Staying Alive: The Owl, the Orca, and the Human Problem

by David Greer

Northern spotted owl, British Columbia. Jared Hobbs photo.

The northern spotted owl (Strix occidentalis caurina) and the southern resident orca (Orcinus orca) are dramatically different animals that employ curiously similar predation techniques, and both face extinction thanks in large part to their choice of prey.

The northern spotted owl, one of three subspecies of spotted owls, is slightly smaller than a raven and inhabits mature forests along the Pacific coast of North America from southwestern British Columbia to northern California. The southern resident orca, sometimes called the killer whale, occupies the same part of the world and is found primarily in the coastal waters of British Columbia, Washington and Oregon, and most especially throughout the Salish Sea.

Though the extinction threats they face are different in nature, there is one very similar root cause—the fact that they are both fussy eaters.

The diet of the spotted owl consists primarily of two small rodents: bushy-tailed wood rats (otherwise known as pack rats) and flying squirrels. Like most other owls, the spotted owl hunts primarily in the dark. To catch its prey efficiently with minimal expenditure of energy, it has evolved two remarkable and complementary aptitudes: exquisite hearing and silent flight. Unlike some owl species that prowl at night in search of prey, the spotted owl simply perches in a tree, waits motionless, and intently listens. If it hears the scratching of pack rat toenails on a log or the soft impact of a flying squirrel landing on a tree trunk, it unfolds its wings and launches towards the sound. Like other owls, the spotted owl has evolved a structure and texture of feathers that ensures an almost soundless flight. Read more »

Sea Star Wasting Syndrome and Kelp Forest Collapse in the Northeast Pacific

by David Greer

Sunflower sea star (Pycnopodia helianthoides). Ink and watercolor, by Susan Taylor. Courtesy of the artist.

During the past decade, an environmental calamity has been gradually unfolding along the shores of North America’s Pacific coast. In what has been described as one of the largest recorded die-offs in history of a marine animal, the giant sunflower sea star (Pycnopodia helianthoides) has almost entirely disappeared from its range extending from Alaska’s Aleutian Islands to Baja California, its population of several billion having largely succumbed to a disease of undetermined cause but heightened and accelerated by a persistent marine heatwave of unprecedented intensity.

Equally tragic has been the collapse of kelp forests overwhelmed by the twin impact of elevated ocean temperatures close to shore and of the explosion of sea urchin populations, unchecked in their voracious grazing of kelp following the virtual extinction of their own primary predator, the sunflower sea star. One of the most productive ecological communities in the world, kelp forests act as nurseries for juvenile fish and other marine life in addition to sequestering carbon absorbed by the ocean. It took only a handful of years for most of the kelp to disappear, replaced by barren stretches of seabed densely carpeted by spiny sea urchins, themselves starving after reducing their main food supply to virtually nothing. When a keystone species abruptly vanishes from an ecosystem, the ripple effects can be far-reaching and catastrophic. Read more »

Seashore Rescue: A Seal Pup’s Journey from Abandonment to Independence

by David Greer

Abandoned newborn harbour seal pup (“Water Silk”) shunned by other seals.

Camera in hand, nature photographer Myles Clarke walked along the pebble beach on South Pender Island watching for great blue herons, bald eagles, buffleheads, cormorants—any of the species likely to frequent waters close to the shore of a Salish Sea island on a summer’s day. He listened carefully for their familiar calls, but what he heard instead was plaintive cries unlike any bird’s, eerily like a child crying for its mother—“Ma-a-a! Ma-a-a!” Inexplicably, they seemed to be coming from the direction of a tiny islet in the bay, a hundred yards from shore, not the kind of place you’d expect to find a crying infant.

