150 Madness

Birders can carry out some pretty outlandish quests when they put their minds to it. In 2015, Noah Stryker set off on a Big Year to see how many birds he could see before year’s end.  Forty-one countries later he had seen 6,042 of the slightly more than 10,000 species in the world. Years earlier and as a graduate student, my thesis advisor the late Jamie Smith told me how the list of birds heard while on the loo in his field camp on tiny Mandarte Island in British Columbia began to level off. The solution? Cut a window in the side of the outhouse thereby boosting the bird count.

There might seem no justifiable reason to spend my time trying to see 150 species of birds in Vancouver by Canada’s 150th birthday on July 1. And I would have agreed at the outset when on a frozen, ice filled bleak January 1, 2017 I started my quest. Except I had a secret mission.

A few years ago, Vancouver City Council approved a bird strategy developed by the Vancouver Bird Advisory Committee that I chair. Among the aims of the strategy was the enhancement of the city’s native birds. The 150 challenge was an opportunity to see how many birds could be seen within the city limits – with some effort, I might add – and where we could make improvements. Not too surprising was that some species were present in very low numbers. I had to search a long time for a pied-billed grebe – finally located in Beaver Lake and later on Trout Lake. The two pairs might be the only nesting grebes in the city where lakes are few. Similarly, despite large numbers of species of shorebirds on the neighbouring Fraser River delta, the mudflats they prefer are just thin slivers along the Fraser River within the city limits. The city has many trees and there are large tracts of wild forest in Stanley Park and a few other parks. The need for understory is an important feature for birds. Few birds use isolated trees but add several trees, some understory shrubs and a pond, and the bird numbers soar.

Careful planting and siting of green space provides more opportunities for us to share some time with our birds. However, the city can only do so much. Vancouver is fortunate to be located near the Fraser River delta, the ocean, and forested. Birds freely move in and out of the city and we need to not lose sight of the fact that a bird strategy needs to become region wide to ensure continuity.

My tally by mid-April was 108 species. While writing this blog, I got a comment that someone in the Okanagan was at 139 species. The 150 challenge is within their reach. For me, another 50 species is possible, but 35-40 is most likely. I am restricting my count to within the city limits of Vancouver. Spring migration is just gaining steam when the numbers of species should grow. I am daily watching the Rare Bird Alert and eBird for unusual sightings. So far, the tufted duck alluded me (duck 4:me 0). So did the snow bunting and Say’s phoebe but I saw a California scrub jay on the third attempt.

From May 6 to 13 we will be running Bird Week with over 40 events for all levels of birding skills. The bigger event is coming in 2018 when Vancouver hosts the International Ornithological Congress and we launch the first Vancouver International Bird Festival. You can visit the web sites and I will be writing more about these events in subsequent posts, but mark your calendars and plan to visit Vancouver. Hopefully, I will have seen my 150 species by then.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

150 for 150

Canada celebrates its 150th anniversary on July 1, 2017. I enjoy watching birds so I thought I would have some fun by combining my interest in birds with Canada’s celebration.

I am attempting to identify 150 species of birds by July 1 within the city limits of Vancouver – hence the ‘150 for 150’. As of February 24 my tally was 80 species. There are a few wintering species I hope to add to the list before they depart in spring at which time the fun will begin as waves of migrant species pass through the city.

I have restricted my list to the city limits because I could see over 150 species in a few days in the surrounding area of Vancouver. After all, the Fraser River delta just south of the city is one of the country’s best birding locations.

Several friends have jumped in to see if they can tally 150 by 150 in their cities. I also read that Red Deer naturalists are trying to see 150 species in the year. There are no rules except to have fun and get to know our birds.

You can follow the fun on twitter @drrobbutler too.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Over a Century Old Nature Celebration


If my recollection is correct, fifty years ago I participated in my first ever Christmas Bird Count in Vancouver. After a hiatus, I will join the fun again this year. My interest is partly nostalgic and partly joining a century old tradition of celebrating nature.

Birds were the gateway to nature for me as a teenage boy and the Christmas Bird Count was the start a career as an ornithologist. Watching birds also got me thinking about the plight of nature from which the concept of Nature Culture emerged.

