Clinging to Survival Butterflies are the prettiest and most fascinating creatures on earth, but they are continually victimized by human activity such as destruction of sensitive habitat, pesticide spraying, and introduction of alien plants and animals. Eighteen out of the 69 Vancouver Island butterflies are on the Provincial Species of Concern List which mean their populations are in serious decline or they are already endangered. Two of the endangered species are currently found in the Fairwinds region, specifically around the Garry oak meadows. The Propertius Duskywing is in flight from April to early July and is totally dependent on the Garry oak. Without it, the Propertius would cease to exist. The Garry oak is the only foodplant that can support the reproduction of the Propertius. With 95% of the Garry oak habitat on Vancouver Island being destroyed for agricultural, commercial, industrial, or recreational use, it is no surprise that most Propertius populations have been decimated, and the remaining few are endangered. The second endangered butterfly is the Common Woodnymph. It is a large brown butterfly with golden circles on its wings. It is also associated with the Garry oak meadows. The exact connection is unclear, but it probably has to do with the surrounding plants and underbrush. Its flight time is from late July to September. Both the Propertius Duskywing and the Common Woodnymph fly from the Garry oak meadows to surrounding areas to look for nectar sources in wild and domestic flowers before returning to the meadows for their reproduction. You can help them by planting flowers in your garden, and when you visit the meadows, stay on the trails.
Swallowtail Time In the Lilliputian world of butterflies, swallowtails are the Gulliverian giants. They are our showiest and most conspicuous butterflies on Vancouver Island, and many are at their best in June and July. The gigantic swallowtails’ wingspans range from 7 to 9 centimetres completely dwarfing the blues, hairstreaks, coppers, and skippers that average less than 3 centimetres. There are actually three species of swallowtails on the island – Western Tiger, Pale, and Anise. The Anise is the earliest to fly and has already peaked in May, but the Western Tiger and Pale have just taken flight and should be common from one end of the island to the other for June and July. In fact, I drove to Ralph River in Strathcona Park on June 6 and enjoyed many swallowtails along the roadside, and they have been regular visitors in my Nanoose Bay garden for the past week. The Pale and Western Tiger are the two largest butterflies with average wingspans of 9 and 7.6 centimetres respectively. Both are very similar with bold black tiger stripes, but the Western Tiger has a bright yellow ground colour while the Pale has a very pale yellow or white ground colour. Both frequent similar habitats and are often seen in the same general area. At times, a faded Western Tiger can be confused with a yellowish Pale Swallowtail, but if the crescent spot closest to the tail is orange then it is definitely a Pale. If it is yellow, there is a 95% chance that it is a Western Tiger. The Anise is not often confused because it is smaller and yellow and black with no tiger stripes. The timing of the appearance of these butterflies is related to the maturity of their larval foodplants. All three hibernate as pupae, but the Anise is early because its larval foodplants from the carrot and parsnip family are available in early spring. The Western Tiger and pale both develop in conjunction with their foodplants like alder, willow, and other deciduous trees which aren’t in leaf until mid-spring. The swallowtails nectar on just about any wild flower and are attracted to many domestic flowers. In my garden I have seen them on the rhodos, lilacs, lavender, peonies, phlox, and raspberries. Like many butterflies, they are also often seen beside mud puddles or wet spots on dirt roads. If you look closely, you’ll see their proboscises extended which means they are licking minerals, salts, or amino acids from decayed or crushed organic material. Quite often, it is just the males doing this as they transfer these materials to the females during reproduction for the production of the eggs. In some areas, there are traditional mud puddles that are utilized every year, but the butterflies are opportunistic and will take advantage of any wet spot that can provide the necessary nutrients. For example, on the way back from Ralph River I pulled into the rest stop with the big elk statue. There was a wet spot in the parking lot that was being utilized by one Western Tiger and two Pale Swallowtails. They were totally engrossed in their feeding and paid no attention to my presence as I butted in with my camera to get some close-up photos. Like the swallowtails, the wet spot was also opportunistic for me. It provided me with a close up view to observe and photograph this unique butterfly behaviour, and it also inspired me to write this article.
