Tag Archives: environment

Hummingbirds – They’re Almost as ‘Big’ as Africa!

I was out in the garden yesterday

trying to convince plants to grow when I was buzzed by a drone – an exceedingly stealthy one. I didn’t see it, but certainly I heard it, hovering behind my head before making off at speed.

My wife sitting in a nearby lounger was able to make a more realistic observation – I was standing on the flight path of a rufous hummingbird, a creature weighing no more than a spoonful of sugar… it was attempting to visit a bee balm flower. Not quite a drone then, but even the most technically advanced machinery can’t come close to the manouvreability of a hummingbird - this the only bird that can fly backwards due to some fairly unique muscle structures that control the wings… wings that can quickly carry them from a standing start to a top speed of 30 m.p.h.. Right now the brain of a tiny bird easily outstrips anything human technology can achieve, but who knows, maybe one day?

The odd thing about rufous hummingbirds is just how noisy they can be as they fly past you, their wing feathers thrumming loudly as air rushes through them and usually the first indication that the birds are around. They can also be quite vociferous with their repetitive vocal clicking – usually directed at other birds but also sometimes at me, when I’m standing in the wrong place! 

The Cinnamon Hummingbird, Amazilia rutila - hummingbirds are at their most spectacular in flight, but if they just sat around all day, you'd still be thinking 'wow'!
The Cinnamon Hummingbird, Amazilia rutila – hummingbirds are at their most spectacular in flight, but if they just sat around all day, you’d still be thinking ‘wow’!

My most recent hummingbird encounter is one of many; thinking back to earlier wildlife filming trips when I first started coming out to the Americas,  there was hardly a visit when I didn’t see one. Living as I now do in the Vancouver area doesn’t provide a huge hummingbird species count, but I’m just happy to be seeing them right through the year. If I had to make a list of my favourite things, only Africa would get a higher rating, and yes, I do get how odd it is to make a comparison between a large continent and a small bird.

Hummingbirds are a New World species that most likely originated in South America; these ever resourceful birds can now be found as far north as central Alaska, and as far south as the tip of Tierra del Fuego.

A native Zuni hummingbird on yucca flower - New Mexico. Their is a belief amongst Zuni people that hummingbird are bringers of water and a stoppers of time and if you've ever watched a hummingbird feed in flight, that's how it seemss - for a moment time is standing still - the bird stationary in flight with only the wings a blur.
A native Zuni hummingbird on a yucca flower – New Mexico. There is a belief amongst Zuni people that hummingbirds are bringers of water and stoppers of time and if you’ve ever watched a hummingbird feed in flight, there are moments when time appears to stand still – the bird stationary with wings ablur.

When my family and I first arrived in Canada we had only a balcony to attract wildlife and so we put up a bird feeder – a big cedar provided an agreeable background which like so many trees in Canadian gardens was attempting to take over the whole plot. My bird photography was going well, then one day to my surprise a hummingbird showed up and started licking at the peanuts and we responded by putting a hummingbird feeder in place. Soon after a family of Anna’s hummingbirds were regular visitors – there was an adult male, a female and three youngsters… each sibling completely intolerant of the others, aggressively buzzing their brothers or sisters whenever they started to feed. They seemed to have a real attitude problem, but that’s a very human response – all they are really doing is ‘grabbing’ at their best chance of survival.

A young Anna's hummingbird making use of the feeder.
A young Anna’s hummingbird making use of our feeder with red Christmas ribbon getting a second outing tied around the feeder as a visual cue for the birds.

The next year, I’m guessing it was the same pair of adults that showed up again and things went much the same way as they had done the previous year. The fall came and the rufous hummingbirds I had seen feeding in the park moved on, but I left the feeder out for stragglers… and then something interesting happened, the Anna’s hummingbird just kept coming and continued to do so right through the winter and this surprised me.

An immature male Anna's Hummingbird with developing irridescent throat feathers.
An immature male Anna’s Hummingbird with developing irridescent throat feathers.

This never got old -

you’d be washing up on another desperately miserable day, and this beautiful bird would suddenly appear and hover just a few feet infront of your face – eliciting a feel good factor much appreciated in the middle of winter – these seemingly delicate creatures just the other side of a kitchen window in conditions that a human would not so easily deal with if they gave up on the chores and walked out of the back door.

A more recent picture of a female Anna's hummingbird on our garden feeder on 4th. February 2017 when around 14  inches of snow had fallen.
A recent picture of a female Anna’s hummingbird on our garden feeder on the 4th. February 2017 when around 14 inches of snow had fallen.

Early one frosty morning I noticed a hummingbird working the nectar feeder at a really odd angle, and I soon realized that it was cold enough (at about -7ºC) for the sugar water in the container to freeze and make feeding a problem. From then on I would check every morning before doing anything else and thaw out the enegy drink whenever it was necessary. We were soon to move house and my first thought was that we couldn’t leave during the winter because the local hummingbirds had become reliant on the high energy food we were providing.

A wet cold winters day and two hummers shelter under the eave of the roof.
On our balcony the Anna’s hummingbirds that hung out with us through winter would perch under the eaves on and old seed block container to sit out a downpour.

Our winter feeding Anna’s hummingbirds would get a jump start on  potential nesting sites when they moved further north the following spring, and some might travel as far north as Alaska – a neighbour told me that it was proven that hummingbirds hitch a ride on the backs of geese, although I’m not quite sure which nursery rhyme she got that one from! 

A rufous hummingbird.
The record distance travelled by a hummer during migration is presently held by a rufous hummingbird at a little over 3,500 miles. 

Living on the Edge.

A hummingbird can metabolise sugars very quickly making an early morning intake of nectar avaibale as useful energy within about 20 minutes of feeding which is absolutely essential to survival.

It was a surprise to see hummingbirds waiting out winter in difficult conditions at the back of our house and I began to wonder how these little birds managed to survive so many cold nights when it was clear their feathers provided very little insulation.

The answer to this question sounds more like science fiction than science fact: each cold night the birds endure a near death experience; an evolutionary adaptation of their metabolic system which provides them with an extreme solution to an almost insurmountable problem.

They are able to survive falling temperatures by going into a form of suspended animation which parallels the Zuni claim that hummingbirds can slow down time. For the birds it is as if life is standing still; their existence hanging on a thread as they become hypothermic and go into torpor, with body temperatures dropping well below their active daytime body temperatures which are usually maintained at over 100˚ F.

After a cold night, it takes a while for hummingbirds to come back from the dead, and  they do so by vibrating muscles in a similar manner to a moth or bumblebee generating heat before taking off from a cold start. Then it’s a race to find food; there are no lazy hummingbirds, individuals get busy as soon as their flight muscles will allow and quickly begin searching for food just to stay alive. 

Spectacular in hovering flight a rufous hummingbird.
A rufous hummingbird – spectacular in hovering flight.

Small warm blooded animals have a large surface area in relation to their body mass, which means they lose heat far more quickly than do larger animals; in consequence hummingbirds are continually seeking out  food, living fast food lifestyles without the downside of obesity.  

Hummingbirds are exceptional in many ways:

they can achieve the highest heartbeat of any animal when fully active – at about 500 beats per second; and have the ability to convert sugar into energy far more quickly than any other warm blooded animal with adaptations to the digestive system that allow for rapid absorption of liquid sugars. The gizzard/stomach is comparatively large in relation to the bird’s size and the solution can pass quickly into the hummingbird’s intestine facilitating the generation of energy in a very short space of time. Hummingbirds however cannot survive entirely on the sugary juices provided by flowers and bird feeders, they require proteins gained from searching out invertebrates such as insects and spiders; this is necessary for growth and essential metabolic functions, and especially important during the rearing of offspring.

A hummingbird can metabolise sugars very quickly making an early morning intake of nectar avaibale as useful energy within about 20 minutes of feeding which is absolutely essential to survival.
Hummingbirds can metabolise sugars very quickly converting an early morning intake of nectar into useful energy within about 20 minutes which is essential for their survival.

