Still Creek – Urban Wild, Birds and Poetry!

Over many years, Still Creek has been trashed; it’s been abused, polluted, buried underground in culverts through much of its course in Vancouver; had its banks channelized and stabilised, and its valley mostly built upon. It’s the Rodney Dangerfield of our urban waterways – [It] don’t get no respect!

Flowing mostly above ground in Burnaby and open to the sky, it is nevertheless, a highly urbanized stream – not a the first place one would of think to go looking for wildlife and nature. But yesterday, a quick look along the stream east of Gilmore made me determined to take a closer look today. I planned to travel from its mouth, taking pictures along the way, while following it upstream, staying as close to the watercourse as possible, and finishing my journey where Still Creek enters Burnaby as it emerges from under Boundary Road.

This morning, bright and early, I was at the creek’s mouth where it empties into Burnaby Lake. A frosty start to a mostly dull day, I began my biking and birding route enjoying the pleasant winter scene below, with the promise of an interesting morning’s birding.

Greater White-fronted Geese are a fairly rare bird in Burnaby, at least on the ground. We get huge flocks flying high overhead in wonderful undulating chevrons in late summer, but they’re headed for points south: Washington and Oregon, and then on to California. Only the occasional bird stops here. So, I was pleasantly surprised to see six immature Greater White-fronted Geese grazing on the rugby fields at the west  end of Burnaby Lake. What a good start.

The Greater White-fronted is smaller than our resident Canada Geese. The picture below shows a nice size comparison to its larger cousin.

And here’s a close-up showing the orange legs, orange bill, and the dark face with just a hint of the white at the base of the bill that will be much more extensive when this bird is an adult.

Carrying on upstream, in a mostly westward direction, my route along the Central Valley Greenway became steadily more urbanized and built-up, but still allowed views of the creek from the numerous bridges that span it. But there were plenty of brushy areas, and small stands of trees that were holding an amazing number and selection of birds.

In winter, many small birds forage and travel in mixed flocks, and it’s possible to see eight or more species in one small patch of bush and trees. A regular member of these mixed flocks is the Downy Woodpecker, pictured above.

Below is a Dark-eyed Junco, another flocking bird that frequently mixes with other species.

Also a member of these mixed flocks is the tiny Brown Creeper. Today I was lucky enough to get a sequence of pictures showing this bird’s foraging technique. They’re perpetual motion machines, and with the poor light this morning, the pictures aren’t perfect. These birds are never still.

Here’s the Brown Creeper creeping (what else?) up a dead snag.

Here it’s probing with that long curved bill looking for whatever may be holed up under the tree bark against the cold weather.

Bingo! Capture! A spider, I think, and very quickly dispatched.

Fox Sparrows and Song Sparrows are common throughout the city in parks, gardens, and anywhere where beautiful thickets of Himalayan blackberries are established. Although the blackberries are non-native, and disliked unfairly by many, they provide some of the best dicky-bird (birder talk for small bird) habitat we have, especially in disturbed sites.

Above is a handsome Song Sparrow – a common resident species here. Note the striped face, and particularly the grey stripe above the eye which widens at the rear of the head.

Above is probably my favourite sparrow to spend the winter in these parts, the Fox Sparrow. I know it’s another LBJ (more birder lingo: Little Brown Job), but this guy’s really got attitude. I think you can see it in the above picture. And doesn’t it look just great among the red-osier dogwood stems?

In fact, I like Fox Sparrows so much I couldn’t resist showing a second picture I took today. Just look at this perky bird.

The quick and easy way to tell these two LBJ’s apart is to look at the head and face. Where the Song has stripes, the Fox has a mostly plain, unstriped head and face, plus a two-tone bill. The lower mandible is yellow, contrasting with the more horn-coloured upper mandible.

On the stretch of the Central Valley Greenway shown below, Still Creek is to the left, but inaccessible,  and mostly not visible from the path. It’s an urban landscape, but the bushes and trees are full of life – real Urban Wild.

And it gets increasingly industrial as you head west.

Here’s where your compost and garden waste bin contents get unloaded after being picked-up curbside, before they’re shipped off to Delta for composting. But even here in this industrial setting, the gulls, arch scavengers that they are, have discovered a food source, and are performing some clean-up functions even before our waste has been shipped-out.