Left Photo: The Satyr Comma is one of the four commas found on Vancouver Island. The others include Zephyr, Green, and Oreas Commas. Centre Photo: The gorgeous Sara’s Orangetip is one of the most delightful spring butterflies. Right Photo: The beautiful Milbert's Tortoiseshell illustrates why specific natural plants are critical for some butterflies. Its survival depends on stinging nettles where it lays its eggs. The eggs develop into larvae which devour part of the plant as it matures and eventually produces a new butterfly.Year of the Butterfly As my citizen-science project, I’m declaring 2014 as THE YEAR OF THE BUTTERFLY. Why? First, I don’t think anyone else is going to do it. Second, I think it needs to be done. Most people associate the term “endangered” to iconic species like tigers, pandas, or whales, but the majority of endangered species are actually insects. Insects might be too small to be noticed by most people but their significance is immense. They are an integral part of the complex web of nature and one of the foundations of life on earth. They are responsible for critical functions such as pollination and soil creation, and they are also a part of the food chain that is essential for the survival of many birds and insect-eating vertebrates. As pollinators alone, they are responsible for a significant portion of the world’s food resources and their value is immeasurable. It is in our best interest to learn all we can about the insects in our environment, and there is no better place to start than butterflies. Butterflies are the most beautiful, fascinating, and charismatic of all the insects and the perfect poster child for the insect world. Not only are they attractive and fascinating, but like many other insects, their lives are also in jeopardy. In fact, 18 out of the 69 wild butterflies recorded on Vancouver Island are either red or blue-listed which means they are species of concern or endangered, and many other populations are in serious decline. Studying butterflies is interesting and enjoyable in its own right, but it is also a great introduction to learning about nature, ecosystems, and the importance of insects. As a photographer, I make no claims about knowing anything about butterflies, but I can observe and record my sightings to provide baseline data for any scientist that might be interested. I can also share what I learn with others and encourage them to observe and record to establish baseline data for scientific study in their own neighbourhoods and regions. Unfortunately, scientists have also become an endangered species. According to a recent Fifth Estate documentary, our federal government has canned over 2,000 scientists who were involved in environmental studies that might provide information to stymie mega projects like pipelines and Arctic oil exploration. Similarly, environmental scientists at the provincial level are a scarce commodity. Essentially, the protection of the environment has been left up to non-profit organizations like the Nature Trust and concerned citizen groups. I will be spending as much time as I can this year learning and writing about butterflies and encouraging others to do the same. For starters, I’ve designed a butterfly poster featuring 46 Vancouver Island species, and I’ll be happy to lend the file to anyone who wants to print their own copy. As well, I have prepared a checklist of all Vancouver Island butterflies and that will also be available for the asking. Please email me if interested in either or both (firstname.lastname@example.org). April is a good time to start studying butterflies. Many spring butterflies like the Mourning Cloak, Sara’s Orangetip, Satyr Comma, Western Elfin, Grey Hairstreak, Green Comma, Propertius Duskywing, Milbert's Tortoiseshell, and Western Spring Azure have been flying around Nanoose Bay since mid-April, and their populations should peak in May. Since butterflies only fly when it is sunny and warm enjoying butterflies is the perfect outdoor recreation. While you’re at it, keep a record of what, where, and when, and if possible, take some photos of the butterfly and the local habitat. The data you collect will be useful for any scientific studies in your region. As well, some local governments are very concerned about sensitive ecosystems and conservation in their region, your records will be useful identifying sensitive areas.
Photo: Turkey Vultures spread their wings not just to dry their wings, but also to heat up their bodies quicker by exposing more surface area, and to sterilize by letting the sun bake off bacteria. Editor’s note: Mike Yip is the author of Vancouver Island Birds. His books are available at Fairwinds Pro Shop, Nanoose Medicine Centre, and Mulberry Bush Books.The Turkeys are Back! Move over Bald Eagles. It's time to share the skies with the Turkey Vultures. For most of the fall and winter, Bald Eagles were probably the only large raptor you saw soaring over the Vancouver Island, but now that spring is here, so are the Turkey Vultures. Most Turkey Vultures leave Vancouver Island in late September and early October to winter in the southern United States and Mexico. Like the tiny Rufous Hummingbird, a few early birds return in March with the bulk of the population following in April. Turkey Vultures are smaller than Bald Eagles, but it is not easy to tell when they are soaring on thermals high in the sky. Their wingspans average between five and six feet while the Bald eagles average six and seven feet. However, they are easy to identify based on two key features. First, they have very small, featherless red heads and second, the undersides of their wings are two-toned. The front is black while the tips and back are grayish white. The undersides of their tails are also grayish white. Turkey Vultures are weak fliers. Soaring is what they do best, and they are masters at catching thermals and gliding through the air. In fact, that is how they search for food. They have amazing olfactory sensitivity and can smell dead and decaying food from high in the sky even if it is lightly buried. Unlike most raptors, Turkey Vultures do not kill their own food. They are scavengers and nature's janitors cleaning up road kills and other animal casualties. That is also the reason for the bald head. Feathers would just get in the way and be harder to clean as they delve into their foul-smelling prey. One of the great bird spectacles to witness each fall is the massing of the Turkey Vultures around East Sooke Park in late September. Often thousands can be seen lazily circling in the sky. As mentioned, they are weak fliers, and they congregate to wait for the ideal winds and thermals to help them cross over to the mainland. They are also joined by a variety of other raptors like hawks and falcons who also enjoy an assist to cross the Strait of Juan de Fuca. I'm not sure if they still have a fair to celebrate the occasion, but that doesn't stop scores of birders and naturalists from enjoying the spectacle. Just two points to clarify from my opening remarks. First, I mentioned that Bald Eagles were probably the only large raptor seen during the winter. I said probably because there is the occasional Golden Eagle around. However, one of the commonest misconceptions is size. Many times I've heard the comment that it had to be a Golden Eagle because it was much larger than a Bald Eagle. Guess what? Bald Eagles and Golden Eagles are the same size so size has no bearing on identification. The second point I made was that MOST Turkey Vultures migrate south. Notice that I didn't say ALL because every year the Christmas Bird Count in Victoria records a few Turkey Vultures in the Metchosin area.
