Wed, 21 Nov 2018

The Curious Case of the Haida Gwaii Sooty Grouse

Sooty grouse sporting a radio telemetry collar

Guest post by Berry Wijdeven, Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations

On a clear day, you can see the British Columbia mainland from the shores of Haida Gwaii. The archipelago is only about 80 km from the mainland coast but weather and waves can make the distance insurmountable. The people of Haida Gwaii have learned to adapt to this relative isolation through patience and creativity, and so has the local flora and fauna.

The adaptations of local wildlife are wide-ranging and sometimes dramatic. Because Haida Gwaii rainforests tend to be dark, local birds, including goshawks, saw-whet owls and hairy woodpeckers have darker plumages compared to their mainland counterparts. It is hypothesized that this adaptation helps to conceal them. Goshawks have also adapted with decreased wingspans to manoeuvre more easily through the narrow flyways below the dense tree canopy. Haida Gwaii bears have developed the largest skulls of any North American Black Bear, likely due to a different suite of available prey items, while smaller critters such as marten and ermine sport skull shapes and sizes substantially different from those of their cousins on the mainland. Local marten, taking advantage of the large niche created by the lack of local mid-sized predators, have grown bigger than their mainland counterparts and may be capable of preying upon larger mammals, such as introduced deer.

The Haida Gwaii subspecies of saw-whet owl, known as the brooksi, is the only native species of owl on-island. This local subspecies has discovered that intertidal zones boast an abundance of food, such as beach hoppers and other invertebrates. Since the owls are not threatened by other night time predators such as the larger owl species found on the BC mainland, they can freely gorge themselves on these intertidal critters. Blue herons have changed their behaviour as well. In response, perhaps, to the vast numbers of island eagles, they have abandoned their colonies and now nest in single nests, well away – sometimes up to 10 km – from the ocean. In fact, while both blue herons and saw-whet owls are typically migratory birds, the local populations have adapted to live in Haida Gwaii year-round.

These unique relationships and interactions make studying wildlife on Haida Gwaii a fascinating undertaking. When the Haida Gwaii Sooty Grouse Research Project started seven years ago, the researchers weren’t looking for the unexpected; after all, grouse behaviour had been studied pretty comprehensively elsewhere. The research team was interested in finding out whether the local grouse population, an important prey item for goshawks, was in decline and if so, why. Was it the habitat changes brought on by forest harvesting? The influence of the large number of introduced deer? Other factors?

To find out what was going on, the team caught more than a hundred and seventy grouse and fitted them with radio collars. This enabled the researchers to track the birds’ movement patterns, determine seasonal habitat usage, and locate grouse nests. When, during the breeding season, a tagged female stopped moving for a few days, it was a good bet she had started nesting. Using radio telemetry, the nest was located and a motion detection camera deployed to hopefully record hatch success.

Radio telemetry is, at times, more of an art than a science. While the basics are pretty straightforward – you put a radio transmitter on a critter, release it and then use a receiver to lock onto its unique radio signal to help guide you to its current location – in the real world this guiding is less straight forward. The radio signals don’t travel in straight lines; they bounce off slopes, are re-directed by trees or rocks, are affected by high moisture content in the air and can be nearly silenced when the source signal is located in a depression. For rookie field crews, initial searches involve a lot of unnecessary bushwhacking, bog traversing and fighting off salal attacks, in search of an ever changing, at times seemingly illusive signal. Researchers quickly learn to “read the sign”, including accounting for topographical or vegetation impacts to the signal, checking directions frequently and constantly adjusting their path forward.


When you walk towards a radio signal, you judge your progress by how strongly the signal is received. When the signal gets stronger, the beep gets louder, signalling that you are getting closer. This aural assistance disappears when you get within 20-30 meters of the transmitter. At this point, the signal is as strong as it is going to get and it now becomes a matter of visually locating the grouse wearing the collar. Crews tread carefully at this stage, not just to prevent the grouse from moving off her nest, but also, literally, from not stepping on a grouse.

Sooty grouse belong to the family Tetraoninea which also includes Spruce grouse, Ruffed grouse, Sharp-tailed and Sage grouse as well as Ptarmigan and Prairie chickens. This family has a wide distribution ranging from Iceland and Greenland to Eurasia and North America. While they have adapted to a wide variety of ecosystems, one characteristic that has remained commonplace is their choice of nesting sites. Whether it’s the arctic tundra, coastal rainforest or inland plains: grouse typically nest in shallow depressions on the ground, often beneath cover, with a thin lining of plant material. Not the most secure of locations, but somehow it has been sufficiently successful to maintain the species.

In characteristically Haida Gwaii fashion, local Sooty grouse behave atypically. The research crew discovered that somehow the island grouse must not have gotten that ground-nesting memo. They first observed some grouse nests located on high stumps, which was unexpected and interesting. Soon thereafter, a grouse nest was detected 2.5 meters up in the air on a 45 degree leaning tree. That created some excitement amongst the crew, thinking they might have located the highest known grouse nest in North America.

That was only the beginning. By the next field season new nest champions emerged, nestled ever higher in the crooks of trees or on mossy platforms on tree branches. While exciting, trying to find these nests often proved problematic. Locating nests in dense understory was one thing, but looking up into a cluster of trees, hoping to spot a remarkably well camouflaged grouse took time, skill and a healthy dose of luck. Mossy platforms, more often associated with Marbled Murrelet nests, turned out to be popular sites for the non-conformist tree dwelling grouse. Sometimes, after extensive circling, using binoculars and zoom lenses, looking for the right angle to get a glimpse, it would be the tail feathers, sticking up or sticking out which would give the grouse away. Or, surprisingly perhaps, often it was the bird’s eye in the sky, staring intently at the interlopers below.

Recording grouse data

By the end of the study, some 15 grouse tree nests had been located with the highest one hidden away 18 meters up high. Straight up. And they say grouse aren’t good flyers! Mind you, not all Haida Gwaii grouse nested in trees, in fact they nested just about anywhere: on stumps, on logs, on top of root wads, on a cliff, inside hollow trees, inside waste wood piles in a variety of tree species, and on the ground. Every nest search created excitement. The crew would never know what nest location choice that particular grouse had made, or why. Was it to evade predators? Avoid the wet understory? Hopefully, the upcoming data analysis will provide answers. Meanwhile, the research team will remember this particular study fondly. In spite of the aches and pains, the ineffectiveness of their rain gear for the Haida Gwaii weather, the miles and miles of searching and bushwhacking, they gained a new respect for the adaptiveness of the Sooty grouse.

For more information on this project contact:

Frank Doyle at or

Louise Waterhouse at

The Haida Gwaii Sooty Grouse Project was spearheaded by Frank Doyle of Wildlife Dynamics Consulting and Louise Waterhouse, Coast Area Research, Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development. Other team members included Melissa Todd, Coast Area Research, FLNRORD and Ross Vennesland, Parks Canada. Field technicians included Gerry Morigeau, Kiku Dhanwant, James MacKinnon and Miranda Barnhardt. Special thanks to management and staff at the Haida Gwaii District, FLNRORD without whose enthusiastic participation and support this project would not have succeeded. Thanks also to Mike Schroeder. Funding of the project courtesy of Habitat Conservation Trust Foundation, FLNRORD, Parks Canada, Husby Forest Products and the Upland Bird Society.

Wed, 7 Nov 2018

Wolverines in the News


Habitat Conservation Trust Foundation is very pleased that one of the projects we support has received a bit of media attention as of late!

Cliff Nietvelt of the Government of British Columbia Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations & Rural Development (FLNRORD) is pursuing a 3 year project on Wolverine movements, home range and habitat use in the South Coast region. Cliff has been a wildlife ecologist for 20 years, and has led and conducted the entire wolverine inventory in the South Coast region since 2012.

Cliff’s project was highlighted in a variety of publications, including the Globe and Mail and the Squamish Chief.

We’re proud to partner with the Forest Enhancement Society of BC to help fund this vital project. In early November, FESBC committed $3 million towards conservation projects that will be awarded and administered by HCTF.

Tue, 30 Oct 2018

Collaboration and Knowledge Sharing at Conservation Lands Operations and Management Funding Program Meeting

Lands Management Group Photo

On September 18-19th 2018, Habitat Conservation Trust Foundation (HCTF) hosted a meeting of conservation land managers in Penticton, BC. These managers receive funding under the HCTF Conservation Lands Operations and Maintenance Funding Program administered in partnership with the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development and the Nature Trust of BC. HCTF currently provides $617,500 annually to assist with the operation and maintenance of approximately 115 significant wildlife habitat areas across BC.

This gathering represented the second opportunity for land managers and other stakeholders to come together in person since the establishment of our new partnered approach to administering operations and management funding. Taking a partnered approach to conservation lands management has a number of benefits, including the ability to combine assets and expertise, avoid duplicating efforts and leverage funding.

The meeting was a great opportunity for practitioners from across BC to share knowledge, give feedback on the administration of the program, discuss plans for its evolution, and collaborate to help improve conservation land management in the province.

A highlight of the two-day event was the field trip, which provided opportunities to witness conservation land management in action.

HCTF staff Christina Waddle hiking

First stop on field day was the McTaggart-Cowan/nsək’łniw’t Wildlife Management Area. This site is close to the heart of HCTF, as it is named in part for HCTF’s Founding Chair. The site name also honours the Penticton Indian Band; “nsək’łniw’t” is roughly translated from the Syilx language as “a gash on the side” and refers to a historic trail used for travel, trade, and access to medicine-gathering areas. The group then traveled onward to Skaha Lake Eastside, Vaseux Lake, and finally the South Okanagan Wildlife Management Area. Along the way, they shared common experiences, best practices and challenges related to conservation land management including wildlife usage, mineral claims, grazing, and infrastructure maintenance.

Overall, HCTF was pleased to help facilitate this important gathering and opportunity for conservation land managers to share knowledge and experience. We are in the process of refining the program administration details for the upcoming funding cycle, and look forward to incorporating the vital on-the-ground experience and feedback that was received during the event.

All photos generously provided by Karen Wipond.

Tue, 9 Oct 2018
Tags: Stewardship

Bringing Back the Bluebird!

Fledgling Bluebird photo provided Barry Hetschko

Guest post by Genevieve Singleton, Project Manager of the Cowichan Valley Naturalists’ Society Bring Back the Bluebird Project

Imagine standing in a Garry Oak meadow in the Cowichan Valley. You hear a low chirp and look up and see a bright flash of blue fly by! You are seeing a Western Bluebird on Vancouver Island, a beautiful bird making a comeback after almost thirty years away.

In approximately 1990, long time Cowichan Naturalist and mountaineer extraordinaire Syd Watts, now deceased, saw what was likely one of the last bluebirds in the Cowichan Valley on a hike with rare species biologist Trudy Chatwin and her daughters. Syd worked hard to encourage the birds’ return by placing nest boxes on Mount Tzouhalem and Richards Mountain, but to no avail.

It was not until 2012 that Western Bluebirds returned to Vancouver Island when the Victoria based Garry Oak Ecosystem Recovery Team (GOERT) started moving Western Bluebirds, with permits, from Washington State to the Cowichan Valley. This was done under the supervision of avian ecologist and songbird recovery expert Gary Slater of Ecostudies Institute. Many nest boxes were placed in good Garry Oak habitat in advance of the Bluebirds arrival; fortunately, these first birds stayed to breed. In his final days of life, Syd was comforted by the knowledge that the birds were making a comeback.

This past summer, under the lead of Cowichan Valley Naturalists Society (CVNS) biologist/conservation technician Hannah Hall, fifteen volunteer nest box monitors cared for their Bluebird Trails. This involved cleaning, fixing nest boxes and carrying out regular observations of the birds using the boxes. Over seventy landowners in Quamichan and Somenos Lake areas support the project, allowing a total of about two hundred and twenty-five nest boxes on their properties. While only a few of these boxes were occupied by Bluebirds, others provided safe cozy homes for other small songbirds including Tree Swallows, Violet Green Swallows, House Wrens, Bewicks Wrens and Chestnut Backed Chickadees. Songbirds are in a catastrophic decline in North America, so it is a wonderful side benefit that the Return of the Bluebird Project is providing habitat for other birds.

Volunteers banding Bluebirds

Volunteers banding Bluebirds. Photo by Genevieve Singleton.

It is thought that Western Bluebird became extirpated (locally extinct) from Vancouver Island due to a variety of factors. The main reason was likely increased farming and urbanization. Removal of trees led to a lack of tree cavities for Bluebird habitat. Increased use of pesticides and the introduction of invasive species such as House Sparrows were other stresses. Although beautiful, House Sparrows are very aggressive to Bluebirds and have been known to kill both adults and fledglings. Unfortunately, Bluebirds and House Sparrows require the same size nest box hole. Former CVNS staff member Ryan Hetschko, perfected the art of deterring Sparrows with sparrow spookers, built by Naturalist member, John Wheatley. These consist of sparkling mylar ribbons attached to a small dowel placed on the top of the box. Bluebirds like to fly up into the nest box hole, whereas Sparrows like to fly down. Since Sparrows do not like the pieces of myler flying in their trajectory, they leave the box alone. That’s innovation!

Habitat Conservation Trust Foundation supported this project from 2013-2018. For the past two years Cowichan Valley Naturalists have been the lead of the project, taking over on the strong foundation built by GOERT. CVNS was thrilled to have one hundred per cent nest success this year. This year, fifteen adults were seen on southern Vancouver Island producing forty-two fledglings. Over the past year, over sixty volunteers put in thousands of hours completing a wide variety of activities ranging from project management, fundraising, checking boxes, visiting land owners, providing technical expertise and education outreach, and much more.


How Can you Help the Bluebirds?

If you see Bluebirds on Vancouver Island over the winter, email your sightings to Bluebirds typically migrate south, but recently a few have stayed around for at least part of the winter.

You can learn more about the project at or attend the public CVNS talk at the WildWings Festival Oct. 27, 7 pm at Vancouver Island University, Duncan Campus.

A version of this article was previously published in the Cowichan Valley Voice. Photos provided by Barry Hetschko and Genevieve Singleton. Thank you to Hannah Hall for additional assistance.


Tue, 21 Aug 2018
Tags: Wildlife

Meet Molly – Vancouver Island Marmot Super Mom

Molly the Marmot and one of her six pups. Photo by Jordan Cormack.

Earlier this year, a field crew on an inventory trip made a surprising, and welcome, discovery in Strathcona Park . A new marmot mom, Molly, had six pups! Veteran Field Crew member Jordan Cormack managed to snap some photos of the busy mom and her brood. Vancouver Island Marmots usually have 3 or 4 pups once every second year and field teams have only seen litters of six weened pups a few times, never in Strathcona Park.

Less than 10 years ago, no marmots remained in Strathcona Park, and it has been a struggle at times to re-establish the species there. Historically, the Park was part of the Vancouver Island Marmot’s range, but the species was extirpated from the region sometime during the 1990s, with only a small handful surviving nearby at Mount Washington Alpine Resort. Re-establishing the marmot in the Park is an important part of the Recovery Plan for the species. In addition to being a large protected area within the marmot’s former range, marmot habitat in the Park may be more resilient as our climate changes.

Re-introducing a vanished species is never simple, and Strathcona Park is particularly challenging. Weather and terrain in the Park are harsher than in the marmots’ more southern colonies. Even more difficult was the loss of marmot “infrastructure” – burrows and hibernacula – that disappeared when the marmots were extirpated from the Park.

It is immensely rewarding to see a large litter of wild-born pups there. It suggests that Molly must have great body condition, which in turn means she must have had a good hibernaculum, and likely the support of a small, but functional, colony at her home on Castlecrag.

Playtime for two of Molly’s pups. Photo by Jordan Cormack.

Molly’s litter is a small step towards the recovery of her species in Strathcona, and a hopeful sign that the species is beginning to find ways to thrive in this beautiful and rugged wilderness. That Molly and her brood have this chance at all is due to the partners, donors, and funders, including the Habitat Conservation Trust Foundation, that have supported re-introduction work.

A huge thank you to Adam Taylor, Executive Director of the Marmot Recovery Foundation, for sharing this project update with us. The Reestablishing Vancouver Island Marmots in Strathcona Provincial Park project is funded in part through HCTF’s North Island Conservation Fund.


Mon, 13 Aug 2018
Tags: Stewardship

Bats in Your Belfry?

A California myotis (Myotis californicus) photographed in a building roost.

Have you noticed more bats around your house or property? You are not alone! Midsummer is the time when landowners typically notice more bat activity, may have bats flying into their house, and occasionally find a bat on the ground or roosting in unusual locations. These surprise visitors are usually the young pups. “In July and August, pups are learning to fly, and their early efforts may land them in locations where they are more likely to come in contact with humans“, says Mandy Kellner, biologist and coordinator with the BC Community Bat Program.

If you find a bat, alive or dead, never touch it with your bare hands. Bats in BC have very low levels of rabies infection, but any risk of transmission should not be treated lightly. Contact a doctor or veterinarian if a person or pet could have come into direct contact
(bitten, scratched etc.) with a bat.

Landowners can visit the BC Community Bat Program’s website ( for information on safely moving a bat if necessary and to report bat sightings. The Program also has a 1-800 number (1-855-9BC-BATS) with regional coordinators across the province able to offer advice. The Program is also currently seeking reports of mortalities at bat colonies in houses, barns, or bat houses. The BC Community Bat Program and their support with batty matters is funded by the Habitat Conservation Trust Foundation, the Forest Enhancement Society of BC, and the Government of BC. Female bats gather in maternity colonies in early summer, where they will remain until the pups are ready to fly. Some species of bats have adapted to live in human structures, and colonies may be found under roofs or siding, or in attics, barns, or other buildings. Having bats is viewed as a benefit by some landowners, who appreciate the insect control. Others may prefer to exclude the bats. Under the BC Wildlife Act, it is illegal to exterminate or harm bats, and exclusion can only be done in the fall and winter after it is determined that the bats are no longer in the building. Again, the BC Community Bat Program can offer advice and support. To find out more, download the “Managing Bats in Buildings” booklet, or contact your local Community Bat Program by calling 1-855-9BC-BATS.

Thanks to the BC Community Bat Program for providing this update.