Search This Blog


Sunday, June 28, 2015

Pipelines, Politics, and Powerless Birds

In June 2012 I submitted my concerns about Enbridge’s Northern Gateway Pipeline (NGP) to the Joint Review Panel of the National Energy Board (NEB). As I told the panel then, “Honestly, I’d rather be bird-watching, but sometimes there's just no choice.”

Canada Geese on an Enbridge storage tank.
 Let's pray they don't land in a tailings pond. 

Of the 1161 citizens who made submissions to the NEB, two were in favour of the project. Nonetheless, in December 2013 the NEB approved the pipeline and sent it to the federal government for a final decision. Six months later, when Prime Minister Harper approved the pipeline, I thought of all those migrating geese that had already suffocated in tar sands tailing ponds. If you have the stomach for it, the article that follows includes a video of ducks struggling to get out of a tailings pond owned by Syncrude Canada Ltd in 2010.

Then I thought about the Boreal Forest, breeding grounds for at least 325 bird species, nearly half the species found in North America. Billions of birds.

The Boreal Forest.
Photo by Olga Oslina. CC image.

It's also home to the tar sands.

The Tar Sands 

I thought about the slow and painful death of democracy in Canada.

Then I thought about my beloved coastline, about what an oil spill will do to coastal communities, to the sea birds and mammals and ocean, to the 127,000 people who work in the BC tourism industry.

Brickyard Beach on Gabriola Island - part of Bird Studies Canada's
Beached Bird Survey Program

I ranted. I raved. I cried.

It’s three years later; I’d still rather be spending my spare time watching birds.

Great Blue Heron at Reifel Bird Sanctuary in Ladner BC

Instead, I’m here - writing, grieving, getting angry all over again as I try to decide whether or not to participate in the Public Hearing for the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion (TMPE). The National Energy Board accepted my application to comment on this project over a year ago. The rules had changed by this time. Applicants now have to demonstrate (via a 10 page application form) that they’re either “directly affected” by the project (what coastal resident isn’t?) and/or have “relevant information or expertise”. In my application to comment I ticked both boxes then wrote about the impact of Kinder Morgan’s proposed pipeline expansion on the more than one billion birds, including twenty-four priority bird species that migrate along the Pacific Flyway and the more than seventy species that make their home on or migrate through Gabriola Island, my home. 

I wrote about my concern over oil spills and the fact that even one drop of oil can be lethal and that a significant percentage of birds die even after being cleaned.

Oiled Birds after the Exxon-Valdez spill.
CC image. 

I wrote about the chronic oiling of seabirds and mammals, oiling that will increase dramatically as the number of tankers leaving Burrard Inlet and heading down the Strait of Juan de Fuca, passing through several internationally-recognized Important Bird Areas, rises to over four hundred a year. I mentioned that these IBAs are critical for the maintenance of the world’s bird populations because they support millions of nesting, wintering, and migrating birds.
Since the NGP hearings, things have gotten worse. The Harper government (perhaps fearing that the NEB might be infiltrated by a bunch of radical birders?) included an amendment in its infamous omnibus bill C-38 stating that even if the NEB should recommend against a project, the federal government has the final say. To make matters even more depressing, the NEB took the “Public” out of “Public Hearing”. You can read about that here – if you’re up to more bad news:

I’m not alone in my outrage. Expert intervenors and commenters are dropping like flies as the deadline to submit approaches.

Recently energy executive Marc Eliesen, an intervenor who withdrew, called the hearing process “jury-rigged with a pre-determined outcome“, “a public deception” by an “industry captured regulator.”

The deadline to make my submission to the NEB is July 23 and a big part of me doesn't want to play the game. What, I ask myself, is the point? ... Then I think of the birds. Somebody has to speak for them, right?

