A Good Year for Seeing Sandpipers

The Alberni Valley has never been a great place to see sandpipers (called shorebirds among birders). They generally like beaches and rocky coastlines. We see Killdeers, Spotted Sandpipers and Snipe here, the Killdeers and on farmer’s fields, Spotted Sandpipers along gravel bars of rivers and lakeshores and the Snipe in wet areas of fields.

But there is little habitat for the majority of the 20 sandpiper species that regularly pass through. The little habitat that exists is at what’s left of the estuary of the Somass River. And it is pretty inaccessible. For one thing, it is on the other side of the river. You need to drive through the Tseshaht Reserve along the Shoemaker Bay Road till you come to the road into the wastewater treatment ponds, on the left. It’s gated. So you need to walk in from there. That’s a 2.5 km walk along a semi-private road, before you get to the mudflats and gravel islands. And then it has to be low tide.

Or you could hop in a kayak, paddleboard or small boat to get there.

Pair of Least Sandpipers. They are the world’s smallest sandpiper.

This year however, you don’t need to go as far. The City of Port Alberni is near the end of a long construction project to update and improve the water quality of the sewage effluent into the end of the inlet. To do this, it bought the old, unused mill effluent lagoon and converted it to handle human waste. The old lagoon has been “dewatered” leaving a large puddle in the middle surrounded by sludge. It is a wonderful imitation of a mud flat. And it is attracting a nice variety of sandpipers. The walk in is almost half as long.

Young Solitary Sandpiper: Uncommon, you don’t see these in flocks, white spectacles and long yellowish legs.

Last year 4 shorebird species were seen at the estuary in August. In contrast, this year 11 species have been recorded, including Baird’s Sandpiper, Pectoral Sandpiper, both Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, and a Red-necked Phalarope.

Shorebirds are notoriously hard to identify. But digital cameras have made things much easier. One can now take dozens of pictures with exceptionally high performing zoom optics combined with so many features like auto focus, auto camera settings, that good pictures are pretty much guaranteed. So this has helped match the field marks that web pages tell us to look for, to the photo you’ve taken.

But I digress. It’s a good year to see shorebirds at the Somass Estuary!

Marbled Murrelet Nests

In the birding community, that means Marbled Murrelet. We use the first two letters of each word in the name… ,it’s a long story.

You may have heard of them if you have been on the West Coast  for a few years. They’ve been in the news. They are one of the very few animals that require Old Forest to survive.  It’s mandatory, obligatory.

Why, you might ask? Therein lies quite a story. You see Murrelets, are a kind of seabird related to puffins and auks. They spend most of their lives on water, not in trees. And they’re not exactly aerial acrobats either. Just to get airborne, they beat their wings as hard as they can, then they paddle their legs and skip across the water, sometimes plunging through a higher wave, before they get into the air. Once in the air you’ll see their shape is like a little, stout, robin-sized football.  So they don’t turn easily.

The next thing to know about MAMUs, is that they nest in trees in old forest. For a long time biologists couldn’t figure out where they nested. As a rule, this family of birds nests on rocky islets and cliffs, places like that. So that’s where they searched.  Until, in 1976, a tree surgeon who was cutting dead branches high in a huge old Douglas Fir in a State Campground in California. He came nose to beak with a downy young bird. Having no idea what it was, he took it to a Park Naturalist, who identified it. This was the first nest of a Marbled Murrelet ever accepted by the scientific community. Later it was realized that there were several earlier finds in British Columbia, the earliest of which was in 1955, in some old field notes discovered less than 10 years ago (Earliest Well-Described Tree Nest of the Marbled Murrelet: Elk Creek, British Columbia, 1955).

The California nest had been on thick bed of moss on a big gnarly old branch near the top of the tree. There was no actual nest, just the moss.  That’s what it needs to raise its young.

So let’s go back and think about how these birds fly. They aren’t very agile in the air. So flying through forest can be tricky. The nests must be near the tops of the trees for the birds to access them.  Steep slopes and trees that emerge from the general canopy are favoured.  After hatching, the parents go back and forth from the ocean at dawn and dusk, feeding them fish, until they are ready to fly. And when they do fly, they get one chance to get it right. Essentially they just push off the branch and fall until their madly flapping wings catch the air. Their very first flight has to take them as much as 15 km to the ocean.

To conserve the populations of Marbled Murrelets on Vancouver Island the Provincial Government established Wildlife Reserves of old growth. There are only a couple of them around Sproat Lake. It’s not surprising since not much old growth is left there. But there are eight in the Nahmint Valley and a couple more in the Cous Creek Valley. Unfortunately Mosaic Forestry Management has no plans for setting any wildlife reserves aside.

