Vancouver Courier, March 9, 2012 – Wing and a prayer

 

Eagles Ethel and Bert at Jericho Beach Park. (Photograph By Dan Toulgoet)

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Marpole resident Richard Wozny has watched a hawk family nest near the Marpole Museum on Southwest Marine Drive for 10 years. (Photograph By Dan Toulgoet)

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Robyn Worcester of the Stanley Park Ecology Society says loss of habitat is the greatest challenge facing city birds of prey. (Photograph By Dan Toulgoet)

 

Perched near the top of a tall maple tree overlooking a scrubby little triangle of land next to the Marpole Museum on Southwest Marine Drive west of Granville sits a deserted nest.

Within weeks, the latest generation of a hawk family that’s been nesting in the tree for more than a decade will return to raise its young, says Marpole resident Richard Wozny who’s been keeping an eye on the raptor family over the years.

“By April or May they’ll be back fixing up their nest,” says Wozny, a real estate consultant who walks his Shih Tzu, Norman, past the nest daily. “Then they’re gone by the first week of September.”

A 10-year resident of the area, Wozny is worried about the hawks’ fate due to a proposal to clear the tiny piece of land for a 40-plot community garden directly underneath the tree that houses the raptors. He’s watched year after year as the adult hawks nudge their fledglings out of the nest for that all-important first flight, which inevitably ends with a baby on the ground right where the garden will sit if approved.

“They land right there,” Wozny says, pointing to a tiny patch of green surrounded by blackberry bushes on Musqueam Band land, railway tracks, an industrial park and on this day a line of idling dump trucks just metres away on Southwest Marine Drive. “There is no room for error. And now we can’t even leave them this tiny postage stamp of property. We have to take it all.”

The hawks are just one of several raptor species that calls Vancouver home. With ever-increasing development across the city and the ensuing loss of green space and tall trees, Vancouver’s hawks, bald eagles, owls and falcons face increasing challenges. Wozny says it’s time these birds of prey be given more consideration by the city while planning future development. “In my opinion, this community garden is no different than a condo tower,” he says.

Wozny says wildlife and birds should be a vital component of the City of Vancouver’s commitment to be the greenest city in the world by 2020. Nothing compares to the sound of baby hawks calling to their mother when left alone in the nest while the adults forage for food, he says.

“It’s like a wild jungle call,” says Wozny. “Then you hear the kids in the park say to their parents, ‘Let’s go look at the hawks.’ They are so free and powerful, I feel such a sense of beauty and sadness watching them. Do you know how lucky we are to have this experience in a city?”

Wozny says a city staffer told him it would be possible to clear the land while leaving the tree with the hawk nest intact. That’s not good enough for Wozny, who says it’s the trees that surround the nest that provide security for the fledglings after they’ve hatched. He’s watched many times as marauding crows have attempted to snatch a baby hawk out of the nest as the frantic adults fight them off. Cutting any trees from that small grove will leave the hawks even more vulnerable to crow attacks.

“I’ve watched those hawk mothers fighting off crows. When they gang up on her, one flies in from one side while the other tries to peck the baby,” says Wozny. “The city just keeps taking a little bit more and a little bit more. It’s like a man going bald. Eventually you’re bald and there’s nothing left. That’s my fear. The city is soft peddling the damage, but if they modify their landscape those hawks are dead and those babies will be eaten by some very happy crows.”

C ity of Vancouver media spokesperson Barb Floden confirmed the community garden project is under consideration. As part of the review of the garden request, the city has been in touch with the Musqueam, the archeology branch of the Ministry of Forests, Land and Natural Resources and a park board wildlife technician. Staff is also gathering information from the Ministry of the Environment regarding raptor habitat. Floden says the city won’t make a decision regarding the proposal until all of the information has been examined.

Floden says she’s not able to tell the Courier who’s behind the garden proposal because it’s in the application stage.

M ike Mackintosh, a former long-time park board wildlife technician who now works on contract for the board, says while he knows nothing about the proposal or these particular hawks, he doesn’t believe the birds are endangered. Whether that will make a difference in the decisionmaking is unknown.

“I’m seeing a lot of hawks in the city,” says Mackintosh. “We’re lucky to have so many raptors living in Vancouver.”

Mackintosh adds while he’s not familiar with this pair of hawks, ripping out their habitat will likely force the birds to move away from the area.

“They hunt in thickets like that, so I don’t know what would happen if they rip those out,” says Mackintosh. “But luckily Vancouver still has a lot of green areas that are left intact.”

Mackintosh says Vancouver is lucky to be home to many birds of prey. With that in mind, Mackintosh gave the Courier an update on a pair of eagles named Bert and Ethel. The eagles caught the attention of international media recently after the Courier reported on the pair’s unsuccessful attempts to maintain a nest near Jericho Beach Park. At the time, Mackintosh described the eagles as “architecturally challenged.”

