The lady, the bear, and the elephant

The what? An elephant in Burnaby’s parks – a wild one? Has the circus come to town and there’s been escapees? And how come it’s not in the news? Well, read on to find out. I have an interesting miscellany of sightings made during August and September to report. And they’re all true!

The Lady

Let’s take a look at the lady first. In this case it’s a beautiful one: the painted lady butterfly.

Painted lady butterfly nectaring on black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) in my yard

Painted ladies are summer migrants to British Columbia from the arid regions of the southwestern US. The first migrants arrive here in spring, lay their eggs and produce a second generation of adults, of which this beautiful specimen is certainly one.

These second generation adults, unlike monarch butterflies, do not return south to the country of their ancestors. Most just hang on here, to finally die when the colder weather arrives. However, some do occasionally hibernate and make it through our winter as adult butterflies, to reappear the following spring. So this one does have some chance at a very long life for a butterfly.

Click on the image for a closer look

Look at the opalescent eye, and at the proboscis coming from the head to suck nectar from the black-eyed Susan.

Even the underwing view of the butterfly presents a treat for the eyes. The mix of pink/orange, the various shades of brown and tans, and the blue-centred eyespots on the hindwing all add to the powerful effect of this little beauty.

The Bear

And now for the bear. There have been sightings in the cul-de-sac where I live, which backs on to Deer Lake Park, but I missed bruin’s visit. A number of the walkers I meet in the park have asked: “Have you seen the bear?” “No”, I reply. It seems I’ve missed bruin in the park too.

Finally, I got talking to regular park walker John Gerbrandt this week. “Seen the bear?” he asked. Quick on the uptake, I replied, “Have you?” “Yup,” he said, “just down around the corner on this trail we’re on now.” Bruin missed again, and right on my regular route around the park too!

“Get a photo?” “Yes,” says John “with my cell phone.” Deer Lake’s bruin finally sighted, albeit second hand via John’s photo. As I said earlier, it’s all true, and here’s the photo to prove it.

Black bear on Deer Lake trail. Photo: John Gerbrandt

I don’t know if the bear is still in the park, but by all accounts it’s not aggressive. Likely in the park to feed on blackberries, which are now coming to the end of their season, it may have moved on looking for food elsewhere. However, if you do have an encounter, the animal shouldn’t be approached; just back off slowly, and take another route, or wait for the animal to move on. Bears may look cuddly, but they are powerful animals and somewhat unpredictable. Utmost caution is called for.

In one of those surprising coincidences that happen sometimes, I hadn’t quite finished writing this post when I had a live bear encounter of my very own today (Sept 16) at Burnaby Lake.

On the sports fields at the west end of the park, with all the excitement of the weekend’s sports activities going on busily and loudly, this bear was spotted sauntering along the east side of the field along the trail that parallels Still Creek before it empties into the lake. It too did not appear aggressive, nor afraid of the athletes at play nearby.

Black bear, Burnaby Lake Regional Park

The Elephant

And now for what I expect many readers have been waiting for – the elephant. Well, actually this elephant is a lot smaller than the pachyderm variety; it’s the enormous caterpillar of the elephant hawk-moth. At about 7.5 centimetres (3 inches) in length and about 1 cm in diameter, this guy is truly elephantine for a caterpillar. The moth’s name, however, is not due to its size, but due another feature of the caterpillar.

The front or head end of the caterpillar has a trunk-like snout that to some looks like an elephant trunk. You can see it partially protruding in the photograph below. It’s the extendable part that includes the head, beyond the four false eye spots.

Besides the partially protruding “trunk”, note the horn on the tail.

 

Here, the “trunk” is withdrawn into the head-end segment of the caterpillar’s body to make it look snake-like.

And what about those striking false eyes? With the trunk withdrawn, as shown above, the animal resembles a snake with a large head and four large eyes. A caterpillar this size would be a prized food item for a bird or other predator. However, these potential predators are frightened away by the caterpillar looking like a snake displaying those dramatic eyes.

As I write, the caterpillar has now almost certainly burrowed into the soil to pupate below the fuchsia on which it was feeding. It will spend the winter as a pupa, and with luck next July the spectacular adult hawk-moth will emerge to be appreciated for its beauty.

Elephant hawk-moth adult. Photo: jean pierre Hamon. Licensed under creative commons

This beautiful animal is, however, not native to North America but to Europe and parts of Asia. Not considered a pest, it was apparently introduced into British Columbia in the 1990’s, and seems to be well established in and around Vancouver and the Fraser Valley. Lucky us.

 

 

 

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Bobcat!

We’ve got salmon returning to our creeks once again, the coyotes are still howling at the passing emergency vehicles, and for the past few months, we’ve had a bobcat active in Deer Lake Park. This is life in the city that’s really hard to equal.

BobcatRevI’ve been waiting eagerly for a couple of months now to make this post. Bobbie (gender unknown), has been putting in regular appearances throughout Deer Lake Park, and during the summer was a regular in my neighbourhood on the park’s southern edge. But I couldn’t get a picture! In fact, for more than a week, I hadn’t even seen the feline when everyone in my household and many of my neighbours had – frustrating, even for a bird guy.

