neighbourhood. I’ll miss her when she goes, but hey — she might end up in your neighbourhood and be your new crow therapist!
Marvin (Mavis is otherwise occupied with nest sitting) and I want to say a huge thank-you to everyone responded to my request last week and wrote letters to Vancouver’s Planning Department and Council. You wrote about the Notre Dame poplars in particular, and the importance of urban nature in general.
Vancouver City staff and council heard from all over North America and from Europe. As Vancouver has an international image as a “green” city, I believe that international comments are fully valid. They also heard from many, many people from Vancouver. They received letters from those who have a personal fondness for this area, and from others who have never seen the site in person, but who are concerned about how inappropriate and environmentally reckless developments seem increasingly able to slip through cracks in the permit and public consultation process.
Many people copied me on the letters they wrote and, wow, what an articulate bunch you are! Heartfelt, lucid and logical – they made for compelling reading and I hope they are being read and pondered as we speak over at City Hall.
On April 18 we also hand-delivered a paper petition gathered from our immediate neighbourhood with 360 signatures to the City Clerk’s Office.
So, what’s next? Well, the fight continues. The City Planning department gave April 19 as the deadline for comments, but we will keep on campaigning regardless.
Our first choice would be that the school give up on the sunken, artificial turf stadium plan and go back to the site-appropriate grass practice field that they already have a permit for, and which they agreed upon with neighbours back in 2006.
Failing that, we feel that the new development must go through a proper development permit, including appropriate studies, advisory panels, real community engagement, and review by Mayor and Council before any permits are issued.
Thanks again for your great response, all the letters and the moral support. Much appreciated by me and the local wildlife!
Mavis and I could really use your help to put in a good word for the Notre Dame poplar trees on Kaslo Street!
Read on for how you can help. Oh, and it has to by tomorrow (April 18) – no pressure. 😉
If you have followed my blog, even for the shortest time, you will know these trees. They’re the setting for many of the bird adventures I photograph and write about. They played a starring role in last week’s Game of Nests, for example.
Marvin and Mavis are in them at this very moment, guarding their new nest.
But there is a strong likelihood that, by next spring’s nesting season, they’ll be gone.
The school on who’s property the poplars stand wants to install a sunken, artificial turf football stadium that, in its current form, would mean the demise of the trees. You may have read my earlier posts about this (see links at end of this post.)
Instead of an unbiased arborist report the school has presented a “Tree Risk Assessment” to the City in support of their plan. This report states the obvious: if a sunken field, 3 metres deep at the foot of the poplars is installed, the roots will be damaged to such an extent they will be at “high risk” of falling. In 2007, a more balanced arborist report found ways in which the trees could be spared by making the field just a little smaller.
To voice your support for giving these lovely trees a FAIR assessment before they’re removed in favour of a synturf stadium, please contact the City of Vancouver Project Facilitator, Andrew Wroblewski and let him know you’d like to see the City find a way to save the trees.
It would be helpful to copy your remarks to Vancouver’s Mayor and Council. You can send them a group email HERE.
If you have already done this because of my requests on social media earlier this week: THANK YOU SO MUCH.
We are running out of time to make a difference. The City Planning Department has set April 19 as the deadline to receive comments on the Notre Dame project. As April 19 is Good Friday, we really only have until THURSDAY, April 18.
Hundreds of local residents have signed a paper petition that we will hand in at City Hall tomorrow. But, even if you don’t live locally, you can speak out on behalf of these beautiful trees.
All we ask is that they be given a fair and unbiased assessment instead of the report based only on what will happen if the roots are fatally compromised.
These trees are an important local landmark. They also provide habitat for many kinds of birds, bugs and animals and are the only green space for miles around in an urban area sorely lacking in natural beauty.
If you’re a regular reader, you may be expecting a whimsical crow story , or perhaps some tongue-in-cheek home décor or fashion advice. This is not that, but don’t worry — normal programming will (as they say) resume shortly. Today I’m writing about something not so funny, but very important to an Urban Nature Enthusiast.
We have a very local problem (as you may have read about in some earlier blog posts) in which a private school in our area plans to remove trees and construct an artificial turf sports facility. The more I look into it and talk to other Vancouver residents, I realize that this hyper-local problem, is symptomatic of larger problems facing urban nature throughout Vancouver.
“Vancouver’s urban forest includes every tree in our city – on streets, in parks, public spaces, and back yards. Our urban forest plays important environmental and social roles: it cleans the air, absorbs rainwater, provides bird habitat, and improves our health and well-being.“
If every tree in Vancouver is part of the Urban Forest strategy, it follows that every effort should be made to retain the 23 mature, full-of-bird-and-bug-life, poplars on Kaslo Street.
I was told by an old-timer in the neighbourhood, who lived opposite the school site, that when the poplars were planted those particular trees were selected because of their prodigious ability to soak up water from the ground. This was important because Notre Dame was, and is, built over Hastings Creek and is also positioned at a low, water-collecting point of the neighbourhood. In the past it was a marsh. It is unknown what effect the removal of the poplars will have on the wetness of the school site, not to mention the surrounding area.
Ensure that every person lives within a 5 minute walk of a park, greenway, or other green space by 2020; restore or enhance 25ha of natural areas between 2010 and 2020.
As you can see from the aerial view below, the area around Notre Dame School (the red dot in the middle) is already very poorly served by green space.
