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.

 

 

 

Advertisements

Kestrels Breeding in Burnaby

This past Sunday (July 16), following my own advice to “… get out there and take a look”, I was cycling east along North Fraser Way in Burnaby’s Big Bend area when an interesting bird silhouette caught my eye.

Kestrel silhouetted on a dead snag in the Big Bend area

Grabbing my bins from the bike pannier to get a better look, I was soon able to resolve the dark shape into that of a Kestrel. A “good” bird anywhere in the Lower Mainland, and a real and unexpected treat to see in Burnaby.

Grabbing my camera, I started a slow walk along Abbotsford Street toward the perched bird hoping for some good pictures, or at least a record shot of this Burnaby rarity, when I noticed a second Kestrel, this one sitting low down but half hidden in a thicket next to the tree in which the the first bird was perched. Two Kestrels! Wow!

Juvenile American Kestrel

Juvenile Kestrels are difficult to visually tell apart from their adult parents; however, this guy (yes, it’s a male), was making the occasional begging call, and when the adult male swooped down into the grassy road edge to catch some prey, and then flew up with it, junior was in hot pursuit for a meal.

So this was a recently fledged bird, which virtually guarantees it was hatched right here in the Big Bend area. In the 1 to 2 weeks immediately post-fledging, the young birds solicit food from their parents. After this period they cease begging as they become adept at capturing prey independently. So this young guy left the nest and took his first flights within the previous 2 weeks, and as a young, relatively weak flyer would not have travelled into the area from outside. It was Burnaby born and raised. Yay!

The Kestrel diet is primarily insects, especially grasshoppers, beetles, and dragonflies, and small rodents, especially voles and mice. All of the these prey items would be available in the area. The farming here is predominantly mixed vegetables, with some large areas of cranberry bogs to the north. The field edges are nicely unkempt, scruffy, and weedy providing lots of just the kinds of foods Kestrels need. Farming and wildlife can happily co-exist if the farming isn’t too industrialized and intensive.

Fields of vegetables with good Kestrel foraging habitat along its weedy edges in Burnaby’s Big Bend.

 

Fallow field of rough grass meadow full of insects, and small rodents – Kestrel food

I don’t know how much pesticide use there is on these farms, but the insect life was abundant when I visited. Perhaps this is a sign it is minimal, which is not only good for our health, but also that of the insect-eating Kestrels and other birds. Along the Byrne Road side of the area, the organic farm that was Urban Digs is now getting going again under new stewardship and name – Seed of Life Farm. No pesticide use there for sure. Another positive for the Kestrels.

So where would the nest itself likely have been? Kestrels are cavity nesters, using woodpecker-excavated and natural cavities in larger trees which are surrounded by large open areas for hunting food. We’ve got the open patches in Big Bend, but not so much the larger trees in the immediate area where I saw the birds.  However, there are many large black cottonwoods surrounding the fields, and Kestrels are known to use buildings too for nesting. A number of the old farm buildings in the area looked quite suitable to me.

Vegetable fields surrounded by the old farm buildings which may have provided a suitable Kestrel nest site

Both male and female Kestrels feed the young except for a short period after first hatching when the male provisions the female and the chicks on the nest. After 7-10 days both parents feed the young and this continues through the post-hatching period.

Breaking News (July18)

Went down to Big Bend again this morning to check up on the progress of the Kestrels. Despite the fact that somehow I had put a mostly un-charged battery in my camera and as a result missed all sorts of photo opportunities, it was a wonderful morning. The news is getting better.

There were at least 4 kestrels there this morning. Two adults, a male and female, and two juveniles, a male and female. Likely this represents the whole family, but given the birds were very active hunting and begging, I could have missed more family members. The young are still being fed by the parents, but are taking up perches and stances showing they are making the transition to feeding on their own. No more perching low down and tucked in like the juvenile I first observed Sunday.

The accepted common name for this species is American Kestrel. These ones, of course, are “Canadian” born and raised. In fact, I think we can safely claim this family group as “Burnaby” Kestrels.

Adult male “Burnaby” American Kestrel

If you head down to N Fraser Way and Abbotsford St. to see the happenings for yourself, please respect the farmland and private property, and stay on the roads. This area is not a public park.

 

 

Sphinx surprise

A lazy, summer Sunday afternoon – the garden is a familiar scene; flowers waving in the breeze, insects buzzing in the air, and birds singing from the forest behind. And then, in an instant, the scene changes. Something different was hovering and flying around the bright pink campion flowers growing in the back border. A small hummingbird, perhaps a rare visitor, it was definitely not one of our regular Rufous or Anna’s types. My birder brain went rapidly into full attention mode. What was this?

Hovering at each flower before rapidly moving on to the next, the new visitor was actually a sphinx moth or hawkmoth taking nectar from the blossoms. Not the rare hummingbird I first imagined, but nonetheless an animal that I haven’t seen for many years in the area. And just maybe as exciting. Also called a hummingbird moth because, as I just demonstrated, the species is frequently mistaken for a hummingbird.

Grabbing the camera, I headed out into the yard to see if I could get a picture. This was one fast-moving insect, and a real challenge to photograph as the picture below attests. The wing beats are so fast, I never did capture an unblurred picture of them.

Bedstraw or Gallium sphinx moth

However, it was captivating to watch the moth flying around the bright pink campions. Perhaps the pictures do indeed capture the action.

With its wings a constant blur, the moth presented the next challenge. Did I see and photograph enough detail of the moth to make a correct indentification? Now, as you know, I’m a birder so I had to do a little research on-line for this one. I knew enough to recognize it as a sphinx moth, but as to exactly which species. Well!

My first impressions led me to decide is was likely a white-lined sphinx moth. This is the common and widespread species in our area; the default sphinx moth so to speak. However, digging a little deeper, I found that there is another, less common, but very similar species, the bedstraw or gallium sphinx moth. Careful study of many on-line pictures and reading various descriptions led me to decide that our visitor was indeed the bedstraw species.

Like hummingbirds, sphinx moths hover at flowers to suck up and drink the nectar that they need for energy – a good example of the convergent evolution of two unrelated species. The hummingbird uses its extendable tongue, the sphinx moth uses its extendable proboscis to draw the nectar into its mouth. Here’s a close up of the sphinx moth’s specialized mouthpiece at work.

Bedstraw sphinx moth, nectaring

To see what’s going on here, click once on the photo above to enlarge it. The proboscis is the dark coloured, thin tube that extends a short distance horizontally from the head of the moth, and then makes a 90 degree downturn before entering the centre of the flower. When not in use, the long proboscis is carried coiled-up at the front of the head.

But why “bedstraw”? Adult sphinx moths feed exclusively on nectar of many flowers, but it’s the food plant of the caterpillar which gives the species its name. Both bedstraw and fireweed, another favourite larval-stage food plant, are common plants in Deer Lake Park, which is right behind my house, and I’m sure this is the place where this adult spent its early life as a caterpillar.

Bedstraw (Galium sp), Deer Lake Park

And here’s the other favourite food plant of the caterpillar.

Fireweed, Deer Lake Park

The visitor didn’t stay long. It flew along the forest edge, seemingly looking for more flowers for nectar, and then disappeared into the park.

July is the peak of the adults’ flight season, so keep your eyes open for this beautiful moth in our parks. Like most moths, the sphinx moth does fly at night, but this species also flies in the afternoons, and we then have the chance to see this hovering beauty.

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