In response to the pair’s struggles, last year a number of volunteers from the Jericho area who monitor the pair approached the park board with a plan to build the eagles a permanent platform that hopefully will one day act as a base for a stronger nest. In previous years, Bert and Ethel’s nest regularly disintegrated due to growing rambunctious eaglets, as well as wind storms, sometimes resulting with fledglings trapped on the ground. Mackintosh says the park board has gone above and beyond when it comes to dealing with any concerns in regards to raptors in the city and in particular in the case of Bert and Ethel.

“It’s my job for the park board to sift through legislation dealing with raptors and make sure everything is done appropriately,” says Mackintosh. “Then it’s up to us to take the moral high ground.”

As for Bert and Ethel, Mackintosh says it’s still too early to say if they’ll use the platform this year for nesting, but he adds the eagles have recently and regularly been seen placing branches on it. Mackintosh, who is heavily involved with burrowing owl conservation, says some owl boxes he placed near the Fraser River five years ago now have nests in them. “It took five years, but they’re nesting there now,” says Mackintosh. “So if it’s not this year, maybe it will be next year [for Bert and Ethel].”

R obyn Worcester, who heads up conservation programs for the Stanley Park Ecology Society, says the biggest challenge for city birds of prey, in particular hawks and eagles, is a loss of habitat. She suspects that, in the case of the Marpole hawks, if the landscape changes dramatically there’s a good chance the birds won’t return to that nest.

“Raptors need large trees to nest in,” says Worcester. “So in Vancouver that means old-growth Douglas firs or old cottonwood trees that are close to the water and we’re almost out of those.”

Worcester notes the tree outside the society’s office, which is home to a pair of nesting eagles, is a 400-yearold fir.

“That’s the reason you have a pair of eagles nesting in the large trees above the parking lot of the PNE,” she says. “And why in North Vancouver they’re trying to convince homeowners to not take down all of the trees on their property to get a better view of the water. Raptors really need to be able to see the water.”

Worcester says in Vancouver at least, eagles have successfully adapted to city life and their numbers are slowly increasing. She adds it’s a popular belief eagles live on a diet of mostly fish so residents are surprised when they see the birds circling parts of the city not covered in water. But in the case of Vancouver’s eagles, they’re all about eating their feathered friends, including crows, pigeons, seagulls and ducks.

“They’re highly adaptable to city life,” says Worcester. “As a matter of fact, almost every morning at Lost Lagoon there’s a pair of eagles that puts on a show where they team up to catch a gull.”

She notes pesticide use has also taken its toll on raptors everywhere. (The City of Vancouver banned pesticide use in 2006.)

Fortunately, despite the odds, the society’s eagle monitoring program shows their numbers slowly increasing in Vancouver. The society began monitoring bald eagle nests across the city in 2006. Today, there are between 18 and 20 active eagle nests, of which about half produced eaglets last year. Worcester adds there may be more nests on private property the society isn’t aware of. In 2006, 12 to 16 eaglets fledged from 10 nests.

“And in the ’60s there were only two eagle nests in the city, so there’s definitely been a change for the positive,” she says.

According to the society, the eagles nest in very different environments across the city, including in the forested sections of Stanley Park and the waterfront overlooking Burrard Inlet and False Creek. There are also some nests distinctly urban in their placement that offer a bird’s eye view of soccer and baseball games as well as performance art and picnics in parks. Other nests can be found beside or in yards overlooking houses or in trees lining streets and lanes.

Worcester says many of those nests have successfully produced young in recent years and it’s common to find the bones and feathers of less fortunate birds scattered below, as well as the remains of cormorant, grebe (a freshwater diving bird), small mammals, crabs and fish.

Worcester says the majestic birds are becoming so popular with Vancouver residents, the non-profit Stanley Park Ecology Society has launched an Adopt an Eagle’s Nest program, through which donations are made in exchange for nest updates. For more information, visit stanleyparkecology.ca.

M eanwhile, Wozny wants the city to deny the community garden proposal. While speaking to the Courier, standing on the railway track that borders one side of the property, as if on cue, a bald eagle begins to gracefully circle above. The moment isn’t lost on Wozny.

“When kids and their parents are playing and a baby hawk learning to fly glides in, everyone in the park grows quiet,” says Wozny, looking skyward at the eagle. “We have this tiny piece of natural beauty right here in the city and they want to replace it with garden plots. As far as I’m concerned, the greenest city in the world should have room for these beautiful birds.”

sthomas@vancourier.com

Twitter @sthomas10

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