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:
Since September, I’ve done a lot of writing. Probably more writing than I’ve done since my long ago thesis on Anglo-Saxon poetry.
I’ve been writing letters … so many letters … to Vancouver City Council and staff.
They’ve been rather boring letters, full of carefully researched references to building permits, footnotes and traffic management plans. Petition wording, schematic views and the endless argument for community consultation.
Google map view of Notre Dame School. and surrounding area. Green = proposed artificial turf stadium: Red = new parking lot
In summary, the issue is this: In 2004-5 Notre Dame School (located at the end of our street) revealed plans for a new campus, including a sports stadium and the removal of perimeter trees. Local residents were relatively happy about the new buildings, but very much opposed to the sports stadium and tree removal. We rallied to state our opposition and in 2006 a compromise was reached when the school agreed to build a grass practice field instead of the stadium, and to keep the trees. In 2008 they received a building permit for this. The buildings were finished a few years ago, but the sports field construction did not start. In September we found out, purely by accident, that, in January of this year, the school had submitted a request for a minor amendment to the 2008 building permit to the City of Vancouver. The amendment would allow a sunken, full-sized artificial turf games field with stadium seating, and necessitate the removal of the trees on the west side of the site. Neither the school nor the City informed the local community of this change. We have been writing letters asking that this change not be allowed as a minor amendment, but require a new building permit, which would then create the opportunity for community input. Two months in, and we haven’t received any meaningful response from the City, the school, or the Archdiocese which overlooks the school.
Most of my official stadium-related correspondence with City Hall has centred on classic topics like street safety, traffic, parking and noise. All valid and very real concerns for our neighbourhood.
But now I’m taking some time to write an open letter straight from the heart on an even bigger subject — the one that really keeps me awake at night.
Dear City of Vancouver,
Welcome new mayor and council members. You are a politically diverse group and I hope you’ll be creative and collaborative in your decision making, and will do the City of Vancouver proud over the next few years.
This morning I was listening to the radio and heard an interview with someone from the University of BC Forestry Department talking about a project called Citizen Cool Kits — an initiative encouraging neighbourhoods to come together and hatch ideas to lower their carbon footprint — all in a community-based effort to combat climate change. An important aspect of this is the maintenance and enhancement of the “urban forest”.
It’s a great idea, right? A positive approach to climate change challenges, very suited to a city that prides itself on being green and progressive.
But then I think about the school’s stadium plan, which the City seems poised to endorse. It could hardly be any more contrary to the idea of being collaborative, or climate and environment friendly.
What we have currently at Notre Dame School, from a neighbourhood point of view, are some quite spiffy looking new buildings, a rutted parking lot, a pile of rubble that has waist high grass has grown over it, and rows of tall Lombardy poplar trees on the north, east and west sides of the campus. It’s not exactly a beautiful site (or sight) but the trees do form a visual curtain and create a towering habitat for many bird species, from ravens to bushtits.
In an area woefully under-served by parks or green space of any kind, those trees have been, for as long as I’ve lived here (27 years) served as a low footprint vertical park space. Green poster-children for densification. When there aren’t many leaves, the stand of poplars is like a giant shadow puppet theatre, starring a huge and varied cast of birds and animals.
And this year, in April, Mountain Bluebirds – yes, Mountain Bluebirds! – spent a weekend at the school feasting on the smorgasbord of bugs living in the overgrown grass on the rubble pile before continuing on their journey north.
Male Mountain Bluebird on the chainlink fence at Notre Dame School.
Literally, a bluebird of happiness on a shoulder
A raven often visits the dilapidated parts of the school campus, resting on the parking lot fence or perching in the poplar branches, peacefully ignoring the inevitable crow harassment. His call cuts through the urban sounds of traffic and construction noise like a clear bell reminding us of the mountains and forests just a few miles away.
Environmentally, it’s alive. The trees and the grassy wasteland are doing their bit to capture carbon and host living things.
True, it’s not particularly attractive at the moment, and it’s certainly not doing the students at the school much good as they run around the school on the sidewalk or up to the local park for exercise and sports practice.
It would be wonderful to see them have an attractive sports field, as laid out in the 2008 permit.
Sports are an important part of the school curriculum, but surely there are other things that children need to experience and learn in school. Environmental studies? Ethics? Poetry? At my high school I loved the treed area by the grass hockey field and my best friend and I would read aloud to each other there at lunch breaks. Once a nerd, always a nerd.
If the school built a grass practice field as they agreed, it would save them millions of dollars over the cost of a fancy stadium. The trees could be saved and some of the savings could go into creating a border of native shrubs and grasses, encouraging the Mountain Bluebirds to visit every year. More fabulous educational possibilities – tracking the migratory path of the bluebird, exploring the challenges that climate change and human activity are posing for them on their journey, researching what could be added to the school grounds to make it an even more inviting stop over spot for them.
