The Final Blow

Photo by June Hunter

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.

Photo by June Hunter

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

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?

Northern Flicker in Nest

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.

Photo by June Hunter

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.

Sleeping Raccoon

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.

 

For background on the history of this project and the neighbourhood campaign against it see Notre Dame Neighbours, in particular the timeline of events that led us here.

Urban Nature Is Fragile

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.

It was on this campus that I spotted migrating mountain bluebirds this spring, and where I had my wonderful conversations with a raven.

The white crowned sparrows and finches like to bathe in puddles and feed on seeds from grass growing in currently fallow areas. 

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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.

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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.

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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?

 

See part two of this blog, coming soon, for a less heartbroken, and more pragmatic, view of this issue.

For more information on community response to the proposed Notre Dame Stadium, see the Notre Dame Neighbours website.