December 19, 2020

Christmas Bird Count: COVID Edition

 Kathryn has been participating in the Christmas Bird Count in Vancouver for at least the last six years while I have joined her as often as my CPA study schedule has permitted. Naturally, in 2020 the idea of even having separate groups searching an area without crossing over was deemed to high a risk, and the count was cancelled. Luckily, the barriers to entry of walking and counting birds are incredibly low and we did a count by ourselves in our usual area.

One of the highlights was a small flock of red-breasted nuthatches at a small feeder in False Creek. In total we have seen 1 of these birds in all our years in Vancouver and had a total of 5 in our count, which was pretty special.

 Of course, its not just rare birds that are counted. We ended our day with sizeable tallies for crows (220), glaucous-winged gulls (144), Canada geese (138), and even pigeons (188). This little cluster on Granville Island were particularly pleasing to me as they defied human efforts to scare them away from a prime roosting spot with a fake owl.

It's natural to associate hummingbirds with summer and the tropics, but Vancouver is a year-round home to a sizeable population of Anna's Hummingbirds. Despite their tiny size, they are highly territorial birds with a very distinct and audible call so we typically find quite a few of them.

This little male was obligingly perched in Olympic Village, singing his heart out and flashing is iridescent feathers in a stunning display to either scare of competitor males or attract females.

August 22, 2020

Flying over Garibaldi Provincial Park

After the the flight lesson orientation, Captain Dave lead us on an hour long tour of his happy place, Garibaldi Provincial Park. The literal jewel of this park is Garibaldi Lake, which is fed by mountain runoff and stunningly azure, due to suspended particles in the meltwater known as "glacial flour." 

This massive body of water is 1,500m above sea level with depths of up to 250m and held back by a lava dam known as "The Barrier." Captain Dave explained that, should there ever be an earthquake of sufficient magnitude, there is a good chance the natural dam will rupture and the lake will spill into the valley below.

Equally stunning, Table Mountain was a humbling testament to the passage of time and a reminder of the awesome power of the glaciers that once covered North America. Much like Siwash Rock or Devil's Tower, Table Mountain is the igneous funnel of an extinct volcano left behind after the softer sedimentary rock around it wore away.

The top is naturally so flat because its formative eruption took place when the entire area was covered in ice so thick that not even a volcano could impact it. The ice above stopped liquid rock and then ground it flat.

Towering at a height of 2,678 meters, the peak of Mount Garibaldi is an amazing sight from the air. The Sentinel and Sphinx glaciers feed the lake below as they recede a little more each year. Despite global warming, these ice fields remain massive, which fissures hundreds of feet deep and jagged rocks poking through into the clouds at the top, evoking the Antarctica flight from "At the Mountains of Madness."


August 8, 2020

Learning to Fly

I wanted to do something special for Kathryn's birthday this year, so I bought her a flying lesson with Sea to Sky Air, out of the Squamish Valley. The airport in Brackendale is little more than an airstrip, helipad, assortment of fuel tanks, but the area around it is stunningly pretty and well worth the trip.

Our flight was onboard a small Cesna. Made of fiberglass and aluminum, this little four-seater (which the fish eye makes look bigger than it was) was light enough that our captain could pull it out and position it by hand. We had a very informative orientation session, walking around the entire craft and discussing how all of its pieces fit together and work before getting inside.

Covid continues to make everything a little more complicated, but since there were only 3 of us onboard, we were able to mask up and put Kathryn in charge. The plane has two sets of sticks with the rest of the controls in the middle, so she was able to try her hand at everything and could feel how the plane responded to the takeoff and landing (which she was part of but not in charge of)

Strangely enough, on the ground these planes are steered entirely with foot pedals which brake on the left or right to turn the craft, and the sticks are only used during flight.

Some of Kathryn's sea captain experience with currents and navigation was directly applicable to flight. While air is clearly a different medium than water, the fundamentals are similar and some technical controls, such as trim tabs, are comparable in nature between water and aircraft.

We were quickly in the air and soaring over the highway on our way to Garibaldi Park.

July 31, 2020

Paradise on the Coast

 On many of our trips to Telegraph Cove we buzzed past the "Paradise Mini Golf and Fun Park" without time to stop. Mount Washington was a far shorter drive and we had an early start, so there was plenty of time to stop in and play a few rounds while taking in all the obligatory mini golf nonsense landmarks. Giant shoe? Check. Castle. Check. Pirate ship? Check. Orca statue with lurid blue water coming out of the blowhole? Double Check.
 Lighthouse? Check. We have a lot of fun playing mini golf together because neither of us is particularly better than the other or super invested in the score (both factors I believe are the key draw of the sport in general) so we have a goofy time with generous opportunities for do-overs and the occasional fluke hole in one.
 Another key draw to the area were the bumper boats. Kathryn hadn't been whale watching at all in 2020 yet and the ferries were JUUUUUST getting started back up, so she was raring to go out on any kind of watercraft. So keen that she even brought her captains hat for a special photo op to sit and sulk in a tiny putput boat. The actual bumper boats are pretty fun and also feature a water gun which I was not expecting and which shot higher on mine than some, so I got pretty soaked and had trouble returning fire. But, being a glorious summer day, we dried out and warmed up pretty quickly as we got back on our way to the mountains.