A Bit Flash

The skin, hair and feathers of most animals are usually made up of pigmented surfaces that absorb some light wavelengths and reflect others which we see as colour.  Hummingbirds also have the advantage of irridescent plumage which is made all the more noticeable with sudden flashes of bright colour. 

At a particular angle or in poor light the irridescent throat of this male Anna's hummingbird is not clearly differentiated.
At a particular angle, or in poor light, the irridescent throat of this male Anna’s hummingbird is not so clearly differentiated.

Irridescent feathers have a different structure from non-iridescent feathers which allows light to be refracted rather than reflected back; the process occurs at different levels in the feather and the light combination results in irridescence – some wavelengths combine and cancel one another out, while others combine and intensify the colours we see. The angle that light hits the feathers and our view point results in us seeing bright flashes of intense colour as the bird moves.

At the correct angle the irridescent feathers produce an intensity of colour around the birds throat which most likely attacts the attention of their partner or a potential mate.
At the correct angle the irridescent feathers produce an intensity of colour around the birds throat that might attact the attention of a partner, or confuse a potential predator.

The great thing about hummingbirds is that you don’t have to go far to see them.

In the summer of 2014 I spent a week photographing rufous hummingbirds coming to feed on bee balm flowers in our local public gardens not far from the house. It was clear that when we had a garden of our own we might easily plant appropriate flowers to attract the birds in, and anybody living in the Americas can do the same.  I noticed the birds had feeding patterns – early in the morning was best if the light was good, because they were eager to get started and the flowers were brimming with nectar. Young birds had recently come off the nest and I had to be quick to get shots of them because the siblings were very competitive over this small patch of food scrapping and chasing one another relentlessly. 

A rufous hummingbird feeding on bee-balm flowers.
A rufous hummingbird feeding on bee balm flowers during the spring of 2014.

Hummingbirds do well feeding in small gardens, but sadly they have to run the gauntlet of urban cats. This isn’t a favourite subject for some cat owners who are in denial about what their cats really get up to once out of doors. Domestic cats kill more hummingbirds in North America than any other predator, and by a large margin so it makes sense for those who wish to attract wild birds into their gardens not to keep one.

Flying between low flowering plants presents a danger to hummingbirds from predators such as cats which are out of all proportion to predator numbers in a natural environment.
Flying between low flowering garden plants, hummingbirds are in danger of predation by cats and they are killed in numbers out of all proportion to predators in a natural environment.

Going South

When we lived in New Zealand I created a native wildlife garden from scratch and it didn’t take long to realise that the key to success in attracting native birds was improved pest control, available nesting sites, and the provision of appropriate food plants. Coming from Europe, nectar feeding birds were a novelty and so we were especially keen to attract in the honeyeaters – these members of the Meliphagidae family which includes tuis and bellbirds, species that were almost non-existent in our garden when we arrived in 2002, but prolific by the time we left in 2010.

This feeding on flax flowers in our New Zealand garden in 2009. Only a few years earlier this had been sheep pasture.
Young tuis feeding on flax flowers in our New Zealand garden in 2009 on what only a few years earlier had been sheep pasture.
Tuis are nectar feeders, great birds, but they don't quite have the aerial majesty of hummingbirds.
Nectar feeding tuis are  great birds, but they don’t quite have the aerial majesty of hummingbirds.

Today, our New Zealand neighbours are woken by a dawn chorus of native birds, something that would have been unthinkable on our bird silent property when we arrived. The native garden not only provides an important energy source in the form of nectar for birds, it also feeds many insects which provide the honeyeaters with their essential proteins – and the same is true for hummingbirds in the Americas.

Planting a rich nectar source in a garden is a no brainer, but it must be done withouth the use of toxic insecticides, which in any case shouldn’t be necessary if a garden is busy with insectivorous birds.

See ‘So Long New Zealand and Thanks for All the Sheep.’


Getting going in the morning isn't such a problem if you live in Mexico!
Getting going in the morning isn’t such a problem if you live in a tropical region of Mexico!

 A recent trip to Mexico provided us with a chance to see a variety of hummingbirds that we never get in Canada, and at the start of the rainy season there was no shortage of opportunities to observe them. With that intention we spent several days in Vallarta Botanical Gardens, a place so packed with flowers, it fulfils an important secondary purpose supplying energy to nectar feeders.

A cinnamon Hummingbird getting angry about someting or other.
A cinnamon hummingbird getting angry with just about anything that came close to him.

Outside of the gardens in the surrounding environment it was possible to see the occasional hummingbird, but in the gardens where there was a super-source of food, there were dozens to be observed through the course of a day with very little effort.

Plain-capped star throat hummingbird Heliomaster constantii photographed in western Mexico.
Plain-capped star throat hummingbird Heliomaster constantii photographed in western Mexico.

 If the loss of natural habitats continues at the present rate, gardens and reserves may provide the best chance of survival for many species of plants and small animals. Certainly hummingbird nesting habitat is rapidly disappearing and although a great garden surrounded by protected woodland and scrub isn’t a longterm solution, until we wake up to the problems of habitat loss and instigate a more harmonious relationship with nature, it is the sort of place that will help and, in the end, may prove essential. 

Vallarta Botanical Gardens - seldom have I felt more comfortable - it was the the beginning of the rainy season busy with my favourite birds - this a broad-billed hummingbird Cynanthus latirostris.
A broad-billed hummingbird, Cynanthus latirostris feeding. 

Seldom have I felt more comfortable than in Vallarta Botanical Gardens at the beginning of the rainy season when it is busy hummingbirds.

A restaurant on the top floor of the visitors centre provides great margaritas and fine Mexican food; it also offers stunning views, not just over the river and surrounding forest, but closer to the balcony rail there are hummingbird feeders that are constantly busy.

One of the hummingbird feeders that never seemed to be short of visitors.
One of the Vallarta Botanical Garden busy hummingbird feeders – this one with perches for lazy hummers – but why fly if you can sit!?
A waiter in the restaurant hand feeds a hummingbird while the bird feeder gets refilled with 'liquid energy'.
A waiter in the restaurant hand feeds a hummingbird while the bird feeder is being refilled with ‘liquid energy’.

One thing I saw in the garden I’d never seen before was hummingbirds feeding on bromeliads. the botanic garden has an extensive collection and it is difficult to know which plant will be getting the next visit. My wife Jen acted as a spotter, which is very considerate with afternoon temperatures pushing past 100ºF.

A cinnamon hummingbird visiting a bromeliad flowering in the garden.
A cinnamon hummingbird visiting a bromeliad flowering in the botanic garden.

On returning to B.C. we quickly discover that there is little change in our local weather since we left, but despite less than ideal conditions, hummingbirds were still visiting our garden flowers.

We moved to our new house in the spring of 2015 and almost before I did anything else I was putting in  plants with flowers attractive to the hummers and it didn’t taken long for rufous hummingbirds to find them – this year the flower count is higher and the rufous are now here feeding on a daily basis. Maybe we will get to stage where we don’t stop whatever we are doing to marvel at their extrordinary beauty and stunning aerial ability… but so far, there seems to be no chance of that happening.


I will continue to take pictures of hummingbirds wherever I see them. If you have local birds that are easily captured on camera then please do the same – keeping a pictorial record of species whenever possible is essential because we can never be certain how much longer they will be with us; even if it were true that every time a hummingbird arrives – time stands still.

With thanks to Vallarta Botanical Gardens. www.vbgardens.org


On a recent visit to Hawaii, I hardly saw any native wildlife, a stark reminder that things haven’t improved since I first came to film for the B.B.C. back in the early 1980s.


Thirty five years ago I made my first visit to Hawaii at a time when travelling to distant tropical islands from the U.K. was considered exotic. In those days, you’d emerge from a plane into the shimmering light and once down the gangway steps walk to the terminal building with the heat of the sun bouncing beneath your feet like a playful pet; and just as you were beginning to appreciate that life was all the better for being here, smiling girls in traditional dress would come out to greet you and place flower leis around your neck.