Opinions differ as to whether what has been set aside is sufficient to ensure to viability of Marbled Murrelets in the future.  Remember, old forests don’t last for ever. It just seems like it

Estuary Restoration at the Somass River Mouth

Over the last 10 years, millions of dollars have spent up and down the east coast of Vancouver Island on salmon enhancement, and on habitat restoration. And the spending continues.

The starting 20 years ago, Campbell River estuary has been extensively restored. When I lived there, it was an industrial site with three mills on it. There was mud and concrete everywhere. Large amounts of fill had been brought in to support heavy machinery logs and buildings . Very little was left as suitable habitat for fish. That has all been restored.

Restoration of the Campbell River Estuary

Further down island large amounts of money has been spent on restoring ecological functions to the mouth of Courtenay River. Almost 4 hectares of pavement are being pulled up, a shoreline wall is being removed, waterways are being established and native plants are being reintroduced.

Restoring the mouth of the Courtenay River

Even further down island, the Englishman River has been heavily restored as well. Here, there is a similar story of fill removal, re-establishment of old drainage channels and the purchase of property.

There is much more activity between these drainages being done to “soften” the shoreline and to reduce the impact of invasive Canada Geese on the intertidal zone.

However, very little has been done to restore what’s been done to the Somass Estuary over the same time period. And that’s a shame. The Somass River is arguably the most important salmon river on Vancouver Island.

Bob Cole, who has been around the fishing scene in the community and served on many “fishy” panels and boards over the years, says that thanks to the Robertson Creek Fish Hatchery, the Somass produces more Chinook than any other river on the Island. It also produces far more Sockeye than any other river on the Island, without any help from a hatchery. In fact, only the Fraser River produces more Sockeye in BC. One year it even produced more than that river, Cole says.

One can speculate about why opportunities to do this haven’t materialized. some of it could be that priority has been going to projects in the Georgia Basin. However, this valley experiences many of the same pressures from development that the basin does. We do lack the extensive beach habitat. But we have invasive species, diked creeks, old log sorts, sewage lagoons, creeks diverted, temperature issues in the rivers, dropping populations, and more. In times gone by some work was done to improve the situation by the Alberni Valley Enhancement Association.

Two small “sedge benches” were constructed, one in Shoemaker Bay and the other a couple of hundred meters down the inlet along the Log watering road. Then Ducks Unlimited with several partners bought the area ,that was originally called the J.V. Clyne Bird Sanctuary, in 1991 from Weyerhaeuser. It includes a hay meadow a marsh north of the pipeline, a fringe of old growth next to the river, and Johnston Island. At that time a dike was built along the east boundary to prevent tide water from flooding the poplar plantation next door. this was a condition of the sale. The dike was planted with native vegetation a few years later. The access road has had two culverts replaced with bridges and a larger culvert added in another place. Lastly another bridge was added to provide smolts access to the best habitat in the estuary

Two other projects are looming on the horizon. One is the restoration of the old City sewage lagoon that will be decommissioned when the new wastewater treatment plan is brought into service. Almost $200,000 has been set aside for that. And the other, is more of an idea rather than a real project

The other one is, so far, just an idea. Former councillor, Chris Alemany is gathering support for rewilding the Dry Creek estuary, former location of the Tseshaht village before contact.

But there is still plenty to do at the Somass Estuary. Way back in 2003 the Alberni Valley Enhancement Society along with 14 other organizations from business government and conservation organization hired a consultant to write a report called the Somass Estuary Management Plan. It details many projects that could be carried out. Only a fraction of them have been acted on.

Burde Street Property Not The Proper Place for High Density Housing

In a meeting on Tuesday morning with Mayor Sharie Minions said told that Burde Street Ponds is not the proper place for high density housing. The proper place is closer to the core areas of the city. She went on to say that the days of accepting any development proposal put before council being approved are over.

Minions went on to say that this town has changed a great deal since she was first elected to council. That we are no longer desperate. She recognises that since the announcement in August, this development proposal has a very high profile in the community, and that is important that the City proceeds properly with plenty of community participation. But community input cannot proceed until a plan and an application is in place. So it is still early days.

