Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Making Connections in Metchosin – It’s not all just speed dating…

If you’ve ever been to some of the Talk and Walks, you might have met Andy MacKinnon. Andy is one of those rare individuals who is a natural born teacher. He combines his expertise in forest ecology, his passion for our wild lands and his innate sense of humour to produce unforgettable presentations that leave you spellbound and open to the mysteries that still abound in science.
Such was the case on November 9, 2012 as we listened to Andy’s Talk on Making Connections in Metchosin, Mycorrhizal or Romantic?
Ancient Douglas-fir (and my grandson!)
Andy began the talk by reminding us that 5,634 ha (76%) of Metchosin is forested and the signature organism of our District is the Douglas-fir, named after David Douglas, an early explorer and plant collector. In 1825 Douglas measured one fir that was 227 ft tall and 48 ft in circumference! We don’t have many old giants left in Metchosin as most of the District has been previously logged, but there are a few.
The area bounded by Parry Bay to William Head Rd is shown on old maps as a Garry oak woodland, one of Canada’s most endangered ecosystems, most of the remaining District is forested with a mixture of tree species, of which Douglas-firs and conifers are predominant.
Andy posed the question “Why do we have Douglas-firs in Metchosin?” and the answer, as you would suspect, is partly from climate - the sun, moisture, heat and cold, partly because of the soil composition – the depth, the nutrients and drainage, and also, and perhaps most importantly, because of mushrooms.
The mushrooms we see are the above ground fruiting bodies of underground organisms. Andy likens them to the apples on a tree or you can think of them as the tip of the iceberg, where most of the bulk is concealed below. This association between plant roots and fungi is called mycorrhizae from the Greek mykos for fungus and riza for root. These very fine, microns thick, fungal filaments attach themselves to the roots of plants in various ways. In the case of most of our conifers (except western redcedars), the association is with fungus filaments that surround the root hairs, called ectomycorrhizae. Almost any large mushroom you will find in our forests belongs to this group. The mass of mushroom filaments gather water and minerals and supply them to the trees, which in turn, makes sugars that are shared with the mushrooms.
Under the title “Lifestyles of the Rich and Fungal” Andy divided mushrooms in four lifestyles.
Saprophytes feast on decaying organic matter and include oyster, fairy ring, witch’s butter and magic mushrooms. 
Honey Mushrooms

Parasites feed on living creatures, the edible honey mushrooms, the world’s largest organism belong here. Through DNA testing, one fruiting honey mushroom was identified to be twenty km across in size! Another of the parasites is the lobster mushroom, which invades a mushroom, usually the short-stemmed russula, and in the process produces a delicious, edible fungus. Conks found on trees are also parasites and there was an enormous artist conk (so called because the white underside stains brown when scratched) on display at the talk, courtesy of Kevin Trim.
Not many people realize that lichens also have a relationship to the fungus family. They are the product of an association between a fungus and an alga and/or with cyanobacteria. The fungus makes up to ninety to ninety-five percent of the lichen. In this case the fungus cultivates the alga/cyanobacteria inside itself, to produce sugars that are shared with the fungus and in return, the alga and/or cyanobacteria use the fungus as a protective home.
Camas with Reindeer Lichen
Some mushrooms can also be predators; the jellys are in this group, secreting a substance that traps amoebas, roundworms and rotifers. After they are immobilized, the fungus inserts one of its filaments into the prey, killing it and consuming the organism.
Two thousand species of fungus have been documented having a mycorrhizal association with Douglas-firs. At any one time there can be a dozen species of fungus attached to any one tree, which might also be attached to further trees nearby, even to different tree species, this has been termed, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, the wood-wide web. In a study by Suzanne Simard (Nature, Aug 1997), it was shown that nutrients are shared among trees by the fungal mycorrhizal networks and that when one of these partnerships is stressed (such as a tree being shaded), additional nutrients are shipped to that tree to help it survive. It has been conjectured that saving multiple tree species gives the fungus an advantage if a natural disaster or cycle, such as fire or disease should wipe out a species. You could make a case that the mushrooms are farming the trees!
In a January 2010 article of New Phytologist, research was described that mapped the belowground connections between two fungus species and Interior Douglas-firs in a 100m x 100m plot. It was shown that these associations promote the health and development of juvenile trees. Additionally, it seems to be that the old veteran trees have more connections to more trees (one old tree was connected by the mycorrhizal network to forty-seven other trees), than do younger trees. The myriad connections which are possible with older trees, the ability to shunt nutrients and water between so many trees, helps to stabilize the forest ecosystems. Something that should be considered in future forest management plans.
Other plants besides trees have beneficial relationships with mycorrhizal fungus, in fact 94% of all plant species in the world have these associations.
Coralroots, some of our beautiful orchid species that lack chlorophyll, were previously thought to be saprophytes, plants that feed on decaying wood. That theory as been proved inaccurate and we now know that coralroots are part of the fungal web that is also associated with conifers. Spotted coralroots have a relationship with the various Russulas, as does Indian-pipe and striped coralroots with Tomentella fungal species.
Spotted Coralroot

Candysticks are another intriguing species that lack chlorophyll and are associated with mushrooms. In this case, where you find candysticks, you will find the delectable pine mushrooms.
Salal, huckleberries, blueberries, arbutus and other ericoid species, generally found in nutrient poor soils, have beneficial relationships with ericod mycorrhiza, which extract nitrogen from decaying organic matter so that it is available to their plant partners.
Salal Flowers

Tracing the thousands of kilometers of myriad fungi filaments that shunt water and nutrients between plants, DNA sequencing, all of this underground, presents huge challenges to the research of associations and relationships between plant species and mycorrhizal fungi. There is a growing awareness that the old concept of survival of the fittest through competitive forces is not the only survival story in nature. The beneficial mycorrhizal relationships of mushrooms with other plants are based on a cooperative approach that nature has taken. From looking at our forests through a single species lens, to the acknowledgement that forest species are all interconnected will have far ranging consequences for ecosystem management.
Next time you are in forest and spy a few mushrooms, so small and almost insignificant compared to the towering conifers and wide-spreading maples, consider that without the mushroom networks, there would be no forests.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Metchosin’s Largest Nest Box (Steller's Jay)

What a spring! I know, so long ago, and now we are now at the tail end of summer. But it was memorable for me, not just because of the unrelenting, grey, damp chill we all endured, but also because of the birds. Nature has a way of making even a disappointing stretch of weather enjoyable.
A pair of Steller’s jays blessed my yard with their presence, nesting in what is probably the largest nest box in Metchosin. They took advantage of an unused canoe that has been stored upside down alongside my shed. The woven seat, protected by the canoe’s upturned bottom suited them just fine as they successfully raised five chicks. 
Steller's Jay Nest
Five Steller's Jay fledglings, two days before leaving the nest
Walking by the shed would produce a cacophony of scolding and some rather stern looks. I managed to take a photo of the five chicks, just a four or five days before they fledged, by angling a mirror over the nest and shooting up into the mirror. Not the best quality shot but rewarding to see the open-mouthed, demanding, little tykes. A few days later the nest was empty and the parents were diligently teaching the young how to feed at the suet cakes.
Going back a bit, to the first annual Metchosin BioBlitz in 2011, we had the exciting discovery of a pair of western bluebirds, the first seen around Metchosin in almost thirty years. That exciting discovery prompted a move to have some bluebird nest boxes put up in likely locales, in the hopes some bluebirds might return, spot the boxes and set up housekeeping.
After a call-out to the community, many residents came forward, offering to have a bluebird nestbox placed on their property. Unfortunately, not all locales are suitable for what is believed to be their criteria: open areas, near forests, with good perching and hunting conditions, no cats, nor house sparrows. Eventually thirty-nine boxes were erected.
Unfortunately, the nest boxes were not successful in enticing any bluebirds to the area but they were well used regardless. Of the nineteen I helped install, ten had active nests, one violet-green swallow, seven house wren and two chestnut-backed chickadee families were started. 
House Wren Nest
Fledgling House Wren
 One box had a beautiful grass nest constructed, similar to the ones made by bluebirds (be still my heart), but no activity, another two had partially constructed house wren nests (it is common for male house wrens to construct multiple nests and the female chooses which best suits her exacting requirements). Of the nineteen nest boxes, thirteen had some sort of nesting activity. 
Chestnut-backed Chickadee Nest

It’s not always possible to see into the nests to ascertain exactly the status of the inhabitants, but in some cases I was able to view the interiors with the help of a mirror. I saw at least ten young house wrens, plus another three eggs, five chickadee eggs and four young-but dead swallow chicks.
The violet-green swallows have been having a tough time breeding successfully for a few seasons now. Perhaps the cold, wet springs don’t supply enough insects to feed the chicks. I’m thankful one family did manage to survive at Camas Hill this year, maybe because they started much later than usual.
A further twenty boxes were placed along William Head area in what seems to be perfect habitat but only one was used, by swallows, and another two had to be removed because house sparrows found them too attractive. We don’t want to help house sparrows reproduce, they are an introduced, invasive species, through no fault of their own, but they will out-compete many of our native songbirds. 
Observing nest building, watching the parents tirelessly deliver food to their young, the joy of knowing the young have survived and flown from their nests, is powerful medicine that helps combat any sort of blues.
Here’s to a long, lingering fall, endowed with uncommonly good weather!

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

A Passion for Mexican Butterflies!

White Peacock

Mexican Crescent

One of the most pleasant aspects of retirement is finding you now have the leisure to explore and enjoy new interests. The last few years I have been visiting Mexico more and more often. One of my children has settled there, friends are vacationing and buying property in different areas of Mexico and I find the culture, climate and biodiversity both intriguing and relaxing. One of the passions I indulge on every possible occasion (along with chocolate…) is the thrilling hunt to find moth and butterfly species; whether new, or familiar favourites, they never fail to lift my spirits!
Mexico has a huge diversity of butterflies, at least 1,750 species can be found there. From the lowlands to the mountaintops, from the plains to the mangroves, there are always some butterflies on the prowl. Of course you will find more species at certain times of the year, when nectar-laden flowers reach peak abundance. 
Two-barred Flasher

Butterflies are not only beautiful flying jewels (the iridescent blues of a Two-barred Flasher or the complex and vibrant patterning of a Tanmark will take your breath away), but they also exhibit fascinating strategies for survival.
Bow-winged Tanmark

Hairstreaks have a threadlike tail that can be mistaken for the butterfly’s antennae. A hungry bird will often notice the tail first and take a bite, which, if luck is with the butterfly, will only damage the wings. 
I’ve seen countless butterflies with bits and pieces missing, but they are still able to pursue their primary focus, to find a mate. The large “eyes” that can be found on Buckeyes and Owlets (and many moths) are another example of false targets.
Tiger-eye Hairstreak


Some butterflies use colouration as camouflage, the green of a Malachite can be difficult to find amid the lush subtropical forest it inhabits, while the shape and subtle shades of a Cracker make it almost indistinguishable from the bark on a tree. 

Grey Cracker: Now you see me...
Now you Don't!

Caterpillars of Viceroy and Swallowtail butterflies resemble bird droppings at some point in their development.
Swallowtail caterpillar
Mimicry is another form of protection. Sporting similar colours to a Monarch, which is poisonous, can deceive a predator into thinking that you, too, are not worth the risk of indigestion.


 Did you know that butterflies will sip from almost any flower that supplies nectar, but their caterpillar young feed only on very specific plants? Many people are delighted by butterflies and grow flowers that attract them into their gardens. However, if you don’t know which foods nourish the caterpillars (passionflowers for Zebra Heliconians and Gulf Fritillaries), you might inadvertently be removing and killing their juvenile stage. 
Zebra Heliconian
Learning the life histories of any species gives me a greater understanding of their needs and the importance of preserving their habitat. Protecting natural habitat insures that food plants for all stages of their butterfly lives are available and we can continue to be enchanted at their flamboyant or cryptic forms far into the future.

Scintillant species

If you’re interested in identifying Mexican butterflies, there is a great field guide available for sale online: A Swift Guide to Butterflies of Mexico and Central America by Jeffrey Glassberg at
Mexican Dartwing
They also offer guided butterfly tours:

Fine-lined hairstreak, wings open

Mexican Fritillary
Tropical Buckeye

Friday, June 1, 2012

Giant Pacific Octopuses - No Mother Could Give More!

No matter how many Talk and Walk presentations I attend, I am constantly amazed at the breadth and depth of knowledge that people freely and generously give.
April was a case in point when Jim Cosgrove, former head of Natural History Collections at RBCM, agreed to come out to Metchosin to give a talk on octopuses.
His enthusiasm and fondness for these sea creatures was evident throughout the evening as he informed and amused with his twenty plus years of research and experiences with these mollusks.
And it is octopuses, not octopi (which is a pie of eight servings...).
These amazing and intelligent creatures are cephalopods, in the same phylum, Mollusca, as squid and cuttlefish and their terrestrial relatives of which we are more familiar, slugs and snails.
Two of the world's 300 plus octopus species are generally found off BC's shores. The Ruby octopus (Octopus rubescens) only weights 100 to 400 grams, with arms that reach thirty to forty cm. The Giant Pacific Octopus (O. dofleini), with a range from California to Korea, is considered the largest of all octopuses. Jim once found a specimen that measured almost seven metres across (twenty-two feet) and weighed over seventy kilograms (156 lbs). Wikipedia reports the largest ever found weighed 600 lbs and had an arm spread of thirty feet (that’s 272 kilograms and over nine meters)! Generally they mature at thirty-five lbs, about sixteen kg, with an arm span of fourteen feet, a little over four metres.
Octopuses do not have tentacles, they have eight arms, covered with 200 very sensitive suckers per arm. Fifty percent of their nerves are located in their arms, which have enormous strength, one sucker (3.5 to 4 inches across) can lift thirty-five lbs (sixteen kg), times 200 suckers, well...that is brute strength can't pull them from their dens. The suckers are used to explore their world, tasting whatever they touch.
Besides humans - harbour seals, sea lions, some beaked whales, ling cod and halibut are their usual predators - creatures that use their visual sense to hunt. Octopuses have developed a range of strategies in order to evade capture. Specialised cells in their skin, called chromatophores, which can change colour and texture in a fraction of a second, are an effective, primary means of avoiding predation, when they appear to disappear. Hiding in rocks, shells and crevices, fleeing at great speed, and of course, shooting jets of "ink" are all in their arsenal of survival techniques. Their eyes are not restricted by any bone structure, so they can move anywhere in their head, giving them a further advantage in eluding predators.
They generally propel themselves by pushing their arms back or through "jet propulsion", where they take in water and forcefully release it through a siphon.
As predators, octopuses gather their prey into the upper part of their arms, the interbrachial web, which can form a large sac. An anesthetic is injected into this area, immobilising their prey. They can then either use their rasp-like tongue to drill into a shell, or their powerful beak to break it apart; their salivary glands reduce the meat into a fluid they can ingest. At dawn and dusk, Giant Pacific adult octopuses hunt crabs and clams, but will also hunt and consume larger species such as dogfish. Recently, a story and photos of an octopus catching a gull off the rocks at Ogden Point in Victoria has garnered international attention.
An octopus has a short life span, often only two or three years, although the Giant Pacific Octopus can live up to five years, which is remarkable when you consider their amazing intelligence and the fact they do not receive any knowledge directly from their parents. They learn through trial and error, although octopuses in neighboring tanks have learned from observing each other.
There are many documented instances of a captive octopus leaving it's supposedly secure tank, slithering across aquarium and lab floors, entering other fish tanks and consuming the fish, then returning to their own tanks. Staff would be scratching their heads, wondering how all the fish had disappeared without a trace with no intruder alarms sounding. It wasn't until videos were installed to watch the suspicious night-time activities that the true culprit was identified.
In another show of their intelligence, an octopus was placed in a tank with a jar, which it was left to explore for several days. Eventually the scientists placed a crab in the jar, and within a short period of time, the octopus was able to remove the crab. Then they put a cork on the jar and within a few minutes, the octopus was able to pop the cork and again remove the crab. They continued to make it harder and harder for the octopus to get at the crab in the jar and each time the octopus was able to open the jar and remove the crab. It could remember this even after months had gone by. I only wish my own memory was half as good! With another octopus test subject, the octopus was one step ahead of the scientists and as soon as it saw them enter the room, it would enter the jar and wait for the crab!
I think all parents have considered at one time or another that they have made great sacrifices for their children, I'm convinced that the worry of my children's teenage misadventures has probably reduced my life expectancy by a number of years....
We hold no candle to a mother octopus though! When a female Giant Pacific Octopus  is ready to reproduce, at three to four years, she gives off a pheromone to attract a mate. The male will transfer a sperm sac which she will store for about a month as she searches for the perfect den, usually under an overhanging boulder. She will then amass a large pile of rocks and eventually seal herself into the den.
She individually fertilizes each one of her 55,000 to 75,000 eggs and glues them onto strings holding about 175 eggs each, which she attaches to the ceiling. When this has been accomplished, over approximately one month, she devotes her attention to keeping them groomed and clean of algae and bacteria, or anything else that might hinder their development. She continually blows air around the eggs, to provide a constant supply of oxygen. The minute (.028 gram) babies, called paralarvae, only the size of a grain of rice, hatch in 240-270 days. Again the mother works tirelessly to help her babies by blowing water and thrashing the eggs, which aids them in their escape from their embryonic sacs. Without this motherly intervention, most babies would not be able to hatch. During this entire time the mother has not left her nest, or eaten - losing half to three quarters of her weight.  She dies 220 to 270 days after reproduction, which can mean that some mothers might die before their young have fully developed and hatched. Even with a successful brood, it's estimated that only two, of her 75,000 octopus babies, will survive to adulthood.
Males are sexually mature at three and a half years, after mating they will live only a short period, becoming senescent and displaying inappropriate behaviour....sometimes crawling onto land and following people.
Octopuses are fascinating creatures, living in a marine world that is alien to most of us. Their adaptable minds and bodies have evolved survival mechanisms far outside of our terrestrial adaptations. But no amount of evolutionary success will enable them to withstand the effects of shipping accidents and oil spills and the over-harvesting of our oceans.

picture from:

Monday, March 26, 2012

A Society of Crows

(crow painting by my sister Brenda Bernat)
Quote from Reverend Henry Ward Beecher's admiring words, “If men had wings and bore black feathers, few of them would be clever enough to be crows”

In mid-March, Rob Butler, a pre-eminent BC birder and bird researcher, gave a “Talk” on our local crows to a packed and appreciative audience, the forty-eighth presentation of the Talk and Walk series. Rob’s passion and love for his subject was equaled by the enthusiasm of the attendees.
Wise Guys
Calling them “Wise Guys”, Rob explained that our crows are a species known as Northwestern Crow (Corvus caurinus), occurring from Alaska through BC and into northwestern Washington State. They decrease in abundance with increasing distance from the coast and increase in elevation. Most birds nest within a few kilometers of the sea. Members of the Corvid family, which includes ravens and jays; they are clever, superior in intelligence to most other birds and rival the brainpower of many non-human primates. One anecdote showed them to be smarter than his graduate students! The research involved hiding food in a large container filled with kitty litter. The crows were able to accurately remember the exact location of the food almost every time, but the graduate students were dismal failures at the task.
The crows ability to learn from observation is culturally transmitted to other crows. Crows can often be seen dropping shellfish onto hard surfaces, in order to crack them open. In Japan, a few very observant crows figured out that if they dropped a nut onto a busy street, a car would run over it and make the nut cracking a sure thing. They even learned to use the street lights. Waiting until the light turns red, they walk out and carefully place the nut where the tires will run over them, then they fly back, watch the nuts get cracked as the light turns green; when it goes back to red, they calmly walk out and retrieve their cracked nuts…This mode of nut cracking has been slowly making it’s way out into the wider crow population, as crows learn the successful behaviour from observing other crows.
Bird researchers build blinds, in order to study birds nesting. They slowly inch the blind closer to their subjects, until they can study them, unnoticed, as close as possible, which works well for most birds. However, it appears that crows can count and if they see two or three people going into a blind, they will patiently outwait the researchers, not coming close enough to be studied until the number of researchers who went into the blind equals the number who have left. Crows will even go peak into the vents to make sure they have all decamped.
Crows routinely construct tools, they will remove a leaf from a tree, rip the petiole until they have the shape they want and use the resultant hook to remove grubs from crevices in trees. In laboratories, crows have used wires to perform the same feat, being able to access previously inaccessible food sources. The will even wrap the wire around an object until it forms a hook.
Rob went on to explain that crows and humans may have co-evolved. The argument for this is a bit convoluted…this is how the theory goes:
Early humans on the African savannah were most likely scavengers;
Wolf pack size dictates how much is eaten by each wolf, the optimum size and best per capita return is nine;
Nine wolves are better at keeping away scavengers (crows) and do better than a lone wolf;
Early humans would scavenge large carcasses;
Those with the brain capacity to cooperate succeed in keeping other scavengers away like the wolf pack);
Brain capacity improves in response to success in cooperation;
Cooperative groups become hunters of large prey;
Large prey supports larger groups;
Therefore crows helped human brains develop and humans provide more food for scavenging crows = co-evolution
There is evidence that early First Nations and crows had a natural co-evolution in which First Nation people dried salmon, the crows would try to steal the salmon. Keeping the salmon safe from the crows required a lot of teamwork, teamwork requires social skills, and social skills define humans.
Likewise the crows have developed social skills that allow them to work in groups to secure food.
Culture of thievery, food caching and communal harvesting
Rob conducted research on crows at Mitlenatch Island, which supports a large seabird colony on 35 ha. There are two distinct groups of crows, ones who nest by the beach and others who nest on the hills and in the forests. Crows are quite territorial around their nest site and territories are vigourously defended. All adult crows spend most of their time feeding on the beach, three quarters of the day is spent supplying food to the young. Hill crows must fly further and expend more energy to feed their family. Beach crows spend less time flying, expend less energy and can therefore successfully raise more juveniles. Harvesting food requires many skills. It has been shown that crows carefully judge the optimum size of clam to forage. Small clams are not worth the effort it takes to find them, dig them up, fly with them, drop them onto rocks and harvest the meat. Middle sized clams are preferred. Large clams are harvested and cached for later. Even dropping the clams is a science. Drop from too high and the clams are likely to be stolen before the bird can swoop back down to them, from too low and they don’t crack, at just the right height, they crack and there is not enough time for the meat to be stolen. However, if smaller clams are offered, and the crows don’t have to expend the energy to find and dig them, they will use them. All this ability to make judgments and calculations takes practice and the young crows are not good at judging sizes or the heights to drop them from. These are skills the learn.
Some crow parents, particularly the crows in the prime beach location, receive assistance from a yearling son, who returns to help raise the new family. Females lay an average of three to four eggs in mid-April, the eggs decrease in size and become paler as the clutch is laid over several days. Considering the amount of egg stealing, it makes sense that a pale egg is more likely to be noticed and snatched; preserving the larger and more fully developed embryo. The adult sibling, identified by a brownish cast to its feathers, helps defend the territory in exchange for food. Families with a helper were more successful in raising their young. Even though crows will steal from each other, raid nests and generally behave in ways we might find upsetting, they will cooperate if a predator arrives. They will mercilessly mob hawks, ravens, eagles and owls, calling loudly and dive-bombing the intruder.
As an interesting aside, ravens have been observed leading wolf packs to a distressed animal. After the kill, they are able to scavenge the remains.
A lot of these stories involve food and survival but crows also play, there are many videos on youtube showing crows swinging upside down from willow branches, playing with objects, teasing cats, surfing on a snow covered roof on it’s own snowboard (
They like a good time as much as the rest of us…which strikes a chord, perhaps we see ourselves in their antics and drive to survive.
As the young fledge and leave their nests, crows become more social and communally minded. They can form vast flocks that congregate in an area to roost during the night. One area in Burnaby is estimated to have 15,000 crows roosting together, some flying for forty-five to sixty minutes to reach the roost. They are very loud and boisterous and appear to prefer areas that are well lighted. It’s thought that this urban congregation is in response to the predation by great horned owls in rural landscapes. Hence many crows travel to urban roosts, where there are less owls. 
From earliest days, crows and ravens have been an important component of First Nations’ mythology, being labeled the “trickster”, a mischievous creature. Their intelligence, playfulness and resourcefulness have spawned many stories and anecdotes and endeared them to many.

(Poem by me, a la Ogden Nash/Bill Richardson)

Within the family, they use their skills,
To feed their young, their beaks they fills,
with crabs and fish
and things delish…
But away from home they use their brains,
To play some tricks and cause some pains…
From crows nearby they steal the eggs,
Even though they pleads and begs.
But in the fall, they roost together,
No matter how inclement the weather,
To thwart the owls, they will make peace,
Though the neighbours wish they’d cease.
Too smart by half, a murder of crows,
In the vicinity, a long way goes..