But things have changed… the sun still shines, but on more recent visits I couldn’t fail to notice that the girls were no longer present – the Honolulu Airport terminal is bigger now, reflecting that there are many more travellers coming to Hawaii and if every visitor was still receiving a traditional floral  greeting, the islands would pretty soon be clean out of flowers.

People still smile though, and the pace of life is slower than many of us are used to; pretty soon you feel relaxed because it’s difficult to find these islands anything other than enchanting, but my first couple of visits were not the magical encounters with paradise that I had imagined – mostly I was filming ten hours a day in a laboratory at the University of Hawaii.  I’d been sent by the B.B.C. to film a variety of tiny creatures and two oddities in particular – both spectacularly unusual carnivorous moth caterpillars.

Anything that has a sensory rear end that alerts to an approaching fly and then flips its front end over backwards to grab the unwitting insect in its jaws in a mere fraction of a second is a real attention grabber, but the little critters are just so small and well camouflaged, that if you didn’t know they were there, they’d might just as easily be  another twig on the tree.

Where else but in Hawaii could you find an insect so clearly associated with feeding on leaves that has switched to eating insects? And not just any insects, in this case Hawaiian fruit flies that have evolved to become spectacularly large, but nevertheless will go down twitching as they are eaten alive.

It doesn't seem likely, but there is is... a moth caterpillar Eupithecia streurophragma feeding on an Hawaiian fruit fly.
It doesn’t seem likely, but there it is… the moth caterpillar Eupithecia streurophragma feeding on an Hawaiian fruit fly.

 Hawaii is an extended chain of islands which has formed over a mid-Pacific hot spot of volcanic activity,  roughly equidistant between Eurasia and the Americas; and to get to either requires an approximate two and a half thousand mile journey either east or west across the Pacific Ocean. It was this creation of land by fire combined with a perfect storm of circumstances that allowed for the evolution of so many unique and unusual lifeforms.

These Islands might be regarded as a natural laboratory for the study of evolution, and if Charles Darwin had landed here rather than on the Galapagos Islands he would have come to similar conclusions about how species evolve when  separated from their relatives on distant mainlands, and even from those isolated on different islands… but Darwin would have needed to be paying attention (clearly one of his strengths), because many of the animals concerned are small invertebrates, such as spiders, insects, crustaceans and molluscs.

Certainly limited numbers of creatures would have made it to the islands to start the evolutionary ball rolling and no large animals were amongst them – other than those that could  swim here – turtles for example, and they never get further than the beach. Consequently no native reptiles, amphibians or mammals ever made it to the islands until their arrival alongside man, either as stowaways or transported intentionally, with frequently disastrous consequences to the native flora and fauna.

Small arthropods such as insects, spiders and crustaceans will most likely have arrived on floating vegetation, the lucky winners hitting this narrow window of opportunity, whilst the majority missed the jackpot and drifted on across the world’s largest ocean to become lost at sea.

The initial arrivals had the advantage of making landfall on uninhabited islands which provided a variety of empty niches ready to move into – and those that managed to adapt to their new circumstances would have radiated out into different habitats to eventually form species that were unique.

The Hawaiian Islands were at one time or other no more than volcanic larva flows and it is no surprise that the wolf spider Lycosa has evolved adaptive colouration to live in what might elsewhere be considered unusual surroundings, in particular larva cinders in desert areas.

The habitats available for life in Hawaii were varied, and included not only forest, grass and wetlands, but also larvae flows, deserts, beaches and caves – all of these would become populated by invertebrates; there is even an small creature (the wekiu bug) that lives at altitude, sucking the juices of insects that have been caught up and preserved in snow and ice to be released many years later as frozen dinners along the thaw line of Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano and the highest point in Hawaii.

A cricket that appears so well camouflaged on larva flow I could just as easily have photographed only the larva flow and then tell you it was there.
A cricket that appears so well camouflaged on larva flow that I could just as easily have photographed only the larva flow and just pretended it was there.

One species peculiar to the Islands is the happy-face spider, which derives its name from an apparently smiling face on the upper side of its abdomen; this tiny spider mostly lives and hunts on the underside of leaves and despite its size is visuality impressive.

The morph shown below is the one most commonly seen, but there are a variety of others that have extraordinary clown faces on their rear ends and you might want to Google  ‘ happy face spider images’ to see more impressive examples. The spiders have made it onto four Hawaiian islands but are not yet on Lanai, nor have they managed to get as far west as Kauai.

I had a couple of happy face spiders to film, but since I photographed them many more extraordinary faces have been captured by by photographers. Just Google Happy Face Spider to see some extraordinary morphs.
In 1980 I had only a couple of happy-face spiders to film – the disappointment was their small size, which made filming their behaviour a challenge.

It appears that almost everything that arrived in Hawaii evolved into  something special… but then man arrived and the party was over, which is a sad but familiar story!

The islands by dint of their remoteness have undergone extraordinary speciation in the absence of too many predators or competitors, but once these were brought in from elsewhere, many native species were immediately threatened. Indigenous plants and animals have become well adapted to their circumstances but they have not evolved appropriate defences against the onslaught of the new invaders. And so it was, that species in existence for millions of years, were snuffed out by the newcomers like candles in the wind.

Many of the new arrivals were so closely associated with man and his agriculture that with the additional advantage of a perfect climate they thrived in their own little paradises within paradise – and from there ventured out to invade other places on the Islands.

The first aliens will have come in with the Polynesians between 300 and 500 A.D. Then the Europeans showed up; it is possible that the Spanish arrived a couple of hundred years before Captain Cook made landfall in 1778, but it is Cook that we remember because he claimed the Islands as British territory, which now counts for little more than the hoisting of an interesting union flag colonial combo.

Flags are not traditionally Polynesian; these two flutter beneath an Hawaiian sky as a reminder of the transient nature of colonialism.
Flags are not traditionally Polynesian; these two flutter beneath an Hawaiian sky – a reminder of the transient nature of colonialism.

The islands were named after Cook’s sponsor, the 4th Earl of Sandwich – the very same Earl who found himself disinclined to leave a gambling table and suggested to staff that they bring him food conveniently held between two pieces of bread… the rest of course is history… as is the case for the naming of the Sandwich Islands which later reverted to their more appropriate Polynesian name – or at least a close approximation to it.

Colonisation would be instrumental in the devastation of many indigenous species causing the rapid degradation and destruction of habitats; this combined with alien introductions became the driving force for many island extinctions.

It was decided that I would film snails to illustrate the troubles caused by introduced species and I was pleased to be filming at least some of them out of doors. There are many valid reasons for filming animals in their natural environments, but invertebrates are often the exception, usually their behaviour is not much affected as long as their living conditions are adequately simulated.

Prior to the early 1980s film stocks were limiting and a lot of light was required to capture the activity of any small creature in movies. This was just before cold light using fibre optics became widely available, and I had to devise my own water cooling system bolted to the front of lights which required a constant flow of cold water to substantially reduce temperatures. In the years to come I would replace my cumbersome system with cool fibre optic lights; this was really helpful because invertebrates can’t cope with excessive heat, but rarely are they bothered by extra light, and for the best results good lighting was essential.

Filming in the lab (way back when) with Steve Montgomery (right). We are checking that the carnivorous caterpillars are happy under my water cooled lighting system - a year later I had the benefit of fibre optic lights.
Filming in the lab (way back when) with Steve Montgomery (right). We are checking that the carnivorous caterpillars are happy under my water cooled lighting system – not long after, cool fibre optic lighting became available.

There is also a moral question as to whether this is truly wildlife photography, but imagine carting all of this gear into the big outdoors to capture perhaps fifty different creatures in various locations across the islands – setting up on steep slopes for example – because hardly any fertile natural environments have escaped cultivation on the flat – and then there are the cave habitats which are a nightmare to get equipment into. Time and budget constraints required everything to be done in a few weeks (and today these constraints are even tighter). There was then little option other than to bring many of the smaller creatures to one place in order to get the job done.

