Tag Archives: habitat destruction

Belize: Bye-bye Mangroves – Viva Vacation!

On a recent trip to Belize, the mermaids – that would be my wife and daughter, sought out any excuse to immerse themselves in the Caribbean Sea; and my daughter’s desire to swim with a whale shark featured prominently on her list of reasons for our visit. It’s a rather hopeful wish on her part, but if you don’t think big there’s not much chance of experiencing anything out of the ordinary.

Alice had booked her place on an organised whale shark trip months in advance, and when the day arrives we all make the road trip to get her to the boat on time. Because our destination is some distance from our coastal base in Hopkins we are obliged to set off early in the morning, in darkness, before breakfast is served; this is a disappointment to me because I also have a list, but mine is of the things I no longer need to do – and missing breakfast isn’t on it.

When in the water with my wife and daughter I have trouble keeping up.
In Belize we spend a fair bit of time in the water – as usual I have trouble keeping up with my wife and daughter.

I have never felt the need to swim alongside any kind of shark even when it is considered safe, and I won’t in any case be going into the water today because it would involve scuba diving – another thing on the list of things I don’t need to do. My wife Jen, can dive but she has been unwell and so it would be unwise for her to scuba; consequently, she will remain land based and keep me company.

P1270550.FIX.SMALL

Up at 5.30 a.m. we are soon driving southwards towards our destination – a dock in the village of Placencia, set at the end of a short peninsula that hugs the coastline for about 18 miles; but when we get there this turns out to be a very slow 18 miles – the entire road is plagued by speed humps set at regular intervals. There are various tourist hotel developments along the way, some have impressive gates, but these are mostly the sort of places we avoid because they are so out of keeping with their surroundings.

RIMG7241.©.SMALLAt the bottom end of the Peninsula the village of Placencia is altogether different –  it is far more intimate than the impersonal hotels that we passed on the way; it is busy with local people and has several agreeable places to eat. A huge surprise though to pass an airport just before  we arrive, which initially seems out of place. Until recently this destination must have been close to the back end of nowhere; but the holiday business is rapidly changing that.

The surprise Airport.
The surprise Airport.

I can’t think of a better way for the wealthy to avoid the speed bumps than to fly in; certainly it is the quickest way in. As a wealthy person once said to me, ‘I can always earn more money, but I can’t buy more time’… And I guess that’s fair enough, but above all else, what they are really interested in buying here is real estate… and lots of it.

There are plenty of recent developments along the peninsula but Placencia at the bottom end feels, authentic, relaxed and agreeable.
There are plenty of recent developments along the peninsula on the way down to Placencia, but the village remains relaxed and agreeable despite much of it being bought up by outsiders.

It is a bright sunny morning and we arrive early enough to go for breakfast in a local cafe, although the waitress is quite unhelpful; there’s a lot we can’t have from the menu because it’s too early and she hasn’t had a chance to shop for fruit and vegetables; unfortunately she doesn’t explain this and we waste a lot of time asking for things that are unavailable. It’s as if we are taking part in an unfunny version of ‘The Monty Python’ cheese sketch. ‘Mango this’… No. ‘Banana that’… No. ‘A veggie omelette’…. No. ‘Orange juice”….Ummm… No… We eventually hit on a few things that the kitchen does have, mainly choices that  revolve around cakes and pancakes, unhealthy stuff, but great when your earlier breakfast never happened.

Alice makes her way to the dock for her diving trip.
Alice makes her way to the dock for her diving trip.

Unfortunately, the food takes so long, we are made late by the waiting and should have left by the time it arrives. We gulp it down, and have trouble getting the bill because our waitress seems to be moving through ‘treacle time’. We finally pay up, dash to the nearby dock, and despite the delay make it in time.

Alice will be out at sea for several hours, leaving Jen and I plenty of time to drive back up the peninsula and take a look at the coastal environment. The eastern seaward side is mostly sandy beach of the type popular with holidaymakers – but there are also stretches of mangrove less favoured by tourists; nevertheless, mangrove is an essential habitat that acts as a nursery for creatures that will eventually live out their lives on nearby offshore reefs.