The source of the calls was indistinct against the black rock, so Myles pointed his 600 mm telephoto lens for a better look. What he saw was fascinating and unsettling. Three harbour seals were hauled out on the islet—a mother and her newborn side by side and, several feet away, a second pup, the source of the loud and piteous cries.
On return visits the next couple of days, Myles became increasingly concerned that the crying seal was in trouble. It seemed to approach mothers of other pups (there were several by now) as if attempting to suckle, and on each occasion the adult would chase the crying pup away and open its jaws as if threatening to bite. On the third day, the pup seemed to have become weaker and its cries fainter. Read more »

The Frog, the Frog, and the Lizard—Native and Invasive Species on the Salish Sea

by David S. Greer

1And the Lord spake unto Moses, Go unto Pharaoh, and say unto him, Thus saith the Lord, Let my people go, that they may serve me.

2And if thou refuse to let them go, behold, I will smite all thy borders with frogs.

And the river shall bring forth frogs abundantly, which shall go up and come into thine house, and into thy bedchamber, and upon thy bed, and into the house of thy servants, and upon thy people, and into thine ovens, and into thy kneading troughs.

And the frogs shall come up both on thee, and upon thy people, and upon all thy servants.

King James Bible, Exodus 8

The American bullfrog—a face that only a mother could love? Bruce Tuck photo.

The negative reputation suffered by frogs during Biblical times hasn’t improved much since.  Macbeth’s three witches made a point of tossing into their bubbling cauldron not only toe of frog but also an entire venomous toad (a frog by another name).  In later fairy tales, princesses kissed frogs with reluctance, and only when required to break a spell.  Even today, the ickiness factor of frogs remains high for anyone leery of creepy-crawlies, even though more frogs means fewer spiders.  And most people still wouldn’t welcome a clammy frog in their bed, let alone in their kneading trough.

The American bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus), to name but one of the planet’s 5,000-plus frog species, has a face no one but a mother could love.  And when that face originates from just one of 20,000 eggs, the mother can hardly be blamed for failing to even recognize her offspring’s features, a fact that might go a long way towards explaining why American bullfrogs have a fondness for eating their progeny, whether at tadpole stage or in froggy maturity. Life as a carnivorous frog usually means no exceptions for children or cousins or aunts.  Eat or be eaten is the watchword of the frog and not a bad rule to remember for species hoping to survive and evolve to some more advanced form of life.  It has always been thus. Read more »

Swainson’s Thrush and the Sockeye Moon

by David Greer

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
—Excerpt from The Lake Isle of Innisfree, by William Butler Yeats

Our people lived as part of everything. We were so much a part of nature, we were just like the birds, the animals, the fish. We were like the mountains. Our people lived that way. We knew there was an intelligence, a strength, a power, far beyond ourselves…. Everybody had the right to comfort, to security, the right to food, a home, the use of the land. This is because we believed that everything was put here by a great and wonderful intelligence.
—Excerpt from Saltwater People, by Dave Elliott

Pacific tree frog. Photo by David Greer.

Visitors to my cabin in a forest glade on a small island in the Salish Sea almost always remark upon the silence. It’s true, if you’re freshly arrived from an urban community, the silence at first seems absolute and a little overwhelming. It’s only when you quiet yourself that the silence surrounding you starts to come alive with the texture and colour of natural sounds.

Some sounds may seem easily identifiable to visitors if only because their creators are visible. The slow thunk-thunk-thunk of a raven’s wings beating the air as it passes arrow-straight across the circle of blue sky over the glade. The chittering of a bald eagle high in a fir. The cat-like mew of a red-eyed spotted towhee rooting through underbrush. Other noises require more careful observation and familiarity but are instantly identifiable to those who know them. The faint scrape of the jaws of a yellowjacket backing down a cedar post, a grey ball of nest paper slowly enlarging beneath its mandibles. The lazy kre-e-e-eck? deep in a cedar, like a creaking rusty door in a haunted house: the territorial call of a male Pacific tree frog, gold and green and shadow-secluded. The urgent whistling of a juvenile barred owl, harassing its parent for freshly killed flesh. And in the gloaming, not the soft sound of the linnet’s wings, but those of its close cousin the house finch in this part of the world six thousand miles from Yeats country. Read more »