Taking a still flash photo on location is one thing, but filming the very tiny with plenty of light without any vibration has always been a wind up, and there is the additional problem that when visiting delicate environments trampling has to be avoided, along with the possibility of losing invasive species to the wild. Back then, despite all the disadvantages that the real world presented to macro-photography, I still had to establish some environments on wider lenses and in the process was determined to film at least some of the native snails in the big outdoors.

I was once embarrassed to lose a large tortoise whilst filming in Africa – it made off (across its natural habitat) when I left for a short while to fetch a lens – I had assumed that it wouldn’t get too far, but of course, tortoises run at breakneck speeds when you stop watching them.

I learnt a valuable lesson… but even at my most inattentive, I thought it unlikely that I could misplace a snail, not even a well camouflaged individual, but the truth is, it’s easy to lose sight of almost any snail by simply looking away… and given half a chance they’ll dash off and hide under a leaf when you do. Living in a small world – your perspective on life changes and when you’re not worrying about snails rushing off to hide, you’re worrying about the fact that some move so slowly they won’t register as moving at all in real time. But of course, things could have been worse… ants are always in such a rush, so it was great to discover that there are thought to be no native ants living on the Islands at all.

There are more than 40 species of  endemic tree snails living on the Hawaiian Islands and all are endangered - this one seems hardly to have managed to have held on to a protective shell at all.
There was once around a hundred species of tree snails in Hawaii and now only about a quarter remain – most of which are endangered – and this one seems hardly to have held on to a protective shell at all.

Until recently Hawaii held the most diverse representation of land snails anywhere in the world, but since the arrival of humans it is likely that around 75% have become extinct. Habitat loss will have played a part, but many have been eaten out by introduced predators, in particular predatory snails.

After the African land snail Achatina fulica was introduced – it’s a monster and ends up elsewhere either as a food source or as a pet – it soon became clear that the newcomer was munching its way through the Hawaiian natives, and so another predator was introduced from Florida – the rosy wolfsnail (Euglandina rosea)  to control it – and there wouldn’t be much of a story unless the new arrival had set about the native snails even more ferociously than the problem snail it had been brought in to eliminate, which of course it did, reducing native species even further, and pushing some to extinction… This was without doubt a ‘doh!’ of Homer Simpson proportions.

It is clear that when humans get environmental issues wrong, they make a really great job of it, and often eliminate species that have evolved to become spectacularly different from anything else on the Planet. The problem is, that when this happens to invertebrates… hardly anybody notices.

A native Hawain tree Snail (below) does the dance of death with an introduced predatory species - Achatina fulica which predates upon unfortunate natives.
A native Hawain tree Snail (below) does the dance of death with an introduced species – the rosy wolfsnail Euglandina rosea which predates upon the unfortunate natives.

 It is the larger cuter animals that usually grab our attention, but when it comes to extinction we need to consider the smaller things in life, because if we include them, the losses that are presently occurring on a worldwide scale indicate that we may be entering a mass extinction event. Long term, this makes no difference to the Planet, but species diversity remains the best measure of the prevailing conditions for life on Earth and that is an important consideration for all of us.

Our own well being can be gauged by what is disappearing around us, and it is possible that any who travel might at one time or another hit the jackpot, and take a picture of some small creature that is unknown to science. Seeing the bigger picture means looking out for the small stuff, which is one of the best ways to save the Planet… or more precisely… the life upon it.


Roger Jones supporting Steve Montgomery (with the net) collecting specimens for filming in 1980.
Roger Jones supporting Steve Montgomery (with the net) collecting specimens for filming in Hawaii -1980.

With thanks to former BBC Natural history producers Richard Brock and Roger Jones who gave me my first opportunity to film the natural history of Hawaii, Ken Kaneshiro for fruit flies and lab space, Frank Howarth for his cave critters and Steve Montgomery who collected many of the specimens for filming; he has been foremost in discovering many new species on the Hawaiian Islands and continues to do great work bringing the uniqueness of island biodiversity to the rest of us.

For more on Hawaiian extinction see: 


For details on Hawaiian tree snail and other species see:


and for a more detailed description of Hawiian snail status from 1990  (please note that numbers have declined since this paper was published):


Is Every Rotten Tree in the Forest Really Out to Get You?

The modern world has noticeably changed. We all have rights now; should a tree fall upon us somebody else will almost certainly be  responsible, and if an appropriate scapegoat can’t be found we can at least expect to sue our local authority. There is very little left in the developed world for which we are responsible – becoming fat, having too many children, getting run over when jogging across a busy intersection whilst listening to a stereo system plugged into our ears; even spilling hot coffee over ourselves in a public place clearly has nothing to do with us. Read the warning on the cup: ‘The beverage you are about to enjoy is extremely hot’. Personally, I wouldn’t risk it – a juice perhaps – but wait… there’s no diabetes warning – how irresponsible is that?

Whatever stupid thing we might choose to do is done with the understanding that when things go wrong it will always be somebody else’s fault – it falls to the authorities to protect us from every idiocy we care to perpetrate on ourselves; but as we pass on our personal responsibilities, inevitably a lot else goes with them, not least our personal freedom. And if you think that natural selection is no longer operating at the human level with our now near total control of the environment, you’d be wrong, because we are now maintaining all the stupidest genes within the pool by a process of litigation. Who’s really responsible when a tree falls on us? And shouldn’t it be up to us on occasions to see a potential problem before it arises?

This sort of thing isn't impossible, but it's rare - in this case I'm feeling better than appearances might suggest... and photographing fungi.
This sort of thing isn’t impossible, but it’s rare – in this case I’m feeling better than appearances might suggest… and photographing fungi.

My family and I now live in Surrey, British Columbia – we arrived around five years ago and it was then perhaps even greener than its leafy name sake in England. Both Surreys are well known for their tree filled suburbs – but something is very wrong with the one we now live in. According to a local report, the Surrey in B.C. has lost almost one fifth of its tree canopy in just over a decade and that isn’t very Canadian – most people here favour trees, which might seem a bit odd for a nation that not so long ago built an entire economy by cutting them down. Presently, it is the suburbs that are at the sharp end of the chop, and a large number of trees have been felled in recent years. Maybe fewer of us are bothered than was once the case, or it might just be that not enough people live in the same place for long enough to notice the changes.

Surrey Fleetwood Park's woodland habitat is a little gem amongst an urban sprawl.
Surrey Fleetwood Park’s woodland habitat is a little gem amongst an urban sprawl.

Not long after arriving, I was photographing birds in a local wood when a passing local stopped to talk. I told him that I had seldom seen such a diversity of birdlife in a suburban area, and he responded by saying that if I thought that this was diversity, then I should have been here twenty years ago.

In some Surrey woodlands bird diversity and numbers have decreased in recent years.
In some Surrey woodlands bird species diversity and numbers have decreased in recent years.

That’s just the way things go; we move in, then move on and hardly notice the change. Or could it be that we just allow our brains to slip into a happy state of mind. If so, this rosy thinking may have long term consequences because decreasing wildlife diversity is a clear indication that we are heading for trouble. I’ve noticed an obvious decline in woodland birds during the five years I have lived here – it’s a sad situation, but I’ve seen it happen before.

Getting older provides plenty of time for bad dreams to repeat themselves, but it clearly isn’t up to me to decide which woodlands should be protected from development, although it is obvious that this kind of destruction can’t continue at the present rate forever. Every local should be entitled to a view, but unfortunately most prefer to moan after the event, and many Canadians are so pleasant, they hardly complain at all. Fortunately, I’m not so good natured, and will comment even if it’s a little late to make a difference, but perhaps by doing so I’ll help to change the future… and we could argue for days as to whether that’s remotely possible.

Some people say we have a natural fear of the forest, and that may be so, but inn general the woods are a safer place than the suburbs or the city where people tend to be a good deal more dangerous than vegetables.
Some people say we have a natural fear of the forest, and that may be so, but in general the woods are a safer place than the suburbs or the city where people tend to be a good deal more dangerous than vegetation.