Without a picture, how could I make a decent blog post? Then finally, a visitor from Taiwan, Paul Chen, took the wonderful image above. Thank you Paul, for allowing me to use it here.

It’s probably a surprise to many readers that bobcats and humans can live so peacefully together. It’s remarkable what happens when we don’t persecute our wildlife, and we provide some habitat in which to make a living. This is a tribute to “untidy,” wilder parks that have habitats as close to “natural” as we can manage in the city. The payoff is huge. Keep Burnaby green (and a bit scruffy around the edges, please).

CatSignClse

 

Not that we haven’t had Bobcats in the City previously; I know of reports going back to at least 2009 at both Deer Lake and Burnaby Lake. But we urban dwellers are not used to seeing the larger species of North American wild cats, and we’re certainly not expecting to see them in the city. So, if surprised by one, we often jump to the wrong conclusion – cougar!

As you can see from the above signs posted this fall in the park, park walkers were confused as to the identity of the large cat many had seen. City staff attempted to put people at ease, and so posted a number of the above signs. However, it’s hard to win when you’re trying to put people at ease. Some people interpreted the signs to indicate there could be a cougar in the area. Oh well!

A close look at the real bobcat picture above shows that the one living here does not quite fit the silhouette shown on the sign. Our Bobbie is proportionally longer legged, and generally more slender. However, the short, black-tipped tail is diagnostic for the species. A bobbed tail gives it its name – bobcat.

Bobcats are carnivores, and the literature suggests rabbits and hares are favourite prey, neither of which is common in Burnaby. When the cat was active in my neighbourhood it was feeding on gray squirrels and its hunting technique was interesting.

BobcatPrey

Remains of bobcat prey – a gray squirrel tail and foot

My neighbour’s apple tree is always a favourite source of food for the squirrels in the fall. If you’ve ever watched a squirrel carrying a pilfered apple in its mouth, you’ll recognize that it must be seriously visually impaired. Bobbie would lie in wait and pounce as Nutkin was about to leap the fence with its prize. Twice it was seen in the early morning carrying captured squirrels over the fence. It seems too that they were eaten out in open on the lawn. This is one relaxed bobcat. The apples, of course, were always left behind. No apple sauce with squirrel dinner for this predator. Since the Eastern gray squirrel is an introduced species, I am pleased that the population is feeding this beautiful, native cat.

It’s clear from our experience here that bobcats can live well on urban fringes, and this is being noticed throughout the continent. In Deer Lake Park there are plenty of Townsend’s voles in the meadows that would also provide food. As the picture above shows, perhaps bobcats would avail themselves of some salmon too if available.

They are beautiful, opportunistic predators that we are so fortunate to have living with us. However, they are wild cats feeding on whatever they can find so we have yet one more reason to keep our domestic cats indoors and to make sure other small pets are leashed.

C&CSigns

And as the sign indicates there’a at least one other predator abroad that should encourage us to keep our pets protected. Yes, it’s the coyote, the other large, four legged predator in our parks.

CoyoteGrdn

Wily takes a walk through my garden

 

 

 

Alien Invader Arrives in Burnaby – finally!

The Eurasian Collared-Dove’s invasion of North America is a remarkable story. This dainty member of the pigeon and dove family has found human-altered landscapes to be just what it needs to breed rapidly, and spread like an avian tsunami across the continent from east to west. The bird’s arrival here in Burnaby may be one of the final chapters in its conquest of the whole continent, and in particular here on the West Coast. The surprise for me is that it has taken so long to arrive in our fair city.

Eurasian Collared-dove

Eurasian Collared-dove. Since the bird’s introduction to the Bahamas in the 1970’s, its population has exploded and it has spread right across the continent.

For more than six years now, Eurasian Collared-Doves have firmly established themselves in Surrey, Delta, Ladner, Richmond, and up the Fraser Valley. Even though I have been watching out for them, to my knowledge they’ve only just arrived in Burnaby this summer.

Despite my expectation to find the bird here in Burnaby, it was readers of this blog who were the first to notice the alien species in our midst. Back in late July Brian Johnson sent me a couple of pictures of a “mystery” bird he was seeing and hearing in his yard. Bingo! Brian’s distant pictures provided the first evidence I had seen of Collared-Doves in Burnaby. Next up was a phone call a week or so later from Tony Fabian. “Hey George, I’ve got this odd-looking pigeon in my yard. I can’t find it in any of my bird books.”

It took me a couple of weeks more to actually see the birds for myself, and take some pictures that I could publish here. The birds have proved to be skittish, and difficult to get close-up photographs. Finally, my friend Ross McIlroy invited me around to his backyard where the doves were a new arrival at his bird feeder. Although I didn’t manage to get the hoped-for closeup, one of the birds was conveniently perched nearby.

Eurasian Collared-dove

Favouring backyards and back lanes, Eurasian Collared-Doves frequently perch on power lines.