Can't see the view?... What a nuisance!
Mangroves… Can’t see the view!… A natural wonder or an inconvenient nuisance?

We then travel along the western inner arm to search out the mangrove that borders the narrow bay adjacent to the Caribbean. Clearly, the mangroves were once extensive here, but are now intermittent and are being overtaken by development.

Mangrove is and important natural habitat that many people see as a wasteland - sadly, this are is staked out for development.
Mangrove is an important natural habitat, although many see it as little more than wasteland. The reality is somewhat different; these are essential buffers that protect fragile coastlines from storms and soil erosion; they also reduce agricultural by-products entering the sea. Sadly, this picture shows just one of many mangrove areas now staked out for development.

Indifference to mangrove destruction doesn’t make sense, but it is a widespread problem. On October 8th 2001 Hurricane Iris hit this area and levelled around 95% of Placencia – a hurricane can do this almost anywhere, but when the weather is just bad rather than extreme, mangroves offer at least some protection to things that you hope might stay attached to the land when things get rough. 

Coastal development is closely tied to mangrove loss
Coastal development is closely tied to mangrove loss.

Mangrove destruction is now a common problem in warm coastal areas where holiday developments are becoming widespread and the suggestion that building resorts is good for local economies doesn’t always work out as well as it might. Often the process involves rapid changes to the coastlines, and essentially too much happens too quickly. When multinational companies are involved they often prefer to bring in their own workforce, leaving the locals with only the most poorly paid and menial tasks; and there is often a disinclination to train local people to provide them with better opportunities.

RIMG7256.FIX.SMALLWhen developments are rapid and extensive, habitats that local people have relied upon for generations are often quickly degraded, and it isn’t greatly appreciated when wealthy outsiders (who don’t need the food) arrive to ‘sports’ fish valuable natural resources. When financial gains don’t filter through to people living in the area, resentment grows, and when much of the profit goes offshore there may be no longterm benefits to local communities. Few visitors choose to notice this problem because to do so would mean leaving the hotel to speak to locals who will furnish a broader picture – something almost unthinkable. Certainly there are dangerous places around the world, but it is irrational to be frightened of moving amongst locals in the places we visit – it’s madness to behave like prisoners locked in holiday complexes that provide everything we need but reality.

This one looks a bit like a cell block, but no doubt it will be beautiful when it is finished.
This development looks a bit like a cell block, but no doubt will be beautiful when it’s finished.

It would of course be wrong to imply there are no benefits to previously isolated communities when they are suddenly transformed by tourism, but it is noticeable – if you care to look – that many people remain in poverty while the profits go elsewhere. This results in a very one sided spin on the benefits that tourism can bring to poor communities. Clearly there are advantages when outside money is brought in, but the amount that filters through to local people is often meagre and many will see no benefits at all.

Much of the remaining  coastline appears to be up for sale.
Much of the remaining coastline close to Placencia appears to be up for sale.

What nature provides in far away places is often taken as freely available and without consequences, but as holiday based economies continue to expand, it is increasingly evident that there can be no free lunch; someone local will be losing out to pay for the good fortune of the many visitors arriving from elsewhere, and investors will continue to make big bucks by exploiting environmentally sensitive areas.

P1270561.FIX.©.SMALL

If big hotels and cruise liners continue to feature in fragile environments and during the process they reduce air and water quality, it might be worth asking whether such problems outweight the often one-sided financial gains…

I know! who wants to think about this kind of thing when you’re on holiday, or fortunate enough to be on the right side of what is rapidly becoming a gaping economic divide; nonetheless this is a reality that can’t be ignored forever.

The beauty of a single dragonfly sums up why at least some sandy scrub behind the mangrove is worth preserving.
The beauty of a single dragonfly sums up why at least some sandy scrub and pools behind the mangrove is worth preserving.

We saw the last 5 acre ‘investment opportunity’ (as it was described by one realtor) up for sale on a board in Placencia village. We could find no evidence to suggest that many here thought it necessary to retain the mangroves, and it appears that it won’t be long before most of this peninsula will be developed in one form or another, with this important habitat degraded or perhaps entirely lost… And who will remember once it has gone?

An interesting addition to paradise.
One of many interesting additions to paradise on the road to Placencia.

Much of the development along the coastal area where we are staying and where we started out this morning – in Hopkins – is paid for with American dollars and many who come to visit these newly developed areas are Americans.

Belize money is visually agreeable, but I never saw any that wasn't worn out.
Belize money is visually impressive, but I’ve never seen a bank note that wasn’t worn out.

From an environmental perspective mass development of coastal regions isn’t really a great idea. I love the Americas in particular, but feel as if I need a shower whenever I touch an American dollar. In common with nearly all the paper money you handle in warm countries it is often badly worn and it usually stinks. Perhaps the money itself is trying to tell us something.

Vultures circling over Hopkins in evening night.
Vultures circling over Hopkins in evening night.

Coastal Belize is much favoured by tourists from Texas and the village of Hopkins is about to be turned into a major tourist spot.

Presently the Belize road system is quite variable, with some sections very rough; the drive to Hopkins from Belize City Airport really isn’t much fun because you are always on the look out for potholes and speed humps. The last part of the journey up through the village is especially rough; at the time of writing it is no more than a dusty track peppered with potholes, but this is about to change as a new blacktop road is planned and by the time you are reading this, it might already be in place.

Many of the locals don’t feel comfortable with the new developments as they won’t themselves be seeing much in the way of profit from the upgrades. Despite the sudden influx of money, conditions for many have not, so far, greatly improved and many people’s lives may not change very much despite the fact that a holiday in Belize isn’t a cheap option. This kind of ‘progress’ where money flows in but nothing much changes on the street isn’t in any sense fair… But it is what it is.  

Hopkins may still run along a dusty track, but every child has a place in school which must be good for the future of Belize.

Hopkins might still run along a dusty track, but every child has a place in school which must bode well for the future of Belize…  if the whole country doesn’t eventually get bought up by outsiders.

Mangroves architecture is delightfully natural.
Mangroves in contrast to many holiday developments are a natural architectural wonder.

All things considered, it isn’t difficult to understand why the money that is flowing into places like Hopkins and Placencia isn’t filtering through to the average person. Everything changes when markets go global and the consequences of such rapid development is the cause of much bad feeling.

An airport is soon to be built close by Hopkins and this along with the road upgrade, explains why land speculation has gone through the roof. It is a huge problem, because as outsiders speculate, local people are priced out of the market and suddenly out of the equation.

As you travel through and out of the village to the south many new developments are underway.
In and around Hopkins village many new developments are underway.

Back around Placencia we wander 

along what remains of the mangrove, much of which is likely to disappear as holiday developments begin to pick up apace; but for the moment what remains of this habitat adds an air of mystery to the coastline, particularly from the seaward side, where you can’t help but wonder what lies beyond them.

The seaward side of dense mangrove.
On the seaward side small sections of dense mangrove still remain, but much of it is now sectioned for development.

It is a hot afternoon as Jen and I walk back to the dock to wait for Alice’s boat to re-appear on the horizon. There was a slight breeze this morning which caused a surface ripple across the water, but all is now still, allowing me to take pictures of seahorses amongst the seagrass just off the dock. In the past I’ve worked with captive seahorses in my studio for the B.B.C. which was much easier. Not so much for Jen though because she was the one looking after them. Keeping seahorses healthy in captivity can be labour intensive and requires considerable skill – so don’t even think about it!

Getting a clear shot in this natural setting is far less easy but it is at least ethical. With so much pressure on seahorse habitat now, and the annual trade (particularly in south-east Asia) in millions of these wonderful animals for their erroneous medicinal value, has pushed many of the 50 plus species that we presently know of into general decline.

One of three or four seahorses anchored amongst the weed by their tails as they feed.
One of three or four seahorses anchored by their tails amongst the seagrass and waterweed. These plants provide relatively stable attachments while they feed by sucking in tiny plant and animal prey as it passes.                                                                                                               

It isn’t long before Alice’s dive group arrives back, but there is an air of gloom hanging over the boat. No whale sharks were seen and further research on our part suggests that there have been no reliable sightings by dive groups in local waters for at least two years. One whale shark diving concern recently changed the description of its outings because of this, while others are still trading as whale shark tours; it maybe that the only sharks around here are tour operators. When you dive in the sea, nothing is guaranteed, but to advertise a tour specifically using an animal’s name when there are no representatives in the area is nothing short of deceitful.

Alice saw and photographed a loggerhead turtle - so the dive wasn't a complete waste of time.
Alice saw and photographed this loggerhead turtle – so the dive wasn’t a complete waste of time.

Alice’s loggerhead turtle pictures turned out rather well, but one in particular stands out because it could prove useful as a future means of identification. I have spent much of my photographic career trying to take pleasing pictures of wildlife and for most of my working life have made a living from it; but in truth, apart from making me feel I’ve achieved something personally… what is the use of it? There are plenty of good pictures of turtles, but one that provides reliable identification rather than just a pretty picture could prove far more consequential.

A simple picture from above shows the pattern of the plates or ‘scutes’ on the turtle’s shell, as well as the scales on top of the head; the number and shape of these can provide a reliable means of species identification and when combined with wear and tear body markings may also indicate particular individuals. Certainly when accompanied by a date and location, a record of these patterns can have considerable scientific value.

This is a pleasant enough picture, bit it also useful for identification.
A pleasant enough picture, but also a useful means of identifying an individual.

In the end, the natural wonders of Belize may prove to be a bit like its plumbing in that there are many things here that are resilient to being flushed away, but as the outside world brings with it greater expectations – and a flush of money besides, it may be that almost anything can be sent swirling down the pan. One must hope for better things for this beautiful place, but only time will tell.

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!!!!’

If You Can’t Take a Photograph – Will a Painting Do?

Well… Maybe.

A photograph can be targeted to help save the Planet, or more precisely, benefit present bio-diversity, but what about a painting? Perhaps a painting can provide a more imaginative approach and demonstrate truth more effectively than photography. Our minds relate to stories and a photograph sometimes tells a good one, but paintings can be honed more precisely – nothing need be left to chance – creating an image that really sticks in the mind.

When a few years ago I started photographing eagles on a local nest where generations of birds have reared their young for as long as anybody can remember, I wasn’t expecting such a rapid urbanisation of the surrounding area.

A woodland disappears to urban development only a short walk from the eagles nest.
A woodland disappears to urban development only a short walk from the eagles nest.

A chat with a local resident who has lived here for many years brought home a truth that can only be told with the benefit of time. Once there were six pairs of eagles nesting close by and now we are down to a single pair. Continued runaway development across the Lower Mainland of British Columbia is responsible for the declining availability of eagle hunting habitat and threatens the longterm survival of nest sites. This is important because disappearing eagles are indicators of  failing ecosystems. In another environment some other animal will carry the banner for species diversity and a reliable measure of the health of our planet.

As usual, my story starts elsewhere. Some years ago I was filming during February at The Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, and each day I walked the short distance from my hotel to work. Then, one morning, a sudden gust of wind took my breath away, causing a severe pain in the nerves of my teeth and drove up through my head. I had the sudden impression that my eyeballs had frozen open and imagined myself as a cartoon character in icy motionless mid-walk, about to shatter into a thousand pieces, although in reality I’d made it through the museum doors.

When it's cold  - you just don't go out there!
When it’s really cold –  don’t go out there!

As I was thawing out, I asked a professor how people survived days like this when temperatures dropped well below -20C; I never established exactly how low because nobody wanted to discuss that. He said, mostly, it was about dressing appropriately, but when things got really cold they just didn’t go outside.

Weather in Canada it seems is not simply a question of the wrong clothes, there are days when you could end up a stiff no matter what you are wearing.

Am I standing in front of a one or two storey house? I have no idea.
Away from the mildness of coastal  living –  am I standing in front of a one or two storey Canadian house? I have no idea. Either way, I’m almost on the roof.