So, I’m away from the area for a week and return to discover a great many of the trees in Fleetwood Park woods have been felled along the main pathway, and on almost every occasion I return there, more trees that have been cut down. To me this seems a travesty, but I’m not sure that others share my view – I feel like the character in a 1960’s horror movie who has walked into that lonely pub on the moor thinking something is wrong, but the locals don’t want to talk about it.

The forest isn't full of werewolves and spirit bears and at least somebody in these parts thinks we should 'be happy' out in the woods - and I am. It is only red dots on trees that get me down.
The forest isn’t full of werewolves and spirit bears and at least somebody in these parts thinks we should ‘be happy’ out in the woods – and I am. It is only red dots on trees that get me down.

What is certain is that along the path a great many trees were marked with red paint and not long after, they were, and still are being cut down, probably due to a concern that one might fall onto the path, which occasionally happens, but usually this has happened at night during storms when the chance that somebody might be walking by is very low. Branches that fall directly from above in windy weather would certainly present a hazard, but there are none over the paths here, and a tree that topples directly onto somebody is unlikely in the extreme.

My wife Jenny in the woodland park waiting for a tree to fall on her... O.K. she's just bird watching.
My wife Jenny in the woodland park waiting for a tree to fall on her… Alright, she’s just bird watching.

It is surprising how long a rotten tree will stand before it goes over and when it does, you have to be as rooted to the spot as the tree once was to get hit. A tree falling takes time and is a noisy process. There is a little sign along the nature walk to make us feel good – it reads ‘Nature at Work’, and that’s exactly what this is – so the best thing you can do is step out of the way – unless you’re one of those litigious people just waiting for the right opportunity to bolster family fortunes.

There can be no complaints about cutting this one - clearly a rotter and close by the path it needed to come down for safety reasons. In praise of the local authority, the felled timber is left to rot, which is essential to the long term well being of the forest.
There can be no complaints about cutting this one – clearly a rotter and close by the path it needed to come down for safety reasons. In praise of the local authority, the felled timber is left to rot, which is essential to the long term well being of the forest.

The real concern is that many of the cut trees are not  dangerously rotten and there are a great many of them. It can take a hundred years and more for some trees to grow to a decent size, but only a few seconds to daub a blob of red paint on a trunk, with only a few more required to fell it.

This one probably could have stayed upright. When the edge of a woodland is cut, the tree line becomes irregular and there is good scientific evidence to show that the remaining trees become more vulnerable to an increase in swirling wind movement.
This one probably should have stayed upright. When the edge of a woodland is cut, the tree line becomes irregular and there is good scientific evidence to show that the remaining trees become more vulnerable to an increase in swirling wind movement.

Until recently we were lucky enough to own a small wood; and from an upper window I could watch the effect of storms on a tree line close by the house. When a large tree was blown over, disturbance to trees further into the forest was clearly noticeable and sealing the forest border produced a marked improvement in tree survival. Shrubs and trees allowed to grow naturally along the margin will substantially stabilise a forest and it is surprising how effective even a five to ten year old natural windbreak can be in sustaining the interior.

Why cut these trees? It just opens things up and makes the wood more susceptable to wind damage.
Why cut these trees? It just opens things up and makes the woodland more susceptable to wind damage.

I asked local people passing through the wood what they thought and most seemed unconcerned, and quite a few hadn’t even noticed – I can’t imagine how this is possible because it looks as if a battalion of tanks has driven through – apart from the obvious sharply cut tree bases, which didn’t seem at all odd to the man who thought the problem might have been caused by the wind. Another couple had other views: the man said cottonwoods didn’t grow nicely and  he’d like to see them replaced with conifers which he much preferred, and no matter how many trees came down the parks people would certainly replace them by planting more. His partner said she didn’t like the increasing development in the local area but the tree felling didn’t bother her at all, and in any case it wasn’t a major concern for them because they would be moving from the area. My response to this didn’t go down well.

I believe we should all engage in our local area while we are living there – otherwise almost anything goes…. and usually, quite literally, it does. I have to admit that this makes me think about what people rely want – maybe some just want different things than I do, or perhaps they don’t see the subject as important, and if this is the case, there can be little doubt that they are wrong. I accept that sometimes it is necessary to remove a tree that is in the wrong place, especially if it presents an obvious danger. Invasive species sometimes need dealing with and species that have been lost may need reintroducing: salmon berry has been re-established in some places here and its return is very welcome, but for the most part, a natural woodland that is re-generating successfully should be left alone – nature knows far better than we do where a tree should grow.

Some woodlands become waterlogged through fall and winter and there is no clear way of knowing which trees will be torn out at the roots.
Some woodlands become waterlogged through fall and winter and there is no clear way of knowing which trees will be torn out at the roots.

A tree that comes down in the interior may create a useful glade and increase plant diversity, but along the borders such an event can be destabilising and the incidence of ‘tearing out’ will usually increase in exposed locations; and a small woodland suffers from having a more exposed perimeter in relation to its area that a large forest.

I was sorry to see this old conifer come down. At the cut point it had a circumference of 14 feet and was 4 feet in diameter. About a hundred years old, the rot had set in further up the trunk,as indicated by bracket fungi, but a little rot shouldn't immediately result in a death sentence - the tree was still providing a source of nourishment for a great many species.
I was sorry to see this old conifer come down. At the cut point it had a circumference of 14 feet and was 4 feet in diameter. About a hundred years old, the rot had set in further up the trunk, as indicated by bracket fungi, but a little rot shouldn’t immediately result in a death sentence – the tree was still providing a source of nourishment for a great many species.
The same tree a month before it was felled was beautiful. Old trees with little or no top are unlikely to fall until they are very rotten and this one hadn't reached that stage. Sadly, the old trunk had been viewed with a garden rather than a forest mentality.
The same tree a month before it was felled was beautiful. Old trees with little or no top are unlikely to fall until they are very rotten and this one hadn’t reached that stage. Sadly, the old trunk had been viewed with a garden park mentality rather than considered as part of a natural forest.

A recent addition to the forest has been the introduction of information posts and these  really do need felling. There is plenty enough information that we have to absorb outside of the park; in urban environments this kind of thing is everywhere and we should be able to come to a woodland haven to get away from all of that. If there is a need to have an information board, then it should be at the entrance to the woodland walk with interior areas left free of clutter, which otherwise ruin both views and photographic opportunities.

These signs do have their uses in cold weather - I know exactly how cold it is at the point when the snow begins to slide off the top board - to reveal rhyming details for a woodland dweller, presumably with the intention of engaging children.
These signs do have their uses in winter – I know exactly how cold it is at the point when the snow begins to slide off the top board, but my preference is the snowy cover – beneath there is a picture of a woodland dweller with an accompanying description in rhyme, presumably to engage the minds of children. Sadly, the poetry leaves me feeling even colder than the snow.

Ironically the most recent information post to go up beside the path provides a description for pileated woodpecker, which is odd, because every tree along the way with even a little rot has been felled, leaving very few places for woodpeckers to feed or nest where they might easily be seen.

I didn't get the opportunity to observe pileted woodpeckers so easily before coming to Canada - these birds are a joy to observe as they hammer away at an old tree trunk, and there is a certain sadness in that I shall no longer be able to watch them so regularly in the local area.
I didn’t get the opportunity to observe pileated woodpeckers so easily before coming to Canada – these birds are a joy to observe as they hammer away at an old tree trunk, and there is a certain sadness that I shall no longer be able to watch them so regularly in my local area.
If it doesn't work out, I guess I'll just have to rely upon memories of my English childhood when I would sit and watch Woody Woodpecker cartoons on T.V. and dream one day of coming to North America to see the real thing.
If it doesn’t work out, I guess I’ll just have to rely upon memories from my English childhood when I would sit and watch Woody Woodpecker cartoons on T.V. and dream of one day coming to North America to see the real thing.