UBC’s Citizen Cool Kit also offers a great potential project for students to explore how the school could make their grounds as green as possible. They could map where Hastings Creek runs under the school and imagine the land they’re standing on as it was a hundred years ago. Who lived there? What did it look like? Ecology class could lead field trips on their very own campus!
If they go ahead with the sunken, artificial turf stadium, none of this will be possible.
First, the poplar trees will be doomed because the sunken field will run right up to the property line, and the root damage caused by such close proximity to a steep drop would make them unstable. City bylaws require that other trees replace those removed, but what tree of any size could grow atop an 8 foot retaining wall?
And don’t get me started on artificial turf! The City of Vancouver seems to love the stuff at the moment, especially as an “easy” answer for low maintenance sports facilities.
I covered a lot of my concerns about artificial turf in my early blog post, the cheerily titled Environmental Dead Zone — so I’ll just refer you to that. Be sure to check out the links at the bottom of the post for even more reading.
Urban nature is pretty tough, but it’s far from invincible. It needs some help in the form of creative thinking by planners, developers and politicians to thrive.
If the stadium plan goes ahead, I fear that there will far less birdsong in the neighbourhood. An absence of ravens, certainly no mountain bluebirds.
I imagine the crows will find reasons to stick around, if only to steal fast food wrappers dropped by stadium attendees and to laugh at our human folly.
My previous post was more of a sentimental ode to the patch of scrappy urban nature that may soon be gone.
This one is bit more pragmatic — and a plea to any readers who know of research or information that would support the preservation of a few more fragments of wildlife habitat and green space.
As a young couple, struggling to make it the Vancouver housing market, Marvin and Mavis worry that their nesting site is going to be gentrified into oblivion.
The school that plans to fell the trees and install the artificial turf stadium is a private one and they own the land. They are quite entitled to have a sports facility for their students, of course, and we would love to see a field installed for the kids. We wish, though, that they could be content with a natural grass field. One that would allow a bit of nature, including the poplars, to co-exist with their sports needs.
In fact, this is a conversation that local residents had with the school over ten years ago, and was something we’d thought settled to everyone’s satisfaction when they submitted plans for a grass field in back in 2008.
Now we’ve learned that an amendment to the permit was submitted at the beginning of this year, with no notice to local residents. It’s come as bit of a shock.
The crows have held some ad hoc protest groups already …
If we want to keep a tenuous (and precious) thread to the natural world intact in our cities, we need to make a few compromises.
Marzluff offers ten commandments for small compromises we city dwellers can make in order eke out just enough habitat for our wild neighbours to survive, and maybe even thrive.
Needless to say, cutting down stands of trees and laying down artificial turf are not on his list of suggestions.
Marzluff writes eloquently about why the effort to make space for nature in our urban lives is worthwhile and vital:
“Experience shapes our ethics and actions. If experience no longer includes nature, then our ethics cannot reflect the full needs of our natural world. Our interaction with nature is reciprocal — as we affect it, it affects us. Strengthening our place in the city’s ecological web builds resilience to change and allows us to co-exist with a wonderful diversity of life. Cutting our ties to the web is like cutting the belay line climbers rely upon as they stretch for a distant handhold. As we stretch to live within a rapidly changing world, are we ready to gamble on an unprotected, solo climb?”
While high school students need sports and exercise as part of a well-rounded education, surely ecology and ethics should also be on the curriculum.
I am hoping that the school will be convinced to let the trees remain because of their importance to the shelter, breeding, and feeding for local birds, as well as for their simple beauty.
Mavis ponders life without the Notre Dame poplars
I never thought I’d find myself writing in favour of grass fields, but I also hope that the school and the City will give the artificial turf choice a hard second look. While large grass areas do have many environmental problems — their water water and pesticide consumption being the most obvious — I’m not sure we should replacing grass sports fields with artificial turf without some serious consideration.
The artificial turf “solution” may turn out to be one of those “it seemed like a good idea at the time” sort of things. Some of the articles I’ve read on the pros and cons of artificial turf are listed below.*
This battle is going on in almost every city around the globe. It’s a rather unequal contest between urban development, and quieter voices trying to save some little bits of nature within the sprawl.
To return to Joni Mitchell’s words, “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”
Even if you don’t fully realize that your day is made a little more sane by the distant sound of birdsong, or the antics of a crow on the power lines, I’m pretty sure you would notice a silence and an absence.
I am filled with sadness every time I look out of my window lately.
We have lived here for 27 years and my favourite view has always been of the row of Lombardy poplars fringing the private school at the end of our block. In the fall it is golden, in the winter and early spring it’s a shadow puppet show of bird life. From ravens to tiny bushtits — the branches are full of bird activity all year round.