It seems there has been a great deal of confusion over this development on the part of the San Group and Pacific Mayfair Estates. The Initial application was incomplete. To my knowledge, they still have yet to submit a complete application. Last August they hired Mike Butler to conduct community consultation. However without a solid proposal it was difficult for him to do his job. According to San spokes person, Mike Ruttan, he ended up making commitments that he was not authorized to make. And he lost his job during the Christmas period. He emphasized that the company is making no commitments at this point. The San Group has has hired a solid architectural firm to develop a proper proposal. So things may be on the right track for them.

So, it seems we are back at square one. But, it gives those of us who are concerned about the future of this property an opportunity to find out more about the ponds and the needs of the wildlife around and in them. Here are some questions.

  1. How far up Wolfe Creek do do salmon fry go?
  2. Where are the Red-legged Frogs living on the property?
  3. Where are the egg nesting grounds for the Painted Turtles?
  4. How much of the property is necessary to sustain a family of beavers?

19 Jan 2022

More Talk on the Burde Street Ponds

It’s been two-and-a-half months since the San Group gave a press conference announcing a billion dollar investment around two beautiful woodland ponds just inside the the city limits of Port Alberni. Shock waves have been rippling through the city as people digested the news. Letters of opposition have appeared in the local newspaper. A Facebook group with just under 400 members has been very active with people anxiously speculating on the impact this would have on the wildlife and atmosphere around the ponds. And the San Group has been silent until very recently.

Last Friday afternoon Mike Butler, their Marketing & Media Relation Manager,  invited me to their offices for a chat. When I arrived there was something going on in the board room, I believe the Minister for Housing, also our local Member of the Legislature and her staff, were being briefed about the development. I met Mike Butler who brought me to his office. He told me they are going to amend the original application. There are a bunch of changes. Below is a list Butler sent me. I will comment on each point after this list.

  • They will be lowering the density by 50-55% to 1200 units,
  • They will be keeping the beavers,
  • They will be keeping trees along Log Train Trail and the trail staying where it is. They are also exploring putting the trees in a trust along the Log Train Trail to preserve them for future generations. The distance is still to be determined at various segments, 
  • The construction techniques proposed are all to be green construction building and green energy use methods that they plan to share publicly shortly.
  • The 10 year to 30 year construction time-line will slowly introduce new housing in the area being respectful of existing home owners on a price and traffic level. We do plan on offering local residents lease to own options based on job qualifications. The lease to own option is still to be determined based on feedback. 
  • They are in negotiations with the city about donation of a 30 meter setback from the ponds in trade with another piece of property the city owns. 

Lowering the density of homes to 1200 units still means that this will be a very dense neighbourhood, with at least 2400 people packed onto about 55 acres. The original property is given as 73 acres, so I deducted an estimated area of the ponds and the 5% that the city would legally require for park land. That’s about 45 people per acre. Very dense.

The consequences of such density will mean that so many parents and children will be using this area that it will quickly degenerate. Even with high fences and controlled access points, the beaver, the turtle and the ducks will leave, in my opinion. More research is needed to confirm this.

I’m glad they will keep the beavers. But in order to maintain their presence the habitat would have to be carefully managed to avoid disturbance in the early morning hours and in the evening hours. Enough forage must be kept in the area to ensure a food supply for them. Consideration has to made for what happens to the kits when they are old enough to leave home. Dogs should not be allowed to cool off in the ponds.

The idea of a trust for the trees along the Log Train Trail is a good one. But without anything specific, it doesn’t amount to much. This will have to be negotiated.

It is nice that the San Group is seriously looking at constructing the home with the environment in mind. One of Mike’s colleagues spent some time on explaining their green techniques to me. They are planning to use oriented strand board with foam sandwiched between them in panels. No mention was made about their R values. I was also shown images of solar panels. These are all good initiates but they don’t address the immediate environmental effects on the ponds themselves.

The long construction timeline may be beneficial in that it may keep options open when assessing the impact of the starting construction. Construction could start in a part of the property well away from the ponds. Originally the plan was to built over 5 to 8 years. I hope the city doesn’t get locked into unfavourable agreements that will have to be honoured 30 years down the road.

The last point is very concerning. The idea that they are donating land is very misleading. Section 510 of the Local Government Act says that in a development like this the developer MUST dedicate some of their land to park. The best practise used is 5%. I don’t know where this figure comes from. I can’t find it in the legislation. I’m following this up. So the best you can say is that it is a mandatory donation that is agreeable to the city

To further muddy the water, Butler says that they are in negotiations with the city to find other property to compensate for this loss of property. Our Mayor says they are not in negotiations. There must be some mix up.

Some Links

Native Mistletoe

It’s still a bit early for a Christmas blog. Nevertheless I’ll write about it because I made an interesting observation the other day. It a case of mistletoe on a Douglas fir tree nearby. OK, interesting to me.