We need to be safe, but not ridiculously so. Cutting down a tree in the adjoining Fleetwood Park Garden is an altogether different consideration – a carefully laid out garden is a discipline that doesn’t pretend to emulate the wild. The woodland on the other hand isn’t just a place for joggers and people emptying their dogs, it also has a role to play in conserving nature, much to the delight of those who care about such things. When people lack transport or the necessary mobility to travel so extensively, natural parks in urban localities become an increasingly important amenity, especially as the natural world is pushed increasingly further away by development.  There is very little woodland left in most suburban areas and the last thing we need is overzealous tree cutting. A favourite mantra is that it is happening everywhere now, but that isn’t a good enough excuse to ignore the problem, we need to react.  So, when you see too much tree felling in your area – make a fuss; and remember… take a picture – and who knows, maybe one day this might help to save the Planet.

To see pileated woodpecker working an old tree in Fleetwood Park please go to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C8anLtDmImw

More worrying red dots are showing up on big tree trunks along the Fraser Highway at the point where it passes through Surrey’s Green Timbers Urban Forest………….. Should I be shouting ‘TIMBER!!!!’

The Plight of the Eagle – Urban Development.

After I wrote my first blog my daughter told me that I would need to write new ones quite regularly, because, as Punch said to Judy, ‘That’s the way to do it …’ This was quite a shock, although it has nothing to do with Punch sounding loud and shrill, and everything to do with ‘quite regularly’ sounding like a job. The blog started over concerns about an environmental issue and rather stupidly I hadn’t thought much beyond that. There are a couple of other concerns as well, and my friend Colin put his finger on one of them straight away, ‘the trouble with you,’ he said, ‘is that you usually say what other people are just thinking’… and in these politically correct times that could be a problem. Assuming that I do have readers, I will eventually upset them all and end up writing for myself, which begins to sound less like writing and more like therapy; and that brings me to my second problem… I’m not sure I’m bothered.

The Canadian fish eagle – sometimes known as the bald eagle – is quite something. When living in England I lived at the wrong end of the U.K. to see Britain’s, or more properly, Scotland’s national equivalent, the golden eagle. You’re best chance of seeing one of these would be to travel to the Western Highlands and get well organised for a photo opportunity. There are around 440 pairs nesting in the U.K. and I have only viewed single birds in flight, none of them near a nest.

Then, I moved with my family to New Zealand where you can forget about seeing eagles altogether; most of the interesting native avians are either extinct or moving down that rocky road to oblivion; although New Zealand has been a land of birds and so it is no surprise to discover that there was once an eagle in the mix – Haasts’s eagle, the most impressive tick for a birder that can be imagined – and I don’t mean that in the parasitic sense, although the bird may well have had species specific ticks that disappeared when the bird did. The great thing about this eagles is that it was the largest predatory bird ever known to exist. Sadly, Haast’s eagle disappeared about the same time as nine species of flightless moa which were all hunted to extinction by Maori around A.D.1400. With their prey gone, the eagles quickly climbed the stairs to stuffed, or more precisely, to ossification. Imagine if you can, 35 lbs (15 kg) of bird in flight, the estimated upper limits for a large female… extraordinary, and I missed the picture by around 600 years, but it wasn’t personal, so did everybody else. And right now you’re probably Googling the bird’s name to see if I’m fibbing.

Over the years I’ve made many trips to the United States but it was a long time before I saw my first bald eagle. To avoid confusion I use the bird’s American name although I don’t feel obliged to do so, vultures are bald but eagles for the most part are not. In the middle ages ‘bald’ would refer to a patch on a stock animal, but an entire bird’s head is something else. I love America, but let’s face, it, Americans are none to precise with words – in reality a bathroom isn’t a lavatory, and if an herbivore is an herbivore, how can an herb be an ‘erb’ What’s that about? And ‘The World Series’???… Let’s not go there.

Sorry I digress, we all know what a bald eagle is, but they were certainly less frequently seen during the 1980s than they are today in every state in America, but the bird did manage to cling on and breed in a few of them, including Florida which is where I had my first encounter with this wonderful eagle in the Everglades. Startled from its resting place in a tree, the poor creature almost fell on top of me as I quickly tried for a picture with the 200mm lens that was attached to the sharper end of my camera. Unfortunately the eagle was far too close for a long lens and by the time its feathers came into focus the bird was moving away and quickly hidden by foliage. If I had failed so completely and missed the photo in almost any other state my story might have been doubted, but in Florida seeing a bald eagle was very believable and nobody had reason to question it. I had nevertheless missed the shot – photographers see things differently, they freeze away packets of light while others have life experiences; they store away little capsules of time to be viewed at a later date, although any picture that has been recorded successfully is soon forgotten. It is the ones that get away that are remembered forever, or more correctly… remembered until you die.  A photograph on the other hand need not suffer oblivion, but it is as well to consider that there are as many bad photographs in the world as bad memories; and by that I mean memories are unreliable, while photos – if we exclude photoshop – pin down a certain kind of truth… I know, we could argue that one all day.

IMG_4066.FIX:©     If you are out in the woods – don’t let one of these fall on you.

In British Columbia, where I now live, people can be complacent about their Canadian fish eagles, because the birds are so frequently seen, but that could easily change as habitats become degraded or destroyed. In the United States the birds have survived in part because they have a wide distribution. Early in the 20th Century they were hunted mercilessly because of the fear that as predators they might eat young stock animals, in particular lambs. Nobody at the time had heard of trophic cascade and many still haven’t. The term describes the important role that top predators play in shaping ecosystems or even landscapes as they work the top end of the food chain and the results tumble down through the system. Only recently has this process become more clearly understood and eagles are certainly up there amongst the top carnivores when it comes to ripping at the tapestry of existence.

Having survived an initial assault with guns the eagles would plummet in numbers again around the middle of the 20th Century with the widespread use of the pesticide D.D.T. which would accumulate in the bodies of many predatory birds and cause eggs to suffer from a thinning of their shells which were easily broken before the embryos inside had a chance to develop fully. Many raptors would totter precariously on the edge of existence until D.D.T. was banned in 1972; it takes about 15 years for the pesticide to break down in the natural environment, and so it was a while before fortunes changed and eagle numbers began to climb.

In the United States the bald eagle appears on just about everything from national seals to custom paint jobs on Harley Davidson motorcycles – a perfect example of the power of visual imagery, but you have to wonder how the bird might have faired had it not been politically expedient to save it. More generic eagles with less literal forms show up on the coats of arms of more than twenty five countries, but there has never been a closer association with a single bird species than the United States has with the bald eagle, except perhaps the relationship that New Zealanders have with their namesake the kiwi.

In British Columbia and Alaska, this fish eagle might be described as common, which is perhaps why it is taken for granted. During the salmon run, the fish move some distance inland along the rivers of the North West coast of North America to spawn and the eagles, congregating in numbers, rely heavily upon them for food. When the salmon stop running the birds behaviour changes and in late winter an early spring they move off to their traditional nesting sites, many of which are now threatened by development, especially when bordering urban areas, which in lower mainland B.C. is becoming increasingly difficult to avoid. Urban eagles can cope with some human disturbance, but increasingly there are fewer places for them to hunt while they are tied to the nest feeding young.

I have been fortunate to record eaglet rearing activity at my local nest over the last few years, which will attest to their presence should they finally run out of prey and are forced to move away; certainly things appear to be moving in that direction. In 2012 two eaglets fledged successfully on the local nest; last year there was only one eaglet and this year one again, after the adults were forced to rebuild when the old nest fell during a winter storm.

Under exceptional circumstances a pair of Bald, or Canadian fish eagles  might rear four youngsters; three is hopeful, but two is more usual, or rather the laying of two eggs is more usual. The rearing of only one offspring is common enough, but doing so season after season suggest a lack of available prey – perhaps they could do better under more favourable circumstances. At least two other nests in the area also managed only one youngster during the 2014 season.

Nobody it seems can remember a time when there weren’t eagles nesting here; people have become so used to seeing them and may be unaware that the birds could be lost to the urban developments spreading across the surrounding woods and farmland. Close to the park’s borders this process has been startlingly rapid over the last couple of years, which is unsettling and casts doubts over the longterm viability of the nest and I really hope the adults manage the increasing distances they will need to travel to hunt down prey. Whatever happens, it has been a privilege to have spent time watching and photographing these wonderful birds.