July 26, 2020

Vancouver Island Marmots

The main reason behind our Canada Day long weekend getaway (besides to escape Vancouver after 5 months of quarantine) was to spot and photograph the Vancouver Island Marmot. A large ground squirrel, this particular subspecies has a distinctive chocolatey coat and measures about 65cm or so in length.

Living high up in alpine meadows, they hibernate from mid-September to early May in burrows below the frost line. In the few months a year they are awake, they graze on sedges and grasses for a few hours daily and then rest in the sun the rest of the time.

We took several hikes searching for them and eventually managed to spot the one below:
With a little patient creeping forward and a telephoto lens, we were able to get several nice photographs of this individual (#150 judging from the ear tag). Of the 15 species of marmots in the world, these are among the most endangered mammals in the world, due to their concentration entirely on Vancouver Island and several years of over predation (on the one hand, this is a species that we didn't actually hunt or directly wipe out for once, on the other hand, the over predation was doubtless a result of habitat destruction and/or impact on primary prey stocks that WAS a result of human activity.)

The recorded population plunged to as few as 30 animals in 2004 but they are currently a success story, with annual counts of 190-250 in the last few years, due to increased conservation efforts and breeding programs.
Mount Washington is not only one of the primary colonies to these animals, it is also a safe haven where young animals are given a "training year" of living in the wild before potentially being captured and relocated to a more remote area.

The popularity of Mount Washington as a downhill biking destination means that traditional marmot predators such as cougars, wolves, and golden eagles are driven away by steady human presence. This gives fresh releases an opportunity to get the hang of living in the wild without undue risk but still makes it possible to spread the population over several colonies to prevent unexpected problems from wiping the species out.
A higher concentration meant we were able to see a second marmot from the chair lift on the way down on a subsequent hike. This one was a less poised individual, huddle at the side of a bike trail and sitting on his own tail.

May 30, 2020

Laying Kodiak to rest

 With heavy hearts, we finally buried the ashes of our dear friend Kodiak this afternoon. We had put it off for too long and for too many reasons, but at last the day came when it felt right to do it and we could both face the task ahead. The weather was rainy and overcast, which both suited our moods and kept many people at home and dry, leaving us plenty of personal space outside.
 Kodiak passed away in March, a time when the magnolias a beginning to bloom, and we wanted to bury him in a place that would remind us of that season. A rhododendron garden runs up from the banks of lost lagoon and is in nearly perpetual bloom, with many magnolias as well. Two small paw print ornaments mark the spot for our future visits.

We dug a small hole at the base of a tree, said our final farewells, and laid him to rest forever.
I had read a poem by Jim Willis in late 2018 when the idea of Kodiak's mortality was really starting to weigh on us both and it made a fitting farewell to our little guy. The original is clearly about a dog, but captures the grief of losing a pet, so we modified it to suit our situation.

This is where we part, sweet friend,
we loved you to the very end,
gone now from sight, but not from mind,
to new warm spots we know you’ll find. 

We will go on, we'll find the strength,
life's measured quality, not in length.
One long embrace before we leave,
share one last look, before we grieve. 

There will be others, this is true,
but they be they, and you were you.
Your eyes so bright, your fur so black
Our little bear, our Kodiak

Your place we've held, you are so missed,
the fur we stroked, the nose we kissed.
And as we lay you here to rest,
take this with you...we loved you best. 

April 26, 2020

Local but uncommon mammals

Finding the silver lining during this pandemic, working from home gives us both a lot more opportunities to walk around Stanley Park several times a day. Increasing our presence in the area increases our odds of seeing new and interesting animals inside familiar spaces.

Starting off with this mouse. We were walking along the edge of Lost Lagoon and noticed it scurrying along the bank and frequently coming closer to the path to feed. While it was initially quite skittish of the camera shutter, it eventually got used to the noise and came close enough for a few nice pictures. There are at least 15+ species of mice in BC and I have little experience with any of them, so tips on this one's ID are appreciated.
 Stanley Park is also home to 6 if the 16 species of bat in BC and we saw this individual soaring around in broad daylight hunting insects from a small copse of trees near the aquarium. We enjoyed a very pleasant quarter hour or so watching it dart around on its hunt and managed to get a small handful of acceptable photos of it, despite its speed, size, and distance. Again, I don't know bat species well so I am inclined to guess it is a Little Brown Bat, but don't know for certain.
Luckily, we keep this species on our money AND there's only one type on the continent which makes identifying this North American Beaver a bit of a slam dunk. We have looked around the park many times for these guys and had zero luck, but just this past week there have been a pair with a convenient routine of coming out to graze between 5 and 7 most evenings, making them far more accessible for identification.

While it is nice to feel that nature is returning to the area as a result of people being less active in the last few months, beavers have been a regular mammal in the park for years and we have seen gnawed down trees on many of our walks. These beavers have a large lodge in the area, but are unlikely to build a damn. Apparently dams are more of a defense to keep unfrozen areas of deep water accessible to them in winter but since Lost Lagoon rarely freezes at all and never for long, they won't need this particular tactic here.