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  • Writer's picture Lorna Visser

First Nations wisdom, birds return to "Nest In Peace"

April 22nd (Earth Day).

Greetings, marsh fans. Last week Gary Davidson opened our eyes to the great variety of birds on hand at and near the Snk’mip Marsh Sanctuary, both the birds resident year-round and those returning from their winter sojourns (for example Osprey fly here all the way from Central and South America!). As well, we were honoured with a visit from Sinixt matriarch Marilyn James who shared some of the richness and nuance of Sinixt stewardship principles for this time of year. Both were great informational meet-ups down at Snk’mip Marsh Sanctuary (outdoors, appropriately physically distanced, gloves and masks, etc.).

So what did we learn?

Imagine eating eggs only once a year, in the springtime when ground-nesting wild birds would lay their eggs in areas such as the Snk’mip marsh. The Sinixt would gather eggs very sparingly, with a clear understanding that taking too many eggs would mean too few birds would hatch to lay eggs in the future. “If there were four or five eggs in a nest we could take one. If there were six or more eggs in a nest we could perhaps take two but no more,” Marilyn explained. Thinking about my two-eggs-a-day habit (chicken eggs), the idea of getting perhaps one egg a YEAR seems amazing. What a delicacy that egg must have been, such a rare treat —one can imagine a Sinixt parent preparing that precious egg carefully for a beloved child. Marilyn explained that each community member would have specific food-gathering knowledge and responsibilities. For example one young person’s job would be to gather duck eggs, while another would be in charge of goose eggs. (One would be wise to volunteer for duck-egg duty: geese can get seriously defensive of their nests and deliver a good hard bite.)

Other important foods that are gathered in the wild in springtime are plants such as lomatium, fiddleheads, Oregon grape, sasparella, chuckaloosa, and spring beauty. Properly prepared, these foods were important for the Sinixt people in spring to switch the gut over from eating a winter’s worth of dried foods, Marilyn explained. An exciting observation was to see a bald eagle sitting on the nest in the big cottonwood tree that towers over the marsh at the south end, located close to the rail-trail. Walk down to Snk’mip from Bonanza Road, go to the picnic table overlooking the marsh: with your binoculars you can get a good view of mama or papa eagle sitting on the nest (both males and females incubate the eggs). Gary explained that the incubation period for the Bald Eagle is 34 to 36 days. The average number of eggs laid is one to three, but after they hatch usually only the fittest eaglet survives as it will outcompete its nest-mates for the flying food service delivered regularly by its doting parents. Once hatched, this voracious little fellow will remain in the nest for a further 85 to 95 days until it is ready to fly. The parent birds do not force it out of the nest but wait until little Betty or Bertie is ready to fly on her or his own. Imagine that first swooping flight: down over the marsh with a long glide over the lake and a big circle back to the nest. Bald eagles were just one of the species we spotted. Gary’s watchful eye also encountered the following: Canada Goose, Wood Duck, Gadwall, American Wigeon, Mallard, Green-winged Teal, Bufflehead, Common Goldeneye, Hooded Merganser, Turkey Vulture, Belted Kingfisher, Downy Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, Common Raven, Tree Swallow, Northern Rough-winged Swallow, Black-capped Chickadee, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Varied Thrush, American Robin, Pine Siskin, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Song Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco and Red-winged Blackbird.

We didn’t see the famous swans of the marsh but Gary has seen them many times in past and identified them as Trumpeter Swans. Once nearing extinction, a concerted recovery effort has re-established them and they are doing well in this part of the world. As we chatted, beautiful little woodpeckers drummed away, reminding me of the three that insist on pounding on the walls of our house (cedar siding). Gary explained that they are not deliberately trying to drive us crazy nor are they trying to drill holes into the house — drumming is a woodpecker’s way of singing! They are saying “This is my territory and ladies, I’m the best-lookin’ woodpecker in these parts.” Seeing all this bird life certainly makes us feel we have a responsibility to provide the best possible nesting and fledging conditions for all the birds at the marsh. To this end, Marilyn James brought to our attention that in springtime the Sinixt would close certainly areas to human use while the birds (Sinixt word: s’kaka) are at their most vulnerable. This was to allow them to “nest in peace” and reproduce successfully. We’d like to propose a voluntary “nest in peace” season for Snk’mip and indeed for the whole area at the north end of Slocan Lake. This means staying well away from beach areas with long grasses where killdeer and sandpipers nest, and well away from the edges of creeks, streams and wetland areas where ducks, geese and other waterbirds nest. Please keep dogs out of these areas as the smell left behind (from their paw-pads) can scare away sensitive bird species. If you do take your dog for a walk (for example on the rail-trail) it is more important than ever to keep it on a leash and of course pick up and remove all droppings. If you are using the rail-trail for walking or bicycling, please enjoy nature quietly. And this is an opportunity for those who ride ATVs or other motorized vehicles on the rail-trail to demonstrate responsible riding — please avoid this area altogether until at least the end of May. Together we can help the birds “nest in peace.”

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