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.
This Spring, with many of us forced to stay close to home and contemplate an uncertain future, one of the great consolations has been watching our local birds. We’ve taken comfort in observing them going about their natural seasonal business, even as the human world turned on its axis.
Baby bushtit feeding time
The incredibly constructed bushtit nest — moss, leaves, lichen and spider webs for stretchiness.
The nesting season timing has meant that — some of us for the first time in our lives — have closely observed the hope and the drama inherent in the process; the careful strategy of site selection, the tireless work of collecting twigs, followed by soft materials for a cosy lining. In a somewhat quieter world, we’ve been better able to hear the fierce and beautiful territorial songs. “Stay away from this tree! This tree is my tree! I am a fearsome warrior house finch! Trespassers beware!”
Nesting and fledgling young is a brave and precarious avian mission every year. There’s so much that can go wrong: stolen eggs; fallen hatchlings; predators; window strikes by novice flyers. We cheer to ourselves when we see the clumsy fledglings finally out of the nest and begging for food, experiencing that small vicarious thrill of victory over circumstance that makes the day a little brighter.
And, what can we do for them, in return for the joy they bring to us?
Well, surely here in Canada our birds are at least protected during nesting season by our Migratory Birds Act?
And certainly, Vancouver (Greenest City 2020 with its very own Bird Strategy must be especially diligent in this area?
Naively, I’d have thought so until one week ago today — when a work crew arrived and felled most of the Notre Dame poplars at the height of nesting season. We knew the trees were destined to go at some time, since the City gave permission for Notre Dame School’s artificial turf facility and tree removal last year, but it honestly never occurred to me that they would come for the trees at peak nesting time.
Apparently we love our birds in Vancouver, as long as they don’t get in the way. Even during nesting season.
Confused White Crowned Sparrow at Notre Dame, June 12
But cut them they did, the very day after I posted my last blog post arguing against it. Today most of the Notre Dame poplars are now stumps.
While I’m still in shock, I’m thinking of ways to move forward with what I’ve learned over this last week and a bit.
My goals now are:
to share what I learned through this process in case it can help others in the future
to have the remaining ten poplar trees left alone until nesting season is over.
According to the Migratory Bird Act of 1994, it seems as if most birds in Canada are protected from disturbance during nesting season.
That’s what the Act says. That’s what I thought was the law, and judging by the many people who commented on my blog and my social media last week, that’s what most Canadians think. But, apparently, we’re all wrong!
Last week offered a master class on how developers and construction crew routinely get around the Act … with a little help from City Hall. If you’d like to see a timeline and some pictures of how things unfolded here last week, see Chainsaw Timeline.
So that was last week. This week, I’m trying to look forward.
1. Going Forward — Big Picture
What did I learn since last week? Well, obviously the first thing was — I shouldn’t be so naive and optimistic about the legal protections offered to Canadian wildlife.
Second, at least now I know that the best government department to contact in this situation is the enforcement branch of Environment Canada, as they are ultimately responsible for enforcing the migratory bird convention act. However, you do have to go through the national number — 1-800-668-6767 — to reach someone.
Robin on some tree debris, June 14.
I finally did get in touch with an actual Wildlife Canada enforcement officer to report the situation, although not until most of the trees were down. He said his department would look into the matter and I’m waiting to hear back from him.
I also made contact with the President of the Wild Bird Trust of British Columbia, which oversees the Maplewood Flats Bird Sanctuary in North Vancouver. He wrote the following powerful letter on our behalf, sent it to various people and Vancouver City Hall, and kindly gave me permission to reprint it here.
The Wild Bird Trust of BC is seriously concerned with the removal of mature trees in the height of nesting season which surround the Notre Dame high school in East Vancouver.
Given the serious optics of skimming past or minimizing contravention of the Migratory Bird Convention Act (1994) we would like to understand how only a nominal pair of nests was identified in this significant urban green space. Given the Greenest City objectives and the COV’s commitment to transparency (as well as in support of food faith and building and repairing trusting relationships in communities) information concerning the trees removal should be made immediately available to the Notre Dame Neighbours Committee. Such information would be a scientific report provided by Notre Dame’s contracted biologist which was used by the City to green light mature poplar trees being removed at the height of nesting season. The Wild Bird Trust of BC is also interested to review the report submitted to the City.
