2020 so far has been pretty tough for many of us, requiring all kinds of adjustment to ever-changing conditions.
Our local corvids sympathize. While free of covid worries (as far as we can tell) — they too have faced a lot of challenges in 2020.
The trees that had provided them with shade, shelter, nesting sites and a navigational landmark for the last 60 years suddenly disappeared in mid-nesting season. The bit of grassy wasteland they used as a refuge and a food source was dug up. The ear splitting racket going on 6 days a week makes it hard for them to hear each others’ calls.
Heartbroken and worried for the local environment as I am, I can’t help smiling when I see the local crow and raven reaction to the situation. I shouldn’t be surprised, as corvids have a long and illustrious history of making silk purses out of the sow’s ears that humans have left them over the centuries.
With no leafy branches to perch on, they sit instead on the construction fence and watch the crazy human shenanigans during the noisy construction hours.
Marvin and Mavis settling in for a new shift.
When, at last, the machines stop beeping, roaring and pounding for the day, the site then becomes a corvid beach resort of sorts.
Yes, that is rather a lot of water. To be expected, as the area once was marshland and has streams running through it, including Hastings Creek.
Some corvid commentary …
One Sunday a couple of ravens even stopped by to check out the “beach” scene.
While it was fun to see the ravens exploring the weird new landscape and drinking at the new “lake,” I can’t help worrying about the safety of the water as a thirst quencher. Part of the area’s history before the school was built was as an unofficial dump site. I see that tanks are now on site to remediate the water, so I’m hoping the crows and ravens haven’t been harmed by drinking and playing in it.
Marvin and Mavis are keeping a very close eye on proceedings — on wet days …
… and hot dry ones …
For now they’re keeping their opinions close to their feathered chests.
Although I rather think they might be muttering amongst themselves …
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.
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.
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: