Tag Archives: Whistler Biodiversity

The Canada Jay: Good company for men in lonely places

While it is easy to point out the changes to Whistler throughout time, one thing that has remained constant on the mountains is the friendly birds up the top. It is common to hear exclamations of delight in the lift lines of Harmony, Symphony or 7th Heaven as Canada Jays fly from ski pole to helmet, looking for an easy lunch.

The Canada Jay, seen here on Whistler Mountain around 1969, has captured hearts throughout time. Many would agree with the Canadian Wildlife Service, “Without the Gray Jay with its soft wingbeats, its sudden appearances out of the dark green backdrop, the austere northern forests would lose much enchantment and character.” Cliff Fenner Collection.

The Hinterland Who’s Who published by the Canadian Wildlife Service in 1973 phrases it beautifully, “Among birds, the Gray Jay has intelligence and graces that set it apart. We, who are not accustomed to being approached by any wild creature without fear and anger, are charmed by its easy audacity and prompt to forgive its sins.”

Before lift lines and backcountry campgrounds were the places to be, the Canada Jay would join lumber camps, hunters and farmers waiting to “gorge upon warm entrails” of whatever meat was being prepared for dinner. When humans are not butchering the food, Canada Jays can do it themselves, catching small mammals, birds, amphibians and insects, and chasing birds from their nests to get the eggs. They are omnivorous and will also feed on berries, needles and buds from trees.

To survive alpine winters the Canada Jay caches food when it is abundant. The food is covered in saliva in the mouth and then the sticky saliva balls are stored in trees for later. One study found that a single Canada Jay can store and retrieve thousands of pieces of food annually. However, it is suggested that a warming climate especially during fall may cause these perishable food stores to spoil, threatening the reproduction of the Canada Jay. One study specifically found that a higher number of freeze-thaw events in fall correlated to fewer and weaker offspring as there was not enough food to both survive and reproduce.

The Canada Jay (Perisoreus canadensis) was officially recognised as the Gray Jay between 1957 and 2018, and is also commonly called the Whisky Jack. Depending on ones affection for the sneaky birds they may be known as ‘camp robber’, ‘venison hawk’ or ‘grease bird’, alluding to the jay’s fondness for meat and petty thievery. To prevent confusion stemming from multiple common names, scientific binomial names assign each species a unique two word identifier so they can be recognised globally. The first word being the genus name (Perisoreus) and the second is the species name (canadensis).

The Canada Jay, still capturing hearts in 2022.

Until recently it was thought that birds could only change their feather colour when they moult. Adding to confusion while classifying and identifying this species, the Canada Jay appears to be an exception to this rule, becoming browner throughout the year until they moult back to a fresh grey coat in May/June. It also appears that preserved specimens may continue to lose their grey colour, becoming browner throughout time in museum collections. This colour change tricked taxonomists into originally identifying Canada Jays as multiple species.

The 1941 Field Guide to Western Birds in the museum library contains separate descriptions of the Canada Jay (Perisoreus canadensis) and Oregon Jay (Perisoreus obscurus). With advances in identification and classification, including DNA technology, we now know they are a single species. Luckily Margaret Mackenzie, the owner of the field guide, had ticked them both off as identified anyway.

Regardless of what you call them, the love for these birds is widespread. “Trusting and easily tamed, the Gray Jay is good company for men in lonely places.” They just do not write governmental scientific publications like they used to.

A Squirrel Named Rigor Mortis

You may have heard of Teddy, the orphaned bear cub raised by Myrtle Philip in 1926, but have you heard of Rigor Mortis the squirrel? In an oral history from 1989 about growing up in Alta Lake, later known as Whistler, Louise (Betts) Smith was asked about local character Charlie Chandler, who passed away peacefully on his porch the winter of 1946. Charlie was found frozen and carried to Alta Lake station for a raucous celebration of life, before being taken away by train for burial.

Being a child at the time, Louise remembered this event vividly. “Some of the men got concerned about him, so they hiked back in there and he had just had a heart attack and died in his chair and he was all stiffened up.”

You can read more about Charlie Chandler’s wake on the Whistler Museum blog. Today’s musing centers around what Louise said next. “I knew at that age that it was called rigor mortis because somebody had a squirrel named ‘Rigor Mortis’ and my mother had explained to me what rigor mortis was, and it really wasn’t a nice name for a squirrel.”

How had a squirrel become known as Rigor Mortis you might ask? We do not know for sure, however the biology of squirrels may give us a clue.

A Douglas Squirrel in Florence Peterson Park. Photo by Jillian Roberts.

The squirrel commonly seen scampering up and down trees, or making mischief during the day in Whistler is the Douglas Squirrel (Tamiasciurus douglasii). Whistler’s other local, the Northern Flying Squirrel, is nocturnal.

Similar to beavers, rats, and other rodents, the squirrel’s front teeth never stop growing. Douglas Squirrels primarily feed on conifer seeds, peeling off the scales of the pine cones to get at the seeds. Douglas Squirrels have also been known to eat fungi, fruit, nuts, insects, and other plant material. (Oh, and they love dinosaur candy. I have a vivid childhood memory of watching a Douglas Squirrel run out of the house with my hard-earned bag of gummy dinosaurs. The candy was never seen again; the squirrel continued to visit often.)

The saying ‘to squirrel away’ refers to the fact that squirrels are larder hoarders. In mid to late summer Douglas Squirrels begin stockpiling cones, conifer seeds, and fungi in one or more middens located within their territory. Middens may contain enough food for one or more seasons and squirrels will defend them against competition and theft. The genus name Tamiasciurus references this behaviour, being derived from the Greek work Tamias, meaning animal that hoards food. Additionally skia means shadow, and oura refers to tail, so this is the genus of tailed shadows that hoard food.

Predators of the Douglas Squirrel include Pine Martens, Bobcats, raptors and owls. They can also become prey to domestic cats and dogs. In response to stimuli, such as predation, we often hear about the ‘fight or flight’ mechanism. However, this could be more completely described as ‘fight, flight or freeze’, bringing us back to Rigor Mortis. Like other squirrels, the Douglas Squirrel may have a freeze response when alarmed. For example, if a squirrel has been caught by a predator it may respond by freezing up, becoming completely rigid. Douglas Squirrels that have been caught for relocation have exhibited this behaviour.

The freeze response is physiologically much different to rigor mortis – freezing is a mechanism to assist and ensure survival, for one thing. However, it could be perceived as similar to what happens during rigor mortis where the body becomes rigid. The freeze response in Douglas Squirrels may have been how the pet squirrel Rigor Mortis got its name.

Discover Nature

Whistler Museum announces a new ‘Discover Nature’ program

Get ready to Discover Nature with the Whistler Museum! With help from the Whistler Naturalists and the Whistler Biodiversity Project, the Museum is piloting a public education program this summer.

The program includes a Discover Nature Station at Lost Lake and a Discover Nature activity booklet for kids. The Discover NatureStation will be open Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from 10 am – 4 pm, starting July 1st and running until September 3rd. It will operate under a tent just outside the concession by the Lost Lake beach. Highlights include manned touch tables showcasing a wide range of Whistler’s amazing nature as well as demonstrations that people can drop in and interact with throughout the day. The Discover Nature Station will also serve as a starting point for scheduled nature walks and other family activities, encouraging face-to-face engagement with nature.

Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, nature walks will meet at 10 am at the Discover Nature Station and run for about one hour. Family activities will start each day at 1, 2 & 3 pm and run for about 30 minutes each. There will be a different theme for each week day of operation, such as forests, wetlands and water, so those interested could come back on consecutive days and discover something new. All programming at Lost Lake will be by donation. If you have a large group interested in any of these programs, please contact the Museum in advance so special arrangements can be made.

The Discover Nature activity booklet for kids is a self-guided and full of fun activities that teach about the wonders of nature here in Whistler. It was inspired by similar successful programs in National Parks across Canada and the US, and locally by the Bear Smart Kids booklet. The booklet includes 15 activity pages, a completion certificate and is illustrated by local artist Kate Zessel. A special Whistler souvenir will be awarded to those who complete activities in the booklet. The Discover Nature activity booklet for kids will be on sale at the Whistler Museum and Lost Lake as well as other outlets, with proceeds going back to the program. If any businesses are interested in carrying the booklet they are asked to please contact the Museum.

The Discover Nature program is designed to meet the Museum’s mission of interpreting the natural history of mountain life. Emphasis will be on the notion that all organisms (including us) are interconnected. The goal of the program is to promote environmental stewardship, enhance educational opportunities for residents and visitors alike, and endorse Whistler as an awesome place to explore nature.

Photograph by Trish Odorico.