We are concerned that local residents organizing to protect nesting birds would be required by the City to pursue an FOI to access a biologists report which was sent to the City to justify the actions. Treating this information as confidential is totally against the spirit of transparency, and the Greenest City objectives of promoting citizen engagement with its principles.
It is our request that no further trees be removed until the report is made public, outside of any FOI process, and that the City not approve the removal of mature trees in nesting season without (at the very least) providing transparency in decision making.
President, Wild Bird Trust of BC
I’ve spent a lot of time this week looking into the whole issue of how trees and birds are protected (or not) during nesting season. I’ve spoken to a lot of experts in the subject and learned quite a bit. For example, my intuitive mistrust of the whole “nest count” concept, as outlined in the last blog post, is backed up in the Government of Canada’s own Guidelines to Reducing Risks to Migratory Birds. Nest counts, which the school letter seemed to indicate were being employed, are not considered best practice in all cases, although, we can’t actually know exactly what methodology was used, as the report is being kept hidden from public view, pending our Freedom of Information request.
A term I’d never heard before is “incidental take.” This, it turns out, is what has happened here and it’s a hot topic amongst biologists, environmentalists, government of various levels and industry and real estate stake holders.
A hundred years ago, on August 16, 1916, the Migratory Birds Convention was signed by Canada and the USA. The Convention was implemented in Canada by the Migratory Birds Convention Act (the MBCA). In 1980, a clause was added to the regulations under the MBCA which prohibits the destruction, disturbance, or take of nests and eggs. This prohibition – often referred to as “incidental take’ – applies even if the activity which causes the harm is not directed at the nest or egg and is otherwise legal. In the period after 1980 the prohibition was largely overlooked in economic practices and by regulators, and incidental take was widespread. However, in recent years there has been an increase in awareness (and enforcement) of the prohibitions, and consequent requirements to address it in Environmental Protection Plans and Environmental Assessment Certificate requirements.
It seems that there are a lot of inconsistencies and grey areas between what is laid out in the federal protections for birds and what happens closer to reality. When the Vancouver City Arborist receives a biologist’s all clear, it seems that’s all that’s needed to get a permit and start those chainsaws. It seems to me, and others, that there are many problems with this system: convenient for builders; fatal for birds.
So, if birds have been a source of joy and comfort for you in these trying times, you might want return the favour by dropping your local, provincial or federal representatives a quick line on this topic.
Journalists who have written stories about our increased love for birds during the pandemic might want to follow up on this thread.
2. Save the Remaining Poplars
Just one of the surviving poplars. Imagine trying to visually determine how many nests are in one of these, let alone a row of 23.
Ten trees were left as a buffer around the white crowned sparrow nest the biologist reported seeing. I am convinced there were nests scattered throughout the whole stand of trees and that they all should have been left.
It was tragic to see birds of various species examining the logged tree area in the days after the cutting.
Juvenile House finches on the construction fence the day after the trees were removed.
Even these ten poplars are not safe until the end of nesting season — only reprieved until June 23 when the biologist will return for another nest assessment. If they’re declared “nest free” the City will issue yet another cut permit and they’ll be down later that day or the next.
Even if the young sparrows in the current nests have fledged, many species of local birds make a second nest in a single season. I’m already seeing white crowned sparrows only feet from the poplars collecting material for that second nest.
White Crowned Sparrow with Nest Lining
I am therefore asking Notre Dame School and the City of Vancouver to release the initial biologist’s report to the public and leave these ten remaining trees to fulfil their role as a nest site for one last season. Given that it’s really impossible to see who’s living up there, the birds deserve the benefit of the doubt this time.
How You Can Help
If you’d like to get in touch with your City Representatives — either on the BIG PICTURE matter of issuing cutting permits in nesting season and how nests are counted, or the SMALL PICTURE issue of saving the ten surviving poplars for a few more weeks, here is their contact information.
I 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.
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!