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Stanley Park works to nurture herons in centre of the city

Cities often drive out animals, but Vancouver has managed to keep one unique species in the heart of the city

By Vanessa Hrvatin and Michael Ruffolo , in Environment Feature story , on March 30, 2016

Cities often drive out many kinds of animals, but Vancouver has managed to keep one unique species in the heart of the city.

This year, about 200 great blue herons have returned to their colony above Beach Avenue in Stanley Park for the sixteenth year in a row.

“This colony is super unique because it’s so tolerant of people and it’s in an urban area,” said Greg Hart, the urban wildlife programs co-ordinator with the Stanley Park Ecology Society.

“People often think of our city as this sterile vacuum away from nature, and the fact that these animals live with us, they co-exist with us, they’re something that can help us connect back to nature, it’s just really cool.”

Great blue herons can be found across the Lower Mainland but this is the only colony in the city of Vancouver. They are the subspecies fannine, which is listed as a species of special concern under the Species at Risk Act.

This spring, new initiatives are in the works to keep this species thriving in the city.

“We want to promote people’s awareness and understanding of these animals because we’re really lucky that we have this species at risk hanging out in our backyard,” said Hart.

Bird’s Eye View

Last year, the Vancouver park board installed a camera to allow people to watch the birds in action. The feed was so popular that, this year, the park board spent $4,900 to upgrade the camera.

Showcasing the herons through the camera allows people to appreciate nature, build community engagement and supports the park board’s Biodiversity and Bird Strategies, said  Justinne Ramirez, the board’s communications co-ordinator.

About 35,000 views have been recorded since the beginning of March.

Hart said the camera makes it easier for the ecology society to collect data and creates excitement and curiosity about the herons.

If people watch between now and mid-May, they may see herons laying eggs. Biologists have already reported that some eggs have been laid.

#HeronTalk    

Video images aren’t the only multi-media strategy for the birds. The ecology society has taken to Twitter to create public awareness with the hashtag #HeronTalk, where staff tweet out facts and answer questions under the hashtag.

“We’re using [#HeronTalk] as a way to try and drum up excitement and get people to check out the heron camera itself, and we’re using it as a way to share the neat fun facts and life history of these animals,” said Hart.

The ecology society monitors the camera and will tweet out when the birds are laying eggs or fighting for mates. Hart said he hopes this will encourage people to log on and connect to nature even if it’s just for a few minutes.

School programs

The ecology society is also working to get kids involved with the herons.  Special spring break programs were run last week and summer camps are now being organized.

The idea is to create activities that not only inform students, but also ensure they have fun. One activity is getting students to do an interpretive heron dance.

“Kids will be bobbing around and maybe bill-duelling and flapping their wings. Who knows what they come up with,” said Hart. “We’re just providing them with the natural information and the inspiration through the real animals and then seeing what they come up with.”

Hart said that through the camera, #HeronTalk, and school programs, the ecology society hopes to encourage people to connect to nature and make small changes to help protect these birds.

“The population that we have in Stanley Park is roughly 100 paired individuals, so 200 birds, which is a pretty significant proportion of Lower Mainland birds,” he said.

Derek Matthews, president of the Vancouver Avian Research Centre, said the work the society does around the herons is a great step towards protecting the birds.

“You’ve got to make it real for people,” he said. “People are persuaded and compelled mostly visually. If you’ve got a webcam on a bald eagle or on a great blue heron colony, people start to understand.”

What else is new?

The ecology society has been collecting data on the herons since 2004. Recently, they have started some new research efforts around the birds.

The ecology society’s conservation projects manager Maria Egerton and volunteer Madeleine McGreer recently developed a monitoring program to study how much disturbance the birds can tolerate before they’ll leave.

“It has been documented that…if herons are disturbed enough, they can abandon the nest,” said Egerton “They can abandon it while they are establishing it or they can abandon it even when they have young.”

Egerton hopes that, by collecting this data, policies or best management practices can be put in place to protect the birds from disturbances.

“Normal best management practices for colony nesting birds can’t apply to these particular herons because they’re in such a unique environment,” said Egerton.

Rob Butler, from The Pacific Wildlife Foundation, said studies like this are important, but the results will likely be very specific to the Stanley Park colony.

“[This study] is useful to have and to know what the [disturbance] levels are. The only drawback is that, in Stanley Park, it’s a single heronry and those herons are used to having lots of noise. How widely applicable [this study] would be is hard to really know.”

The Human-Heron Connection

Stanley Park sees roughly eight million visitors every year and the people involved in these projects believe that the more attention these birds get the better.

“There are cool animals around us that have learned to adapt to us, and if they’ve learned to adapt to us we think maybe we can do just a little tiny bit to help them as well,” said Hart.


Great Blue Heron Feather Facts

Many facts found from Cornell Lab of Ornithology

  • They have a large wingspan of about two metres.
  • Great blue herons only weigh two to three kilograms thanks to their hollow bones.
  • The oldest great blue heron was found in Texas when it was at least 24 years old. These birds typically live no longer than 18 years.
  • In the 19th century, great blue herons were hunted for their plumes, specifically to decorate women’s hats. This practice was outlawed in the 20th century.
  • Approximately 70 per cent of all nests in the Fraser Valley and Lower Mainland are within 200 metres of an active bald eagle’s nest, despite eagles being one of the herons’ fiercest predators. However, research has shown that there is a strong correlation between nesting success and association with nearby bald eagles.
  • When it comes time to pick a mate, male great blue herons offer their desired female a twig. This is called a nuptial gift. If the female accepts the twig and weaves it into her nest, then she has essentially accepted the male as her breeding partner.
  • Herons were first documented in the Stanley Park in 1921.
  • Males and females are very hard to tell apart. The only real difference is that the males are slightly larger with longer bills.

    Photo by Michael Ruffolo
    Great blue heron at Lost Lagoon in Stanley Park.