My memories of the first count are of counting birds in Stanley Park in a cold easterly wind. We walked the seawall tallying flocks of scoters, goldeneye and gulls before searching for forest birds around Beaver Lake and tallying flocks of gulls going to roost in English Bay at day’s end.

This year, I will take on an area of ocean and upland that will require a boat and car. If the weather is fine, I will abandon the car for a bicycle. I will be posting my fun and frailties during the count on twitter @drrobbutler.

The Christmas Bird Count, now over a century old has stood the test of time and become part of North American culture. The count surpassed 70,000 people a few years ago which is no surprise given the growth in bird related activities in North America. Valued in the billions of dollars, birding is now an important and growing market and an economic reason to preserve nature.

To participate in the Vancouver count, contact Nature Vancouver.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Daylight Saving Feast

On November 6, 2016, most people in North America will turn back their clocks one hour. What a great reminder that the summer harvest is available for a feast. And what a great time to hold a Daylight Saving Feast following the principles of Nature Culture.

The concept is quite simple. All the food in your feast (or as much as possible) is derived from the local environment near to where you live. I reside near Vancouver so my environment is the watershed and the ocean that make up the Salish Sea.

Previous feasts that my family and friends have held following the Nature Culture theme have been an eye opener to how much food was locally available. We have held dinners for a few to over 100 people and everyone had fun. These dinners are a great theme for a fund raiser and galas.

Cooking without spices creates a special challenge but we were surprised that there was locally produced herbs, garlic, honey and sea salt. Here are the ingredients for one of our previous feasts. Readers who are familiar with the region will see that a few of the items came outside the Salish Sea region. Just have fun with whatever you have and let me know how your feast went.


Salmon pate from the Fishery, Salt Spring Island.

Home made crackers


Wine, Garry Oak Pinot Noir from Gulf Islands

Apple Juice from Fruit Guys in Naramata


Roast turkey from JD Farms , Langley

Pemberton Valley Potatoes from Across the Creek Farm, mashed with Avalon Dairy milk

Carrots from Lillooet with honey and butter glaze

Brussels sprouts from Delta, BC with butter and roast hazelnuts

Blueberry garnish: Frozen blueberries from Delta, BC, honey and minced onion


Greens from Local Garden Vancouver Special

Tomatoes if we can find them

Roasted hazelnuts with honey glaze


Apple pie: Apples from Natures First Fruit in Cawston

Other ingredients

Flour from Anita’s Organic Mill in Chilliwack

Honey from Honeyview Farms in Rosedale

Hazelnuts and hazelnut oil from Canadian Hazelnut, Inc., Agassiz

Garlic from Forest Grove, Cariboo

Salt form Vancouver Island Salt Works, Cobble Hill

Fraser Valley butter

Herbs from International Herbs ltd, Surrey

Raspberry vinegar, Sacred Mountain, Salt Spring Island

From our garden, sage, rosemary, onions

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Hollyhock Nature Culture Workshop

From June 29 to July 3, I will lead a workshop on Nature Culture at Hollyhock on Cortes Island, British Columbia. Readers of this blog and those of you who have attended my talks and films know that Nature Culture is an emerging philosophy combining conservation, economics, health, local food movement, art, science and more into a new culture that reconnects to our ancient natural heritage. The waters around Cortes are like a second home. I spent early years as a student and park naturalist studying nature in the region including many months immersed among birds on nearby Mitlenatch Island. It was there that I began to hone my skills as a naturalist and where the kernel of an idea began to emerge that became Nature Culture.

At the Hollyhock workshop, I want to take you on a journey of exploration of the world of nature on Cortes Island. You will begin to explore nature on a personal level while learning about the natural history of the Salish Sea. I have been doing this sort for thing for decades and through my professional career as a senior research scientist amassed a storehouse of information that I will share with you. I also intend to show you some simple steps in getting started sketching in the field, and will read a few excerpts from a new book (more on that later). I might even show you our new film. The experiences will be unique and stimulating.