The birds feeding here are about 50:50 Glaucous-winged Gulls, and Glaucous-winged Gull hybrids. I won’t get into gull hybridization here; I might lose my readership!

Continuing west, and finally getting back creekside between Willingdon and Gilmore, here’s a picture of one of the things that caught my eye yesterday, and set today’s adventure in motion.

A beautiful drake Green-winged Teal (left) and a drake and duck Mallard loaf in the middle of Still Creek. Both duck species are quite common along the creek, and are particularly easy to observe along this stretch.

Also making a home here, is at least one Great Blue Heron. I saw one today, and managed to get the picture below yesterday of this one (same one?) perched treetop.

Of course, this stretch of the creek is the site of the famous Burnaby crow roost, where 10’s of thousands of birds fly in each evening to spend the night. And there’s plenty of evidence of their presence, both olfactory and visual.

And on the final stretch, heading toward Boundary Road with the creek invisible to the left, we’re in the full concrete jungle. But even here someone, a guerilla poet I suppose, is thinking of the natural world amidst the bustle of the everyday. Stencilled neatly on the sky train supports, just at eye-level, the poem unfolds as one walks, or cycles to work.

And so it starts:

Each morning

We fly

To work

Steady steps

Spinning wheels

Till like the crows

We return

To roost

How appropriate. How marvellous. Like Still Creek itself, this most urban part of the city has its life and liveliness, and poetry too.


To see a full list of birds I saw today, click here – Thirty species – a good count for such an urbanized location.

All photographs in the above post were taken along the Still Creek corridor today and yesterday.

Trumpeter Swan Update

When two Trumpeter Swans showed up on Deer Lake in the first week of November and stayed around for a few days, I happily advised readers in my previous post here to look out for these magnificent birds. What I didn’t know at the time was that just a few days earlier, on November 4, Rosemary Coupe had seen and photographed a huge flock on the lake.

Imagine Rosemary’s surprise when she looked out of her window in the morning to see this flock of swans swimming by on the lake. She counted 39 birds, and managed to capture most of them in this quick photograph. The birds were only on a short visit unfortunately, and soon left for points east.

In flight Trumperters can be very vocal; click here to listen to them vocalize. Now you know why they’re called Trumpeters.

Salmon and Swans Show Conservation Successes

A quick glance this morning at Buckingham Creek confirmed that no more salmon are spawning, but the evidence that their life-cycle drew to a successful end is seen in the salmon carcasses now visible along the creek.

The rotting salmon are generating a bit of a stench for sure, but it’s a good stink! To borrow a famous line from the movies and add a bit of a twist: “We should love the smell of dead salmon in the morning…. It smell[s] like victory.” It’s the way things end for all Pacific salmon. Death after spawning is a real victory. Their life cycle is complete, and the next generation is, we hope, soon to be wriggling out of the gravel and heading downstream to the Pacific Ocean.

Even in death, the adults are helping their offspring. The rotting carcasses provide nutrients for the minute animals and plants that the newly hatched salmon fry will feed on at the beginning of their journey to the sea. So hold your nose if you must, but keep that smile on your face for the salmon.

So while the action on the creek now moves into the realm of the tiny and barely visible, we’ve had some exciting visitors to the lake over the past couple of weeks. A couple of Trumpeter Swans have been visiting the west end of Deer Lake and feeding there. The heaviest bird in North America, Trumpeter Swans are a conservation success story.

By the 1930’s, the known population of Trumpeter Swans, found only in North America, was down to about 70 individuals. They were victims, on a massive scale, of hunting, for the plume trade and for food, and from destruction of their habitat. On the brink of extinction, they were finally given full protection and work was started to bring them back to their former numbers and range across the Continent.

On the last continental census in 2005 they numbered over 34 000. It seems that there were a few unknown populations out here in Western Canada and Alaska back in the 30’s, but nonetheless this is an incredible success story. Isn’t it amazing what a little protection from hunting, and some habitat protection and enhancement can achieve?

Here’s a better picture taken of one of the birds by Brian Nottle, a regular walker, and photographer at Deer Lake. A beautiful adult bird, the large, all black, straight-topped bill going right back to the eye distinguishes the Trumpeter from the introduced Mute Swan, which has a nobbly bill, and from its wild close-cousin, the Tundra Swan, which sports a yellow spot where the eye meets the bill.

Trumpeter Swans don’t breed locally. Those visiting us here are likely part of a large number of birds wintering out on the Fraser Delta or up the Fraser Valley where they particularly like eating the potatoes left in the farmers’ fields after harvest. On Deer Lake, they are eating the aquatic vegetation at the west end of the lake – another positive payoff from the City of Burnaby’s  restrictions on access to this ecologically sensitive area of the lake by boats, and from shore.

The swans are not daily visitors, but they’ll likely be back again over the winter. So keep a look out; they’re a visual treat.

Sign of the Times for the Salmon

With new signs posted to tell people to not harrass the fish, but instead to let them get on with reproducing, the chum salmon continue spawning in Buckingham Creek, and are drawing groups of the curious to watch the action. Good thing too it seems; someone was wading in the creek on Friday trying to catch the fish by hand! Let’s hope the fool didn’t do too much damage to the small spawning area these fish are using.A number of the people watching the salmon here have been asking where the fish are coming from. Well, they’ve had quite the journey. After spending a relatively short time in freshwater, the chum fry migrated to the Pacific ocean where they grew to maturity returning to their natal stream 3 to 5 years after departing.Their route back to Buckingham Creek and Deer Lake is quite the trek. From the ocean, the mature fish swim up the Fraser River, then turn into the Brunette River, and continue up the fish ladder past the Cariboo Dam, through Burnaby Lake, and then up into Deer Lake Brook crossing under the Highway 1, and Canada Way until they finally enter into Deer Lake, and up Buckingham Creek where they are attempting to complete their life cycle.

According to people I’ve spoken to at the creek there was a significant return of fish to spawn on Buckingham Creek about 15 years ago. Are these fish we’re seeing now a struggling remnant of a generation of fish hatched here back then? After all Paul K commented on the previous post that he saw a dead adult here in 2009. Has this population of fish been struggling along at small numbers for all these years, largely unnoticed or completely unnoticed? Or are these fish the returning adults of fry released by an elementary school child 3 to 5 years ago? Comments on the first post about these salmon have noted that school programs raise fish in classroom aquaria, and then the students release them into the local streams.

If you look closely at where the salmon are now spawning, a few stray eggs can be seen atop the gravel. Milky-coloured, these eggs are dead, but beneath the gravel, let’s hope there are probably viable ones. Signs of the times indeed.

Spawning Salmon – Buckingham Creek

Upon hearing reports of spawning salmon at Deer Lake this afternoon, I rushed down to the east end of the lake where, in fading light, I managed to watch several chum salmon (I couldn’t get a good count) actively working the gravel of Buckingham Creek in an attempt to build a redd in which to drop their eggs, and fertilize them.

Salmon spawning on the edge of a residential street, right next to the children’s swings in the playground must rate as some kind of ultimate trick and treat the day after Halloween!

All I could see at first were pale shapes beneath the creek’s dappled surface.

While listening to the slap of tails, and swooshing of water, the ghostly figures soon resolved into the recognizable shapes of salmon.Finally, I got progressively better looks, and was able to recognize them as chum salmon, one appearing to be more than 70 cm long.

More splashing action was followed by more waiting, until swimming near the bank one of the fish came into full view, its back above the surface.Over the many years I’ve enjoyed Deer Lake Park, this is my first sighting of spawning salmon here. Maybe I’ve missed something in previous years. After all, being a birder I’m always looking up, rarely down. However, there are a number of reports of other chum salmon returns to Burnaby waterways such as Byrne Creek, and Stoney Creek. See Burnaby Now reporter Jennifer Moreau’s blog.

Byrne and Stoney Creeks annually have spawning salmon. I’m not sure if Buckingham has been a member of that exclusive club in recent years. If not, maybe it’s time to think about doing some stream rehabilitation at Deer Lake too. Salmon in the city just has to be worth some effort. After all, the fish are clearly trying hard.

I’ll do some more research to see what I can find out about salmon at Deer Lake, and update this post next week.