Return of the Rufous One of the sure signs of spring is the return of the Rufous Hummingbirds from their winter vacation in Mexico and other sunny locations. Just like clockwork, they start showing up in Nanoose around the third week of March roughly coinciding with the blooming of wild currant and salmon berry. The first to arrive is usually the bright orange male with its dazzling gorget (neck feathers) which has a dual purpose of attracting the ladies and warning competing males. The males stake claim to their territory then wait for the entourage of females to arrive. The male is orange all over except for a white breast patch and black tail tips. The female is no less attractive but distinctively different with only a few coloured feathers on her neck, orange (rufous) sides, green back, and black and white tail tips. Rufous populations have shown a significant decline in the past few years, but backyard feeders can encourage a successful breeding season. The recommended nectar mixture is 1 sugar to 4 water with no colour or other ingredients added.
Winter Beauty If there’s anything that will brighten your dull winter day, it’s the sight of a brightly coloured Varied Thrush foraging for seeds or insects on your lawn or in your garden. It is a about the same size and shape as a robin and a member of the same family which also includes the Hermit and Swainson’s Thrushes. The Varied Thrush is a winter visitor in Nanoose. During the spring, it migrates to higher elevations or further north for its breeding season. It is generally very wary and usually forages under cover at the forest edges. Quite often, it can’t be seen but its presence is betrayed by its mournful single note call. The black mask and breastband easily distinguishes the male Varied Thrush from the female. On the female, the mask and breastband is grey.
A Feathered Harpoon One of the most amazing birds you'll ever see is the Belted Kingfisher. From a perched position beside a waterway or hovering like an Osprey, it launches itself like a missile to capture small fish or amphibians near the surface of the water. It is commonly found near salt or fresh water and its chattering voice is often heard before it is seen. Both males and females have slate blue backs, shaggy crests, and white undersides. The male has a blue belt across its chest. The female also has a blue belt across its chest, but it also has a rusty orange belt below the blue belt. Another interesting feature is that kingfishers burrow into stream banks, road cuts, of sandy cliff sides to build their nests.
The Winter Hummer Every winter, I get a few emails from concerned citizens about hummingbirds that forgot to migrate south. I reassure them that they are seeing Anna’s Hummingbirds which are hearty year-round birds on Vancouver Island. In fact, the Christmas Bird Count in Victoria usually tallies about 700 every year and Nanaimo also has a healthy population. In the absence of nectar plants they can survive quite adequately on small spiders and insects. During extremely cold weather, they can conserve energy by torpor which is a hibernation-like process. The female Anna’s is green on top and whitish on the bottom, but unlike the Rufous Hummingbird it has no rufous or orange colouring. The male Anna’s is unmistakeable with its splendid magenta hood that covers its neck and crown. During the winter, most Anna's are found close to the coastline where the microclimate is moderated by the ocean. They are also attracted to backyard nectar feeders especially during January and February when they are nesting.
Bald Eagles The Nanoose Bay region is blessed with an abundance of majestic Bald Eagles. Thanks to the proximity to the coast and the availability of nest trees, there are more than a few resident nesting pairs and the population swells with migrants flocking to the southwestern B.C. for the winter. A number of people have observed the eagles carrying branches and clumps of grass to their nests or building new nests. They have also observed some amorous courtship behaviour and wondered if the eagles were preparing to nest. As far as I know, this is just normal bonding behaviour and mating usually occurs around March. After mating, it takes 5 to 10 days to lay the eggs, 5 weeks for incubation and about 12 weeks for fledging around late July. Eagle activity peaks from late February and through March when the annual Pacific herring spawn occurs. This is one of the most spectacular wildlife events in the province and a great time to see the eagles, gulls, seabirds, and mammals in action.