IMG_8853.BALD EYE FIX.C      An adult drops food, quickly grabbed by the dominant eaglet.

If planning departments are prepared to give over land designated for agriculture, along with natural areas in and around urban locations, then many native plants and animals will inevitably disappear from the landscape and our lives will be the poorer for it. Only a few people will gain financially from intensive house building, whilst the majority will see little benefit. Living closer to nature has been demonstrated to be of great benefit to our health and this is increasingly denied to a great many people. Essentially, we will move past the point where there are teachable class sizes at local schools, or reasonable waiting times in the emergency rooms of hospitals. It is of no great benefit to the majority to push urban density to the levels we expect to find in cities, but few of us are allowed any part in the decision making. As a neighbour recently pointed out, ‘When it comes to development, money talks and b/s walks.’ And that pretty much sums it up. Urban development programmes should not be ruled by a minority who are turning a buck at the expense of the majority, and above all else financial gain should not be allowed to push intelligent urban planning into second place.

Next time: If You Can’t Take a Photograph a Painting Will Do.

With thanks to Harold Myers for providing details on local nests. Thanks also to Colin Shotter and Penny Beck.


Don’t know what’s going on? Take a picture – it might be useful.

Many years ago I went out into the desert and there I met a man who had a vision. I’ll have to stop doing that… building up my story before I’ve started. More prosaically, I was setting up to film a sequence on elf owls for a  movie about, well, what else but owls… and the man I met in the desert was Bill Peachey, one of those experts the B.B.C. seek out  when their freelancers aren’t sure what they are doing – pretending to know is useless and in any case, you can’t know everything. Elf owls nest in holes in saguaro cacti in the Sonora desert and if anybody was going to be able to find them, it was Bill… but sadly, not this time around –  two long nights and we didn’t see a single owl. But all was not lost…… I learnt something else, something quite useful, and I’ll share it with you.

Saguaro before sunset – the classic cartoon cacti – sadly no elf owls. Oil painting from photo taken during the owl outing.

Bill had seen things in the desert – interesting things, mass animal migrations in the moonlight  and creatures noted in the past that hadn’t been seen for many years. Then he’d tell somebody – a hunter perhaps, and they would say… ‘Never!’ A common response from people who hadn’t lived in the area for very long. The problem Bill pointed out was that as we begin to spread out into natural environments, many of the animals that live there move on. To be clear on the changes, Bill told me, it was essential to get a photograph of everything of consequence that you saw, preferably with a signpost in shot, or something that would date the picture exactly. It was my turn to have a vision – I imagined an elk with a copy of today’s paper wedged in his antlers, then a cougar walked in front of a circus billboard with the show dates prominent to one side, but as I took my picture the cat’s body moved and obscured them. It was hopeless – we were living in 1985 – far too early to make any of this work.

Today technology has moved on and most of us now carry something that will take a pretty good picture, whether it be a camera, a small computer or a mobile phone, and nearly all will automatically record the date, the time, and in some cases a  GPS position. In the 21st Century nothing much can happen in public view without  somebody noticing and recording the change, and if we care about the environment, more of us should be making visual notes and start using them as the basis for asking questions about how we all feel about the situation.

I am the most unlikely person to write a blog, but when I see things changing in my local area that I don’t think are in the best interests of my neighbour’s or the local environment, I feel obliged to comment. You of course may not be living in the Lower Mainland area of British Columbia on the West Coast of Canada, but it is likely that something very similar will be happening close to your home, because there is a general disconnect between what most of us want, and what our local councils and planning departments would like to slip past us.

Here is the story I have on my mind:

It’s time to rethink high density development, or say goodbye to the natural wonders of the Lower Mainland. by Stephen Bolwell.

When Sarah Palin was Governor of Alaska she got into hot water for something she never said, ‘I can see Russia from my house’. Well, I’m living on the coastal side of Lower Mainland B.C. and I really can see another country from mine – it’s America, and that’s exciting, although stretching things a bit, because all I can really see is Mount Baker – it‘s just so big, but despite this, to get a clear look I need to take a short walk to my local nature area, ‘Surrey Lake Park’, because  all expansive views in my area are now built across.

Twenty years ago it was all fields and woodlands, but now you don’t see much that is natural, and recently somebody on Surrey Council told me why, ‘You are living in a high density development area,’ he said, ‘and soon all those scruffy little open spaces around you will be filled with houses’. I felt obliged to enquire whether the locals had been asked if they wanted to live high density – and that turned out to be rhetorical, because what council officials like best are people who don’t ask troublesome questions; the conversation was over – tragically the poor man had been struck suddenly deaf.

Mt Baker from Surrey Lake Park - the only clear view in the neighbourhood.
Mt Baker from Surrey Lake Park – the only clear view in the neighbourhood.

I am British by birth and as most Canadians know, Brits have a reputation for whinging; we like to think we’re organizers, but whinging is what we do best. So, when I took my first outing from Surrey to Vancouver on the SkyTrain, it wasn’t long before I started whinging quietly to myself about the ugly sprawl of development flowing past my window and I didn’t feel entirely happy again until my feet hit Stanley Park – I love Hyde Park in London, Central Park in New York, almost any park you care to mention, but Stanley Park is easily the best, and although  Vancouver is near the top of the list of most beautiful cities,  it is the natural beauty of  B.C. that makes this place so special. However, the Lower Mainland is changing; as you drive South out of Vancouver towards the U.S. border, it is impossible to miss the urban sprawl and it isn’t until you get into the U.S.A. that the countryside begins to open out. The lower mainland is filling up – it is impossible to ignore a rapidly expanding urbanisation as it pushes hard into  diminishing pockets of agriculture. At this point I should say that I do see the irony of moving into an area and then moaning about development; with so may outsiders arriving, it is clear that we all need to live somewhere. There is though, an important consideration, the lower mainland has a unique beauty that once buried beneath development cannot so easily be re-instated, and for residents with a long family history, the changes are painful to witness. The creation and conservation of natural parks and reserves is essential because they represent environments that were once extensive across the area. The question is – are these places getting the respect they deserve? And the evidence suggests that probably, they are not.

I’ve spent my working life traveling to interesting places to film wildlife documentaries, but nothing compares with my present location; I live in suburbia, but am only a short walk from my local Canadian fish eagle’s nest,  where I can take some really great pictures… not just a whinging Pom then, but one with a self-inflated sense of his ability.

A pair of Canadian fish eagles close by the local nest having a chat. Well, more of a screech really.
A pair of Canadian fish eagles close by the local nest having a chat. Well, more of a screech really.

Later in the year I will be only a short drive from the centre of Canadian fish eagle activity when the salmon are running. I know Americans call these birds ‘bald eagles’ and claim them as their own, but in the fall along local coastal areas and up the Fraser River and its tributaries this place will be bursting with eagles as they arrive in numbers to form the largest congregation of vertebrate predators anywhere in the world. Make no mistake these are Canadian fish eagles, and it might even be claimed that these impressive birds appear most at home in  British Columbia.  So, imagine my surprise, when early in 2014 I went walking through Surrey Lake Park and discovered that an adjoining woodland along the park’s eastern border was being ripped out by heavy machinery, a complete destruction worryingly close to the eagle’s nest. Surprisingly, nobody seemed bothered, apart from a few locals who were, and still are understandably upset because they live so close to the noise and destruction.

This tree line marks the border of the reserve. Trees might have been left here as a buffer, but often developers prefer to clear everything.
This tree line marks the border of the reserve. Trees might have been left here as a buffer zone, but most often developers prefer to clear everything.

