They’re Back!

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Three of five chum salmon spawning in Buckingham Creek this morning (Nov 6th).

After last year’s salmon surprise at Deer Lake, the chum salmon are back again this year attracting the curious, bringing smiles to people’s faces, and causing gasps of excitement. “They’re Back!” Not the return of last year’s fish, of course, but a new run of chum salmon has surged up Buckingham Creek at the east end of Deer Lake, almost to the day they appeared last year.

The fish are actively flushing the accumulated silt from their redd (spawning bed) and getting on with the business of producing the next generation.

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Vigorous body undulations, and splashy tail action cleans out the redd ready to receive the chum salmon eggs.

After a fantastic journey to and from the Pacific Ocean where they arrived as smolts, and spent from 3 to 5 years growing to maturity, these fish are returning to spawn in this tiny urban waterway. Last year’s post gave more detail about the journey these fish have made to return here to spawn.

Periods of rest separate periods of vigorous activity, perhaps not such a surprise after such a long journey. But spawning is a strong urge and the salmon give their all in the final act of reproduction. In a couple of weeks, we’ll see their spent carcasses in the creek.

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After some energetic gravel cleaning, the fish rest awhile before continuing their spawning.

Don’t miss out. Welcome back our urban salmon. The action won’t last for long.

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.