Spring is here and migratory birds have begun to arrive. This is a great time to get out and see them. Some species have flown all the way from Central America and Mexico. Migratory Bird Week is your opportunity to get to know more about them. The City of Vancouver and several partner organizations interested in birds are putting on walks in many local parks, talks at the Vancouver Library and more. You can see the times and places by going to the Stanley Park Ecology Society web site. I will be at the proclamation at the Stanley Park heron colony by the Park Board Office on May 4 and speaking on ‘Society of Crows’ at the main library in the evening of May 11. This talk has proved to be very popular with audiences. It delves into the intelligence of crows with some amusing stories, explores their nesting behaviour and thieving ways, and ends with the rush hour exodus of thousands of crows from Vancouver to an evening roost.
On January 1, 2013 my family assembled around our dining room table to celebrate the first First Day Feast. What is a First Day Feast? On one day of the year – in our case, it was the first day of the year and hence the name – we decided that we would have a feast made up entirely of locally sourced food. We chose the region referred to as the Salish Sea to establish the boundaries. The Salish Sea is the collective waterbodies known as the Strait of Georgia in BC, Puget Sound in Washington, and Juan de Fuca Strait shared by both BC and Washington. The land in the watershed of the Salish Sea and the ocean are more or less a single large ecosystem.
The idea of a feast was to focus our attention on the value of land, ocean and rivers as a source of food and to its diversity of wildlife. What better way to appreciate the region than through a feast literally rooted in the land.
Setting out to have a feast of only locally sourced food took careful planning. No spices are locally grown so we had to improvise or choose dishes with other ingredients. We were pleasantly surprised to find sea salt from Vancouver Island. Honey was used for sweetening, beef and flour came from wheat grown in the Fraser Valley, wine and balsamic vinegar came from the Gulf Islands, and vegetables were from local farms and greenhouses. We were pleasantly surprised by how much food is locally sourced around Vancouver which reflects the productivity of the soil and ocean. The challenge of the First Day Feast to come up with dishes that do not require distant sourced ingredients. One solution is to search for recipes that fit the local source rule but another fun idea would be to come up with entirely new food that would be unique to the region.
Before the dinner began, I unveiled a large number 1 lit with Christmas lights. We spoke about where each food came from as we dug into the feast. We thought how much easier it would be to find food in the summer and so we are considering a feast from food all gathered while on bicycles. But that is for later. We plan to celebrate the First Day Feast each year on January 1. Maybe you might join in too.
Vancouver Harbour is well known for its birds. Seaducks and gulls occur in large numbers in winter, and herons and cormorants are common breeding species. The harbour is considered an Important Bird Area because of its birdlife.
We took our boat through the harbour this week to look for birds. There were the usual large numbers of surf scoters, Barrows and common goldeneyes, glaucous-winged and mew gulls. Red-throated loons and common murres were in English Bay and large flocks of scoters on Spanish Banks. What surprises me on these winter trips is the large numbers found in the busy port of Vancouver. Large numbers occur on Spanish Banks and around portions of Stanley Park but there are also large numbers inside the port amidst freighters and near grain terminals. There are places where a few western grebes can often be found, and where a large raft of scaup reside, and gulls feed on mussels at many locations.
The next trip will be into Indian Arm to survey birds the length of this fjord. Once these surveys are over, we hope to move to Howe Sound to add to our surveys of other parts of the Salish Sea, with the purpose of producing an atlas.
It was over two decades ago that Jim Darling and Andrew Trites while traveling on a bus discussed the concept of a symposium for anyone interested in marine mammals in British Columbia. They thought at that time that the growing popularity of marine mammals among researchers, whale watching and ecotour companies, the Vancouver Aquarium and the general public warranted a regular session to learn and speak on the topic. With a legacy from a family in Victoria to the West Coast Whale Research Foundation (now Pacific WildLife Foundation), the first Marine Mammal Symposium was born. Two decades on, and the symposium has grown from about 35 people in the first year to over 120 people this past weekend.
I found the symposium inspiring from all the enthusiasm in the room. There were graduate students and professors, whale watching guides and owners, ecotour operators and naturalists, Vancouver Aquarium donors, biologists and interpreters, non-profit organizations, and several people from the Pacific WildLife Foundation including PWLF Fellow Andrew Trites and Associate Kate Keogh who have organized the event with students and staff at the UBC Aquatic Ecosystems Research Laboratory for many years. Thanks to UBC and Andrew’s team, the event has now reached the ripe old age of 20 years.
Dr. Trites organizes the symposium so that there are many speakers on diverse talks. Some of the talks this year dwelled on topics such as hybridization in harbour porpoises, fin whale occurrence in BC, entanglement occurrences, echolocation, diseases, stranding response and sighting networks, energetics of sea lions and fur seals, diet, a new skeleton project, and seals and sea lions at the Vancouver Aquarium. The symposium is also a social event where anyone interested in marine mammals can mingle among colleagues and friends. Next year’s event will be held in November at UBC. We will have details on our web site.
We get requests from around the world at Pacific WildLife for information, advice, and much more. These requests include advice on stories for documentary films, science collaborations and advice, and education information. We try to respond promptly to everyone between carrying out our own projects.
The other day, we received letters from about 30 students at an elementary school in Australia. They were intrigued about the blue whale. What I found particularly fun was that most of the students drew a whale on their letter. I contacted their teacher to ask if I could include them on our blog which she has agreed. Take a look at the budding artists from Australia. Maybe some of them will become young marine biologists pursuing a career researching blue whales. Thanks to all the kids who sent us their art work. We will be in touch soon.
Yesterday we took the boat into Boundary Bay south of Vancouver to look for gray whales. None were seen but we did see about 20 eared grebes near the Canada US border. Each spring, eared grebes migrate through the Gulf Islands but I was not aware that they visited Boundary Bay too. You might be able to see them through a telescope on the high points of land on Point Roberts but most were far out to sea. There is also several hundred long-tailed ducks and surf scoters in the bay.
The Salish Sea is a recent name change to the coastal waters near Vancouver and Seattle. These waters historically held whales, seals and sea lions that were hunted or persecuted. A change in attitude brought about a change in how we viewed these animals and slowly they began to respond. Harbor seals were among the first to bounce back. Current estimates put their numbers along the BC coast at about 150,000 animals. Sea lions also started to become more numerous and not too long ago, elephant seals began to breed on Race Rocks near Victoria. Humpback whales are now a regular occurrence in parts of the Salish Sea and gray whales are showing up in places where they were seldom seen, such as Vancouver Harbour. Larry Pynn, journalist for the Vancouver Sun, summarized the recovery of many of these species in todays’s (April 14) edition.
The return of marine mammals to coastal waters is what the Pacific WildLife Foundation has been pointing out for a few years as a good news story. We have worked for a long time on some of these species documenting the individuals return over the years. Our records date back over three decades. Nevertheless, we are humbled by the fact that we can not say definitively why the recovery took place, although we have some ideas. The mere abundance of these animals underscores how little we really understand about the ecology of the ocean and why we need to carry on conducting objective research.