In all, a little short of 4.2 hectares of forest including valuable and fully mature trees were cleared from the site, and these are unlikely to show up on the Surrey tree loss figures for 2014. For me the changes were startling, only a few weeks earlier this had been a quiet farm, with woodland, streams, and paddocks of grazing ponies; suddenly the land had been scraped bare and its earth carted away by the truck load. Weeks passed, the area expanded, hardcore arrived to form a base along with the accompanying rumble of cement lorries. The disturbance was extreme and seemingly endless.

There was of course a notification of construction for local residents which some claim not to have received  – in fairness at less than a page this might easily have been overlooked – it stated that preparations for BC Hydro’s new Fleetwood Substation at the south end of 156th street would be completed between January 17 and May 15 2014 with day shifts from 7.00am to 6.00p.m. and afternoon shifts from 7.00p.m. to 6.00a.m. – an odd sense of time, but technically this is still after noon. The development pushed on through August with  trucks coming and going every few minutes through daylight hours, which was a pretty full on disturbance for both the locals and the parkland reserve. The troubling thing is, there never have been any signs posted to indicate what this development was for, potentially one of the biggest Hydro power sub-stations to be built in British Columbia. I thought it odd that BC Hydro should describe itself as a conservation powerhouse, but I soon realised that it wasn’t the sort of conservation that I was thinking of.

With a natural reticence for B.C. Hydro to get promotional on this site many people in the district are still unaware of the development, and those who are, often don’t know of its relationship to the ‘conservation powerhouse’. But now the natural world has been swept away and there is clearly nothing left to conserve, perhaps the company will take a more upfront approach to the site. There was a short article in a local paper that mentioned B.C. Hydro by name, but the story focused mostly on  unhappy neighbors; there was a generous acknowledgement by one, that such developments have to go somewhere, but there were also clear concerns over the disruption and adverse effects upon the environment, particularly the birdlife and several endangered animal species.

A report from ‘AMEC Environment and Infrastructure’ was undertaken during 2013 which stated that ‘due to the time of year it wasn’t possible to conduct a bird nest survey’ which is odd because there were two site visits, one on 29th May when there should have been clear signs of birds nesting. Some locals say that red-tailed hawks nested in trees on the property and I certainly know of a pair that were present during the two previous years. The report also noted three species of conservation concern potentially on site: the red-listed and SARA schedule 1 listed ‘Endangered’ Pacific water shrew; the blue-listed and COSEWIC-listed ‘Special Concern’ Western Toad and the blue-listed and COSEWIC-listed ‘Special Concern’ Northern Red-legged Frog, with tadpoles present in one stream that may have been of the same species.

As a know it all Brit I am knowledgable about amphibians and noticed pictures in the report that showed both woodland and reedy areas along streams that were suitable for species known to exist in the adjoining park; creatures like the Pacific tree frog and long-toed salamander which few will ever see – and so it is sadly a case of out of sight out of mind, but there is a real issue here: if a suitable habitat bordering a small reserve disappears then the chances are that any species that can’t fly in will have a good chance of going the same way – an affliction common to island populations, and the reason why buffer zones and corridors beyond park boundaries are so essential to the diversity of small reserves.

On a recent visits to the park I am troubled by the additional noise, of a radio playing at high volume across a dyke close by the reserve – I am told, for the benefit of blueberry pickers. Passing joggers already have music plugged into their ears and they don’t notice. As for the rest, mostly people walking out to empty their dogs, they don’t notice either. At certain places on the reserve the din is so loud it drowns out bird song completely; birds sing for a reason that has nothing to do with increasing their berry picking speed, and everything to do with maintaining territories. Cognitive dissonance sets in and I begin to ask whether it really matters for 2014, because there are so few birds to be seen in the area, certainly far less than in previous years. Several locals have told me that before the development started, an attempt at netting was employed, but having established that this was illegal, bird wailers were installed that played distress calls to put birds off and deter them from nesting (both activities were against the advice of the environmental consultant). This appears to have worked though, because during this spring and summer there have been fewer birds in the adjoining Surrey Park and the nearby woodland reserve at Fleetwood.

The Hydro development at the lower end of 156 St lies in an agricultural zone, not far from another recent development which is also ongoing. A little over a year ago on this second site there was also a mature woodland, but this has now been replaced by large houses entirely out of keeping with their surroundings and it is difficult to understand why building consent was granted. Until recently this woodland was another essential buffer zone for the park and busy with wildlife; nothing natural remains there now, all has been replaced by housing with sterile new lawns kept green by water sprinklers that are not so good during a dry summer, but apparently there is no sign of a water shortage; although with the race on to fill Surrey with housing, there soon will be. With many more people living close to the nature park, there is likely to be extra pressures, with pollution from cars, noise from mowers and many more dog walkers with easy access to the park’s dog emptying facilities. If you can get away with taking out a woodland and building on this site, then you can get away with it almost anywhere.

Maybe it’s just bad timing, but on 22nd July a local paper ran a feature on Surrey’s latest ‘Biodiversity Conservation Strategy’. Coun. Bruce Hayne said, “It’s time to focus our efforts on building our inventory of natural environment”, and, “It’s not good enough to protect the eagles bedroom, i.e. their nest. You have to protect their kitchen and dining room too!” A sound bite from Deb Jack, president of Surrey Environmental Partners, “What a legacy this is for the history books” is also contrary to the local reality. Surrey City Council claims to have adopted a green initiative that is expected to have an impact on the city’s ecosystems for decades. Well, better late than never I guess, but it is certainly too late to put things right for the biodiversity of Surrey Lake Park. In truth, there never was a need to implement a green initiative to conserve this area, everything was covered by existing planning laws; all that was necessary was to implement them. ‘Biodiversity Conservation Strategy’ …It sounds impressive. I’m guessing there’s an election in the offing.

So, now that two extensive developments have been permitted at the bottom of 156 St, it won’t be long before all the other natural areas along the quiet lower end of the street are filled in. Penny Beck’s family have lived here for 40 years, they are the closest to the Hydro development and the residents most affected by the disturbance. ‘We still have that’ says Penny pointing to a tangled area of scrub and forest across from her house, ‘hummingbird habitat – the council know better than to spray  with roundup while I’m still here’. Penny is a rarity, she has a practical understanding of what wildlife really needs, but the Beck’s family home is up for sale and when Penny goes, the hummingbird nesting site will disappear. Canadians are tidy people and their gardens don’t make great habitats for wildlife, and if all ‘the scruffy little wild spaces’ are built on there will be no more hummingbirds visiting local feeders because nesting sites won’t be available. I wonder how long it will be before the local Canadian fish eagle’s nest lies empty, to eventually fall from the tree, and with no eagles returning to rebuild, it can only be  a matter of time before people forget that there were ever eagles here;  just as they have forgotten that not so long ago a female black bear used to come and feed with her cubs in the local berry patch.

In 2012 two young birds fledged on the local nest. An eaglet exercises his wings as the sibling watches.
In 2012 two youngsters fledged on this local nest.  An eaglet exercises his wings as the sibling watches on.

I can whinge as much as I like, but it isn’t my place to speak for the community. I believe that those with historical connections to the area need to have a say about their area, and then they need to remain vigilant over what might be lost, namely the natural wonders that are the true heritage of the Lower Mainland. To conserve the area something has to change, because presently, the essence that makes this corner of British Columbia so special is being given away – not just without a fight, but without a murmur.

N.B. A precedent has now been set. On 13 August a notice of proposed development was received by a resident at the lower end of 156 St, informing of an application to the Surrey Planning Department for the rezoning of a nearby area of woodland and scrub from “General Agricultural Zone (A-1)” to “Comprehensive Development Zone (CD)” to permit the development of 46 family lots with 16% open space (great news – only small lawns to water then!), and the planning staff won’t be making any written responses to comments. The notice appears insensitive to local feeling, even a little arrogant perhaps, but above all it seems unCanadian. If globalisation goes belly up, we  might all need to grow our own food locally and serious questions need to be asked about the persistent development of agricultural land. In the end of course, the local planning department might just do the sensible thing and say no, but I’m not holding my breath.

A local resident informs me that the native Douglas squirrel has not been seen so readily since the development. For a short sequence on the squirrel view :-