Black-headed Grosbeak in our back yard

The problem I face now is that much of what I’d want to say is verboten. NEB rules no longer allow commenters to mention, for example, climate change. (!!) Yet, according to the 2014 Climate Report by the Audubon Society, it’s climate change – fueled to a considerable extent by tar sands oil production in Canada – that “seriously threatens bird species across Canada and the United States”. The report, “314 Species on the Brink”, warns that “half of all birds studied could see their populations drop dramatically on account of climate change.” (

Among the species identified as “severely threatened” due to habitat destruction brought on by climate change are some of my favourite backyard birds:

Varied Thrush, Gabriola Island. This species has lost 82% of
its summer range and 44% of its winter range due to climate change.

Female Hairy Woodpecker - she loves our suet. These woodpeckers
have lost 78% of their summer range and 30% of their winter range.

The Hermit Thrush has lost 74% of its summer range and 31% of its winter range..
Photo by Garry Davey. Thank you.

Western Tanager, breeding male, on Gabriola Island.
70% of summer range and 37% of winter range lost. 

Family of Violet-green Swallows at FolkLife Village, Gabriola Island.
65% of summer range and 38% of winter range lost.

Common Ravens at Scarlett Point, BC.
Ravens have lost 62% of their summer range and 35% of their winter range.
Photo by Ivan Dubinsky. Thank you. 

The Northern Saw-whet Owl has lost 100% of its winter range.
Photo by Gary Stolz. USF&W photo. 

Trumpeter Swans on Gabriola Island.
These lovely swans have lost 100% of their summer range.
Photo by Eileen Kaarsmaker. thank you.

Even though birds are pretty good at adapting to their environment, the climate is changing faster than their capacity to adapt. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology Yard Map folks explain: “Birds have a relationship with habitat that is often delicately intertwined with climate. As the climate slowly shifts so does the make-up of their habitats, sometimes removing expected food sources, favorite nesting locations, or sources of water. As warmer winter temperatures become more common, one way for some animals to adjust is to shift their ranges northward. But a new study of 59 North American bird species indicates that doing so is not easy or quick—it took about 35 years for many birds to move far enough north for winter temperatures to match where they historically lived. … Most likely, birds are not shifting their range faster because the vegetation they rely on as a part of their habitat shifts very slowly.” 

Gary Langham, lead investigator of the Audobon Climate Project, summarizes the issue: "Birds have wings. Trees don't."

The sad conclusion of the report is that unabated climate change is “likely to lead to the decline of bird populations across North America and, in some cases, outright extinction.”

Submitting my concerns about the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion without talking about climate change would be like discussing the obesity epidemic without mentioning the fast food industry. Or grappling with the plight of the First Nations in Canada without mentioning the residential school system.

But that’s not all. Not only is the NEB not interested in hearing about climate change, in its own words, it “does not intend to consider the environmental and socio-economic effects associated with upstream activities, the development of oil sands, or the downstream use of the oil transported by the pipeline.”

Yikes. I am not permitted to voice my outrage about all those toxic tailings ponds where so many birds suffocate and die every year? (Luckily, I did have an opportunity to that, to some extent, here, thanks to BirdCanada:

And I can't mention my worry over the increase in the number of huge Aframax tankers that would ply their way down the west coast, home of the Pacific Flyway, just inviting an oil spill destined to devastate the human and animal communities along my beloved coast - for decades?

Just what – of any import – would I say? What would YOU say?

I wonder: what would one of those Mallards suffocating in a tailings pond say? Or one of the Trumpeter Swans that have lost all their summer range? Or one of the 325 species that breed in the boreal forest? Maybe I’ll speak for them, say whatever I darn well please. After all, they don’t know the rules have changed.

All photos are property of the author unless otherwise noted. This article was first published at with the title "Tar Sands, a Forest, a Billion Birds." 

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Feeding Birds

My BirdCanada post this month is about the pros and cons of feeding the birds. 

Love to hear your thoughts. Have you struggled with this dilemma too?
Any words of wisdom to share?