Is it any wonder that the mild southern coastal area where I live is so popular. I am one of many outsiders who don’t have the cold tolerance of most Canadians who live in the interior – for more than half the year, winter temperatures fall lower than anything you could experience by sticking your head in the icebox of your fridge.

The mild Lower Mainland is caught  between a rock, a wet place and another country and three things happen when space is limited: people move in, house prices go up and developers make money, but this isn’t a longterm reality because urbanisation can’t continue indefinitely – eventually space runs out and the environment in which we live becomes degraded. And it doesn’t make sense to build on the only location you have for food production with a reliably long growing season.

Worldwide we have colonised the most habitable regions and are increasingly disinclined to share with other species even when they benefit our general wellbeing. Our indifferent attitude to nature is a bit like strangling the canary before going into the mine instead of bringing the bird chirping along with you.

Eaglets
The presence of two well fed eaglets about to fledge suggest a healthy environment.

Eagles are at the pinnacle of a wide range of less charismatic creatures that go largely unnoticed, they are representatives of whole ecosystems,  but once you move beyond using an eagle photo to ask ‘Will they stay or will they go?’ their image can so easily end up as just another agreeable wildlife picture. So, maybe there’s a more startling way to make a point… With a painting.

The claim that painting is dead has reoccured with great regularity over the years, because technology is always moving forward, creating a dazzling array of new ways to make images.

During the 1990s artists became increasingly indulgent – like naughty children they wanted to shock, but the only real shock was the employment of artisans to do their work for them. Then there were the naval gazers. ‘Look at me’, they bleated – ‘I’m full of angst and want to tell my story’. Fortunately, self analysis is no longer cool and science backs up the view that too much introspection is bad for us – looking outwards is far healthier. And then there are the artists still painting fruit bowls and goldfish… Is is any wonder that so many commercial art galleries are empty?

Art is usually related to the period in which it is produced  and ‘now’ couldn’t be a better time to show ourselves as part of nature, rather than living above and dominating it. We can no longer ignore the havoc we are causing and this should be reflected in the art we produce.

Certainly landscape painting is of its time, although in the past it has either romanticised the natural world, or glorified the changes that humans have made.

John Constable’s ‘Hay Wain’ is amongst the most famous and seriously underrated paintings ever made; its artistic reputation steadily eroded over the years to the level of chocolate box art.

The Hay Wain is a romantic idyl for us today, but in its time the painting was a rural reality, and this may explain why it didn't sell when first exhibited - it wasn't romantic enough for the period in which it was painted.
The Hay Wain is a romantic idyl for us today, but in its time the painting was a rural reality, and this may explain why it didn’t sell when first exhibited – it wasn’t romantic enough for the period in which it was painted.

Our understanding of the painting has been seriously skewed by the passage of time. Apart from the course of the river Stour and the usual wild Constable sky, everything else is a construct of man and we might do well to reassess it with the benefit of the passage of 200 years.

Constable moved trees and buildings for artistic convenience, but still he painted a certain reality. Sadly I can’t paint as well as he did; I can’t even copy his technique – he sparkled the surface of his oils with white flecks that are difficult to emulate.

My paintings aren’t in any case a reality; they are allegories that examine our relationship with the natural world. ‘The Mixed Blessing’ was painted under the influence of place; it would not exist if I lived outside of this land of eagles, and relates directly to  a moment in time.

The Mixed Blessing.
The Mixed Blessing.

On one level the baby represents us, and the eagles, the natural world. On another level the baby might be Jesus giving a blessing, and careful examination indicates that the blessing is not all that it at first seems.

Close to the beginning of the Old Testament God says ‘Let man have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air and over the cattle and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creepeth on the earth.’ Genesis 1:26. The King James Bible – a book that would be much shorter if God had been less inclined to repeat things.

At 1:28 God expands his instructions. ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth on the earth.’  This, all too spookily, is a description of our present behaviour. Maybe it’s a co-incidence – perhaps we’d be doing the same things even without God’s rule book, but as a directive – under the present circumstances, the ‘dominion over’ approach is seriously misguided.

I am not concerning myself with either God’s will or his existence, the point is that societies based upon Judeo-Christian foundations adhere to certain doctrinal behaviours, often long after their religions have faded, and that may not be a good thing.

Detail from my painting - not quite up to Leonardo, but in fairness it's tiny.
This detail from my painting – is not quite up to Leonardo, but in fairness it’s tiny compared to the original.

THE STORY OF THE PAINTING.

I’ve painted Jesus as a baby before. I say painted, but all I did was copy ‘Virgin on the Rocks’ by Leonardo Da Vinci. I had two choices because Leonardo painted the subject twice. His first effort hangs in the Louvre and was intended for a church that was paying him a pittance. Leonardo sold it off quickly to another buyer, then rather insultingly took ages to knock out the second painting to fulfil his agreement – this now hangs in the National Gallery and the version I copied to form part of a much smaller painting. It was copied many years ago when I was a student (of Zoology – not art, so I won’t make any false claims about technique!)

Virgin on the Rocks. Leonardo Da Vinci.
Virgin on the Rocks.  by Leonardo Da Vinci.

Baby John is  next to Mary and she is introducing him to Jesus – he is the baby sitting next to the angel to the right, and he is clearly giving a blessing – the action I wanted in the ‘The Mixed Blessing’, because anybody who has a background in art would get the reference straight away, but for most of us this doesn’t matter. Essentially I kidnapped this baby from the National Gallery’s version of ‘Virgin on the Rocks’ for a second time, and spent several days changing the tonal quality of the image to match the ‘all sweetness and light’ sunday school illustrations of childhood.

The original underpainting with the little old man baby
The original underpainting with the little old man baby in place. The Louvre version contains a far more likely baby, but I hadn’t noticed this until recently.

Then my wife saw the painting and told me, ‘this isn’t a baby… it’s a little old man.’ And because she works with babies I was forced to take note. ‘What do you mean…This is Leonardo Da Vinci, we’re talking about’, I told her, but a response based upon experience rather than art was difficult to argue against, and she wasn’t finished. ‘I don’t care who we’re talking about… He can’t paint babies!’, and she was right… I wonder how many art experts have noticed this. Maybe Leonardo couldn’t bring himself to render either Jesus or John as anything other than self aware and not in the malleable clay of infancy. – even as babies he could see only spiritual wisdom.

The final 21st Century baby - perhaps more fitting anyway.
The final 21st Century baby is perhaps more fitting.

I felt my choices narrowing, and so it came to pass that the baby in the nest moved into the 21st Century, and perhaps this was for the best.

If there had never been a Genesis version of ‘In the beginning…’ would we think differently? Or, with the real possibility of a genetic predisposition to believe, might we have travelled  another route to the same conclusion: God/us/the rest of life on Earth?

Without the option to rewind time, there is only scientific evidence to draw upon and this indicates we behave better when we think we’re being watched! Would overcoming this hardwiring in our brains allow us to see with more clarity how things really are.

Could we accept the blindingly obvious?  We are  clever animals but only in comparison with all the other animals –  our brains have limitations. If we accepted that, might we be more inclined to see ourselves as part of, rather than above the natural world.

The ‘sole dominion’ approach clearly hasn’t been a great success in terms of the Planet’s biodiversity, and presently we need to chose diversity over dogma. Maybe it’s time to try something else… Humility perhaps? We might be stuck with faith, but a little logic wouldn’t go amiss; and if we can’t trust ourselves to live without a rule book, then at the very least the rules need to be updated once in a while in the light of new and reliable information.

And God said, ‘Go forth and  be at one with nature’.

If we have to believe something – why not give that one a go. Sadly I’ve lost the Biblical reference, but it has to be in there somewhere.

With thanks to Dorcas for reminding me that God can be a difficult subject to discuss without upsetting somebody.

 Other paintings by Stephen Bolwell can be  seen at: agilispictures.com

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.

See YouTube: BALD EAGLES AND URBAN DEVELOPMENT.

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 :-