The program would not have been possible without generous funding from the Community Foundation of Whistler and the Whistler Blackcomb Foundation, as well as support from the Resort Municipality of Whistler. Other key contributors include Bob Brett, Julie Burrows, Emma Tayless, Jane Millen and Sylvia Dolson. The Museum is also thankful to the AWARE Kids Nature Club and the Whistler Library’s Wonder Club for being great inspirations.

The Whistler Museum would love the community to come and help kickoff of the program at Lost Lake on July 1st. Come out for a picnic and appreciate that food is nature too!

Photograph by Michael Allen.

Photograph by Michael Allen.

For any additional information, booking large groups or booklets for resale, contact the Museum at 604-932-2019,DiscoverNature@WhistlerMuseum.org, or drop in. The Museum is located at 4333 Main St. behind the Library.

“There’s been talk of nature programming in Lost Lake Park for years so it’s exciting to be a part of this pilot project. I think anything that makes nature education more accessible will have far-reaching benefits. Like fostering environmental stewardship and expanding cultural tourism opportunities here in Whistler. The program has also been a great reason to reach out to many others and the response has been terrific. For example, the Royal BC Museum is willing to loan us items for our touch tables, Nature Kids BC has been very helpful with our programming for kids and the Federation of Alberta Naturalists has contributed to the kids’ booklet. Closer to home, we’ve been in touch with many local businesses and organizations that have also been really supportive,” says Kristina Swerhun, Coordinator of the Discover Nature program and also with the Whistler Naturalists.

“The Community Foundation of Whistler is excited to support this program. The Environmental Legacy Grants program seeks to support education about our natural environment and promote stewardship. Lost lake park is a fabulous location for the Discover Natureprogram, particularly with the annual Western Toad migration that usually takes place in the middle of the park during the summer. The program will benefit both locals and visitors and will hopefully lead all to a greater respect and understanding of the amazing ecosystems in our community,” says Carol Coffee, Executive Director of the Community Foundation of Whistler.

Whistler Is About To Get BioBlitzed

Pull out your microscopes and get ready to examine, because BioBlitz 2015 is coming to Whistler! What is a BioBlitz, you ask? Well, let us tell you.

A BioBlitz is essentially a festival bringing together teams of volunteer scientists, families, students, teachers, and community members to identify as many species of plants, animals, and other organisms as possible. What makes the event different from any other field study is that it is a race against time! All of these volunteers only have 24 hours to discover as many species as possible within the specified area.

The term was first coined by U.S. National Park Service naturalist Susan Rudy, who assisted with the very first blitz held at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens (Washington,D.C.) in 1996. Since this initial event, the blitz has become a world-wide phenomenon, springing up in countries all over the world.

Bioblitz2

BioBlitz aims to discover as many alpine and valley organisms as possible in the Whistler area. Some common animals found in our lakes, rivers, and wetlands are frogs, salamanders, beavers, and Rainbow Trout.

While a BioBlitz is geared toward bringing scientists of various backgrounds together, the event also strives to create an exciting and relaxed environment for the study to take place, as well as introduce the general public to the biodiversity that exists within their home. BioBlitz Festivals provide the opportunity for people to meet real scientists, ask any questions they may have, and learn how to conserve the habitat of the plants and animals that reside in their area.

Bioblitz1

The BioBlitz Nature Festival, held in Alpha Lake Park on June 27th, will give participants the opportunity to touch real insects, various plants, and even a water snake!

BioBlitz was first introduced to Whistler in 2007 by the Whistler Naturalists, with the goal of targeting both alpine and valley ecosystems across the region. This year, the program will be taking place in Alpha Lake Park. The number of areas within the Resort Municipality of Whistler that have been ‘blitzed’ in past years continues to grow, including Brandywine Falls Provincial Park, Whistler and Blackcomb mountains, the Emerald forest, and more. The introduction of this educational race against the clock for locals and visitors of all ages has lead to the discovery of more and more species every single year.

 

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The BioBlitz Nature Festival, which showcases the amphibians, reptiles, spiders, plants, and fungi found in the area using interactive displays, will be taking place in Alpha Lake Park on Saturday June 27th. Participants will have the opportunity to touch a giant water bug or snake, learn about frogs and lichens, and take part in a scavenger hunt. The Festival encourages children of all ages, parents, youth, adults, and seniors to come join in the fun from 12 to 5 pm!