When the wind blows, the trees make a sound like rushing river.
Urban nature can be tough and tenacious. Dandelions forcing their way to the light through tarmac. Moss or rust overwhelming almost any surface, given time.
But urban nature is so very fragile in the face of human decision-making.
The school has not had a sports field for over ten years, since they redeveloped the site. We’ve been expecting a field to go in at any time over those years, and local residents are looking forward to the project being finished and seeing the students with somewhere to play and exercise.
But now we are realizing that they are not just going to build a field — they have plans for a sports stadium — complete with artificial turf and (most likely) the removal of the beloved poplars.
The neighbours are upset for many reasons — mostly the noise, traffic and parking headaches that the stadium will bring.
I’m anxious about those things too — but what makes me truly heartsick is the idea of converting that little bit of urban nature into an environmental desert.
If the trees do come down, the City of Vancouver will require that some new trees are planted to replace them — but they won’t be anywhere near the stature of the existing stand of poplars.
The entire rest of the school campus will be covered with building, parking lot, and plastic grass.
The white crowned sparrows and finches like to bathe in puddles and feed on seeds from grass growing in currently fallow areas.
Northern flickers, I’ve noticed, love to watch the sun rise from the tops of the poplars.
I watched the whole unfolding drama of two crow families building and tending nests in those same trees from March to July.
Nature in the city is a delicate balance.
It’s not as if they’re really taking paradise and putting up a parking lot.
You couldn’t really call it paradise — a big, rutted parking area with weeds around the edges and a big patch of free-growing grass left from when an old wing of the school was torn down years ago.
But it has actually been paradise to those birds. They don’t really ask for much.
And, in terms of putting up a parking lot — there will be a new parking lot — but that parking lot will probably be marginally more environmentally friendly than the artificial turf football field — an ocean of sterile plastic grass that will fill almost every square remaining inch of the campus.
So, yes — every time I look out of my window now, I’m sad as I wonder how many more times I’ll see the sun and moon rise behind those branches, and I ask myself where the birds will be nesting next spring?
Some days just don’t go as planned, but in a good way.
Today, for example, I had a number of studio tasks set out for the morning, all of which seemed very important — until the crows started going bonkers outside.
I always try to go see what the crows are on about.
It’s usually something interesting — sometimes it’s just a cat, but often a skunk, racoon or, occasionally, a coyote or two.
This morning’s furor was in the katsura tree right in front of our house. I opened the front door to see what was up, and instantly found myself caught in the hypnotic gaze of a beautiful barred owl.
Well, good morning!
Work rule number one is that when there’s an urban nature event unfolding, it rockets to the top of the to-do list. Everything else has to wait. Tiles remain unfinished, web sites, neglected.
Today that rule DEFINITELY applied.
The katsura tree was full of crows from near and far, all voicing their displeasure at the owl. Even a young Northern Flicker was joining in the scolding. You can hear him in this video.
This next video gives a cool look at the owl’s blinking mechanism – the nictitating membrane that makes the eye look blue, and then the fluffy feathered eyelids. He was also making a little beak movement when blinking. So amazing!
For about half an hour the crows, with occasional flicker input, continued their furious show. Gradually most left, leaving only the paint-splattered crow that currently considers the tree “his” and his mate. Eventually even they grew weary and flew off for a rest.
It’s a rare sight to see an owl in daylight. They’re usually sleeping off a busy night of rodent hunting. It does happen though. A couple of years ago I was lucky enough to see a similar sight outside of the Vancouver Art Gallery, right in the downtown core. I wrote a blog (Owls, Crows, Rooks and Poetry) about that day too.
But this time he was right in front of my own house. What an amazing treat.
He was there all day, so I was able to spend hours watching him. Neighbours came out to watch too. Our owl was a bit of a local celebrity for the day.
Sometimes the owl would fluff up his feathers if he felt the crows were getting too bold.
But no crow with an ounce of sense would get too close to these feet. Owls are one of the reasons that thousands of crows fly every night to Still Creek, seeking nocturnal safety in numbers.
In this photo, the owl looks for all the world like a character from a Harry Potter novel.
Gradually the crow posse seemed to forget about the owl all together.
Most of the afternoon was peaceful enough to allow a bit of a beauty sleep catch-up.
It’s late afternoon now and he’s still snoozing out there. I expect he’ll be there until dusk and then it will be hunting time again.
For me, I’ve spent the majority of the day photographing him, sorting out photos and writing this blog. That’s OK though, because that’s really the most important part of my “job.”
Every time I close my eyes, I see his eyes looking back at me.
I expect I’ll have owl dreams tonight.
See what happened at the end of this amazing day in the next post, Night Owl.