The mistletoe that most people are familiar with is the European one associated with Christmas. It has leaves and white berries and grows in clumps on many different broad-leafed shrubs and trees.

Although both are parasitic, the mistletoe plant on Vancouver island is very different. It is tiny, hardly visible at all. The biggest they get is 8 cm or 3 inches high.

If you want to find any, you need to go fir a hike somewhere there are young Western Hemlock trees growing, and start looking at the ends of the branches. It parasitizes Western Hemlock mostly. So they named it Western Hemlock Dwarf-mistletoe. Anyway, look for infections in larger hemlocks nearby. You can tell because the larger trees have deformed branches called brooms caused by the mistletoe infection. When the seeds are ready, they pop out going some distance. The seeds are sticky, so the lucky ones stick to foliage below them. Wind doesn’t affect them much, so the spread of infected trees is around 20 m.

According to everything I was taught, only one species of mistletoe appears on Vancouver Island, Arceuthobium tsugense. Although it infects Western Helmlock mostly, it is known to infect lodgepole pine on Vancouver Island. and very rarely, Douglas Fir. So when I saw a very large broom high in an old Douglas Fire in a City Park in Port Alberni, it piqued my interest.

I sent an email to a forest pathologist at the Pacific Forestry Centre as well as the photo above. He is keen to get a sample of the plant. That means climbing the tree in the photo above. Anyone have the skills and equipment to do that?

References:

https://phytopath.ca/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/cpds-archive/vol58/CPDS_Vol_58_No_2_(31-32)1978.pdf https://linnet.geog.ubc.ca/Atlas/Atlas.aspx?iname=Arceuthobium%20tsugense
https://www.cabi.org/isc/datasheet/6857
https://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/fsbdev2_043670.pdf

Take a Hike to Snag Lake

Took a hike last Thursday to Snag Lake. We drove to Sutton Pass and then took the logging road to the right and drove to a crossroads just before a bridge that takes you to a First Nations power station.

The plan was to hike the road to the end and then go a couple of hundred meters along the Witness Trail, built during the War in the Woods. At the end there is a view of the lake. It turned out we could have driven about half of the 8 km distance all the way to a very old and decrepit bridge. The road is 2WD and gravel with minor washouts. Your vehicle might get scratched a little too.

Shortly before the bridge there is a good campsite. It would handy base camp for those considering an overnight visit.

After the bridge, the trail is pretty brushed in. It’s going to need brushing next year. But you can still follow the trail if you pay attention.

Approaching the slide

At the end of the road is a decrepit kiosk with the posts slightly askew. Inside is a grungy old map of the Witness Trail.

From there the trail gets rough. You leave the road behind and climb along a faint trail through brush, braken and young trees. Fortunately there is only 200 meters of this before you come out at the top of a bluff with a cliff below it…and a great view of the slide that blocked the Kennedy River and created Snag Lake. It was a great place for lunch and photography before trudging back along the road.

The top is a vertical cliff. The “cone” consists of finer material at the top and coarse boulders the size of cabins at the bottom.

Chinook Smolts in the Somass Estuary

A couple of weeks ago I was watching Global News at Six. A story about the future of the Squamish Spit came on. As I watched, I realised that they had exactly the same issue that we have here in our estuary with respect to Chinook salmon smolts.

In their case, a long narrow berm of fill was built out onto the mudflat of the Squamish River many years ago. It was to serve as part of a coal port that never materialized. The trouble with it is that this “Squamish Spit” separates the river that salmon smolts descend, from the estuary the estuary where they adapt to salt water. For salmon, especially Chinook Salmon, estuaries are critical habitats. Chinook Salmon more dependent on the estuaries than any other salmon species .

Conservationists have long recognised the situation and have called for the berm to be removed. But they are opposed by the Squamish Windsports society who regard their access to the winds of Howe Sound as “Canada’s Premier Kite-boarding Location. It looks like the windsports society is not going to win this one and that the spit will be breached to allow the smolts access to the rest of the estuary.

It you substitute a couple of lagoons for the spit, you have the same situation right here in Port Alberni. All the Chinook Salmon smolts have to travel out into the inlet, around our wastewater lagoons and Johnstone Island.

The Alberni Valley Enhancement Association was able to secure funds to conduct a study of juvenile Chinook use of the estuary and confirmed a similar situation exists here at the mouth of the Somass River.

