Being Adept at Adapting

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.

Their small corner of the world has changed beyond all recognition since early summer, when construction of the sunken artificial turf sports facility for Notre Dame School got underway. For a glimpse of what used to be there, here’s a post from 2018.

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 …

 

 

 

 

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Chainsaw Timeline

From First Notice to Chainsaws in 5 Days

Notre Dame Poplars on Kaslo Street

Before …

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, June 8: 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, June 12

Fallen poplars. Look how sound the wood looks.

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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.

after pano

After.

 

For, reaction, what I learned from this process and where I’d like to go next see Conditional Bird Love.

 

For more background see the Notre Dame Neighbours web site.

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.

Huge Thanks!

Believe me, Marvin, we’d all like to know …

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!

Environmental Dead Zone

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.

Mavis and Marvin

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.

One of my favourite resources on this topic is John Marzluff’s book, Subirdia.

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 Sept 22-18

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.

Eric in Poplars

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See my previous post: Urban Nature is Fragile

Follow for news of community actionNotre Dame Neighbours

*SOME ARTICLES ABOUT PROS AND CONS OF ARTIFICIAL TURF

Government of Western Australia: Broader Environmental Considerations: Chapter 7 of the Natural Grass vs Synthetic Turf Surfaces Study Final Report.

The Conversation: Why artificial turf may truly be bad for kids

Mom’s Team, The Trusted Source for Sports Parents — Turf Wars: the Pros and Cons of Artificial Turf

Mike Ozanian, How Taxpayers Get Fooled On The Cost Of An Artificial Turf Field

Huffington Post:  Artificial Grass May Save Water, But Does It Endanger People?

The Guardian:  Growth in artificial lawns poses threat to British wildlife, conservationists warn