Sunday, March 8, 2015

The Messenger

If plummeting numbers of songbirds are any indication, the planet is in trouble. The makers of The Messenger are hoping to help - and they need ours.       
The Messenger is a new feature documentary that follows birds on a visually breathtaking yet perilous journey through our changing world, offering perspectives from international researchers and conservationists on the key threats to migratory songbirds. 

SongbirdSOSProductions, an independent Canadian film-making company that's been working on this important project for close to two years, needs funding to finish the film. They have the support of Bird Studies Canada as a National Outreach Partner; now they're looking to the public for financial help through a crowdfunding campaign. 
Check out the video and ways you can help here:

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Birds of San Migeul de Allende

In February I went to San Miguel de Allende (SMA), high in the mountains of central Mexico, to attend the 10th anniversary of the SMA Writers Conference. It was fabulous. 

On my first day in SMA, however, I discovered there was a lecture on The Birds of San Miguel, hosted by the local Audobon chapter, at the library in town. Obviously, I skipped out of the writing workshop I’d signed up for and headed to the library.

San Miguel de Allende.
CC license photo. 

Want to know more? Get the whole story here.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Christmas Bird Count highlights

Thank you to the Gabriola photographers who contributed to my BirdCanada photo essay highlighting some of the bird species seen during the 2014 Christmas Bird Count on Gabriola.

Here are just a few of the featured birds - to whet your appetite ...

Fox Sparrow in winter. No, there was no snow on December 28 on Gabriola.
In fact, it's January 31 and the bulbs are up!
Photo by Sharon McInnes

Great Blue Heron.
Photo by Sharon McInnes

Male Barrow's Goldeneye.
Photo by Douglas Green.

Male Mallard.
Photo by Iain Alexander

To see the whole post, please go to:

For details on the actual numbers of species and individuals that made the count, check out the Nanaimo/Gabriola Birding FaceBook page - or email me at

Friday, November 28, 2014

The Burnaby Mountain Conservation Area vs KM

My Bird Canada post today is about the birds of the Burnaby Mountain Conservation Area. You probably already know that a serious struggle is currently underway: it's the City of Burnaby, the City of Vancouver, most First nations, and thousands (maybe tens or hundreds of thousands!) of citizens of BC against Kinder Morgan, the Texas-based multinational pipeline company. 

Burnaby Mountain, home to birds and bears and all kinds of wildlife.
It's a Conservation Park!
 Curious, I delved into the bird life on the mountain.  To read the piece, click here

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Cold weather and little hummingbirds

It's supposed to go down to -3 C tonight on Gabriola, the exact temperature at which nectar begins to freeze. So if you're feeding a resident hummer or two, it's time to do 'whatever you do' to make sure there's drinkable nectar available first thing in the morning and just before dark, which are prime feeding times - and hopefully in between too. 

Okay, we're not there yet but one never knows!
This photo was taken in the spring of 2008 during that freak snowstorm.
Note the Rufous Hummer!
People more creative than me have dreamed up all kinds of ways to keep nectar from freezing, some involving the use of trouble lights, hand warmers, plumbers' heat tape, or wrapping the feeders with Christmas lights, bubble wrap, or even warm woolen socks - anything to boost the temp just a little. 

For a few ideas with illustrations, check out these sites:

I haven't managed to rig up anything useful yet so I'm going with tried and true: bringing in Feeder #1 (which has been out all night) as soon as its light and replacing it with Feeder #2 (filled with fresh nectar). This does require getting up early and keeping an eye on the situation during the day - so it won't work for folks who sleep late or work all day.   

In a pinch - when I've been surprised by a sudden dip in temp and don't have any extra fresh nectar prepared - I've warmed up the frozen nectar "in situ" in a double boiler/steamer on top of the stove. Only takes a couple of minutes. 

December 3 update:

About a week ago, I set up a trouble light right next to the feeder. So far, it's kept the nectar from freezing overnight. The Annas are happy. And so am I.

Whatever you do, thank you