A frequent concern with introduced species, especially highly invasive ones like the Collared-Dove, is their negative impacts on our native species with which they compete for food, territory, and nest sites. So far, Collared-Doves seem to be living harmoniously in North America without significant impacts on our native North American doves and pigeons.

A case in point is its seemingly benign relations with my favourite local member of this family of birds, the Band-tailed Pigeon. It’s good to know this beautiful bird is apparently unaffected by this alien invader. Band-tailed Pigeons breed sparsely in forested areas scattered across our city, but they often show up in large numbers during Fall migration. Their favoured food at this time of year is acorns, which they swallow (whole!) to fuel their migration to points south.

BTPI#1

Band-tailed Pigeons have bright yellow legs, feet and bill, and beautiful, vinaceous body plumage. Click image to expand the image – this is a spectacular bird.

So what’s the difference between these two species – one native and one alien invader? Interestingly both have prominent neck collars and contrastingly patterned tails.

BTPI#2

The dark and light tail bands give the Band-tailed Pigeon its name – nice feeder bird, Ross!

The prominent white collar on the Band-tailed Pigeon above, contrasts with the prominent black collar of the Collared-Dove below.

EUCD#3

Dark collar, pale pastel overall, and dainty appearance characterize the Eurasian Collared-Dove.

So the aliens are now in our midst, and fortunately they are neither to be feared nor shunned. With some careful observation they are easily identified, especially if you are lucky enough to have them coming to a bird feeder in your garden.

Neither species should be confused with the familiar feral pigeon commonly seen along railroad tracks and in parks. That bird is the introduced Rock Pigeon, and that’s a story for another time.

To hear the cooing song of the Eurasian Collared-Dove click here, and then click on the play button.

Butterfly Bonanza

As we move into July and the weather really starts to warm up, the long grass meadows in our parks are the centre of a remarkable, once-a-year explosion of skipper butterflies.

Skipp&Blkberr

Skippers, crowding on to a blackberry flowerhead feeding on nectar from the flowers

What these small butterflies lack in size, they more than make up for in the sheer numbers that hatch, take to the air, and adorn almost every flowering plant in and around the fields at this time of year. It’s a spectacle, and one well worth a closer look. The Deer Lake meadows, at the western end of the lake, are a particularly good place to see the action, and enjoy what is by far our largest flight of butterflies in Burnaby.

Skipp&Vetch#1

Purple vetch flowers are a favourite for nectaring skippers

Taking a closer look at these small butterflies, it’s noticeable right away that they’re not quite conventional butterfly shape. To some people they suggest moths, rather than butterflies. Their wings are more “swept-back” instead of being held either flat and open, or upright and closed, like “regular” butterflies. The hind wings are held out flat, while the forewings are held above them at a 45-degree angle – very rakish! They do at times, however, close both wings over their backs like regular butterflies. As you can see from the pictures, the open-winged stance is very common. This distinctive shape and stance shows that these butterflies are members of the grass skipper family.

Skipp&Dand

Skippers feeding (nectaring) on a dandelion – click to enlarge

So let’s take a close-up look. When you click to enlarge the photo above, you’ll see a couple of good clues as to why these insects are butterflies, and not moths. First take a look at the antennae which emerge from the head, angling outwards. They’re thin and thread-like with noticeable, club-shaped ends. In contrast, many moth antennae are feathery, and if they are thin like a butterfly’s, they lack the club end. Most moths are, of course, nocturnal, whereas these “guys” are active in the daytime. Two ticks for butterfly.

Now take a look at the skipper on the far right on the dandelion. You’ll see a third, thread-like organ emerging from the centre of the head, which then makes an angular curve downward into the flower. This is the proboscis, the hollow tube through which the butterfly draws up the nectar on which it is feeding. Now that you’ve looked at one skipper, a quick glance reveals that they’re all at it. This single flower is feeding a whole bunch of skippers.

Skipper Profusion

So what species of skipper are these? Well, thereby hangs a tale. These are European skippers. That’s right, they’re an introduced species from Europe.  First accidentally introduced to Ontario in 1910 they’ve spread across the country, and there have been many subsequent introductions since, including Duncan on Vancouver Island about 15 years ago. Ours could have spread from there, or they could have been introduced here separately. A particular aspect of the European skipper’s reproduction makes spreading to new locations very easy. And as usual, it’s we humans that are big contributors to skipper profusion, and skipper spread.

Unlike all native species of North American skippers, which overwinter as pupae, European skippers overwinter as eggs. This makes it very easy to survive being mowed, and then moved when hay is transported from one place to another. And hay fields is where skippers thrive. They’re called grass skippers because the larvae, the caterpillars, feed on grasses. As we can see, the adults get their food from flowers.

Skipp&Clov

European skippers feeding on clover

Although an introduced species, the European skipper is yet another example of a benign addition to our fauna. In this case, a very beautiful one too. There is no evidence that this introduced skipper has negatively affected our native skippers. It seems to have found a place here without causing problems for other species.

As John Acorn says in Butterflies of British Columbia  … we now have more butterflies on the wing than we ever could have without this cute little addition to our fauna. Here, here!

Skipp&Vetch#2

European skippers – a welcome addition to our butterfly fauna