From the report: “Much of the estuary’s eastern shoreline (river-side) has been hardened through industrial, commercial and residential development, and much of the western estuary (i.e., Phil’s Bench area) has been cut-off from direct river connectivity by historic diking and channel-filling practices. Salmon fry and smolts attempting to rear in central and western reaches of the estuary must now migrate around the south end of Johnstone Island (which is no longer an island), and move passively or actively back on-shore in order to find suitable habitats. Given their relatively small size and limited swimming ability, it is problematic whether a majority of naturally-spawned Chinook fry can successfully complete this journey each spring.

So the AVEA recognised this situation and secured funds to replace a part of the access road between the ponds with a small bridge. However, it was recognised that the wastewater effluent from the old pond, that currently empties into the river would then also flow into the lagoon and ruin the water quality. So a dam was built as a temporary solution until the new wastewater plant was completed. The new plant discharges underwater 800m out into the harbour.

I mentioned that the bridge is a small one. Indeed it is. It is only 4 or 5 m across. The other two bridges over flood channels to the are almost twice as big.

Unfortunately the design of the new lagoon didn’t include a longer bridge, or another bridge. There is room to build one, but the opportunity to do so has likely been foreclosed. There is some hope that some of the money set aside for the decommissioning the old lagoon could be used to ensure that water flows freely under the bridge.

It is too bad that, unlike Squamish, this community doesn’t yet appreciate the importance of restoring the only part of the Somass Estuary that is relatively intact. It is only a third of its original size. No wonder the Chinook stocks are struggling.

References: The Importance of Estuarine Habitats on Anadromous Salmonids of the Pacific Northwest: a literature review. page 7.

What is the future of the Squamish Spit

Squamish Windsports Society proposes municipal park at Spit launch site

Somass River Estuary ‒ Juvenile Chinook Salmon Habitat Use Pilot Study ‒ Year 2 (Spring 2014)

A Canadian Tree Species Only Found in the Alberni Valley, and Vancouver Island

It’s Oregon Ash; in Latin, it’s Fraxinus latifolia. And it has a confused story. One confusing thing about it is that besides the trees on Vancouver Island, the rest are in the United States. Another is that my sources are divided on whether it is a native tree, introduced, or naturalized.

The Conservation Data Centre of BC regards it as a native tree, and has designated it S1S2 which means imperiled or critically imperiled. But it muddies the situation when the report comments “Only 2 of the populations (Port Alberni and, Saanich) appear to be of native origin.” Apparently, they can also be found in some urban landscapes around Victoria and Duncan.

In the United States, the natural range of this tree extends through Puget Sound south to Southern California.

What’s it look like, you may wonder. It’s a deciduous broad-leafed tree. It doesn’t get all that tall. It is the only native tree around here that has a compound leaf. The seeds have wings similar to maple seeds. You’ll find it around wet fertile areas where there is lots of black organic mater, not peat.

I know where there are some specimens. But because they are considered imperiled you’ll have use torture to get me to say where. But I think there are more that haven’t been discovered. So if you are out for a walk, keep your eyes open for this tree.

But don’t mistake it for an introduced ash tree in someone’s yard. There are two other Ashes that are planted around here: European Ash and Green Ash. I’m going to leave how to tell these apart for you to research.

Oregon Ash May flowers

China Creek Falls

Six kilometers south of Port Alberni, just past the shop yard where logging machinery is repaired, there is a trail head. There is no sign announcing it; just a turnout in the road to Bamfield. A big yellow gate. bars access to a road that leads into a big gravel pit. There are no signs that tell a person which, of a myriad of tracks, leads to a very impressive waterfall.

The hike to China Creek is perhaps 25 minutes, Ten to get to the junction at the creek and another 15 to climb up to the Falls. The last part of the trail is steep up onto a bluff overlooking the creek, and then there is a very steep scramble to get a view of the falls from bottom. The trail goes a bit further upstream for a view from the top.

Hiking downstream is very easy and fun. You come across three clear beautiful pools to loiter by for a picnic a swim or to just skip rocks. You might find swimming a little bit cool as the water comes from snow melting up high. In mid April you’ll find an impressive show of Pink Fawn Lilies (Erythronium revolutum for the naturalists).

The path along the creek ends where the McFarlane Creek joins the main stem. From there a path heads uphill toward the gate where vehicles park…I think! I have never explored that one.

Want a map? Click this: https://www.google.com/maps/@49.1839269,-124.7578915,16.25z/data=!4m2!6m1!1s1ZA03h30Eo6cv8DIF1bgo2RN716xbPFnx

NB. There has been some recent logging near the trail in the last couple of months. 8 Mar 2022