That is what I offer you. If you care to join the workshop, I ask that you are willing to participate in exploring nature, to think BIG, and to offer to help me develop the concept of Nature Culture.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Land and Nature

Canadians relate closely to freedoms and democracy, quality of life, caring for others and multicultural tolerance and have long viewed environmental issues as a major public concern, according to surveys of our values. National Parks are one of the often cited symbols of Canada. We are proud of the abundance of nature in Canada, yet we have been slow to establish national celebrations of the great natural world we inhabit.

Cultures are defined by traditions, protocols, and ethics reflected in such endeavours as the arts, cuisine, literature, music, language, legends, philosophy, religion, and science. In a Nature Culture, the natural world would be a guiding influence in these endeavours. A compelling reason to adopt a Nature Culture is the discovery of the health and childhood development benefits nature provides. You can read more about the strength of these connections in a review paper by Paul Sandifer and his co-authors. Cecilly Maller and her coauthors call for a rethink of how we design cities because of potential cost savings derived from nature. They wrote “This approach [nature connection] offers not only an augmentation of existing health promotion and prevention activities, but provides the basis for a socio-ecological approach to public health that incorporates environmental sustainability”.

These conclusions are beginning to shed a new light on the role of land conservation. For over a century now, conservation in North America has focussed largely on saving species and habitats. The approach varied on how much human activity was tolerated, but the philosophy remained firmly on the priority of preservation of nature. There was good reason to do so for imperilled species and ecosystems and where species were sensitive in their lifecycle such as at nursery and migration areas. Although conservation activities often spoke to the importance of nature to people, nature was seldom viewed as essential to the society. Despite environment being an ongoing concern, Canadians gave only about 2% of total donations to environmental causes, according to Charity Intelligence Canada. The evidence for benefits from nature to humans alone should be a rallying call for conservation.

In a Nature Culture, the preservation of species and habitats becomes part of the cultural fabric. Sustainability is vital to the continuity of the culture. The loss of nature in a Nature Culture takes on special meaning because not only are species and their habitats lost but the culture too. The Nature Culture focus shifts from preservation for nature’s sake to preservation of nature for the sake of the culture.

This difference might seem academic but in practice, it is anything but moot. In a Nature Culture, some places would justifiably remain off limits or have limited human access in order to sustain species or ecosystems. Other protected areas might provide for human use with certain caveats to ensure sustainability. Several conservation applications fit this premise. British Columbia’s Ecological Reserves program restricts access to reserves to preserve representative species and ecosystems. Parks fit the example of areas with limited human activities and they allude to a cultural connection. For example, Canada’s National Park’s web site says:

National parks protect natural environments representative of Canada’s natural heritage. ….Each provides a haven, not only for plants and animals, but also for the human spirit.” The goal is to “establish a system of national parks that represents each of Canada’s distinct natural regions.”

Although there is recognition of humans, there remains a need to connect people with nature as an element of Canadian culture.

If this sounds a lot like what some indigenous people have being saying for a long time, you are correct. Not that long ago, all human societies were closely associated with nature.

Living in Canada with its abundance of nature provides an opportunity for a testing ground to use our science and technology to sustain nature as a foundation of a culture. There is also potential economic growth in nature activities.

There is a germ of a Nature Culture connected to the land already in place in Canada. Where I live in British Columbia Bird Week, the Meadowlark Festival, Brant Festival, Adams River Salmon Run, and Wings over the Rockies are a few examples of opportunities to learn about nature. The Squamish Eagle Festival is especially interesting because of the breadth of the cultural events associated with the return of the eagles. All of these events could be underpinnings of a Nature Culture if they became traditions.




Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Perfect State

Our film, The Perfect State is now finished and available for viewing. You can find the trailer and events at the web site. The film is about reconnecting with nature which was also a theme at the second annual Active Pass Festival held on Galiano Island last weekend. Along with a plethora of events celebrating nature, the arts, science and the people inspired by the natural world, was a banquet of local food. Over 100 people attended the dinner where I spoke on Nature Culture.

I especially like the Active Pass Festival for its focus on Nature Culture and the enthusiasm of islanders to participate in events. The organizers did a great job in putting on a good program and assisting people to get to the venues. Galiano Island is only a ferry ride from Vancouver. Next year, the festival returns to Mayne Island on the opposite shore of Active Pass. I hope to see you there.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment