JOURNAL 387 (Sept. - Oct., 2013)
1. Essay - Almost Extirpated
2. September butterflies
3. Back to the birds
A couple of months ago the bulldozers and excavators moved in and cleared an overgrown vacant lot on Stellys-X Crossroad in Saanich. The field was a tangled mess of waist-high weeds, Hawthorn trees, blackberry vines, and daisies. For most it was an eyesore, and they were probably glad to see it cleared. For the Tsartlip Band it was an economical opportunity in the form of a gas station and store. For the diminuitive and beautiful Field Crescent butterfly, it was another nail in its coffin. The lot was the home of the last reliable population of Field Crescents on Vancouver Island. A handful of naturalists knew about the butterflies, but no one raised a finger in protest before and no one shed a tear afterwards. It was simply another case of development with little or no concern about nature.
Despite the fact that we owe our very existence to nature - the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, the medicines that keep us healthy, and countless other necessities of life, we pay little more than lip service to the protection and conservation of nature. Economic growth and the creation of wealth continue to be the driving forces of human activity despite the fact that we are actually destroying the earth.
Hopefully, the Field Crescent will survive in other locations, but the prognosis is poor. As its name suggests, it requires field and meadow habitats which are rapidly disappearing. If the butterflies don't survive there aren't likely to be any noticeable consequences. It will simply be another nail in the destruction of the natural fabric of the earth that we depend on. It will also be another warning sign that we must pay more attention to nature, but few will get the message.
I think the Stelly's-X site for the Field Crescents was discovered in 2006 and since then it was the only reliable source of Field Crescents left on VI. A previous site at the Nanaimo River estuary appeared to be extirpated by 2005. I had the privilege of visiting the Stelly's-X site on June 3/13 thanks to the help of local naturalist, Aziza Cooper. After a couple of hours battling through the jungle of weeds and vines we managed to find two delightful little beauties nectaring on daisies. I was able to photograph one of the elusive creatures, but it was damaged with a piece missing from its wing. I decided to try again for a better specimen on June 6 and was much more successful. I found eight Field Crescents. With considerable perseverance and patience I was able to photograph two butterflies. Fortunately, they were both in good condition.
As I left the field I wondered how long it would be before the lot was cleared and developed. I thought of contacting the Saanich council to find out who owned the field and find out if there were any development proposals. I was planning to inform the owners of the butterflies, but I procrastinated and was devastated when I heard the field was cleared. I doubt if I would could have changed anything, but I would have had the satisfaction of knowing I tried.
I felt bad for the Field Crescents. Even as a newcomer to butterflies I could see that their populations on VI were in jeopardy. Reports of sighting have been few an far between for the past few years, and most were from the Stelly's-X site. Provincially and nationally they aren't a species of concern, and locally there seems to be no government or group that is interested or concerned about their welfare. As well, there is a huge disconnect between those who enjoy seeing and photographing them and their willingness to advocate for their survival. The situation is always the worst around urban centres, and the track record in the Victoria region is pathetic. Of the 62 butterfly species that have been documented 22 are historical records. In other words, 35% of its butterfly diversity has been lost.
Butterflies are the most beautiful, delightful. and fascinating creatures on earth. They are an integral part of the natural biological fabric that is necessary for our survival and one of the intangibles that makes life so interesting and enjoyable. They deserve to be on Vancouver Island just as much as humans.
The Field Crescents were smaller than I had anticipated but prettier than I imagined. Photographing them was a challenge as they tended to snack and fly at the daisies instead of settling down for a full-course meal. They were also hard to track as they darted off like skippers and quickly disappeared.
September is a sad time for many butterflies. Species like the blues, coppers, and fritillaries are often faded and tattered as they cling to the last days of their lives. Most will have done their best to perpetuate their species, and if all goes well, the product of their efforts will be seen next year. The exceptions are a few larger species like the Mourning Cloaks and commas. They have just recently emerged from their pupae in mint condition and continue to fly until the cold weather forces them to hibernate.
Aug. 30 - I made two trips to Victoria in August to look for the Branded Skipper on Saanich Spit but ended up cross-eyed both time sorting through hundreds of Woodland Skippers. I was also stynied in my search for my second target, the Red Admiral. I actually made 5 unsuccessful trips for the Red Admiral which definitely qualifies it as my nemesis butterfly. I did see one during the summer on the road to Rhododendron Lake but had no chance to get the photo. My last trip was on Oct. 7 (Thanksgiving) when I checked East Sooke Park, Mt. Tolmie, and Mt. Doug. I got home after 12 hours on the road and could only laugh when I saw a report on the yahoo site that two Red Admirals were seen in Metchosin. Just to rub it in, another was reported on Mt. Tolmie on Oct. 29.
A fine consolation butterfly at Island View was the Vancouver Island Ringlet. It was in excellent condition suggesting it was a second generation specimen. I saw two on the path to Saanich Spit. The first generation flew in late May and early June. The second generation appeared from mid to late August.
Woodland Skippers were still abundant and prolific. I tried my best to turn one into a Branded Skipper but came up empty. I'll have to enlist the help of Jeremy G. and try again next year.
Second generation Purplish Coppers also flying. I found three and they were all nectaring on gumweed.
After Island View I headed for Mt. Doug to join the throngs of sunset worshippers. By throngs I mean about two dozen. I wasn't happy to see that much competition for the butterflies, but that was the tradition, and I could only hope that the butterflies wouldn't mind. I was hoping for a Red Admiral, Westcoast Lady, or California Tortoiseshell, but had to settle for a very persistent Painted Lady. Despite being repeatedly flushed from its favorite rock it was still there after my one hour vigil.
The real consolation was a Gray Hairstreak that used a broom bush for its basking perch. Like the Painted Lady it was flushed many times but was still there when I left.
My last trip to Mt. Cokely was on Sept. 14. I was hoping for another chance at a Western Sulphur, but two looks was all I was allowed for the year. My consolation was Pine White nectaring on a dandelion. It was posing kindly for a photo, but when it fluttered off it was ambushed by a kamikazi robberfly. The fly struck it in mid-air, knocked it to the ground, then proceeded to fly slowly off with it. Just another example of how vulnerable butterflies are.
New kid on the block - It was refreshing to see a butterfly in its prime. A pair of Zephyr Commas were enjoying the sunshine and sipping minerals from the road.
My last trip to Mt. Washington was on Sept. 10. It was another beautiful, sunny day. I arrived at the downhill lodge at 10:45 am and couldn't understand why it was so quiet. Normally they would be warming up the chairlift by now, but nothing was moving. When I went in the lodge I saw the problem. There were no lights in the lodge and no electricity for the lift. That didn't matter to me as I had intended to hike and down the hill anyway.
As expected, alpine asters were still in bloom and the first butterfly I saw was an Anna's Blue nectaring on an aster. It was still in pretty good condition which wasn't surprising as it is the last blue of the year.
My next butterfly wasn't so lucky. It was quite faded and missing parts of its right hindwing and forewing.
I only saw one Milbert's Tortoiseshell and it was still intact, but it showed wear lines on its dorsal surface. Milbert's do hibernate as adults but the emerge from their pupae in late June or early July which means they have been in flight for two months by mid-September.
Mariposa Coppers are also late bloomers. I expected to see a few toady and wasn't disappointed as I saw several
The last butterfly was a Purplish Copper with almost transparent wings indicating that most of its scales had worn off.
It was great to get back to the birds even it it were virtually and not physically. Fall cleanup in the garden and a number of domestic chores kept me busy, I did make a number of short trips locally with no results. Shorebirds were scarce at French Creek and Admiral's Lagoon were during the fall migration. I think it's getting worse every year which either means shorebird abundance is continuing its downward spiral or our beaches are too sterile or polluted to attract them.
My first photo of the fall was the apparition of a Golden-crowned Sparrow thanks to George M. who spotted it in his yard at Fairwinds. The timing was perfect as I was looking for a topic for my biweekly column in the North Islander. I usually get a half dozen emails a year about leucistic birds so this gave me an opportunity to explain the anomaly again. (Queries about leucistic birds and Eurasian Collared-Doves run neck and neck.)
Just to prove that I wasn't lying about checking Admiral's Lagoon, here's a shot of the Sandbar Cafe where the gulls roost.
The expected clients were on hand with one special guest, a Heermann's Gull. Most Heermann's Gulls hang out in Victoria and the west coast for the summer before they head back to California for the winter. The small gulls in the background are Bonaparte's back in their winter plumage, and the biggie is a California Gull.
A common passerine along the shorelines in the fall is the attractive Savannah Sparrow. It is distinguished by the yellow patch above the eye.
One of the most exciting migration events is fallout. That's when birds are forced to land because of bad weather. They choose to land so they don't waste energy battling adverse weather conditions. It's always special to wake up to the chorus of chirps and see songbirds dripping from the trees while they are in a feeding frenzy to refuel for the next part of their journey. I was lucky to film a Townsend's Warbler on its fallout visit to my yard.
While I didn't see any shorebirds at the seashore I did see a couple at the golf course. This pectoral Sandpiper was enjoying the worms and grubs on the third fairway.
I have seen Pectorals on the golf course before but not Long-billed Dowitchers. Chalk this one up as a new one for the Fairwinds list.
Mr. and Mrs. Pileated - I've never had an opportunity to photograph the happy couple together until Oct. 1. I was making coffee when I spotted them on the feeder pole. It was still quite dark but at ISO 1600 and 1/4 of a second I managed one reasonable image. I'll probably use it for another article.
On Oct. 14 I decided to sneak in another attempt for a Red Admiral. This time I decided to take along the birding gear along with the butterfly setup. I started at Whiffin Spit which I swore never to do again after my tenth time without seeing anything interesting in the past two years. I should have listened to my last profanities as there were no butterflies and just a few of the usual suspects like the Dunlin.
Just to make it seem worthwhile I also took a photo of a Black Turnstone which I'm sure you're also tired of seeing.
Sure, I'll just toss in a Golden-crowned Sparrow while I'm at it. (I decided to pass on the gulls.)
On the way home I stopped at the Forestry Pond in Duncan. As usual the pond was filled with Mallards, American Wigeons, Gadwall, and a couple of Ringed-necks. There were also two adult Mute Swans and two juveniles. I decided to take this photo just to make the point that Mute Swans are an invasive species and care should be taken to make sure their populations don't expand. I read an article about how they have destroyed several shallow lakes back east by consuming all the aquatic vegetation making it sterile for native waterfowl. I saw 25 Mute Swans at the Cowichan estuary a few years ago. I wonder how many are there now?
October 22 - Another trip to French Creek. It was sunny and warm in Nanoose Bay but visibilty zero at French Creek. This Common Loon was lounging in the marina.
On the way home the sun was shining at Craig Bay. I decided to detour through the development and check out the duck pond. Amongst a group of American Wigeons i spoted a stranger. It was a Pied-billed Grebe. There has also been one hanging out in the ponds at Fairwinds.
Four and twenty Blackbirds - There were more than two dozen Blackbirds at Esquimalt Lagoon on Oct. 29 which was a good news bad news situation. The good news was that the Rusty Blackbird spotted by Russell C. was probably still in the neighborhood. The bad news was that it might prove difficult to sort out the Rusty. However, it's not called Rusty for nothing, and after twenty minutes the rusty bird was foraging with its cousins.
It was challenge to get a clear shot between the spindly stalks of grass, but the great advantage of digital is the Law of Averages. After 200 shots the Law of Averages worked for me. I had about 6 clear shots.
Most of you probably know that the Rusty is not common on VI but I always say for a 1000 Brewer's Blackbirds there will be one Rusty. Next time you see a flock of Brewer's look of the Rusty. Most Rusty Blackbirds winter in the southeastern states.
As mentioned in my last journal, my plans for 2013 include a book on butterflies. Since then I have been overwhelmed by the enthusiasm and support offered by all the major experts in the butterfly community. Cris Guppy replied immediately to offer his enthusiatic support and since then, Norbert Kondra and Jon Shepard have also offered to help any way they can. The big news is that that our own island expert entomologist, James Miskelly, is joing me as a co-author and will be constructing distribution maps, assisting with the photography, and vetting the write-ups.
On the technical side of the production, I have my new ISBN number and a quote for the printing cost. Tentatively, I'm aiming for October printing and November release. My decision to only publish a 1,000 copies hasn't changed so it's essential for anyone who wants a copy to pre-order by emailing me. I'm hoping to sell all books directly which means they might not be available in the stores. So far I have orders from as far as Minnesota.
My poster is on display at: Victoria - Swan Lake Nature House. (Note: This poster has been produced in a more manageable size and is now available for $20 unlaminated and $32 laminated.)