The walk to the nearest park is far longer than five minutes. Many people head to the tiny bit of “greenway” provided by the Notre Dame poplars to walk their dogs, or simply to stroll within the sound of birdsong and the whispering of wind in the leaves. Removal of this tiny strip of green is a big step in the wrong direction for a city aiming to provide its citizens with more green space, and the physical, mental and spiritual well-being it is known to promote.
A sub-set of the Access to Nature Strategy is the Vancouver Bird Strategy in which the City strives to make Vancouver a rich and welcoming year-round habitat for all kinds of native birds. A healthy and diverse population of birds is intended to add to the enjoyment and enrichment of Vancouver residents, and also attract visitors from around the world.
The Kaslo Street poplars provide an important habitat for local birds. Watching the trees for any length of time will reveal a parade of chickadees, juncos, bush tits, northern flickers, crows and robins, and even hawks, ravens and bald eagles making occasional visits. Many birds nest in these trees in the spring time, making use of the security from ground-predators provided by their elevation. In spring, 2018, some migrating mountain bluebirds (rare in this region) used the school as a resting area for a few days on their trip to their summer habitat in northern BC.
A Mountain Bluebird resting at Notre Dame, April 2018.
Vancouver achieved its goal of attracting visitors from around the world last summer when the prestigious meeting of bird scientists (IOC2018) was held here. I met some of those scientists, and we discussed the small things that can make cities bird friendlier. We agreed that areas like the small stand of poplars in my neighbourhood are great examples of small spaces making a big difference within the urban environment. Ironically, this was just couple of weeks before we learned that those very trees were threatened.
Raven in the poplars
Note: The City required that the school have arborist’s inspection done of these poplars. We have to assume that resulting report said that the trees should be removed but, as far as we know, this is only because of the school’s plan to create a ten foot drop-off right at their base of the trees (to accommodate the sunken field) which will render them unstable. We would like to see a second arborist’s report undertaken on the viability of the trees without such drastic excavation.
Instructions on the Notre Dame Field permit issued by the City of Vancouver in 2008. The new plans, part of the “minor amendment,” no longer include this important detail.
Should the project go ahead and the poplars be removed, the city requires that the school replace them with other trees. I am curious to know what trees of any size could thrive on top of a ten foot retaining wall.
The other way in which the Notre Dame proposal seems to be marching away from green city goals is by coating the entire remaining surface of the campus with a combination of artificial turf and parking lot.
Artificial turf can be played on for up to 80 hours a week and does not (normally) need watering. These two advantages seem to have caused a stampede by the Vancouver Park Board (as well as private institutions like Notre Dame School) to install this surface on as many fields as possible to increase playing time.
But there are some very serious disadvantages to artificial turf that really need to considered more closely, including possible adverse heath effects for those using the fields, as well as a variety of environmental problems.
As far as climate change is concerned, it seems a very bad idea — not only for the users of the field but for whole neighbourhoods around the fields.
“Unlike natural grass which has evaporative cooling properties, artificial turf is made of several heat-retaining materials which can significantly increase field surface temperatures, substantially increase air temperatures near fields, and thus contribute to the urban heat island effect in surrounding neighbourhoods. This increases the risk of heat-related health impacts during hot weather events. Widespread use of artificial turf would also make Toronto less resilient to extreme weather events and increase adverse health impacts associated with these events.”
It also seems like a bad idea in terms of meeting the City’s rainwater management plan objectives. The aim is to maximize the amount of permeable surfaces on public and private property in order to cope with increased climate changed-caused rainfall.
Artificial turf is known to be far less permeable than natural grass, and Notre Dame plans to install such a surface in a sunken field, on natural marshland, and over the watercourse of Hastings Creek … I’m not an engineer, of course, but this seems like a high drainage risk.
Artificial Turf Mountain
Part of the Greenest City Action Plan is Zero Waste 2040and I can’t help but wonder where a mountain of worn out artificial turf fits into that.
Artificial turf does not last forever. Its lifespan depends on various factors, from the amount of use, to the quality of the product. But all of it is sure to wear out sooner or later, and then what? Off to the landfill it goes. This Dutch video follows an expired fake grass field to its final resting place at the Artificial Turf Mountain.
Does Vancouver want an Artificial Turf Mountain of its very own by 2040?
Ideals, politics, and competing interests can make uneasy bedfellows. Creativity and ingenuity is required to work in such a scenario.
So here’s a modest proposal.
What if the school were to look at ways in which a grass field could work to meet its sports and exercise needs, and the trees could be saved?
In return for the school being such a good citizen, working with the City to reach its 2020 green goals, the City Park Board could take over maintenance of the Kaslo Poplars, pruning and tending to the trees, and perhaps planting native species grasses and shrubs on the City side of the trees. That way the school would soon have its exercise space, which would please students and parents who have waited so long for a field. They would have a sports area, plus an outdoor classroom area for Environmental Studies classes, providing amenities geared to students with a wide range of interests. The mountain bluebirds might even come back!
The school would gain positive public recognition for making such a wonderful contribution to the City’s green action plan, and the City would gain a small strip of green space to inch them a little towards their 2020 goal of everyone within five minute walk away from a bit of nature in the city.
Or shall we just chop the trees down, carpet everywhere with artificial turf, and call the city green, even if it’s just the uniform emerald of an endless sea of this?
Let’s go with the first idea!
It really doesn’t take a lot of green space to create foothold for nature and birds in the city, to the benefit of all city dwellers — so let’s try and work together to save this tiny oasis before it’s gone.
If you’d like to contact the City of Vancouver to express your opinion on either the specific Notre Dame School issue, or on the expanding use of artificial turf on Vancouver park space, here are few handy addresses: